“Why did I do this to myself” is the first thing that ran through my mind when I sat down with Episode 1 of The Haunting of Bly Manor. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m really not a fan of horror. I struggle to cope with jump scares and creepy monsters. I barely made it through The Haunting of Hill House. So why did I decide to review the follow-up anthology series?
In the words of Mike Flanagan, creator and showrunner of both “Haunting” series for Netflix: “Whereas Hill House was ultimately a story of grief, trauma, and familial strife, Bly Manor is – at its heart – a love story.” And I suppose that’s what suckered me in. These aren’t your straight-forward scary stories.
As we saw in Hill House, Flanagan and team intertwined an incredible story of four siblings grieving the loss of their youngest sister while revisiting the trauma of childhood, and a genuine chilling ghost story. At Bly Manor, we begin the night before a wedding, where the bride, groom and guests are sitting around a fire, wiling away the time. And what better way to spend an evening in front of a fire than to tell a tale of times passed and ghosts still present?
In a low, soothing voice, our narrator (Carla Gugino) tells a story set in 1980s England which follows a young American nanny, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), adrift overseas after a personal tragedy. Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) is in need of a live-in carer to look after his orphaned niece and nephew (Amelie Bea Smith as Flora, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth as Miles) after their previous au pair’s (Tahirah Sharif as Rebecca Jessel) tragic death. The orphans reside at Bly Manor with the estate’s chef Owen (Rahul Kohli), groundskeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve) and housekeeper, Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller).
Despite some cast members of Hill House returning for Bly Manor, they are playing completely different characters. The Haunting of Hill House isn’t required viewing beforehand (though it’s still highly recommended for being a brilliant show), as you’re not receiving a continuation of the Crane family saga. The “Hauntings” series are like American Horror Story in that regard, with familiar faces but completely different characters.
Much as The Haunting of Hill House was based on the novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, Flanagan has based The Haunting of Bly Manor on a number of works by Henry James, a highly regarded American author who is considered as one of the masters in the field of the supernatural story and undoubtedly a huge influence on Jackson. Mostly focusing on the characters from James’ most iconic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, Flanagan brings in elements from other works, including The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, The Jolly Corner, and even episode titles and lines of dialogue that reference other James fiction.
Bly Manor isn’t out to scare you in the same way as Hill House did. It’s just as intimidatingly spooky as the first go around, but the horror in Bly Manor is far more insidious. You’re not going to see any scrambling ghouls in the basement, rotting kittens or screaming ghosts, the creepy factor in Bly Manor is the small things that aren’t quite right. The people that don’t act the way you think they should. The small cracks in the walls. The footprints that shouldn’t be there. Pay attention to what’s happening in the background of almost every scene and you’ll see what I mean.
Bly Manor is also far more contemplative, going over the horrors of past mistakes and reliving regrets. As we come to learn, time is somewhat fluid at Bly Manor, looping and folding in on itself, for the people (and ghosts) that haunt its halls. While there is a reason for the otherworldly presences on the grounds of Bly Manor, it’s the people themselves that are more haunted than the place they live.
Our main character, the “modern-day” governess Dani, is on the run from a past she can’t quite escape, because as it turns out, accepting who you really are doesn’t come that easy. While Pedretti had a great turn as Nell in Hill House, I wasn’t quite convinced of her in a lead role for Bly Manor. Pedretti does the open-mouthed silent terror reactions very well, but it happens so often its quickly tiresome. Dani’s tale is the overarching story that binds everyone together, but of all the people residing at Bly Manor, her character was the one that tended to irritate me. Even though, to be fair, her actions and reactions were perfectly in character.
The precocious children, Miles and Flora, might also grate the nerves if you’re the kind that detests precocious children, but without giving anything away, these kids act exactly how children would probably act in those sorts of circumstances. Dead parents and distant Uncle aside, they are living in a haunted house.
By contrast, series newcomers, T’Nai Miller, Rahul Kohli and Amelia Eve are scene-stealers. Their stories are pieced together in the background, through conversations and actions that are threaded through each episode. In their own ways, the characters of Hannah, Owen and Jamie bring a new diversity to the cast, not only for some welcome fresh faces but integrating seamlessly into the story. This is the way for representation to truly matter, when it’s done as naturally as breathing. Each are also given the chance to go flex their dramatic muscles and have their emotionally devastating stories told.
Speaking of emotionally devastating, Bly Manor is not only insidious with the creep factor, but the slow and careful way it builds up layer upon layer of raw emotional power, only to come together in an explosive final two episodes. If you’re coming into this expecting more contemporary horror, or wanting to be scared silly by jump scares, you might find it too slow or lacking in the fright department. Because, Bly Manor a ghost story, not a horror story. And, Bly Manor is a love story, not a ghost story. It’s both at the same time, horrifying and tragic and beautiful.
When it all came together and I spent the last half of the final episode bawling my eyes out at the awe-inspiring, wonderful, powerfully sad story that was told, the last thing I thought when the end credits rolled is “Why do I do this to myself?”
The Haunting of Bly Manor premieres Friday, October 9, only on Netflix
Last Updated: October 5, 2020