If you were to paint the death of the Gothic horror film genre in the style of Julius Caesar’s murder, it would be tempting to portray Alfred Hitchcock as the man holding the bloodiest dagger.
In the ‘50s, Hammer Film Productions successfully rescued the horror genre from promotional gimmicks and science fiction by reviving the classic Gothic horror properties that Universal Studios had played with just 20 years before, including Dracula and Frankenstein. In order to entice modern audiences – and capitalize on the exposure only controversy can create – Hammer added generous amounts of gore and cleavage to each production. What really won audiences over, though, was the rich Gothic atmosphere of each Hammer horror experience.
Then came Psycho. Hitchcock’s historic horror film alerted audiences to the possibility that the quiet boy down the street could be a vicious slasher. In comparison to that idea, the Victorian worlds of Hammer horror films such as Brides of Dracula – released the same year as Psycho – felt so outdated that they may as well have been filmed in the era they portrayed. That said, though Hitchcock’s contributions are sometimes cited as the historical landmark upon which the Gothic horror revival wave formally broke, the situation is not quite so cut and dry as “Et tu, Alfred?”
The truth of the matter is that Gothic horror fell out of favor because the subgenre’s romanticism started to feel dated. The appeal to dark and stormy nights, immaculately dressed heroes and villains, and the underlying sexual tones of Gothic horror eventually came to be seen as an escape from the more grounded and sadistic films of the ‘60s horror revolution.
That doesn’t mean that genuinely scary works of Gothic horror weren’t made after 1960 – movies like The Orphanage and The Others prove as much – but time and familiarity removed much of the subgenre’s bite. Nowadays, Gothic horror is most often explored as a tribute (Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak) or parody (Edgar Wright’s brilliant trailer for the faux film, Don’t!)
2015’s Bloodborne seems to be gaming’s – more specifically Hidetaka Miyazaki’s – own tribute to the Gothic genre. Bloodborne’s cover even lists “highly-detailed Gothic worlds” as one of the game’s selling points. That description becomes superfluous the moment you begin your Bloodborne adventure and feast your eyes upon the carriages, cloaks, and castles bathed in pale moonlight or the final gasp of dying sunlight. The design team certainly had an obvious affection for Gothic horror’s romantic aesthetics.
However, Bloodborne is no mere tribute. In fact, it is the greatest example of effective Gothic horror that gaming has ever produced.
While declaring that Bloodborne is an all-time great example of Gothic design in gaming isn’t exactly a controversial claim – the game quite literally wears its Gothic influences on its sleeve – Bloodborne is rarely thought of as a horror game.
That can certainly be attributed to the fact that Bloodborne has never officially been classified as a horror game, but its status as such an experience is also compromised by the sentiment that the Gothic horror genre’s fall from grace can be traced back, in part, to the idea that so many of the fundamental elements of the subgenre became outdated and overused to the point of parody. In other words, how can such an overwhelmingly stylized Gothic game be genuinely scary?
So how did From Software avoid the seemingly prominent pratfalls that accompany the heavy handed implementation of Gothic tropes while still crafting a genuine horror experience? For that matter, how did they turn the already decidedly Gothic worlds of Dark Souls into something truly horrifying? Part of that process involved incorporating and embracing the weird and wonderful world of Lovecraftian horror.
The subject of Lovecraft’s role in the evolution of Gothic horror is the source of a great debate. While Lovecraft was certainly influenced by Gothic horror – his grandfather used to read him Gothic horror tales – the works which defined the Lovecraftian style of horror typically only feature a few traditional Gothic horror elements. However, in an essay titled “Lovecraft Reads a Story: The Gothic Manuscript,” Kathleen Hudson explains how Lovecraft’s role as a Gothic horror writer is confirmed by his fondness for manuscript driven narratives.
“Manuscripts are essentially ghost stories in the Romantic Gothic,” Hudson writes. “They tell a story and often manifest emotional and psychological trauma revisited on the reader … Lovecraft’s narrators are forced into a narrative passivity in which the disjointed threads of history and understanding must be reread and re-imagined if they are to be dealt with … we do not have the whole picture, and in seeking to construct a picture we fall prey to the gaps in knowledge that are necessarily left.”
This lone aspect not only ties Lovecraft’s works with the Gothic horror genre but Bloodborne and Dark Souls as well.
The Souls series and its spin-offs have always utilized intentionally vague narratives, forcing players to examine item descriptions, found texts, and environmental clues in order to interpret their meaning. While this style of storytelling naturally lends itself to the mystery genre, Bloodborne represents the first time that From Software used this technique to tell a pure horror story.
Unlike Dark Souls where the plot is largely kept out of plain sight as to not disturb those who wish to ignore it, Bloodborne drops just enough story breadcrumbs along the game’s main path that even those who are traditionally uninterested with ambigious narratives are left with the distinct feeling that they will fall prey to gaps in knowledge if they don’t actively pursue answers.
Sadly for those adventurers, actually uncovering the game’s mysteries offers little comfort. Bloodborne‘s oblique story begins when the player – a traveling hunter – ventures into the city of Yharnam in search of a substance known as Paleblood. The significance of Yharnam, Paleblood, and the hunter are all up for debate, but most interpretations begin with the ambitions of a man named Willem.
Master Willem presided over the College of Byrgenwerth. There, he – along with scholars and students – discovered many great things. None, however, were greater than their research into a group of creatures known as the Great Ones and a substance known as Old Blood. What happens next is open to interpretation, but it seems that these scholars discovered that Old Blood could be used to achieve many things. It was, perhaps, even the key to becoming a god.
