Perfectly Splendid Storytelling

The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020) and The Innocents (1961)

photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix

Jamie Taylor turns to a small but captive group of listeners, her eyes bright from the end of her story. A ghost story, she called it at the start, one that features characters haunted by a kaleidoscope of specters with bottomless yellow eyes and fatal chokeholds—or merely those that stand in the shadows, unsuspecting. 

“So, is it true?” one guest asks when Jamie completes the tale.

“Which part?” she responds, raising a glass of wine to a kind smirk, her gold ring glinting in the fireplace’s amber light.

This couplet of dialogue, delivered in the final episode of Mike Flanagan’s horror series The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), stretches beyond the smiling storyteller and her breathless guest. Jamie (Carla Gugino) proffers the story as someone else’s from the start, yet in her recollection, Jamie’s history of Bly comprises far more stories than just the life of Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), known simply as “the au pair” in Jamie’s narration, who moves to London to escape a suffocating life at home. Dani remains central to Bly Manor. She saves the estate’s residents from a vengeful spirit and frees the other ghosts from its icy clutches, even though she dies at the story’s conclusion. Yet we also become acquainted with the manor’s other residents: Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), the fierce and loving housekeeper; her better half, Owen Sharma (Rahul Kohli), the cook; the mischievous and protective Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora Wingrave (Amelie Bea Smith), the children Dani cares for, whose parents died years earlier; and their Uncle Henry, distant from Bly and haunted himself over past mistakes. Then there’s younger Jamie herself (Amelia Eve), the estate’s gardener—nameless, like most characters in the retelling—who falls in love with Dani.

Jamie apologizes for her story’s length, but the tale, delivered on the night before a wedding, does not conclude at daybreak. She simply couldn’t convey to her listeners the entirety of what occurs on screen in Bly Manor’s nine episodes. Take, for instance, the episode “The Altar of the Dead,” which steps almost entirely into Hannah’s perspective. We dive frequently into the tangled web of her unconscious, where we learn she has been repressing the moment of her death and walking around the manor as a ghost. We also learn that Owen correctly called Bly a “gravity well”: it sucks in and keeps hostage the spirits of those who die on its property.

Should we imagine, then, that in real time, Jamie crafts for her audience this memory-hopping, nonlinear section of the story? What does she remember to tell her audience anyway, and how does that differ from what she does know? And why does she, unconsciously or not, withhold parts of the narrative, including her own name? 

When I rewatch Bly Manor, I am increasingly keen on the separation between the wedding audience and the viewing audience. We might imagine, for instance, that Jamie’s voice-over interjections throughout the show are snippets of a broader story. But what if the scenes of Hannah we watch are in fact separated from the wedding party? What if the show itself is the consciousness of Bly—absorbing its stories, with us, separate listeners, able to access some scenes exclusively? If this is true, then at play is a lush ambiguity captured in Jamie’s “Which part?” The matters of perspective and storytelling are essential to Bly Manor—especially regarding how Jamie conceals her role in the story, and how we reconcile the sweeping nature of what we watch with what Jamie tells the wedding guests. But I also see this meditation on stories and memory as having more narrative merit than a compelling means to drive the plot forward, to span a full television show’s length, or to give the viewing audience a sole look into some parts of the show. 

The themes of the literary ghost stories that inform Bly Manor’s creation are, in fact, rooted in obscurity. Bly Manor is based on the work of Henry James, primarily his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. The novella itself relies upon layered narratives, framed by the perspective of someone who listens to a ghostly tale written by an outsider. Before we reach the governess and the two children—Miles and Flora, who have come to define the text and its myriad adaptations—a man named Douglas relays to his audience what he says is a ghost story written by his sister’s governess, based on her real experiences. An unnamed narrator, part of that group, extends the initial invitation for Douglas to read that story. 

