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Releasing the Ghosts: Representation of Trauma in 'The Haunting of Bly Manor'

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Editor's Note

The following story contains spoilers for the Netflix series “The Haunting of Bly Manor.”

This article may also be triggering for trauma survivors. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

This piece was co-written with Carmen Lasby, PsyD.

Like an apparition stalking the manor halls at midnight, a dark reflection in a mirror or secrets buried beneath the lake, trauma often takes an uncanny form in the lives of survivors, both haunting and hard to define. This sense of seeing and not seeing, being anchored down yet adrift, leaves many survivors feeling a painful isolation, navigating simultaneous fears of invisibility and exposure.

For those who have not experienced complex trauma, the only window into the world of survivors often comes through media, specifically television and movies, the community storytellers of the 21st century. Sadly, those who have survived trauma, and those who deal with its lingering burden on mental health, are often represented as weak, fragile or even worse, monstrous. Occasionally, a story comes along that gets it right, that represents its characters in powerful ways, capturing the truth of trauma‘s painful nature, but also the incredible opportunity for healing that exists in its wake. The Netflix series “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is one of those stories.

Before reading any further, please know the paragraphs that follow contain spoilers for “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” discussing in detail the plot and development of major characters, along with an analysis of the show’s ending. Additionally, this article deals with the experience and nature of trauma in such a way that some readers may find triggering. While we believe discussing such things is ultimately healing and helpful in the journey to recovery, we recognize some may wish to avoid that at this time. With that said, let’s take a closer look at “The Haunting of Bly Manor.”

First, a quick summary of important characters and setting that are necessary for understanding the beautiful exploration of trauma in “The Haunting of Bly Manor.” A young American woman, Dani Clayton, moves to the U.K. to work as an au pair for the Wingrave children, Miles and Flora. Their uncle, Henry Wingrave, hires Dani because the children’s parents died in a tragic accident.

The estate grounds and the regal mansion, Bly Manor, are in fact haunted by a number of ghosts, chief among them a woman named Viola, who was herself murdered at Bly hundreds of years earlier and now haunts the grounds in a perpetual state of lethal need. Nearly every character in the show has a trauma history, and these many threads weave together a complex tapestry about the human psyche and survival responses.

Indeed, it is these survival responses, manifest in nuance with each character, that makes “The Haunting of Bly Manor” so compelling. Rather than building the story around terror or shock, as many tales in the horror genre do, the writers instead focus on how we as human beings respond to pain, fear and loss, how various defense mechanisms help us survive, and how they sometimes trap us in the very hell we seek to avoid. The show builds a visceral and sorely needed stage upon which the experience of survivors can be seen, felt and known a moment of validation for those who suffer in the shadows. By its end, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” offers a glimpse of the path toward healing.

At its core, the Netflix show is about trauma, which exists both in the narrative universe and our own in many forms. Sudden tragic loss, the slow eroding of life to sickness and disease, malicious brutality, isolation from loved ones, and the terror of the unknown all take shape within the literary confines of “The Haunting of Bly Manor”; and with these various representations comes a reminder of the truth that no two traumas are the same, no survivors exactly alike. Thus we must enter with compassion and without judgement.

One tragic impact of living through such profound experiences is a loss of self. Many survivors often feel that a piece of them has been removed, that a portion of self has been lost and may be irrecoverable. This may occur in the moment itself or in the lingering consequences of what has happened, such as automatic survival responses and learned coping behaviors. This sense is often pronounced in those who psychologically survive through dissociation, which trauma expert Janina Fisher, Ph.D., explained as “the human brain’s innate capacity to split or compartmentalize.”

This tension between the world around us and trauma in the brain plays out over the course of the series itself. Various characters maintain the fragmentation by which they survive through various methods. Researcher Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D. explained:

If elements of the trauma are replayed again and again, the accompanying stress hormones engrave those memories even more deeply in the mind. Ordinary, day-to-day events become less and less compelling. Not being able to deeply take in what is going on around them makes it impossible to feel fully alive. … [It] keeps them more firmly imprisoned in the past.

In the seventh episode of “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” “The Two Faces, Part Two,” Flora explains the complicated nature of dissociation, how it is at once relieving and wounding in its function as adaptive behavior. “It isn’t always very convenient,” she says. “I don’t like it much when it happens unexpectedly, but the other times it’s perfectly splendid.” These little moments, being “tucked away,” happen to those living within the walls of Bly Manor. A sense of temporal drift, of bouncing from memory to memory, often without warning.

The truth for Flora, and for many survivors, is that dissociation allows relief in the moment, can protect from horror that is too much to bear; but this salvation comes with a price. When we dissociate, our connections to the moment fade, and we can miss out on what’s in front of us — relationships, important events, and the temporal flow of our lives. Much like Flora, we bounce in and out of time, driven by our need to survive the trauma we fear to re-live. Whereas it provides important relief in the moment, when the adaptive removal continues beyond the crisis, it may become as entrapping as Bly Manor.

