Every unresolved ghost story is a tragedy, arising from the three poisons of strong attachment, aversion and delusion. Reborn out of delusion, we return with its offsprings of attachment and aversion too. As time goes by, we might even feed ourselves further with more worldliness that intensifies these poisons.
Even at the very last breath, some would try to deny or bargain with death, craving to live for another day. They might even think that the deteriorated body is tolerable, as long as they can be with their ‘precious’ possessions and beloved ones. Nothing is scarier than the indiscernible twins of delusional attachments and aversions that lurk in our minds. They determine our destinations of rebirth, with the worst leading to the lower realms of hungry ghosts and hell-beings. Self-trapped by their attachments, some might even remain as wandering spirits for centuries, faded in history and forgotten by time, awaiting karma to force them to be reborn.
What makes a classic horror story good is not its dramatic scare factors. It is in its surprising hidden truths revealed, that caution of how the three poisons always mark the beginning of tragedies. Like a broken record replaying, so long as we do not see the cycle, as long as we ignore the cautionary tales, not realising the need to break free, dark history will repeat itself.
The eighth episode of ‘The Haunting Of Bly Manor’ tells the story of ‘The Lady In The Lake’, as adapted from the story ‘The Romance Of Certain Old Clothes’ by Henry James. It explains the origin of the manor’s haunting. With Carla Gugino’s entrancing voice as the narrator, it immediately catches the viewer’s attention, bringing all to the core of the series. Spoilers ahead!
It never gets old (because of refusal to learn), the story of sibling rivalry from centuries ago involves a man and inherited fortune. Flying towards the tempting flames of the Five Desires (of wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep), all get burnt. Viola, the first ghost of Bly Manor and its lake, was the lady of the manor when alive. Dying abruptly and unwillingly under an unfortunate twist of events, little did she know, that her attachment to her possessions karmically imprisoned her within a trunk full of ‘her’ expensive silks, laces and jewels.
‘I can say it without vanity, now that I am done with it. It will be a great inheritance for my daughter (Isabel) when she grows into a young woman.’ With these words that seemed to express her relinquishment when alive, how did she still end up trapped? It turned out that although she was not attached to the items, she was attached to ensuring they get passed on as hoped.
It took Viola some time to admit that she was dead, and that her ‘room was a dream, a construct, a lie preferred to the truth of the trunk’. However, knowing this did not release her. As she clung on, she was unaware that she was trapped by her attachment. We are struck by the horror that she was able to concoct and sustain the illusion of being in her manor room. The trunk was her room, her whole world.
To her, the end of this ‘purgatory’ would be when the door (which is the lid of the trunk) would be opened by her daughter to claim her reward. This was Viola’s anticipated reward for her waiting. Her whole consciousness was devoted to her only desire. And so in the trunk, her constructed realm, ‘She would sleep. She would wake. She would walk.’ It was a habit she had when alive. Restless at night, she would walk around the house. The only difference was that she could not walk out of the room to the rest of the house.
The day finally came when her door (i.e. the lid of the trunk) was unlocked, but what approached was not the face of her daughter but her sister Perdita. Rage overcame Viola when Perdita reached out to hold up and admire one of the dresses. Without a second thought, her vengeful ghostly hands strangled Perdita.
When Perdita’s ghastly corpse was discovered by Arthur (who was Viola’s husband, as Perdita’s after Viola passed on), he believed the trunk was cursed and forbade Isabel to have it. Shortly, they moved out of the manor and sunk the trunk in its lake. Shattered by abandonment, with her stubbornness, Viola refused to move on. With her own ‘gravity of will’, she released herself from the trunk but confined herself to the manor and lake. There, she would sleep, she would wake, she would walk, she would forget. Old habits die hard. She would walk to her old bedroom, looking for what she could no longer remember over time. Doing it over and over, even killing anyone in the way.
As if not tragic enough, Viola, washed by the tides of time, became faceless and forgotten. All left of her, was the habitual force of raw rage. Forgetting why she was angry, she was just anger. Once trapped by her construct due to attachment to ‘control’, she now extends it to trap those she kills with her sheer will.
Fast forward to the ’80s, Dani (the new au pair of the manor’s kids, Miles and Flora) got in the way of Viola’s routine haunting. Choked and dragged, Flora desperately tried to save Dani by appealing to Viola’s familiarity of her child. She dropped Dani but carried Flora towards the lake. Otherwise bound to be drowned, Dani invited Viola to possess her, to take her instead. All seemed alright as Viola stayed docile with Dani for years, as she moved to live happily with Jamie (the gardener of the manor).
When Viola’s presence became stronger and threatened to harm again, Dani returned to the manor to die at the bottom of the lake, to become the new lady of the lake, so as to ensure no one suffers through Viola again. This might seem righteous but from the Buddhist perspective, it is another form of needless deluded attachment. Jamie’s attachment to Dani plays a factor in Dani’s continual presence after death too. Their attachment to each other never faded despite the passing of 20 years. Jamie still wishes to see Dani in any pool of water. She still leaves the door open. As the last scene slowly panned off, we see a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. It might seem romantic but it is not.
Dani’s ghost was still around because of three factors, her delusional righteousness, attachment to Jamie, and Jamie’s attachment to her. Attachment works like a magnet. If the living person is unwilling to let go of their deceased loved ones, their ghosts sensing this, might like Viola, with the gravity of will stay instead of moving on to the next rebirth. Hauntings begin when the three poisons are too strong. However, karma can intervene, forcing rebirth elsewhere at any time.
A grieving mother was looking for an elixir to revive her dead child, as she carried his decaying corpse for days, hoping for a miracle, till someone directed her to the Buddha. The Buddha asked her to look for mustard seeds from a household where death never occurred. After asking many, did she realise death never fails to come? Since time immemorial, the horrors of delusional attachment remain unchanged. We are not fortunate enough to meet the Buddha yet, and many have yet to heed his reminder that life is transitory.
As Buddhists, we are taught that attachments propel the endless cycles of rebirth. We are instructed by the Buddha to always partake of the antidotes (of generosity, compassion, and wisdom) to rid the potency of the three poisons. The easiest method is to be mindful of Amitābha Buddha, by reciting his sacred name (Āmítuófó). Rather this, than to pursue the unsubstantial like wealth, fame, power, while smeared with the three poisons. We learn about the fleeting nature of such things. Exactly, because of their ultimately empty nature, investing much energy and emotions in them would only result in disappointment, and even karmic retribution.
Amitābha Buddha’s sacred name encompasses all Buddhas’ teachings with universal Compassion for all and Wisdom of all. It is the beacon of light that shines on us when we fear, despair or feel wronged. His light enables us to transcend the cycle of birth and death, to reach his Pure Land, where no suffering exists, a land of Ultimate Bliss. With only the ‘gravity’ of Faith, Aspiration, and Practice, we will not fall asleep, but awake. We will walk not in circles, but on the land of gold, mastering the Dharma that we will never forget.
(Photos: Eike Schroter/Netflix)
First contributed for publication at TheDailyEnlightenment.com