Culture Film & TV

The Haunting of Bly Manor – The Spiritual Sequel to The Haunting of Hill House

This time in 2018, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, based upon the 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, was taking the world by storm. Now, Netflix has released its follow-up, The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. The trailer promised a series just as frightening as the first and, although not a direct sequel, the clear similarities make Bly Manor a spiritual one.

Normally when books are adapted to film or television, there’s a great furore about the adaptation’s accuracy. However, Mike Flanagan, the creator of the two series, has based them so loosely on the written word that instead of a The Golden Compass-esque outcry we’re left with perfectly good television that retains spiritual links to its source material but doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not.

 Bly Manor follows American au pair Dani Clayton as she takes on two children in a remote village. She’s an anxious but stoic heroine whose care of the children almost makes up for her abominable impression of a British accent in the first episode.

One of the reasons that Bly Manor is a spiritual successor to Hill House is that much of the original cast returns, and it’s a pleasure to see them playing different characters rather than just rehashes of their original ones. This is particularly true for Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who was one of the most sympathetic characters in Hill House but is now a diabolical piece of work, like his character in the 2020 remake of The Invisible Man. Unfortunately, the return of so many cast members gives the impression that Bly Manor will follow the same beats as Hill House, which it most certainly doesn’t.

Indeed, some returning cast members don’t have as notable parts as might be expected. Victoria Pedretti, the ill-fated Nell Crain in Hill House, is once again in the lead as Dani Clayton and just as haunted by spirits as Nell was. Kate Siegel, however, is relegated to a crucial but brief flashback role. Similarly, Carla Gugino, whose role was instrumental in Hill House, serves only as the narrator in Bly Manor – and, given that the series can’t decide whether it wants narration or not, that role seems wasted until the end when all becomes clear.

Bly Manor focuses on dolls and Inception-like jumping through memories. The ghosts are still hidden in the background as before, but Flanagan waits for too long before bringing them to the fore. After all, the ghosts are what we want to see. So, if you’re expecting the same amount of paranormal activity as in Hill House, you’ll be disappointed. Unlike its spiritual predecessor, in Bly Manor the suspense rarely pays off in scares but rather in increasingly tragic and heart-breaking revelations.

There are some excellent new features in Bly Manor, but they’re underused and instead the series devotes more time and energy to more familiar things from Hill House. The manor contains a doll house whose dolls are all representations of the residents of the manor – both living and dead. It highlights the ghosts’ whereabouts for the audience and the children, but it’s frustrating that none of the adult characters ever realise its significance. This is unlike the treehouse in Hill House, the adults’ and children’s understanding of which converges as the plot nears its climax. The characters of Bly Manor never reach the same kind of mutual understanding.

One of the best things about Bly Manor is Hannah the housekeeper. Following the example of Hill House, though, Hannah’s development has some of the best clues scattered throughout the narrative. While Hannah is not necessarily a main character, T’Nia Miller’s portrayal makes her arc the most impactful and most similar to those of the main characters in Hill House. Unfortunately, that impact is hampered by its delivery that again makes Bly Manor feel like a spiritual successor that hasn’t quite found its own way. Hannah’s story is told in the fifth episode. And, while it does move the main story forward somewhat, the use of an entire episode feels like padding. It’s also frustrating that the episode ends with a shattering revelation about Hannah’s character that she doesn’t even acknowledge until two episodes later.

The series pulls this trick again in the final confrontation with the ghosts, keeping viewers in suspense with an episode right in the middle of the action that takes a painfully long time to reveal a lot of important information. It would have been more effective for that information to be scattered throughout the narrative and pulled together during the confrontation. While Bly Manor is trying to be different from Hill House, this is one place where it would definitely have benefitted from taking more than just spiritual cues. 

While less consistent than in Hill House, the use of flashbacks in Bly Manor is more clearly signposted. However, the flashbacks in Hill House were consistent and the narratives of the present and past eventually converged. The same clarity can’t be said of Bly Manor. While everything comes together at the end of both series, the progression of that coming together in the new series is difficult to see on the first viewing. This means that anyone expecting a twist as brilliant as the Bent-Neck Lady will be disappointed. There is one revelation tied to Victoria Pedretti’s character of Dani that seems to be the Bly Manor version of the Bent-Neck Lady, but it pales in comparison.  

It’s probably clear by now that anyone going into The Haunting of Bly Manor expecting another The Haunting of Hill House is going to be disappointed. That’s a shame because alone Bly Manor is a very good ghost story with a diverse and talented cast and well-written characters, none of whom are shoved unceremoniously into stereotypes based on their race, gender, or sexuality, as happens more often than not. And so, it’s best to appreciate it as a spiritual sequel to Hill House whilst admiring what it dares to do differently. 

Chloé Agar

Chloé (she/her) is an Egyptologist who, when not studying obscure ancient languages, writes fantasy and sci-fi fiction and non-fiction articles on education and the arts for The Oxford Blue, The Oxford Student, and Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative.