Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Netflix show ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’.
Having just finished watching ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ on Netflix, I find myself wondering why this show is so popular, and why exactly I thought it was so terrible.
I came across the show on the ‘Trending’ list for my country and, as a fan of horror films and series, I immediately clicked play. For the first two episodes, I was hooked and then, slowly but surely, I fell out of love with it.
To the show’s credit, I watched through to the end, stubbornly insisting to know how on earth they could tie all of the seemingly-unrelated storylines together. To that end, the characters — particularly those of Hannah the housekeeper and Flora, the little girl — were so endearing that I wanted to see what happened. Outside of the character writing, however, the show made little to no sense and struggled to keep my interest.
I understand that the first two episodes followed the book the series was based on very closely, and thereafter began to drift from the source material. This may explain why I, as a viewer, also began to drift around the same time.
Too Many Ghosts
To start, the show has too many unrelated ghost stories for one show.
Firstly, the au pair hired from America (Dani), comes to Bly Manor with a dead fiancée she sees in any reflective surface. He’s a menacing presence who can place a hand on her shoulder but never moves or speaks until at one point, the show simply forgets about him.
Henry, the neglectful uncle who drinks himself silly in his cold London office rather than face the reality that he is actually Flora’s father, drinks with a physical ‘ghost’ of himself, who can not only lift him up from the ground but whom is never explained to the viewer other than a casual “now you have to live with yourself” comment from Henry’s scorned brother. This spirit, or manifestation of his madness(?) is also simply forgotten, in the second to last episode.
In story-telling, there are generally accepted principles of certain plot devices. Ghosts and how they are tethered is one of these principles. In this show, the gaggle of ghosts are all adhering to different principles; some tethered to a location, some to a person. Not only that, but each set of ghosts are unrelated to, unaware of, and unable to communicate with the other. For example, Dani’s dead fiancée never engages with the very vocal and present ghosts of Bly Manor.
For me, the ridiculous is not scary. From the moment I realised that there were three unrelated, concurrent ghost stories, the show failed to scare me even once, no matter how many background ghosts and dolls it threw in to keep the viewer in suspense.
The show continues its purposeful disregard of generally accepted theories with its approach to a ghost’s state of matter. Normally, when a film or TV show wants to break with generally accepted principle (for example, time travel) they will normally address the discrepancy, or spend time explaining their version of time travel. (See: The Avengers). Similarly to thesis writing, if you do not reference the thought-leaders in your subject, you need to acknowledge they exist and explain why you’re not referencing them. In my opinion, ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ fails miserably here.
The show doesn’t adhere to generally accepted parameters of death or physical states of matter, and at no point does it stop to explain its version to the viewer. One of the biggest twists is that one of the main characters, housekeeper Hannah, died in the minutes before we first see her in the series but has, until the reveal, been in denial that she is dead. Part of the reason this is such a surprise to the viewer is that she’s been interacting with the living, shaking hands, picking things up, and generally holding a physical state. The only nod to her status as a ghost is that she doesn’t eat or drink in the early episodes; and part of her coming to terms with her death involves a moment where she is drinking and wine and appears to realise she is unable to taste it.
This ability to create a physical form so convincing and so solid that none of the living realise she’s dead is never explained, and for me, took the show from a reasonable suspension of disbelief to an unreasonable one.
The inconsistency continues in different ghosts jumping between this physical presence, where they can be seen by and speak to the living, and an invisible state where only the children can see them. The change in state is never explained; what triggers it, how they do it, or why they choose one over the other. There is a small nod to the fact that it takes effort to achieve when Peter, (dead) talks about how it took him some time to figure out how to speak to Rebecca (living), but that admission doesn’t make sense in the context of Hannah living in denial that she’s been murdered and simply continuing her physical life without effort or conscious thought.
As an afterthought to this complaint, Hannah was murdered by a dead Peter after she figured out he was dead. Surely, her refusal to stop embodying a physical form would have, at the very least, been irrating to Peter, if the point of killing her was to stop her interacting with the living and spilling his secret. And yet; it’s never mentioned again.
Lack of attention to detail
The final example of the show’s disregard of generally-accepted principles of death comes in the key episode “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes”. In this episode, the entire backstory of Bly Manor is explained. It begins with the two sisters of Bly, and in particular, the older sister Viola, who is deathly sick for six years but refuses to die.
“I will not go!”
