Opinions seem to be divided on Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor. Some people deride it for not being scary, others (in the medium of clickbait article titles) claim it to cause them sleepless nights. I guess what I’m interested in is what does it mean for something to be scary? Is it the mechanics behind which stuff is visually represented, the sound design, the timing, the design of the characters? Or is it the implications, the themes that underline the story? Or is it all these factors? I’d wager Flanagan’s previous series The Haunting of Hill House is scarier on an immediate visual level, although I would argue Bly Manor still has something to offer.
Whereas Hill House dealt with issues surrounding familial trauma, Bly Manor seems more directly interested in what constitutes ghostliness and haunting, in a word: memory. I read recently in Dan O’Brien’s An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge that our ability to conceive of ourselves is only viable in consideration of our past and future, put another way, how do we know things if we have no memory, if every moment was stripped of prior context? I suppose what I am getting at here is that Bly Manor delves into the implications of being forgotten, or being remembered only through trauma.
The ghosts in Bly Manor are interesting in that their sense of self is dependent on those still living, as can be seen with Peter and Rebecca, Viola and Perdita. The representation of being forgotten is chilling in the early episodes, seeing Perdita in the corner of the attic, faceless and yearning for attention, gives almost obvious credence to the loss of personal identity. It seems as if there are multiple ways to remember and forget within Bly Manor.
In the tragic cases of Viola and Perdita their identities are wiped away, they still exist, albeit more so as sensations than fully formed people. There is no-one left to truly remember them as they were and they are cursed to linger on the grounds of their old home. With Peter and Rebecca, they are still remembered by the staff of Bly Manor but are visible and manifest to the children, Miles and Flora. The other, less visible forms of forgetting and remembrance come with the treatment of the children by their uncle Henry and of the commemoration of Hannah by Owen.
Henry’s guilt surrounding the death of Miles and Flora’s parents makes him distance himself from them, limiting contact even through their nanny Dani as much as possible. In his estrangement from Miles and Flora, he potentially allows them to be forgotten, in so much as they are at risk of joining the ghosts of Bly Manor under Peter’s scheme. It is only with his hurried arrival in the final episode that he not only aids in rescuing the children but frees them, taking on the parental role he has long neglected.
With Hannah, her remembrance is simpler in some regards to that of Viola. When Viola is invited into Dani, Hannah and the other ghosts of Bly Manor are allowed to move on. With the transferal of the traumatic wound, Viola, Hannah is allowed to be at peace and thus remembered properly. Owen hangs a photo of her in his restaurant, remembering her as she was and bringing her in memory as close to their shared dream of Paris as possible.
Perhaps it is not necessarily scary, but it is undoubtedly tragic that Dani frees all the inhabitants of Bly Manor at the cost of herself. Henry, Miles, and Flora all forget what has occurred. All the ghosts bar Viola have moved on. Dani tries to make a life with Jamie but in inviting Viola into herself, she has absorbed the traumatic wound that festered Bly. She cannot forget Viola, cannot forget what has happened to herself and the others. In every reflection, a reminder of past pain and of past violence. The pain of the past becomes Dani’s present.
There may be more frightening media out there, more jump scares and more chilling ambiences, but Bly Manor’s concentration on memory remains with me. The idea of being forgotten, of our identities blurring and distorting into almost nightmarish mannequin-esque anonymity could frighten anyone. At least, there’s the rub. Even after our biological deaths, the memories of ourselves are playing against the clock. Maybe for a little while we can be remembered like Hannah, through simple photographs and in the hearts of good-natured people. The most we can hope for is that we do not become like Viola, that we do not open the traumatic wound for those after us. The implication that we could be stubborn to death like Viola and become the dehumanised and raging lady of the lake, is to me personally scary.