The following contains spoilers for every episode of The Haunting of Bly Manor.
“We are already discussing how to up our hidden ghost game,” the prolific horror writer and director wrote.
Flanagan was referring to the fact that The Haunting of Hill House was positively teeming with ghostly Easter eggs. In many scenes throughout the series’ 10 episodes ghosts can be seen quietly languishing away in the shadows. It’s not until later episodes that the ghosts become more prominent, finally tipping many viewers off to their presence throughout the show.
Watching The Haunting of Bly Manor can be a somewhat confusing experience then. Even to the well-trained eye, it at first seems as though Flanagan didn’t follow up on his pledge to up the series’ ghost game. But according to the Bly Manor cinematographer James Kniest, the ghosts are still present this time around, just a little harder to see.
“They’re very subtle. They’re very, very subtle,” Kniest says. “That was something that Mike (Flanagan) was really cognizant about in not making them too obvious.”
It turns out that improving upon the show’s hidden ghost gambit to Flanagan meant making the ghosts harder for viewers (who were now expecting them) to spot.
“They were always meant to be very subtle and not on the nose,” Kniest says. “And that was probably some of our biggest conversations with how bright to light the ghosts in the background and then how to deal with them in post. Sometimes they’re in reflections. Look in the dark corners. Look behind stairs and places like that.”
On a second viewing of the series, one should begin to notice that the ghosts appear as early as the season’s first episode. In the first hour alone, we were able to spot the ghost of a plague doctor at 26:45 (behind the door, whenever it’s from Miles’ perspective), 32:55 (an extreme close-up outside kitchen), and 50:00 (at the end of the hallway).
What’s particularly interesting here is that these ghosts aren’t just nameless Easter eggs this time, they are actually a pretty big part of Bly Manor’s plot. As revealed in the season’s eighth episode, the death of Viola (Kate Siegel) created a “gravity” at Bly Manor that entraps the souls of all who die on the premises. In that episode we see Viola, a plague doctor, a vicar, and a small child die and it’s these very same ghosts that we see prowling around the shadows throughout the season.
“The nameless child you’ll see behind the staircase, when people migrate up and down the stairs, which is a lot. The ghost doctor we see in the study and then a couple of other places. And Viola, we see her in the attic,” Kniest says.
By keeping the hidden ghosts consistent and identifiable throughout, Flanagan and the show create a feeling of lived-in history for Bly Manor. These are real inhabitants damned to spend their days standing around a cavernous manor, unnoticed by anyone other than the ultra observant Miles and Flora Wingrave. But of course, the reality of bringing in actors for Easter egg appearances is a touch more mundane than that, according to Kniest.
“It’s funny because the actors who play the parts come in, but then when we use (the characters) as ghosts, a lot of times they’re sort of background actors or stand-ins, or stunt doubles,” the cinematographer explains. “So they wait around a lot for us to get set up. But then I think they’re super excited when we get to actually put them on camera.”
The scattered ghosts aren’t the only Easter eggs for The Haunting of Bly Manor. For one, Dani’s room at the hostel is “217”, which is the number of a fateful room in The Shining (the book, not the film, though as director of Doctor Sleep, Flanagan is clearly well-read on both). Nor are the ghosts the only bit of visual flair for these nine episodes. Kniest, who previously shot horror film Hush alongside Flanagan, describes Bly Manor’s black and white eighth episode as one of the biggest draws of this particular job.
“Of course I’m always looking at old black and white movies and even new ones like The Lighthouse. We played a little bit with how dark to go. Was it more noir or is it more sepia, washed out?” Kniest says. “And you’ll see in that episode as the Lady of the Lake goes through time, near the end we start to drift in a little bit of color until it brings us back to the modern day or at least the ‘80s. It was really fun.”
In talking to Kniest, it’s clear that there is no shortage of interesting visual quirks and Easter eggs throughout The Haunting of Bly Manor. It’s just that knowing where to look is the challenging part. All nine episodes of The Haunting of Bly Manor are available to stream on Netflix now. Best of luck on your ghost hunts, everyone.