Bloodborne, the newly-released PlayStation 4 exclusive from legendary developer From Software, sets itself apart from its Demon’s and Dark Souls predecessors by being oriented around imagery of traditional horror rather than fantasy.
While it was advertised with a Gothic horror emphasis and a Jack the Ripper-style Victorian aesthetic, its horror influences are surprisingly wide and diverse, providing a guided tour through the evolution of horror as a genre from the early Gothic period to the modern day.
Central Yarnham, the first area that hunters explore in Bloodborne, is modeled after the conventions of Gothic horror, a genre that emerged during the Romantic period as a reaction to Romantic ideas. In the pre-Romantic era, storytelling tended to be dominated by fables, legends, and religious myths that emphasized the role of supernatural elements and fantasy. Romantic storytelling tended to put more value on true stories, or stories that could conceivably be true. Romantic audiences wanted characters that they could relate to.
Gothic authors spun pre-Romantic and Romantic styles together. They told supernatural stories featuring characters that felt real and relatable. Many Gothic stories, Gothic horror in particular, were falsely presented as if they were true stories; lost accounts of mysterious happenings newly translated into the readers’ languages (as was the case for Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto”, most often regarded as the first work of Gothic horror, or “Vathek” by William Beckford), naturalistic, intimate accounts of supernatural happenings (“Dracula” by Bram Stoker or “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley), or stories whose supernatural elements could be explained naturalistically, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the nature of the events in the story (Edgar Allan Poe and Sheridan Le Fanu were masters of this style of storytelling).
Gothic literature was named as such not because it emerged contemporaneously with the Gothic architecture and art that flourished during the late medieval period, but rather because it tended to be set in these Gothic structures and made more than its fair share of allusions to medieval art.
Evoking the medieval period was very effective for Gothic horror authors. The late Middle Ages were, by all accounts, a genuine horror like one humanity had never experienced before. The Black Death spread through Europe at an alarming rate, killing an estimated 75 to 200 million people. To the citizens living in the midst of such widespread suffering and death, it seemed like the world was going to end, which is reflected in European art of that time period. Art often depicted death, Hell, or, even when religiously commissioned, depicted gruesome and visceral images of the crucifixion of Christ or other stories from the Biblical accounts.
Gothic horror authors took particular interest in this dark period in human history, using its horrifying art, now separated from its societal context, to give a strong sense of haunting history to their work. They told stories that evoked memories of the Black Death, taking a particular interest in monsters of disease and of medicine. This particular strand of horror fiction can be seen in full force in Bloodborne.
The title of the game refers to a blood-borne illness, and the mysterious ailment that has come over Yarnham and its surrounding lands is thought of to be a condition of the blood instead of a magical curse, as it was in the Dark Souls games. The original infected are known as Vilebloods, while the church uses blood healing to try and cure the disease (evoking images of blood-letting and other early medical practices). Diseased rats and dogs roam the streets and sewers, bringing to mind even more Black Death imagery.
Just as the world of Bloodborne is built over and around medieval structures, so too is the social stratification of Yarnham and surrounding areas undergoing a change. Societal structure and class struggle are among the most common driving themes of Gothic horror.
Consider Dracula, perhaps the most famous of Gothic horror characters. He was threatening not because he was immensely physically powerful (although he was, this was not how he was most often presented) but because he was socially powerful. Jonathan Harker was not beaten and dragged to Dracula’s castle, he was invited there. He could not leave because that would cost him his job and livelihood. Dracula bought his way into the social circles he preyed upon. He was able to infiltrate society due to his social class.
Ultimately, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a story about the monstrosities emerging from the stratification of social classes. In her essay, “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1993), Judith Halberstam says of the monster, “[The] image of dusty and unused gold, coins from many nations and old unworn jewels, immediately connects Dracula to the old money of a corrupt class, to a kind of piracy of nations and to the worst excesses of the aristocracy”. The idea of old money as monstrosity emerges in Bloodborne as well. In the city of Yarnham, a door is a coveted possession. As the hunt rages on outside and blood spills upon the foul streets, the upper classes laugh and party inside of their homes and taunt those whom they refuse to offer shelter to.