This delayed narration—one that designates the role of storyteller twice, from the first-person unnamed narrator to Douglas, and then to the governess—creates suspense for the fictional audience, who gawk enthusiastically at Douglas’s promise to read the manuscript. A break in the novella indicates the start of the anonymous governess’s story, which retains the first-person “I.” Though she writes the story from her point of view, we also perceive, off the page, Douglas himself reading the governess’s story to the party guests—one of whom opened the novella from his perspective. Such layers of narration draw varying readings of the novel—that, as M. Grant Kellermeyer argues in his edited collection of James’s best ghost stories, the governess “could be entirely harmless, deeply conflicted, or violently homicidal, and the text both supports and discourages all three-plus readings.”

What creates this tension, as a reader, is that distance between the story and its narrator; we lose reason to trust the governess as her story shifts to Douglas, who lacks even the role of first-person narrator before her. As the governess’s perspective receives the most time on the page, it is to her that we direct our attention, and we wonder whether her mercurial account conveys a crazed, perverse, or honest disposition—or all three. Yet we should question Douglas’s relationship with the governess, too: Was she his lover? Merely his sister’s caretaker? Did Douglas himself write the gripping tale? Those questions precipitate a more compelling story than had we embarked with the governess’s opening line alone, “I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops…”

The fallibility of this narration, alongside the story’s gothic horror, acts as an eerie foundation for Flanagan’s adaptation. We should, then—if only because of Bly Manor’s origins—ponder the narrator who tells us the story. The show is thrilling, and worth revisiting, because it lacks answers to our questions. At its conclusion, which parts do we decide to believe? Much like the text of Turn of the Screw, Flanagan allows such intriguing obscurity to take charge.

Earlier adaptations of James’s text lean more explicitly into the story’s ambiguous tone. Similar meditations on perspective and memory fail to provide a palatable conclusion in director Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents, the shadowy and chilling spearhead adaptation of Turn of the Screw that makes no confident pronouncement in favor of or against the governess, Miss Giddens, played by a brilliant Deborah Kerr. Miss Giddens, like Dani, travels to Bly to care for two misbehaving children, again called Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). In tenebrous candlelight, her story illuminates its grimacing ghosts. One undulates behind a hazy glass window; another, clad in a dark and somber dress, sobs in the children’s classroom, evidenced only by a tear dropped upon a small chalkboard. During her stay, Miss Giddens becomes convinced the children are not merely acting out. She believes they are possessed, instead, by the ghosts of Peter Quint—who worked for the childrens’ uncle—and Miss Jessel, their former governess. Quint and Jessel also appear in Bly Manor, as Peter and Rebecca. They receive far more empathetic and active roles in the television adaptation, in which they dominate two dedicated episodes—“The Two Faces,” Part 1 and 2. Neither Quint nor Jessel in The Innocents, or the novella, speaks to the characters; it’s almost as if they are not there.

The children of The Innocents, too, never acknowledge (or admit, as Miss Giddens would correct) that they see the ghosts of Quint and Jessel. Truman Capote’s revised screenplay (based on one by William Archibald and later polished by John Mortimer) lacks an explicit explanation for their odd behavior, such as when Miles is expelled from boarding school, or when Flora admires, morbidly, a struggling moth. Miss Giddens’s own behavior steals between voyeuristic and caring, irrational and vigilant; she proclaims herself the childrens’ only savior in response to the threat of the ghosts, despite failing to produce concrete evidence that the ghosts are corporeal. 

The film tantalizes and obfuscates instead, and it offers fragile proof to reward such scrutiny. As viewers, we must deduce from the plot and parse clues from the scenery ourselves, much like how we prod the narrative style in Turn of the Screw or Jamie’s mimesis in Bly Manor. Does Quint really stand upon the parapet in the estate, darkened face staring at a curious Miss Giddens below? As she pads around the gloomy house at night, brandishing a glinting candelabra to light her path, should we understand the raucous voices infiltrating the nighttime stroll to be physical, threatening, real? 

