Netflix's 'Haunting of Hill House' Gets a Lot Right, According to Ghost Hunters Amy Bruni, Katrina Weidman


[An earlier version of this article appeared on IGN Jan 28, 2019]

By Aaron Sagers

The house is a textbook definition of a haunted mansion. Drafty with long, dark hallways, dank basements, a dumb waiter, a sealed-off room, and ancient furniture, the structure appears -- as Shirley Jackson described it in her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House -- as “a house arrogant and hating, never off guard.” Slightly off-center, with right angles that are a “fraction of a degree off in one direction or another,” Hill House could be described as the embodiment of evil.

Meanwhile, the young Crain family, the Hill House occupants from last year’s hit Netflix adaptation, are at the mercy of horrifying phenomena that haunts them, both during their time in the building, and for years after as ghosts seek to lure them back.

And for a pair of real-life, professional spirit seekers, the series about literal and figurative ghosts (which landed on multiple “best of 2018” lists) is not simply a compelling installment of paranormal pop culture, it is a fictional case study from a day at the office – if that office is a haunted house.

“They pinged so many things on our radar; the phenomena was so in line with what we already experience, just not on that extreme of a level,” said Amy Bruni, co-star and executive producer on Kindred Spirits, a Travel Channel series now in its third season where she confronts alleged paranormal activity with ghosthunting partner Adam Berry.

Bruni said in a recent interview she counts herself a fan of the show, and sees multiple parallels between the house - and the haunted Crain family - with the locations and people she seeks to help.

“I found myself watching the show as an investigator, looking for things,” she added. “Throughout the entire show, I could tell someone had either an intense interest in the paranormal, or did a lot of research.”

“This was a generally happy family, and they weren’t looking for it, or asking for it, but they had vulnerabilities, and the house took advantage of that,” said paranormal investigator Katrina Weidman of Travel Channel's just-announced Portals series. She was also co-lead on Paranormal Lockdown, a Destination America series that just wrapped its third season where she and Nick Groff spend 72 hours straight in locations purported to be haunted. Weidman said she has watched Hill House twice, and it reminds her of multiple haunted families she has encountered.

"This is my favorite genre, and I see a lot of these movies [and] TV shows, but a lot of the times I just laugh,” she said. “When it comes to the ghost genre, I've been there. I've lived in these places, and breathed in every aspect of them. A lot of the media I see always gets the fear wrong, and I end up laughing. With Hill House, I genuinely felt that fear. So few projects get what that feels like, and they cheapen it."

What Hill House Gets Right

With unscripted paranormal shows returning in force following a lull in recent years, both women have stood as leaders in their genre. Bruni previously appeared on Syfy’s Ghost Hunters, and runs the paranormal tourism company Strange Escapes. Weidman comes from A&E’s Paranormal State, and the Chiller series Real Fear. They each have their own techniques, and philosophies, regarding possible activity, but emphasize there are no “rules” or strict definitions when it comes to ghosts.

After all, “paranormal” refers to events beyond current scientific parameters, and Bruni said she sometimes feels like she knows what’s going on with phenomena, only to end up even more confused.

“We don’t really know how paranormal activity works,” agreed Weidman. “We sometimes think we know, but it’s all speculation; it is so random, and there’s no science because we can’t get it to always repeat on command.”

Though neither Weidman nor Bruni promotes absolute truths when it comes to the unexplained, they vary on some of the elements Hill House got correct.

The series shows the Crain family themselves being haunted, even as adults outside the house. But Bruni said she has yet to meet someone she felt was truly haunted, and instead suggests some people have latent psychic abilities, “or are really into the paranormal, and notice things more.”

Conversely, Weidman said she believes people can be as haunted as places, and has witnessed it with her “clients.” It is the element she loves the most in Hill House, she said.

“Once you have these experiences, you are forever changed,” she said. “Whether you are being haunted by true activity, or by the memories of the activity you experienced, I think they both exist, and have seen both.”

Bruni and Weidman find more common ground than separation in their ghost theories. For example, they think the sleep paralysis shown in the series, and attributed to the supernatural in folklore, is typically stress-related, and not caused by a ghost.

