Television

How Mike Flanagan Repurposes Gothic Classics

With The Haunting of Bly Manor, the creator of The Haunting of Hill House reshapes another classic ghost story toward his own ends.

A portrait of Henry James and a still image of Miles in the TV show in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by John Singer Sargent/Wikipeidia and Eike Schroter/Netflix.

Like several Shirley Jackson fans I know, I bailed on Mike Flanagan’s 2018 Netflix adaptation of Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House a couple of episodes in. The series was full of what struck me as formulaic jump scares—faces that suddenly unhinge their jaws into gaping black maws, bugs crawling out of people’s mouths, spectral figures appearing in the background while a character obliviously goes about her business. In place of the eerie psychological claustrophobia of Jackson’s tale of a young woman either succumbing to madness or being devoured by a malevolent mansion, Flanagan had, I thought, stuffed his Hill House with a sprawling family drama featuring five siblings, each with his or her own emotional baggage and romantic travails.

I wasn’t entirely wrong about that. The scares in the series are not especially inventive or unnerving. When I gave Flanagan’s Hill House a second chance, however, I realized that the series evidences a sounder understanding than I’d realized, not only of Jackson’s novel, but also of her other work, particularly We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which gets a significant nod in the final episodes. And while for logistical reasons, Flanagan can’t abide by Jackson’s central device—a sustained ambiguity about whether Hill House is haunted or her heroine, Eleanor Vance, is insane—he remained true to her in many respects. Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House is about the family as prison, the legacy of mental illness, and the perils of maternal possessiveness, about the way that children can feel consumed by their parents and compelled to repeat their mistakes—all themes of great importance to Jackson.

Nevertheless, Flanagan declares his independence from Jackson’s novel in no uncertain terms, even if that declaration isn’t issued until the very end of the series. In Jackson’s famous line, from the first paragraph of the novel, but also repeated at its finish, “silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman), the novelist character Flanagan invented for the series (his first name surely a tribute to Stephen King, a great admirer of Jackson’s—Flanagan also adapted King’s Doctor Sleep), recites these lines at the beginning of series, and also at its conclusion, but in the second repetition, one word is changed. Alone is the last word in Jackson’s novel; together is the last word in Flanagan’s series.

Now Flanagan has taken on another great gothic ghost story, the precursor to Jackson’s Hill House and the novella to which Hill House is a kind of twin: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Renamed The Haunting of Bly Manor, the series tells the story of a young woman (Victoria Pedretti) who takes a job as an au pair caring for two orphaned children, a boy and his younger sister, in a stately home in the English countryside. She’s hired by the children’s uncle (Henry Thomas), who instructs her to bother him only with the most serious concerns regarding her charges. Once she arrives in the house, she learns that her predecessor (Tahirah Sharif) died after conducting an illicit affair with another staff member (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and that the children seem to have been corrupted in some way by their exposure to the couple.

This is roughly the outline of James’ novella, but as with Hill House, Flanagan has brought in a crew of ancillary characters, including the housekeeper who befriends the au pair (T’Nia Miller), a cook who comes in from the village to whip up delicacies and talk of Paris (Rahul Kohli), and a cutely butch gardener (Amelia Eve). He also sets the series in the 1980s, cladding Pedretti in some of the most painfully frumpy outfits and hairstyles of that benighted era. The uncle, an alluring cipher in the novella, generates his own subplot involving the children’s dead parents and an inexplicable doppelgänger who grins at him like the evil Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks. (Could he be possessed by Bob?) Later in the series, a historical storyline comes into play to explain the elaborate supernatural apparatus behind the schemes of the ghosts who haunt the au pair and her charges.

The Haunting of Bly Manor features similar allusions to the original author’s other works. The uncle’s double could be a reference to James’ other great ghost story, “The Jolly Corner,” the tale of a man haunted by the phantom of the self he would have been had he lived his life differently. And toward the end of the series, a character worries about a “beast in the jungle” (the title of another classic James novella) poised to pounce on her when she least expects it. But where Flanagan’s Hill House clung to Jackson’s notion of madness as a form of haunting, Bly Manor is about grief, a more obvious and less interesting premise for a ghost story, and not one with any particular connection to The Turn of the Screw.

