The Haunting of Bly Manor: A Defense
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.