Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House has little to do with the Shirley Jackson text on which it is based. Perhaps 95% of the material in the Netflix version is not to be found anywhere in the original. It should be labeled as loosely based on the Jackson text, but even that would be hyperbole.
According to reports, Stephen King has declared the Netflix “version” to be a work of “genius.” I’m willing to second that, despite the heavy-handed use of graphic matches, and some crevasses in the new narrative (when numerous workers are at the house to deal with the black mold, etc., why doesn’t the father ask the workers to fix the door to the dreaded Red Room?).
The Netflix tale contains a wealth of virtues, among them the emphasis on a term I thought had been lost to the current generation — “blood money.” A contemporary example of blood money is the Broadway production The Lifespan of a Fact, based on John D’Agata’s capitalizing on the suicide of a 16-year-old boy in Las Vegas. So much of popular culture includes people profiting from others’ misery (murders, rapes, executions, medical tragedies, natural disasters, war), yet it is the rare instance that anyone calls the profiteers on their blood money. From an Anglophone perspective, the etymology of “blood money” can be traced to the 16th century, and is, as one might guess, linked to Judas. That’s the context that might be the most compelling for my purposes.
Blood money is one of the centerpieces of tension among the Crain family members in Netflix’s tale. Denial of blood money becomes a counter-force in the family dynamic, a way for some siblings to distance themselves from the profits that Steven has made writing about their childhood experiences at Hill House. The entire family’s psyche is fraught with ambivalence about the natural and the supernatural, the real and the imaginary, and it is Steven who presents consistently an attachment to reality that challenges the experiences of the rest of his family. It’s the horrific moments that rev up the family’s troubles, moving them to interactions with one another that overcome the energies devoted to the denial of events, real or imagined.
If you haven’t seen the Netflix series, you will not want to read on, because I am about to reveal part of the narrative. Despite the solidarity among Steven’s siblings at the beginning of their refusal of the blood money (the profits from Steven’s book about Hill House), the audience learns in later episodes that some of the siblings do take the blood money. They rationalize the choice through an end-justifies-the-means formula. Those who take the blood money declare that the money is a necessary vehicle to greater goods. The rationale in play is kept private, a sign that those who take the blood money know something is not right about the choice. They try to keep their acceptance of the blood money secret from the rest of the family.
Perhaps in some larger sense, Halloween is all about blood money, the commercialization of death (no particular death). The timing of the Netflix series, a kind of substitute Halloween offering, given that Stranger Things is delayed until 2019, reveals how capitalism doesn’t take a holiday from making thirty pieces of silver from the living and the undead.