Both Dracula and Bloodborne subvert this economic power dynamic, though, mirroring the changes that were going on in the real world during the Romantic period, in the way that the stories are told. Dracula is notable not only for its storyline, but also for the unique way in which that story was told. Dracula reads like a collection of letters, diary entries, medical notes, and recovered documents, penned by the human characters.
It is very much their story. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors; inversely, there is victory, privilege, and power in writing, and it is writing and communicative technologies that are the greatest weapons used against Dracula (as he was overcome by communicative technologies of modernity, the telegraph and wire, that gave the group of hunters the upper hand in finding, catching, and destroying the dreaded vampire).
The novel can be seen as a collaborative compilation of the voices, opinions, and accounts of several (fictional) men and women of all rungs of the lower and middle classes, and in their story, Dracula’s voice is excluded. Judith Halberstam goes on to describe, in her essay, “[The] English men censor Dracula’s contaminated opinions out of the narrative. The vampire, indeed, has no voice, he is read and written by all the other characters in the novel. Dracula’s silence in the novel (his only speeches are recorded conversations with Jonathan Harker) is pervasive and almost suffocating…”.
Similarly, the social and economic elite of Yarnham are censored beings in Bloodborne’s universe. Sealed away in their houses, unseen. The narrative, favoring the plight of the hunters, excludes the privileged almost to the point of absolute omission. They are depicted as tragic beings, as, in their safety, they are oblivious to the societal floor crumbling beneath them and the scale of the world-threatening horrors that their lives will soon be equally consumed by. With the exception of the daughters of Father Gascoigne (perhaps too young to be guilty of the sins of excess), the perspective of the subjective narrative depicts the elite as being less pitiable, even, than the monsters slain by the hunters en masse.
Gothic horror took a tempered, reactionary stance to science, as opposed to the preceding Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. During the Enlightenment and Renaissance, scientific thought, reason, and humanism reigned. Secularism became more common, as the authority of the Catholic church was challenged. Science was seen as man’s tool for overcoming nature and the mysterious.
Gothic authors, reveling in mystery, sought to temper this sentiment. Science could do incredible things, but, as often as not, science could be dangerous. Just as Dracula was defeated by technology and academic study, cautionary tales, such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein warned that science was evolving faster than humans were, and our capacity to contain the wonders and horrors that we were capable of creating was being tested.
The most extreme strain of this line of thought emerged in the early 1900s with the writings of many pulp-horror writers, the most famous of which being H. P. Lovecraft. Far from science obliterating ignorance, charting the unknown and conquering the power of nature, Lovecraft wrote of truths so absolutely true and nature so purely natural that they destroyed science and reason. Certain knowledge is forbidden because it would break our scientific scaffolds and destroy our minds. Far from reason being the conqueror of gods, the ancient gods in Lovecraft’s writing tore the very fabric of reason apart, inducing madness in all who saw them.
Bloodborne depicts its Gothic-inspired horrors as being a result of humanity having made contact with greater Lovecraftian horrors, as their reality infects our own like a cancer. Far from being a scientifically knowable presence that “explains” the magical elements of the game, though, these Lovecraftian elder gods are similarly depicted as being far above science; unknowable in nature.
The horrifying results of the blood church’s experimentation with the power of the ancient gods and the madness surrounding the centers of science (the observatory and lecture hall) provide evidence that reason has fallen short of understanding the horrors at Bloodborne’s core. In fact, the only way to defeat the ancient gods is through the acceptance of magic, mysticism, and illusion. The majority of the ancient gods must be fought within nightmares. These nightmares are depicted as realities as “real” as Yarnham. Yarnham becomes consumed by the nightmare dimension after the red moon rises, allowing the hunters to see it as it really is, a reality superseding their own.
Does Bloodborne’s answer to Dark Souls’ undead curse lie within these ancient horrors? As Lovecraft writes in “The Nameless City” (1921), “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die”.
From the blood-soaked streets of Yarnham, patrolled by werewolves and hunters, to the frigid Castle Cainhurst, haunted by the ghosts of the young women who have made the castle their final resting place, to the forests dominated by the earth-magic of loathsome witches, to the nightmare domain of the unspeakable ancient beings tearing holes in the game’s multiple realities, Bloodborne presents a thrilling through-line of the history of horror from the early Gothic literary movement to horror fiction of the modern day. It is the modernization of these classical horror elements that gives Bloodborne such unique flavor and texture.
Now let us cleanse these foul streets.