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The Haunting of Bly Manor is a stunning tribute to the life-affirming power of horror stories
To love someone is to be afraid.
Of course, if we're lucky, it doesn't feel like that most of the time. If we're lucky, the fear is an accenting flavor enriching the joy, only there in hints and flashes when we lock our doors at night or listen for the steady breathing of the person lying next to us. We accept as part of the messy bargain of human emotions that if we dare to love, the icy fingers of fear will always be reaching out because fear and love are dark siblings that know no other way. So we take the bargain, wrap ourselves in love, and hope that fear's reach is, for the most part, just a bit too short. If we're lucky, fear may brush against us from time to time, but it never truly takes hold for long.
Until, of course, it inevitably does, and then we have to ask ourselves the unavoidable question: Was the love worth the fear?
The Haunting of Bly Manor comes to us at a time when love and fear are waltzing unusually close together, at a time when they seem perhaps a little less like siblings and more like one awful, asymmetric shape. Creator Mike Flanagan and the cast and crew didn't intend this, of course, and couldn't have known the state the world would be in when their series premiered, but that doesn't dull the impact. Those of us who retreat into scary stories for escape and even comfort know that simulated, fictionalized fear can be a great inoculator, can help us work through our own internalized traumas and anxieties, and can even give us catharsis where the real world denied it. But a story like Bly Manor, so rooted in the eternal dance of love and fear in our hearts and minds, can do something even more than that. It can remind us that, while love cannot exist without fear, the propulsive power of love will always outstrip the intense pull of the gravity well of fear.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor below.**
Bly Manor takes the form of a Gothic Romance obsessed with love and longing in all its forms, and thus obsessed with the dance between love and fear. Throughout the series, in tightly focused individual episodes and in overarching narratives that run its entire length, we see the many forms love can take, both toxic and nourishing, the ways in which those different forms intertwine, and the ways in which they all interact with the fear that engulfs the manor and everyone within it.
In the early episodes of the series, as Dani (Victoria Pedretti) gets to know Bly's residents both living and dead, we see love in its darker forms, dancing so closely with fear that the two emotions are often indistinguishable. Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) is afraid to return to Bly and confront the love he still bears for his late sister-in-law and the love he could bear for his daughter, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith), so he sends Dani to care for the children instead. Dani, we later learn, is eager to escape to Bly because she's still running from her own tangle of love and fear, rooted in both the loss of a man she truly loved in some way and, more importantly, her fear of embracing the kind of love she really wants. In the early episodes, it is Dani's fear we feel most acutely because she has found that she is not only afraid of loving out in the open, but afraid of the kind of closeted love she'd previously settled for because it got her lifelong friend and fiance killed.
Dani's fear, and by extension Henry's, then merges with the fear-driven, toxic love story of Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), the ghosts that roam Bly closest to the surface of Dani's reality upon arriving. Dani learns through Hannah that Peter was apparently always someone to be feared, always someone with a self-interested, malignant agenda looming over the household, and indeed, as we later learn, that persisted in him even after his death. In the episode that lays out his motivations, Peter's life is revealed as one driven by fear and the hatred that grew from an ever-present sense of inadequacy in his life.
Like other ghosts on the grounds who we'll later visit, Peter's fear becomes a kind of gravity well, a blight on the house that consumes Rebecca along with Peter himself. Peter's fear is a vicious, misogynistic disease that tells him the only way to ever truly be happy is to take what he wants, and it allows him to exploit Rebeca's own fear of losing him, rooted in her love for his bewitching darkness that verges just enough on vulnerability that she can't see she's being pulled down until it's too late. Even after that, the dance of love and fear that consumed Peter and Rebecca threatens to consume Miles and Flora, as Peter works to convince his beloved that the only way to defeat their fear of ceasing to exist is to steal someone else's existence.
Peter and Rebecca's doomed love story is, of course, a centerpiece of Bly Manor, but it's not the ultimate example of overpowering fear masquerading as relentless love. For that, we have to wait until Episode 8, when Lady Viola Willoughby's story unfolds. Lady Viola is, the story tells us, born into a world that tells her she is not meant to get what she wants, especially when what she wants is to preside over her family's manor for the rest of her life. So, in an effort to circumvent the system she's born into, Viola weaponizes love, devotes herself to the romantic ideals of her time, and gets what she wants, and more.
