Those Spooky Victorians

When remembering an era associated with pomp and circumstance, one mustn’t forget that Victorians also had quite a deep-seated interest and fascination with the supernatural, the macabre, and anything mystical.

By Bretton Weir

Fall is officially upon us as we enter into the dawn of October. With Thanksgiving around the corner and then Halloween shortly after that, I, like many, tend to embrace the changing seasons by outfitting myself in the chunkiest of knitted wool sweaters and trading in the iced coffees for chai lattes. And while pumpkin spice everything fills the stores, I still like to take a few moments and appreciate the chilling air that always accompanies the changing of the seasons. 

An illustration of Victorians toying with their supernatural fascinations. Photo: Ranker

In my many years as an enthusiast of history, I have always had a fascination with Victorian sensibilities; and of those sensibilities, their fascinations with the macabre, the mystical, and the superstitious seem to have a particular poignancy this time of year. In the spirit of the season, a look at the supernatural and superstitious side of this era is in order.

Why Were Victorians So Superstitious?

In order to effectively answer this question, I think it is important to look at the context in which Victorians were living. The industrial revolution was booming and this brought on a period of rapid change and enlightenment; however, with all of this change going on, one could argue that there was a push-pull between existing staunch religious ideals and a new insidious curiosity for the truth. This combination, therefore, often resulted in the manifestation of superstitious beliefs as rationale and reasoning behind “unexplained” events.

Queen Victoria in mourning.
Photo: MySendOff

Also, death was a pretty major part of the life of a Victorian and one would be remiss to not mention that this likely had something to do with the sensibilities of the era. In many instances, the obsession with the macabre can be closely related to the Victorian’s treatment of death and the afterlife — post-mortem portrait photography, for instance, or even retaining locks of hair from the deceased were ways in which people could remember and mourn the passing of a loved one. Not to mention the number of post-death rituals that were to follow one’s passing, notably the wearing of black as a sign of mourning, made famously by Queen Victoria herself as she descended into a four decades-long period following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

The Style of Victorian Spookiness

Victorian superstitions and interest in the macabre provided not only a framework for explanations of the unexplained, but also a certain aesthetic to the era. For instance, if one were to examine some of the popular literature, e.g. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published 1818) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (published 1897), key gothic horror elements and tropes plague the narrative and themes of these two iconic novels.

Victorians Embracing the Macabre

A Victorian Seance. Photo: The Victorian Seance

While sadness and loss were the roots of many Victorian rituals, there was also an aspect of entertainment and curiosity, notably through the use of Ouija boards and partaking in Seances as a means to communicate with spirits beyond the grave.

While the accuracy and realness of these affairs is certainly up for debate, the essence of them are perfect zeitgeists into the era’s fascination with and passion toward the supernatural that can very easily transcend through time and beyond.

The Thing That Gets Us to the Thing

Technology connects us like never before. Halt and Catch Fire takes place during the computer boom that started it all, emphasizing the importance of human connection.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

When AMC released Halt and Catch Fire in 2014, people were quick to dismiss it as “Mad Men but in the 80s! With tech!” Now, it’s no secret that we love Mad Men here at the Rambler, but I think the comparisons did Halt and Catch Fire a disservice. The show remained criminally underrated and under-watched for four seasons, over which it grew into one of the most profoundly human shows on television.

HCF_S2_preseason
From left: Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, and Scoot McNairy, stars of Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: AMC

It starts at an interesting moment in history: the 1980s, when computers are not yet ubiquitous but the industry is on the cusp of … something. We know, of course, just how important computers will become, that the tech industry will explode and eventually everyone will have computers not only in their homes but in their pockets. The characters in the middle of that history, however, remain in a constant struggle to get ahead of the curve, to create the thing that will change everything. A lot of period shows rely on this kind of dramatic irony, where viewers know what the characters don’t. We can’t reach through the screen and tell them that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs will beat them to the punch. But it’s fascinating to watch them keep trying anyway.

joe
Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) predicts the future. Photo: Giphy

Somewhere along the way, though, Halt and Catch Fire realized that the real draw was not seeing the slow birth of the Information Age, but the people at the heart of it. The dreamers and creators who so badly want to leave a mark and change the world and end up changing themselves in the process.

