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Turning Screws Part Three

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What does it mean to be haunted? In ghost stories, the spirits of the departed often serve as metaphors for memories and regrets. In our own lives, we are haunted by memories and regrets. Lost loves, past traumas, choices we made – all of these haunt us in the sense that they are gone and yet linger in memory. Therefore, haunting refers to a peculiar relationship with time, one that does not work in a strictly linear way. Our bodies may move through time in one direction and at a constant rate (gravity fluctuations notwithstanding), but our consciousness, our awareness, flits back and forth in time. As we are conscious of past moments, those moments haunt our present.

Haunting as a flitting of consciousness is central to The Haunting of Bly Manor, a nine-part Netflix series by Mike Flanagan that adapts the works of Henry James. It is both a ghost story and a love story, although this is not immediately clear. In ‘Episode One: The Great Good Place,’ a wedding guest (Carla Gugino) in 2007 begins a ghost story, which will sound familiar to those who know The Turn of the Screw and The Innocents. Flashing back to 1987, an au pair is hired to work in a remote English country house, where she will care for two orphaned children. Upon arriving, American Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) encounters increasingly weird and frightening events.

Adapting James’ 1898 novella into the 1980s necessitates some changes. 1987 is well-evoked (and makes me feel my age!), and the series’ treatment of class is notable in that divisions are present but less overt than would be the case in an earlier period. More significantly, the scope of this series allows the writers to flesh out all the characters, making the show a great ensemble. Attention to character also serves the central premise of haunting as memory. The narration by the Storyteller demonstrates the persistence of memory, and within the 1987 story we get further flashbacks which detail the lives of the characters at Bly Manor. These stories are both tragic and disturbing, from Miles’ (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) school experiences to Dani’s trauma to possibly the peak of the series as a whole, ‘Episode 5: The Altar of the Dead’, when we the times of Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller). This episode highlights the series’ motif of repeated action, which becomes steadily more apparent and creates a proper mystery in ‘The Altar of the Dead’, before delivering a devastating climax which throws the whole of the story into a different light.

Prior to that point, ‘Episode 4: The Way It Came’ has been emotionally powerful, delivering a progressive twist on the Gothic trope of a woman not trusting her mind. Dani repeatedly sees some sort of spectre which is framed in such a way as to be a memory rather than something supernatural. Hence, when we learn what this ominous figure with shining eyes means, it carries significant emotional weight as well as explaining Dani’s distressed but not disturbed mind. Further progressive elements in the series are a racially diverse cast and a queer relationship. These elements are not emphasised but simply presented as natural, as indeed they should be. ‘The Way It Came’ is also desperately sad and emphasises the melancholia of haunting and indeed mortality. A speech by Owen (Rahul Kohli) had me shed a tear, and the revelations of ‘The Altar of the Dead’ made the melancholia even stronger. It’s a fine ghost story that has you both jumping and weeping in quick succession. I’ll say more about the jumps and dread next time.

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1 Comment

  1. […] Turning Screws – Part Three […]

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