Bloodborne and the history of horror

In the decayed ruins of a desecrated church, I find myself tiring of Yharnam’s gothic excess. As a fan of Dark Souls’ romantic apocalypse, I expected a similar type of unifying aesthetic in Bloodborne—a quiet measuring of inevitable decay against a need to persevere. Instead, Bloodborne drowned me in gothic excess to the point where I thought that the dilapidated majesty of Dark Souls had been a fluke rather than an argument for Miyazaki’s oeuvre. It was not until I encountered the game’s latter half that I understood why the game’s gothic setting became predictable and almost dull. It’s a façade built to crumble under the weight of a much grander project, one that mimics the cultural role of horror in the early 20th century.

If modern horror literature has an urtext, it is probably Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Granted, it is over a century younger than the early architects of gothic fiction (Horace Walpole, Matthew Lewis, Anne Radcliffe), but the problems its characters face are distinctly modern ones. The titular Count bears all the markings of late-Victorian anxiety. An Eastern threat assimilates himself among the populace of London with the purpose of re-establishing his long-dead empire. His methods are supernatural (mesmerism, shape-shifting, inhuman strength), but his threat appears strictly biological. He spreads his curse like a disease, exchanging blood with his victims in a sexually-charged perverse sacrament that leaves them appearing physically ill rather than spiritually broken.

That the terror of Stoker’s count emanates from a social fear of foreign invasion and widespread disease is hardly surprising, given the darkening shadow of World War I, the inevitable collapse of European empires, and the drastic increase of urban populations worldwide. As the world entered modernity, the immortal count threatened to draw England screaming back into the Dark Ages, a time where superstition triumphed over science. The heroes of Stoker’s novel thus fight the vampire with religious iconography (consecrating his haunting grounds with the host or warding him off with crucifixes), and they attempt to stave off his infection with the tools of medical science, most famously through Dr. Seward’s blood transfusion. The novel, then, constantly balances the spiritual power of religion, noticeably accessed through rigorous study, with the biological necessity of medicine, all against the backdrop of an increasingly modernized world.

It is easy to recognize the parallels between Dracula and Bloodborne. The latter echoes the gothic vision of the former, only in Bloodborne the infection has already spread through the city. The mysterious plague that has turned the citizens of Yharnam into beasts seems similar to the vampiric disease Dracula carries to England. The player’s role as a hunter of these beasts provides an obvious connection to Dr. Van Helsing, Stoker’s scholarly vampire slayer of pop-cultural fame, and the blend of Victorian medical practices and religious zealotry exemplified in the Healing Church’s practice of blood ministration offers an homage or reconstitution of the tropes that Stoker made famous.

The immediate accessibility of this aesthetic, however, hardly reflects Miyazaki’s now-infamous approach to game and narrative design. Bloodborne’s grotesque exuberance borrows the shallowest trappings of gothic literature with, presumably, none of those facets that make the genre so fascinating. Stoker illuminates the apprehensions running rampant at the turn of the century through a lens of horror, and I had hoped that Bloodborne would use its aesthetic trappings to attempt something similar or at least equally ambitious. Instead, these designs prove to be so much easy fodder to be consumed by a much grander narrative when Bloodborne invokes another giant of the horror genre: H.P. Lovecraft.

Bloodborne’s world finds itself at two spheres: the cosmic and the biological 

Writing almost two decades after Stoker, Lovecraft admired his predecessor’s content more than his style, though he did consider Dracula his best work. Lovecraft instead, perhaps due to his own interest in the popular theories of the unconscious that defined many aesthetic movements in the early twentieth century, focused on the trouble writing a world beyond human understanding. Whereas Stoker’s heroes employ the mechanisms of science and academic learning to combat the vampire, Lovecraft’s characters attempt to use similar methods to access knowledge beyond the capacity for human comprehension. A Lovecraftian scholar suffers a mental collapse when he encounters forbidden knowledge of cosmic Truth, most famously involving the celestial beings often worshipped as Old Ones. His knowledge-seekers are madmen, hungrily searching for more evidence of a world beyond the visible and slipping deeper into the throes of insanity.

A similar mystery lies behind the gothic veneer of Bloodborne. When the player eventually ventures beyond the city, she encounters the school of Byrgenwerth, a college presided over by the aged Provost Willem. Long before the game begins, the scholars of Byrgenwerth discovered a means to contact the Great Ones, massive entities of incomprehensible power, through the blood ritual called “Communion.” There soon followed a schism regarding the best way to communicate with the Great Ones. Willem believed the blood of these beings to be treacherous, preferring to turn his eyes inward (perhaps literally) to commune with the Great Ones, but another man, Laurence, left the college to found the Healing Church and develop the methods of blood ministration, experiments that led to the plague of beasts.

Bloodborne’s world, then, finds itself at the convergence of two spheres: the cosmic and the biological. Willem’s scholarly pursuit of eldritch knowledge and the numerous schools that followed shattered the planes that separate humanity from the Great Ones, while the Healing Church’s experiments with transfusing the blood of these beings into the veins of the faithful transforms them into beasts, manacled to their new grotesque forms. The environments echo this thematic division as well. Dreams fold into reality, and lines that separate the cosmic and physical planes become blurred.

The player, too, exists in the confusion between these spheres, measuring the academic excavation of Yharnam’s mysteries against the visceral tactility of the game’s combat. Defeating bosses (or, in Lovecraftian fashion, just glimpsing them) nets the player “Insight,” a mechanic that changes in subtle ways how the player perceives her environment while also functioning as a type of currency. On the other end of the spectrum is “Beasthood,” an attribute that directly affects damage output. These tensions are carried into the game’s multiple endings. Depending on her choices, the player can find her character waking from a dream to travel Yharnum bound to a physical body, guarding the dreamscape to aid other hunters, or ultimately becoming what appears to be an infant Great One.

a confusing experiment of genres that attempts to access something new 

It is a curious thing that Bloodborne looks back at the early twentieth century to find a locus for its thematic horror. Initially I thought that the game’s beginning with such overt aesthetic reference to the gothic horror of the late Victorian era only to reveal a much different world of cosmic horror seemed to prioritize the importance of the latter over the former. Yet Stoker, for all his focus on Dracula’s physicality, still shrouded him in mystery. The reader’s entire experience of Dracula is mediated, pieced together from letters and diary entries of the novel’s heroes struggling to make sense of an ancient evil a modern world. Our vision of the vampire will always be incomplete. Lovecraft’s horror elevates this concept of incompleteness to impossibility. Dracula’s epistolary structure clouds what we know of the count, but Lovecraft illustrates that maybe language itself fails to describe the true horrors that lurk at the edges of our reality. The famous incantation to the Old God Cthulhu, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” is unpronounceable, alien and disturbing because it breaks even the comforts of linguistic structure.

Such is the lingering effect of Bloodborne, a game that starts out as a visceral, recognizable horror game that evolves into something distressing and uncomfortable. If Dark Souls was Miyazaki and his team’s reconstitution of gothic romanticism, Bloodborne is their take on modernism, a confusing experiment of genres that attempts to access something new. In that respect, I cannot directly say if the game barely succeeds or spectacularly fails, especially given how the entire aspect of the game devoted to research can be completely ignored. The game, nevertheless, offers a backwards lens into a particularly strange point in horror history in which the anxieties of a changing world found its way into the monsters and terrors of the genre.