Spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor below.
On the surface, love stories and ghost stories are nothing alike. But when you think about it, both explore passionate, overwhelming desires to connect (or reconnect) with someone. One involves two people existing within the same reality, while in the other, the spirit of a person struggles with feelings that can be just as inexplicable and precious. As Jamie (Carla Gugino), a woman pining for her long-departed love in The Haunting of Bly Manor, calmly states towards the end of the macabre tale, “Same thing, really.”
It’s an unsettling notion, one that makes horror even more relevant as it cultivates non-genre fans grappling with what connection looks like in our real-life dystopia. For instance, more audiences might be invested in Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, a multi-layered story of love and loss trapped inside one ghastly house in 1980s England, because the narrative is, at its core, about despair for a lost loved one. Showrunner Mike Flanagan delivers a story revolving around characters suffering from heartbreak—including an American au pair (Victoria Pedretti) and the ghosts haunting her new place of employment—through a horror lens filled with as much tenderness, fear, and longing as those chronicled in the greatest ballads.
“When we fall in love, [it’s] kind of giving birth to a new ghost, something that is going to follow us for the rest of our lives,” Flanagan told Entertainment Weekly.
The idea that love transcends death, and by extension the bounds of storytelling, underscores how profound grief is, from a more traditional haunted house story like The Haunting of Bly Manor, or one that resonates with a contemporary suburban landscape. Hulu’s Monsterland episode, “Plainfield, IL,” examines the decaying relationship between Shawn (Roberta Colindrez) and Kate (Taylor Schilling) that is challenged by mental illness and the suffocating pressure that can come from “’til death do us part.”
“I was thinking about it as a domestic horror story,” screenwriter Emily Kaczmarek tells ELLE.com. “We wanted it to feel as suburban and ‘normal’ as possible because there can be tragedy and horror and chaos unfolding in the house next door to you, and you could have no idea.”
Lockdown has made love feel more treacherous. Even the most Teflon-strong relationships have been weakened by constant bickering. Domestic violence reports have surged. And the threat of losing a partner to an unstoppable virus is all too real. Inside her home in “Plainfield, IL,” Shawn tries in vain to stabilize her marriage as well as her struggling wife, only to watch them both slip through her fingers—leaving her with guilt and memories she relives through Kate’s rotting corpse.
Adapting “Plainfield, IL” from Nathan Ballingrud’s book, North American Lake Monsters, Kaczmarek explains that horror allows her to express what we find scariest in our minds and hearts. “Things devolve for [Shawn and Kate], and I think that it’s absurd in certain moments,” Kaczmarek said. “[It’s] meant to be an externalization of how it feels when your life is falling apart and there are forces bearing down on your marriage that you can’t control.”
It also signifies how humans can be incapable of letting go of a loved one after they’ve passed; there are far too many emotions still alive that won’t subside. In love stories like the ones in both Bly Manor and “Plainfield, IL,” the characters are reckoning with the fact that their vows of forever were cut prematurely and tragically. But more interestingly, these stories explore on a more human level how eternal love is something that can’t ever feel fully achieved in mortal bodies—though we keep trying.
“Love is a force that, particularly for Kate and Shawn, causes us to make promises that are fantastical in scope and impossible to execute,” Kaczmarek says. “But we keep saying them because the scale of what we feel for someone is so intense. For me, the episode is a lot about desperation in the context of love.”
That same sense of urgency and yearning can also be applied to a dating world that is its own horror story, especially now in quarantine, when rates of loneliness have skyrocketed. As a result, singles have descended upon the numerous dating apps that all promise to help connect them to “the one.” It’s a perfect landscape for Soulmates, the new AMC anthology series that isn’t squarely in the horror genre but provides an unsettling snapshot of a dystopia 15 years in the future, where science has determined a way to connect people with their true love. Singles and couples alike must decide whether their relationships are worth sacrificing for their scientifically proven soulmate. Should you leave behind a new romance to trek across the world? Is there such a thing as more than one true love?
For Soulmates co-showrunner Brett Goldstein, the series meets the dating world exactly where it already is. “We wanted to do a show about modern relationships,” Goldstein says. “As much as there are difficult things in [the show] and some of it can be quite dark, I also think it’s positive and optimistic about the long-term relationship. What are the realities of love?”
And can love really be guaranteed as more and more ways of finding it present themselves, disrupting even the most devoted relationships? “The couple in the first episode [Sarah Snook and Kingsley Ben-Adir], their history and all the things they’ve been [through] together matters, even if science were to tell them this isn’t the one,” Goldstein says. “I think a big part of the show is about choices; free will versus what you’re told.”
But in an increasingly unstable world, more people seem willing to take big leaps of faith, settling down with the one person with whom they connect because, as Goldstein suggests, “the world might be ending, so let’s lock ourselves in and hope for the best.”
That is, after all, what love comes down to: hope. And it’s that suspension of doubt, even within frightening and seemingly unimaginable horror stories, that ultimately steals our hearts. Because it’s not specters or cadavers, or even boundless technology, we fear most; it’s that our greatest love has been here the whole time, and we can’t see them. Or that time and circumstance has already taken them away.
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