In Netflix’s new horror series, “The Haunting of Hill House,” the Crain family moves into enormous but long vacant Hill House with the plan to restore it and sell it.
In the second episode, “Open Casket,” oldest daughter Shirley (played as a girl by Lulu Wilson) finds a litter of five kittens in the barn on the property. She begs her father Hugh (Henry Thomas) to let her take care of them.
If you had a gut feeling that things would not end well for the kittens, you were right, since cats and dogs are usually the first to suffer in any horror story.
Here’s what happened:
Shirley argues that the kittens, whose mother is nowhere to be found, are at risk from the dogs they’ve been hearing around the house at night. (Meanwhile, the caretaker who’s tended to the house for years insists he’s never seen any dogs on the property.)
Hugh caves in and lets her take the kittens into her bedroom, where she feeds them milk and shows her younger siblings Nell (Violet McGraw) and Luke (Julian Hilliard) how to do the same.
She’s devastated when one of the kittens appears to have passed away in the night. (She doesn’t seem to be feeding them on the kind of every-few-hours schedule you’d need for kittens who don’t yet have their eyes open.)
Mom Olivia (Carla Gugino) proposes they bury the kitten and give it a proper eulogy. She’s even put it in a pretty box for the funeral. Shirley wants to see the kitten, so Olivia opens the box. That’s when Shirley thinks she sees the kitten moving — it’s not really dead after all, she insists!
While her parents try to stop her, she picks up the kitten and encourages it to breathe. Its mouth opens… and a large green beetle crawls out! (It’s a horrifying moment, but at least it wasn’t something worse, like, maggots.)
That night, Olivia laments to Hugh that Shirley’s views on death have been permanently affected by the incident, and she’s not wrong. The story takes place in the past and the present, and the grown-up Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is now a funeral director. Even if nothing more disturbing happened at the haunted house (and, clearly, plenty did), the kitten’s death would likely have been enough to mess up Shirley for life.
When young Shirley next checks on the kittens in the box, they all appear to have passed away. She pokes one frantically and it gasps. Relieved, she picks it up — but its eyes are now a glowing yellow. (The adult characters frequently remember things from their traumatic time in Hill House, but with a more disturbing twist that ends up being a nightmare in the present.)
Shirley is even more distraught when her mother tells her that they gave away the last living kitten, but that’s not true. As Olivia berates Hugh for letting Shirley keep the kittens in the first place, Hugh says he took the last sick kitten out into the woods and killed it. (Fortunately, this isn’t shown.)
But that’s not the end of the kitten trauma.
In the present, disturbed younger sister Nell (Victoria Pedretti) returns to Hill House, where she is found dead by housekeeper Mrs. Dudley (Annabeth Gish).
Despite her family’s protests, Shirley insists on hosting her own sister’s funeral, including embalming and “fixing” the body herself. After she’s done with the grim task, Nell looks as beautiful as she did on her wedding day, when Shirley also did her makeup. And then Nell’s mouth opens and the same beetle crawls out…
A shaken Shirley turns off the light and leaves the room, and that’s when she thinks she sees a body on the next table sitting up. It’s her long-dead mother, holding the same box that held the kitten. Shirley turns on the light and there’s no one there but Nell.
NOTE: There are no other animals in the rest of the series, apart from a dog that barks at Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). And the suggestion of rats in the walls. We never see the mysterious dogs the Crain children hear outside the house at night.
“The Haunting of Hill House” is now streaming on Netflix.