In 2018, Mike Flanagan and Netflix blessed our screens with the hit tv show, The Haunting of Hill House, based on Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name. In 2020, they’ve done it again. This time with The Haunting of Bly Manor, mainly based off of Henry James’ novella, Turn of the Screw, but also pulling inspiration from some of James’ other stories.
In the follow up to Hill House, throughout the show, a narrator is telling a wedding party in 2007 the story of “The Haunting of Bly Manor”, which largely took place 20 years prior, in 1987.
In The Haunting of Bly Manor’s finale episode, the bride says “I think you set it up wrong in the beginning, you said it was a ghost story, it isn’t, it’s a love story” to which the narrator replies, “same thing, really”. While ghosts do seem to run rampant at Bly Manor, their mere presence, lurking in the background of the family and staff’s everyday lives, and the sometimes heinous acts the spirits partake in aren’t what is haunting about the show. Rather, it’s the heartbreaking nature of the story that sticks with you and is truly haunting. That’s one of the many similarities between it and it’s predecessor, The Haunting Of Hill House. Many would argue that horror aspects of the shows seem to be tucked away, like the characters were in dreams. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure in the shadows of a scene, but still horror fans may argue that this isn’t enough, and that it’s not scary. Like everything in life, and all genres of film, horror is ever evolving. What’s popular in the genre comes and goes. Satanic panic, slashers, found footage, etc have all had their time, and while these sub genres never truly leave, they become less popular, or weave into each other to create new subgenres. In the past few years, some people online have discussed “post horror”, and while I think the concept of a film being “post” horror, as in the horror genre is dead and that these new films are better, smarter and go beyond “old” horror is ridiculous and insulting, I do see what the people who try to coin this term are getting at. Many horror movies being released now have very similar styles. They tend to be very psychological, and not as traditionally scary. They don’t show brutal killings, nor are they jam packed with cheap jump scares. They’re slow-burn, and have more complex, and often metaphorical, plots that call upon the viewer to use their imagination to connect the dots. The VVitch, Hereditary, Midsommar, Get Out, Us. Audiences are always very split about these movies that are this new type of horror, and either seem to absolutely hate, or absolutely love these films, there’s not really any in between. Just because a horror story isn’t like what you’ve come to expect it to be, doesn’t mean it’s not really a horror story. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely things that may have a few horror elements or scary things happen in them that aren’t horror stories, but The Haunting of Bly Manor (and the other aforementioned examples) aren’t one of those.
Yes, Bly Manor is a love story, and yes, Bly Manor is a ghost story. A large part of what makes the horror genre the horror genre is that the material deals with macabre themes, such as death, and like Hill House, Bly Manor has lots of it. How else do you expect the ghosts to come about, after all? The deaths aren’t gruesome or terrifying, but are still scary by their very nature, and of course, sad. There’s very little scarier than losing a loved one, and while watching the show, we become attached to the characters as if they are OUR loved ones, making the viewer go through double the pain of losing a loved one, and watching other loved ones mourn over the loss as well. For most of the show, the hauntings that come about because of the deaths aren’t in your face. The spirits linger in the background where you may not even notice them, or have realized that they are the ones doing certain things, but you can still tell something is off, and an eerie feeling envelops the whole atmosphere. I find this to make the story feel more realistic, which in turn can oftentimes make the story feel even more scary. By the time the ghosts do come to the forefront, the stakes are at their highest, keeping you on the edge of your seat, praying everything turns out alright.
In a similar vein to American Horror Story, although Bly Manor and Hill House are not connected, and on Netflix actually set up as two completely different shows, and not an anthology series like AHS, there are several returning cast members. Victoria Pedretti, Nell Crain in Hill House, now playing Bly’s main character, Dani Clayton, a newly hired au pair who looks after the children of the manor. Henry Thomas, patriarch Hugh Crain in Hill House, now Henry Wingrave, who assumed the position of patriarch of Bly Manor after the passing of his brother, and sister in law. Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Luke Crain in Hill House, now Peter Quint, Henry Wingrave’s right hand man. Carla Gugino, Olivia Crain, the matriarch of Hill House, now the narrator of Bly Manor’s tale. Also giving a special appearance in one episode is Kate Seigel, who plays Theo Crain in Hill House, and is married to writer and director, Mike Flanagan.
While the returning cast all do great in their roles, especially Pedretti who gives yet another heartbreaking performance, there are several new faces who definitely steal the spotlight. As you may imagine by the name, Bly Manor is a very large house which requires a crew of a housekeeper, chef, and gardener, to help keep it afloat. Rahul Kohli plays the charming chef Owen, who took the job when he moved back to his hometown of Bly to take care of his sick mom, T’nia Miller plays Hannah Grose, the attentive, yet troubled housekeeper, and Amelia Eve plays Jamie, the quick witted gardener, all who seem to live for their jobs, and welcome newcomer Dani with open arms. While Kohli does an excellent job at making you fall in love with Owen, just like all the girls in Bly, Miller and Eve are truly the stars of the show, which is in part thanks to their more complex storylines, but nonetheless, still couldn’t be true without the obviously vast amount of effort they put into their roles.
Another similarity between Hill House and Bly Manor is the nonlinear storyline. The story flashes in and out of flashbacks for most of the main characters, answering questions about why they are the way they are. At some points, jumping back and forth between timelines can be a little confusing, but in the end everything always comes full circle, and connects all the dots.
I am a huge fan of Mike Flanagan’s, and loved The Haunting of Hill House so much when it came out that I quickly rewatched it a second and third time, never getting sick of it, and will be happy to revisit it soon with friends who will be watching it for their first time. I was a little worried that I would find Bly Manor couldn’t match the level of amazing that I found Hill House to be, but I wasn’t disappointed. I would say that I also fell in love with Bly Manor, maybe not quite as much as I am with Hill House, but it definitely came extremely close, and I can’t wait to rewatch it several more times as well.
While this type of horror storytelling may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is mine, and I think that even if it isn’t your thing, you can still recognize and appreciate many of the wonderful aspects of The Haunting of Bly Manor.