The latest “Haunting” on Netflix, “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” focuses on the story of two orphans who live alone with the help at a large, English manor house. Truly, of all the scary elements of the horror genre, from gore to monsters to ghosts and killers, there’s just something about creepy children. The off-putting brother and sister orphans of Bly Manor are especially jarring in light of America’s summer of rage, specifically concerning the deference our culture gives victims.
The story, perfect for the fall spook season, is about a young, American teacher who takes a post as governess for these two children who live in their uncle’s manor house in the English countryside. While their uncle drinks himself to death in London, the two children are minded by a gardener, a cook, a housekeeper, and the new governess. Together, they make an odd family in an odd house full of a century’s worth of mysteries.
The house appears to be haunted, not only with spirits of the dead but with shame and guilt. As the governess settles in, she tries to protect the children. But it’s she who may need protection from them.
Flora and Miles (Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) are undoubtedly victims, and they’ve been through a great deal. First, they were orphaned, and then their caretaker, Uncle Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), saw fit to abandon them at Bly Manor.
The four paid servants of Bly Manor take pity on the children. They forgive big brother Miles for all his misdeeds and pranks — locking the new governess (Victoria Pedretti) in the closet, picking roses despite prohibitions from the gardener, smoking, demanding wine with dinner — simply because of how much trauma he has experienced.
The adults in his life agree his trauma is an excuse for bad behavior. No matter what sneaky, underhanded, peculiar, and somewhat psychotic exploits the children undertake, all is forgiven. Indeed, the new governess’s allowance of the children to act out nearly results in her demise. The children’s status as a victim, their rights to act and comport themselves however they feel they must, is excused by the adults for no other reason than their past difficult experiences.
As we have watched the summer unfold since the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25, we too, have collectively made excuses for the children of America. Many of America’s “children” under 26 — those still on their parents’ health insurance, out of school because of COVID-inspired shutdowns, out of work, and with fewer ways to find meaning or engage in society — have become unruly. They’ve been burning stuff down, fighting with cops, chucking Molotov cocktails, playing at vigilante justice, and generally making a menace of themselves.
Yet media, parents, elected officials, and all the good-hearted people of the country who understand that trauma and strife can make it hard for people to behave as their best selves forgive them for everything and fail to hold them accountable. We address the kids not according to their actions, but with an empathy that allows for any bad action to be permissible, simply because they’ve had a tough time.
In “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” it’s the children who rule everyone. Their trauma and victimization result in the adults in their lives making allowances for them, just as the American public has done all summer. But the truth is that kids — like all people — do best when they are held to a set of expectations. The kids let themselves off the hook and give in to their worst impulses because the adults allow it.
The governess, the sole American among the characters on the show, eventually tries to liberate the kids from their trauma and victimhood. Given that the show is not a straight metaphor for all that we’ve been through as a nation, it’s still rather impeccable. The governess rescues Flora from certain death at the hands of the ghosts of Bly, which are an accumulation of all the past trauma that’s been experienced at the house, and takes that trauma on herself.
The governess becomes consumed by it, by the past misdeeds, by the past horrors, and though she tries to bury it within herself, she knows that someday, it will emerge and overtake her. She expresses that feeling, of what’s inside herself:
It’s so quiet, it’s so quiet. She’s in here. And this part of her that’s in here, it isn’t peaceful. It’s quiet but it isn’t peaceful. It’s rage. And I have this feeling like I’m walking through this dense, overgrown jungle, and I can’t really see anything except for the path in front of me. But I know there’s this thing, hidden. This empty, angry lonely beast. It’s watching me. It’s matching my movements. It’s just outside but I can feel it, I know it’s there. It’s waiting. She’s waiting. At some point, she’s gonna take me.
As we move away from this summer, full of plague and civil unrest, and saw, fully, the elevation of victim status as a justification for all manner of misbehavior, it would behoove us to pay attention to what our kids are telling us. They’re telling us they’re hurting, yes, but more than that, they’re telling us that they need guidance.
They don’t want to fall victim to their own, unchecked whims toward destruction and harmfulness. Instead, if perhaps they were told that they matter, that their feelings matter, but it also matters that they control instead of relish their dangerous impulses, we might find a path forward, instead of a road straight to destruction.