The Haunting of Bly Manor doesn’t waste any time before it gets to the haunting. In the opening minutes of the series — long before we lay eyes on Bly Manor itself — we get our first glimpse of the ghost that haunts our protagonist, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti): a strange, shadowy figure with yellow lights for eyes, staring at her from the reflection in a passing car’s window.
And while it’s a little too early in the season to start tossing out theories, I think there’s a clue here. Long before The Haunting of Bly Manor opens the front door of its stately, titular English country house, we learn that Dani is already haunted. Whatever is waiting for her inside Bly Manor, she’s bringing her own ghosts with her.
From the very beginning, Bly Manor signals that the season will be consumed with the tragedies of the past. The series premiere opens in 2007 at a purportedly haunted castle in Northern California, where a group of guests is drinking on the eve of a young couple’s wedding. (I’m not quite sure why these partiers all agree that they want to hear a ghost story, even if Carla Gugino is the one who offers to tell it.)
And with that, Bly Manor is off to London in 1987, where we’re swiftly introduced to Dani. An American expat who’s not in any hurry to return to her home country, she jumps at the chance to be a live-in au pair to a couple of orphaned children at a manor in the English countryside.
Theoretically, the two kids are under the care of their uncle, Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), but you don’t get the sense that he’s all that interested in the job. Dani, by contrast, seems to view caring for them as both a privilege and a moral duty. In an emotional monologue, she describes how she abandoned her job as a schoolteacher because she couldn’t make a difference for all 25 of the children in her class, no matter how much she loved them. She’s confident, however, that she can do it with these two.
After a little hemming and hawing, Dani gets the job, and she’s on her way to Bly Manor. But the purity of her motives remains an open question. She’s clearly running from something, and you might think a full-time job in a remote, old house would be enough to get her to safety — yet her habit of obsessively covering every reflective surface in a room with a cloth screen certainly implies that whatever chases her is never far behind.
At Bly Manor, Dani meets the rest of the skeleton staff charged with looking after the place: Owen, the cook (Rahul Kohli); Jamie, the groundskeeper (Amelia Eve); and Hannah Grose, the housekeeper (T’Nia Miller). But much of the episode focuses on the children themselves. This is the big gamble of The Haunting of Bly Manor — can it find two child actors capable of the nuance and ambiguity required to make every aspect of this story work?
After one episode, I am very confident in saying: maybe! Ten-year-old Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) is polite but brooding, and he was expelled from his boarding school under murky circumstances. He seems to be testing Dani — handing her both a butterfly hairpin and a spider in an effort to gauge how she’ll react to kindness or cruelty. His sister, 8-year-old Flora (Amelie Bea Smith), is mostly precocious and cheerful. She also has her own strange qualities, including a penchant for creepy dolls and a tendency to seek advice from Miss Jessel, who is either an imaginary friend or a ghost.
Which is it? As the episode ends, that remains another tantalizingly open question. Near the end, Hannah sketches in a vague biography of the real-life Miss Jessel, who served as Miles and Flora’s previous au pair until — after a bad encounter with a man — she walked into a pond and drowned herself. Flora found Jessel’s corpse, and there’s no telling how and when that kind of trauma may manifest. But just when you might be inclined to write the whole “imaginary friend Jessel” thing off as a coping mechanism, Dani spots another mysterious figure — a strange man frowning at her from a balcony in a dusty wing of the house that’s supposed to be sealed.
Yes, something is wrong at Bly. So when Miles and Flora lock Dani into a closet at the end of the episode, is it a childish prank gone wrong or something more sinister? Are Dani’s subsequent panic attack and breakdown due to a ghost she can see in the mirror, or to her belief that she can see a ghost in the mirror?
Maybe the real question is: Does it matter? During her monologue in the small chapel on the manor grounds, Hannah’s speech is underpinned by a recurring musical motif from the Haunting of Hill House score. It’s here that the connection between these two ghost stories, separated by both geography and time, finally becomes clear. Ghosts or not, everybody’s haunted by something. And whatever these houses bring out in their residents, it will need to be dealt with.
