Brow Beat

Ballad of the Bent-Neck Lady

The Haunting of Hill House’s devastating twist episode will crush you emotionally—and enchant you visually.

Timothy Hutton stands apart from the rest of his cast family in The Haunting of Hill House.
The Haunting of Hill House
Netflix

This article contains spoilers for the first six episodes of The Haunting of Hill House.

The opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House concludes that “whatever walked there, walked alone.” But the characters in Mike Flanagan’s loose adaptation, a 10-episode series now streaming on Netflix, are never alone. The series’ Twitter feed is slowly revealing the locations of the spectral figures Flanagan has hidden in nearly every episode, ghostly faces that lurk in the shadows of the crumbling Gothic mansion that Olivia and Hugh Crain (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas) have purchased with an aim to restoring it and using the proceeds to buy their “forever house.” But even when they’re not at Hill House, the Crains are haunted, not just by the occasional stray malevolent spirit but by the mistakes they’ve made and the things they’ve seen.

The series’ fifth episode, “The Bent-Neck Lady,” discloses the identity of the terrifying phantom that has plagued Nell, the Crain clan’s youngest daughter, for almost her entire life—from the moment she first saw its shape, with its sideways-bent head and protruding shafts of bone, at the foot of her childhood bed to the night of her death, some 20 years later, when Nell returns to Hill House and kills herself. Because Flanagan’s story cuts backward and forward through time and often replays events from different perspectives, we’ve known for some time that Nell would end up following in her suicidal mother’s footsteps. But we haven’t understood why, and we don’t until the moment that Nell climbs to the top of Hill House’s spiraling three-story staircase and slips a rope around her neck.

Flanagan piles horror upon horror—the voice that coaxes Nell to death belongs to her own mother, or at least an evil spirit that once was her—and after Nell drops, he holds on a long upward shot of her body hanging limply in the air. But the most fiendish twist is yet to come: Nell is still alive, at least for a few moments, and that first drop is followed by another, and another. Only now Nell isn’t just falling through space but through time. Each time the rope jerks, Nell is faced with herself, cowering by a motel soda machine, frozen in a waking nightmare, until she’s finally back at the foot of her own bed, looking into her own terrified 6-year-old eyes. The Bent-Neck Lady is Nell. She’s been haunting herself.

That revelation propels The Haunting of Hill House into its sixth episode, “Two Storms,” a technical tour de force that reframes the story and subtly lays the groundwork for the last four episodes (which I won’t spoil here). Where the series to this point has been intricately structured, cutting between the Crain family’s past and present to illustrate how the things that scarred them as children are still present in their adult lives, “Two Storms” dispenses with editing almost altogether. The bulk of the episode is made up of five swirling Steadicam shots, the longest of which unfolds in one unbroken 17-minute take, and appears, through digital effects, to go on for six minutes more.

In the last several years, long takes have become something of a pox on premium TV, a way for movie (or movie-aspirant) directors to leave obvious marks on a medium that institutionally favors writing over visual flourishes. But Flanagan, who directed all 10-plus hours of Hill House himself, isn’t out to prove that his take is longer than yours. “Two Storms” marks the first time in the series that we see all five adult Crain children in the same space—not even Nell’s wedding could manage that, with her junkie twin Luke turned away at the door by her protective siblings. But Nell has accomplished in death what none of them could in life. The use of a continuous take emphasizes that inescapable, often unwelcome closeness.

The Crains enter Shirley’s funeral home in dribs and drabs, clustering in knots and breaking apart, but they can’t escape the history that ties them together. Timothy Hutton, as the older Hugh, is the last to arrive, and after he does the camera slowly turns to capture his still-living offspring, who are briefly replaced by their childhood selves. One more turn, and the grown-up actors are back again. Eventually the camera travels through time as well as space, following Hugh down one of the funeral home’s side doors into the massive entrance hall of Hill House itself, where one of the episode’s two storms is raging, 20 years in the past. As an enormous cast-iron chandelier crashes to the ground, we get the episode’s first visible cut, but before then Hugh has already seen his younger self running down the stairs to investigate the noise.

“Two Storms” continues in that vein, moving back and forth between past and present, with both storylines built around an absent Nell: In the present, she’s dead, although her embalmed corpse, laid out for viewing, serves as the axis on which the family turns. In the past, she disappears, and the family scatters throughout Hill House to look for her. In both times, Flanagan keeps you acutely aware of what’s outside the frame as well as within it. The camera swings away from Nell’s coffin, and the next time we see it, she’s been joined by one of Hill House’s walking corpses, or the adult Nell’s dead body has been replaced by the 6-year-old Nell. There are some obvious digital gags, as when the younger Hugh sees the storm blow out a huge glass window right in front of his wife, then turns away in horror, and when the camera swishes back, the window is intact and Olivia is nowhere to be seen. But most of the episode’s effects are the old-fashioned kind, where the rotting figures that suddenly appear in one of Hill House’s beds or behind its creaking doors feel all too physically present.

All too present is also, unfortunately, one way to describe the episode’s dialogue, which isn’t nearly as elegant as its visual architecture. Hill House’s writing is best in short stretches, but “Two Storms” makes room for a handful lengthy monologues that the show’s mostly middling cast lacks the chops to carry. (It doesn’t help that two of them, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman, adopt American accents that strangle their already narrow dramatic range.) But at the end of the episode, and of the series, it isn’t the words that stick with you—not Hutton’s speech about Nell’s letters to Santa Claus or Huisman screaming “The wrong parent died!” or the passages awkwardly imported from Jackson’s novel. It’s the sight of the Bent-Neck Lady standing sorrowfully by Nell’s coffin: no longer terrifying so much as sad, a warning unheeded, a ghost haunting another ghost.