Houses have souls. Not just in the hippy dippy genre sense, either. Not to delve too deep into the bromides of sentimentality and nostalgia, but it’s as true of houses as it is of people. Everyone remembers their childhood house, good, bad, or indifferent. Mike Flanagan’s Hill House is one of the premier horror houses, and it’s soulful. Adapting Shirley Jackson’s seminal work for Netflix, his miniseries The Haunting of Hill House is unequivocally one of the greatest horror stories ever told. His iteration of the familiar tale joined the pantheon of other soulful horror houses, including Jackson’s own written work, Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation, Henry James’ Bly Manor, both Flanagan and Jack Clayton’s haunted trappings of the same name, and countless others.
There’s Amityville, William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, Windward House from Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited, and dozens more. Those houses have souls—ghostly souls—though at times, they’re indistinct and gauze-like. Spectral souls are full of scares, but difficult to conceptualize. In Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House, the soul is never far off. It’s Victoria Pedretti’s Eleanor “Nell” Crain Vance.
Mike Flanagan, an early auteur of the now much-derided (often unfairly) vein of trauma-informed horror, took considerable liberties with Shirley Jackson’s Gothic masterpiece. In renovating some of the cramped corners and cobweb-stricken closets, Flanagan’s Hill House was retrofitted for contemporary sensibilities and scares. More than both Wise and Jackson, his house is a much more visceral experience, More a thematic than a straight adaptation, Flanagan eschews the paranormal chicanery of the source material, borrowing key character names and traits, applying them this time to the Crain family, parents Olivia (Carla Gugino) and Hugh (Timothy Hutton and Henry Thomas), a pair of house flippers who move their respective children into the haunted abode.
In broad terms, the house is haunted (the pretty ones always are), and after a fateful, tragic evening, Hugh flees with his children. The Haunting of Hill House might well be bisected into two distinct parts—before “The Bent-Neck Lady” and after. Before, Flanagan slowly introduces the audience to the now-adult Crain children. Michael Huisman’s Steven Crain is now a family author whose exploits in Hill House have netted him some hefty advances. Elizabeth Reaser’s caustic Shirley Crain owns a mortuary. Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Luke grapples with substance abuse. Kate Siegel’s Theodora Crain, a psychic, works with children.
Other than Luke, they’re all well off on the surface. But, the roots of their repressed Hill House trauma haunt them, drawing direct parallels from their present lives to their past ones. In these early episodes, the creative team shifts from past to present, delineating and unspooling the haunting, showing how A led to B, and why Bowler Hats are the scariest thing in the entire world.
Victoria Pedretti’s first real introduction as Nell comes in the aforementioned fifth episode, “The Bent-Neck Lady.” Nell, tormented by the titular specter as a child, has been seeing Arthur (Jordane Christie), sleep technician and future husband. Like the Nell of Jackson’s original, Pedretti’s characterization is no less drawn to Hill House, often inexplicably. While the other siblings are no doubt scarred—internally reassembled, almost—by the events of their childhood, the house maintains its strongest grip on Nell. A meek, fearful young woman, the titular haunting isn’t just trauma for adult Nell—it’s still happening.
Where tragedy loomed in other Crain sibling introductions, Nell’s singular story is defined by it. The bricks and stones of her house are the bricks and stones of ghosts. Arthur dies of a brain aneurysm shortly after they marry and the Bent-Neck Lady returns to haunt Nell. Nell spirals, and soon, she’s back at the carcass of her old childhood home. Inside, the house is renovated, and Arthur and her family are there. They share a tragic last dance, and as Nell ascends the spiral staircase, she puts on her mother’s locket. It’s really a noose, and Nell is pushed. She falls, snapping her neck. Past and present coalesce, revealing that, since childhood, the Bent-Neck Lady has been Nell. She’s been haunting herself.
Victoria Pedretti’s The Haunting of Hill House showcase is as dreadfully personal as a haunting can get. Nell is drawn to confront not just what scares her the most, but her deepest desires. And those desires are Hill House. A happy family. A living husband. A dance through the dismal dark, artificially lit with the helping hands of the undead. Unlike Jackson’s original, the ghosts of Flanagan’s house are in control. They’re not peripheral entities). Instead, they’ve been actualized, paranormal manifestations of grief, regret, and soldering pain, the kind that forever links one to what hurts the most. It’s been interpreted in many ways. An allegory for mental illness. Found family. Anxiety is like living with a ghost. Even the ending, widely considered a happy one, is considerably bleaker than it seems.
Flanagan tries to impose order. Luke is now sober. The surviving Crain siblings are together. Yet, Nell, Olivia, and Hugh remain at Hill House, suspended in some nebulous state of purgatory, perhaps having passed on permanently, perhaps not. Trauma is never so simple. Looming like a ghost itself, of course, is Nell.
As the soul of the house, the entirety of the show’s most gleefully terrifying efficacy is her burden to bear. A relative newcomer, Pedretti’s first major role was in The Haunting of Hill House. The remainder of the Crain family were recognizable. Victoria Pedretti was an outlier, a serendipitous bit of happenstance that only augments Nell’s tragic trajectory. Pedretti has since been involved in several other high-profile projects, including both You and Flanagan’s follow-up, The Haunting of Bly Manor, though it’s her performance as Nell that elevates the show to classic status.
It’s a tough performance to nail. It can’t be too weepy, too melodramatic, without undermining the scares Flanagan and Co. have in store. Yet, anything more reserved and ungiving risks alienating the audience, severing the empathy before it’s even had a chance to take hold. It can be hard to convince non-genre audiences of just how hard horror acting is. It’s more than simply being scared. It’s the lifeblood. In Pedretti’s case, her performance holds the entire house together. She is the keystone haunt, the heart of Hill House. Without her, it would crumble into dust. She doesn’t just deliver in spades—she transcends. A quivering lip or graceful ballroom fallaway, Victoria Pedretti’s soul is the soul of Hill House and every other haunted house. It’s what ghosts and haunts should be.
To assist Flanagan in his sensemaking duties—a duty the best horror aspires to— Pedretti is there, whether on-screen or off, in sensational jump scares and tragic monologues (a Flanagan staple). The Haunting of Hill House helps to define a world marred by tragedy and death, the glissando of recovery and relapse. While everyone is delivering career-best work, it’s Pedretti whose haunts linger the longest. No different than Nell, the Bent-Neck Lady is one ghost I’ll never forget. Where the other ghosts are there to rattle the audience, Pedretti lurks just out of sight, ready to break hearts as well.