Netflix’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor” was cursed from its very conception. The show is the second entry in the “Haunting” anthology, preceded by the now-legendary “Haunting of Hill House.” “Hill House” was a heart-stopping series that seemed to master the horror genre. Being the follow-up act to anything that good is unenviable. Be too different and fans of the previous entry won’t like you. Be too similar and there’s no point in your existence. A sweet spot must be found between the old and new identity, and “Bly Manor” tries desperately to carve out its own niche of horror while still feeling familiar. “Bly Manor” succeeds in some ways, but ultimately fails to escape the spectre of its forebear and condemns itself to be an ineffectual piece of horror.
In order to be a truly effective piece of horror media, a story must inspire two feelings in the audience: terror and dread. Terror comes from shock, the moments when the ghosts run out of the shadows and scream at us just when we had forgotten about them. Dread is cultivated and long lasting, a heavy uneasiness that comes from the realization that there are ghosts lurking in the shadows and they will inevitably reveal themselves. Dread is the knowledge that we are not safe, the long silence, and terror is the actualization of that knowledge, the “boo.”
There are moments of sudden terror in “Hill House” that make you scream your lungs out, but where that show excels is dread. In the background of any given scene, there are ghostly figures outside doorways, hands peeking out from beneath couches, strangers peeking from the edge of the screen. These ghosts are never acknowledged by either the camera or by a musical sting, but once we notice them their presence becomes oppressive and unwanted. If you rely too much on terror you become predictable. If you rely too much on dread you become tedious. And if you rely on neither, you become “The Haunting of Bly Manor.”
“Bly Manor” is not particularly scary. It inspires little dread so its terrors lack impact, and its terrors are so lackadaisical that we barely dread them. I had to be informed that the show uses the same “ghosts in the periphery” gimmick as its predecessor, as I never noticed any of the ghosts. Haunted house stories should be as much about the house as the haunting. The settings should be oppressive entities in and of themselves. The mansion in “Hill House” literally digests the sanity of its inhabitants. The titular setting of “Bly Manor” is a nice little estate where ghosts just happen to be, and while we’re told that Bly is this “gravity well” where people stagnate, that aspect of the setting is barely demonstrated.
The building’s history, the main thing which gives a haunted house its personality and meaning, feels tacked-on, summarized in the second-to-last episode without any previous hinting or resounding meaning. I don’t want “Bly Manor”’ to be the same horror as its predecessor, but it would be nice if it were any kind of horror at all. This show steps into the “creepy kids” trope for its scares, and while the uncertainty surrounding Miles and Flora, the two children living at Bly Manor, does inspire some dread, the pair often feel more frustrating than frightening.
Despite my criticisms, a horror story can be more than the fear it creates. The show’s self-stated thesis is that it is a love story and that “all love stories are ghost stories.” Many characters are haunted, both literally and metaphorically, by love: failed past relationships, missed opportunities, toxic partners, abusive families, etc. The show explores how love sticks to you even after it is long gone, how it can possess you, torment you and lift you up. Some of the characters aren’t even haunted by supernatural entities but by physiological manifestations of their own guilt and insecurity from past relationships. This adherence to theme saves the series from the mire of meh it would have otherwise been.
However “Bly Manor” does not mix its romance and horror well, and the series can be a jumbled mess. Instead of being both a love story and a horror story, it should have tried to be one horrific romance. For most of the series, Bly Manor’s haunting centers around the romance of two ghosts, Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif) and Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). We are shown that Quint is abusive and manipulative towards Jessel (he’s even introduced with the song “Tainted Love”), and while their relationship can be uncomfortable and disturbing in how it pans out, the show doesn’t go far enough in exploring how such abuse traps and destroys a person. I wish the show structured itself around the perspective of these two and the devastation of their dalliance. A disturbing romance from the perspective of the ghosts would have made “Bly Manor” a truly unique horror story. However, “Bly Manor” goes for a straightforward ghostly mystery, making it feel standard and condemning it to a fate worse than death: to be constantly compared to “Hill House.”
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” is a pleasant little mess. While it fails to be the terrifying and meticulous character study “Hill House” is, it succeeds in being a joyously melancholy exploration of the terrors and dreads of love. It feels like “Bly Manor” didn’t believe in itself and instead of leaning fully into its disturbing romance it acquiesces to trying to be “Hill House Two” with the same washed-out color palate and innocuous figures accosting the background. In the end it captures none of the lightning “Hill House” did, and winds up being an unexceptional ghost story, with obnoxiously obvious twists, scares you envision minutes before they happen and a last-minute final boss ghost who feels like an afterthought. “Bly Manor” is haunted by the ghost of “Hill House” and though it is enjoyable in its own right, the eventual comparison is hardly flattering.