Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. HEAVY spoilers ahead for The Haunting Of Bly Manor, currently streaming on Netflix. Proceed at your own risk!
There’s a comfort in routine, in doing what we’ve always done. A sense of safety in the habitual and the familiar. But too easily these things can become akin to tar pits, traps that hold us back and hold us down. Trauma and toxicity can seduce us into staying put; at best spinning our wheels and worst gradually wearing down into shells of ourselves. We experience pain and sometimes allow it to dictate our lives, and this can lead to us being stuck, either geographically, mentally, or emotionally.
Mike Flanagan is possibly a wizard when it comes to exploring this concept of unresolved emotional hell never really letting us get out of its sticky grip and wreaking havoc on our present lives. I’ve written extensively about how he’s surgical in his ability to hone in on a feeling of universal unease with our pasts and use that unease as a source of horror in his work. Fortunately for us, Flanagan is equally adept at blending such concepts with actual spooky stuff like ghosts, haunted mirrors, more ghosts, possible ultra-terrestrials, and yes…more ghosts. His latest offering, the Netflix original series The Haunting Of Bly Minor, is another addition in his catalog of work that use our inability to let go of the past against us.
A loose adaption of the Henry James story, The Turn Of The Screw (previously adapted into The Innocents and the spectacularly mediocre The Turning), The Haunting Of Bly Minor is the story of Dani Clayton, a young American teacher who lands a job as a full time live-in nanny at a rural estate in England caring for the recently orphaned niece and nephew of Henry Wingreave. Over the course of the story, it becomes increasingly clear that Bly Manor is haunted not just by actual ghosts, but by years (decades, centuries) of scandal, betrayal, heartache, and murder. Soon Dani is forced to confront not just her own quicksand past but also the embodiment of the house’s dark heart: the malevolent and mad Lady Of The Lake who prowls the estate at night, murdering anyone who gets too close. Much like his previous Netflix series The Haunting Of Hill House, it’s an examination of how the past and its repercussions are never far from reinserting themselves into our lives to wreak havoc. It’s trademark Flanagan: sure, actual ghosts are frightening, but the darkness inside of us that results from our own inability to process past traumatic events is equally frightening and destructive. Oh, and also there are ghosts as well.
A central theme of Bly Manor is the concept of being held back/down by some element of our pasts. Each main character is, in some way, stuck. Early on in the story, Owen Sharma, the cook and driver for the estate, is driving Dani to the estate and tells her that the nearby town of Bly is something of a “gravity well,” there are people there who are perfectly content in never leaving, just living their lives in this small town and never seeing the outside world. This statement early on is foreshadowing, as it’s eventually revealed that the cause of the hauntings at Bly Manor is Viola Willoughby, the daughter of a former owner who was murdered by her younger sister after a prolonged illness.
Viola’s ghost prowls the estate regularly, murdering anyone she encounters and trapping them on the estate grounds, their identities being worn down through the grind of routine and habit. Viola’s presence has turned the estate into a black hole, trapping more and more ghosts there with her until it’s a hive of activity of various specters, all doomed to repeat a routine ad infinitum. She is quite literally the restless past destroying the present. Viola’s own existence as a ghost (“She would sleep. She would wake. She would walk.”) is a daily routine boiled down to it’s bones, and every other character in the show simply does some version of her routine, just more fleshed out and maybe a little more complicated. Ultimately, however, they are trapped by habit and routine and it becomes their entire existence.