After her sister Perdita kills her (in what she pretends is an act of mercy), Viola’s spirit is stuck in Bly, encased in her own suitcase of silks and pearls, awaiting the day her daughter will open the case and claim her inheritance. When Perdita, who married Viola’s husband after her death, instead opens the case, a furious Viola takes form and chokes her to death. The numerous ghosts haunting the house are then explained as souls that Viola murdered over the years, trapped in Bly as Viola herself is. Even the spirits of people who died of other causes on the property are trapped in Bly, due to the strength of Viola’s self-imposed curse.
This leads me to what I perceived to be a lack of attention to detail by the writers. For example, the aforementioned episode spoke about how Viola, the original Bly Manor ghost, walked the grounds regularly, killing everyone who stepped into her path, to go to her bed and check if her child was there. However, in the final episode, she goes to the bed formerly occupied by the dead parents of Flora and Miles, which was in the ‘forbidden wing’. If she’s always been headed to this bed, there was no explanation offered as to why she never came into contact with the two parents who slept in that bed. Viola is described as only dangerous to those who get into her set path, and she only walked the grounds at night, but the parents are shown having late-night chats in the kitchen the night before Flora’s birthday party, for one example. Viola even took a child from that bed with her once, back into the lake, killing the child; but never crossed paths with two people living in that room and sleeping in that bed, in the room or any of the rooms leading to it, in all those years they were living there?
Forgotten plot devices
Not only do Dani and Henry’s individual ghosts just disappear without a trace, there are several other plot devices which remain unexplained. For example, before we discover what ghosts are at Bly, we are introduced to Flora’s doll collection — one to represent everyone at Bly, living or dead. In the beginning, the placement of the doll representing the murderous, faceless ghost of Viola appears to be of huge importance, both to Flora and to the show, but in later episodes, the dolls appear completely irrelevant and, until a cursory mention in the final episode, forgotten about.
‘The Lady in the Lake’, Viola, chokes anyone who gets in her path and yet, this wields different results depending on the importance of the character she’s choking.
Viola’s first kill is her sister and her face adopts a frozen, terrifying, supernatural state after her death. The plague doctor is spoken to, and his neck snapped, his body left in the house, but his face doesn’t take on the same hue. On her nightly rounds, Peter gets in her way and his neck is grabbed, immediately snapped and his body (still with a normal face) is dragged into the lake. Danni, the main character, also gets in her way and is grabbed by the neck and dragged — but not hard enough to snap her neck or even choke her to death. While I understand the main character needs to remain alive, if the murderous ghost has forgotten all her memories and now just kills on autopilot as we’re being told in the show, then she should kill everyone the same way — long and drawn out, in order to give characters time to escape, or immediately, as happened to the less important characters that needed a quick killing off.
The show not only is inconsistent with death, but it takes the very idea of possession it has explained to us one episode prior and contradicts it in the final episode, showing a possessed Dani as able to (for several years, at least) control Viola’s spirit and stop her from taking control despite Dani giving permission to Viola to share her body fully. This may have been believable… if we hadn’t been told in the previous episode that this kind of invite essentially killed the body’s original soul — “tucking them away” in their memories forever, and rendering them merely “an itch, back there” in their own head.
Last but not least, the entire show is based on the idea that the story of Bly Manor is being told to a group of people the night before a wedding. The viewer comes to suspect that the storyteller is one of the characters (the gardener) in the story, and the show goes to great lengths to confirm this, going as far as to show the younger versions of each character at the wedding. It not only wraps it up far too cleanly for me, but also makes little sense. For example, one of the characters who encouraged the telling of the story in the first place turns out to be the chef from Bly Manor. In the story, however, the chef had explained that the children had forgotten the horrors they went through and asked why you would ever tell the children involved what had happened if they were lucky enough to forget.
Not only that, but he says the children only remember Bly only as “their summer house when they were young”. If that is truly the case, then why would the chef and the gardener from their summer house have been at the wedding in the first place? Wouldn’t the gardener from the manor in which they spent their summers, raise suspicion telling a story about a manor with the same staffing setup and the same amount of children, also with dead parents? The bride even acknowledges that the gardener used her middle name in the story as the name of the daughter — ‘Flora’. Why risk reminding her, on the night before her wedding, of the horrors she endured at Bly?
With all of the above in mind, ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ was still an enjoyable, if somewhat brainless, watch. I didn’t find it in any way scary; in more ways I found it downright ridiculous, but I appreciated the depth of the characters, the depths of the relationships, and the normalisation of a central gay love story. I also liked that the relationship was treated like any other central love story without issue from surrounding characters, despite how historically inaccurate that is considering the show was set in 1987. However, if I can suspend my disbelief as far as ghosts being able to high five the living, I can suspend my disbelief there too.