They likewise see the ghostly visuals of Hill House to be true to paranormal iconography. One particular example is the tall, hat-wearing ghost of William Hill, who torments Luke. Within paranormal circles, and popularized in paranormal forums online, this entity is known at "Hat Man." A particular kind of "shadow person," Hat Man is an infamous ghost, and has been the focus of documentaries and news articles, and even has his own dedicated blog, The Hatman Project. He is well known enough that it's reasonable to assume the writers behind Hill House were familiar with him -- or with his spiritual cousin from the internet, Slender Man. Weidman especially found it fascinating that Luke saw a version of Hat Man in Hill House because witnesses claim the figure appears to them in times of trouble, or highly emotional states.

“The feelings they got when they saw this figure were all negative,” Weidman said. “And it was trying to invoke them to do bad things, either harm themselves, or stir up depression and anxiety, and Luke kind [of] goes along the lines of the type of people he went after.”

Family Strains

The women said they have seen hauntings tear apart families from the stress they cause, much like the Crains. They can even lead to estrangement.

According to Bruni, when a family is experiencing paranormal activity, they doubt themselves, and are afraid to talk. There is a lot of turmoil because there is no ghost removal service to call, and they find they can only share the experiences with other family members, because those on the outside won’t believe it. And as time and distance pass, they come to dismiss their own memories as a coping mechanism, much like Steven or Shirley Crain.

This aspect of the Crain story reminded Bruni of her own childhood experiences.

“I grew up in a haunted house, which is how I got into all of this,” she said. “I obviously did not have experiences as extreme, but all of us kids went through it and I have distinct memories of things, my sister has distinct memories of things, but my brother, who is much more of a skeptic -- and we all remember him having experiences -- has completely discounted them now … but I remember him running out to us saying ‘there’s a lady in the kitchen,’ and we had all seen that lady in the kitchen.”

Bruni joked that she can relate to Nell Crain on Hill House for seeing ghosts, but that paranormal author Steven “is kind of living my life, making a living talking about ghosts.”

Weidman agrees with Bruni about the strains a haunting can put on a relationship when one person believes, and another doesn’t. She also points out that, in her work, she has found activity begins with a mother and children experiencing something while a father tends to be the last to admit something is going on. Such is the case with Hugh Crain, who is the fixer of the family.

“And whoever the fixer ends up being is the last person to admit there’s something going on they can’t fix,” said Weidman.

Malevolent Forces

Like Olivia Crain, who suffered from mental illness and was pushed over the edge by Poppy Hill’s malevolent specter, ghosts often stick around for a purpose, and may need help -- but not necessarily to “cross over,” warned Bruni. She said she believes ghosts have “very real struggles, and choose to remain behind to resolve something.”

Weidman did not mention a specific case, but did say she has received calls where a haunting had allegedly made a person homicidal. Meanwhile Bruni said the third season of Kindred Spirits involves a case at the Villisca Axe Murder House in Iowa, where six children, and two adults, were brutally murdered in 1912.

The resulting episode includes a Wisconsin paranormal investigator who stabbed himself in the chest while alone in the purportedly haunted house during a 2014 amateur ghost hunt. The incident received quite a bit of news coverage, and Bruni said the Kindred Spirits story is dark, and shook her lifelong philosophies about the paranormal.

“I talk a lot about haunts, and how they can’t hurt you, and aren’t dangerous, but we met an investigator there who stabbed himself, had to be life-flighted out, and died,” she said. “He had to be revived."

She adds, "I had been preaching to people for a decade that ghosts can’t hurt you, but I am looking at this man who I believe; I don’t think he intended to stab himself -- and I don’t know if he actually did it. That was the first time I ever felt maybe there is something dark enough out there it can hurt you."

Hill House likewise reminded her of other cases on the current season of Kindred Spirits. She said there was one situation where she thinks she encountered a ghost who didn’t want her family members to go down the same path as her.

In another episode, filmed at Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Kentucky -- allegedly a notorious haunted hot spot -- Bruni and Berry had a case that “rocked an entire family.”

“One of their members is still there [in ghost form] because of it; it is a story that could be further told, but there is someone still there that had a senseless, and crazy tragedy that kind of reminds me of Olivia,” she said, because the Crain matriarch's death similarly haunts the family on Hill House. The Waverly patient died from tuberculosis, and while he was in the sanatorium, serious trauma befell his family.

Bruni is quick to point out that there is not a correlation between mental illness and hauntings. She said she thinks the paranormal can be difficult to deal with, and may exacerbate existing concerns, but that moving into a haunted house can also be “just like moving into a place with roommates.” That said, she does think someone who is physically weakened due to addiction, such as Luke, can “plummet” into a state more susceptible to hauntings.