Viola's attempt to manipulate the patriarchal world she lives in actually gets her more than control of Bly. It gets her a husband and a daughter who she truly loves, but with that love comes compounded fear. Viola is no longer just afraid of losing Bly, but afraid of losing her family, and when an illness takes hold of her that seems designed to strip her of both, fear creeps in and snares her in its icy grip. It is from this fear — fear that seems to reaffirm itself every time she locks eyes with her sister — that the "gravity well" that is Viola Willoughby begins to form, and that gravity well forms the blight that will rule over Bly and its residents for centuries. Lady Viola's ghost, robbed of her identity but persistent in her will to take what's hers even if she doesn't remember what that is anymore, is the ultimate avatar for fear poisoning love.
And yet, even as she stalks the grounds of Bly, love persists, and the longer Dani stays at the manor, the more she becomes aware that love has taken root even amid all the fear and loss. She sees it in the way Flora and Miles press on, joyful in the moments when they're free of the darkness surrounding them. And they are patient and even sacrificial in the moments when that darkness takes hold, protecting Dani from it as long as they can and even allowing Peter and Rebecca in because, though Peter has lied to them, they truly believe they can help these people they once cared for. She sees it in Hannah and Owen, and the patient and often quiet way in which they fall in love with one another, a love that never gets to fully bloom but will nevertheless retain its beauty long after Hannah herself has faded. And of course, she sees it in Jamie, the gardener she feels like she knows before they've even spoken, who allows Dani to love and be loved as she truly is by uttering perhaps the most resonant words in the entire series:
"Humans are organic. It's a fact. We're meant to die. It's natural, beautiful, and it all breaks down and rises back up, and breaks down again, and every living thing grows out of every dying thing. We leave more life behind us to take our place."
One of Bly Manor's taglines, uttered by Flora in the series proper but echoed through the entire story, is "Dead doesn't mean gone." It is, depending on which point of the story you're in, a phrase that's equal parts hopeful and ominous. A ghost can be a remnant of trauma, but a ghost can also be a reminder of life. A ghost can be a vengeful echo of the past, but a ghost can also be a wish. Dead doesn't mean gone because the dead can become tactile avatars of fear that wrench the joy out of the room, but also because every living thing grows out of every dying thing.
These two threads of fear and love, stretching through the past and on into the future, interweave throughout Bly Manor in an intricate, primal, often heart-wrenching dance, and they culminate in Dani committing the ultimate act of love, breaking the gravity well by inviting Viola into her own body. After eight episodes of confronting fear, Dani makes the choice to literally absorb the ultimate avatar of terror on Bly Manor's grounds, so that at the very least, she can leave more life behind her in the form of Flora and Miles.
This beautiful, selfless act could be the series' final statement on the power of love over fear, and it would be a wonderful way to leave the tale. But Bly Manor does not stop there.
Fear does not vanish even after Dani has conquered her guilt, her fear of living her life honestly, and Lady Viola's haunting legacy. Fear goes on, even as the living thing that is Dani and Jamie's love story grows out of the dying thing that is Viola's gravity well. Dani carries that fear with her, shrinking from mirrors and fearful of the day when it will be too much, until the day she dies, but the fear does not stop her. The fear does not win. Even in her final moments, leaving Jamie to take her place as Bly's new Lady of the Lake, Dani does it not out of selfish abandonment, but out of a desperate, tireless desire to protect the woman she loves. Even then, even after years of living her life with a literal specter of fear dwelling inside her, Dani's last act is one of love, to preserve not just Jamie but the new life they helped grow by saving the children of Bly.
To love someone is to be afraid. Afraid that you'll lose them, afraid that you'll hurt them, afraid that you'll wake up one day and there will be a void where a part of you that seemed to exist outside of your own body used to be. Horror stories take that fear and, when they're at their best, use it to generate a profound and unshakeable sense of empathy. Horror stories have the power to make us confront the things we fear the most in a powerful, tangible way, and come out the other side feeling braver for having seen a way through. Horror stories, in other words, have the power to make us remember that the fear isn't going to win.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is a stunning tribute to the life-affirming power of horror stories, to their ability to remind us that fear does not exist without having something worth fearing for, and that even the most persistent fears are often worth carrying with you down through the years, because the love that dances alongside that fear, brighter and fiercer and faster, is worth it.
Because dead doesn't mean gone.