THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR: A Spooky & Heart-Aching Gothic Romance

There’s nothing more classic and familiar than a haunted house story. And yet, as Mike Flanagan has proven two years ago in his terrifying and emotionally arresting The Haunting of Hill House, what was once considered traditional can actually be turned into something more modern, with twists, characters, and themes that are even more resonant. Flanagan’s follow up to Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, once again, sees him revisiting an old horror text as a roadmap to explore human emotions. But where the first installment used Shirley Jackson’s book to tell a story of family dynamic, grief, and collective trauma, it is the work of Henry James that Flanagan tackles this time.

The Haunted Manor

On the surface, The Haunting of Bly Manor is a conventional ghost story, loosely adapted from James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, with all the tropes of the haunted house canon sprinkled here and there. Things go bump at night. Objects move about while the living humans inside the house start to question their sanity until there’s nothing left of them anymore. But just like how the supernatural elements in Hill House, in a way, become a metaphor for the childhood trauma that the characters are dealing with, the haunted residence in Bly Manor, as well as all the sinister things surrounding it, is used by Flanagan to represent the main theme that he explores this season: love and ownership. Bly Manor is ultimately not so much about the mythology of the haunted house than it is about the relationships — dysfunctional or not — of the human beings inside it.

At the heart of this ghost story is Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), a bright-eyed young woman who tries to escape her painful past in America to start anew in England. We first meet her as she’s about to attend a job interview as an au pair looking after two orphaned children — a volatile 11-year-old boy named Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and a cheerful 9-year-old named Flora (Amelie Smith) — at an old manor on a small English countryside. The man who wants to hire her is Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), the children’s uncle who clearly cares about them but wants little to do with their day-to-day affairs or the estate itself. Though the interview does not go as smoothly as Dani expected, Henry eventually hires her, simply because he has no choice left.

THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR: A Spooky & Heart-Aching Gothic Romance
source: Netflix

Upon Dani’s arrival at the manor, she not only meets the children but three adults who also work there. The loving and compassionate Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller) is the manager of the manor. The man who drives Dani from London, Owen (Rahul Kohli), turns out to be the chef in the residence too. And then there’s Jamie (Amelia Eve), the skeptical gardener, who’s not so fond of the children’s irritating behavior. Dani instantly bonds with both Miles and Flora, and even earns the respect of the adults on her first day. But of course, being a haunted house story, things start to get frightening real soon, especially as Dani starts to notice the children tend to do activities which slowly gets under her skin the longer she stays at the manor, like when they lock her inside Flora’s drawer or when they tell her to not leave her room at night for an unknown reason.

What’s really happening there? Is it just inside Dani’s head, especially considering how she also currently deals with a ghost from her own past? Are the kids simply troubled? Or is there really something sinister about the manor? Flanagan takes his time slowly before revealing what actually happens at the manor, never rushed but also never dragged. If anything, it’s due to the show’s deliberate pace that we get to really understand and connect with the characters on a deeper level; that by the time we get to the finale, we feel like we don’t want to leave the universe Flanagan has built so delicately here.

THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR: A Spooky & Heart-Aching Gothic Romance
source: Netflix

The horror elements Flanagan has crafted expertly in the show also further proves his voice as one of the genre’s strongest storytellers of our generation. Each shot is inventive. Each scare is always more terrifying than the one that came before it. Then there’s also the sense of dread; the anxiety and quiet discomfort that keeps crescendoing from scene to scene as if we’re directly experiencing the horror that the characters are facing throughout the show. While there’s no episode that achieves the same level of technical feast seen in the sixth episode of the first installment, most of what Bly Manor accomplishes technically still can be considered masterful.

The fifth episode, where the story largely revolves around a mystery surrounding Hannah and weaves seamlessly between a few timelines, in particular, is a standout. For example, one moment a door is opened in one timeframe, then the moment after, the same door opens a completely different timeline. It’s exceptional storytelling and editing.

The Haunted People

Still, it’s the character work and the human story within the supernatural which, in the end, makes Bly Manor more compelling than the average haunted house tales. At its core, the show explores the concept and complexity of love and relationships, questioning the blurry line between genuine intimacy and ownership; between the nature of consent and possession, as well as how the experience and pain from our past relationships can affect the way we connect with other people in the present.

THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR: A Spooky & Heart-Aching Gothic Romance
source: Netflix

Each character and each relationship reflect a different kind of love. From a storyline involving the children’s former governess, Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), and Henry’s business associate named Peter Quint (the menacing Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the show portrays how toxic relationships often begin and the tragic end it usually leads to. Then from other characters’ storylines, the show also offers a look into how liberating the right and healthy relationship can be, and even into a territory of unspoken love between two people who obviously care about each other but are too afraid to express their feelings until it’s all too late.

What’s so fascinating about Bly Manor is how it manages to bridge the horror and the romance in a way that always feels coherent. The spookiness of the haunted house never overpowers the tenderness of the show’s depiction of love. If anything, Bly Manor shows that the mystery and excitement of having a romantic relationship sometimes can be scarier than seeing a shadow lurking behind a dark room.

Conclusion: A Love Story

At one moment during the final episode of the show, one character — who just told a group of people about a ghost story she heard years ago — says to another that what she just described “isn’t a ghost story, but it’s a love story.” What she says couldn’t be any more true; The Haunting of Bly Manor, in the end, is a bittersweet love story about haunted people which happens to take place inside a haunted house. You’ll cry. You’ll be scared. And you’ll cry for more. Mike Flanagan has done it again.

What do you think of the ending? Let us know your opinion on the comments below!

The Haunting of Bly Manor was released on Netflix on October 9, 2020.

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