Owen Sharma, the good-natured cook of the of the manor, is the first to have their own sundew of a life examined. For many people, never getting out of their home town to see the world is a choice, something they’re completely happy with. But in Owen’s case, it’s tragic and not at all a choice. Before becoming the cook for the Wingreaves he was a sous chef in Paris, studying toward become an executive chef. Then, his mother was diagnosed with dementia and Owen was forced to move back home. The town drew him back him and forced his life into a decaying orbit around his mother’s condition. His life and his time ceased being his own and he was forced to press pause, watching helplessly as that dreadful gravity weighed on him heavier and heavier and his obligation to help his mother dominated his life more and more. What’s especially tragic is the grim weariness that colors Owen’s attitude towards the situation. It’s a horrid sense of resignment, like he’s given up on everything to do this one thing. Putting one’s life on pause to assist with an ailing relative is something a lot of people can relate to, and while it’s undeniably born of a virtuous instinct to help someone you love, there’s a fine line between the doing the right thing and damaging yourself mentally and emotionally. His situation is a perfect example of this, especially after his mother passes. That night, he tearfully admits to Dani, Jamie, and Hannah Grose that even though he’s still grieving, and he misses the woman his mother once was, there’s part of him that feels relieved because it’s finally over. He is now freed from the event horizon he was stuck in. The very nature of his mother’s dementia is cruelly appropriate given the shows story: Owen remarks that she often believes him to be her father, and the year to be the 60s. In other words, she too is stuck in the past, chained down in her private hell.
Henry Wingreave, the somewhat distant uncle and legal guardian of the two children Dani is hired to look after, is a man haunted not just by his own past choices but also by his own dependence on alcohol. Flanagan deftly illustrates Henry’s own self-flagellation by embodying it as a doppelgänger, with a voice lowered, pitch-wise, just enough to be quietly unnerving. Henry Thomas skillfully portrays a man who is constantly at war with his self, or at the very least the worst parts of himself. His alcoholism is a defense mechanism against the overwhelming guilt he feels at his brother and sister-in-law’s death. He hates himself for being so weak when it comes to alcohol, and this leads him into a tragic death-spiral that he is seemingly helpless to break out of. His inability to move on and heal has resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy in which he tells himself it’s impossible for him to become a better person, and that he should give up, and the self-loathing he feels at giving up and giving in to alcohol perpetuates the cycle. Much like Owen, he isn’t haunted by any actual ghosts, but instead, like Jacob Marley, has himself forged the chains that weigh him down.
Dani Clayton, the protagonist of the story, is the picture-perfect example of a central theme of much of Flanagan’s catalog. We learn early on that Dani is haunted by what may or may not be a hallucination whenever she glimpses into a reflective surface: a shadowy figure with what at first looks like large, bright eyes but what is actually a pair of round eyeglasses gleaming incandescently. It’s soon revealed that this figure is the ghost of Edmund O’Mara, Dani’s childhood best friend and eventual fiancé (side note: the use of Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through The Night” during the flashback sequence of Dani and Edmund announcing their engagement is so pitch perfect for this whole storyline it hurts). Dani, realizing she wasn’t in love with Edmund and that their relationship had been in vain due to her sexuality, breaks things off with Edmund, and when he angrily gets out of his car he’s hit by a truck and killed. The specter that Dani is seeing is the last thing she saw of him: his glasses lit by the oncoming headlights immediately before he’s smashed into oblivion.
Eddie’s ghost (or whatever that is) is haunting Dani and is the visual embodiment of her inability to move on with her life. It’s also worth mentioning that Dani’s struggle to really break free from something she felt imprisoned by was what led to things becoming even worse for her; she stayed in the relationship with Eddie for as long as she did because that’s quite literally all she knew. They had been friends since they were children, and there’s an implication that at least Dani was forced into an actual relationship by her and Eddie’s families out of convenience. For Dani, being with Eddie was the only past she really knew, and the thought of that being the only future for her drove her to end things. We find out that she never really did process the grief of losing him, hiding the last moments they had together from Eddie’s mother and instead fleeing to England. Dani is wracked with guilt over Eddie’s death, and only when she burns the glasses in a symbolic display of moving on does she realize she’s seeing a ghastly representation of a person she loved; what’s worse is that she’s gaining nothing from holding on to the grief and the guilt of his death. All it’s doing is breaking her down emotionally and physically. She’s stuck spinning her wheels in the mud, running all over England desperately trying to forget Eddie.
