[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 2 finale of The Haunting of Bly Manor, “The Beast in the Jungle.”]
The Haunting of Bly Manor is a sweeping, epic love letter to Gothic romance, but it’s not just an adaptation. It’s also might just be the best original piece of Gothic storytelling since people were still wearing petticoats. It might just be the best ghost story of my lifetime.
Cultivating from the collected ghost stories of Henry James and folding them into the broad strokes of his seminal haunted house novel The Turn of the Screw, Mike Flanagan’s nine-episode follow-up to his Netflix breakout The Haunting of Hill House is a knockout in its own right, and a tremendous gothic ghost story for modern audiences, built from the DNA of James’ works. As the episode titles make abundantly clear, Bly Manor draws from The Altar of the Dead, The Beast in the Jungle, The Jolly Corner, and many more of James’ spookiest tales, but it’s The Romance of Certain Old Clothes that proves perhaps the most obvious and essential inspiration for Bly Manor’s central ghost story: “The Lady in the Lake.”
While the show does borrow heavily from James’ particular brand of Gothic horror, Bly Manor also weaves a sprawling, haunting narrative all its own, well-populated with specters and apparitions, each one with their own tragic backstory. Following the basic narrative of Turn of the Screw, Bly Manor stars Victoria Pedretti as Dani, an American woman who takes a job at a manor in the English countryside as the au pair to two orphaned children, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). Mysteries and spooky happenings abound in the dark corners of the manor, staging an intricate tapestry of overlapping ghost stories, from the ill-fated lovers Rebecca, aka Miss Jessell (Tahirah Sharif), and Peter (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) to the devoted housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller) and the many faceless spirits trapped in Bly’s spiritual “glue trap”. But all those threads tie together in the story of the Lady in the Lake, a figure that looms large in the menace of Bly Manor from the first episode, but only truly reveals her full form and function in the penultimate episode, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes.
We get glimpses at the Lady, and the lake, throughout the season. Flora makes vague references and insists that a particularly eerie doll in her particularly eerie dollhouse must not be disturbed — a doll with long stringy black hair and no face who doesn’t sleep in the dollhouse with the rest of her figures, but instead sleeps across the room, in the dark beneath the dresser. But she doesn’t always sleep; she wakes and she walks, which we glimpse in the dollhouse and in the new sets of muddy tracks that appear in the foyer and frustrate Dani every morning. We finally see the Lady in action at the end of Episode 4, but out of frame and out of focus, the Lady trudges behind a drunken Dani while the kids hurry to distract their au pair from danger. And oh boy, that danger becomes imminently clear in the next episode, when we witness Peter’s death at the hands of the Lady in the Lake, who rounds the corner on her ritual walk, snatches him by the neck, snuffs out his life without missing a step, and drags his body back into the water with her.
However, it’s not until Episode 8 when we finally learn the truth of the Lady in the Lake; who she was in life, how she came to be a monster in death, and ultimately, how her story comes to be one with our dear au pair, Dani. The episode begins with Dani trapped in her deadly grasp after getting caught in the path of the Lady’s walk, but then, the series makes the bold choice to spend its penultimate episode in flashback, unfolding the Lady’s ghastly tale.
Fans of Henry James will be delighted that The Romance of Certain Old Clothes lives up to its title and is a complete adaptation in its own right; a ghost story within a ghost story. Taking us back to the middle of the 17th century, the episode introduces us to Viola (Kate Siegel) and her younger sister Perdita (Catherine Parker), heirs to Bly Manor who were orphaned when their father died, and quickly set about ensuring the estate would stay in the family by wooing a wealthy suitor named Arthur Floyd. As it was in James’ tale, both sisters shared a love of fashion and finery as well as great affection for Arthur, and he for them, but he could only choose one. In this telling, it’s the cunning elder sister, Viola, who wins his hand, but as the narration tells us, she quickly grew restless after claiming her prize, and at night she would stray from her marital bed. She would sleep, she would wake, and she would walk.
The birth of their beloved daughter, Isabelle, brought joy to Viola’s life, but it was tragically short-lived. When Viola fell sick with “the lung,” her doctor gave her a mere matter of months to live, and she was quarantined and hidden away from her family for her daughter’s safety. As Viola fell further to her illness, Perdita and Arthur only grew closer, and as Viola’s body twisted and contorted with sickness, her spirit seemed to do the same, turning cruel and bitter and jealous, striking her sister violently and lashing out in raging tirades. Isolated and alone; again, she would sleep, and wake, and walk.
But she would not give up. The woman who refused the promise to obey in her wedding vows also refused to obey death. When the priest came to her death bed, she would not participate in the Last Rites. Arthur pled for her soul, but Perdita stood by her sister’s will. “God should know better, she is as he made her,” Perdita clapped back. “She says she will not go, she will not.” And she would not. The story told around town was that death came for her nightly until, after being rejected too many times, it would come for her no more. But she grew sicker and sicker, in spirit and body, and knowing the end would eventually come, she locked away her best gowns and jewels as a nest egg for their her daughter and made her husband swear a vow that he would never open the chest until Isabelle was of age to claim her birthright.
