Thoughts on Flanagan's 'The Haunting of Bly Manor'
WARNING: contains spoilers for both The Turn of the Screw book AND The Haunting of Hill House Netflix series
If you’re even half the fan of horror and/or Victorian Gothic that I am, you’re probably revelling in the newly released trailer for The Haunting of Bly Manor, the successor to Mike Flanagan’s highly successful The Haunting of Hill House Netflix series. Set to premier on 9 October 2020 with several original cast members confirmed to return for this second season, expectations are high. However, at least for me personally, this is not just because it’s a long-awaited follow up to one of the most successful horror shows of recent years – like Hill House (which was based on Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name), the new season is also based on one of history's most celebrated Gothic tales: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).
The Turn of the Screw is probably James’s most famous work, and arguably one of the best ghost stories of the nineteenth century. The book is set in the Victorian era and follows a governess who is employed at a remote manor in the English countryside to take care of two orphaned siblings, Miles and Flora. The two children are the niece and nephew of the manor’s owner, who is absent from the narrative and whose only instructions to the governess are to watch over the children and not to contact him. Aside from the kids, the only other person living and working on the premises is the family’s housekeeper, Mrs Grose.
In this small and secluded company, the governess is charmed by both the children, the grounds, and the independence she gains from acting as lady of the house. However, as the tale progresses, she begins to believe the children may be haunted by two ghosts: her predecessor (Miss Jessel) and another previous employee of the household (Peter Quint). In time, the governess learns that Miss Jessel and Quint were in an illegitimate relationship, and she begins to fear that they have returned from the dead to lead the children astray, perhaps even to claim the children for themselves.
If you haven’t read the Turn of the Screw, I wouldn’t be too worried about the above summary acting as a spoiler for Flanagan’s retelling, as it seems that Bly Manor will follow the lead of Hill House, diverging from the original story in various ways.
The most notable difference between James’s book and the glimpse of Bly Manor shown in the trailer is the time it is set. Whilst James’s story was written and set in the nineteenth century, Flanagan’s take follows the footsteps of Hill House and has been moved forwards into the late-twentieth century. This said, we should not rule out the possibility of multiple timelines for this season, as the trailer opens with a woman saying “I have a story. A ghost story”, implying that there is a frame narrative with past events being recounted by someone after everything has unfolded. Such an opening not only echoes the first season, which alternates between the Crain children's upbringing amongst ghosts and the Crain children as adults trying to escape their past, but also the frame narrative of the original story. The Turn of the Screw starts with a group of people listening to the story being told by a man, who reads the governess’s memoir aloud for their entertainment. One thing that already seems apparent is, if it is the governess recounting her own story in Flanagan’s version, then she has been given at least a little more agency than James’s original, whose experiences are shared twenty years after her death for the enjoyment of others .
However, this woman’s voice does not necessarily belong to the governess. Whilst the narration overlaps a shot of the governess (now re-cast as an au pair) walking towards an eerie doll in a decrepit room – thereby suggesting that she is narrating her own experience – the voice does not quite match that of the actress in this role, Victoria Pedretti. In fact, it sounds both deeper and characteristically different. Either this is an older governess reminiscing upon her time at Bly Manor and narrated by a different actor, or it is a different woman, perhaps another witness to the events that happened there.
Of the ten actors participating in this season, and therefore the most logical candidates for this voice, only nine have confirmed characters names, and of those nine only a handful are recognisable in the original book:
Victoria Pedretti: Dani Clayton, the au pair
T'Nia Miller: Hannah Grose
Tahirah Sharif: Rebecca Jessel
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: Peter Quint
Benjamin Evan Ainsworth: Miles Wingrave
Amelie Smith: Flora Wingrave
Henry Thomas: Henry Wingrave
Rahul Kohli: Owen
Amelia Eve: Jamie
Katie Siegel: [TBC]
Whilst the first six are directly taken from the book, Henry Wingrave, Owen, and Jamie are new names to James’s story. Although, they are not necessarily new characters. In the first instance, it has already been confirmed that Henry Wingrave is the children’s uncle, and there are suggestions that he plays a greater role in this retelling. Equally, one very minor character in the book is Luke, a servant who ferries the governess’s letters to and from Bly. Although Jamie has been confirmed as a gardener and Owen as the house chef, it is possible that Owen and/or Jaimie’s characters assume part of Luke’s role in Flanagan’s version, acting as a means of communication (perhaps of secrets?) between the governess, the Wingraves, and other staff at Bly.
This leaves the mystery of who Kate Siegel plays. With neither a character name nor any explicit cameo in the trailer, it is possible that Siegel acts as a focal point for the horror depicted in most of the promotional material to date: the lady in the water. This woman features greatly in the trailer; from the shots of her floating in and emerging from large bodies of water, the credit screens where her hair drifts behind the text, and the doll from the opening scene who is donned with similar hair and dress. In all the promotional material, the face of this woman is intentionally blurred or otherwise obscured. Considered together, the omission of Siegel’s character's name, her absence from the trailer, and the ambiguity surrounding the woman in water all strongly suggest that these phenomena are connected, and Siegel/the mystery woman’s role will be a grand reveal in the series. Whether she is the children’s mother, an older Flora, or someone else altogether (a staff member who witnessed the Jessel-Quint love affair and therefore needed disposing of?), she is certainly going to be one of the central horrors of and key to the secrets concerning Bly Manor.
