Let’s just get this out of the way: the follow-up to Netflix’s excellent horror series The Haunting of Hill House is nowhere near as scary as its predecessor. The sequel, dubbed The Haunting of Bly Manor, is still about a house filled with ghosts and people dealing with terrible grief. And while those ideas can be terrifying on their own, that’s not really the point of the show. Instead, Bly Manor is more of a narrative puzzle box — one where ghosts and the afterlife are just another part of the mystery.
The new show has at least a few things in common with Hill House: a sprawling, haunted mansion; a cast of characters each dealing with some form of grief or loss; and a premise loosely based on a classic horror story. (In this case, it’s Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw.) Even some of the same cast has returned, this time in new roles (and with new accents). Both stories are about families: in Hill House it’s a traditional nuclear family, whereas in Bly Manor it’s one that comes together through shared trauma. These things connect the two series. But it’s not long before Bly Manor establishes its own flavor.
The show focuses on Dani (Victoria Pedretti), an American living in England, who takes on a gig as an au pair at a huge countryside manor. The job raises some red flags right away: she’s charged with taking care of recently orphaned kids Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), whose previous caretaker also died. Meanwhile, the uncle who hired her refuses to visit the property, and the manor is also home to a cook (Rahul Kohli), gardener (Amelia Eve), and housekeeper (T’Nia Miller) who help take care of things.
Whereas Hill House was primarily centered on a specific event — the death of the family’s mother — Bly Manor isn’t quite as straightforward. Instead, it slowly introduces new mysteries, piling them on top of each other, until it almost becomes unbearable. Here are just a few examples: the death of the parents, the uncle’s refusal to visit Bly Manor, a housekeeper who seemingly travels through time, a faceless ghost who roams the halls every night, the au pair’s debilitating fear of mirrors, and Miles’ dramatic turn into a troublesome child.
Most episodes are structured like their own ghost story, either introducing or explaining something important. Like in Hill House, the jump scares are limited, and Bly Manor’s terror is a slow-building one. Mostly you’ll see things like a ghost lingering in the background or a child’s dolls that seem to have a life of their own. Flora’s vacant expression is its own kind of horror. This goes on for seven episodes. Few of the mysteries are fully explained, so watching becomes a process of keeping track of the details and trying to see how they fit together. It can get confusing at times, especially later on when the show shifts between not only different time periods, but also the real world and memories. It requires patience as well as faith that the show can actually deliver satisfying answers.
Part of what makes this slow and deliberate build-up work is the cast. Pedretti, in particular, is incredible, able to seamlessly slip between warm caregiver and a tortured wreck. Even when there wasn’t anything particularly scary happening, the haunted look on her face made me feel uneasy. Meanwhile, I could spend hours watching the banter between Miller and Kohli. Their will-they-won’t-they relationship is one of the few warm moments that helps tie the show together — and turn its darker moments into emotional gut punches. It’s the kind of story where even the characters you start off hating have redeemable moments, in part because they’re so well cast.
The slow pace also works because there is a satisfying payoff. The penultimate episode initially starts out like a completely separate ghost tale, one detailing the history of the manor dating back centuries. But it steadily reveals itself to be the key that unlocks the entire story. Those revelations, which come about so naturally, make up for Bly Manor’s lack of pure terror. It’s not the follow-up to Hill House that many are probably expecting. Instead of offering more of the same, it tells a different kind of ghost story. Here, secrets are more important than scares.