Disclaimer: This article contains major spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor. Please watch the show before reading it. And if you don’t care much about spoilers, read on.
Mike Flanagan is one of my favourite horror directors of all time. From Oculus to Doctor Sleep, I feel that the man has never missed. There are many who don’t like his approach because his projects are not high on jump-scares and low on substance. Since I feel that jump-scares have been cheapened and since he rarely uses them in his movies and TV shows, I love his work. I was insanely excited to watch The Haunting of Bly Manor ever since the teaser poster had dropped. However, I found myself stalling because he has a habit of making me introspect and experience an existential crisis. Eventually, I gave in, and guess what? I was sobbing uncontrollably, scared shitless, thinking about where I am, what am I doing, and most importantly, questioning how the holy f*ck does Flanagan have this effect on me?
After staring at the corner of my living room, trying to figure out if there’s a spectre hiding there, I found my answer and the roots of it lied in a video essay about Wes Anderson. Bear with me. While talking about why Anderson’s movies look a certain way, Thomas Flight pointed out that he has this habit of leaving his personal mark on a film. He deliberately makes everything look staged in order to direct the audience’s attention to the fact that they’re watching a movie. That’s why everything from the cartoonish set design to the mildly shaky camera movement, is kept as is and not smoothened to look realistic so that you’re always aware that you’re watching a piece of Anderson. So, after staring at that very corner in my living room, trying to figure out if the spectre is now dancing or not, I realised that Flanagan uses the technique albeit to reach a very different conclusion.
My first encounter with Flanagan’s work was with Oculus (I am sorry, I don’t have access to his earlier work and I will be glad if someone can hook me up with it) and it had only shades of realism in it. For some reason, he dialed down the surrealism and focused more on realistic horror in Hush, Before I Wake, and Ouija: Origin of Evil. But after Gerald’s Game, there was no looking back. He kept ramping it up through The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep and in The Haunting of Bly Manor, it is on full blast! There is an odd sheen to the cinematography which gives everything a dreamlike quality. The house looks perfectly splendid despite existing for centuries and not having an army of cleaners maintaining it. The camera moves in ways that it shouldn’t in such confined locations because it’s a set, of course. However, the subliminal message that it sends is that everything feels a little too staged and hence a little off. Heck, even the ghosts rarely reveal themselves in a traditional jump-scare fashion. And I think it’s all a distraction.
Commonly, any horror director tries their best to establish how natural everything is so that when the supernatural entity enters the frame, you shit your pants. One of the most famous horror movies of all time, The Exorcist, is steeped in supernatural horror. But think about how much time it spends on the characters, the mundanity of their lives, and the interpersonal connections before Pazuzu. One way to subvert that is by making something as real as a man wearing a William Shatner mask wreak havoc through the city because the human mind cannot compute how a mortal being can be capable of such horror. However, Flanagan does something entirely different. He makes the natural feel unnatural and the unnatural feel natural. We’re not comfortable in the Bly Manor. We’re not scared of the ghosts. The characters are not outright villains. So, what’s the “horror” and what’s supposed to haunt us? And when we find yourself questioning that, he creeps up on us to point out that it’s our habits, our subconscious intentions, and specifically for people hailing from small towns, their problem of succumbing to the lure of their hometown despite its problematic roots.
Viola (Kate Siegel) has every opportunity to leave the estate and seek medical health or just die and free herself of her misery but she doesn’t. Jessel (Tahirah Sharif) can realise her toxic relationship with Peter (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) but she doesn’t. Peter can do the same but she doesn’t. Grose (T’Nia Miller) can come to terms with the fact that she’s dead but she doesn’t. And the saddest of them, Dani (Victoria Pedretti) can seek professional therapy to tame the “beast” but she doesn’t. All of them come back to Bly Manor because, despite the unnatural nature of the estate, they find a sense of being over there. It’s like an inexplicable intoxication that weighs them down to such an extent that they start to come to terms with it and allows it to engulf them whole. They are aware that they’ll be forgotten, erased. But they’d rather exist in any f*cking way in Bly Manor than face the outside world like Jamie (Amelia Eve), Owen (Rahul Kohli), Henry (Henry Thomas), Flora, or Miles are because, in their perspective, they are nobodies. Just worn out remnants of Bly. And as someone from a small town like Siliguri, who is seemingly ending up here despite my best efforts, that scares me to my core.
You see, I was born and raised in Siliguri, a little town in West Bengal. There’s laziness in the air here. There’s no sense of progression. I have seen people drink themselves to death. I see people grow up here, go to the farthest areas of the planet, and make preparations to die here. Like Owen says about Bly, Siliguri is a “gravity well”. When I got out of school and went to college in Sikkim, I thought that was my way out. I am going to get a job and I am going to leave for good because I can’t be forgotten here. I didn’t get a job and I spent the next 2 years looking for another window. It eventually came and I found myself in Kolkata and I thought that that was my way out and I don’t have to go back. Things took a turn for the worse and I was back in Siliguri. I spent 2 more years, working from home, and in 2019 I got to go to Mumbai. And as soon as I was about to settle down, the pandemic came thereby sending me hurtling back to Siliguri. It has been 7 months since I landed here and I feel that I will never get out again. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that there’s a “beast” lurking somewhere inside me, coaxing me to look past the regression and the sickening inactivity, see how comfortable things are here, and become a part of Siliguri’s banal tapestry.
In conclusion, Mike Flanagan is one of my favorite directors but I hate him because he has pointed this out, inadvertently of course because he doesn’t know who I am (Or maybe he does and he’s the spectre dancing in my living room?), twice now. Once with The Haunting of Hill House and now with Bly Manor. I think he’s one of the only storytellers who know how the feeling of being haunted should be depicted on-screen. He has a deep understanding of the human psyche and its association or fascination with places that have history. And he knows how to weaponise those for the sake of entertainment. I would wish that he gave his characters some optimistic ending so that I can get some sense of motivation but that would beat the purpose of his stories, which is, as I mentioned before, to haunt you. You can shake off a jump-scare or the image of an ugly monster or the actions of a horrifying villain. But the thought that you’re trapped in what you think is home like a mouse in a glue trap, that sticks!
Cover artwork by Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India