This said, there are two other characters who, almost without fail, play a chief role in creating and maintaining the menacing atmosphere that haunts both James’s story and every adaptation/retelling to follow it: the children. As they star on the lion’s share of the various book covers, DVD jackets, and movie posters inspired by the Turn of the Screw, I was surprised that the children did not feature more heavily in the trailer and posters for Bly Manor. However, the little we do see suggests that Flanagan’s terrible twosome possess the full capacity for Gothic horror as they did in the book and the re-makes before them.
In James’s story, it is never clear whether Miles and Flora actually see ghosts, or fully comprehend the significance of Quint and Miss Jessel’s relationship. Nevertheless, there is always a sinister aura that lingers about them, with hints that they themselves have rather malicious, even terrifying natures and secrets. Flanagan appears to have continued this tradition of depicting the children as scary and potentially dangerous, with the trailer showing various shots of Miles staring ominously over his shoulder and down corridors, and Flora’s voice singing a chilling melody, followed by her casually shushing a creepy body shifting behind her. This would suggest that Flora, at the very least, has a sense for and maybe even an acceptance of the ghosts at Bly. If the entity she confidently silences is undoubtedly something from beyond the grave, then her self-assured command over it is inevitably a thing to be weary of, and to fear. Considering Flanagan’s own remark about Flora and her dolls, I would imagine there is very sound reason to be afraid:
“I think for kids, it’s about control. Kids have such little agency. Dolls provide that. But there’s also a darker side to it. Ownership, claiming someone, ceasing to look at them as a human, and instead, looking at them as an object, as a doll… The more attention a viewer focuses on Flora’s dollhouse…the more they’re likely to see what’s happening and why.”*
Taking into account Flanagan’s other comments about this season as a tragic love story concerning three people, his admission that Jessel is an “innocent caught up in forces she doesn’t fully grasp” while trapped in an abusive relationship with Quint, and confirmation that Quint is “a calculating business associate of the uncle’s who tends to take whatever he wants from Bly Manor, regardless of permission”, I would guess that any involvement of Jessel’s in the story’s horror warrants sympathy over repulsion. Despite evidence suggesting her story follows a similar trajectory of scandal, downfall, and misery as the original Miss Jessel, I would also guess that she is not to be feared or scorned for the same reasons as her original character. For starters, in the book, Miss Jessel is of a higher station than the lowly Quint, and a substantial part of the scandal is her stooping to engage romantically with someone of a lower class. In contrast, Flanagan’s Quint is described as a business associate while Jessel remains an au pair, suggesting the power dynamic is shifted sharply in his favour. Secondly, a consensual relationship out of wedlock does not have the scandalous connotations it did in the nineteenth century, and judging by the explicit comments about their relationship as toxic and abusive, I would guess that a combination of infidelity, assault, rape (note the word “permission” in the above quote), and/or murder feature heavily in Jessel’s narrative. If it were not for the mystery surrounding Siegel’s role and the fact that Flora is shown next to Jessel while playing with the aforementioned doll bearing resemblance to the lady in the water, I might even venture to suggest that Jessel is the ghostly woman.
On one hand, this doll could foreshadow future events, with Flora acting out the fate that is to befall Jessel. On the other, it is worth noting that the doll and lady alternate between a black and a white dress – perhaps there are two women in the water, one Jessel and the other a mystery. Considering this, it is also significant that Flanagan has confirmed that other stories by James will be incorporated into this series, including 'The Jolly Corner' and 'A Romance of Old Clothes'. The former is a tale about being haunted by ghosts of what might have been, the latter a story of two women's jealousy for one man, which has deadly consequences.
In writing all of this, I make no claims to have deciphered any of the plot for this new series. I simply love a good puzzle and, knowing that Flanagan’s second season will (unlike its predecessor) ultimately explain the stories behind the ghosts at Bly,** I couldn’t resist speculating about what might unfold and why before it is all revealed. Until the series airs, nothing will be certain (at least for the lowly likes of me), and I look forward to being able to fully explore questions I can’t begin to try and answer based on the trailer alone, such as how much of a role the house will play in the narrative, to what extent do the other stories by James feature, and so on.
The only thing that I am sure of is that, as with Hill House, Bly Manor will be a creative interpretation of the original story and not a faithful adaption. After thoroughly enjoying the first season of this series, I cannot stress enough how excited I am for this next instalment.
* All quotes by Flanagan are taken from his interview with Vanity Fair. The aritcle, by Anthony Breznican, can be read here: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/08/haunting-of-bly-manor-hill-house
** “This season [Bly Manor] we wanted our hidden elements to tell their own story. And very much unlike the first season, they’re actually going to be explained. By the end of the season, you’re going to know who they are and why they’re there,”. Quoted from the Vanity Fair interview.