The Haunting of Bly Manor — director 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. In the opening scenes, a group of family and friend gather for after-dinner drinks. The conversation drifts to the possibility of ghosts, leading inevitably to the telling of tales.
The ghost story at the center of The Haunting of Bly Manor is loosely based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Set in the 1980s, the story follows Dani Clayton, a pretty young American woman and former teacher, as she heads to an interview for work as an au pair. Seemingly cheery on the surface, she is nevertheless haunted, carrying her ghosts with her across the Atlantic to the U.K.
Despite her personal turmoils, Dani is determined to make a difference, even if in only a small way. She hopes that by accepting a position caring for two children (who have lost their parents and their former au pair), she may be of help in some meaningful way.
Dani is optimistic about the opportunity, as she arrives at Bly Manor, a beautiful, old house on an expansive estate. Though the house is stunning, it is also eerily empty.
The only adults on the estate include the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, a cook/chauffeur (who loves puns) by the name of Owen, and a lone-wolf gardener Jamie. Of the three, only Mrs. Grose is the only one who lives in the house, leaving Dani alone with the children most evening, the whole of the house stretching out with shadows.
Then there are the children, who seem to be affect by the tragedies they experienced in unsettling ways. Flora is a bright, cheerful child, who declares everything she considers wonderful to be “perfectly splendid.” She has a thing for handmade dolls, some of which represent people in the home — and she’s very particular about where they are allowed to be.
Miles is more subdued. He seems welcoming enough at first. Yet, at times there is something in his mannerisms, something almost adult-like that isn’t fitting in a kid so young.
Dani begins her work caring and educating the children with kindness and affection, providing support, education, and discipline. The days are calm—but the nights bring whisperings, figures moving through the dark halls.
As time passes, Dani becomes increasingly concerned about the children’s strange behavior. Though she is able to explain away some of this as grief and trauma, the strangeness grows to an extent that she begins to sense something else is going on.
I won’t say much more about the plot. This is a haunted house story. 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 throughout, which is punctuated by a few excellent, well-placed jump scares.
What draws me into this show, more than the thrills and chills, are the people who live and work at Bly. The adult characters, in particular, are all relatable. They work and find humor and small pleasures in their days, whether it’s the baking of an excellent cake or the silence of a chapel. The carry sorrows and fears, and together they fight to hold back the dark that wants to overwhelm them.
A ghost story can be a love story too sometimes, it turns out — and the people in this house love each other. They represent a found family (one of my favorite tropes), a group of friends who care for and support each other, and who find ways to forgive moments of anger or frustration. Whether familial, romantic, or complicated, each expression of love feels genuine and moving.
It is the love at the heart of this story that make Bly Manor effective as a show, allowing the view to empathize and care about these people—making it all the more terrifying and tragic when the dark starts to close in around them.
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 of those who remember them.