However, Willem believed that the blood was dangerous. He preached the words “Fear the Old Blood” in the hopes his students would seek knowledge instead. Some listened, but others did not. One dissenter, a student named Lawrence, led a charge to use the blood as a cure for all diseases. He formed the Healing Church and turned Yharnam into a destination for those seeking aide.
Before long, a combination of corruption within the church and troubling symptoms of the Old Blood treatment turned Yharnam into the eye of a nightmare. As men turned to creatures, the church formed a band of hunters to eliminate signs of infection within the people. Sometimes, they elminated the people before the symptoms even manifested. One hunter named Ludwig had the foresight to recruit the people as hunters and harvest an “us vs. them” mentality that helped isolate the church from blame.
That isn’t to say the Church abandoned their use of the Old Blood. Instead, sections of the church researched the origin and purpose of the blood more adamantly than ever before. At some point, it seems this research resulted in the Great Ones using Yharnam as a kind of incubator for a child…a creature named Mergo.
It is suggested that you, the player, have been brought into this world to slay a Great One and end the madness. Your own interpretations of these events result in a few different endings — from your death (or “awakening” from this dream) to your own ascension into a hybrid Great One.
What you know for sure is that Yharnam was corrupted over time by an elite group of individuals whose pursuit of great things led to the ruin of all. Whether these individuals ever truly wanted to help humanity or if their help was a side-effect of their pursuit for power is a truth that almost feels meaningless when compared to the horrors of the world they ultimately created.
That piece of social commentary is worthy of the horror genre’s best storytellers, as is the thick layer of mystery that covers Bloodborne‘s finest plot details like fog rolling over a graveyard.
Bloodborne conditions you to not trust yourself. It forces you to ask questions like “How many of these ‘monsters’ are really just sick men, women, and children who ventured to Yharnam when they had nowhere else to turn?” It even causes you to question what exactly you are accomplishing with your actions.
It’s that last question that will hant you during Bloodborne‘s final moments. What use is a choice when you’re no longer sure what constitutes good, evil, or even a victory? Is it even your choice to make anymore, or has your judgment been compromised by the left-behind texts of those who crafted this hell? At what point do you stop asking these questions because you cannot process the answers?
This torturously slow invocation of insanity has been featured in video games before, but Bloodborne differs from titles like Eternal Darkness in that it doesn’t gamify the concept by converting it into a mere mechanic. In Bloodborne, madness is always with the player. Madness creeps into the player’s mind when an errant strike deprives him of his progress, and it festers as his desire to escape this world by beating the game forces him to make rash decisions.
Stalwart adventurers may overcome this madness, but in doing so, they are often required to transform themselves into the same manner of beast that the citizens of Bloodborne’s Yharnam have been turned into at the hands of those who saw their existence as little more than a case study. This is a theme that Lovecraft often explored, but the interactive nature of gaming allows those who play Bloodborne to truly experience that fabled sense of creeping madness for themselves.
While the ideas of Lovecraft help instill a sense of genuine dread in the player, Bloodborne would not be nearly as effective of a horror experience as it is if it wasn’t for its heavy use of Gothic design.
The far away worlds of popular Gothic horror pieces became too distant from reality and too familiar in their execution to be quite as effective as they once were, but traditional Gothic horror design never lost its overall appeal. Bloodborne uses that appeal to lure the player in and is quick to incorporate visual aspects that seem ripped straight from the gluttonous Gothic horror design Francis Ford Coppola used in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
These Gothic elements are applied liberally during the game’s opening moments. Bloodborne‘s first area – Central Yharnam – essentially doubles as a museum of genre conventions. Some of your first enemies resemble wolfmen and crazed villagers in wide-brimmed hats forming a mob of torchlight. Perfectly placed carriages line the moonlit streets. Imposing Gothic architecture reminds you how small you are during the few quiet moments when some lab-created ogre isn’t fulfilling that duty.
One of the game’s first bosses is a man in black watching over a decaying graveyard. You’d be tempted to roll your eyes at the familiarity of it all if doing so wouldn’t result in your immediate death.
It isn’t long, though, before Bloodborne exploits your complacency. Soon, aspects of body horror creep into the overall design of those supposedly scary, yet oddly charming villagers, wolves, and lumbering creatures. Here, the visual design begins to resemble a classic Universal horror film as directed by David Cronenberg. From the lanky brinsucker who strikes like a Deathclaw to the bile-filled Celestial Larvae whose tortured screams have been reduced to the sound of sickening secretions, Bloodborne eventually finds a way to weaponize your deepest fears.
You will inevitably become repulsed by this collection of beasts, ghouls, and monstrosities, but the inherent romanticism of the game’s Gothic design never loses that strangely compelling charm that has made it the source of so many tributes. You slowly realize that what you thought was your fear of seeing what is around the next corner is really the fear of never discovering what is around the next corner. What is so commonly referred to as nightmare fuel has become the thing that drives you. Yet, it is only when you rid yourself of intimidation that you have become truly lost in the game’s world.
The scarcity of traditional scares in Bloodborne as well as the game’s seemingly well-worn Gothic design may mean that you’ll find few people who consider it to be an entry into the horror genre. But at a time when we celebrate films like A Ghost Story, Get Out, and It Follows and TV series like The Haunting of Hill House that attempt to reawaken the horror genre by showing that it has so much more to offer than just emotional jolts, perhaps it’s time that we pay gaming’s greatest contribution to the centuries-old Gothic horror genre that same courtesy.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.