Posted by: vincentgaberlavage | September 20, 2021

Dore, Bloodborne and the Unique Horror of Victorian Urban Life

When I first looked at the engraver Gustave Dore’s images of Victorian London my immediate first thought was “Hey that looks kind of like Bloodborne”! Now my immediate second thought was “my brain must be rotting out of my ears“, however, after giving it more thought I believe I have discovered the connection between the two. Both rely on the unique conditions of Victorian urban life to convey a sense of discomfort and unease.

First a little explanation on my part. Bloodborne is a 2015 action rpg published by From Software. It has a cosmic horror inspired narrative taking place within the fictional city of Yharnham, which has its visual basis in Victorian London. I will be focusing less on the cosmic horror aspects of this, for the purposes of this article, and more on aspects of area design and what it conveys about the living conditions of the average person who lives in this city. In addition, I attempted to get screen shots with as little blood as possible however, blood is in the name of the game, so be forewarned if you’re a little squeamish.

Over Crowding

In Dore’s illustrations we see a version of London that is so crowded with people it is difficult to see how one could even move through the streets. In certain districts. The public streets of the city as well as the poorer districts are claustrophobically over crowded. Notably in his image of the row houses with their backyards built practically on top of each other, London feels move like a hive than a city. There is also the steam engine that passes over the row houses rather than stopping somewhere among them, suggesting these people are being somehow left behind by the progress that is occurring elsewhere in the city. These images invoke the horror of being confined and crushed among the sheer volume of people within the city.

Bloodborne’s Yharnam also stresses Urban crowding it its design. However here it is used to enhance the horror of the setting rather than highlight a disparity in wealth. The streets of the city are largely empty, due to the events of the game, but indications of a bustling city are abundant in the environment. For example the streets of Central Yharnam are littered with abandoned coaches, sometimes parked just feet away from each other on opposite sides of the road. The sheer volume of these suggests a massive amount of transit occurring on a daily basis in the city (when the streets aren’t full of werewolves) and in addition a massive number of people commuting, or driving carriages, or simply walking to places in the street. With all of this detritus of a bustling community shown but the absence of all of those people, it creates an eerie atmosphere as the player is forced to wonder where all those people have gone.

In addition the row houses of Dore’s London make a come back here as well used much to the the same effect. The houses are placed incredibly close together, making claustrophobic alleys for the player to traverse. Fog is also used to great effect here obscuring what is in front as well, making the player nervous to proceed knowing there is limited space to run. In addition most of these houses contain unfriendly inhabitants, showing that Yharnam is in fact massive and populous, but also completely unfriendly to you. Aside from the row houses, much of the city’s architecture is built incredibly close together. The skyline looking like a looming collage of buildings impossibly close to each other. This almost lends an element of the cosmic horror explored elsewhere in the game as your mind struggles to understand the overlapping and interconnected buildings built beyond the bounds of normal geometry (and sensible city planning). This closeness actually leads me into the second aspect of horror I’d like to discuss.

Disease and Poor Sanitation

Here we will move on From Dore entirely to focus on the element of Victorian urban life most prominent in Bloodborne: disease. Bloodborne is a game that even on its most basic surface level, is about illness. Specifically water, and blood borne (haha get it? Bloodborne?) illnesses. There is Ashen Blood, which is implied to have began as a water borne illness and the Beast Plague which is explicitly communicable via blood. The way these diseases, particularly Ashen Blood, are presented calls back very clearly to the realities of early epidemiology in the Victorian Period.

For example in Central Yharman there is a well in the center of a court yard that even to the player’s eyes is visibly swarming with flies. I believe this is a reference to the Broad Street Cholera Epidemic, which occurred between 1853 and 1854. The outbreak was traced specifically to a public water pump that took water from a well dangerously close to local sewage pipes and cesspools (Ball 108). This epidemic specifically led the the water borne theory of Cholera communication as well as some of our modern practices surrounding contact tracing. So, what might seem like just a dirty well in fact connects the epidemics of Bloodborne to the historical reality of Cholera epidemics in London, exacerbated by poor sanitation and uncomfortably close living quarters afforded to those who lived in city centers.

The dried canal sewer system of Central Yharnam

In addition, directly below the courtyard with the well, there is a half dried up canal that connects to what looks to be the city sewer system. I believe this is specifically a reference to The Great Stink of June 1858, during which a drop in the level of the Thames exposed the raw sewage that was being poured into the river on a daily basis directly to both the air and the summer heat causing as the name suggests, a great stink (Norton 175). Although this mercifully did not lead to another cholera outbreak it was a significant driver in the reform of London’s sewage systems (Norton 174). In Bloodborne’s dried riverbed however we see a different version of history where plague rats roam and those afflicted by disease are forced to wallow. Although the poor sanitation conditions of real life London led to significant reform, they can still be leveraged and stylized to create horror.

Conclusion

Horror media at its best is a twisting of that which is comfortable into a source of discomfort. Wether it is used to create a sense of foreignness and unfamiliarity for the setting of a travelogue or specifically to shock and unnerve, it is clever stylistic twisting of established histories or societal conditions that truly inspires fright.

works cited: Dore, Gustave. Illustrations from London: A Pilgrimage, 1872, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/london-illustrations-by-gustave-dor

Bloodborne. PS4, From Software, 2015.

Ball, Laura. “Cholera and the Pump on Broad Street: The Life and Legacy of John Snow.” The History Teacher, vol. 43, no. 1, Society for History Education, 2009, pp. 105–19, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40543358.

Norton, Matthew. “Mechanisms and Meaning Structures.” Sociological Theory, vol. 32, no. 2, American Sociological Association, 2014, pp. 162–87, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43186669.


Responses

  1. While I’ve never played “Bloodborne” I think it’s a fascinating connection and, for the reasons you’ve outlined above, I can see how Victorian London would make a fascinating basis for a horror world, especially one based on the fear of disease. I think we see some of this fear edging the smallpox plot of “Bleak House” although, since those chapters are filtered through Esther’s eternal optimism it’s hard to get a good sense of how frightening it was. For most Victorians disease and death were a part of life but I think we already see the middle-class and upper-class trying to distance themselves from it and assuming wealth equals protection. What you mentioned about the many empty carriages in “Bloodborne” makes think about what a huge advantage private transportation was, and continues to be, for people in both horror worlds and reality to escape the overcrowding of cities


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