Trauma and Storytelling Come Home to ‘Bly Manor’

Amelie Bea Smith and Tahirah Sharif as Flora Wingrave and Rebecca Jessel in The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020). 8-year-old Flora and her nanny Rebecca are sitting on the grass in front of a large lake surrounded by trees. They both face the lake but look back over their shoulders to see something behind them. Rebecca is holding a small handmade doll.

NOTE: Spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor ahead.

Mike Flanagan understands trauma, and Mike Flanagan understands the curative properties of storytelling. It’s a sentiment I’ve conveyed dozens of times before, both formally and informally, yet with each new output – principally his newest release, Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor – Flanagan’s astute awareness and overall consciousness of what it means to be human and what it means to endure trauma deepens.

Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor follows Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) as she accepts a job as a governess at Bly Manor for two precocious children, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles Wingrave (Benjamin Ainsworth) whose parents and previous governess died in mysteriously unfortunate accidents. Dani is similarly greeted by gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), and cook Owen Sharma (Rahul Kohli). The longer Dani stays at Bly, the more she begins to suspect that something terrible is afoot. There is another presence in the house, and if she can’t solve the mystery before it’s too late, she fears it will not only claim her life, but the lives of Flora and Miles as well.

The Haunting of Bly Manor, while ostensibly a ghost story, is really a story of love and empathy. Carla Gugino, playing both narrator and, as we learn in the finale, Jamie in her later years, says as much. Bly Manor tucks itself into the nuances of a haunting, of the profound humanity of what it would mean to coexist with the dead and is all the more intoxicating and restorative because of it. The ghosts and the horrors of Flanagan’s Bly Manor are there not to substitute for the perspicuity of love and grief, but rather to punctuate them, rendering them as considerably more powerful than they otherwise might have been.

Victoria Pedretti as Dani Clayton in The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020). Dani, a young woman wearing a pink blouse and blue jeans of the 80s style, is crouches in a dimly lit basement, surrounded by strange objects including a pile of creepy looking dolls.

Principally, narratives have a storied history, from the oral tradition onward, of healing. Whether for the orator or audience, stories have the unique capacity to confront the evils and unfairness of the world and interpret them anew. Love and memories and grief live in stories, in the little spaces between the letters and words, and only in telling them, and in hearing them, does that truth become something absolute and curative. Make no mistake, either – The Haunting of Bly Manor is a consummately curative property. The series is as adept at scaring your pants off as it is in bringing you to tears. It is thoroughly engaging for the entirety of its nine-hour run and is a fitting follow-up to Flanagan’s acclaimed The Haunting of Hill House.

From a critical perspective, The Haunting of Bly Manor is certainly not perfect. Episode 6, titled “The Jolly Corner” – a slight adaptation of another Henry James text – is a protracted trek toward a conclusion that could easily have been unspooled in the periphery. Protagonist Dani – as wonderful an actress as Victoria Pedretti is – doesn’t make for the most engaging character, especially when flanked by a wonderful supporting cast with rich and subtly shaded backstories of their own. These are small, singular gripes, however. When rhetorically evaluated as a whole – when looking at the sheer grandiosity of Bly Manor, both property and story – those gripes are as pale and faceless as the ghosts of the long dead that roam its halls and hide in its shadows. The Haunting of Bly Manor is large in both scope and heart. It truly feels like a genre epic, a series that eclipses others of its ilk in terms of both breadth and depth. It is tenderly performed, humanely written, stylishly directed, and genuinely terrifying when it matters most.

The horror genre has historically been a curative genre. It’s been a commercial window into the ills and ailments of humanity – of its fears and anxieties – and also a panacea. It identifies, diagnoses, and cures. Horror is medicinal, and genre outputs like Flanagan’s Bly Manor are among the most potent. Queer audiences or audiences grappling with the uncertainty of grief, for instance, see a little of themselves in the narrative, and it gives them hope. Flanagan takes the ugly and dour moments in a world riddled with ugly and dour things and changes them into something altogether wonderful – it is horror as tonic.

T'Nia Miller and Rahul Kohli as Hannah Grose and Owen Sharma in The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020). Hannah and Owen are stood on the driveway of the manor in front of a car, as Owen prepares to leave. Hannah holds Owen's arms, reassuring him, as he looks deeply sad.

Indeed, for me personally, the show was restorative and reinvigorating, like most all of Flanagan’s filmography. Post-trauma pathology identifies the re-telling of the trauma narrative as a core component to most therapeutic trauma interventions. Just as the characters are tucked away in their dreams and memories, reliving both the happiest and most traumatic moments of their lives on earth, Bly Manor tucked me away into a dreamscape of my own design. The characters, so richly textured, were proxies for my own trauma – my lived experience, for instance, of being a gay man – and my own concerted effort to tackle it. Trauma, like the memories of the living and dead at Bly, is permanent. It is generational and interminable, but that does not mean it cannot be healed. Bly Manor is a filmic landscape where the dead live among the living as reminders of the pain and torment of life, yes, but also as beacons of hope, buoys representative of release and healing. Like Hannah Grose or both Miles and Flora, I was reminded of my own strength and agency, my own capacity to tackle my own trauma. Rather than letting it drag me to the lake, I was reminded that I could stand up to it – I could overcome it.

The Haunting of Bly Manor begins where it ends, with Carla Gugino telling the story of Bly at a wedding rehearsal dinner. There is something perhaps even more meaningful tucked into the denouement as Jamie tells the story of Bly to the menagerie of wedding guests. Trauma has an ugly habit of erasing us. It erases our identities. It erases our memories. Strings of trauma become all-encompassing. They pollute our very core and turn our blood sour. Our dispositions sink and our minds are clouded. The potentiality for healing always remains, however, and it’s in stories like Bly – stories of both horror and triumph – that the healing occurs. Trauma turns us into ghosts of our former selves, but if we are honest about those stories and we share them with those who matter most, we can triumph. Whether in this world or the next, we can triumph.

by Chad Collins

Chad Collins graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2019 with his Master of Arts. He works in behavioural health and teaches online. He has been a horror fan since birth and his favourites include: ScreamHalloweenAlien, and tawdry ‘80s slasher films. Find him on Twitter @ChadIsCollins.

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