Netflix’s “Haunting of Bly Manor”

Abstract: This paper will attempt to analyze Mike Flanagan’s 2020 Netflix series “The Haunting of Bly Manor” through the lens of rhetorical analysis. Rhetorical analysis and related terms as well as genre will be defined before the analysis of the series. These terms will then be applied to the series and comparing it to Frankenstein to better evaluate the genre. The author of this paper assumes that what will be found is that failed expectations resulted in a misunderstanding of Bly Manor’s genre.

            This analytic approach was chosen based on the show’s initial reviews, pointing out that it was not what was expected. Most reviews for pop culture boil down to how it lived up to expectations. Expectations are built up from preconceived notions, in this case from knowing that the show was a sequel in a sense, as well as a general belief that it was to be a “horror” show. These expectations can be traced to rhetorical analysis’s roots, hence why this approach is the one used for this analysis. This paper seeks to look at why “The Haunting of Bly Manor” subverted expectations as well as attempting to reclassify its genre. Readers should be able to see how the theory is applied here and use it in reference to other pop culture artifacts that deviate from expectations.

            Haunting of Bly Manor is a 2020 Netflix series created by Mike Flanigan. It is about an American woman, Dani, who becomes an au pair, or nanny, to two British children. She slowly learns that the family and the house they live in are not what they seem. Though not a sequel, Bly Manor is a follow up to Mike Flannigan’s 2018 hit Haunting of Hill House. It is also adapted from Henry James’ 1898 novella, Turn of the Screw. The predecessor series, Hill House, as well as James’ novel, are considered “horror,” and fans expected the same from Bly Manor, so why is it that they did not quite get what they were expecting?

            Firstly, to better understand expectations, rhetorical analysis has to be defined. The terms sign, signifier, signified, and cluster need to be explained first as they are the foundations for larger concepts that need to be discussed. A sign is “something that invites someone to think of something other than itself” (Ott & Mack, 2020). For example, a word is a sign because the individual letters make you think of something greater than any of the letters on their own. Using the example of a word, seeing the group of letters is a signifier, as it makes your brain think of something specific. Whatever image comes to mind is what was signified (Ott & Mack, 2020). A cluster is merely many of these signs together to build an even more specific message. For instance, an advertisement will group its product with other favorable objects to associate what they know about those objects with the product being sold (Ott & Mack, 2020).

            Secondly, with the building blocks of rhetorical analysis out of the way, we can see how expectations are established. The first way that expectations are established is with form. According to Ott and Mack, form is:

an arousing and fulfillment of desires. A work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, [and] to be gratified by the sequence.

In other words, the form is an expected sequence of events in which when one thing happens; there are specific outcomes expected. While there are several forms, the one most relevant to this paper is called the conventional form. This type of form does not occur within the work itself; rather, it can be seen when the work is compared to others (Ott and Mack, 2020). Form can be thought of as a cluster since similar movies will be grouped based on the form of their story. However, instead of calling conventional form a cluster, there is a more convenient and readily adopted term, genre.

            Finally, with conventional form defined and associated with genre, genre can be examined in how it sets up expectations.  According to Robert Allen, genre is:

simply the French word for type or kind. When it is used in literary, film, or television studies, however, it takes on a broader set of implications. The very use of the term implies that works of literature, films, and television programs can be categorized; they are not unique (p.138).

When you have similar media grouped and label them, you expect any new media piece with the same label to be similar. In a sense, it is pretty obvious, or at least “genre” is used colloquially enough that the general premise is understood. If your friend says they are in the mood to watch a comedy, you both understand what is meant by that statement (Otto & Mack 2020). To recap, genre is based on conventional form, which is based on clusters, and those clusters are made up of signs.

            Moving on, now that genre has been defined, it can be applied to Bly Manor to understand failed expectations. To do this, we will look at two reviews to show that expectations were not quite met. In the first review, the title even points out that the show is “Not the Halloween Horror Story You May Expect” (Travers, 2020). Further in the article, Travers also mentions that:

More importantly, it’s not a horror show, and Netflix viewers should dissuade themselves of such presumptions, or risk missing its beautiful reflections.

This sentiment is shared with the second reviewer, Glen Weldon, as he says, “it must be said that Bly Manor just isn’t as scary as Hill House was, nor as inventive in its approach to creeping us out.” It makes sense that both reviews feel their expectations were not met. They knew it was a follow-up to a scary show and expected the same from this series. However, if it is not horror, what is it? Weldon almost gets it when he compares to Haunting of Hill House; he states, “Hill House rode its gothic-horror genre elements (dark mansion as the architecture of grief, ghosts as lingering vestiges of psychological damage, etc.)” (Weldon 2020). “Gothic” is the operative word here.

            To continue, Bly Manor’s failed expectations possibly came due in part to being placed in the wrong genre. To see if Bly Manor can fit better into the genre of “gothic” rather than horror, it would be best to compare it to a work that is undoubtedly gothic since “films and television programs can be categorized; they are not unique” (Allen 1992, p.138). The work that it will be compared to is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as it “has long endured as one of the canonical texts of the Gothic genre” (Hughes, 2012). What are some things that Frankenstein has, and is there an equal in Bly Manor? A quick list of some of the things that Frankenstein has (Hughes, 2012):

  • Fictional editorship (also known as a frame)
  • Narrative resembles a death-bed confession
  • The rhetorical economy of the narrative is suggestive of terror and the Sublime
  • Unconscious expression of personal guilt

Moving on, now that the general list of genre tropes found in Frankenstein has been established, we can look to Bly Manor and see if it fits any of the marks. The first is that Frankenstein is a frame story that means that there is a narrator outside the story, telling it to the audience. Bly Manor starts with a wedding party exchanging scary stories. An unnamed woman speaks up and says around the 4-minute mark, “I have a story. Well, it isn’t really my story” (Flanagan, 2020). The show then switches to depict the story being told on screen rather than showing the wedding party. Throughout the show, that woman can be heard narrating the story. Episode eight, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” tells a story of a different family that has lived in Bly Manor, a story within a story, in a frame. Whenever a frame is introduced, it also has to leave again, as is the case in Frankenstein. In Bly Manor, the last episode around the 40-minute mark shows the wedding party again as the woman finishes telling her story. There was indeed a frame, and it left, so yes, Bly Manor is a “fictional editorship” (Hughes, 2012), and to quickly check off another point, Bly Manor does resemble a death-bed confession. The unnamed woman telling the story is revealed in the last 12 minutes of the final episode to be the gardener of Bly Manor, and therefore she is part of the story she was telling.

