How a 'Haunting of Hill House' Cameo Changes Everything

Though not a straightforward adaptation of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel of the same name, the new Netflix horror series The Haunting of Hill House includes some mind-bending tributes to previous adaptations, especially a cameo from one of the main characters from 1963's The Haunting, whose presence offers an evocative new way to experience the mystery at the heart of the terrifying ghost house.

(Minor spoilers for The Haunting of Hill House ahead.)

In The Haunting of Hill House, the five Crain siblings find themselves drawn back to the cursed house that tore their family apart when they were children. It's Nell, the youngest and most tormented by the spirits of the house (particularly the Bent-Neck Lady), who first returns as an adult, forcing her brothers and sisters to grapple with their own long-buried traumas. Nudging her toward the house is her new therapist, played by Russ Tamblyn.

You won't find Tamblyn in the IMDb cast list or various casting announcements for The Haunting of Hill House, but there he is, popping up in the fifth episode, implicitly connecting Mike Flanagan's Netflix adaptation with the 1963 film. In it, Tamblyn plays a spoiled heir named Luke Sanderson, who stands to inherit Hill House and accompanies a team of psychic investigators exploring the gothic mansion for ghosts.

Should you want to read into things (which The Haunting of Hill House certainly encourages), Tamblyn's presence is more than just a wink and a nod to the original. At the end of The Haunting, we learn how Hill House captures lost souls, adding to its population of ghosts through manipulation and terror. Luke escapes his encounter with the house relatively unscathed.

Though Tamblyn isn't playing Luke in Netflix's new Haunting of Hill House (he is instead named after the paranormal investigator in Jackson's novel), he fulfills a highly ritualized role in the horror narrative—a living person nudging Nell toward a confrontation with Hill House. He represents a fulcrum point in Nell's life, tipping her toward danger. Sure, this could be an innocent mistake on Dr. Montague's part (Nell's older sister calls him a quack in a later episode), but within the intricate structure of the series—which bounces around in time and emphasizes the interconnection of past, present and future—Tamblyn's role is unique: he acts as a human recruiter for the ravenous Hill House. Set against his original role exploring the evil mansion, Tamblyn's character dramatizes how no one ever really escapes. The haunting continues long after fleeing Hill House itself.

Tamblyn holds an additional resonance for fans of the eerie and strange, since he also played a therapist in Twin Peaks, the eccentric Dr. Lawrence Jacoby. Just like Montague pushes Nell back toward Hill House, Jacoby nudged Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) toward her own supernatural encounter with the evil spirit BOB. This makes Tamblyn's presence in The Haunting of Hill House more than mere cameo. This canny casting choice allows him to become a concentrated symbol of occult power at work, even in the living world.

Russ Tamblyn in "The Haunting" and "Twin Peaks." His role in "The Haunting of Hill House" is like a blend of the two. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / CBS Television Distribution

I suspect Claire Bloom, who played Theodora alongside Tamblyn in The Haunting, also makes an appearance, but I've so far missed it. Like the ghosts Flanagan hid all over the series —he told Bloody Disgusting eight to 10 are hidden "in plain sight" in every episode—there are mysteries all over The Haunting of Hill House, appropriate for a show about the consequences of the secrets haunting us.

All ten episodes of The Haunting of Hill House are available now on Netflix.