Joe MacMillan (the always amazing Lee Pace) starts off as a fairly typical male antihero akin to those that dominate prestige television—you know, Tony Soprano, Walter White, or, yeah, Don Draper. Joe is a visionary who manipulates, cheats, and talks his way into a fledgling Texas software company in order to transform it into a PC company to rival IBM. But the show quickly stopped trying to emulate other prestige dramas and Joe, rather than a villain or even an antihero, became the voice of the show’s underdog humanity. Joe sees what others don’t, that technology has the potential to change the way we interact with one another. So it’s fitting that Joe is the one to utter the words that could serve as Halt and Catch Fire’s thesis statement: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

That thing, in my view, is connection. Throughout its run, Halt and Catch Fire consistently emphasizes that behind all those screens and wires and lines of code are human beings, desperately seeking connection in a world that is often forbidding. It’s no surprise that Joe, an openly bisexual man, would eventually want to build something that brings people together and lets them be who they really are.

MV5BMTU0NDQ0NTUwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQyNTA2OTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1497,1000_AL_
Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) in Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: IMDb

It’s easy to be cynical about the Internet these days. But we forget that it can be a wonderful space for people to share their creativity and interests and connect with other people they might otherwise never meet. Over and over again, Halt and Catch Fire shows us that what matters is less the technology that connects us than it is the people who use it.

Home for the Holidays

What does tradition tell us about the holidays? As Hanukkah is underway and Advent begins, we examine how collective rituals can unite us, both within and across faiths.

By Serena Ypelaar

What is tradition, really?  

It’s defined as the transmission of customs/beliefs between generations, and the nature of the word itself suggests its deep reliance on community. There’s a reason culture can be steeped in tradition – and a reason that there’s a stigma attached to solitude at the holidays. And that’s because tradition depends on sharing to survive. You can most certainly enjoy traditions on your own (I sure do), but the fact is that they don’t sustain unless they’re shared with other people and carried forward. Since we as humans are mortal, they obviously wouldn’t live past just us. 

Not unless we share them.

As we kick off December I wanted to take a look at the nature of community and its integral significance in holiday rituals. So here we go: a brief but hopefully interesting look that will prompt us to reflect and help us cherish the people that make the traditions great. 

Christmas | Christian tradition

Christians celebrate the birth of their saviour Jesus Christ by attending a mass or church service to have communion, as well as partaking in a feast and gift-giving. However much mass consumerism may exploit the togetherness of Christmas to sell more products, the holiday itself dwells in generosity, regardless of money spent.

Seth Cohen from the OC discusses how Chrismukkah has twice the resistance of normal holidays because it's half Christmas, half Hanukkah.
As the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, Seth Cohen from the O.C. was a staunch supporter of “Chrismukkah”, getting people on board to sustain the hybridized traditions.

Hanukkah | Jewish tradition

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights to symbolize the successful rebellion of the Maccabees against the Seleucid empire. At the dedication of the Second Temple, the menorah burned for eight days even though there was only enough oil for one. Jewish observances also include playing dreidel and gathering to eat oil-based foods such as latkes.

Winter Solstice | Cree Tradition

Among Cree nations in North America, the winter solstice allows an opportunity for rest and renewal. As the shortest, darkest day in the year, the solstice sees Cree people reflecting on the past year and their connections with plants and animals by looking at the stars. Specifically, the Seven Sisters constellation, or “the hole in the sky” prompts Cree people to come together and reflect on their ancestors.

Kwanzaa | African-American tradition

Kwanzaa celebrates African-American heritage in the United States. Children are included in the observances, and respect is paid to elders and ancestors, concluding with feasting and gift-giving. Families also decorate their homes with African art and colourful African cloth such as kente.

Sinterklaas / St. Nicholas Day | Dutch tradition

Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands from Spain.
Photo: Wikimedia

Celebrated in the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of France, and former Dutch colonies, Sinterklaas Day celebrates the Feast of St. Nicholas, in which Sinterklaas returns from Spain. Children put out wooden clogs on the night of December 5 and awake to chocolate letters, ginger cookies such as speculaas and kruidnoten, and oranges in the clogs. The Sinterklaas parade is also a well-attended event among families in Holland.

Ōmisoka | Japanese tradition

Toshikoshi soba.
Photo: Flickr

Ōmisoka signifies the end of the year, and is celebrated on the final day – December 31. A few hours before the year ends, Japanese people join together for parties and eat toshikoshi soba or toshikoshi udon, long noodles which symbolize passing from one year into the next. From midnight, the first hours of the day are spent at a shrine or temple, and greeting one another. 

Tradition is an instrument of community. As we’ve seen, one person can practice rituals, but it takes many to sustain traditions for years to come. It’s interesting to imagine, with the rise of digital technology and its new prominence in our lives, the new traditions we may create and carry forward – and those which may falter. Nevertheless, one thing has endured throughout: our human craving for connection.