The Haunting of Bly Manor — Mike Flanagan’s follow up to The Haunting of Hill House — is framed around the art of storytelling, specifically the campfire delight of unravelling a good ghost story, the kind that gets under your skin and makes you jump at shadows. The show opens with a rehearsal dinner for a young couple about to get married. As family and friends sit around with their after-dinner drinks, they begin talking about the possibility of ghosts, leading inevitably to the telling of stories.
Loosely based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, the story is set in he 1980s and begins with Dani Clayton, a pretty young American woman looking to find work as an au pair. Seemingly cheery on the surface, she has carried her own ghosts across the water to the United Kingdom, hoping to find some kind of distraction, if not happiness.
Bly Manor is a beautiful but eerily empty house. The only adults around the place are the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, a cook/chauffeur who loves puns by the name of Owen, and a lone-wolf gardener Jamie. They all welcome Dani into the home warmly enough, each eventually becoming impressed as she takes charge of the kids, providing support, education, and discipline.
The two children Dani has come to care for — Flora and Miles — are charmingly sweet at first introduction. They seem like good kids despite having experienced great tragedies, first with the loss of their parents and then with the suicide of their previous au pair.
Though the days are calm and seemingly normal, the nights in Bly Manor are full of shadows — and dark figures moving in those shadows. As time passes, Dani witnesses more and more odd behavior from the kids. At first, she is easily able to explain this behavior away, but as their strangeness increases and she begins to get a sense of something else going on in the house, Dani becomes increasingly concerned.
I won’t say much more about the plot. This is a haunted house story after all — the walls are full of spirits marked by tragedy, some passive, some dangerous, all bumping through the night. The show maintains an anxiety inducing tension, which is punctuated by a few excellent jump scare.
What draws me into this show, more than the excellent thrills and chills, are the people who live and work at Bly. As characters, they are all genuinely likeable and easy enough to relate to. Each of them feels like a complete character with dreams, doubts, and their own unique sense of humor. (Personally, I was delighted by Owen’s constant dropping of terrible puns.)
Together, they form a found family (one of my favorite tropes), a group who may have started as strangers, but grew to know and care for each other, who support each other through sorrow, who find ways to forgive even through moments of anger or frustration. A ghost story can be a love story too sometimes, and the people in this house love each other.
The love at the heart of this story makes the events that happen more terrifying — and more tragic. Any loss is felt more deeply, both by the characters and the viewers.
Storytelling is a way of to keep the ones we love alive, a way of remembering and sharing so that they might not be forgotten. All the stories we’ve heard and remembered become a part of us, something we carry — and when we also share their story, the spirit is passed on to someone else.
Dead doesn’t mean gone, as the children of Bly Manor explain. Sometimes people linger. Sometimes the dead wake and walk, drawn in and caught by tragedy, caught in the spider web of their own memories. Sometimes their spirit is held here by the love those who remember them.