[Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor. Read at your own risk!]
After two years of anticipation, The Haunting fans were gifted with Mike Flanagan's The Haunting of Hill House followup, The Haunting of Bly Manor, this fall. Inspired by the works of Henry James, including The Turn of the Screw and several of the Victorian author's short stories, The Haunting of Bly Manor is a ghostly gothic romance, following several ill-fated love stories in a moody tale set in the late '80s.
Much like Flanagan did in The Haunting of Hill House, Season 2 of the Netflix horror anthology series broke from the source material and ended with a bittersweet conclusion that was unexpectedly hopeful after putting its characters through such misery. But before we get to that little bit of light in all this darkness, we have to first dive into the reason Bly Manor became such an epicenter of doom, gloom, and tragedy.
How Bly Manor Became Haunted
The Haunting of Bly Manor's entire eighth episode is dedicated to explaining the origins of the estate's curse in a plot ripped from Henry James' short story The Romance of Certain Old Clothes. In flashbacks to the 1600s, we meet two sisters, Viola and Perdita Willoughby (Kate Siegel and Katie Parker), who are determined to keep Bly and the family fortune under their control after the death of their father. In order to do so, the eldest sister Viola marries a distant cousin, Arthur Lloyd (Martin McCreadie), with whom she eventually has a daughter, Isabel. But soon after Isabel's birth, Viola gets sick and is told she only has a few months to live. However, Viola is stubborn to the point where she rejects death outright, and Death's carriage stops visiting Bly altogether.
Viola suffers this living death for six years until her sister Perdita, who has grown spiteful and jealous living in her ailing sister's shadow, decides she's had enough and smothers Viola. But before Viola's death, she had taken all of her nicest jewels and clothing, of which she had plenty, and made Arthur promise to keep them locked in a trunk in the attic upstairs until Isabel could inherit them. Although Arthur honors this vow, six years after Viola's death, Perdita, who has since married Arthur, finds the keys and opens the trunk, only to have Viola's ghost strangle her to death.
You see, even after Viola died, her will remained strong enough to fend off the pull to the afterlife, keeping her spirit in the trunk in anticipation of seeing her daughter again one day when Isabel would eventually claim her inheritance. But this reunion would never come because, mistaking the trunk to be cursed after finding Perdita's corpse, Arthur has it thrown in the lake at Bly, trapping Viola there. Driven by her rage at the ways she felt wronged and the compulsion to look for her daughter, Viola's ghost begins the cycle that continues on for centuries: she wakes up in the lake, walks the grounds of Bly searching for Isabel, kills anyone who happens to cross her path, returns to the lake, and falls asleep, causing her to forget everything until she wakes up and begins the process again.
Over time, all of Viola's memories and even her face fades, until all that's left is Viola's loneliness, rage, and the impulse to wake, walk, and kill. And because Viola's will is powerful enough to create a gravity all its own, the souls of all those who die at Bly — including the plague doctor, vicar, soldier, and a young boy spotted throughout the season — become trapped on the grounds and fade away until, like with the ghosts of Viola and her sister Perdita, their former identities are forgotten.
How Dani Lifted the Curse at Bly Manor
It's this fear of fading away that inspires the ghost of Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) to form the plan for him and Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif) to permanently possess Miles (Benjamin Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Smith), a process that would create a loophole and allow them to leave the boundaries of the estate, albeit at the expense of the young children's lives. (To clarify, Miles and Flora wouldn't be killed, but tucked away in a memory with their parents, so they wouldn't really be living either.)
Though Peter is able to convince Miles to invite him in fully — by using the mantra Viola first tells her infant daughter: "It's you. It's me. It's us" — Rebecca only pretends to do the same with Flora, hoping Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) will be able to get her safely away from Bly. Unfortunately, they don't even make it past the driveway before Dani accidentally stumbles into Viola's path and gets taken by the vengeful spirit. However, before Viola can unthinkingly kill the au pair, she sees Flora in the bed she once shared with her daughter. Viola drops Dani and takes the young girl instead, mistaking her for Isabel. Before Viola can drag Flora into the watery grave with her, Dani catches up to them and says the one thing that will get her to release the child — she invites the Lady in the Lake into herself, repeating the aforementioned mantra and merging their spirits. (You'll even notice one of Dani's eyes changes color to match Viola's.) By inviting Viola into herself, Dani not only saves Flora but breaks the curse on Bly and all the ghosts can finally pass on, including Rebecca, Peter, and Hannah (T'Nia Miller).
Although the horror is over for everyone else, Dani can feel Viola's presence inside her and knows that one day the Lady in the Lake will claim her fully in the show's clever take on James' short story The Beast in the Jungle. In the book, there is no actual ghost or beast waiting for the doomed protagonist. In fact, the man dooms himself to his misfortune by being so consumed with this belief that some spectacular destiny awaits him that he ignores all life has to offer, including the love of a good woman. But if love could have saved Dani, she would have lived a long happy life with Jamie (Amelia Eve), who moves with Dani to America after leaving the no-longer-haunted house.
Following several years of peace in which the couple opened up a flower shop and got married, Dani and Jamie's lovely life is upended when Dani's beast returns. Dani begins to see Viola in her reflections and starts to feel herself slipping away piece by piece, until she struggles to feel anything at all. Jamie tries to deny how serious things have gotten and wants to keep taking things day by day, but after Dani wakes up nearly choking Jamie to death, Dani knows she can't risk the life of her great love. So without talking to Jamie, she leaves a goodbye note and returns to Bly, where she drowns herself in the same lake where so many had died before. As a result, Bly's Lady in the Lake is transformed, because she is now as much Dani as she is Viola. So while Dani's memories eventually fade away like Viola's did, enough of her remains that the Lady in the Lake still wakes and walks, but now becomes harmless to all those around her.
What the Flashforward Means
The Haunting of Bly Manor is bookended by flashforwards to 2007, when Jamie (now played by Carla Gugino), Owen (now played by Kamal Khan), Henry (now played by Duncan Fraser), Miles (now played by Thomas Nicholson), and Flora (now played by Christie Burke) reunite in California for Flora's wedding — although it isn't until the finale that we realize who they are and whose wedding it is. After the rehearsal dinner — at a haunted manor, naturally — the take turns to tell ghost stories, which is when Jamie begins retelling the story of Bly and her romance with Dani. Only, other than Owen and Henry, no one — not even Miles and Flora --realize Jamie is talking from personal experience. That's because as they grew up, the children forgot about the events at Bly (much like how Henry clearly forgot details about his own run-ins with the soldier's ghost). And when Jamie tells the story, she changes the names and just enough details to obscure the truth from them. As Jamie later explains to a curious listener, if you go to England searching for Bly, you won't find a manor of that name. Even Flora's name is changed, although Jamie uses the real woman's middle name as the inspiration for the "fictional" character in her tale.
One thing Jamie doesn't lie about, though, is that even all these years later, she's still waiting for Dani to return. We see her continue to check all reflections for Dani's face and leave her door open a crack at night, even falling asleep in a chair facing the doorway in case Dani does visit her room. What Jamie doesn't realize is that, though she can't see Dani, her love is there with her, as shown in the tender final shot of Dani's ghostly hand resting on Jamie's shoulder. Now, whether that is Dani's literal ghost watching over her love or just evidence of what Jamie told Flora before her wedding — that even when you lose someone, you'll always have pieces of them with you in your memories — is up for interpretation. But either way, it's a beautiful sentiment after quite the tragic season.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is available to stream on Netflix.