The Macabre Style Of the Victorian Era

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I appear to be in a listing mood today.  Whether that is a good thing or not, I’m in it.  I have always been fascinated by the macabre side of history and no single era reflects this better than the Victorian era.  It just had creepy written all over it.  So here’s a list of some of the creepier things about the Victorian era.

  • Nothing screams creepy quite like the Memento Mori.  The name literally means “Remember you shall die” in Latin.  These were the earlier years of photography and often the practice was extremely costly.  Now, I have talked over and over again about the Victorian era’s fascination with death.  Mix the two and you have one creepy practice.  Basically, they would take images of the deceased in a variety of poses, either as if they were sleeping or awake.  Due to the cost of photography in the era, this was often the only time anyone got a picture taken of themselves.  You want to have nightmares tonight?  Google Victorian Memento Mori and you’ll be awake for days!  Personally, the images of the children are the most disturbing.  Seriously creepy.
  • We owe a lot of our horror stories to the Victorian Gothic Novel.  So many creepy critters came out of that era, including Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The Gothic novel was a beautiful blend of horror and romance, think Dracula here.  We are still enjoying these novels today, which should say something about the pull of them.
  • The practice of the Vignettes is another creepy practice.  Without television, what would you do to entertain yourselves?  Well, in Victorian England the upper class enjoyed dressing up in a variety of costumes and posing for each other.  Sounds pretty innocent, huh?  Well, just think about Grandma dressed as Aphrodites sprawled across the kitchen table.  Get my point?  Creepy.
  • Nothing screams macabre more than the mystery of Jack the Ripper.  If you are one of those people whose head has been in the sand forever, I will relate the story now.  In the late Victorian era, London was terrorized by the monster known as Jack the Ripper. Using the thick London fog as a cover, the Ripper ultimately slaughtered five or more prostitutes working in the East End. Newspapers, whose circulation had been growing during this era, bestowed widespread and enduring notoriety on the killer because of the savagery of the attacks and the failure of the police to capture the murderer. Because the killer’s identity has never been confirmed, the legends surrounding the murders have become a combination of genuine historical research, folklore, and pseudo-history. Many authors, historians, and amateur detectives have proposed theories about the identity of the killer and his victims but technically the crime has never been solved.
  • None of the creepiness would be possible without that famous phenomenon known as pea-soupers.  That thick London fog that made even daytime seem dark and mysterious.  The pea-soupers were caused by a combination of fogs from the River Thames and smoke from the coal fires that were an essential part of Victorian life. Interestingly London had suffered from these pea-soupers for centuries – in 1306, King Edward I banned coal fires because of the smog. In 1952, 12 thousand Londoners died due to the smog causing the government to pass the Clean Air Act which created smog free zones. The Victorian atmosphere (in literature and modern film) is greatly enhanced by the thick smog due and this creepy environment made possible the acts of people like Jack the Ripper.
  • Freak shows were huge during the Victorian era.  I mean you could make some serious money if you were considered a freak and many of them did. One of the most famous freaks of the day was a man named Joseph Carey Merrick or as we know him Elephant Man.  His left side was overgrown and distorted causing him to wear a mask for most of his life.  While he made his money by putting himself on display like a zoo animal, he die in relative financial comfort.  The freak show is probably one of the creepiest past times of the Victorian era.
  • While most things that were creepy in the era had to do with the unreal, it was often the very real experiences that were the creepiest.  One of these happened to be their surgeries.  If you were to have a surgery, the chances of you dying under extreme pain was higher than you actually surviving.  It would help, of course, if you had a doctor with clean instruments and a steady hand but those were few and far between.  This is a description of a very real surgery:  The assembled crowd of anxious medical students dutifully check their pocket watches, as two of Liston’s surgical assistants – ‘dressers’ as they are called – take firm hold of the struggling patient’s shoulders.  The fully conscious man, already racked with pain from the badly broken leg he suffered by falling between a train and the platform at nearby King’s Cross, looks in total horror at the collection of knives, saws and needles that lie alongside him.  Liston clamps his left hand across the patient’s thigh, picks up his favorite knife and in one rapid movement makes his incision. A dresser immediately tightens a tourniquet to stem the blood. As the patient screams with pain, Liston puts the knife away and grabs the saw.  With an assistant exposing the bone, Liston begins to cut. Suddenly, the nervous student who has been volunteered to steady the injured leg realizes he is supporting its full weight. With a shudder he drops the severed limb into a waiting box of sawdust.
  • However, the single creepiest aspect of Victorian England was actually the namesake herself.  Queen Victoria.  When her husband Albert died in 1861, she went into mourning – donning black frocks until her own death many years later – and expected her nation to do so too. She avoided public appearances and rarely set foot in London in the following years. Her seclusion earned her the name “Widow of Windsor.” Her somber reign cast a dark pall across Britain and her influence was so great that the entire period was fraught with creepiness. Ironically, since Victoria disliked black funerals so much, London was festooned in purple and white when she died.
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