The Haunting of Bly Manor is the second instalment in the chilling Netflix series that started with The Haunting of Hill House. Bly Manor appears, at first to possess all the hallmarks of a horror drama, like its prequel, but unlike the original series, though, Bly Manor is less about the ghosts and ghouls that haunt the house, but the trauma of the people that inhabit it. And of course, as is pointed out in the series, every ghost story is also, in fact, a love story.
As the name suggests, there are ghosts in Bly Manor, though those who got a kick out of looking for the sneaky background spectres in Hill House might not get the thrill they’re seeking out of this instalment. Bly Manor is a lot more obvious about its ghosts and rather than tossing jump scares at viewers, it aims for a thoughtful and, well, haunting, resonance.
The story, narrated as if it’s a ghost story being told at a party (but imagine having to listen to a story this long at any party), follows American Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) as she takes up a position as Au Pair for the children living in Bly Manor in the English countryside. Of course, creepy children are a horror genre essential, and Bly Manor does not spare any opportunity to make its kids seem less than extremely weird.
As Dani spends more time in Bly, she starts to realise that something in the house is a little strange. That, coupled with her seeing ghosts from her own past every time she walks past a mirror, not only make for some prime jump scare opportunities (though not many are taken), but also bring to mind a theme that is often neglected by the horror genre – mental health.
The story is loosely based on Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, but it fills in the gaps in the original spooky plot with stories about real people, haunted by real (and relatable) things like guilt, rage, or jealousy. This isn’t really too much of a surprise when one considers that the original source material is more of a gothic romance than a horror.
In fact, all of the ghosts in Bly seem to be there on account of past traumas in one form or another. Whether real or not, they linger and haunt both places, like the manor, and people themselves. By the end of the very, very long tale, they all have fleshed-out backstories that illicit sympathy, rather than fear.
Bly Manor handles the subject of trauma and mental health somewhat adeptly – or at least tries more than the genre normally does –, highlighting the way the ghosts of our past can linger with us, just out of frame, haunting us no matter where we go. It repeatedly calls to mind questions about how mental health has been perceived over centuries, even including the biblical story of the Gerasene demoniac – a man on whom Jesus performed an exorcism, which is mentioned in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke.
It’s reasonable to assume that the possessed man in the gospels was suffering from mental health problems, likely severely exacerbated by his treatment – being shackled and placed in isolation. The discussion of this story in Bly Manor not only foreshadows important plot points in the series, but emphasises that the ghosts in the show are less scary than the real-life traumas and struggles that haunt people.
Though Bly Manor builds a solid base for the depiction of lingering trauma, some of the effects of traumatic experiences on the characters – like the yellow-eyed ghost that haunts Dani for the first half of the show – are somehow suddenly and conveniently forgotten in order to make way for plot development in other directions – like her blossoming (this is a pun) romance at the manor. After having constructed what seemed like such a deep platform for discussing and representing the deep-seated effects of trauma and guilt, it’s a bit jarring to have those effects suddenly erased.
The same thing happens with with Flora’s character (played by the delightfully creepy Amelie Bea Smith) later. This trend in the show leaves characters that started with so much potential feeling a little one-demensional by the end. Despite falling short in some places, it still promotes a lot of dialogue on a topic that should be more central to the horror genre.
The most disappointing aspect of this otherwise great and highly binge-able series – apart from the unsatisfying amount of covert background ghosties – is the fact that Bly Manor seems to be trying to be more confusing than it is. A somewhat predictable and reasonably straightforward narrative is packaged like a convoluted plot, designed to puzzle the viewer who, sometime during every episode could roll their eyes and sigh “I called it”. There’s something extremely enjoyable in guessing what’s going on through all the prolonged madness that’s then completely extinguished when one realises all one’s guesses have been correct all along.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Ben Travers writes for IndieWire that “moments like these are so ridiculously on-the-nose that it makes you feel insane for struggling with earlier plot points”.
Regardless, it’s worth a watch. It’s not scary enough to be unwatchable for those who don’t enjoy horror, and the story has enough emotional depth, romance, and drama to satisfy almost everyone. It’s a thrilling puzzle with massive amounts of foreshadowing that will lead to many “aha!” moments and loads of theories. It might even get you to shed a tear or two.
The main message in The Haunting of Bly Manor is that life needs to be lived in the moment. We can’t rely on the past, and we can’t rely on the future. And if nothing else, that at least is relatable to viewers from any walk of life. If you’re looking for a hardcore fright, though, you may want to look elsewhere, or just rewatch The Haunting of Hill House instead.
Essential Millennial Rating: 3.5 out of 5 avocados