Review: The Haunting of Bly Manor (Season 1)

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Bittersweet

The Haunting of Bly Manor takes on grief through horror and the odd heartbreaking moment.

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I am not someone who enjoys horror, I’m easily spooked and obscene gore and jump scares don’t excite me in the way that sees people flooding cinemas or theme park attractions on Halloween. But there was something about The Haunting of Hill House and the spiritual successor Bly Manor that took a hold of me in a way that was startling for horror. I sat watching all of them with every light on in the room, a pillow ready to hide behind. But as I slowly made my way through, I found myself turning off the lights, crawling forwards not backwards, in floods of tears by the end. Not the reaction I was expecting from a “horror” show.

It’s about what Bly Manor says about other elements of life, and memory, like how Hill House philosophised about grief. Adapting several Henry James novellas from the 19th century such as The Turn of the Screw, which are enjoyable reads (once you get past the rather 19th-century language), but not vital to understand what’s going on. Told through a non-linear narrative, audiences are introduced to Bly Manor and its unusual inhabitants, and the dark history it’s trying to hide. Most episodes take place during the 1980s, although the penultimate episode ‘The Romance of Certain Old Clothes’ delves back into the history of the house and just how everything went so wrong.

Several elements jolted away from the mystery with a less-than-casual reminder that I was watching a horror show, but nothing to the extent of Hill House. And I suppose that is Bly Manor’s joy; people have claimed it is less frightening to witness than its predecessor, but the horror is different. It is veiled, with a more human element to its scares that lets you sit for a moment with a realisation, a comparison to your daily life and death. Bly Manor knows its audience and by being aware it can change how it scares us in ingenious ways. To be less reliant on jump scares does not mean it’s “weaker”, but rather stronger for having the creeping sensation of gooseflesh rising as you realise what is unfolding.

This series flips the reality of the house as no longer a character but a setting this time. One might assume that the ghostly influence is parallel to that which the Crain family had to deal with, but the titular Bly Manor is the gravity well holding all of these short stories together. It’s an anthology of different Henry James writings, each episode named after a different story, relevant to the events and catastrophe that lies in wait there.

And then we have the central characters. In a narrative about death, and grief, we could perhaps see that five of those represent the familiar stages of grief. Just contrast how Hannah Grose denies the fact she is dead to the point that her ghost acts like she is still alive, with how Dani Clayton sits down and drinks with her haunting ghost Edmund in the garden. The acting is just spectacular, from Victoria Pedretti’s Dani to T’Nia Miller’s Hannah Grose. Both Hill House alumni and its newcomers shine in all forms. Tahirah Sharif as Rebecca Jessel, the previous au pair, broke my heart over and over again, with every scene of hers beside the lake wonderfully acted and just as heartbreaking.

The emphasis of certain elements on-screen – highlighting empty spaces using split diopters, testing the limits of their creative vision just like Hill House‘s one-shot episode – make you wonder. And that’s a beauty on behalf of its creators. Being able to warrant rewatches of the show to notice how lines are consumed with foreshadowing, and if you pay careful attention, you can see the ghosts of The Lady in the Lake’s previous victims including Perdita in the attic and the cracks Hannah keeps seeing in the wall.

The Haunting of Bly Manor made me cry more than it made me scream or jolt in horror, and that’s part of its beauty. Though hardcore horror fanatics might see it as mild, I see it as something that is scarier the longer you sit and think about its connotations. An unease settles in as you watch, even through lighter moments such as Owen’s frankly appalling puns, and the blossoming romance between the au pair and gardener.

Bly Manor asks you to love. Regardless of what might come, what has happened and who we’ve lost, it’s asking for love, and what people will do with it. Jamie and Dani enjoy their years together despite the latter knowing that one day something will tear them apart. The arc words of the show in Flora’s line to Owen that “dead doesn’t mean gone” is a powerful line that echoes throughout the show. It can mean anything from loving the memory of someone no longer here, to watching the gradual loss of someone still here. Mike Flannigan once again proves why his adaptations are some of the best limited series released in recent years in the care and attention taken by everyone in its cast and crew to make this masterpiece.

This is not Hill House, and that is perfectly okay. A spiritual successor does not need to be a carbon copy, and Bly Manor allowed itself to deviate from an international favourite to tread its own ground.

All episodes of the Haunting of Bly Manor are available on Netflix now. Watch the trailer below.

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Archaeology student and two-time Culture Editor. Will unashamedly rant about Assassin's Creed lore if given the opportunity.

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