Bly Manor doesn't look haunted -- in real life, at least. The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, with wood paneling and antique furniture. The kitchen is brightly lit with white tile and white cabinets. The stairs are wide. But if the portraits on the walls seem to stare at you for a little too long, or that stairway in the kitchen is just a little too eerie, you can always look up at the ceiling of the sound stage and remind yourself where you really are.
This is a haunted house, deconstructed, scattered across about five different stages, plus an exterior location that will convince viewers it's actually a grand old British estate dating back to the 1600s. Here, on the set of the first floor of the house, one of the central areas for new
horror anthology The Haunting of Bly Manor, the secret to making a haunted house is forgetting about the haunted part.
"I try to make sets that are beautiful and somewhere that you would actually like to live," says Patricio Farrell, set designer for The Haunting of Bly Manor.
It's January in Vancouver, Canada, before the coronavirus pandemic, and Farrell and set decorator Mark Lane are leading a tour, going room to room, from the large entry way, to the dining room, an office, a portrait-lined hallway, a classroom and a kitchen seemingly larger than some big city studio apartments.
The Haunting of Bly Manor, streaming now, is based on ghost stories by 19th century author Henry James, notably Turn of the Screw. In this adaptation, a young American woman becomes an au pair for a brother and sister who lost their parents and live at Bly Manor. The house, with its manicured gardens, initially seems idyllic for the young woman, but she quickly learns there's something sinister beneath the surface.
Early in the show, the voice over describes Bly Manor as a "good and great place" that "yawned to welcome her home." It's also the kind of house where "the rooms were larger at night."
Humans have suspected buildings of being haunted for centuries. Ancient Roman lawyer and writer Pliny the Younger wrote about a house in Athens where supposedly the ghost of an old man rattled chains and was generally so disagreeable the house was eventually abandoned. Victorian houses in particular have become go-tos for paranormal activity in literature and pop culture.
"It's the place where we're supposed to be the safest," says show creator Mike Flanagan, describing the ongoing fascination with experiencing hauntings at home. "Houses have lives… they're going to carry echoes of what's gone in there before. That fascination with who's lived in a space we're inhabiting before we got there will never really go out of style, because who doesn't wake up in their house at some point at 3 a.m. and wonder if somebody else is watching them?"
In designing Bly Manor, Farrell looked to architecture in Scotland and elsewhere around the UK. He concocted a backstory not mentioned in the show, that the house has been built on old Roman ruins and constructed the basement with that in mind.
As Farrell notes, between basements and attics, there are just some rooms that will always be creepy.
He also had to look to the more recent past. The Haunting of Bly Manor is set in the 1980s, meaning that amid all the antiques, you can spot a lamp or kitchen phone clearly not original to the house. Lane talks about scouring antique shops for items, as well as either renting or building whatever they might need, including custom designing all the window treatments.
Several of the fireplaces actually work, and some of the decanters placed in various rooms have actual alcohol in them. Farrell and Lane aren't telling which ones.
When building Bly Manor, there was also the question of how to differentiate it from season 1 of The Haunting of Hill House, which mixed Roman, Gothic and Tudor architecture. And whereas in the first season, the decor masked hidden ghosts, luring the background, season two's house didn't have to.
"We relied on a lot of wainscot and wallpaper everywhere, and [were] always trying to find wallpaper that either had or could be like it had a face," Farrell says. There's less of that this time around.
And then there's that giant kitchen, with a fireplace so large it could be a room of its own. Lurking death aside, it's pretty Instagramable.
"The kitchen is, like for so many of us, the soul of the house," Farrell says, "Season 1 was rather small, so this one is the revenge of the kitchen."
So, Bly Manor isn't really haunted. If you look closely at the parts of the set where Bly meets construction project, you can see screws and velcro. The small courtyard is just around the corner from the craft services table. There are cables on the floor. And some of the walls do move, but only to accommodate cameras filming cramped shots.
"Sometimes when you have this same space with a lot less light and you see a child, or someone walking alone, the scale itself makes it spooky," Farrell says, "I'm not trying to make a spooky house."