The Haunting of Bly Manor made me think thrice about Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House and the ways both series are fundamentally incompatible with the literary works on which they’re based. Something gets lost when a short, elliptical, mysterious ghost story gets padded out into 8 or 10 episodes of high-end horror filmmaking. Part of what’s sacrificed is the slipperiness of prose itself; the fear in Jackson’s novel comes from Eleanor’s inability to distinguish between her own internal torments and the world outside herself. A film can hardly help but draw that line clearly; either there’s a face in the wallpaper, or there isn’t, and the audience member is free to judge that for herself. The apparition of Peter Quint may stare through a window at James’ governess, or she may be imagining it all. James doesn’t have to take a stand on which, but the camera is hard-pressed not to.

Nevertheless, two near-perfect films have adapted, respectively, Hill House and Turn of the Screw: Robert Wise’s 1963 feature The Haunting and Jack Clayton’s 1961 movie The Innocents. (There’s also a 1999 film version of Hill House, about which the less said, the better.) So it can be done, just not at the length that obliges Flanagan to populate his adaptations with so many characters. For, finally, both Jackson’s and James’ stories are about loneliness and the way it penetrates and erodes the self. Jackson’s Eleanor has been used and disregarded by her family, who treat her as unpaid help when they need it and as a tiresome inconvenience when they don’t. Among the paranormal researchers she joins in Hill House, she finds what at first seems like a satisfying alternative, a “family of choice” that values her. But the bonds there are weaker than she realizes and her own ability to belong, after a lifetime of exclusion, is too atrophied to prevent her from being sucked into the malign solitude of Hill House.

The Haunting of Bly Manor comes with a framing device like The Turn of the Screw’s, beginning with a scene of people gathered around a fireplace, listening to one of the party’s members tell the story of a governess. James’ governess is a great soul trapped in a narrow existence. The man who tells her story suspects that she was a little in love with her charges’ remote uncle, and his audience suspects the teller of being a little in love with her. Yet the only consummated romance in the novel, the affair between Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, is regarded as an abomination. Isolated in the boonies with only the housekeeper to talk to, the governess longs to do something meaningful with her life and to be seen in full by the man she admires. Either the occasion to do this presents itself or her thwarted nature manufactures it, with tragic results. Similarly, the character in The Beast in the Jungle who anticipates a moment of confrontation in which he will prove his worth isn’t menaced by an actual beast at all. Instead, the horror of his life is that he squanders it in waiting for a destiny that never arrives.

Flanagan’s characters have plenty of issues but not this one. They neglect their dreams and sabotage their relationships. They fall off the wagon, betray confidences, cheat on their spouses, get into debt, have one-night stands with people they meet in nightclubs, sleep with their siblings’ spouses, break the law, and get into all of the usual messes that befall characters on television. Sometimes those messes are interesting enough, but Flanagan’s resolution is, invariably, a paean to realized connection, familial and romantic. “You said it was a ghost story,” one of the listeners informs the teller in The Haunting of Bly Manor. “It isn’t. It’s a love story.” By the conclusion of his Hill House, even the dead are not really alone.

None of Flanagan’s characters frequent the strange, wild, high plateaus of loneliness where Eleanor Vance and James’ governess roam. Few fictional characters do, although their solitude is as much a part of the human condition as love. That’s why The Haunting of Hill House and The Turn of the Screw, for all of their darkness, command such fierce devotion from the readers who treasure them. The truth they hold is as precious as any happy ending, and far more rare.

For more on The Haunting of Bly Manor, listen to Sam Adams and Laura Miller discuss the movie in spoiler-filled detail below, or subscribe to Slate’s Spoiler Specials podcast.