Netflix gets us ready for spooky season with The Haunting of Bly Manor, the latest in the "trauma manifesting as horror" genre from Mike Flanagan, creator of 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Bly Manor isn’t a sequel to Hill House, but features much of the same cast and shares the central conceit of figuring out why a certain house is haunted. For horror fans who love how the genre can be used to explore difficult emotions, Bly Manor is a welcome entry to the canon: light on the screams, heavy on the dread, and extremely binge-able.
Like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, from which the show was inspired, Bly Manor features a story within a story, narrated to a wedding party by Flanagan muse Carla Gugino (Olivia Crain in Hill House). She introduces us to Henry Wingrave (played by Henry Thomas, previously the Crain patriarch), a wealthy, disinterested toff who seems to have wandered off the set of The Crown to interview American Danielle "Dani" Clayton (Victoria Pedretti, poor bent-necked Nell Crain). She’s to be the au pair at a remote country estate to two children: precocious Flora (Amelie Bea Smith), who calls everything "perfectly splendid" enough times for it to start to sound unnerving, and little gentleman Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), who sometimes seems too much of a gentleman.
If the kids are a little spooky, we understand: not only did the poor things lose their parents but also the previous nanny, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), who apparently drowned herself in a lake on the estate grounds on account of a scoundrel named Peter Quint (Oliver Cohen-Jackson, who played Luke Crain like a wounded puppy but sizzles with Scots-accented class rage in this show).
Miles was expelled from boarding school and now he and his sister live in the dark old house, looked after by the housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), the cook Owen Sharma (Rahul Kohli) and the gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve.)
Dani seems up to the challenge, and if the housekeeper doesn’t seem to eat, Miles changes personalities like a gust of wind, and Flora makes eye contact with an invisible someone while carefully positioning scrappy dolls in a dollhouse uncannily just like Bly Manor, it’s not a big deal: Dani herself is haunted by a fiery-eyed apparition that likes to manifest behind her reflection in mirrors.
The Henry James novella became a staple of literary criticism for how it made readers unsure of what is really going on. (Was the governess paranoid? Was she really haunted, or is this all a metaphor for child abuse, as some critics posit?) The Haunting of Bly Manor manages the same feat, at least in its early episodes. Viewers are kept guessing: are those kids just deeply traumatized or is there something sinister at play?
When that question is answered, more are introduced, and the sense of unease is kept up by the cinematography. Fans of The Haunting of Hill House became adept at spotting hidden ghosts, and that training is put to good use with Bly Manor.
The viewer spends so much time on guard for shadowy, out-of-focus ghosts that each frame ratchets up the tension. Every time the camera floats across a scene you brace yourself for a possible scare.
But while Hill House let that tension explode with scream-inducing moments (such as the famous jump scare in the car while Theo and Shirley Crain argue), Bly Manor very rarely allows for release. The viewer finds themselves only letting out a breath when the end credits start playing.
Trauma, loss, rage, love
In Bly Manor, Hill House and Flanagan’s Stephen King adaptations Doctor Sleep and Gerald’s Game, what compels the viewer to keep watching through the dread and the fear is his character work. Every character in Bly Manor has a story to tell, and he uses Lost-like flashbacks to explore a psychologist’s filing cabinet’s worth of trauma and repression.
Not all the explorations are successful. Dani’s personal haunting is revealed to be connected to her identity as a queer woman, but the way the story is told seems to be in the same vein of punishing queer characters for acting on their desires. The haunting is never satisfactorily resolved as well – one episode she’s confronting it over a bonfire, the next she’s tearing up over Jamie’s description of moonflowers, and the haunting never appears again. (Is it just in her head, then? But the way she covers all the mirrors she encounters suggests the apparition is real.)
On the other end of the spectrum is the standout of the series, episode five, which focuses on the housekeeper Hannah Grose. Kind and capable, if rather prone to absent-mindedness and haunted by a vision of a Y-shaped crack on the wall, Hannah’s episode is a dizzying time loop through her memories and introduces the viewer to dream-hopping, a concept important to the series’ ending. The end of the episode is heartbreaking, especially as it’s revealed that she reciprocates Owen’s affection.
Peter Quint’s own dream-hopping confrontation in episode seven seem to be a nod to the reading of The Turn of the Screw as a veiled account of child abuse. It’s a relief it was not applied to Flora and Miles. Amelie Bea Smith, who voiced Peppa Pig (perfectly splendid indeed), and Benjamin Evans Ainsworth deliver outstanding performances, but no one would wish their characters to go through an abuse storyline after all they already suffer.
Entombment, gravity wells and glue traps are mentioned throughout the show, with the latter particularly memorable via Hannah’s tale of a mouse chewing its own leg off to escape from one. Episode eight, which delves into the history of Bly Manor and features Flanagan fave (and wife) Kate Siegel, explains this thoroughly and also answers the mechanism of haunting. If the Red Room in Hill House was the house’s "stomach," digesting the souls trapped within, Bly Manor is haunted because it is in the grip of the gravity of loss – of life but also of memory.
With references to Owen’s mother’s dementia and the slow fading of the ghosts’ features, Bly Manor seems to be an elegy to the passing of time and how all things, even love, eventually fade.
A bittersweet ending
Hill House famously dropped the ball with an ending that seemed to pull back from the darkness by rewriting Shirley Jackson’s famous line to “Whatever walked there, walked together” (cringe), so the easily resolved climax in Bly Manor seemed to be headed in the same direction.
However, with many minutes left in the last episode, an extended denouement gives the characters a much-needed but brief respite. There is a waiting beast in the jungle, as the episode title goes, and we spend the episode as the characters do: waiting for it to pounce.
It’s plausible that 'The Haunting of Bly Manor' is an extended meditation on grief, with all the loss, rage and longing for escape that it entails.
When Carla Gugino’s narrator finishes her tale, we understand the story she has been trying to tell. There’s been online speculation that the fate of one of the major characters is a metaphor for the slow, inevitable fading away of illness. Taken with all that’s been previously said by Dani, Hannah, Jamie and Owen – “We atone for the moments we’ve forgotten,” “Humans are organic, life rises from death,” “We hang on to each other so we don’t carry so much alone” – it’s plausible that The Haunting of Bly Manor is an extended meditation on grief, with all the loss, rage and longing for escape that it entails.
“I can make it so that nothing sad will ever touch you again,” one of the characters says in the last episode, in what’s meant to be an offer of mercy, but the real mercy comes from the sacrifice of a future made by another character. What the show seems to be trying to say is that we’re not meant to have nothing sad ever touch us. We’re meant to feel all the joy and pain of human life, and in the end, we’re meant to be forgotten.
(Images from Netflix)