Possession: The Haunting of Bly Manor, Love, and Loss

by thethreepennyguignol

The Haunting of Bly Manor is not a ghost story. It’s a love story. About ghosts. Spoilers for the whole season ahead.

The Haunting of Hill House, Mike Flanagan’s first Netflix-aired shot at adapting a classic horror novel, is a show that uses ghosts as a metaphor for trauma, mental illness, and general all-round internal turmoil. And it does it brilliantly – so brilliantly, in fact, that we’ve seen an uptick in paranormal stories using ghosts and the supernatural in general in the same way, as indicators of some deep personal unrest.

So Bly Manor could have easily tapped into that again and used the same notions to explore the nastiness inherent in The Turn of the Screw – in fact, The Turning, as I wrote about earlier this month, an adaptation of the same book, does just that. When I came to Bly Manor, that’s what I expected.

The ghosts of Bly Manor, though, are something entirely different to those of Hill House. I was writing a few weeks ago about how poorly-done most romance stories are in TV and movies, so it was honestly such a delight to see Flanagan and company put real effort into giving that shape in Bly Manor, even though it has been a less popular approach than Hill House – but honestly,, I love the way that love (in all its forms) comes preserved as the ghostly imprints across the show as a whole.

Love, as the show notes, is so often about possessing someone. That terminology is used specifically, a parallel between demonic or ghostly possession and the act of having someone you claim to care about deeply. And Bly Manor is not naive enough to think that, for some people, that isn’t the very meaning of love – Peter Quint and Rebecca Jessell, the original ghosts around which Turn of the Screw is based, represent this most bluntly, with Quint literally entering her body in order to force her to commit suicide and join him in death, trapping them both with each other for good. It’s a posession both literal and metaphorical, an ownership that Quint takes over his lover born from his own terror at the thought of being alone – but, despite its justification (drawn from Quint’s own childhood abuse at the hands of his father), the show presents it as what it is: a monstrous act.

And love is an often monstrous thing, in Bly Manor. The oldest ghost of the Manor, Viola, suffers through a long, gruelling illness under the watchful eye of her daughter and her husband before she is murdered by her sister; an act of selfishness disguised as an act of love, as her sister comes to possess her role as lady of the manor and even wife to her husband after her passing. Viola’s love for her daughter, her refusal to spiritually leave the manor until she is reunited with her, is what starts the violent haunting of the grounds, poisoning it with her possessiveness over what is hers – her home, her prized clothes, her daughter.

But what I love the most about Bly Manor is that love is not entirely destructive. It is often tortured, and often painful, and often unrequited or requited just a second too late, but it is still love, without possession. The lines between people are drawn in the love that is framed in a positive light – Jamie and Dani, Owen and Hannah.

For both couples, one eventually has to bid a firm and permanent goodbye to the other, no matter their enduring love for their other half. There is even an element of desire to be possessed in those scenarios, to keep that person with them by inviting them in to their beings and holding them there forever. But good love – actual love – does not seek to possess, and in fact, refuses to. Good love is not about owning the other person or literally melding into one thing with them in Bly Manor; it’s about accepting their personhood, and that the best you can hope for when that love comes to an end is that you can carry with you what they’ve chosen to give you, not what you’ve chosen to take.

For Bly Manor, loss is something that comes not as a side note to love, but as a necessity to it. When you sign up to love someone, you sign up to lose them – and an inability to accept that is an inability to fully embrace them as a person with their own desires and their own needs. That loss is not always a bad thing – from it, as the show is keen to point out, good things can grow – but it is a vital part of truly loving someone.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is a brilliant show, and one that uses ghosts, hauntings, and possession in a really interesting way to explore some fascinating themes about love, ownership, and abuse. It’s not Hill House, but it’s not trying to be, and I adore what it has achieved instead.

I would love to hear what you thought of it down below in the comments – please let me know, and, if you enjoyed this little dive into horror, consider checking out our Halloween Season over at No But Listen, or supporting me on Patreon for more content like this.

(header image via Signal Five)