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In a previous post, I discussed The Haunting of Bly Manor in terms of character and highlighted that it is a very melancholy show. How is it as a horror? Is it scary, or at least unsettling? I can confirm that it certainly is. Maybe not as petrifying as The Haunting of Hill House, but the production design and cinematography create an environment that is enclosing to the point of claustrophobia. This is quite a feat considering the expansive spaces of Bly Manor. The grand kitchen and dining room, where much of the action takes place, is homely and pleasant. The bedrooms as well as the entrance hall and living room are similarly tasteful, and yet the ornate panelling seems imbued with the regrets of the past. These regrets also manifest as figures that appear in the background, with little or no emphasis which may leave the viewer wondering if they were really there.
This is one of the show’s most unnerving features. At many points we see someone in the background, but the characters do not and, more importantly, with no visual emphasis it creates an untrustworthy situation. How can we trust what we see when the visual text we read presents us with something that has apparently no reason to be seen? In this way, the show becomes uncanny – both familiar in terms of the tropes of the ghost story, yet unfamiliar in that we don’t know why these figures are there. But creator Mike Flanagan and his collaborators are playing the long game, and although the first few episodes are a little shaky, as the series comes full circle everything starts to fit together.
As events unfold, the tragedy becomes clearer and the scares more overt. There is a facial effect that is especially unnerving, as the ghosts are again recognisably human but seriously inhuman. The single most frightening thing in the show is the Lady in the Lake (Kate Siegel). No swords here, but plenty of choking and drowning, including a moment with a dress that deserves mention alongside In Fabric. Furthermore, the effect of drowning is notable, presented as tragic and terrifying all at once. Sometimes the show conveys drowning in horrific detail, complete with a heartbreaking aftermath. At other points, we see characters immersed where water should not be, perception and experience created through an astute blending of visual and aural devices.
The presentation of drowning, and the wet legacy that it leaves, is among the show’s scariest features. But it is also one of the most emotional and part of what is perhaps the show’s greatest strength: putting memory on screen. Film – be it cinema or TV – can replicate the experience of memory and dreams through cuts and sudden juxtapositions that startle but are nonetheless understandable. The Haunting of Bly Manor does this extraordinarily well. Referred to as characters being ‘tucked away’, scenes are played and replayed, much as ghosts appear and disappear. Memories are thus like ghosts, emerging unexpectedly and without warning. Sometimes this is horrific, as we recall a traumatic memory. Other times it is tragic, such as the recollection of lost loves. Taken as a whole, the structure of the show proves itself to be quite ingenious as, despite the episodes having different directors, visual and narrative cues are consistently connected. Even the overall framing device proves to have great emotional weight. Come the final coda and explanation of everything we have seen, you may have had some shivers, but you could also be wiping away a tear or two.
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.