Horror as a genre has always seemed a bit ridiculous to me, mainly because I believed that it mostly just feeds off a person's reflexes to loud and sudden noises. It thrives mostly because of the perfect environment that a cinema hall provides it – a large dark room filled with strangers making little to no noise (unlikely if in an Indian theatre). And partly because the idea of ghosts and monsters never seemed believable to me, not even when I was a child.
So, in 2018 when The Haunting of the Hill House premiered on Netflix, I wasn't the least interested, ignorantly sure that horror couldn't possibly have enough depth to sustain ten episodes. Call it luck or a horror enthusiast mother, but I ended up watching the series anyway, finally bursting my prejudice bubble. The story of the Crain family scared me because the ghosts that haunted them were tangible. The series felt like a personal revelation for the genre, like horror stood self-reflecting and realized that all the folklores, myths, and creatures put together couldn't possibly be as scary as plain and simple reality. On a technical note, I understood that the more time I spent with the haunted characters (series vs movie), the more their ghosts became mine. The Haunting of Hill House was my first. Hugh, Shirley, Theo, Luke, and Nell still live with me and within me.
Needless to say, The Haunting of Bly Manor had the tough job of being a follow-up act even though the two share no evident narrative links. The show ended up meeting outlandishly high expectations because as different as the two stories, sets and characters might be, one thing didn't change: the ghosts are still very much real.
The premise, like with its predecessor, is typical. A woman attending a wedding rehearsal dinner sits down with the bride, groom, and family to narrate the story of Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) who is hired by Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) as an au pair to look after his niece and nephew, who are left in his care after their parent's death, in their manor in Bly. But as it always goes, the perfect job in a quiet and beautiful countryside manor starts to show its ugly side. The other important presences are the sweet but distant housekeeper Hannah (T'Nia Miller), the charming and dutiful cook Owen (Rahul Kohli), and the carefree tomboy gardener Rebecca (an excellent Tahirah Sharif). The surface seems like an old-fashioned yawn fest. But as you scratch the surface of each episode, you realize that the show's creator, Mike Flanagan, is bolder and more daring in his pursuit of the true nature of horror in this second outing. Hill House, with all of its creative narrative and memorable characters, still held dearly to genre tropes, executing them to perfection. This time around those tropes are almost completely rejected; the fear is internal, both for the characters onscreen and viewers off it. The ghosts in the Manor are faceless, the part of the body usually exaggerate to make them scary. The clichés are turned into an inside joke. This is most evident when the sound of knocking, a common trope, is used to scare the one who is supposed to do the haunting.
Due to its narrative structure, The Haunting of Bly Manor also owns the theatricality that the genre is infamous for: the show at all times looks like a finely produced play. Everything seems constructed, too carefully placed, from the costumes and make-up to the sets. We are watching the imagination of all the listeners at the rehearsal dinner who are convinced that this is just a made-up story. The acting is right up there in support, the accents are in-your-face and some dialogues took me back to the uncomfortable and tiny seats of West End theatres in London. Victoria Pedretti anchors the show with a performance that is as emotional as it is embellished and, on the back of You season two, she is proving to be a force to be reckoned with. Also, a special ironic shoutout to the diversity of a show set in '80s countryside England.
But two days after I finished watching the series it is not the cheekiness of the show that compels me to write about it. No, it is the chilling feeling that the show left me with when it took away the ghosts from the equation. In the first episode itself, when Miles, the elder of the two kids, shows a spider to Dani, she claims it would take a lot more than that to scare her, that all her life a lot of kids have tried to scare her in different ways. Dani was me in that moment, challenging the show to be more, more than its counterparts. "I wasn't trying to scare you. I knew you wouldn't be frightened, I knew that about you right away," Miles replies. The show seemed to have accepted the dare. When the ghosts were taken away only the humans remained, and what is scarier than that? We meet Dani and know straight away she is running from something; she meets Henry and we know he is hiding from something. Owen's unhappiness doesn't take too long to surface. Hannah is lost, tucked away somewhere from her first scene. Rebecca harbors her own issues, and the scale of the tragedy that the kids have faced is evident. The other characters – a strong woman trying to make her way in the male world, a manipulative man trying to outdo the class difference, a mother yearning for her kid, and a frustrated sister – are so intricately detailed that the show sometimes starts to feel like a romantic drama. The ghost Dani fears the most throughout is only a figment of her imagination. Whenever Dani is framed in a mid-shot the background is blurred, emphasizing that nothing out there could scare her as much as what is inside her. The same goes for the kids who unexpectedly from the start seem to be in on the secret and protect the adults from ghosts. Their nightmarish life has already prepared them. The spirit that they have to exorcise, the curse they have to lift, is love.
Every character is struggling with different types of love – forbidden love, infidel love, possessive love, unspoken love, and even non-romantic love. Each comes with its own set of regrets, disappointments, and fears. The regret of not saying something sooner, disappointment that comes with being too selfish, and fear of being left behind. And these three follow our characters from the first episode to the last, keeping them up at night. Watch any bad romantic movie of the past five years and it will tell you this generation's dread – relationships. It's a multifaceted terror and it makes you wonder if the only thing those films got wrong was their genre. The viewers habituated by years of training will wait patiently at the foot of Bly Manor for the loud background music to kick in. But as the episodes go by, they will care as little as the creator himself about the actual "ghost problem", which is resolved in minutes because the demons that possess these characters are undying. The show's theatrics might be of '80s but its soul is very much from 2020. And all of us stuck in our homes for months on end can understand one thing for sure: that ultimately the horror didn't lie in them seeing a ghost but in the fact that they might actually be all alone in the room. The fear is that no one would ever knock and open that door.