Editor’s Note: If you have not finished The Haunting of Bly Manor, leave now and come back when you have!
You’re never been woken up at 3 A.M. with a memory of something great you said or accomplished, a winning, warm glow of success upon you. No, it’s usually something stupid, some small slight or mistake that—even if rectified—continues to plague the edges of your anxiety for years to come. It’s not hopes and dreams that come in nocturnal awakenings usually, but fears and uncertainties.
These are the emotions that Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor plays with in its spooky tale of an English country estate that is plagued by the past. It starts with Dani seeing the ghost of her dead fiancé everywhere, the glass in his spectacles still lit up by the oncoming truck that would kill him. His pain and anger with Dani haunts her in mirrors. As much as she tries to cover them or avoid his presence, he continues to appear as a silent accusation. She broke his heart, and when he reacted to it he died. It’s incredibly unfair, and Dani cannot put her guilt to rest until she literally burns his glasses and has a final confrontation with his spirit.
The rest of the ghosts in Bly Manor are specific to Bly itself. We learn late in the season that it is the rage of an inhabitant many centuries past that locks down the ghosts of those who died on the estate, keeping them forever in its clutches. But she—the Lady of the Lake, aka Viola—also kills others who wander into her path. Most are seemingly innocent, which is where the Bly Manor story is really at its weakest. Although perhaps that, too, speaks to a generalized fear of untimely demise.
As for the rest, there is a chilling recognizability to the ghosts that keep our protagonists awake. For Hannah, it’s a fixation on the road not taken, of never letting herself admit her feelings for Owen or ever telling him. Hers is one of the most tragic stories in the series, because it’s so quiet. Like Viola, she stubbornly refuses to admit that she’s dead, and yet, unlike Viola that instinct doesn’t come from anger. It’s part of the insulated life she’s created—“tucked away,” to use Flora’s term—where she can pretend that she still has hope and a future even though (as Owen suggests by the campfire) she has ultimately let her life slip away.
Rebecca, too, is haunted by the path she did not take. For her, it was one that was closed off (because of her age, her race, her womanhood) although as Jamie suggests, there was an opportunity to petition Henry after Peter’s disappearance. Yet the pull of Peter’s love (or rather, toxic hold) was too strong. Though she had moments of doubt and the ability to leave him, she never does. In the end, his lies keep her trapped at Bly forever. Trusting the wrong man led to her death, and one of the most poignant moments of the season was thinking back to Hannah’s words about Rebecca being like the mouse who only realized too late she was stuck forever on the sticky glue trap that was Peter’s influence over her, as Rebecca screams and screams by the lake. (Peter, for his part, got a short backstory about childhood abuse; it’s something that had an effect on him as an adult and contributed to his possessiveness with Rebecca and lack of concern over the children perhaps, although it wasn’t fully explored.)
Elsewhere, Henry has an evil alter ego, a Bob-like figure (for the Twin Peaks fans) who represented Henry’s worst instincts. Yes, Henry felt incredible guilt over the death of his brother and sister-in-law, the latter of whom he had an affair with for years (making him Flora’s true father), but we never got a sense of that alter ego fueling things until after the deaths. It acted mostly, perhaps, as a guilty conscience—much like Dani’s regarding Edmund. But, it did ultimately take control of him, dragging him down deeper into alcoholism, preying upon him at every turn.
Miles and Flora, meanwhile, are the most vulnerable to the literal ghosts on the grounds, where their innocence and grief over their parents’ deaths (and Rebecca’s) allow them to sense and see these specters in the house—recognizing, for example, the danger of the Lady of the Lake, but befriending others. Flora seems to be the most in contact with the spirits, and yet is also the one who appears to most fully forget (including her English accent!)
Still, forgetting is part of the very core of Bly Manor’s story, how over time we may only hold on to the shape of things (as Owen puts it) or the emotions while the details fade out. As frightening as the first glimpses of the smooth, doll-like faces of the ghosts are (“his face isn’t finished,” as Flora creepily puts it), they again visualize the process of a fading past and memories, leaving just a minor impression of what was. Viola initially reaches out to strangle her sister in a brutal, personal way. But over the years, her snapping the necks of those who wandered into her path (or drowning them) became a cold routine. It wasn’t about them, but a now-unarticulated whisper of an old wound that she refused to let go of. The hold it kept on her, and those on the estate she once cherished, was nothing but poison.
And then we have Jamie, who would like nothing more than to be haunted by Dani. The season opens and closes with her looking into the water, desperate to see her lost love, and leaving the door open in case she comes back. In the finale we see that she does, resting a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. It’s the right kind of remembrance, and the only example of a “good” haunting in the series—and yet it’s also one that Jamie can’t perceive. As Dani says to Flora about her parents’ love for her, it’s so big that it will never really fade. It’s what we should focus on—rather than visceral horror, lingering love.
Fully-American Flora says to Jamie that her tale was never a ghost story but a love story. In many ways that’s true, though tragic. But I would argue that it is still mostly a ghost story. The horrors it manifests are known to us, not as doll-faced creatures, but in how our past choices linger, popping up and shaking us up in the middle of the night. They lurk over our shoulder as we gaze into the bathroom mirror and wonder who we might have been had we gone left instead of right. They skitter by in a flash of uncertainty, doubt, guilt, or regret. In Bly House we see them; in real life our spine tingles just a bit. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from Dani, who accepts the choices she made and lays down in the lake in peace, no longer the vortex of hatred and possession that Viola was. That act released the lost, angry, trapped, bitter, and confused souls from Bly and allowed them to leave, lightening the burden that the estate and its inhabitants felt. It was a powerful act of absolution, one that—when haunted at 3 A.M.—we should consider for ourselves.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is currently streaming on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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