Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Screenshot: Netflix

“Witness marks tell the story of the piece if you know how to read them”

“Witness Marks” doesn’t have the narrative and thematic coherence of The Haunting Of Hill House’s three previous chapters. That’s an observation, not a complaint. Few horror films, let alone episodes of television, have the quiet, clever confidence of the series’ best, like “Two Storms.” But this eighth episode (of ten) is has an important place in the uneven but engaging series, where even weaker episodes contribute to the larger story.

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Witness marks, Hugh Crain tells Steven, are small traces left in an antique clock’s work by clocksmiths of days gone by. They’re small marks left by tools or gears, and in an industry that almost never leaves a written record, they allow a master mechanic to see how the clockworks function and what they need to run… well, like clockwork. These imperfections tell a tale, for those who can decipher it.

There are too many metaphors, too many arc words, in “Witness Marks.” Hugh standing over Shirley’s smashed model of The Forever House, frantically muttering, “I can fix this.” Stephen, his father’s son down to his core, saying of the secret that shattered their marriage, “I didn’t tell her. I thought I was being kind.” Hugh repeating Olivia’s take on their marriage: “She said she was the kite and I was the string.” Theo’s sobering monologue about the vast nothing she felt when she touched Nell’s body, and her fear that death is “just floating in this ocean of nothing” for eternity. They’re powerful words and pressing worries, but crammed together into the series’ shortest episode (just under 43 minutes), they crowd each other out.

Kate Siegel, Victoria Pedretti, Elizabeth Reaser
Screenshot: Netflix

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Nell lunging forward, face livid and scream deafening, as her sisters speed toward Hill House is an example of a jump scare that is thoroughly, utterly earned. This is no decontextualized specter looming up out of nowhere, no sudden cut to a new horror intended to jolt viewers out of boredom. Nell is barely intended for us at all. She’s there for her sisters. She’s the figure that’s been dogging their heels all night and day and night again, now forcing herself into their sight, forcing them off the road and out of the rut of their fight. She scares Shirley into admitting what she’s seeing. She scares Theo into spilling the truth behind her misdeed. She scares these two women, about to lose each other forever, into reconciliation. And they need to reconcile right now, because they are on their way to the most dangerous place in the world for them.

Those are Hugh’s words. “Our family is like an unfinished meal to that house,” he tells Hugh, and Luke is walking right back onto its plate. But Hugh has more to say to Steven: “That house is the most dangerous place in the world for all of us. But especially for you.” Steven, who makes his living crafting “true” ghost stories but spent his entire life until this week thinking he had never seen a ghost, has been seeing them all along, and Hugh has known it for a long time.

In flashback, Steven walks through Hill House, which is suddenly abuzz with activity. Anxious to remove his family from the old house, Hugh has hired a hive of craftsmen to restore the it faster, and more expensively, than planned. Knowing that Flanagan populated the background of Hill House with ghosts, as Steven started walking through the halls, I thought, “Even the most obvious ghost would go unnoticed in this crowd.”

Screenshot: Netflix

But the clocksmith (an actor whose name I can’t locate in either the closing credits or elsewhere) isn’t just one of the workmen. He’s the first one we get a good look at, on the landing of the staircase as Steve starts walking through the house. Steven even stops a step or two away to watch him work. Though the craftsman is center screen, his face remains partly in shadow for the entire take. Steven sees him clearly. We do not. Like Nell, he’s not there for us. He’s there for Steven.

Too many horror stories in any medium are crafted to frighten the audience, not the characters. Making the audience jump is easy. Done lazily, it’s cheap. Making the characters confront the unreality of what they insist is real, true, solid, is where real horror blossoms. Destabilizing their world destabilizes the audience’s world, too. And it takes a master craftsman to do it right. Mike Flanagan isn’t above workmanlike scares and clumsy construction, but a touch like this (which also is a credit to episode writers Jeff Howard and Rebecca Klingel) suggests a masterful grasp struggling to come to the surface.

“Witness Marks,” though flawed, is full of these masterful touches. In their argument at Harris Funeral Home, Shirley (already rattled by the inexplicable, insistent knocking at her door) and Theo (who, as Shirl says, “ fucking sucks at apologies”) are confined to their separate frames, isolating each sister in her anger and hurt. But there’s a quick glimpse of reality undermined in this sequence. As Theo pleads for Shirley to listen, she’s suddenly shown from a fresh angle, and everything about her seems abruptly off.

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That footage of Theo, one of a long series of shots of the sisters, is a flipped image. The symmetry of the background means the reversal is not immediately obvious, but for those who look closely—for those who read the witness marks—it’s easy to confirm. Just flip through the slideshow above and keep your eye on the light switch panel, to which our attention has previously been drawn by Shirley’s agitated flipping of the switch. It puts me in mind of The Shining’s flipped door sequence during Dick Halloran’s tour of the kitchen, and more than ever, I think The Shining is as much an inspiration for this adaptation as anything Shirley Jackson wrote.

For the first four episodes, my biggest quibble with The Haunting Of Hill House was its failure to make its ghosts personal, intimate, meaningful for the characters. Even the first banging on Hill House’s walls, a terrifying sequence from the novel and original film adapted loosely in “Open Casket,” failed to convey any idiosyncratic form of haunting; it was just one more haunted-house cliché. But now it feels intensely personal, intimately terrifying, because it’s a recurrence of something these women—these girls—lived through together, something no one else could hear. It bonds them together when they need that bond more than anything.

Breaking his silence, Hugh bonds with Steven, too, as they speed toward the house that aims to destroy them all. He reveals secrets, too many and too suddenly for Steven to absorb them all. That is also an observation and not a complaint, because it has the ring of truth. In crisis, sometimes people tell you things too enormous to understand, too quickly, because that’s what crisis demands. “No one ever touched that clock, and certainly no one in old overalls with a handlebar mustache,” Hugh says, and Steven tries to brush it off. “I never built you kids a tree house,” Hugh tells his son, and then with deliberate emphasis, “There was no tree house.”

Everything Steven knows about reality, the skeptical reality that is his comfort and his vanity, is suddenly shaken by Hugh’s words. And Hugh doesn’t know all of it. Stephen found the vanity he restored for his mother in “the game room.” It’s the second time a child mentions the game room (or, as Nell calls it when she finds her tea set, “the toy room”) to Mrs. Dudley, who knows every corner of Hill House, and the second time Mrs. Dudley has looked confused. There is no game room.

Luke thinks he’s got the best of Hill House, heading there with a half-dozen cans of gas and a sturdy lighter. But he hasn’t read the witness marks. He doesn’t know how this machine functions. Hill House breaks reality. It changes space and time, it shows loving faces on hateful wraiths, it manifests rooms that aren’t there and keeps its secret locks on rooms that are. It can render his raging inferno instead a fleeting flash. As the episode closes, it looks like Hill House’s plan is ticking away like clockwork.

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Stray observations

  • “… did you just punch me in the boob?” Ah, sisterhood.
  • Hugh’s description of marriage as a team, even in a fight, is good advice, but I can’t blame Steven for not being comforted. In his (soon to be shattered) rational world, the man offering this advice either stood by while Olivia died by suicide or killed her himself.
  • James Lafferty, the actor who keeps appearing to Shirley in the alcove of Harris Funeral Home, sitting beneath the urns and raising a glass, is listed in the credits as Ryan.

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