So where does one draw the line between a love story and a ghost story, anyway?
Netflix’s follow-up to “The Haunting of Hill House,” the “Haunting of Bly Manor,” is not what one may consider a typical Halloween thriller, but it does deliver the scares. In my opinion, the kind of horror in “The Haunting of Bly Manor” may be the best kind of scare of them all — the existential horror of humanity.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” offers a platter full of ghosts and jump scares, but the true frights are the ones the show drabbles on about life. How do we begin to escape the flytrap when we don’t even know we are trapped in the first place? Why do we choose to love when we are risking putting our hearts and souls into someone you will one day lose? Why continue on when one day your life will be forgotten and erased by time?
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” starts as a ghost story narrated by a woman at a wedding rehearsal dinner. We don’t know anything about this woman yet, but she offers the participants a spooky epic. She tells a long tale full of all kinds of ghosts, starting the speech with if a child provides “another turn of the screw, then what do you say to two?,” a reference to the source material, “The Turn of the Screw,” a novella written by Henry James in 1898.
This woman is the lifeline of the story throughout the next nine episodes, because like its predecessor, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” delves into nonlinear storytelling. The choice of a nonlinear narrative, especially when you do not realize that the linearity of our story is in question, is the chosen tool of creator Mike Flanagan. The stylistic choice delivers a stronger punch for its twists because the viewer is off balance due to the footwork of the show. I enjoy a good nonlinear charade, but in the future, I hope the show ventures away from this tool. It works nicely twice, but I’m not expecting it to work thrice.
Bly Manor follows the story of an American au pair for two children in the English countryside. The children’s parents are dead, their past au pair committed suicide, and their uncle refuses to see them. Dani, our au pair, is joined by housekeeper Hannah, chef Owen, groundskeeper Jamie, and of course, many, many ghosts. Tragedy is a backdrop for this show and a perfect one at that because it pushes the question of how long we are allowed to wallow in our misery. There are literal ghosts and metaphorical ghosts, as prefaced by our mysterious feminine narrator, but the question is, how long should they haunt us?
The show builds puzzles that eventually are pieced together. While the viewer might unravel one thread before it is revealed, it is borderline impossible for the whole blanket to become undone before Flanagan chooses to show all his cards. The quest for answers makes viewers follow a tale about social class, love, wickedness, manipulation, and loss.
True horror often comes from the mundane, because the probability of a spaceman getting us comes nowhere near that of losing a loved one. To be trapped in a life of our own creation, the only escapes death and love, is further nightmarish to audiences because it is something that happens every day. The psychotic killer is not going to be the one to grasp us in the end, but sickness. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” reminds us that we don’t need to get our horror kicks from a slasher film. To be truly scared, all we need is those thoughts about life that race around our heads in the middle of the night.
But, as accounted for in the beginning, this is a love story, and love stories are full of ghosts. There is nothing too frightening about the conclusion of Bly Manor, and the end delivers waves of satisfaction. Because this is a love story, there is no true happily ever after, though things could be worse than the ending viewers are tucked into bed with. Love, and the pain people are willing to suffer for a taste of it, is at the heart of this show.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” is perfectly splendid, and is not comparable to “The Haunting of Hill House.” Both are their own entities, but still have the fun game of “I spy with my little eye a creepy ghost in the background.” My favorite “turn of the screw” is the reveal of who our narrator is at the end of our tale. The ending nails the story into place and gives us one final scare about the gravity of losing our loved ones. Ghosts are not always an evil to vanquish, but sometimes they are the only recollection of what we have lost.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” forces you not to look under your bed and into your closet at the end of the night, but into the mirror for any ghosts, good or bad, that may be lurking in our shadows.