When she realizes she’s in love with Jamie, the gardener at Bly, she’s finally allowed to cast off the dead albatross she wore her neck and embrace her sexuality. And, for a while, her and Jamie are happy. In typical Flanagenian somberness, we are cruelly reminded that just because we’re done with the past doesn’t mean the past is done with us. Dani, in order to save Flora, invited the manic ghost of Viola Willoughby into her body, and over the years Viola’s presence became more and more influential. Dani begins seeing Viola’s distorted visage in her reflection, and soon begins to fear for Jamie’s life. Eventually, she returns to Bly Manor and drowns herself. It’s a crushing ending to the story, and while I think it’s supposed to feel bittersweet it feels…more bitter than sweet. Dani’s ever after is cut woefully short by some monstrous thing from the past manifesting itself in her present and forcing her to return to that past in order to destroy it, and in the process, she destroys herself. It’s depressing as hell but it’s a sobering reminder that sometimes the good guys lose. I don’t think Dani seeing these manifestations of past tragedies in her reflection is an accident either. She sees them specifically when she’s seeing herself, looking at herself, she’s seeing them as well. Our pasts and what we’ve experienced are always with us and are as inescapable as our shadows.
Peter Quint, the devious deceased butler and first actual ghost we see (well…the first ghost we know is a ghost…sorry Hannah) is an odd character on the show. Though he starts out as villainous, he never quite gets to make the full face turn like Henry does and become somewhat sympathetic. The best he manages is simply pathetic. Quint is a selfish, conniving, sneaky prick whose own insecurities and fear of being alone drag down Ms. Jessel and lead him to murder Hannah Grose while possessing Miles. We eventually learn that much of his behavior and attitude is inspired by his all-consuming desire to rise above his blue-collar roots and make something of himself; to be better (or so he believes) than the common Cockney family he came from. His mother scorns him for this attitude, mocking him as something of a poser, and we also find out that Peter is not on speaking terms with his father, whom it’s heavily implied sexually abused Peter. This nightmare of a childhood is something Peter carries like a ball and chain, and it drives every action that will eventually lead to him being murdered by the mad ghost of Viola Willoughby, strangled and dragged into the lake to rot in the muck of the lake bottom. It’s not a far reach (and it’s quite poetic honestly) to see his death as the murderous past finally catching up with him on the eve of him trying to flee even further from it by running off to America with Ms. Jessel.
Finally, we have Jamie, the gardener at Bly who befriends and eventually falls in love with Dani. In the conclusion of the series, it’s revealed that the unnamed narrator who was telling the story in 2007 at a wedding is actually Jamie, and the wedding is that of an adult Flora. The moral of the story is supposed to be a version of “it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all,” which I suppose is noble enough, and the final shot of the series in which Jamie falls asleep in a chair facing a door slightly ajar, as if she’s awaiting Dani. As the camera pulls out, we see a brief shot of Dani’s hand resting on Jamie’s shoulder as she sleeps. It’s an incredibly ending and honestly a very beautiful shot, but when it’s put into the context of the story it only seals the deal on the series being more a tragedy than anything else. Jamie is as troubled by her past now as any of the characters were in 1987.
That’s not to saying she isn’t dealing with her grief in a meaningful way. But if her story is anything like the rest of the characters then she’s undeniably haunted by Dani taking her own life. In the context of the rest of the story the lesson of “it’s better to have loved and lost…” quickly becomes something more like “life is a dark and stormy night with occasional glimpses of a starry sky.”
Habit can become a horrid flypaper to us, keeping us stuck in one place and not letting us progress as a person. Trauma is often a catalyst for these habits and routines becoming solidified. There is a safety in the routine. It’s a known quantity, something we can see coming from a mile away. For many of us, this is preferable to stepping out into the world and doing what we really want to do. In The Haunting Of Bly Manor, Mike Flanagan once again uses the traumatic past as a source of horror. This time, however, Flanagan injects the story with a heavy sense of melancholy by examining how the unresolved past can consume and destroy an unrealized future, forcing us to live in a mediocre present that is entirely dictated by that past. This slavery to habit, routine, and fear is the true horror of The Haunting Of Bly Manor.