The Haunting Of Bly Manor's Queer Romance Is One I Desperately Needed
Netflix's streaming horror show is more than just ghosts and creepy kids, it's a powerful love story.
Major spoilers for Netflix's The Haunting Of Bly Manor below.
There's a moment in The Haunting Of Bly Manor that, for most people, probably didn't seem scary at all, at least not compared to the rest of the show. There are no ghosts, no one is in any mortal peril--it's not even set in a sweeping gothic manor somewhere in the English countryside. It's in an American suburb, in the middle of the day, and every single character in the scene is happy--all except one.
Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) is at her own engagement party, listening to her fiancé tell the story of proposing to her. He's obviously head over heels for her, and we can see why--we know from the start of the episode that they've been friends since childhood, and they're practically destined to be together. But as he goes on, and as the room sighs and claps at how sweet it all is, Dani looks like a deer in the headlights, unable to move or even speak, with a stiff smile and bravely set shoulders. Later as the flashback continues, we see that this is very much the norm for Dani as she's practically puppeteered by the people around her into situations that should be joyful--the rest of the party, being given a wedding dress from her future mother-in-law, being fitted for it. It should be a dream, yet every step of the way Dani is barely a participant. This is all happening to her, rather than for or with her.
Thanks to some carefully placed flirtations with groundskeeper Jamie in earlier episodes, it's not hard to put two-and-two together. Dani is gay. She is not in love with her fiancé, no matter how desperately she wishes she could be.
The moment is, arguably, overshadowed by the "real" horrific moment of the episode--the reveal that a post-break up fight cost her fiancé his life and traumatized Dani so deeply that her only recourse was to flee to England and start a new life. But it's the moments before the accident that really twist the knife. "I should have said something sooner," she says, through tears. "I didn't want to hurt you, or your mom, or your family. And then it was just what we were doing. I thought I was being selfish, that I could just stick it out, and eventually I would feel how I was supposed to feel."
I don't actually know when I realized that I was gay. There's a lot of narratives out there in pop culture that are supposed to help with that sort of thing. People talk about "gay awakenings" on social media to make memes and jokes that I like as much as the next person, but have always struggled with, if only for that fact. I don't look back at my childhood and feel like I was ever particularly trapped in the closet, and I was surrounded by a family who I knew would have accepted me regardless--but still, all throughout my teenage years, I tripped over myself trying to date boys. Most of them were friends--some still are today--but each time I'd find myself stumbling into a clumsy, high school romance it was exactly that. I'd tell myself over and over that I wasn't happy because I was being selfish, and if I could just stick it out, eventually, I'd feel the way I was supposed to.
Watching Dani say those words onscreen was the first time I'd ever seen that story told so clearly. Dani's fear may be rooted in a general anxiety about judgement or rejection, but it's more than that--we have no reason to believe the people around her don't love her, but her secret has become so foundational to her support structure that the truth is unthinkable now. She's not scared about coming out of the closet, she's scared about hurting her friends. "And then," as she says, "it was just something we were doing."
The terror of compulsory heterosexuality is an extremely specific feeling, and not the story the horror genre usually aims for--dramas, maybe, that tell sweeping, impossible love stories where one person refuses to let go of their loveless marriage, sure, but not horror. Normally, when we talk about the intersection of queer identity and scary stories, there are certain low-hanging branches to pluck from. The monstrous other who wages a sometimes literal war against unnatural desires (vampires, werewolves, etc.), the outcast who eventually starts to fight against the society that threw them out with gruesome results (basically any story about a killer, Jennifer's Body, NBC's Hannibal)--the list goes on. It's easy to see yourself as a monster, or as the other, for your desires, but it's harder to evoke that same sensation when you're trying to articulate the lack thereof; when characters are tossed out or pushed aside because they don't want.
Dani's tragedy isn't about an absence of love and acceptance or the impossibility of her happiness, and neither was mine. It's about all the negative space around the love and acceptance, and the guilt that comes with being caught in the glue trap of that lie. Sometimes, it's just easier to be the person everyone expects you to be, even when it turns you into a mannequin rather than a human, to be posed and propped up in ways that keep other people from feeling sad or hurt or heartbroken.
Where Bly Manor went the extra mile was how it proceeded with Dani's story after the grisly truth of her breakup was revealed. Never once is Dani punished by anyone but herself. It would have been easy to adjust the story to fit the time-honored tradition of queer tragedy we see over and over again, where the world just doesn't understand or won't allow for two characters to be in love--but that never happens here. The monster lurking behind her in the mirror is never Dani's sexuality, only her guilt and her struggle with letting it go. She never has a moment where she's forced to come out or to explain herself to the impressionable, well-to-do children in her charge, and she's never sneered at or pushed away by anyone in her family, found or otherwise.
The horror of Dani's story grows and changes as the show progresses, but it's entirely articulated in those quiet moments where she's digging her heels in and trying, to the best of her ability, to pretend to want the happiness being offered to her. It's a guilt that defines the rest of her arc through the show, and a feeling that struck me as so familiar, and so unexpected, that it rocked me to my core. I think on some level that's always been an understanding in me. Of course, other people--other queer people specifically--have been through this, and of course, my teenage self couldn't have been alone in this series of awkward, heart-breaking, self-blaming messes--but I'm not sure how much I really believed until I saw it reflected back at me.
And, perhaps most importantly: Dani's story may be bookended by tragedy--but, like Flora says, it isn't a ghost story. It's a love story. And if recovering from that guilt--unsticking herself from the glue trap, escaping from the gravity well--was something she could pull off even for just a short amount of time, then maybe there's hope out there for the rest of us, too.
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