The Haunting of Bly Manor: Don’t Bury These Gays
by Kelsie Dickinson
Adapted from the 1898 horror novella Turn of the Screw written by Henry James, The Haunting of Bly Manor is the second instalment in Mike Flanagan’s gothic horror anthology mini-series. After the successful spookiness of The Haunting of Hill House, adapted from Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, Flanagan returns with a spine-tingling ghost story.
The series follows an American au pair Dani (Victoria Pedretti) and the series of haunting events that unfold as she is hired to care for two orphaned children. Soon after arriving at Bly Manor, Dani is introduced to the chef Owen (Rahul Kohli), the housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller) and the gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve). The series expresses themes of manipulation as well as platonic and romantic love as it captures the various emotional states experienced by its cast of characters. The ghosts and scares in the series are pushed to the periphery, as the horrific and heart breaking consequences of each character’s inner turmoil are foregrounded as the central spectacle. This is symptomatic of the gothic horror genre that often explores the hollowness of emotions, traumas, and the delusions of connection.
The Haunting of Bly Manor has received a mixed bag of criticism. On the one hand, it has been criticized for not being ‘spooky’ enough yet has simultaneously attracted praise for its slow-burn emotional narratives. One major criticism floating around the series is that Bly Manor falls victim to what has been coined the ‘bury your gays’ trope. This trope, also known as ‘dead lesbian syndrome’, is centred on media which ultimately leads to queer characters meeting an untimely demise. The narratives that adopt this trope feature gay couples who are treated as expendable, resulting in the death (or otherwise destruction) of one of the characters – with death being a purportedly ‘natural’ conclusion to their story. There is much queer scholarship devoted to the study of this trope which outlines the ways in which it has tragically and painfully evolved both in literature and cinema (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s own Willow and Tara still leaves a lesbian-sized wound). Haley Hulan’s work Bury Your Gays: History, Usage, and Context (2017) discusses the original intention of the cliché. Originating in the late nineteenth-century, and persisting in contemporary media, ‘bury your gays’ was designed to allow queer authors to create stories portraying queer characters without threating their career or that of their publishers by breaking past laws concerning the ‘promotion’ or ‘endorsement’ of homosexuality. Times have changed within this context yet the trope still lives on, furiously so. Such a trope no longer serves its original purpose, hindering LGBTQ+ communities rather than truly representing their experiences
The Haunting of Bly Manor, although definitely gay and full to the brim with death, does not assume this trope. At a moment’s glance, Dani’s fate may seem to parallel ‘Dead Lesbian Syndrome’, although this perspective entirely ignores the depth and emotional narratives of Dani and Jamie as individuals, and as a couple. The Haunting of Bly Manor is driven by the emotional motivations of the characters (and ghosts), as information about the origin of each character’s emotional turmoil is slowly rolled out across all nine chilling episodes, leaving the viewer to relish in ghastly angst.
The most emotional point in the narrative is reflected in the eventual (and deserved) happiness of Dani and Jamie, near the end of the series. Both live out their love for each other in harmony after the horrific events of Bly Manor, with portrayals of them both blissfully content in their relationship and in the life that they have built together. The emotional pull of these moments comes, as we see, with the growth of these characters. At the core they have a functional and healthy relationship, something shown as a rarity, as the series defines itself through the manipulative and corrupted connections buried inside the lives, past and present, of the residents of Bly.
This is foreshadowed and further reinforced in a scene in episode three The Two Faces, Part One as the au pair, the gardener, the chef and the housekeeper comfortably sit by the fire. Admiring the chef and the housekeeper as they lean on each other, Dani and Jamie sit together. Jamie tests the waters with Dani, almost teasing as she asks if the au pair would rather be snuggled up next to the chef. They begin to discuss the relationship of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, a heterosexual couple who used to reside and work at the Manor. Miss Jessel, the previous au pair, and Peter, a dubious fellow who hung around. The two were in love, a love that the gardener proclaims as ‘the wrong kind’, the kind that ‘can fuck you up’. The conversation concludes as Jamie further reflects that people often confuse love and possession. A sentiment that Dani agrees with, stating how they are ‘opposites, really. Love and ownership’. Of course, Jamie agrees. It is this speech that shines a light on the underpinning understanding shared by the au pair and the gardener.
The philosophy of love as opposite to possession is one that is physically manifested in the relationship between Quint and Jessel. If love is defined through the au pair and the gardener as mutual, respectful and honest, the apparent love between Quint and Jessel is possessive, controlling, insecure and deceitful. The two were entirely infatuated with another, fostering co-dependent and toxic tendencies. One that eventually leads to the demise of Miss Jessel, as Quint possesses her and commits suicide. This representation of such a twisted, manipulative approach to love, one rooted in delusion and deception, is set in binary opposition to Jamie and Dani’s relationship. The heterosexual couple represent possession in a variety of ways, as they literally attempt to possess each other and the orphans (Flora and Myles). The messages and perspectives on love could not be made any clearer in the exact opposite treatment of the lesbian couple, as they achieve happiness and consistent independence and growth. The celebration of this love is more than any other characters are allowed throughout the entire series. Claiming The Haunting of Bly Manor as part of the ‘bury your gays’ trope automatically denies any actual depth or message to be noticed other than something to be avoided/offensive. On the surface it may seem to fit such a trope, as with everything there are exceptions to the rules, and the representation that this show presents is entirely free of anything other than celebration and actual promotion of healthy and mutual connection between consenting queer characters. There is no punishment of queerness, neither Dani nor Jamie face drastic consequences for their love or suffer as a result of their lesbianism.
Yes, Dani meets a damp and gloomy end, but this end is not rooted in her queerness. Rather, it is linked so desperately with her empathy and character. Throughout the series, Dani comes to accept several harsh realities – the most notable of course – accepting herself for who she is. The grief she experiences with the passing of her previous fiancé, the events of his death and her own lesbian identity continuously haunts her throughout the episodes. Slowly and subtly Dani’s traumatic ghost of queer grief pushes her to the inevitable confrontation. It is in this confrontation of her past and her present self that she is allowed to find happiness within the realms of gay, romantic love. Overcoming the events of Bly Manor, sacrificing herself to save Flora and investing her partnership with Jamie serves as semi-reward for the au pair. This is a payoff rarely shown within the regions of the horror genre. Characters are often punished consistently and seldom have a fate full of happiness. The rollercoaster that is the Haunting of Bly Manor expands beyond the story of a haunted house. Rather than focus on the immediate horror of unfamiliar surroundings and cliché scares, it waits and lingers, letting emotions build, forming a lump in your throat just as things seem too good to be true.
Overall, The Haunting of Bly Manor possesses many forms of love through various characters, although it is Dani and Jamie’s love that blossoms, in-spite of their horrific fortunes. The series captures the sorrow that follows truthful romantic endeavours, a slow-burner soaked in turmoil; The Haunting of Bly Manor does what horror does best, hooks and sinks you right through the heart and down to your gut in feelings.
Hulan, Haley. 2017. ‘Bury Your Gays History, Usage, and Context’. volume 21 issues 1 McNair Scholars Journal, 21(1) Available at: <https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1579&context=mcnair> [Accessed 24/11/2020].
Kelsie Dickinson (she/her) is a super gay masters student at The University of Glasgow. She loves slashers, but hates capitalism. Her favourite films are It Follows, Midsommar, Lost In Translation and Ghost World. Find her on Twitter.