Our Everyday Gothic series explores day-to-day experiences that have reminded us of the Gothic – whether these were spooky, unsettling, or just a little odd. In this post, Megan Stephens talks about the ghostliness of watching a show at the same time as someone on the other side of the globe.
I recently watched Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, and I know I’m a year behind everyone else with this (in fact, here at Sheffield Gothic we’ve already published a post on the show and its relation to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw). But whilst the series, with its plethora of ghosts, thrills and intricate plot lines, is a great example of the Gothic, it won’t be my main focus here. Instead, for this first post in our new series Everyday Gothic, I want to tell you about how I watched this Netflix thriller.
Beyond the Screen
The watch party is a relatively new way of watching online content ‘together’ with people who are not physically with you, which has understandably gained popularity since the start of the pandemic. Most of the major streaming services now offer a watch party setting, which syncs viewing across devices and provides a chat function so you can watch and discuss ‘with’ others. I personally made great use of this style of viewing at the height of lockdown and have continued with it sporadically since moving to a new city and once again finding myself at a distance from my friends. In particular, I have an old housemate who has now moved home to Malaysia, and watch parties have become one of the main ways we continue to spend time ‘together’. It is with her that I watched The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Bly Manor is (as you may have guessed from the title) a ghost story, and it was this that made me properly consider, for the first time in nearly two years, just how strange the watch party is. Whilst the opportunities for continued connection it offers have been invaluable to me, it cannot quite escape the absence of the other. This became strikingly apparent when watching a character yell at one of Bly’s ghosts, ‘You’re right there. You’re right there, and I can’t even touch you. I can’t smell you, I can’t feel you. No, it’s not fair!’ My friend is not a ghost (I hope), and yet this seemed almost exactly to describe our experience. You’re right there. I’m talking to you, I’m sharing this experience with you, and yet . . . And yet you are on the other side of the world, and you are not here at all.
A Displacement in Time
The ghostliness of the situation, the absent presence inherent in this form of virtual communion, was absolutely heightened by the fact that my friend lives not only in a different city but a different country. As anyone with friends or family living abroad will know, time zones add a strange dimension to any attempts at communication. For me, it is the displacement in time, not space, that makes me feel so distanced from my loved ones. You’ve probably seen or read at least one variation of the scene where characters who must part promise to look up at the moon every night, knowing that they will each see the same moon at the same time. For those separated by time zones, we know this is not true. Being in a different time from someone else can feel like an insurmountable barrier, perhaps because there is something otherworldly to it. You do not even share a moon.
For the watch party, time zones had a much more prosaic effect: I was watching in mid-afternoon. This actually worked out well for me; I am (perhaps surprisingly for someone with an interest in the Gothic) not good with horror films. In fact, I was persuaded to watch Bly Manor on the basis that it is a slow-burn thriller, low on jump scares. Even so, my poor tolerance for fright was definitely helped by the fact that I watched not in the dead of night but over the course of a few cloudy afternoons. When an episode ended, I did not creep through a dark house to my bed and lie awake jumping at every sound; I simply went on with my afternoon. Strangely, this absence of fear was itself unsettling, especially since it was paired with the absence of my friend. I could not shake the feeling that I was watching ‘wrong’. The traditional image of watching scary movies in a group is overwhelmingly physical, visceral: crowding together on the sofa, jumping or even screaming at tense moments and then laughing somewhat uncomfortably at your own fear. Perhaps I would have felt less alone if I were watching something lighter.
Whilst I am immeasurably grateful for the existence of instant communication technologies, after this international watch party I find myself uncomfortably aware that there is also something inherently haunting about them. After all, without them I would not be aware that I am experiencing a different time from another in the same instant. And the constant typing that characterises the watch party reminds you of what it is not: talking often takes a back seat when watching together in person. But in a watch party, it is necessary all the time, else a creeping dread starts to set in: are you still there? Many of our messages relayed our physical responses: I’m laughing, I’m crying, I jumped. Because these are the ways you read another person’s response to media. But normally you don’t have to tell them.
Luckily, this haunting has a happy ending. Unlike the situation in Bly Manor, this distance, this disconnect, is temporary. I am seeing my friend and our other old housemate this week for a delayed graduation service, and I look forward to our reunion in the flesh.
Megan Stephens is a first year PhD student in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, funded by the AHRC through the White Rose Consortium. She is looking at minor character deaths in contemporary fantastic film and television, thinking about the presence or lack of mourning and the value of different lives (and she promises she isn’t as morbid as this makes her sound!).