On Black Women’s Trauma and The Haunting of Bly Manor

[Content note: This piece includes discussion of the murder of Black women, domestic violence, and abuse]

*This piece contains major spoilers concerning the Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor*

I decided to watch The Haunting of Bly Manor because of my October “spooky” series watching goals, but what initially seemed to be a fright-filled show about haunting and creepy kids with creepy dolls became a story that simultaneously foregrounded and failed to reckon with the horrors of trauma experienced by Black women in predominantly white places.

The Haunting of Bly Manor and (Post)Race

Make no mistake about it, The Haunting of Bly Manor is not a show that features much, if any, dialogue that explicitly addresses issues regarding race, racism, and the specific experiences of Black women. However, it is a show that despite it’s potentially “post-racial” vibes featured two Black women (who were brilliantly and beautifully played by T’Nia Miller and Tahirah Sharif) among its key characters. The Haunting of Bly Manor is also a show that represents such Black women’s involvement in two distinctly different interracial relationships which are unmistakably marked by loss and tragedy, and in the case of one, also abuse and violence. 

The character of Hannah who is the housekeeper was by far the most compelling of all characters and not just because of her exquisite style. On the surface, Hannah is emotionally contained and stoic in her handling of intense and traumatic situations that she navigates, including the breakdown of a relationship that entails the loss of her home and her decision to permanently reside at Bly Manor. Initially Hannah is depicted as elegant and controlled, dutiful and detail-oriented, not unfeeling but far from emotionally open and warm in the same way as her more care-free non-Black peers. Nevertheless, Hannah is at the heart of the sense of care imbued in aspects of The Manor.

Quietly fond and flirtatious moments between Hannah and Owen (played by Rahul Kohli) are evident from the start of the show. As the two main members of staff (other than Dani the au pair and Jamie the gardener) who tend to the young children at The Manor, Hannah and Owen exchange tender glances, spar with each other in the kitchen, and are at ease with one another in a way that differs to how they are around everyone else. The depiction of a burgeoning interracial relationship that didn’t involve a white person was a welcomed surprise in a show that centres whiteness in many other ways. 

Gradually, as the episodes pass, the subtle connection between the two kindred spirits swells into a clear requited loving and longing that makes the viewer, or at least me, root for them and the prospect of them escaping the darkness of The Manor and disappearing to Paris where Owen can fulfill his culinary ambitions as a chef and Hannah can “eat croissants, drink good wine…live”, as he puts it. The sweet sentiments of Owen’s words and his heart eyes for Hannah are overshadowed by the fact that, as the viewer later learns, Hannah has been dead pretty much since the first moment we saw her on screen. 

No Rest in Death and Blackness as/in Servitude

Despite her death at the hands of the small boy named Miles who she cared for but who was inhabited by the spirit of Pete (more on him later…) at the time he pushed her into a well, the love between Hannah and Owen (who is unaware she is the walking dead until the final episode) never dulls. In fact, it is the spark between the two of them that is the source of many moments of light and love against an otherwise grim, suffocating, and pale backdrop. Hannah and Owen’s love is not dependent on them both being alive. Theirs is an unbreakable bond. 

It isn’t until episode 5: The Altar of The Dead, that Hannah’s character receives the close attention that she’s deserved from the start but in a way that still fails to handle the nuanced complexities of her experiences as a Black woman in the very white and well-to-do countryside. The mind-bending episode is made up of Hannah’s Groundhog Day style memories that are continually revised, revisited, and become increasingly bizarre and trippy as the minutes fly. If you’ve ever played Superliminal on Nintendo Switch, think that but more eery and discombobulating. 

In episode 5 we see Hannah meet Owen for the first time, several times, seemingly smitten with him from when they first sat across each other at the dining room table and she interviewed him for his job. Throughout this episode the distress that Hannah has been experiencing for a long time is very visible. We witness her grapple with confusion and the disturbing feeling that something isn’t quite right. She tries to remind herself of the current date, who she is, and where she is. This is especially hard to witness as it follows the episode where Owen’s mother dies after a battle with dementia. 

Hannah seems lost, out of control, and grasping for a sense of reality and locatedness that escapes her time and time again. If the viewer wasn’t already suspicious that Hannah barely eats or drinks because she is no longer mortal, episode 5 firmly establishes the idea that she is in a state of limbo and is no longer of/on this earth in the way that the living are typically understood to be. At the risk of over reaching, I feel that it’s important to acknowledge certain potentially under-examined aspects of the significance of Hannah being the only one of the main characters (I think?) who was dead from the moment we saw her. 

As one of two Black women in leading roles in The Haunting of Bly Manor (and more specifically, as a dark-skinned Black woman), the way that Hannah’s character is essentially defined by her inescapable death at the hands of the spirit of a white man who loathed her and inhabited a white boy who she cared for, reflects the palpable proximity to murder that Black women deal with in predominantly white places, including at the hands of people who they work and care for. It is difficult for the viewer to disentangle when Hannah was living from when she was dead, which raised questions such as was she ever living at all, in both a literal and spiritual sense? 

