What Is O Willow Waly, the Song from Haunting of Bly Manor?

The first trailer for The haunting of Bly Manor, unsurprisingly, didn’t give many details about the series or its chilling twists. But the weird song playing in the background of this ambiguous teaser was, in fact, telling us a lot more about the show than we could ever have done at the time. “O Willow Waly”, the song in question, is an important choice for several reasons, so here’s a quick primer.

The song “O Willow Waly” – written by George Auric and Paul Dehn – was originally created for the 1961 film Innocents. It is significant because The Innocents is perhaps the most famous screen adaptation of Henry James’ short story The turn of the screw, which is also the source material for The Haunting of Bly Manor. A psychological horror film directed by Jack Clayton, Innocents follows a young governess in charge of two orphans and becomes convinced that their domain is haunted. Manor of Bly follows this same loose pattern, although it also incorporates several other James novels and short stories.

“O Willow Waly” is memorably played on a music box for Innocents, but in Manor of Bly he returns in several different scenes throughout the season. The song’s lyrics are the very first words we hear in the series, as Carla Gugino’s mysterious narrator recites them in a voiceover. Let’s take a look at the lyrics:

We lay my love and I under the weeping willow
But now alone I lie and cry by the tree

Sing “Oh willow waly” by the weeping tree with me
Sing “Oh willow waly” until my lover comes back to me

We lay my love and I under the weeping willow
A broken heart I have me Oh willow I’m dying, oh willow I’m dying

The full meaning of the song and its dismal lyrics about a lost lover won’t become clear until the finale. But this recurs throughout the show, mostly in subtle ways. it is sung, whistled and hummed by Miles, Flora and Peter Quint in different scenes. Initially, the obvious explanation is that the song is meant to echo Rebecca Jessel, the former children’s nanny who appears to die by suicide after being abandoned by her lover, Quint.

The Haunting Of Bly Manor L To R Tahirah Sharif As Rebecca Jessel In Haunting Of Bly Manor Cr Eike Schroternetflix © 2020

EIKE SCHROTER / NETFLIX

But once Gugino’s narrator is revealed to be an older version of Jamie – whose romance with the show’s protagonist Dani becomes central to the series – the song takes on even clearer meaning. To prevent Flora and Miles from being permanently possessed by the ghosts of Bly Manor, Dani confronts the manor’s most fearsome ghost, Viola, aka the Lady in the Lake. Dani invites Viola into herself to spare the children, and Viola accepts, becoming part of Dani.

Dani and Jamie can leave Bly and start a life together, while the Wingrave family moves overseas. But Dani is never the same again. She constantly feels the burden of Viola’s presence and feels a sense of impending doom that she can never fully shake off. She knows, instinctively, that sooner or later she will be consumed by Viola’s darkness, but with Jamie’s support, she is able to ward off him and enjoy at least a decade of happiness.

The Haunting of Bly Manor L to R Victoria Pedretti as Dani and Amelia Eve as Jamie in Haunting of Bly Manor Cr eike Schroternetflix © 2020

EIKE SCHROTER / NETFLIX

Finally, after realizing that Viola is becoming a threat to Jamie, Dani returns to Bly Manor and drowns in the Haunted Lake, where she succeeds Viola as the new Lady in the Lake. Unlike Viola, she is a caring spirit and never hurts anyone – but like Viola, her memories fade over time, so she has no recollection of her life with Jamie. The reality of who Dani was lives on only “in the memory of the woman who loved him the most.”

So… it’s devastating. And by the end of the finale, it’s very clear why Jamie opens his voiceover with the lyrics of “O Willow Waly,” which perfectly describes his life without Dani.

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