Viewers have come to know that it’s never a good thing when the protagonists of a horror story play a round of hide and seek, at night, in a haunted house. Yet that’s exactly how creator Mike Flanagan gets the night terrors going in the opening episodes of “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” the highly anticipated follow-up to his 2018 Halloween season hit “The Haunting of Hill House.”
“We’ll be back in our beds before too long, right? We can’t be out of our rooms too late,” a pajama-clad little girl tells her new au pair before peering down at a faceless doll lying underneath her dresser.
“We won’t,” the caregiver assures her.
“Bly Manor” is a retelling of Henry James’ 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw” about a nanny who comes to care for two orphaned children in their English country house. Flanagan’s version takes place in 1980s England and follows a young American woman, Dani (Season 1 returnee Victoria Pedretti), who is hired by Henry Wingrave (fellow returnee Henry Thomas) to care for his niece and nephew, Miles and Flora (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Amelie Bea Smith), following the tragic death of their previous au pair, Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif).
Once at the house, Dani meets housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller), chef Owen (Rahul Kohli) and groundskeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve), who help look after the children as Henry keeps his distance from the estate. Henry’s assistant Peter Quint, played by Season 1 standout Oliver Jackson-Cohen, checks in on the group from time to time, but brings with him an off-putting disposition. The characters’ worlds collide through grief and fear as the mysteries of the house unravel around them.
“It’s a story that resonates. It’s profound,” Jackson-Cohen told HuffPost during a recent interview about the second season. “There’s a huge amount of pressure on all of us to deliver something that not only elicits the same response as ‘Hill House,’ but that is also going to have something to say and strike something in someone so they can see themselves, in a way, represented.”
“Hill House” was lauded for its jump scares as well as its rumination on trauma and the familial demons that follow us through life. It is loosely based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson and follows the Crain siblings ― Steve (Michiel Huisman), Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), Theo (Kate Siegel), Luke (Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Pedretti) ― whose paranormal experiences at their former home continue to haunt them in the present day. Jackson-Cohen exquisitely played Luke, who battles a drug addiction while trying to push down the painful memories of his past.
“If you take away the ghosts, if you take away the haunted house, ‘Hill House’ is dealing with childhood trauma. None of us get out of childhood scot-free and so it became sort of a universal thing that everyone seemed to feel,” Jackson-Cohen said. “The fact that Mike Flanagan used ghosts as symbols for our past, I don’t think that’s anything I’ve necessarily seen before. He’s able to tell a horror story about mental health, grief, loss and addiction and there’s something quite powerful in that.”
Most critics praised the series, with The New York Times saying it “marries the terrors of a ghost story with an intricate, multigenerational family drama.” Some called it a slow burn, others deemed it “essential viewing.” Fans, however, were enraptured by every twist and turn, especially if it had anything to do with the dreaded “bent-neck lady.”
“I had never read anything quite like it,” Jackson-Cohen said of the “Hill House” script. The English actor also recently starred in “The Invisible Man” opposite Elisabeth Moss and admitted that, although he could be seen as a “scream queen,” it’s the original storytelling within the horror genre that reels him in.
“The characters in this genre have been some of the most fascinating to play,” he said. “With ‘The Invisible Man,’ Leigh [Whannell] had written such an incredible story about gaslighting and about how we treat women when they speak up. And what Mike is doing with the genre is something that I don’t think broad audiences have seen before. The fact that he is giving these characters so much complexity and so much depth and so many colors is a really engaging experience.”
“Luke Crain, for me personally, was a really important character because there was so much of myself that I was able to give to him through my own experiences,” he continued. “And similarly with Peter Quint, Mike writes these incredibly complex, deeply troubled men. I do feel very fortunate that I managed to play both of them, really.”
Flanagan’s take on “The Haunting of Bly Manor” intrigued Jackson-Cohen as it uses psychological horror to tackle the complexity of love ― both the beautiful and dark sides. It does so through the union of a group of colleagues; colleagues who, in turn, become a united front.
“Every single person who enters Bly Manor is from a completely different walk of life. They are strangers that are all coming together to form a family, regardless of where they’re from, regardless of color of skin, or anything like that,” Jackson-Cohen said. “This is about strangers finding each other, and that’s kind of what was happening in our worlds at the time, as well, with the new cast coming in.”
Alongside Jackson-Cohen and Pedretti is a diverse cast of characters who bring a new energy to the anthology series. Eve, Kohli and Miller are a dynamic bunch, and Smith and Ainsworth prove once again that Flanagan and his team of directors know how to get stellar performances out of child actors.
“In ‘Hill House,’ since we were playing the adult versions, we rarely got to interact with the kids. So [for ‘Bly Manor’] it was such a joy to be on set with these minds that have these huge imaginations and have not be affected by the industry in any way,” Jackson-Cohen said. “Ben and I spent an awful lot of time together ― I don’t want to say any spoilers, but it all becomes clear when you watch the show ― and he’s just the most incredible little man. They are brilliant, brilliant kids.”
Although “Bly Manor,” at its heart, is a love story, don’t think it’s all romance and no terror. Creepiness and confusion ooze from the screen over the nine-episode season as the true threat of the estate, the Lady in the Lake, is revealed.
Jackson-Cohen said Flanagan wanted the ghosts to look completely different than they did last season and that he liked the idea that time weathers people away to where they become featureless.
“Their identity is completely lost,” the actor said. “I thought that was actually quite interesting because, again, Mike’s sort of reflecting what we feel in real life so well.”
Jackson-Cohen concluded, “Mike said to me once, ‘Every time we fall in love, we give birth to a new ghost.’ That love will follow you for the rest of your life. It was such a beautiful way of looking at it.”
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” debuts on Netflix Oct. 9.