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December 12, 2018

The New House

Oliver Jackson-Cohen and the rest of the cast of Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House have found a new angle on the venerable horror story.

Melissa Byers
  • Oliver Jackson-Cohen in The Haunting of Hill House

  • Oliver Jackson-Cohen in The Haunting of Hill House

  • Hill House

  • The interior of Hill House

  • Julian Hilliard as young Luke in The Haunting of Hill House

Not all horror is created equal.

Consider The Haunting of Hill House, Netflix's most recent retelling of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel of the same name. Adaptations of the book have been filmed before, in 1963 and 1999, with different casts and different aspects of the book highlighted.

All three adaptations had character names pulled from the novel, but the characters themselves varied widely. The only common element in every retelling is the house containing untold evils.

The latest incarnation, airing now on Netflix, takes the concept of the haunted house and uses it to tell a genuinely human, family story.

The Crain family, father Hugh (Timothy Hutton), mother Olivia (Carla Gugino), and children Steven, Shirley, Theodora, and twins Luke and Eleanor (Nell), move into Hill House for the summer, with the parents planning to renovate and flip the house. What happens in the house will change each member of the family in a different way, none of them good.

The series moves back and forth in time, from the family's time in the house to present day, as each of them deals with the trauma of Hill House.

Steven, the eldest, played as an adult by Michiel Huisman, refuses to admit to any belief in the supernatural, but makes his living writing ghost stories, starting with his own family's story of Hill House.

Shirley, played by Elizabeth Reaser, is tightly controlled to the point of obsession, and runs a funeral home, making death merely a business.

Theodora, played by Kate Siegel, is a child psychologist who appears to have some psychic powers.

The twins seem to be the most affected by their pasts. Luke, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, is an addict, bouncing between homelessness and halfway houses. Nell, played by Victoria Pedretti, the youngest, has never fully recovered from her time in Hill House, suffering from visions and hallucinations.

The series is much more of a psychological thriller with supernatural overtones, rather than the typical scary movie.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen says that was a deliberate choice from the beginning, and one that worried the cast at first. "I feel like that's what so interesting about the show as a whole, is that a lot of people - we spoke about this a lot on set - about how, something called The Haunting of Hill House will pop up on people's Netflix homepages.

"And I remember having a genuine conversation, and we had a genuine worry at one point, that people are going to tune in because they're just going to want to be scared. I don't know if they'll want to listen to all of this crying, and being upset, and dealing with grief, and hearing our stories.

"But it taught me, what makes the show, is so much more than just a horror show. And I think what's really nice is that people's expectations, on the whole going in, is 'Oh, we'll put this on to get a cheap scare,' and you're offered so much more than that. You're offered real characters that feel grief, and trauma, and mental illness, and addiction.

"And all these things that are not too far away from all of us as human beings. It's an amazing way to, in a way, make something palatable to an audience. But they aren't necessarily expecting it."

Even those who are not normally drawn to horror stories will find something to attract them to this show. Jackson-Cohen says, "Throughout all of this press that we've done for it, so many people we've sat down with, especially journalists, have stressed that. 'I don't like horror,' 'I never watch horror,' 'I think it's silly,' or whatever. However, they dig this show.

"And so it's been really nice. And I think that's what we all hoped would happen. Or people who are really scared of watching horror, are brought together to watch this family and to watch this dynamic. And I think it's where Mike [Michael Flanegan, the creator], and the whole writing team, has excelled in a way.

"It is fundamentally a very, very acutely honest portrayal of trauma, and how five different people deal with that trauma.

"I think that the writing is just very honest. You could swap out, and I was saying this to Mike very early on, you could swap out the house for anything else. You could swap it out for childhood abuse, and the arc from that would be the same. It's terror that these people are dealing with.

"I think it's such a clever way that he's used that. He's used the haunted house to actually talk about something bigger, which I think is very effective."