These questions yield satisfying analysis, even as I find myself questioning my conclusions. I felt the same reading James’s Turn of the Screw for the first time. But the controlled ambivalence of The Innocents allows its viewers to make their own choice about its characters. The unconscious of the film, then, accepts the task of Turn of the Screw quite faithfully. Kellermeyer contends Clayton “takes a psychoanalytic approach” to the film—that the ghosts represent Miss Gidden’s sexually repressed emotions toward the children—yet Clayton “remains an apparitionist (it is very hard to doubt that something supernatural is occurring in a house ringing with maniacal laughter in the dead of night).” Visually, the film simmers with sexual tension, such as (Kellermeyer again) “Quint’s leering, undressing eyes to the final shot of the governess laying her quivering lips onto Miles’ cold mouth.” If the ghosts are real, then, Miss Giddens utilizes them as objects to direct her repressed emotions.

Simultaneously I find the best evidence for Miss Giddens’s unreliability—that the ghosts are not entirely real, to push against this previous assertion—in her opening monologue. She raises her shaking hands, shadowy knuckles, as she prays for forgiveness. But forgiveness for who—the children? herself?—we’re left to wonder. “All I want to do is save the children, not destroy them,” she pleads. “They need affection. Love. Someone who will belong to them, and to whom they will belong.” I envision this scene taking place after the conclusion of the film, for Miss Giddens’s forehead is covered in a sheen of sweat. She appears as did after she chases Miles through the manor’s greenhouse and out into the statue garden, where Miles dies in her arms. The ghosts are real—but only for her. Indeed, when Quint looms over her and Miles in the garden, Miles does not appear to see his obviously present “attacker.” Miss Giddens, clutching little Miles so tight, might have killed him by suffocation.

The film also offers frequent visual cues for Miss Giddens’s complicity in “destroying” the children, an odd worry that she considers in her confession. She often steps directly into the empty spaces previously occupied by the ghosts, such as the seat in the classroom where a phantom Miss Jessel was crying or atop the parapet where Miss Giddens first sees Quint. We might presume that while she prays for the children—and perhaps unconsciously for herself—she replays the memories of what happened in the days preceding her confession. The slow fade from her confession to the film’s opening scene suggests that shift in consciousness, from reflection to memory. We are, then, only granted Miss Giddens’s isolated perspective through the lens of a religious exaltation. Perhaps she seeks to reframe herself as the “innocent” one when telling her story to God; perhaps, though, she believes in that view of herself wholeheartedly. We, as witness to her disclosure, perceive a nuanced picture of the haunting: the ghost story may veil her psychological breakdown, or maybe the ghosts’ real, physical presence explains her behavior—or, as in Bly Manor, maybe the truth of the matter belongs exclusively to the viewer.

So when we revisit Bly Manor—with the knowledge that it is an adaptation of Turn of the Screw, as well as several other short stories by James—we arrive with expectations of mystery, and an investigation of the gray area of memory and the ill-defined boundaries of the ghost story. Flanagan delivers, but he poses another meditation on the subject that enriches the adaptation. Storytelling, as Jamie proves, can be an act of preservation when memory fails—just as, when Miss Giddens attempts to justify her actions, she in fact reveals the darker crevices of her memories of Bly. 

“We can’t count on the past,” Owen says in “The Altar of the Dead.” “Any of us could die, at any moment. Or we could forget our entire lives, which is like dying.” 

In this scene, Owen speaks to Hannah about his mother, whose death and dementia preceding it torments him. He looks to his beloved Hannah and tells her they should run away to Paris together and live. Hannah, who hasn’t yet accepted the reality of her fatal shackles to Bly, wistfully accepts his proposal. Owen’s melancholy belief resonates at the heart of Bly Manor, where the dead lose their facial features and their memories as time goes on. They forget, and they fade. If the show contends that being alive means remembering what life is like, then death equates forgetting. When we die, our stories disappear. Both become inevitable. For The Innocents, this muddy area of storytelling is unreliable, an attempt for Miss Giddens to show God she has done right by the children. But for Bly Manor, one carries on a story, regardless of its truth, to keep the dead alive. 

