“I know it sounds like I’m making this up,” Carla Gugino told me halfway through our interview. “But I’m actually not.”
We were on the phone discussing The Haunting of Bly Manor—a follow-up to Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House in which Gugino makes a surprise appearance as the narrator. (Her character is also central to the season’s biggest, most spoiler-y twist, which we’ll get to later—with plenty of warning.)
But in that moment, Gugino was not talking about Bly Manor. She was remembering the time about 15 years ago that she and her boyfriend, Sebastian, found themselves cohabiting with what she’s pretty sure was a ghost.
They were staying in an old Spanish house in Los Angeles near Beachwood Canyon, the actress recalled. And over time, things got spooky.
“It was so crazy because we would be watching movies downstairs and you would literally hear furniture dragging above you,” Gugino said. When they’d run upstairs to investigate, they could find nothing out of place. “And then, like, under a doorway, you would see a shadow cross.”
That was just the beginning. Another time Gugino’s 6- or 7-year-old niece came to visit—and at one point, “She just looked in the corner and started pointing and screaming.”
The couple eventually came to suspect their spectral housemate was a woman because of another strange occasion: A friend stopped by with his wife, who left the group to run errands. When he thought he saw his wife at the bottom of the stairs, the friend turned around to realize “it was a woman—but not her.”
I had already melted into a puddle of “Oh my god” by the time Gugino delivered the chilling finale: After spending some time in the house, she and her boyfriend called a housekeeper they knew to come clean the house. At the door the housekeeper told her, “I used to clean this house—until the woman that I cleaned for killed herself in the upstairs bedroom.”
The Haunting of Bly Manor, inspired by Henry James’ gothic novella The Turn of the Screw, moves the old ghost story to the 1980s and follows an American ex-pat named Danielle Clayton (played by Hill House and You star Victoria Pedretti) as she starts a new job as an au pair for a wealthy British family, the Wingraves.
Adorable 8-year-old Flora and her well-mannered older brother, 10-year-old Miles, lost their parents at a young age. Their absentee uncle (Henry Thomas) hires Dani to care for the children after the mysterious departure of the family’s previous au pair, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif). Also on hand at the country estate: a warm but firm house manager, Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), a lovably goofy chef named Owen (Rahul Kohli, behind a resplendent mustache) and the mildly misanthropic gardener, Jamie (Amelia Eve).
As one would expect from a Haunting series, things get creepy pretty quickly: the phone rings at night with no answer, muddy footprints keep appearing on the steps up to the now off-limits master bedroom, Flora keeps dissociating and waking up outside shivering in her jammies, and Miles occasionally takes on a menacing edge—demanding glasses of wine, bullying Hannah, and hitting on the nanny.
Although Flanagan elaborates on the original story more than he emulates it, he does replicate its framing device: Gugino’s character narrates the whole story for a rehearsal dinner party.
The Haunting of Bly Manor gives us a smaller dose of Gugino than any of her previous Flanagan-helmed productions. First, there was Gerald’s Game—a stellar Stephen King adaptation that relied heavily on Gugino’s bracing performance as the chained-up heroine Jessie. Then, in Hill House, Gugino played the supernaturally gifted but ultimately tragic matriarch Olivia Crain. This time, Gugino appears only in the beginning and the end, with voice-over narration in between.
No matter how much (or, in this case, little) screen time Gugino gets, though, it’s clear that she and Flanagan have developed a reliably chilling shared language.
Gugino still recalls the breakneck speed of the Gerald’s Game production; within two weeks of reading the script, she was shooting her first scene in Alabama. The King novel—in which a woman is left handcuffed to a bed in a house in the middle of nowhere after her estranged husband suffers a heart attack—had notoriously been deemed un-filmable. After all, most of it unfolds inside the mind of our heroine, Jessie. But Gugino’s performance hit all the right notes—wrenching, wry, and at times wickedly funny. And Flanagan presses the film ahead just briskly enough to make it all engrossing, even if Jessie’s bladder capacity does become somewhat unbelievable as the hours stretch into days.
That project was the beginning of Gugino’s unwavering trust in Flanagan as a director. “If that story’s told wrong, I literally have nowhere to hide,” she said. “I mean, I’m actually chained to a bed. In a négligé. You know what I mean?”
Gugino praised Flanagan’s knack for imbuing his characters with humanity—a skill we see across all of their collaborations, including Bly—and his laser-focused vision.
