Cultural Oppression in its Many Forms is the True Horror of ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’

A still from 'The Haunting of Bly Manor'. Dani (Victoria Pedretti) is stood outside at night, in what looks like a maze, or some incredibly ornate gardens and bushes. She is centre frame,and shot from her head to her knees. She is turning back towards the camera and looking up, the moonlit is shining off the sweat on her forehead. She is in an 80s style outfit, with blue jeans and a purple polo neck jumper. She has long blonde hair, pale skin and a youthful complexion

During the lead-up to the season premiere, some of Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor promotional materials used the phrase “You’re expected” to build the ghostly dread surrounding the follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House. In fact, Twitter users could request the official Bly Manor account send them a “You’re expected” reminder tweet on the release day. This summoning seems fitting for a season devoted to depicting the difficult social expectations placed on many of its characters, and the phrase serves as an invitation for the audience to empathetically feel these cultural pressures as well. 

The season begins with a mysterious woman (Carla Gugino) telling a ghost story after a wedding rehearsal dinner in 2007. Her story centres on Dani (Victoria Pedretti), an American teacher in 1987 who interviews for a job as a live-in nanny (or “au pair”) in the English countryside. She meets with Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), uncle to 8-year-old Flora (Amelia Bea Smith) and 10-year-old Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) who lost their parents to an accident in India and their last au pair to suicide. Dani gets the job, travels to Bly with the manor’s cook Owen Sharma (Rahul Kohli), and once she arrives, meets the welcoming housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller) and the swaggering gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve). Perhaps against type, the children at first seem relatively normal, but soon their concerning behaviour surfaces. Although the adults attribute this behaviour to the children’s grief, horror audiences will not be so quick to dismiss these warning signs of something else involved.

For those horror audiences looking for close parallels to the ghosts haunting Hill House — from the Bent-Neck Lady to the Tall Man — they’ll find a different horror here. Bly Manor is low on supernatural dread and even lower on staggering jump-scares in comparison with the first season, but the true horror comes from the suffering BIPOC, queer people, women, and children face at the hands of a society quick to punish them. Bly Manor is a piece committed to engaging cultural oppressions and how much those with power continue to try to control and harm the bodies of vulnerable minorities. Whether or not the season handles this with enough sensitivity will prove divisive for audiences, as already seen through discourse on social media.

During a month when Supreme Court discussions around the future of Obergefell vs. Hodges bring an ominous concern for queer Americans, Bly Manor offers gorgeous scenes and meaningful dialogue for its lesbian characters, giving them many moments of real, palpable joy. Even though Hill House provided room for its queer character Theo to have a good romantic subplot, audiences may be surprised by just how much Bly Manor focuses on depicting the haunting effects of heterocentrism during and after Reagan’s administration even as the season privileges queer self-exploration and actualisation.

A still from 'The Haunting of Bly Manor'. Hannah Grose (T'Nia Miller) is shown in a mid shot, slightly off centre frame, sat in a chair against a leafy backdrop, presumably a bush. She is a Black woman, shaved head and incredibly youthful face and strong bone structure. She is wearing a sage green blazer with a burgundy top underneath. She has a gold watch on and is raising her right arm to touch her ear, from which dangles a large gold earring.

Some audiences may struggle with whether the season earns its handling of trauma — queer-focused or otherwise — which leads to issues of how Bly Manor sets up its universe’s laws. The rules of the supernatural elements are vague for most of the season, and although the second half starts to reveal some of the underpinnings, unclear dialogue and camerawork obscures an early appreciation of how ghosts, memories, and boundaries work. Because so much of the tragedy and suffering the characters go through depends completely on how they navigate and make sense of these rules, it is important that they are clear so that the ending in particular feels earned and inevitable. Even after a rewatch, one may be left with many questions about the hows and whys of the manor and its influence on the outside world.

The season also devotes time and emotional space for its Black women characters, and during the year where the murder of Breonna Taylor has brought widespread visibility to the ongoing discussions of the violence Black women experience every day, it is important to discuss the ways the United States’ visual media presents violence against Black women and whether those depictions are done with the utmost of care. Both Hannah Grose and Rebecca Jessel (the children’s former au pair, played by Tahirah Sharif) are complex, caring, and reflective women, but both deserve more closure than they receive by the end of the season, and it’s worth asking whether the show eschews their stories to nurture its white characters’ plots. If you would like to read more about the depiction of Black women in Bly Manor from the perspective of a Black woman scholar, I recommend this (spoiler-containing) blog post by Dr. Francesca Sobande.

Although the season’s representations of trauma and violence are at times excessive and less narratively-satisfying than other options, Bly Manor is at its best when it gives its cast room to offer incandescent performances that bring awareness to the enduring effects of colonialism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, and child abuse. T’Nia Miller as Hannah Grose turns in a particularly show-stopping performance as a woman navigating her uncertain past, present, and future. Fans of the Crain sisters will be delighted to see Victoria Pedretti return for her role as the sweet, rosy au pair, while Kate Siegel plays a very important character late in the season. Amelia Eve and Tahirah Sharif both give remarkable performances as women struggling with the vulnerabilities of opening up to emotional relationships. It would be remiss not to mention Indian-British actor Rahul Kohli’s loving performance as Owen Sharma, no doubt one of the warmest and most generous fictional men on television in recent years.

Most viewers will find a lot to chew on in this season of the series, and at least a couple characters they’d love to have as friends. Despite the season’s problems, it’s hard not to recommend a watch-through of Bly Manor for its performances, costuming, and experimentation with chronology as long as audiences make a decision to watch it with knowledge of the possibly triggering trauma content. All in all, Bly Manor can satisfy those looking to add some Gothic chills to their spooky season viewing schedule while also continuing to consider many important cultural conversations of 2020.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is available to stream now exclusively on Netflix

by Bishop V. Navarro

Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter 

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