That’s why we must believe in Dani in a way we do not trust in Miss Giddens. Bly Manor aligns wholeheartedly with its main character; we might correct this phrasing to say Jamie, our storyteller, wants us to. We must mourn Dani like she does, must feel the grip of the ghosts before realizing, as the bride expresses at the show’s conclusion, that this is a love story as much as it is a ghost story. Importantly, there is no question whether the ghosts in Bly Manor are real, removing a conundrum that defines the show’s predecessors. How many times do we see in the background of a scene the hooked nose of a plague doctor’s suit, a soldier standing stoic, a boy in a nightgown with a toy doll’s face as a mask? 

It’s easy to argue that Flanagan tucks his ghosts into the nooks of his scenes for tradition’s sake—to perpetuate the jolting feeling of seeing a white-faced specter in the shadows as he did in his mesmerizing prelude to Bly Manor, The Haunting of Hill House (2018). But the ghosts at Bly are less threatening, as quotidian as the furniture, basking in showy afternoon sunlight or lurking in the dark during Dani’s midnight stroll to the kitchen. The modest ghosts—whom Jamie often strolls by without a glance back—are also the clearest example of how the viewer accesses more of the story visually than what Jamie can tell the wedding guests. 

The Lady in the Lake, whose “gravity well” curse of pain and mourning keeps the ghosts that die at Bly fettered there, is perhaps the boldest example of a ghost who wants to be seen. Her dirty footprints leading out the front doors are the sole physical evidence that something supernatural has walked through the manor. Hannah only continues to live at Bly and show herself to the living characters because she cannot confront her body lying at the bottom of a well. Even when Peter emerges surreptitiously from the darkness behind a window and scares Dani in episode two, “The Pupil,” he disappears without a trace; his and Rebecca’s interactions with the children are also intentionally covert. The ghosts appear to want to hide, as if showing themselves is contrary to their very nature. 

Their urge to conceal themselves reflects, too, their fading memories; forgetting, as Owen said, is like dying. But the Lady in the Lake continues to sleep, then wake, and walk to find the daughter she lost when she was alive. The power of Jamie’s story, therefore, also lies in what she can grant the ghosts of the manor. She gives the Lady in the Lake her name, Viola. No longer is she the nameless ghoul that stalks the halls of the estate. She becomes, instead, the woman she once was. This is, in fact, the advice a younger Flora hears when she encounters a ghost in her bedroom: give him a story, then he won’t scare you any longer. How comforting this must also be to the little ghost, whose face and memories have long since faded.

That is the essential truth behind Jamie’s tale: to give Dani her story back—and to tell the bride herself, a grown-up Flora, about the life she and her brother have since forgotten. After Uncle Henry reconciles with his niece and nephew in the final episode of the show, the trio moves out of Bly. A grinning specter, too, haunted Henry nightly, forcing him to look upon his past failures, including how he has disappointed the children. As they pack up their things, Henry promises Miles and Flora he will tell them as many stories as they like about their parents. But when the family departs Bly, they forget what happened there—and they lose the story of the woman who saved them from the vicious Lady in the Lake.

And so Jamie’s storytelling grows, strong and vibrant as a pulse. She enchants, and she achieves her intended goal. When Viola’s spirit consumes Dani in the final episode of the show, Dani loses herself slowly, and she returns, compelled, to Bly and to become the new Lady in the Lake. Yet Jamie’s act of storytelling allows Dani to live on after death. If Jamie must be alive while her lover is gone, she will fight against that power of forgetfulness that encroaches, subjugates. Her story, as she coyly admits at the end, might not be entirely truthful. She says to the woman that there is no such place known as Bly Manor, and no Lady in the Lake to discover there. But it’s the preservative act of the storytelling, the truth in her love for Dani—which exists beyond the story’s factual beats—that matters more. 

Indeed, the first time Jamie, as the storyteller, calls Dani by her name and not “the au pair” is in the final episode. Dani, blanketed under Bly’s lake, has accepted her new role. “But she won’t be hollow, nor empty. And she won’t pull others to her fate,” Jamie concludes. “She will merely walk the grounds of Bly, harmless as a dove, for all of her days, leaving the only trace of who she once was in the memory of the woman who loved her most.”