            To continue, the next item on the list of comparisons is the inclusion of terror and sublime. Terror is the easiest of the two to understand as it is synonymous with fear. Is there terror in the show? Dani, the main character, sees a face whenever she looks in a mirror. Towards the end of the first episode, the children lock Dani in a closet, to which she gets claustrophobic and panics. Several ghosts are around the house; the creepiest is the “Lady of the Lake,” who slowly walks through the house at night dripping wet. Terror in the show has been established; sublime, on the other hand, is more confusing. Falfak and Wright describe it sublime as “a pleasure that arise from the mind experiencing the external world as not yet entirely knowable, but nonetheless accepting Prometheus’ desire to know” (p.66). While this term may be pretty subjective, there is reason to believe that Bly Manor does have sublime qualities. If it is the desire to know, the show is consistently putting off answers. The speaker telling the story is not revealed to be part of the story until the last episode. It is not revealed who the man Dani sees in the mirror is and why she is in England until episode four. The “Lady of the Lake” is not explained until episode eight. Until the final episodes, the audience has many unresolved questions about the strange occurrences in the manor, yet the more the mysterious pile-up, the more you want to know. So, yes, Bly Manor has terror and sublimity.

            Next, on the list of general tropes is something labeled as “unconscious expression of guilt” (Hughes, 2012). Unfortunately, that technically is applied in that context by looking at Mary Shelly’s guilt in relation to the guilt shown in Frankenstein. Instead of trying to analyze Mike Flanagan’s guilt coming through in Bly Manor, it will suffice to see if guilt is a running theme in Bly Manor.  To which it is. Dani lives in England because she fled America after her fiancé died, and she feels guilty about it. She carries her guilt around her at all times, and other characters notice it. Jamie, the gardener, tells Dani in episode 6, “Look, I know you’re struggling. I see it. I know you are carrying this guilt around” (Flanagan, 2020). In the same episode, the children’s uncle Henry is battling his guilt, almost literally as it takes the form of his alter ego, an entity that talks to him and guides him through the worse moments of his life. The worst of these moments is reliving the night that he received a phone call that his brother died in an accident. He pleads to his alter ego in the following exchange:

ALTER EGO: Answer it
ALTER EGO: But you have to. You know that.
HENRY: I don’t want to.
ALTER EGO: But you always do. (Flanagan, 2020)

Guilt is shown in the show as something that makes you relive the past, holding on to it while repeatedly blaming yourself for a misdoing. The Alter Ego’s line “you always do” (Flanagan, 2020) encapsulates the masochistic nature of reliving past mistakes that is a predominant theme throughout Bly Manor.

Lastly, one other theme worth mentioning is that of existential crisis. In Frankenstein, the monster consistently questions why he was created. This crisis is best summed up with this quote, “Hateful day when I received life!… Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? (Shelly, 1818, p. 91). The existential crisis in Frankenstein relies on creation and life, but if we broaden our search for existentialism, there is plenty in Bly Manor relating to memory and death. In episode 5, Owen, the cook, is mourning his mother’s death. He says to another character, Hannah:

We count can’t on the past. We think we have it trapped in our memories, but memories fade, or they’re wrong. Any of us could die at any moment. Or We could forget our entire lives, which is like drying (Flanagan, 2020).

The rest of the episode continues with memory as Hannah is seen cycling through memories at random as they bleed into each other and fold back on one another. Another example is episode 8, when the storyteller explains the origin of the Lady of the Lake; she says:

She would sleep, forget, and forget, and forget. And with the forgetting, an ailment altogether monstrous… Her name, forgotten. Her sister’s name, forgotten. As her memories left her so, too, her face (Flanagan, 2020).

Memory is shown as something that is fallible. It can leave you or otherwise be untrusted. When your memory fails and your past cannot be recollected, you have in a sense already passed away, remaining a ghostly image of yourself, so says Bly Manor. Therefore, yes, Bly Manor contains the theme of existential crisis.

            In Conclusion, Bly Manor did not live up to expectations because people incorrectly labeled it from the start. An examination of reviews of Bly Manor showed that people were not sure how to classify it other than it was not scary. However, after key rhetorical terms and genre were defined, then compared to a text classified as gothic, Bly Manor was seen as having the same genre tropes. This could mean that the genre it should be classified under is gothic as it better fits into that category. Bly Manor does not fit into the horror genre because horror calls to mind things of shock value like The Exorcist or gore such as slasher films. Classifying it as gothic, on the other hand, puts it alongside Frankenstein or a more contemporary example, Crimson Peak. Whenever a media artifact does not live up to expectations, try looking at it from a different angle, and see if false expectations were set up from the start. Perhaps the bride puts it best in the last episode when she tells the storyteller. “I liked your story. But I think you set it up wrong in the beginning. You said it was a ghost story – it isn’t. It’s a love story” (Flanagan, 2020). Perhaps she is right; this was not a ghost story; it was a love letter from Mike Flanagan to all things gothic.