Series creator Mike Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy lift the veil on their mysterious new season.

By Nick Romano
October 12, 2020 at 08:00 AM EDT
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Warning: Spoilers from The Haunting of Bly Manor are discussed in this article. 

“What is a ghost?”

The words were scrawled on Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy’s original pitch document for The Haunting of Hill House, the nine-episode horror story that captivated Netflix subscribers in 2018. “It was written in the center of the page all by itself, almost like a thesis statement,” Flanagan, the series creator, tells EW over the phone from Canada, where he and Macy are filming their next project for the streaming giant, Midnight Mass.

A ghost, as they would find, could be many things. Their Hill House character Steven Crain, played by actor Michiel Huisman, explains it best: It can be “a memory, a daydream, a secret, grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they’re just what we want to see.”

Flanagan and Macy continue that exploration in The Haunting of Bly Manor, the next season of what has now become an anthology series for Netflix. If Hill House was about grief and familial trauma, Bly Manor is a love story. And love, as Carla Gugino's narrator says, can be just as scary as any ghost story.

“In a sense, every love story is a ghost story,” Flanagan says. “You’re creating this eventual absence that you’re going to have to deal with. Playing with that idea and playing with the fact that as deep in love as we’re going to go, that’s as deep into loneliness as we’re likely to go. That was really sad and sweet and beautiful.”

A new haunt

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Flanagan and Macy, who’ve been collaborating since 2013’s Oculus, felt the Crain family saga in Hill House ″had been designed to exist cleanly as one finished story in one season." Flanagan adds, “There was never really much discussion on our part about continuing it.” Then, Hill House became a phenomenon, gripping horror and non-horror fans alike with a series inspired by author Shirley Jackson’s notable novel of the same name. Netflix, inevitably, came knocking again on that Red Room door.

Flanagan already began filming Doctor Sleep with Macy when they reconsidered what a second season might look like. That’s when the director thought of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. “The thing that always excited us the most was the idea of being able to take another piece of classic horror literature and give it that Hill House remix treatment,” Flanagan explains. “Because of the pedigree of Turn of the Screw and its influence not only on some of our heroes — on Stephen King and on Shirley Jackson, for that matter — it just seemed like a really natural place to look to for another season.”

Bly Manor returns Hill House actress Victoria Pedretti in a leading role: Dani Clayton, an homage to one of Flanagan’s favorite films, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents — which is also a cinematic adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. Dani’s an American in the 1980s who travels to England and takes a job as the new au pair to the Wingrave children, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), at their family estate in Bly. The manor, as we come to learn, is filled with ghosts of those who died on the grounds, all held there by the Lady of the Lake, a faceless spirit who roams the property every so often and kills anyone who might cross her path.

Those ghosts include Peter Quint (Hill House actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a former associate of the Wingraves who struck up a toxic relationship with Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), the previous au pair. Peter died by the hand of the Lady of the Lake and Rebecca followed after when Peter's ghost possessed her body and walked her into those cold waters. Then there's housekeeper Hannah Grose (T'Nia Miller), who doesn’t initially know she’s been killed by Miles while he was possessed by Peter. She’s trapped in a loop of memories, including the moment she fell in love with the manor’s chef, Owen (Rahul Kohli), who's looking after his ailing mother.

Dani, too, is dealing with her own ghosts. As she falls in love with Jamie (Amelia Eve), Bly’s groundskeeper, she’s faced with the memory of her fiancé, a man who was fatally hit by a car moments after they broke up.

It’s a story Flanagan and Macy describe as "romance the way it was meant in Henry James’ time as opposed to the syrupy Valentine’s Day love story romance that we think of today when we hear the word — something that was dark, something that was dangerous and tragic.”

Bly's Marauder's Map

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If you want to crack the hidden secrets of Bly, just look to the dollhouse in Flora’s room.

“The dollhouse is like our Marauder’s Map for this season,” Flanagan says. “It was an idea that was actually born of Rebecca Klingel, one of our writers who also casually came up with the concept of the Red Room in season 1. She just kind of shows up every season and drops an idea like this on the table, drops the microphone, and leaves the room.”

The dollhouse, he notes, is “a tracking system for the ghosts.” Years earlier, Flora made friends with the spirit of a faceless child, one of the early victims of the Lady of the Lake. Flora now makes dolls of every residence at Bly — even the ghosts — and the boy then arranges them in the dollhouse to coincide with their exact location in the actual house. If audiences pay attention, Flanagan says, they'll notice everyone, including the ghosts he likes to hide in-frame, are exactly where the dollhouse said they would be.

On yet another level, it also became a reflection of an idea Dani and Jamie discuss on the couch one night in episode 3. ″People do, don't they? Mix up love and possession,″ Dani says. ″I don't think that should be possible. They're opposites really: love and ownership.″

“In unhealthy relationships, we have a tendency to take people and turn them into these doll versions of themselves in our imaginations, something we can manipulate, collect, even trap, in Peter Quint’s case,” Flanagan muses. “That idea of ceasing to look at someone else as an equal and a person, and looking at them as a romantic prize or something to possess.”

The discussion became an architectural map for the show, which also includes the supernatural kind of possession to build the metaphor. “We’d say in the room, which characters are truly capable of loving each other and which characters are only playing with dolls?” Flanagan continues. “We have Hannah Gross and Owen, who are so capable of real love — and Dani and Jamie, of course. But you have Peter Quint, who just was never capable of loving a person, only of trying to play with them in the same way Flora plays with the dolls in her dollhouse."