Bumps in the night:
• Hidden ghosts: I am by no means an expert ghost hunter, but I’ll do my best to spot those hidden in the background throughout Bly Manor (a trick that series creator Mike Flanagan also used, to brilliant effect, in The Haunting of Hill House). There’s at least one ghost who pops up a couple of times in the Bly Manor premiere, though I’m sure I didn’t catch him every time. He looks like a plague doctor; at the very least, he’s wearing a mask with a long, hooked beak. He turns and looks at Dani during her midnight walk at 32:09 and in the hallway behind her at 50:02. He’s also in the window behind Dani at 29:06. (You can even spot him briefly in this promo video Netflix released prior to Bly Manor’s premiere; go to 0:32 and look in the doorway to Dani’s left.) As for what he’s doing there? I don’t know yet, but Flanagan has indicated that the hidden ghosts in Bly Manor will actually tie in to the story this time around, so keep your eyes peeled and stay tuned. And if you spot any ghosts I miss, please share them in the comments below!
• If you’re curious about the source material for Bly Manor and want to go deeper, you have no shortage of options. In addition to the original Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, there are tons of options worth exploring. You can skip last year’s disappointing The Turning, but 1961’s The Innocents is a horror classic that has lost none of its power in the decades since its release. And although the 2009 BBC adaptation isn’t very good, Downton Abbey fans will get a kick out of it because it co-stars Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens.
• The Turn of the Screw is short and ambiguous enough that a bunch of people have come up with their own riffs and expansions on the original story. There’s a surprisingly good 1971 prequel called The Nightcomers, which earned star Marlon Brando a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor. There’s a literary sequel that was released to a mixed reception in 2012. And there’s the Joyce Carol Oates story “Accursed Inhabitants of House Bly,” from the 1995 collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, which revisits the events of The Turn of the Screw from a very different perspective.
• Flanagan clearly intends to use Bly Manor to pay tribute to previous adaptations of The Turn of the Screw, especially The Innocents, which he has said is his favorite adaptation. To that end: “O Willow Waly,” the song that opens Bly Manor, is also sung by Flora in The Innocents. And in James’s original, the governess remains unnamed, but Bly Manor calls her Dani Clayton, an apparent tribute to Jack Clayton, the director of The Innocents.
• In The Turn of the Screw, Miles and Flora’s uncle is also unnamed. Bly Manor gives him the name Wingrave, which is borrowed from another Henry James ghost story, “Owen Wingrave.”
• The residents’ repeated insistence that Bly Manor is “a great good place” is an homage to yet another Henry James story. I like that it gets less convincing every time someone says it — as if they have all conspired to deploy the same weirdly specific phrase in an effort to put Dani at ease.
• The wedding that opens the episode is a framing device half-borrowed from The Turn of the Screw, in which the main story is recounted by a narrator at a Christmas Eve party.
• As Ryan Murphy has done with American Horror Story, Flanagan is treating his Haunting of [Insert Spooky House] series as an opportunity to cast his favorite actors in different roles. Hill House fans will recognize Gugino, Pedretti, Thomas, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in this one.
• The groom at the wedding is played by none other than Greg Sestero, who costarred in the legendary so-bad-it’s-good movie The Room (and later co-wrote The Disaster Artist, a memoir about his experience of filming it).
• The Fixx song “One Thing Leads to Another” is playing in the pub. It was memorably used in another horror story about a big spooky house.
• There’s something weird about the way the show cuts from Owen picking Dani up in a car in London to Dani waking up in the back seat with Bly Manor looming on the horizon. In this tight premiere, it feels as if we’re missing a big chunk of story there, which is made only more obvious by the extreme visual contrast between London and Bly. Given Flanagan’s penchant for twisted chronologies, maybe we’ll eventually go back and see this chunk of story through Owen’s eyes.
• A hint from Flanagan to keep in mind as you watch the season: “The more attention a viewer focuses on Flora’s dollhouse, the more they’re likely to see what’s happening and why.”
• And finally, The Turn of the Screw is in the public domain, so you can read the whole thing here anytime you want. That said, my friendly advice is to track down the oldest, dustiest hardback copy you can find, pour yourself a nice glass of red wine, and read it only after the sun goes down.