Warning: This does NOT contain spoilers for Bly Manor. I am actually going to write a spoiler heavy post later for that. So if you are hoping for a deep dive on the themes, characters, and ooga boogas, this rant is probably not for you. Otherwise, enjoy!
Also, some of the concepts and anecdotes talked about I learned from a Lindsay Ellis video. She does some amazing video essays, and you should definitely check it out here.
Recently I began watching a BBC show called Inside No. 9. It’s an anthology show, meaning that each episode is a self-contained story. A similar show would be Tales of the Crypt, Twilight Zone, or the more recent Black Mirror. Though the stories are self-contained, they do usually have some sort of thematic thread linking them together. Scary stories, odd stories, tech based stories that reveal our existential dread, overreliance on technology, and eventual downfall…
Inside No. 9‘s only connecting thread is in the title itself. Every episode either takes place inside a building with “9” as the address or the number nine will appear very early in the episode somewhere. That was supposed to be it. But soon the show got to be known for another connecting thread: every episode managed to end in a dark plot twist. And they were extremely well written.
Learning this, the creators decided to take it upon themselves to “correct” this. They did not want the audience simply waiting for a plot twist like every bad M. Night Shyamalon movie.
Soon it became impossible to determine what tone an episode would take. Would it be darkly comedic like the bulk of episodes? Would there be a twist? Would it be a straight up drama? Who knew?! When asked about it, the creators remarked that they did not want to be constrained by branding. They wanted the freedom to create whatever they wanted, and if the audience did not like that, then tough. They did not owe plot twists to anyone.
So why am I talking about Inside No. 9 when I have indicated Bly Manor in the title of this article? Well…you will have to wait for me to get to that point. In the meantime, let’s finally talk about the “House” series.
Like many other haunted house, vengeful ghost, spooky shadows loving horror fans out there, Haunting at Hill House satiated a lot of my horror needs. It was a good old fashioned haunted house story, complete with horrifying ghosts and stupid people making poor decisions and then fighting about it before getting scared by said horrifying ghosts.
It was masterful, though not completely perfect. I did not have nearly as much patience for nine hours of family in-fighting as others did, it seems. Luckily it was made up for by some truly “clutch-your-pillow” horror, including the gift of the bent neck lady.
When the creators announced a second series, the internet was naturally beside themselves with excitement. When the trailer dropped, that excitement intensified:
Like Hill House, Bly Manor was based on a classic horror book: Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. It would feature a few alumni actors of Hill House. But the creators warned that while there were similarities, this would be a very different show from Hill House. We did not care. We wanted us all of the scares.
The Haunting of Bly Manor finally was released. I eagerly watched it and…I loved it. I loved the characters. I loved the house. I loved the ghosts. I loved the slow, foreboding pace. I cried a couple of times (you know who you are, Episode 5), and when the final episode rolled to credits I sat listening to the haunting soundtrack and letting the entire story sink in.
Like its predecessor, it was not perfect. But it was exactly what I needed. And yet…and yet I knew exactly what the sentiments would be of others who watched the show. And sure enough, all over social media there was a resounding:
“It’s not as good as Hill House.”
Now…I’m not begrudging anyone their opinion. If you loved Hill House, and you expected another Hill House, you are going to be pretty disappointed in this entry. But to say it’s not as good…
Okay, anyone who knows me well knows my hatred of direct confrontation. I like to hear the other opinions. I will not bother to argue with anyone who is dead set in their opinion because it’s a waste of energy. Even in this blog, I am very careful about any extreme opinions of my own I may have.
And yet…I feel compelled to defend this show. I was triggered by that sentence…by even just those words…”as good.”
If you are comparing Bly Manor to Hill House as another psychological horror mixed with some classic haunted house scares, then yes, Bly Manor is not as good. There’s just one problem. Bly Manor is not a psychological horror.
It’s a gothic horror.
Gothic horror is very unlike the horror we have grown accustomed to watching during the 21st century. The emotions are big. The scares are not as frequent. It is highly romanticized. There is more of a focus on a slow building atmosphere, remote countryside, and romance than there is with things jumping out going ooga booga.
When people hear gothic horror, they tend to think of gloomy old mansions, ingenues wandering in nightgowns, and the eccentric/haunted men who entrap them within their clutches. There are certainly older examples. Phantom of the Opera is one of the more classic ones. The Turn of the Screw, the book Haunting of Bly Manor was based on, is another. In film, The Others is one of my favourite gothic horrors. Seriously, if you liked Bly Manor, check it out.
Haunting of Bly Manor is well written. It is consistent with the genre and tone of the book upon which it is based. The actors, including even the child actors, are giving amazingly compelling performances. The rules of the ghost world appear to be mostly consistent, though not all is revealed to us. The ooga booga scares are few, but when they are there they make up for lost time. At times, it almost feels like a fairy tale, those tragic fairy tales that parents don’t like their children to discover.
In other words, Haunting of Bly Manor is good. To me, it was more than good. If you did not like it, it is a matter of not liking the genre. To try to compare it to Haunting of Hill House would be to try to compare a muffin to a cupcake. The basic principles are there, but you have two very different products.
Honestly, in a world of Sinister and Conjuring movies, I wondered if we collectively forgot that there are other types of ghost stories out there. They do not pack as many scares per minute, or blood, or horrific faces contorted in agony…but they are no less haunting.
But when I thought about it more, I realized we did not forget about the different genres of horror. This was much more about branding and audience expectations.
And so we come back to Inside No. 9.
Inside No. 9 established early on that they would play by their own rules. In a way, not having a brand IS their brand (although it could be argued that dark comedy is prevalent throughout). It is extremely rare to see this in the entertainment world. Creators are constantly talking about developing their own style and brand. Once their style is established, their audience expects that style to be adhered to. If you are not consistent, you risk losing that audience.
Every creator eventually struggles with this. Walt Disney himself once lamented while watching To Kill a Mockingbird that this was a movie he could only wish to make. By that point, he had been so successful in establishing the Disney brand, he had essentially trapped himself within it.
And we do not make it easy for creators should they deviate from their established style. When a creator decides to take a risk and try something a little different, there is a very real risk they might upset their audience’s expectations and lose more than just money.
In this sense, Mike Flanagan is pretty brave. Even with all the warnings he gave of the two series being very different, we still held up the expectation that it needed to be the same type of story that Hill House was. The fact that it was not disappointed many, and the series may very well lose viewers because of it.
And BELIEVE me, I have been guilty of this in the past. Seeing my favourite creators of classic adventure games experiment with new forms resulted in many an entitled rant from early-20’s Manda that I am embarrassed about to this day.
Like the creators of Inside No. 9, Mike Flanagan wants to tell whatever story he feels inspired by. The main difference is that he has created a brand now: haunted house story based on a novel. What form that story takes on though is up for grabs. And who knows, perhaps he will even break that pattern on the next series (I hope there will be a next series).
All of this is a very long winded way of saying that before you start calling a show “not as good” as your other favourite media, do consider the other factors. What genre and tone was the media going for? Were they successful within the constraints of the given genre?
In my opinion, Haunting of Bly Manor is a great take on the gothic horror genre. It did have some pacing issues, and yeah, there are a couple of gaping plot holes, but the pros do outweigh the cons. If you did not like it, consider responding with “I don’t like gothic horror.” the next time someone asks you what you thought. Or if you have thoughts on just why it is not good, I would love to hear them! But do try to separate it a bit from Hill House before bringing down the gavel.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at RECON Global about characters. In it, I did a high level 101 talk about how characters can be presented in escape rooms. At the end of the presentation I made a vague reference to the interesting things I have seen some escape rooms do with their characters. And because I didn’t have an additional two hours to ramble, I left it at that.
So, I decided I would use my very unlimited word limit here to talk about them in more detail! Enjoy the spoiler free list of the escape rooms that are pushing the boundaries of characters!Read the rest of this entry
It’s been three months since my city locked down. I’ve had to adapt to working from my dining room chair and lining up with anxious citizens outside a grocery store.
Likewise, Escape Rooms have had to pivot to try to survive the next few months. How successful they are is still up for debate, but it has resulted in some interesting new trends that are becoming the new norm.
Now is a time of uncertainty. But it is also a time of opportunity. Innovation is often born out of limitations. There are creative mines to be delved here. I wanted to dedicate my next few entries to some of these trends and narrative possibilities: what’s working, what’s not working, and what we could be doing with the time we have now.
The first thing to talk about is one of the first things escape rooms decided to employ: the remote avatar.Read the rest of this entry
The holy grail of escape room narrative is having a seamless integration of puzzles and story. This is difficult to say the least. The very presence of puzzles in a narrative already is somewhat unnatural. Ideally, the puzzles at minimum tie loosely with the theme. The rest is a suspension of disbelief on the player’s part.
This is fine, but there is always room to evolve. Attempts to make puzzles more natural usually involve making them simpler and more task based. It makes sense to do it this way. For a natural narrative, puzzles that could actually be found in the natural world is the way to go.
But what about difficult puzzles? Those “aha” puzzles that involve finding patterns in constellations to find a passcode for a computer? Surely there is no way to make narrative and puzzles seem like one when they involve so many illogical steps.
Okay, let’s talk about Myst.
“Immersive” is definitely a buzz word that has been growing in popularity in the escape room industry over the last few years. Designers and companies strive to make their players feel immersed in a world. There are many discussions of elaborate sets, seamless technology, and environmental storytelling.
But there is one tool I have rarely seen discussed: music.
Music has shaped so much of our art and entertainment. Whether it is opera, film, or video games, I doubt there is anyone who can imagine these mediums completely devoid of music. It lets us know how to feel. It helps tell the story. It builds the world. It is one of my favourite parts of the entertainment I consume. And yet I rarely see it discussed in escape rooms.
