I’m sure you’ve all heard of the Netflix horror series sensation, The Haunting of Hill House. Many have tried, but very few have succeeded in garnering the critical acclaim, and popular success that Mike Flanagan’s Haunting series has gotten. He followed the Hill House season with the newly released The Haunting of Bly Manor, which earned not as much but enough success. What is it about these series that works so well?
If you’re a fan of Flanagan’s previous work, you’ll notice there are a lot of familiar faces in the Haunting series. Most main actors in Hill House had previously worked with him in one or several projects. This makes them familiar with his work, which facilitates the process and enables them to succeed. Even in cases where the actors hadn’t worked with Flanagan in the past, or with any director at all (looking at you Victoria Pedretti), you feel that each actor has a deep understanding of their characters and portrays them so beautifully and authentically.
The best part about the casting, more notably in Hill House, is the pairing of adult and kid actors. From the visual similarities to the physical cues and ticks, each pair was perfectly matched.
While sometimes working with the same actors in different seasons and having them portray different characters can be hard to achieve, the Haunting series does so successfully. The performances in Bly Manor are so convincing, that you have no trouble leaning into the new characters, even despite how much you loved the previous one in Hill House.
I think another point that works so well in these two seasons is the complexity of the storyline. It is very likely for viewers to be confused or not knowing what is going on for the first half of each season. This is a great strategy in terms of getting an audience to keep watching and stay invested, but a tricky gamble if you don’t reward them with a good payoff. Safe to say, the payoffs in both seasons are certainly worth the wait.
Each episode in both seasons focus tend to focus on a particular character. This allows for a relationship to develop between the viewer and character, which makes them more interested and invested in where the character ends up. In Hill House, each character-centric episode explored the traumas the Crain children faced in their youth and how that affected their personality and coping mechanisms in adulthood. In Bly Manor, the background stories we got from these episodes were on a much shorter timeline, but nevertheless helped better understand the reasoning behind each character’s present-day actions and decision-making process.
While the character focus does reveal some secrets and explanations along the way, the stories of Hill House and Bly Manor build towards a culmination of a final 2 episodes. This is when everything, and everyone, finally comes together and the audience is clued in to the WHY of the whole season.
While script and performance is a huge part of it, the Haunting series wouldn’t be as critically acclaimed as it is were it not for its technical and production achievements. Mention The Haunting of Hill House to any fan or critic and they are sure to mention the incredible achievement of episode 6. The episode is essentially just 4 extremely long (about 20 minutes each) takes. The camera movements and lighting cues that were required to make that possible is not to be underestimated. This would be especially challenging for a horror piece, since it required a few ghosts and characters to pop up for a second and be gone the next. On Hill House, Mike Flanagan wrote, directed and edited the entirety of the season, so it’s safe to assume that he knew the story and requirements of it extremely well. He mentioned in an interview that the sets were built from the beginning with the requirements of episode 6 in mind. If you’ve never paid attention to the meticulousness of the episode, I urge you to rewatch it or to watch a behind-the-scenes featurette posted by Netflix on Youtube.
The sets are another huge technical achievement for the series. Both seasons feature an extravagant and elegant mansion. While only some of the scenes were actually shot at the houses, most had to be recreated on sets and stages. The production team’s attention to detail has to be noted and appreciated. They made the sets beautiful, luxurious, all while retaining their “incredibly old house” feel. Making this series on a set that doesn’t exude grandiosity would definitely take away from the experience and eeriness of it.
Another little detail that you may have never noticed when watching Hill House or Bly Manor lurks in the backgrounds. While they’re never really addressed or given attention, the backgrounds of scenes are full of hidden ghosts. Sometimes they hide in the open, other times they’re in the shadows, but every time there is a ghost in the background of a shot, that actor gets put through hours of makeup. They’re actually very hard to spot, but the fact that there are these ghosts lurking at all times adds to the history of the House and the Manor. There are only so many ghosts’ backstories we get to dive into in the 8 or 10 episode seasons, but each of the hidden ghosts is made to have a backstory of its own. This adds to the complexity of the whole series and reinforces the attention to detail that we already knew the crew were putting into it. The official Twitter account for The Haunting of Bly Manor released a short video asking if you’ve found the 134(!!!) hidden ghosts in the series. On your next watch, try and see how many of them you can find… Trust me, they’re not easy to spot.
The Deeper Meaning
Finally, what I personally believe sets this series apart from other modern horror pieces is the deeper meaning behind the ghosts and scares. Mike Flanagan doesn’t just throw a bunch of jump scares at you from beginning to end just to make it scarier. In fact, there are very few times you actually get outright scared during your watch. What Flanagan really succeeds in is building the tension and terror that you feel just by knowing of the ghosts lurking in the House and coming after the characters you know and love.
I think what works best with these stories is that the ghosts represent something. They each represent a story of grief, trauma, regret. You can never forget the first time you watched episode 5 of Hill House and got to the big Bent Neck Lady reveal. Nellie Crain spent so much of her life being tormented by this one ghost, that she was driven to take her own life. Only once she had committed that final act did she realize that the ghost that was haunting her her whole life was actually herself in what was ultimately the culmination of her grief and trauma throughout the years. Similarly, her father also suffers from severe grief throughout the season, because he lost the love of his life. While his ghost is not as terrifying and traumatic as Nell’s, his wife stays with him throughout his adulthood because he feels it impossible to go on living without her after losing her in such a sudden and shocking way. On a different note, we have Shirley Crain who sees a seemingly harmless man on every turn. We later learn that the man she keeps seeing is the representation and reminder of the biggest regret of her life; the night she cheated on her husband. Each of the Crain children suffer from the ghost of their past and present throughout the series, and the revelation of each of them is an additional confirmation of the complexity and meaningfulness of the show.
In Bly Manor, we see Dani being haunted from the very beginning by a man in glasses. We then learn that it was her dead fiancee whose death she felt so much grief for and regret over. Moreover, the main ghost of the season; the Lady of the Lake, had a whole episode focused solely on her story. We learned that she died of illness but stayed trapped at the house and had to witness her sister fall in love with her husband and take over her life. When all she wanted was a reunion with her daughter, the Lady of the Lake, grief-stricken, found herself beneath the lake forever, lost in what was once a chest containing the memories of her. Over the decades, she begins to lose herself and becomes less and less human, just a shell of who she once was, stuck haunting the new lives of Bly Manor for eternity. The Haunting of Bly Manor was not left completely in the hands of Mike Flanagan, and I personally believe it loses some of its magic because of it.
All this to say, while The Haunting of Bly Manor doesn’t quite live up to the level of Hill House, it is still so incredibly beautifully haunting and eerie to watch. Both Hill House and Bly Manor will continue to be staples in the horror genre for many years to come. In my opinion, this is what every piece of horror should strive to be if it is looking to go beyond the simple act of scaring its audience. Thank you Mike Flanagan for bringing these seasons to us.
If you haven’t yet seen the two instalments of The Haunting series, they are both available on Netflix worldwide.