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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.
Expectations are a hard thing to live up to. If you hear something is bad, you have lower expectations and may be pleasantly surprised. If you hear something is good, there is a risk that it will not measure up. As I have become more versed in horror, The Innocents comes up as one of the greatest ghost stories ever filmed, a major influence on later entries in the sub-genre such as The Sixth Sense, The Others and The Orphanage. Yet despite this, it took me a long time to get around to watching The Innocents, and when I did, I feared it would not live up to its reputation.
Holy haunted houses, did it ever! Jack Clayton delivers a masterpiece of atmosphere, creeping dread and suspense, that simultaneously could have created every trope of the ghost story and then pushed them to their logical extreme. The setting is sublime – an imposing manor house so steeped in its grounds as to be isolated from anywhere else. Within these grounds, curling mist envelops trees, buildings and people alike, turning Bly Manor into an eerie space between dream and reality. Within this space, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) forms a constant anchor for the viewer, her encounters with the uncanny prompting fearful responses in us as much as her.
Central to this uncanny element are the creepy kids, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin). Diminutive yet precocious, both children seem as much out of time as the house itself. Miss Giddens’ devotion to them is admirable and understandable, her relationship with them crafted in a way that is more nuanced and relatable than the idealisation and naivety of that in Henry James’ novel. Within the manor’s cavernous space, the children appear out of shadows as well as shafts of light, seemingly a manifestation of the house’s unsettling atmosphere, much like the mysterious appearances of Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) by the lake and Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) in the window.
Beautifully, Clayton maintains an extraordinary ambiguity throughout, never clarifying if what we see is actually supernatural or the product of Miss Giddens’ mind. This is a familiar trope of the gothic and the ghost story, presenting the woman who either is hysterical or is driven to hysteria by her environment. In this case, however, Clayton never allows Kerr or the film as a whole to tip into full-on hysteria. Set pieces escalate slowly but surely, with jump scares developing out of the overall sense of unease. Therefore, the film keeps us aligned with Miss Giddens’ perception and denies access to certainty. Is she/we seeing ghosts and encountering possession, or is she imagining things (which we also see) because of the isolation and the unusual but not necessarily supernatural events? As I have suggested previously, this may be the greatest fear of all – the inability to trust one’s own mind. Clayton injects that fear into the viewer’s own mind, so we are not sure what happened. Just at the point where the strange events might have been confirmed one way or another, the film ends, leaving us with another mighty trope of the ghost story – melancholia. Brought on by grief, Miss Giddens and the viewer is left with misery, and the lingering guilt that makes fear all the worse.
Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw from 1898 is an iconic and much adapted piece of gothic/horror fiction. This year, I encountered three significant versions: James’ original novel, the 1961 film The Innocents and the 2020 Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor. I’ll discuss all three this week.
Beginning with the novel (yes, I read books too, shocking!), I confess I was disappointed. The premise of The Turn of the Screw is intriguing enough. An isolated mansion, orphaned children, absent uncle, mysterious deaths, young woman who doubts her surroundings and, increasingly, her sanity. Along the way there are some unsettling moments, such as the face at the window and of course the precocious and creepy children. There are some vivid descriptions that provoke a sense of dread, and it’s easy to see why this story has loaned itself to adaptation over the years.
Unfortunately, James undercuts his tension through a cyclical structure to the point of tedious repetition. The governess’ encounters with the uncanny events of Bly Manor are recounted to Mrs Grose, and then we have another encounter and another recounting. The relationship between the governess and the housekeeper seems the core of the novel, with the children more like objects of mystery than subjects of agency. Indeed, the gradual discovery of Miles’ strange association with Peter Quint forms the thrust of the narrative, leading to an admittedly powerful conclusion. It’s just a shame that James was rather unimaginative with the journey to get there.