The Sanctity and Horror of Touch: Lesbianism in ‘The Haunting’ Anthology

Spoilers for 'The Haunting of Bly Manor'

Netflix

There is something about being haunted, about ghosts and horror, that is so familiar and comforting to lesbians and sapphics in general. Generally, lesbianism is connected to the supernatural through how non-normative, unstructured, and alternative the genre is; themes like going unseen, being marked as perverse or damaged, or unusual desire are all allegorically connected to real world experiences of sapphicness. This is present in both installments of The Haunting anthology, one of which features a lesbian main character and one that is completely centered around a lesbian love story. Both Theo Crain (Kate Siegel) and Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) are incredibly poignant and recognizable characters because of how they deal with their sexuality, trauma, and desire and because of how those complexities interact with the horrors they face. 

For both Theo and Dani, touch is something forbidden and something of a sanctuary; their expression and understanding of their sexuality is directly linked to their strange, complicated relationships with touch and emotion—particularly their associations of touch with trauma. Their emotional and sexual repression results in a heightened sense of touch, one that carries a much heavier meaning than usual. Touch is something that becomes as haunting as the ghosts themselves in each of their stories, something just as spiritual and apparitional.  

Theo is hypersensitive to touch, haunted by the things she feels through it—both the supernatural and the emotional. Combine that with how deeply she internalizes her emotions and you have this messy web of trauma and feeling tangled up inside her. She takes on trauma that belongs to others when she touches them and sees or feels things she should not, like the dead face of her mother or the consuming emptiness that waits in death. Knowing this, she begins to avoid touch altogether—the final straw being that last night they spent at the house as kids, when she touched her father and could suddenly see everything that had happened. We see her shrug out of hugs with her siblings and avoid their touch to an even greater degree because of the trauma associated with them. Touch becomes something completely horrible and overwhelming to Theo, and the gloves that are first given to her by Olivia are a welcome solution. 

The only person Theo feels safe touching, the only person she actually asks to touch her is her lover, Trish, but she refuses to address anything emotional or non-physical with her. The minute Trish asks her to be emotionally vulnerable, Theo shuts down and becomes almost bitter. She rather harshly details the traumas of her day to Trish in an attempt to throw vulnerability in her face. Theo uses this form of touch as a reprieve from all of the trauma and emotional hurt that is usually associated with it; her sexuality and her lovers both past and present become a sanctuary. This use of touch to escape applies to when she almost kisses Kevin in a desperate attempt to feel something after being consumed for days by the emptiness that she felt when she touched Nellie. She refers to him as a light, not a person but a means to feel anything rather than emptiness—and it works, she says, because it filled her with such thorough shame that it revived her emotions. This insurmountable emptiness can only be undone by something incredibly physical. 

For Dani, the moment she realizes, at least on some elemental level, that she might be a lesbian is when the woman tailoring her wedding dress leaves gentle, firm touches across her body as she adjusts the fabric. When Dani feels her hand settle warmly acros her lower back, you can see the panicky realization begin to well up in her eyes. This becomes traumatic after her fiance is killed, which she blames herself for, and she begins to write off touch as something villainous and deadly. Sapphic touch is the thing that she pins as the cause of his death as it was what resulted in her ending their relationship. So, he haunts her through touch, both by touching her with ghostly limbs and by appearing rather alarmingly every time she touches someone in a non-platonic way. He is there when Jamie first touches her before the funeral, unzipping her dress, and she jumps when she finds him in the mirror. He stands with phantom hands wrapped around her waist as she rinses potatoes at the sink, and he hovers, staring at her with those hauntingly illuminated glasses, as she kisses Jamie for the first time. He is the manifestation of compulsory heterosexuality and he is the manifestation of her fear of her own sexuality and physical intimacy. The repression of both her trauma and sexuality is directly linked to her internal villainization of touch. 

Jamie and her touch become a sanctuary to Dani. The more Dani confronts her own trauma and that ghostly manifestation of compulsory heterosexuality, the more she touches Jamie and allows Jamie to touch her. Their physical closeness is directly linked to the undoing of her repression and the acceptance of her sexuality as a lesbian. After that final night at Bly, the sanctity of touch becomes even more apparent. As Dani lives with the ghost of Viola inside of her, it is Jamie who keeps her grounded and it is the touches between them that remind Dani that she is still herself. When she loses herself in her reflection in the bath (a reflection that is mostly the shapeless face of Viola), nearly drowning herself, it is the hand that Jamie wraps firmly around her shoulder and runs through her hair, pulling her close, that brings her back into her body. 

For both Theo and Dani, touch is the thing that destroys them and then makes them whole again, or at least attempts to. For Dani, her wholeness is spectral—when she finds Jamie again so many years later, resting a phantom hand firmly on her shoulder. This time she is the grounding force, her touch gentle, imperceptible, and sacred. Dani refuses to haunt Jamie (as much as she may want her to) because she understands so well how touch can be corrupted. She keeps that sanctuary of physical intimacy between the two of them. For Theo, her wholeness comes in the resolution of her past and the assumed continuation of her relationship with Trish. Her wholeness is one that stretches across the narrative and takes its time; it is entangled in touch rather than completely defined by it. 

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Jenna Kalishman

Jenna Kalishman is a writer and student at Colorado College pursuing English and film studies. She especially loves morally questionable female characters, Stevie Nicks, sapphic yearning, and Rachel Weisz's energy in The Favourite.

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