The character of Hannah is so much more than the servitude that she undertakes for her white upper-class employers (The Lady and Lord of The Manor, and their children). Still, there is no denying that it is in the midst of such servitude and unwavering loyalty to the white family of The Manor that Hannah meets her demise and is momentarily confined to the claustrophobic well that her body has been at the bottom of since Miles (inhabited by Peter’s spirit) pushed her into it, and before her spirit and physical embodiment somehow transcended the space because she refused to acknowledge her own death. 

In other words, we can’t gloss over that a large part of Hannah’s character arc is based on the fact she has been dead all along, and even in death, has continued to honour her promise to care for the two white children of The Manor and to create a hospitable environment for everyone who lives there. Even in death, Hannah does not get to stop serving and stop working. Furthermore, when the show finally makes it clear why despite being dead Hannah was able to continue to appear alive and interact with the living, the message is that this is simply down to her not facing the reality of her own death. Hannah’s denial is what has allegedly made it possible for her to pass as living, or at least, existing. Somehow, even in death, Hannah is blamed for her inability to rest *deep sigh*. 

Considering Class but not Race, Gender, and Sexuality 

Hannah’s character is steeped in trauma that may be perceived as undeniably being shaped by her experiencing life as a Black woman in a predominantly white space where she is merely regarded as “the help” and a nuisance who gets in the way of Peter’s plans to steal from the Lord and Lady of the Manor. Relatedly, Peter attempts to remind Hannah of the upstairs/downstairs dynamics of The Manor when questioning why she is loyal to her employers, but even though the show touches on questions to do with class, it stops short of making connections between these and race, gender, and sexuality. 

Hannah is denied the happy ever (or, at least, for a bit) after that several other white characters go on to experience, even if temporarily. So too is the character of Rachel, who is another Black woman tormented by the prospect of love and romance but who is eventually killed by her white partner Pete who consensually inhabits her living body after his death, but, without warning her, walks Rachel to her watery end in the lake. Unlike the love shared between Hannah and Owen, the relationship between Pete and Rachel is an ultimately abusive one which involves emotional manipulation by Pete, as well as physical harm, and eventually murder, inflicted by him. 

Rachel who is the au pair at The Manor before Dani, sought out the job in the hope of furthering her ambitions to be a barrister. Peter is the valet of the children’s uncle who becomes their guardian after their parents suddenly die. Some of the first few words exchanged between Rachel and Pete before her interview for the job involve him pointing out a stain on her blouse which he mentions to supposedly help her with the interview with her prospective employer. In hindsight, this is the first time we see Pete scrutinise Rachel and pass comments that make her readjust herself. Pete turns out to be narcissistic, irrationally jealous, and proprietorial which culminates in him chiding Rachel after she taste-tests one of Owen’s recipes and which ultimately ends with Pete murdering Rachel so that they “may be together” forever in death. 

Punishing Black Women for Desiring and Denying them Love 

Both Hannah and Rachel are denied healthy and happy relationships and meet a grisly end. That Pete, a white man, kills both Hannah and Rachel is especially jarring given the domestic and intimate partner violence that Black women, including Hannah, face. Some how Pete is able to evade accountability and is afforded subplots to do with his experience of childhood abuse which seem to be intended to invoke sympathy for him and recuperate his character. 

While watching The Haunting of Bly Manor I was thinking lots about the brilliant work of Maryam Jameela (@yammatron) on haunting, trauma, and colonialism, and the different ways that whiteness is often at play when haunting appears in “mainstream” media. Sure, this is a show that isn’t meant to paint a rosy picture and is a show which involves every character experiencing very traumatic events. Regardless, it’s not lost on me that the fully realised romantic relationships with some sort of longevity in The Haunting of Bly Manor seem to be those between white people. That said, by the end of the show it’s also clear that Owen’s love for Hannah will burn eternal, but this, as far as I’m considered, doesn’t makeup for how The Haunting of Bly Manor denies both Black women in it any sort of future, and in Rachel’s case, seems to punish her for her desires.

Maybe in a parallel world Hannah and Owen are eating croissants, enjoying good wine, and really living in France, and maybe Rachel is a barrister who has escaped the clutches of Pete and is enjoying her life on her own or with someone else. I don’t expect The Haunting of Bly Manor to be a Hallmark or Lifetime movie that neatly ties up the loose end of plots and ensures that everyone “good” rides off into the sunset or to a new suburb with their forever person. But I do hope that more shows like this one will think twice about their (mis)handlings of Black women’s traumas and the tired trope of Black women who end up alone, injured, and worse, because they didn’t dare to express their desires or because they desired who and what was bad for them.