And as an Italian, there’s also something Gugino loves about Flanagan’s enthusiasm for building a troupe of actors, whom he casts time and again.
Henry Thomas played Gugino’s abusive father in Gerald’s Game and her husband in Hill House; Kate Seigel, who starred in Flanagan’s Hush in 2016, played Gugino’s mother in Gerald’s Game, her daughter in Hill House, and, in one flashback episode as shocking as it is incredibly executed, perhaps the most important character of Bly Manor. (Hill House alum Michael Huisman also appears in the flashback—in a delightful period wig, to boot!) And Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who played Pedretti’s twin brother in Hill House, now plays the manipulative cad Peter Quint—whom Hannah, especially, blames for Rebecca Jessel’s ill fate at Bly.
Being part of an acting troupe like this reminds Gugino of theatre—creating a space where everyone operates with a level of comfort, familiarity, and universally understood shorthand. Although stories about casts becoming “families” is something of a cliché, she’s convinced that something about these bonds does make it to screen.
But the camaraderie is also a reward on its own.
“I’m a big family dinner person,” Gugino said. “So that’s also the fun of it. You know, it’s like you can have family dinners over the years where everyone kind of is in different phases of their life.”
When Flanagan proposed that she play the show’s narrator, Gugino was immediately intrigued. She thought about Joanne Woodward’s narration in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence—a major presence in the film that shared some of the gothic elements she hoped to bring to Bly. She revisited Henry James’ novella, which she’d already read years before. And perhaps most importantly, she started meditating on the nature of gothic romances.
Gugino’s schedule prevented her from playing a more time-consuming role in the season. Once she knew the rest of the cast would be returning, though, Gugino knew she had to be involved—so she made it work, missing three out of five days of tests for a play she’d been rehearsing in New York to fly to Vancouver to shoot for 48 hours. “I’ve done three movies at the same time; I’ve done pretty crazy things,” Gugino said. But this was the craziest.
“Every ghost story is a love story, on some level. And a love story is a ghost story if one of the parties is no longer with us.”
Love and possession are dueling themes at the center of The Haunting of Bly Manor. The refusal to let go—of one’s life, loves, and worldly things—becomes a supernatural source of eternal torment for several characters, including, to an extent, Jamie. As Gugino points out, the season’s message fits neatly into one notion that her character first introduces: “Every ghost story is a love story, on some level,” Gugino said. “And a love story is a ghost story if one of the parties is no longer with us.”
This is where those big spoilers I mentioned earlier comes into play: At the end of the season, we discover that our narrator character is not, in fact, some random silver-haired lady who likes to creep out wedding parties in her spare time. She’s actually Jamie, the gardener—who, as we watched throughout the series, falls deeply in love with Dani only to lose her to the manor’s Lady in the Lake.
The au pair risks her life to save the children from a watery, phantasmic doom—and although she succeeds and ultimately leaves Bly to start her life with Jamie, she can feel her watery grave inching ever closer with each passing year. Over time she becomes afraid of her own reflection in pools of water—shrieking as she sees the wraith’s reflection. And eventually, fate catches up to Dani; she returns to the lake, taking the wretched Lady’s place as a more merciful steward.
As Gugino notes, Jamie’s profession as a groundskeeper and gardener is pretty apt.
“You see life and death so, so evidently in nature, right?” Gugino said. “See a seed grow into a plant, and the plant grow and a flower bloom, and then the flower dies and then it falls back into the earth and it becomes fertilizer and it makes her another one, and it feeds the next life.”
But the twists keep coming: The wedding party, it turns out, are no strangers to Jamie, either. They’re the Bly family—and the children have forgotten all about what happened.
Flora, now a young woman, is a bride who’s shocked to realize that the little girl in Jamie’s story shares her middle name. As Flora dances, Jamie, still alone after losing Dani all those years ago, scans the room—locking eyes with several adults from Bly who remember everything well.
In the end, Jamie returns to her hotel room alone, missing Dani as she has for years. On this night, like every night, she leaves her door open a crack, hoping Dani will come visit her one last time. And in time, Dani does appear—as she has countless times before. Jamie just has no idea she’s there—that she’s ever been there, that she’ll always be there.
That, to Gugino, is The Haunting of Bly Manor’s greatest tragedy. “This woman, she’s the one who sort of got the God’s eye view in a sense—and yet she doesn’t know the key thing of the whole story,” she said. It’s beautiful—and heartbreaking. But as she’d put it before, “There’s nothing better than sitting down to a great ghost story.”