this year's haunting

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Manila, 18 October—The Haunting of Bly Manor, the “spiritual sequel” of last year’s “The Haunting of Hill House” premiered last week on Netflix, and we binged and finished it over the previous weekend. Technically, I’ve been keeping these feelings in for a week.

I’m breaking that spoilers embargo for this entry, so if you haven’t finished watching it, please be warned. My non-spoilery review is that I’m not much of a horror fan as I get terrified too easily, but I found this to be quite a riveting watch, and it gets quite rewarding until the very end. Definitely on my must re-watch list.

Spoilers after this trailer:

If you’re familiar with The Haunting of Hill House, expect to see some familiar faces making a comeback, most notably Victoria Pedretti, who played Nellie in Hill House. In Bly Manor, she plays Dani, who becomes an au pair to two curious children, Flora and Miles (played by Peppa Pig voice talent Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), who live in an honest-to-goodness quite terrifying house in the British countryside called Bly Manor.

If you ask me, no child should live in such a dreary house, which stands in the middle of a sprawling estate which has a legit woods and an ominous lake right in the heart of it.

Yep, definitely haunted. Utterly not for children.

But that’s not the entire “catch”, as Dani points out, when she asks prospective employer and uncle to the kids Henry Wingrave (played by another Hill House alum, Henry Thomas). It was an easy enough job in an attractive countryside, so why has the vacancy been on for six months? Turns out their previous governess Rebecca Jessel (played by lovely newcomer Tahirah Sharif) had “died on the property” so that’s immediately one ghost in our spook column.

But it’s an old house, so there are probably more ghosts on the property. The children, for sure, see them. Amelie as Flora is ‘perfectly splendid’—she has an eerie affinity for dolls, keeps looking past Dani’s shoulder when she talks to her, and wakes up at the lake on a cold morning for no apparent reason. We spent a significant chunk of the series yelling at Flora and Dani to stay the fuck inside the house.

I wasn’t quite as invested in Miles, but I did think something was equally wrong with that young boy when he kept hitting on his au pair, and bullying their housekeeper Hannah Grose (what a powerhouse T’Nia Miller is in this series—I loved her episode), and that it was something more sinister than his shenanigans at boarding school—never mind that the kids were probably suffering some serious trauma from losing both of their parents, who died while on vacation away from Bly.

Completing our Bly Manor ensemble are the cook Owen (played by Rahul Kohli) and the gardener Jamie (played by Amelia Eve, my unexpected show-stopper), who are as good as outsiders as they do not stay inside the house overnight. This doesn’t mean though that we are less invested in them; I think Owen and Hannah’s arc is tenderly made, and I will talk about Jamie later.

Anyway—two more Hill House alums are also here: Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who was Luke in Hill House and who now plays Peter Quint, the Wingraves’ former driver and lover to Rebecca; and Kate Siegel, who is stunning in an epic black-and-white flashback genesis episode as Viola Willoughby, who turns out to be Bly’s main terror—the Lady at the Lake.

There’s so much to unpack at Bly—it does not completely lean into the terror of dollhouses and faceless moving dolls, not quite, nor does it show as many grotesque scenes as Hill House, whose jump scare right smack in the middle of Theo and Shirley’s argument in the car is still The Gold Standard, all considered.

But Bly’s terrors, though muted, still strike close to the heart: death and abandonment and betrayal and forgetting.

If you’ve reached this far, you’re probably wondering what’s taking me so long to mention the lesbians, who are actually pretty central to the entire series. I admit this came to me as a big surprise—since we watched it at premiere, we had no idea that Bly’s heart is actually a story of two women in love. (Or, as this review on The Verge says, A good ghost story doesn’t start with a haunting—it starts with a kiss.)

And so we get to Jamie. It doesn’t become apparent until much later on, but it is Jamie who lives to tell the tale, so to speak (the storyteller played by Carla Gugino, who played the mother Olivia in Hill House—interestingly, also famous for her quote, We’re all stories in the end), at the rehearsal dinner of a wedding that occurs twenty years after Bly Manor.

