When is a horror story not a horror story? When is a ghost not a ghost? If a ghost lives, breathes and walks among the living, can that really be called anything other than life? If a ghost feels every bit as much love, fear and regret as a living person, then isn’t life just as fraught with peril as death?
These are a few of the roughly 10,000 questions that Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor would like you to roll around in your head during its nine-hour runtime, in which it adapts Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw but simultaneously finds time to go down every narrative rabbit hole you might find on a sprawling English manor’s property. The follow-up to Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House is more unfocused than its predecessor, attempting to build an operatic narrative with detailed backstories for seemingly every character, but it possesses the same sort of devastating emotional intensity seen in the previous Netflix series. What it doesn’t have, though, is likely to disappoint a certain chunk of the audience: The scares.
“Horror,” as it turns out, was never really the focus here—the events of the series are described in its opening moments as a “ghost story,” but to conflate that with a “horror story” is an inaccurate framing. There’s a smattering of jump scares, sure, but the goal here was seemingly not to suffuse every episode of The Haunting of Bly Manor with the persistent dread that was present in Hill House, but to tell a richly emotional melodrama on love, jealousy, selflessness, responsibility and trauma. Suffice to say: Netflix is marketing a horror story because we’re approaching Halloween, but you might be better off expecting a supernatural romance with overtones of Greek tragedy.
Many summations of this plot will no doubt begin by saying that the story of Bly Manor is centered around Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), an American au pair who takes a job caring for two rambunctious children at an English country manor in 1987, but even that would be inaccurate—we naturally assume that this is Dani’s story due perhaps to our familiarity with The Turn of the Screw, or 1961’s classic film adaptation The Innocents, but the au pair is just the start of this character roster. Rather than truly making her central, Bly Manor devotes just as much time to seemingly every other principal character as well, from the warm housekeeper Ms. Grose (T’Nia Miller), to the sarcastic gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), to children Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Smith), all of whom are the focus of entire episodes. And that’s still just the tip of the iceberg, as Bly Manor is not content to work within a single timeframe, instead extending out years and then centuries to highlight entirely different characters who have populated the mansion over its history, falling victim to its particular curse and metaphysical gravity.
These concepts, of intermingled fates and repeated motifs that repeat over the course of generations, have become something of a signature of the stories told by Flanagan on both the large and small screens. The 2013 horror film Oculus now feels like a trial run for such concepts when looking back on it, and both Hill House and Bly Manor have now indulged themselves with deeper explorations of the same themes. Flanagan has little interest in telling straightforward horror stories—ironic, considering that he’s really quite good at it. Instead, his favorite narrative device seems to be the Möbius strip effect, in which constant asides and flashbacks slowly drop crumbs and morsels of a greater mystery for the audience to piece together. Bly Manor in particular catches the writer-director at his most Christopher Nolan-esque, and you simultaneously have to acknowledge the complexity of the series’ structure while also feeling that it may be a bit too impressed with itself.
As some assessments will no doubt point out, this was not really a story that needed nine hours to be told, which is no doubt why we have so much time for long-winded monologues and entire episodes spent in time-skipping flashbacks of the doomed romances between ghosts. To beef up the source material, Flanagan and co. also incorporated two other Henry James stories prominently: “The Jolly Corner” and “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” both of which are threaded impressively into the fiber of The Turn of the Screw. However, it does at times feel like an attempt at profundity for the sake of profundity—layer upon layer of pain and loss that illustrate how humans make the same mistakes over generations—but also decentralize the story to a degree, especially in comparison with the more tightly focused narrative of Hill House. That previous series had a similarly emotional, heartbreaking story, but it made a much more overt effort to be scary as well.
It should be noted that Flanagan’s direct involvement in The Haunting of Bly Manor would seem to be considerably smaller than Hill House, a reportedly arduous undertaking in which he wrote and directed every episode. Here, he writes and directs only the pilot, and Bly Manor seems to miss some visual cohesion over its run as a result. The titular mansion isn’t as memorable or menacing as Hill House, and the entire series is suffused in a gauzy, fuzzy, somewhat washed-out light that highlights faded pastel colors in a way that is either meant to tell us “this is the past” or “this is the 1980s,” but it’s a visual choice that can eventually become tired. So too is the musical score effective and gripping, but its core compositions tend to get used over and over again in each episode.
In the end, what we have in Bly Manor is an epic, romantic gothic melodrama that isn’t interested in classical horror motifs like a struggle of good against evil. This is a deeply human story in which there’s no such thing as indiscriminate evil—only misunderstood and fractured people, both living and dead. Even the ghosts all become figures of sympathy and pity, as they’re revealed as products of misdirected human emotions such as rage, loneliness and loss, rather than the supernatural bogeymen we’re more familiar with.
Does that make for a series that delivers fewer pulpy thrills than the one that came before? Yeah, it pretty much does, for better or worse. Where Hill House more deftly balanced an emotional story with visceral frights, Bly Manor leans almost entirely toward the former. For some viewers, that will be enough for a satisfying Halloween season diversion. Others may find themselves wishing that The Haunting of Bly Manor placed a bigger priority on making their skin crawl, and spent less time trying to make them cry.
The Haunting of Bly Manor premieres Friday, October 9th on Netflix.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.
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