This ability to disconnect from the moment, to find relief in far corners of the mind is also at the heart of one of the most intriguing characters in the show: Viola, the Lady in the Lake. In episode eight, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” we finally learn the history of the woman who becomes the terrifying ghost of Bly Manor. Viola lived at Bly centuries prior, was in fact the Lady of the manor, and married a wealthy man (Arthur), by whom she had a cherished daughter. Her sister Perdita also shares quarters at Bly Manor.

When Viola takes ill with a lung disease (likely tuberculosis), she must live apart from the other members of the home, eventually losing connection to her husband and daughter. Perdita encroaches on these relationships and eventually strangles her sister to death after Viola’s stubborn refusal to die from the disease. It is here that the story becomes especially significant in its commentary on trauma.

Viola becomes a ghost, trapped in a trunk of clothes meant for her daughter. She also becomes a powerful symbol of the experience of those living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unable to escape the chest, and later the confines of Bly Manor, Viola endlessly loops through her moments of destruction, ever in a state of survival, always reaching for the child she can never again hold.

The narrator explains, “She would sleep. She would wake. She would walk. And time went by. How much time it was impossible to reason. Sleeping. Waking. Walking. Sleeping, waking, walking.” Viola’s cycle gives powerful representation to the feeling of being stuck, felt by so many survivors dealing with PTSD. She cannot return to how the world was before; and she cannot escape the gravity well of her attempts to cope, which have become a tomb, a living death beyond her original trauma.

There is a brief moment when Viola seems to break free of her coping cycle, an instant in which she is able to revisit the trauma of her past and come to terms with what has happened. Again the narrator explains, “And in time, as we all do, she admitted all. She admitted she was dead. She admitted her husband had moved on. She admitted her daughter was growing without her. And she admitted her room was a dream, a construct, a lie preferred to the truth of the trunk.”

Here, Viola sees her coping clearly, the ways in which she dissociated, distracted herself from the pain of her past by imagining the walls of the trunk in which she enclosed herself. And in that moment in which she courageously faces her trauma, her husband happens to cast the trunk into the lake for fear of the dark power inside of it. Viola is cut off from attachment, wounded afresh by those she once loved. This final blow sends her spiraling back into dissociation, back into the cycle of awareness, loss, and distraction. “Wake. Walk. Forget even more,” the narrator remarks.

It is in this darkness that Viola bares the suffering of those who have lived through trauma and now endure the haunting effects of the very means by which they survived. This representation onscreen is felt on a deep and visceral level, as symbols often are, and validate those who often feel invisible. Their suffering, like Viola’s, is not limited to the original wound but extends to the coping that sometimes becomes its own entity.

While the ghosts are indeed frightening, viewers feel a level of empathy and understanding about them. The transformation of those living in Bly Manor, and ultimately those living with trauma, is beautifully explained by philosopher Viktor E. Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist and survivor of the Holocaust. He wrote, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” Episode eight of “The Haunting of Bly Manor” allows us to understand the depth of Viola’s suffering, and in turn explains her abnormal reaction; the paranormal becomes normal.

Finally, characters such as Hannah Grose (the housekeeper) and protagonist Dani Clayton offer a contrast to the inertia of Viola. Hannah draws from the love and connection she has with Owen (Bly’s chef), and breaks free from the anesthetizing safety of denial, ultimately warning Owen and Jamie and buying Dani time to save the children. It is the strength of connection and support that allows her to transcend the reach of trauma.

In the case of Dani, it is her love for the children that drives her to call out to Viola as she nearly drowns Flora, inviting her to instead possess her own body. This love not only saves Flora, it breaks the curse of Bly Manor and liberates all the trapped souls residing there. It is the offer of connection, however unconventional, that changes the narrative.

In his 2010 book, “In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Stores Goodness,” Peter Levine, Ph.D., wrote extensively about what we must do if we are to find healing. “Trauma is a fact of life but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence,” Levine wrote. Writing in the forward of Levine’s book, Gabor Maté, M.D., explained:

Trauma is not a disease … but rather a human experience rooted in survival instincts. Inviting the full, if carefully graded, expression of our instinctive responses will allow the traumatic state to loosen its hold.

Like Hannah in”The Haunting of Bly Manor,” we must face what we fear and resist avoidance. We must face our trauma, tell the truth of our story and how we have adapted, how we have survived. It is only in the looking that we may see more clearly, that we may redefine our relationship to what is in front of us. When possible, we must draw on the strength of our connections and break the inertia of trauma. As Flora says in the final moments of the show, it isn’t just a ghost story, “It’s a love story.” May we find the courage and connections to rewrite the meaning of our past that we may be free in the present.

David Lasby is a contributor to The Mighty and an English teacher. His loves include creative writing, video games and applying literary analysis to popular shows and films. You can find him on Twitter to talk all things mental health, Nintendo, sci-fi / fantasy, and creative writing.

Carmen Lasby, Psy.D., is a Seattle-based licensed psychologist whose therapy practice focuses on helping adults heal from childhood trauma, learning new ways to think and live in the world, and identify a better understanding of oneself and the relationships with those around them.

Header image via Netflix/YouTube

Originally published: November 26, 2020
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