Spoiler alert: I will be talking about the ending of the Sixth Sense. It is twenty years old, but there might be a likely hood you have not seen it….but still, I am going to discuss it.
I remember being in the theatre when I first saw The Sixth Sense, long before it became one of the most quoted movies of all time. Come on, we all know the scene. Little Haley Joel Osmand clings his blanket closer to him, looks fearfully at Bruce Willis, and utters the phrase “I see dead people….”
Today was the last day of our vacation. It has been an intense three days and felt more like three weeks. We played 16 escapes in just over three days. Although we are tired we have sworn to make this an annual thing.
EDIT: If you are interested in our thoughts in audio form, check out the podcast we recorded on the trip!
Our second day in Seattle was less intense than our first but no less interesting. Today was the day we finally got to try out the fabled Locurio! Read the rest of this entry
Today was our first marathon day in Seattle. We did six rooms. Six very puzzle heavy rooms. I. AM. TIRED.
I am back with another escape room vacation! Yaaay! This time we are tackling some of the west coast of North America!
Shortly after booking our NOLA trip, my friend Errol learned that his sister would be in Vancouver for a week while her daughter went to camp. She was despairing about how little she would have to do other than miss her daughter.
So naturally the solution was to invite ourselves along and travel to the west coast to do as many escape rooms as we could! I very briefly considered whether two escape trips in a year was too much/costly…then decided not to think about it anymore. And here we are!
Ontario Bumpkin Status: 60%
Because I am still in my beloved Canada, there is not really much culture shock going on. That does not mean however that British Columbia does not have its differences!
There are mountains! They’re huge! And misty!
In Toronto it’s about 30°C and summer has officially kicked off. In Vancouver it is 16°C. I am already sick of wearing pants again.
In BC there are many traffic lights that flash green. Apparently this means they will only turn red when a pedestrian needs to pass. To us it looks like something is just very wrong with the light.
The water in Vancouver is better than Toronto. Hands down. It’s wonderfully soft and is probably drawn from some wonderful mountain stream. I don’t want to go back to Toronto water.
The jet lag is only 3 hours, but it’s still jet lag (that was originally spelled “lage”. Hurray for minor post jet lag editing!). I am so tired.
I saw a steam clock! I went full tourist and took about twenty photos of it.
We managed two escapes today at Find&Seek. The first was The Curse of Madame Zita’s Curiousities and the second Mystery At the Magestic Theatre.
I think there was some sort of overarching narrative for the entire facility…something to do with time travel or dimension travel…but darned if I could actually hear the initial monologue all that well. I must be getting old. Luckily it was not integral to the rest of the room so we still managed to get through. Still, it would be nice to find out what sort of narrative work went into the rooms.
I’ve come to realize how much I’ve come to appreciate good feedback in a room, even if it does not always make sense to the narrative. Having sound effects declare whether you got a puzzle right or not really helped with the flow of the room.
There were some neat little reveals and the puzzle solutions all made sense. The sets were solid. Everyone got a chance to have a hero moment. For the most part, we had fun.
But then came…the logic puzzle.
Let’s talk about logic puzzles. I love logic puzzles. Actually. I love the feeling in my brain when another solution slides into place.
But in escape rooms…they are difficult to do. They are naturally designed to be longer, usually only one person can work on them, and the more complex you make them the more tedious they get in an escape room scenario.
This logic puzzle was…more complex than usual. There were two or three layers to each clue before we were able to confirm which item was what, there was a lot of information to try and hold in our head, and there was some outside historical knowledge that very few people would know off hand.
It got very frustrating very quickly. Admittedly, we made a mistake on our own that did not help our situation. But even without that, we spent about ten minutes on one puzzle. By the time we finally asked our GM for the answer, I was done with the room.
Which is a shame, because it started so strongly. It’s a bit of a bias, but logic puzzle by committee simply does not work as well as designers like to think it does. Every time it has happened in an escape, especially where there are more than five clues, it grinds the whole game to a halt and I am jolted out of the experience.
Errol was not shy about pointing out his problems with the room after. Our poor GM was a good sport and did his best to take the criticism and frustration in stride. The puzzle ended up leaving a bitter taste in an otherwise perfectly good experience. Still, looking forward to what else Find & Seek will come out with!
Vancouver does not really have much in the way of an escape room community. There are actually only about twenty facilities in Vancouver and the surrounding area. That does not mean it’s non-existent though.
We had lunch with Brian Hughes of Pandora’s Locks and proceeded to talk escape rooms for a full three hours. It was glorious. It was nice to hear an owner talk about experimentation and finding the next generation of room. Without experimentation, the medium cannot grow. We play his rooms on Wednesday and are looking forward to it!
Tomorrow is Seattle…we have six rooms booked…this should be entertainingly intense.