October has arrived, heralding the official beginning of Spooky Season™—although it’s hard to imagine what could possibly be more horrifying than the year 2020 thus far. The world is full of reasons to be terrified, which is all the more reason to lose yourself in some entirely fictional, elegantly crafted horror storytelling. Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, a spiritual follow-up to 2018’s Haunting of Hill House, is here to satisfy that need.
Back in the Before Times, aka January of this year, I visited the Vancouver set of Bly Manor during a snowstorm that blanketed the entire city. It was an evocative, suitably dramatic atmosphere in which to explore the eerie world of the show, which explores many of the same themes as Hill House (trauma, loss, isolation) but comes at them through a very different angle. Where Hill House was a dysfunctional family drama cast through a horror lens, Bly Manor is a gothic romance about the loss of innocence. Here are nine (mostly) spoiler-free hints about what to expect from the new series.
Bly Manor takes place several thousands miles away from Hill House.
Bly Manor picks up in 1980s England, where Victoria Pedretti’s American, Dani, is a stranger. In the very first episode, we find her hustling hard to find a job during her early days in London, where she’s moved from the U.S. in a bid to reinvent herself. Eventually, she finds work as a governess at a country estate named Bly Manor—a position that has been mysteriously vacant for months.
“Dani has left the United States for the sake of starting a new life,” Pedretti told journalists during the set visit. “She feels like her life in the United States has not been for herself. She’s lived for others, she’s made herself small. The scope with which she can imagine her future is very limited, and she wants something different for herself.” After tragedy strikes back home, Dani is pushed to finally take the plunge and cross the pond—and reinvent herself in the process. “She goes from everybody in her life calling her Danielle to insisting on being called Dani, because she’s re-finding herself. And she ends up finding herself at this house, taking care of these two children.” Given what we know about the show and its brand of psychological horror, it’s probably safe to bet this journey of self-discovery is not going to be an easy one.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is about love.
[Fleabag voice] This is a love story. Really! Whereas season 1 was about the bonds between family, season 2 explores love in various forms: from romantic to platonic, from toxic to empowering. “This is definitely a love story,” creator Mike Flanagan told journalists on set. Executive producer Trevor Macy added that the new season features “a lot of exploration of different kinds of love in this, whereas the first season was a little more about loss.”
Pedretti, who returns as the star of this season following her breakout performance as Nell Crain in Hill House, said the show’s nuanced exploration of love was part of what drew her to the story. “We display a lot of different kinds of love—toxic love, convenient love, practical love,” she teased. “When Dani comes to the U.K,, she’s definitely not looking for love, but she finds these beautiful connections. She does end up finding somebody that she begins to feel really safe and loved by and attracted to.”
The show is not based on a single novel.
Unlike The Haunting of Hill House, Bly Manor takes inspiration from a number of different texts, all written by author Henry James. The main source material is James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, which tells the story of a young governess who takes a job caring for two orphans at a remote English countryside manor, and becomes convinced the house is haunted. While that loosely describes Dani’s arc, the show is far from a straightforward adaptation.
“One of the unique things about this season is that while we’re using The Turn of the Screw as kind of the backbone of it, we’re also digging into all of the other Henry James ghost stories,” Flanagan explained. “Turn of the Screw’s been adapted so many times that it’s really hard to make that feel fresh, but once we opened it up to the rest of his work, and a lot of it that’s never been adapted, there’s just a lot more to pull from.”
Hill House fans will notice several familiar faces playing very different roles.
Asked about similarities between Dani and Nell, Pedretti reflected that they “both are kind of silenced as they’re growing up. Nell is actively silenced by her family, and Dani is more silenced by society, and the expectations on women, and the expectations of what is acceptable in the way you live your life. It’s really hard to exist in a way that challenges societal norms. It kind of turns your existence into a constant protest.”
Aside from Pedretti, the show also brings back Oliver Jackson-Cohen (who played Luke Crain) and Henry Thomas (who played the young incarnation of Hugh Crain)—plus a few more returning actors we’ll keep as a surprise. But the actors and creators alike were keen not to repeat themselves, so the Hill House veterans are all playing very different characters this time around. Jackson-Cohen’s Peter Quint, for instance, is a suave and manipulative charmer who couldn’t be further removed from the tortured, drug-addicted Luke.
“For a lot of us, with season 1, we didn’t want to revisit a lot of the places we went,” Flanagan explained. “I know for Ollie, who really went through the ringer with how he was diving into addiction and depression, he felt like he had really crawled out of something by the end of [Hill House]. He really put himself through it.” So it would have felt cruel, not to mention repetitive, to cast him in a similar role here. That’s not to say Quint doesn’t have a dark side—far from it.
American Horror Story was an influence.
Not tonally, but in terms of Flanagan’s approach to the Haunting anthology series. “Something I love about any anthology series, and one of the things I think is the most fun about American Horror Story, is watching how they decontextualize everyone,” he noted. “And kind of figuring out as you watch that it’s not about who’s coming back, but ‘what are they gonna do this time?’”
Bly Manor will expand its ghost horizons.
Who could forget the subliminally terrifying “hidden ghosts” peppered throughout The Haunting of Hill House? Confirming that there are more terrifying Easter eggs coming our way this season, Flanagan also hinted that Bly Manor puts a new spin on its ghosts. “Hill House was a very contained story,” he noted. “It was a story that from the beginning felt like a feature film, it was really hard to expand it out. In this case, we just have so much more material, and a lot of different kinds of ghosts. There are going to be some thematic echoes of season 1 in this, and one of [the biggest ones] is that idea that a ghost can be a lot of different things, most of which are very human.”
Corruption of innocence is the core theme of the show.
Where Hill House focused on generational trauma in families, Bly Manor is “more a season about lost innocence, and the trauma of growing up,” Flanagan says.”There are echoes of season 1, in that it’s about these children whose parents are dead, but the siblings’ dynamics have been replaced by something new.” That something new is the “found family” dynamic that emerges between Dani, her young charges Flora and Miles, and the rest of Bly Manor’s staff. “This is kind of about an improvised family, and about people who don’t have a family.”
Keep your eyes and ears peeled for Hill House callbacks.
Although there is no direct narrative link between the two shows, there are references scattered throughout for super-fans to enjoy. “There are absolutely little nods, but they’re very subtle,” Flanagan says. “A lot in dialogue—you’ll hear familiar phrases, but it was really important to the actors, and to Victoria especially, that she wanted to be as unfamiliar as possible. So there are neat little moments where this season and the last season touch each other, but it’s way more in ideas than it is in specific narrative or character connections.”
Mental illness is explored in new ways.
One of the most resonant aspects of Hill House was its depiction of mental illness through generations of the Crain family—most memorably for Nell and Luke. While it’s less of a central theme in the new season, Pedretti says psychology remains a focal point. “The show deals with trauma, for sure, and the ways our perspective of the world can be shaped by our circumstances instead of our imagination.”
Dani deals with debilitating panic attacks when she’s under extreme stress, Pedretti revealed, “and you see the way in which she isn’t destroyed by it. It’s extremely painful and she’s clearly ashamed of it. But [someone] comes into her life who helps her to release the shame by choosing to be vulnerable herself. Through the season, you see her become stronger and stronger, and fiercer and fiercer, and more of an advocate and a protector for the people around her, because she’s not beating herself up with shame so much.”
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