Series Creator Mike Flanagan Explains His Ghost Rules for 'The Haunting of Bly Manor'

The ghosts stuck inside the titular house in Netflix's 'The Haunting of Bly Manor' operate within a specific mythology with sinister motives.

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T'Nia Miller as Hannah Grose | Netflix
T'Nia Miller as Hannah Grose | Netflix

This post contains spoilers for Netflix's The Haunting of Bly Manor

One of the standout details that made The Haunting of Hill House such a terrifying viewing experience were the variety of ghosts hidden in the background of each episode. It was an aesthetic detail that didn't just pull the audience in further, it helped add mystique to the show's overarching ghost story. 

Netflix's highly anticipated follow-up season stays rooted in the ghost story realm, with The Haunting of Bly Manor tapping into the spooky realm of Henry James' literary works (specifically, The Turn of the Screw). But the spirits that inhabit this season do so with a much different rule set than its predecessor. 

Thrillist had a chance to pick the brain of show creator Mike Flanagan during the series' virtual press conference, and the writer-director explained the foundation behind how the spirits of Bly Manor operate and the unique mythology these rules birthed. 

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Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif) and Hannah Grose (T'Nia Miller) | Netflix

Some of these ghosts don't know they're ghosts

"If you die on the grounds of Bly Manor, the first thing that happens is you go through a period of intense denial," Flanagan explained. It's what happens to Hannah Grose (T'Nia Miller) throughout the entirety of the series. She's simply dead this entire time, pushed by a possessed Miles into the property's well before Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) arrives to look after the kids. There's a Wile E. Coyote metaphor that's used by the boy which illustrates the concept of self-awareness (something the ghosts tend to be lacking here) that's both cartoonish and downright violent.

"The idea was that this first stage of it was this dreamed life that people could still carry on," Flanagan continued. "They could dream up new clothes for themselves, which Hannah does, which is why she keeps changing her outfits and seems to physically interact with the world and appears to people. They're putting up this effort because of muscle memory and denial, basically. But once you accept the fact that you're dead, like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff, a whole bunch of the rules immediately change." 

When a dead person at Bly Manor actually realizes they're dead, the reality they experience becomes non-linear and their lives begin to fall around them. Nell in The Haunting of Hill House described it as confetti. For Hannah, Peter Quint, Rebecca Jessel and the rest, this bouncing around has a term: "dream-hopping."

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Tahirah Sharif as Rebecca Jessel | Netflix

What exactly is "dream-hopping?"

Flanagan fills in those blanks of what the young Crain sister meant: "You're kind of involuntarily bouncing back-and-forth between what is the present, what is the past, and what is the future. Once you're on the other side of death, your entire life falls around you like rain or like confetti." In other words, the afterlife becomes a collection of memory fragments, dreamlike recollections of the best and worst moments of each spirit's life. And they transpire not necessarily as they actually happened, but as each of these characters remember them. 

"What was really fun to play with here was that idea of the decay of memory," Flanagan explained. "They say we each die twice -- that we die when our body ceases to be and then we die when we're forgotten. So the idea that a ghost is subject to that deterioration, that as their own memories fade and people's memories of them fade, the ghost 'physically' fades, all the other stuff goes away, but that their memories become less and less reliable." 

Going through the motions or re-enacting these moments is something we see Hannah do throughout the episodes until she finally realizes she's dead. But for those who have been dead longer, like Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), their experience finds them bouncing all over the place from one memory to another. She gets to pop into some of her best ones, while Peter is stuck replaying a low point of his life over and over again.

"Interestingly, Peter Quint is only being stuffed back into the worst memory of his life," Flanagan revealed. "I think as a proper little atheist (like I am), that, to me, is hell. It's not a lake of fire, it's that when we're dead, we live in our moments of the most shame or regret. If we're stuck there, the repetition of that, I think, is about as hellacious as anything I can imagine."

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Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) | Netflix

What does it mean to be "tucked away"?

This is where one of the insidious components of this ghost story takes hold. Throughout the entirety of the series, we watch the orphaned siblings Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) exhibit disturbing behavior. While Miles comes off demon-like at times, Flora is mostly just disoriented, always finding herself tucked away in bed to sleep off whatever trauma she found herself reliving on the property. 

Yes, these young children have been dealt a tragic blow by losing both of their parents and these instances could easily be looked at through the lens of how the young deal with loss and grief. But this is a Mike Flanagan joint, so there's obviously something more heinous happening behind the scenes.

Enter Peter Quint, the conniving right-hand man of Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), the kids' estranged uncle. For most of the series, the broodingly handsome man exists as a ghost himself. But much like in life, he worked to cut the afterlife's corners in order to find a way off the property. In doing so, he discovered that possessing the living isn't that difficult. So, firstly, he and Ms. Jessel go in on an agreement where they can share her consciousness together. But when he walks her into the lake and kills her, the two of them become stuck at Bly, looking for any semblance of freedom they can muster before memory fades on both of them.

Quint is a monster, but as with most of Flanagan's work, there's a human element to this horror and in his backstory, we learn that he was regularly abused as a boy. His father took his body and mind, wielding power over him, taking his agency away, which turned him into this damaged man. And as much as we sympathize for him in this reveal, it's quickly taken away as we learn that he and Rebecca have been manipulating young Flora and Miles in a similar way: entering their bodies, and tucking their consciousnesses away into a little dream world in the far-reaches of their subconscious. 

“The end game," as Flanagan described it, "is to reduce these children’s souls basically into a size that is so small that they’ll just forever exist in these little memories and these ghosts can just walk out in their bodies and have another chance at life.” 

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Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Peter Quint | Netflix

What keeps the ghosts trapped at Bly Manor?

This isn't the first time a ghost story posited the notion that spirits can be bound to one specific location; we've seen that idea play out on American Horror Story season after season. But what makes the ghost mythology unique in The Haunting of Bly Manor is the way the story connects each of these spirits to the property, and it all comes down to Episode 8, "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes." 

It's a standalone episode that's directly inspired by the Henry James novella of the same name. Here, we're finally given the backstory of Bly Manor and the mysterious, faceless wraith that emerges from the lake each and every night. 

This is Viola (Kate Siegel), a young woman who lived on the property in the 18th century. Her's is a story of love, loss, betrayal, and rage. A sister, wife, and mother whose existence is suffocated by an unfortunate tuberculosis diagnosis which leaves her quarantined to one room of the mansion as a romance between her sister and husband blossoms downstairs. Never able to reconnect with her daughter Isabel, Viola's persistence to keep on living fueled her anger and, even though her sister ended up taking her life -- only to receive some darkly poetic payback by Viola's enraged ghost later in the episode -- that persistence to remain anchored to the property carried on.

It was this energy that created a gravitational pull to Bly Manor which trapped all of the people who died on the property after Viola's death. Her supernatural prowess only grew as the memory of her faded, becoming a faceless monster hellbent on destroying anything that got in her path and obstructed her walk to find her little girl. 

Only after Dani uttered the phrase, "It's you. It's me. It's us," -- a collection of words heard uttered by Viola to her infant daughter, by Peter Quint to his lover Rebecca before drowning her, and by these two unfortunate spirits to the Wingrave children before possessing their bodies -- does the spell the Lady of the Lake have over the property break. It acts as a binding incantation of sorts that invites the grieving spirit into the young au pair's body to continue that cycle of love, loss, betrayal, and rage all over again. And in the process, each Bly Manor ghost, from Hannah to Peter, are finally freed from this purgatory.

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Aaron Pruner is a contributor to Thrillist, on Twitter @aaronflux.