Each character has a unique perspective on what happened to them as children in Hill House, and each has found his or her unique way of dealing with it. In the same way, each viewer will find some aspect of the characters with which to identify.

Jackson-Cohen says, "I think that, even if you just look at the way that Hugh endures with the experience that he had, and look at Shirley, they just keep moving forward. And she keeps moving forward so she doesn't have to stop and look back. It's just so interesting.

"And Luke and Nell, they're stuck. They're stuck in this place. Because they can't make sense of it. They can't make sense of what happened. No one's offering up any advice or bringing anything up to the table of what did happen, in order to help.

"So everyone's stuck in these places where they can't really seem to move forward, because no one wants to discuss it. And I think again, that's a very universal behavioral amongst families. 'But, let's not talk about that, let's try to move forward.' And some manage to do that, and some really, really don't.

"Which is where I think again, the way that they wrote Luke and the way that they wrote Nell was such an amazing and honest portrayal of what trauma does to someone. And how if you can't make sense of something, how can you move forward? It's impossible.

"And I think that what's really interesting is that the way that it's been ever-so-slightly overwhelming. It seems to really have pulled...not pulled people's heartstrings...but it seems to kind of have hit a note with people.

"It's just so interesting how people are identifying with different characters. And I think again, the fact that the show is talking about childhood, and we all have a childhood. And they're complicated, and painful, and happy. And all of these different things, but that whole idea and notion of having to run from your childhood, run away from what happened and not being able to look at it.

"I think it's becoming apparent that it's quite a universal theme. Either we have to face them, or we try and run away from them. And so it seems to have, as I said, to have hit this note with people. Which I think is really interesting. And I think Mike and the whole team have done their job so brilliantly in being able to do that."

Jackson-Cohen has done a few fantasy/horror kinds of roles, including the role of Lucas in Emerald City, and Jonathan Harker in Dracula, but he doesn't consider himself a "genre" actor.

He says, "What's interesting, I've been asked this question a lot about, 'Oh, you did a fantasy show,' and I did this show called Dracula which is I guess a drama. Generally, it actually isn't anything to do with the genre as a whole, it's more been to do with the characters.

"So the choice with Emerald City was because Tarsem Singh was directing the whole thing, and I think his visuals are just incredible. And I loved the idea of playing someone who couldn't understand who they were. And so, how do you know how to be? Or how do you know if you're good? How do you know all of these things if you have no idea who you are?

"There was something about that that really fascinated me. And the same with Luke. There were so many aspects that just fascinated me.
"So I think it's more to do with the characters than it is do with the genre as a whole."

It was both the character and the story that drew him to The Haunting of Hill House. "It was a phone call. 'We're sending you over this. Take a read, let us know what you think.' I was on vacation. And I stopped and read the first episode. And I genuinely was so blown away by how the show was constructed, and the fact that it was like nothing I've ever read before.

"And the fact that it jumped backwards and forwards between two timelines. And then, at the end of the first episode you thought 'Well okay. That's really interesting, I wonder what they'll do?' And then they just replay the same 24 hours again.

"It's just so clever. And I'd never, ever, ever read anything quite like it. I've taken a bit of time now, because I got to the point with work where I was super tired of playing the same kind of thing. And I felt like I was playing people that didn't sit right, and didn't feel right. And so when I read Luke I immediately identified with him.

"Not that I have a heroin addiction, but there's something about him that really felt so honest, and so true. And I immediately said, 'I have to do this. I have to be part of this, however.' And I think it's true that for every one of us, we all jumped at the chance to be a part of it. Again, just because the characters that he had.

"It's an interesting thing with horror because you think well, they'll do that in the edit. They'll make it scary in the edit. Or, I don't know if it will be scary. I have no idea, but I think all of us knew that the story that had been constructed...there was such incredible parts that had been written.

So all of us wanted to be a part of that, and to be able to play these characters was incredible. Really, really incredible."

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