The Haunting of Hill House was a family story. The Crains came together to reckon with ghosts of their past and their own fragmented present. It's a tale as old as time, but it's not the only spooky tale out there. For the follow-up to the hit series, The Haunting of Bly Manor, showrunner Mike Flanagan have turned every aspect of that formula inside out with impressive — and terrifying — results.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is not about family. At least, it's not about biological family. Every person living in the eponymous manor is separated from a loved one, whether through death, disease, or trauma. Their story is told to a family on the night before a wedding in a framing device borrowed effectively from the source material: Henry James' 1898 horror novella, The Turn of the Screw.
The narrator recounts the story of an American teacher who, in 1987, takes a job as an au pair in the English countryside to escape her own past. What at first seems like an idyllic life watching over two precocious children slowly, like a frog in boiling water, becomes a living nightmare.
Each of the series' nine episodes isn't formally distributed to the various characters. Instead, each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the past, whether it's young Miles' attempts at getting sent home from boarding school, au pair Dani's journey from America to Britain, or even the previous au pair Miss Jessel's unfortunate death. Each of these are explored through the narrative frame as if they were memories.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is probably Netflix's most thematically driven original series. Almost every scene and shot is informed by the show's mission to explore grief, memory, and escapism. Every character's loss is dealt with in a different way — faith, denial, or, in extreme cases, conversing with the dead.
These themes build over the course of the series until they reach a boiling point in an episode that almost completely abandons the 1987 story altogether. It’s a risk, but it completely pays off. A “standalone” episode can make or break a series, and the one included in Bly Manor can stand with Castle Rock’s “The Queen” or Bojack Horseman’s “Free Churro” among the best ever written.
While there are scares galore (though only one true jumpscare), at its conclusion, Bly Manor is a love story. Sometimes the love is twisted and unhealthy, sometimes it's familial, sometimes it's forbidden, but every story is about love's stubborn way of sticking around.
Unlike 90 percent of drama TV series involving children, the child actors nimbly tread the fine line between believable and adorable, even when they're supposed to be acting like adults. The rest of the cast plays every line with a haunting paranoia, and it's a delight to watch.
The main takeaway from Haunting of Bly Manor is how we treat our own memories. Do we revisit them as a coping mechanism or as an unhealthy escape? Are they something to be tucked away or a source of comfort to run away? What happens when those memories fade?
In one scene, the manor's resident chef, Owen, discusses his mother, who's suffering from dementia, saying she's been gone for a long time. This kind of gradual fade is where most of the scares in Bly Manor lie. What do you do when you know, in the end, you are going to be forgotten? At the end of it all, only one thing is left: stories, like the one framing the entire show. The ending is hard-won, and it's a heartfelt tearjerker.
The Haunting of Bly Manor isn't your average horror series. It's something you realize isn't scary until it's three hours later when you're still contemplating your own mortality. It's also so saturated in love, found family, and joy that you don't really mind the memento mori. As long as you have the moment.
The Haunting of Bly Manor premieres on Netflix October 9.