Seeing red

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The color red became an important color for the story of Hill House and, especially, the Red Room. Flanagan acknowledges how ″surgical″ they were with the color that season ″for very specific moments and for a very specific purpose.″ In season 2, they wanted to create a different atmosphere, though echoes of red remain. You can see it in the red of Dani's backpack when she arrives in England, in the pillars as she waits to be picked up by Owen for the first time, even later coating Miles' memory of his days at boarding school.

Green, too, plays a prominent role in this particular color story, which Flanagan and Macy took from the pages of the source material and from the '80s time period.

″Henry James describes Bly as being bright and sunny and earthy and warm and pleasant,″ Flanagan says. ″He never describes a feeling of foreboding when his characters step foot in Bly. We wanted the house to feel different [to Hill House], but we’re also a haunted house show so there’s a certain amount of aesthetic. Given that we were shooting in the '80s and that we wanted to very heavily use some of the reds and pinks that we avoided actively in season 1, this felt like a great chance to unchain them from the basement.″

The colors, in part, are a way for both seasons ″to talk to each other,″ Flanagan adds. ″There’s a lot of deep blues and a lot of cool color within the shadows of Hill House. The blacks don’t even drop out into true blacks. They kind of go teal and they kind of go into deep navy instead. For this, we wanted to play around with that a little more and bring a little more sunlight into it."

The Jolly Corner

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Once James became the inspiration for the Bly Manor season, research turned into book reports among the writers. Each would look into a different ghost story from the author's repertoire and present summaries to the room. One that popped out was the 1908 short story The Jolly Corner, about a man haunted by his doppelgänger. This became the basis for episode 6, which sees the children's distant uncle, Henry Wingrave (played by Hill House vet Henry Thomas), facing a smirking, ghoulish double that forms out of his memories of sleeping with his brother's wife and conceiving Flora. This is a type of ghost Flanagan believes many of us are familiar with: regret.

″When you talk about a ghost story where people are haunted by a ghost of a human being you never met that still resides in the house, that’s one type of fear. That’s fear of the complete unknown,″ Flanagan elaborates. ″Another type of haunting is dealing with someone that they lost, someone they might’ve killed intentionally or inadvertently, but someone from their own past. It’s about this secret knowledge that this person has about them that keeps coming back. But what I loved about The Jolly Corner, as Henry James wrote it, is that it was about a man who’s haunted by himself.″

The doppelgänger doesn't adhere to the standard rules of ghosts because what haunts Henry is Henry himself. At first, the producers were close to taking more cues from James' story, which saw the double with an exaggerated grin and missing fingers. They ultimately decided that there was nothing more scary than the familiarity of this entity, which always looks collected as the real Henry physically deteriorates from alcoholism.

″It was something that Henry Thomas really relished the opportunity to play,″ Flanagan says, ″and it gave us a chance to do something thematically that we’ve talked about on the show quite a bit but we really haven’t gotten the chance to see which is when the worst thing you can imagine is to have to live with yourself."

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes

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Kate Siegel and Katie Parker, who played Theo Crain and ghostly flapper girl Poppy Hill in Hill House, respectively, finally arrived in episode 8 after their character identities were kept secret. Siegel is the Lady of the Lake, once known by another name in the 17th century, Viola. Parker then plays Viola's sister Perdita, who, in the show's present, is the faceless ghost crawling about the attic.

Viola and Perdita are also characters from James' short story The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, which was adapted into the season's black-and-white standalone episode to explain the origins of the Bly ghosts. As it happens, Siegel (Flanagan's wife and longtime collaborator) and Parker always wanted to play sisters over the years, but they didn't know who they were going to play until script reading for episode 8. It was part of the ″surprise,″ Flanagan says.

In Flanagan's eyes, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes was ahead of its time, a story that ″planted the seeds″ for modern cinematic ghosts like Samara in The Ring. ″You look at the imagery that [James] conjures of this vengeful ghost popping out of this forbidden trunk and strangling her sister to death... the body that he describes when they find her of the eyes wide open and the scream and the claw marks on her neck,″ he says. The story became almost like an obsession and soon it became a mission to not only adapt the short in its entirety, but make it the inciting incident for the mythology at play.

As time fades, so do the memories of Viola and Perdita. They slowly forget who they are, and eventually their faces fade altogether. Such is the fate of any ghost that finds itself at Bly, all of them ″born directly out of the memories and the traumas of the characters,″ Flanagan says. ″The eventual erosion of memory is something that is an affliction that even the ghosts have. The only thing that the past has to fear is being forgotten or worse forgetting itself."

Season 3?

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Similar to when they made Hill House, Flanagan and Macy don't know what's going to happen when it comes to another season. The only difference is now they have an overall deal with Netflix to develop multiple projects, which kicked off with an anthology format for Bly Manor and followed by their completely separate series Midnight Mass. However, Flanagan agrees redefining what a ghost is will be something to explore further if given the chance.

″A ghost is an impact from the past on the present in every ghost story. That's all it really is, no matter how you dress it up,″ he says. ″A ghost is simply an element of the past that refuses to live in the past and instead just encroaches upon the present that it alters the present. It changes the trajectory of the person who’s experiencing that little piece of the past... That link between memory and ghosts and between ghosts and the past, that is the lifeblood of the show.″

″I feel like there’s no shortage of ghosts in the world for all of us,″ he adds. ″So, if we could find some common language with which to talk about them, then that’s something we always aspire to do this season or beyond, if that’s the way it goes."

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The Haunting of Bly Manor

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  • Mike Flanagan

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