The Haunting of Bly Manor, little sister to Mike Flanagan’s cult Netflix series Hill House, has been condemned as ‘a ghostly mistake’, the most terrifying element being the ‘ear-jangling accents’. It seems that the series’ questionable fear factor seems to have drawn the critics’ eyes from its genius interactions with the ‘queer’ Gothic tradition.
As we are told in the final episode, this isn’t a ‘ghost story, it’s a love story’. The romance between protagonist Dani (Victoria Pedretti) and housekeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve) offers a cathartic, modern twist on the genre.
In Victorian Britain, queer authors turned to Gothic literature to express their experiences. For the most part, queerness was only ever implied, however obviously, as homosexuality was ‘unspeakable’, having been criminalised as ‘gross indecency’ by the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is perhaps the most famous example, the titular character’s portrait aging and decaying with every ‘sinful’ act he committed. The story of Jekyll and Hyde, though less explicitly queer, has been read as a metaphor for the double lives that homosexual Victorian men were forced to live.
While queerness itself was presented as the source of horror in traditional Gothic texts, Bly Manor manifests horror in the shame brought about by homophobia. Dani’s struggle to accept her sexuality is presented through the shadowy, jump-scare inducing figure of her deceased fiance Edmund. After she came out to him, he stepped out of the car right into the path of an oncoming truck. Unsubtly, at one stage Dani is locked in a closet by the children, and Edmund appears in the mirror behind her.
As Dani’s romance with Jamie blossoms, Edmund disappears as she makes peace with her grief and sexuality. She openly embraces her queerness, something which was simply not possible for her Victorian predecessors, coming out of the figurative ‘closet’ which previously was a space designed to contain ‘monstrous’ sexuality. Once the imagined Edmund disappears, the real ghosts of Bly make themselves known, decentering queerness as a source of horror.
This closure, and the decentering of Dani’s queerness, disrupts the generic expectation that queerness is a Gothic protagonist’s downfall. Dr Jekyll and Dorian Gray are consumed by their shame, while Dani breaks free from it and is able to form a fulfilling relationship. Her love for others is shown to be a strength as she sacrifices herself to the Lady of the Lake.
Queerness is explored without lingering long enough to tokenise Dani and Jamie’s relationship. The series does justice to the struggles of being a queer woman in the 80’s without reducing the pair to their sexuality – the final episode explores their relationship with an intimacy rarely seen on screen. While Bly Manor is a lesson in how not to do horror, it is a shining example of how to present queer relationships on screen, while offering a modern take on the queer Gothic.
Further Reading: Sanna, Antonio. Silent Homosexuality in Oscar Wilde’s Teleny and The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Law & Literature, 24:1, 21-39, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1525/lal.2012.24.1.21
Categories: Film & TV