Weidman’s view is that there is a relationship between the amount of time a person spends in a haunted place and the activity they experience, which can lead to fatigue and wear them down. She said it is challenging for the brain to process the paranormal, and she has had clients feel suicidal because of ghostly encounters, and because others don’t believe them and they are alone. She also cites a case where a haunted family was labeled as crazy, and ostracized by the rest of their family and community, which heightened their isolation.

Time Fold Ghosts

Neither investigator particularly thinks tragedy begets tragedy in a haunted location, so a series of unfortunate events is not destined to be repeated as seen in the Netflix series. The two also agree that Hill House was interesting in presenting the Bent-Neck Lady, a compelling -- and lesser-seen in the paranormal pop culture genre -- “time fold” ghost. Revealed to be Nell haunting her past self, the ghost is true to what they’ve heard of on their cases.

“She is a great example of something we talk about a lot in the paranormal,” said Weidman. “Could some of these be hauntings from the future? My answer to that is everything is a possibility until we prove it otherwise; after all, there are a lot of theories in physics that play with the element of time, so if the past can exist in a location, why can’t the future?”

Alternately, Bruni said she has worked on cases where people have been haunted by their past self, not their future. She said it was "strange to have that reversed" in the form of Nell and the Bent-Neck Lady. She also said she has investigated instances where the deceased returns as a ghost in child form, instead of at the age they died.

"We theorize that’s when they were the happiest, and what they wanted to come back as," she said.

Both women said Hill House should be recognized for drawing on the theory that there are different “layers” of paranormal activity, and even various levels of ghosts existing at once.

“Nick Groff and I talk a lot about whether there are multiple time periods of hauntings, and that they may not be aware of each other, or could go about their own agenda,” said Weidman. “We’ve experienced that, and Hill House did a good job showing that.”

Bruni concurs, and lists the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire, one of her frequent Strange Escapes destinations, as the site of various ghosts from the early 20th century, the 1980s, and even a more modern one who has been heard proclaiming itself “high as a motherf----r.”

She also said in the new season of Kindred Spirits, she and Berry head to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and encounter ghosts of seemingly different time periods who did know of one another.

“We were investigating the Farnsworth House, and they were having different activity which we found had nothing to do with the Civil War,” she teased. “Furthermore, we went to other locations at Gettysburg, and they knew about this entity, and where he came from; they knew he was new, and were like gossiping ghosts.”

Background and Cameo Ghosts

Even though both Amy Bruni and Katrina Weidman are paranormal investigation pros, they said The Haunting of Hill House not only sticks the landing with scares, but is eerily accurate with its portrayal of ghosts in the background -- some of which may not even be noticed. That aspect of the series called to mind their own surprise spectral cameos in the field.

For Weidman, she thought of a creeping entity in the background of Paranormal Lockdown’s series debut in 2016, at Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia. Her, Groff and camera operator Rob Saffi were standing around for hours, experiencing feelings, and seeing something darting out of the corner of their eyes, or hearing footsteps. She said it escalated to Saffi capturing something on his camera.

“This was 10-, 20-feet behind me and Nick,” she said. “We didn’t see it with our own eyes but we knew it was there with every fiber in our bodies.”

Saffi, who films on a RED 8K camera, with a modified sensor, recorded something incredibly unsettling slithering on the floor. It was eerily reminiscent of the Hill House basement ghost skulking around the corner towards the younger Luke. (The footage can be seen on the Destination America site, but, like seeing the hidden ghosts of Hill House, you may need to turn up your screen's brightness settings.)

“This thing was there,” she said. “It was absolutely there.”

For Bruni, her cameo ghost will be revealed this season on Kindred Spirits, at Waverly Hills, and she said it was shocking enough that “I don’t think I will be able to go back there.”

“I saw something right out of a horror movie, and on the level of the Bent-Neck Lady,” she said. “It was so crazy -- to the point I covered my eyes, and made Adam lead me down the hallway because I didn’t want to see anything else. That has never happened in my life.”

While their own shows continue, Bruni and Weidman each say they are pleased to see the mainstream success of The Haunting of Hill House.

Said Bruni, “People watch something like Hill House, and they want to know if it can really happen, or if an ounce of it is true. There is a little bit of us that wonders while we’re watching it, so you start digging to see to what extent it could happen.”

“They did such a marvelous job at portraying different elements we see in the paranormal,” said Weidman. “Not just the experiences, but the human element, both immediately, and years later. It’s one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve seen in a long time that got it really right -- how scary it is, how much it can affect you, and how it can break apart a family.”