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.

A Tale of Two Biopics

Elton John’s biopic Rocketman is out (pun intended) and as expected, people are comparing it with Bohemian Rhapsody. But the difference in vantage points precludes direct comparison, instead highlighting the nuances of how the biographer affects the biography. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Let’s get one thing straight before we dive back into biopics: I don’t want to compare Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019) as overall films. To do so would be to confine each by relating them too much to one another, when in fact I find they’re pretty different in tone. But that leads me to this article, in which I’ll analyze just one aspect of the films: voice. (Surprisingly not in the context of singing.) How does authorship of a biography, specifically in the biopic film genre, affect how a story is told? 

Take Bohemian Rhapsody, for starters. It was produced and released long after Freddie Mercury’s death but chronicles his rise to fame and his artistic legacy in what I feel is a tasteful tribute. It’s been criticized by fans for simplifying the LGBTQ2+ narrative and Freddie’s diagnosis with AIDS, as well as for some sequential inaccuracies – but as a casual Queen listener myself, I do favour a cohesive story flow over pinpoint accuracy. Some other stories always make me foam at the mouth in the name of authenticity (*ahemPrideandPrejudice*), but I can appreciate a solid, tightened-up story especially where distilling someone’s life into a consumable, 2-hour flick is concerned. BoRhap delivers on that front. 

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury of Queen, in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo: NME / Alamy

But it’s fascinating, with the recent release of Elton John biopic Rocketman, to behold the variance in tone thanks to its vantage point. This biopic doesn’t tell the story about Sir Elton John. Elton John tells you his story himself (also condensed but mostly accurate), since he’s still living and was personally involved in the project as an executive producer alongside his husband David Furnish. Knowing this, I felt while watching the movie that I could pick up the difference between the two films in terms of voice. Rocketman is bolder when it comes to the personal trials of its subject, tackling issues such as substance abuse, LGBTQ2+ experiences and homophobia, mental health, and the burdens of fame. 

Taron Egerton as Elton John and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Bohemian Rhapsody definitely touched on a number of these topics too, but seemed to handle them much more cautiously in terms of Mercury’s experiences within them. I felt that there was a more reverent tone toward Mercury and a distance from the grittier parts of his story – understandably. Producing a legacy biopic means celebrating an artist’s achievements – and as Mercury is no longer present to have agency over his story, writers and producers took the utmost care, perhaps scaling down difficult topics a bit to avoid making any controversial statements. Getting inside Mercury’s head and obtaining an insider perspective of his emotions in each scene is no longer possible, so his life had to be interpreted more from the outside. It makes perfect sense, especially when loved ones and former Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were film consultants, are watching the film – their approval matters, as does the feeling that the film does justice to Mercury’s life and experiences. 

On the other hand, Rocketman pulled out all the stops, no holds barred. John and Furnish didn’t quail when it came to plunging into the darker underbelly of John’s lowest moments – the result was an intensely honest human experience, as John and his deepest insecurities and struggles are laid bare for viewers. Again, it’s not surprising that Rocketman‘s perspective is more internally oriented – it’s John’s story to tell. He has direct ownership over his life and how he presents it to others, and he’s fearlessly made use of it. 

The real Freddie Mercury and Elton John hanging out. Photo: Pinterest

You could say, then, that Bohemian Rhapsody is more of a biography while Rocketman is an autobiography. The two modes of storytelling vary from one another, and the products of each come through in their respective films. BoRhap is a glossy, uplifting vignette of Freddie Mercury’s genius from the perspective of those who remember him fondly, and Rocketman is an extremely self-aware, moodier take on fame and collaboration, Elton John’s way of thanking (and alternately, condemning) those who were a part of his journey, depending on their roles in his life. 

Both films are intriguing, with common themes of artistic talent, loneliness, and love. Yet each has its own priorities for preserving the story of its subject. Although I said I resent too much direct comparison of these two films (they both offer their own merits), the inevitability of it within the genre has enabled me to really ponder creatorship and how it shapes narrative. Next time you’re watching a biopic, ask yourself who’s telling the story and how that affects its portrayal. I’d bet it’ll help you appreciate the subject’s life even more.

What do you mean, you’ve never judged a book by its cover?

The act of reading books in public is a performative art – we like to convey a certain image with what we’re reading. How we interpret people’s character by what we see them reading is another concern entirely.

By Serena Ypelaar

Let’s not lie to ourselves: we’ve all judged books by their covers.

Something about the imagery that first greets us is so immediately evocative that we’re instantly gripped by emotion.

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So many covers to judge. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Lurid, bright colours and strong graphics? I feel a bit cornered.

Clean minimalism? My mind feels vulnerable, laid bare but curious.

Elegant script on a damask background? I’m intrigued.

We all have our biases when taking in cover art, because stylistically, we know what we do and don’t like. In fact, when I first received Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at the age of six, I initially consigned it to the shelf because I wasn’t feeling particularly engaged by the cover. We all know how that ended: I was wrong. It turned out to be my favourite book in the world.

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Rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

There’s another dimension to the idea of judging a book by its cover that goes beyond the self, though. Perhaps it’s because reading is such an intimate pastime, but combine it with our inherent fear of judgement and you have an interesting social phenomenon on your hands.

I’m talking, of course, about reading on public transit.

As a commuter who routinely takes the subway downtown, I cover a lot of ground in reading. I’ve always got a book on me, and I’ve stubbornly rebelled against the e-book ever since its introduction. The result is that other people always see what I’m reading.

As one of my two majors, English lit will always own my mind and heart, so I’m naturally obsessed with 1) what others on the subway are reading and 2) what I must look like reading my books.

Maybe it’s self-absorbed and no one else ever does this, but I often wonder what image I convey based on what I’m reading. Every time I reread Harry Potter, I wonder, “what if someone thinks I’m reading this for the first time ever?” When I read YA (young adult) romances, I don’t tend to flaunt them. And when I read Keats, Austen, Shakespeare, or any classic lit, I hold my book proudly, feeling learned but also slightly disgusted with my self-consciousness.

Reading on the subway is a performative art; whether we register it or not, we’re displaying our interests for bored strangers to observe in an almost Sherlockian fashion. If a grungy hipster were to enter the train reading Nicholas Sparks, for instance, I’d admittedly be taken aback. It makes us somewhat uncomfortable to face up to our inward assumptions about people, which are often based solely on how they look and dress; but their choices in literature are arguably more revealing. We can deduce what kind of stories move them, what fascinates them, or how they react to books in question.

Sure, I bet there are people who can’t be bothered with random people’s opinions of them – but there’s got to be a reason I’ve seen so many middle-aged women reading Fifty Shades of Grey on a Kindle, right? My point is, e-readers can sometimes be a strategic choice, providing anonymity in the case of a controversial read.

napoleon
“What are you going to read today, Napoleon?” “Whatever I feel like I wanna read. Gosh!”

As much as we can dwell in others’ scrutiny, though, I believe we can use reading on the subway as an act of empowerment: read whatever we feel like reading, spectators be damned. After all, just because someone’s reading a book, doesn’t mean they approve of it. Regardless of what we’re reading, why we’re reading it, and what we think of it, no one will ever know anything about our experience beyond the book cover and our outward expressions. Those are all superficial assessments – so we might as well just enjoy our commute.