Jamie and Dani’s love story plays out slowly throughout the season, and I’d been so preoccupied about protecting myself from the story’s general terrors to see it coming—much less properly pay attention to how it begins (perhaps a metaphor in its own right).

In the early episodes, we see Dani being followed around by a mysterious glowy-eyed entity that appears behind her whenever she looks at her reflection. In Dani’s episode, we find out who it is—Dani had been engaged to get married to her childhood best friend Edmund, but something doesn’t quite sit well with her about it. We see it get referenced subtly when she gets herself measured for her wedding dress—the dressmaker’s touch, and how it gets amplified throughout the scene, as she looks at herself in the mirror. She tries to break it off with Edmund, who gets killed by a truck moments later. He then proceeds to haunt Dani, the spectre of her guilt, often appearing alongside her reflection or instead of it, the lights of the speeding truck perpetually reflected off his glasses.

The reflection is Dani’s metaphor (insert Mulan joke here, which is C-approved and rare) which is apt as someone who is struggling with her identity and sexuality. Toward the end of the first episode, Dani gets trapped inside a closet—literally—and is left in there to confront the ghost of Edmund in the mirror. Somewhere along the way, she and Jamie strike up a friendship, and it is here that we see what it could be. I admit I did not hold my breath too long for it—lesbians get killed all the time and this is a fucking horror series—but it was a joy to behold, ghosts interrupting kisses in greenhouses notwithstanding.

Jamie, the gardener, nurtures life in the midst of the dreary countryside—which is what I like best about her character. Apart from Owen, who is a joy in the kitchen—I could totally see Owen’s character genderswapped, by the way, but Rahul Kohli already portrays him so well—I think Jamie is the one thing in the house that breathes literal life into the whole manor with her gardening. Amelia Eve delivers one of the series’ most memorable monologues about a rare and difficult-to-grow moonflower, which I would have been able to better pay attention to had it not occurred in the all-too-dark woods (lol).

I think the best part about these lesbians in Bly Manor is that… they actually get a shot at a life. Sure, Viola’s ghost catches up with Dani some half a decade or so later, when she and Jamie are already in the middle of their decidedly fabulous all-too-gay life in the US as flower shop owners, but it doesn’t feel like a plot device designed to further someone else’s character growth, which has been my complaint about most of the Bury Your Gay lesbians I have on my list. It feels like an apt development; in fact, it was a question of when. But in between, life does not stop—that montage was actually fairly accurate, it looked like every well-written fan fiction I ever read played out on the screen: This is what we mean when we talk about growing old together.

However, Dani is still haunted; one day she wakes up with a hand around Jamie’s throat, in a total call-back to the terrors of Hill House in the first season. Viola soon takes up so much space in Dani’s head that she actually goes back to Bly and that goddamn lake just like that—to end it once and for all.

Jamie in that ending—thinking about it, perhaps this is how it’s like, pining after a lover after death: Like reaching for them underwater. And afterwards, that gesture of keeping her door half-open, is just as heart-wrenching as that time she emerged from the lake.

And yet… it doesn’t feel as Bury Your Gays, in the same way that San Junipero doesn’t feel like Bury Your Gays, if this makes sense. The point is, we’re not asking for your media to have lesbians that live forever (though I’ll always be down for some indestructible lesbian immortals, see also The Old Guard)—just that they not be summarily killed off senselessly if there were other plot options available. And in this case—there isn’t. It’s the point the story wants to make, and it makes sense to me.

All things considered, I think Bly Manor is a love story disguised as a horror story. Or maybe it dons no disguise at all. I think maybe at the core of all love is a little terror—aren’t we all just jumping in, despite?

Additional Reading: “The Haunting of Bly Manor” Isn’t a Ghost Story, It’s a Lesbian Love Story — with Ghosts via Autostraddle

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This week’s favorite meme which is not Bly-themed, but just as timely as it depicts the daily horrors of our lives:

Thanks for making it this far.

Xo,

K