Media - TV - The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)
The Haunting of Bly Manor is one of the first media pieces I have looked at in my research that tries to replicate the state of constant hyper-vigilance that someone suffering from trauma deals with on a daily basis. While I have seen the piece before, being unsettled by the myriad of human shapes haunting the characters on all sides, this time I could barely pay attention to the main action of the show because I spent the whole time searching every shot for hidden (or not so hidden!) ghosts on screen.
The environment is unsettling, and it can be unclear why or how until you realize that in many of the shots, particularly towards the first half of the show, that there are almost motionless ghosts sprinkled across the soft focus shots. Our brains don't rationally pick them up every single time but they are there, and the way the show is presented triggers something in our fight or flight response because something just doesn't feel right.
Thematically this makes sense given the characters of the story. Dani, the Au Pair (and arguably the main protagonist of the show), has experienced recent trauma for which she feels at fault. Immediately after Dani admits to her longtime childhood sweetheart and fiance that she is gay, he breaks their engagement and exits his parked car in horror. As he is berating her for hurting him he is hit by a car and killed violently, something she witnesses and blames herself for. Throughout the first half of the narrative, Dani cannot look into mirrors without seeing the silhouetted figure of her dead fiance, glasses glowing. She demonstrates avoidance by covering every mirror she is able to with a blanket and avoiding any others that she has to deal with when taking care of the children at Bly Manor. Over time, Dani starts to see her fiance less and less, until he more or less disappears after a cleansing bonfire.
While Dani's fiance does disappear after a time, I don't think it is meant to imply her trauma is gone. I think instead that her trauma only gets lessened over time, or added to (particularly after the events of the lady of the lake). Trauma, I believe, plays a key role in explaining the shows primary antagonist, The Lady of the Lake. Viola Willoughby-Lloyd, as she was called before becoming a faceless ghost, suffers from a disease that leaves her completely bedridden for a massive chunk of her life. Unable to be in contact with her daughter or husband, as she could possibly infect them, she spends most of her time ill and essentially locked away in a room. They begin to describe the routine of her life as a series of sleeping, waking, and walking at night when the rest of the house is asleep. Eventually, when Viola's illness becomes too much for her sister, Perdita, to bear, she is smothered to death. We then witness her afterlife as a repetition of her imprisonment. Viola's spirit becomes attached to a chest of her finery, slated to be given to her daughter when the time comes. We visualize this prison as Viola's bedchamber, where the ghost now has nothing to do but complete her looping pattern once more: Sleep, Wake, and Walk - around the tiny room. When the chest is finally opened, Viola is excited to see her daughter once more; when she sees her sister opening it and taking out one of her expensive dresses, Viola's intentions turn murderous. She chokes her sister right then and there.
When her family finds her sister's body, they decide the chest is cursed and throw it into the lake, where the lock opens, releasing the lady from the cage. Now, when Viola wakes from her slumber, she walks from the lake into the house and back again. This active pattern of activity, replicating what she did during her trauma, is a visualization of psychologist Pierre Janet's automatism: The act of repeating an action performed during a traumatic event without the understanding of why it is being done and sometimes performed in denial of an event having happened. The lady of the lake has, over time, forgotten all memories of her life and now runs on this one instinct, killing anyone she comes across. Or does she?
One of the most curious and never discussed "holes" in The Haunting of Bly Manor is why the Lady does not kill everyone who enters the estate. It is implied that the manor owners, Henry, Charlotte & Dominic lived for many summers at the house, Henry and Dominic even as kids who saw the occasional ghost. Yet there is no indication that they knew anyone who was killed there. I find it hard to believe that the lady refrained from her walks for their entire childhoods. Even in the series we see the woman go on at least 4 walks in the past year alone, and it is implied that it happens often enough that the young girl, Flora, has devised a system for telling when the Lady is on the move.
My theory is that the Lady of the Lake only kills those with trauma - those she can force into her realm of despair. Out of the characters who are attacked and killed in Bly, the only ones killed by the lady each have some kind of defined trauma: Peter Quint, it is implied, was molested by his father growing up. Dani has her unresolved feelings about how her Fiance died. Viola smothered her sister at death's door. Henry had to tell his niece and nephew about their parents death abroad (along side some complicated affairs and estrangements). Flora had found the body of their previous Nanny, Rebecca, floating in the lake. Even the minor characters who are killed by The Lady have references to trauma: a doctor healing a houseful of plague victims - a soldier in WWII Uniform - a small neglected child.
The lady's story ends with Dani having taken the Lady of the Lake into herself, trying to temper her trauma with nurturing. However, the show continues, and we watch Dani slowly degrade into the lady's trauma. She begins seeing the lady in the mirrors that once held her fiance. Dani leaves for Bly Manor one last time after waking up to find herself standing over her partner, Jamie, about to kill her. Leaving nothing but a note, Dani walks into the lake and drowns herself, leaving Jamie to pick up the pieces.
While dark, I think using horror to convey these sensations and themes is well conceived. Trauma is not a process that disappears forever, over time. It can reappear without warning, and the best we can do is learn to live with it, caring for ourselves for as long as possible. But nothing can ever fully cure it. Overall, I really enjoyed the feeling of paranoia given off by the design and the metaphor of trauma as something which haunts a person and can literally have dire consequences if left untreated.