The following contains spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor.
When developing Netflix’s 2018 horror hit The Haunting of Hill House, writer/director Mike Flanagan always intended to film an episode that flashed back to the history of the titular house and spent time with all the former inhabitants before the Crain family arrived. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out.
“We didn’t get to do it,” Flanagan said in a roundtable interview with Den of Geek and other outlets. “We’d written it, we’d cast it, we’d scheduled it. It got excised before we could shoot it as we struggled to try to get the season done on time and on budget. That was the thing that we sacrificed on the altar of good behavior.”
Turns out that sacrifice on the altar of good behavior would bless Flanagan’s Hill House followup, The Haunting of Bly Manor, with an opportunity to pull off the very same concept in a new context. The Haunting of Bly Manor episode 8, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” is a sprawling origin story, shot in gorgeous black and white. It tells the tale of the two rich sisters, Perdita (Katie Parker, who played the “flapper ghost” in Hill House) and Viola (Kate Siegel who is Flanagan’s wife and frequent creative collaborator) who are charged with keeping the estate afloat after the death of their father.
To that end, Viola marries the rich Arthur Lloyd but then she is struck with a lingering illness. Perdita eventually “mercy” kills her increasingly sick and increasingly cranky sister, which turns Viola into the powerful ghostly shade that will one day be known as The Lady of the Lake, whose gravity holds dominion over Bly Manor. Set as the penultimate episode of the season, “The Romance of Certain Old Ghosts” represents a brief pause in the action for some exposition, but is done so in a highly stylized way.
“That episode’s my favorite this season,” Flanagan says. “The idea that we could actually go back and tell the story of the haunting itself, and of the ghosts, so that they weren’t so hard to connect to our protagonists, that was really exciting. It also seemed like such a great opportunity for Kate and for Katie, both of whom we couldn’t find overarching series regular roles for in the story as it was structured.”
Like the rest of The Haunting of Bly Manor, episode eight was inspired by the work of Gothic horror writer Henry James. While this season borrows from novella The Turn of the Screw and short story “The Jolly Corner,” “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” borrows much of its plot from a James yarn of the same name.
“Other than having, I think, the best title of any short ghost story I’ve ever heard, (it has) the seeds of so many things that have become embedded in contemporary horror. You read the story as it is, and you can see the inspirations for The Ring and for The Grudge,” Flanagan says.
Both the television and short story versions of “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” feature the shocking moment in which one sister enacts ghostly revenge on the other, though the names and roles of the sisters are switched. In the Bly Manor version, it is Violet who makes Arthur promise to lock away her treasured clothing in a chest and to save it for when their daughter comes of age. When Perdita decides to open the chest for herself it leads to the biggest jump scare of both iterations.
“It’s so beautifully described in the book that they find the poor woman splayed out in front of the trunk with this frozen expression of horror on her face, and the bruises of the fingers around her neck from the ghost that strangled her,” Flanagan says.
“That is more aggressive and vicious than anything else Henry James ever wrote about a ghost. Most of his ghosts are incredibly polite, and they just kind of are like, ‘Oh, hello.’ But to me, it really shows how some of the ideas Henry James first put out there have caught on either consciously or subconsciously over the years, and have continued to inform the genre. That story was always going to be one of the crown jewels of the season.”
Though Flanagan began as and remains primarily a director of horror films, with The Haunting franchise he has proven he has a strong handle on what makes episodic storytelling on television work as well. The standout nature of “The Romance of Old Clothes” is reminiscent of Hill House’s episode 6 “Two Storms,” the experimental lynchpin of that season which features long tracking shots and deftly moves between two timeframes. According to the director, it was important for Bly Manor to have a standalone episode that matched the energy and import of “Two Storms.” But doing so came along with a new set of challenges.
“It was one of those episodes, much like episode six in season one, that we were preparing for and building up to the entire time,” Flanagan says. “We shot it last. We had finished our ‘A’ story and made it all the way to the end. And then we had to redress everything – the interior of the house, the exterior of the house. We got rid of all the electric light fixtures, put in all the candle sconces, completely changed everything over. (Then we) got to finish the experience of making the season with this beautiful standalone, truly Gothic romantic black and white period piece.”
Though Flanagan oversees all aspects of Bly Manor as showrunner, he directed only the first episode this time around rather than directing all installments like on Hill House. He describes the experience of directing 10 episodes of Hill House as so intense that he came out of it “a shell of (himself)”, having lost 40 pounds. Several directors take over the reins for Bly Manor and it’s Belgian director Axelle Carolyn (Soulmate) who handles duties on episode 8.
“Axelle Carolyn is a student of classic black and white horror cinema, and came to it with so many exciting ideas of how she wanted to tell it,” Flanagan says. “Everybody was always looking at episode eight as our chance to do what we love the most and what made us want to do The Haunting at all, which is to look back at Robert Wise and Jack Clayton and those incredibly influential movies from the early ’60s. They were done so perfectly, they’ve rendered it pointless to try to do a faithful feature adaptation of these texts.”
The Haunting of Bly Manor is certainly no stranger to interesting adaptation choices and horror homages. Inspiration from Flanagan’s horror influences and Henry James’s classic texts are readily evident across the entirety of the season. “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” is just arguably where they all come together the most effectively. And if nothing else, episode eight is where ghosts of The Haunting world finally get the origin story they so richly deserve.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is available to stream on Netflix now.