Soon after, Arthur left town, and in his absence Perdita could take no more, smothering her own sister to death. When Viola awoke in the afterlife, she discovered she was trapped along with her finery, locked in her sickbed until the day came that her daughter opened the chest. With nothing else to do for all those years, she slept, woke, walked. Meanwhile, ill-luck fell on Bly and their riches ran out, and after pleading with Arthur to open the chest Viola left behind, Perdita took it upon herself. Viola, expecting to see the face of her beloved daughter at last and seeing her treacherous sister instead, strangled Perdita to death. That last act of rage sealed her fate, and when Arthur and Isabelle left Bly for good, they dropped the chest, and Viola along with it, into the lake, believing it was cursed.
In the mythology of the show, all fade over time, including spirits; their memories, personalities, and even their faces. As she did so many times before, Viola’s spirit spends her afterlife sleeping, waking, walking… and forgetting. She would emerge from the lake at night and walk through the house, looking for her daughter. She did this so long and so many times, eventually she forgot what she was looking for, filled with only a vague sense of loss and longing that kept her making her nightly rounds. Over the centuries, she caught a number of poor souls in her path – to name a few, a plague doctor, a small child, and of course, Peter, all of whom became trapped in the “gravity” of Viola’s cursed existence, and thus, trapped as ghosts at Bly Manor. Any soul that passed on the estate became stuck in that trap, including Mrs. Grose and Miss Jessell, and the tragic cycle might have continued were it not for Dani’s bravery and selflessness.
Because to tell the full story of the Lady in the Lake, we have to move beyond Viola and back to the present (or the 1980s, as it is in the series). With Dani caught in the Lady’s grasp, Flora pleaded with the ghost to let her go, and once again fuelled by that vague but powerful longing for her daughter, the Lady in the Lake grabbed Flora instead and began walking back to the lake, where Flora would drown in her arms just like the young boy before her. But after witnessing how Peter took possession of Miles’ body, Dani made a Hail Mary play and shouted, “It’s You, it’s me, it’s us” at the Lady. In doing so, she allowed Viola’s spirit to become one with her, setting free all the spirits trapped on the Bly grounds, and freeing Miles from Peter in the process.
But to Dani’s surprise, the Lady didn’t take control right away. In fact, Dani had many good years, which she spent in a beautiful relationship with Jamie (Amelia Eve), the stoic and straightforward Bly gardener. But eventually, Viola’s spirit began to make itself known, and Dani would see flashes of her ghastly face in reflections. The Lady became her “beast in the jungle,” and she fought it as long as she could, but when she one day woke from a dream to find her hands wrapped around Jaime’s neck, she realized she could no longer risk it. Jamie woke the next morning to find Dani gone, only a note left behind, and when Jamie made her way back to Bly Manor for the last time, she discovered Dani’s body at the bottom of the lake, and though Jamie cried and pled with the Lady in the Lake to take her too, of course, she would not, because the Lady in the Lake was now Dani.
The narrator explains, “Dani wouldn’t. Dani would never. In fact, no one would ever be taken again and no one has been taken to this day.” And in the finale, we learn that the narrator is none other than an older Jamie herself (played by Carla Gugino), who is telling her great, ghostly love story to a grown-up Flora on the eve of her wedding.
Afterward, Flora confides in Jamie that she’s terrified by how much love she has for her husband to be, tormented by thoughts of what she’d do if he dies before her. Jamie comforts the girl, telling her:
“You shouldn’t be thinking of losing each other at all. Don’t let that hang over your happiness right now. Enjoy that easy silence with him. ‘Tis rare, what you’ve got. But when the time does come, years and years from now, mind you, it will be hard every day and it won’t get easier. But eventually, after some time, you’ll find little moments, little pieces of your life that remind you of him. And they’ll be silly and dumb or they’ll be sad and you’ll cry for hours, but there will still be a piece of him and you’ll hold him tight. It’ll be like he’s here with you, even though he’s gone.”
Sounds an awful lot like a ghost, doesn’t it? And therein lies the beauty of Bly Manor’s gorgeous Gothic romance. There’s a whole other article to be written about the ways in which Bly Manor elegantly embraces and updates the tropes of Gothic literature, but two that the series absolutely knocks out of the park are 1) the use of doubling and 2) the concept that, that which is repressed or locked away will come back to haunt you. Dani’s journey to becoming the Lady in the Lake offers a tremendous transformation of both.
Dani’s dark double is, of course, Viola’s Lady in the Lake (just as Viola has a double of her own in Perdita), who was locked up, you could say “tucked away”, from her life and her family due to her quarantine. That repression came back for literal vengeance in the form of the Lady in the Lake, a figure of toxic love who could not let go of her hurt, and hurt other people in turn. The “wrong kind of love,” echoed in the way Peter’s toxic love for Miss Jessell, which only left pain and suffering in its wake.
By contrast, Dani’s repression was the life she led before Bly Manor; a life of prescribed heterosexuality in which she had to tuck away her true self and true desires. That haunts her in the rather literal figure of her dead ex-fiance, but Dani’s great strength is that she doesn’t drag anyone down with her in the dark. And when she finds her true love in Jamie, she doesn’t operate out of blind toxic want. She loves enough to let go. “To truly love a person is to accept the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them.”
In the final moments of Bly Manor, Jamie fills the tub and leaves the door open before she goes to sleep, and in the closing shot, we see Dani’s hand over her shoulder. “It’ll be like he’s here with you, even though he’s gone,” Jamie tells Flora, and yes, that does sound an awful lot like a ghost. But there’s a key difference. Jamie isn’t haunted by Dani, she’s held by her.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is now streaming on Netflix.