How to Punk Your Steam Part 8.1: Make it Supernatural
Steampunk isn’t just about crazy technology and altering history, there is an undeniable supernatural element to many works as well, and for a very good reason. The Victorian era, as well as the period immediately before, saw a rise in belief in the supernatural. I’ve discussed the Spiritualist Movement with its ghosts and mediums in another post, but people of this time were also concerned about fairies, vampires, werewolves and other frightful figures. Why, in the face of technological advancement and rationalism, did this resurgence occur? And how can authors, makers and gamers use this historical fact to their advantage?
Rational vs. Rationale
The Industrial Revolution saw the rise of many dichotomies that somehow managed to live side by side. Though it may seem strange to us in our own time when we can get information on anything we want by poking a little box we carry in our pocket, during the 19th century science itself was akin to magic. There were many advancements that worked, but people did not yet understand the how or why, only the results. For instance, improving sanitation in a city could reduce the effects of cholera, and people believed that it was because plumbing cut down on bad smells rather than contagion by germs. Electricity brought light into their homes, but the average person couldn’t tell you why that collection of glass and wires could outshine a candle. (And honestly, I would be hard pressed to explain exactly how a telephone works myself!) In other words, people were willing to accept things that they could not explain.
Another symptom of this era was a challenge to mainstream religious beliefs. Many felt that in Charles Darwin’s 1859 treatise, The Origin of the Species, he had effectively killed God. By replacing God’s will (and whim) with scientific principles and data, it shook the foundations of the Christian faith, which dictated that it was God alone who controlled the course of nature. Charlotte Barrett put it this way, “The insertion of humans beings into this biological continuum meant that, for Darwin, humans were part of nature rather than above it.” Darwin was aware of how revolutionary his theories were, which is why he had originally planned to wait until after his death to publish them.
One might assume that this would be the perfect precursor to pave the way to a totally rational public, but people are far more complicated than that. Though many may have felt that the answers did not lie in words from the pulpit, there were still things that could not yet be explained by science. This left a gap between their experiences and their frameworks, and opened their minds to alternative possibilities. The fantastical, pagan figures of myth held great appeal for people floundering in the face of religious upheaval.
Books Tell us More than Stories
The literary audience of the steam era had a voracious appetite, and it was not uncommon for them to turn to compilations of “fairy stories” to feed their fervor. Collections such as the Grimm Brother’s Children and Household Tales were being read in nurseries throughout Western Europe. In addition to texts, this time period also saw an exodus as people moved away from the countryside seeking work in the cities, and they often brought their superstitions with them. So through both written and oral traditions, audiences of all ages were being titillated by the strange creatures that inhabited the frightening forest, a place all to familiar to rural peasants but far less commonplace to an Industrialized society. Ironically, the reason for collecting these fantastical stories was often rooted in exposing the ignorance and backwardness of peasants, and yet they took hold of the imagination of the working class years later.
Though Industrialization may appear at first to be antithetical to belief in fairies, this antithesis itself was a driving factor in their resurgence. London was not the only place where factories were built. In fact, factories began springing up all over the English countryside. Old maladies and new continued to persist, and some people blamed their problems on the factories driving away the fairies and their protection.
The use of fairy stories as morality tales also goes a long way toward explaining why they remained popular despite losing contact with their roots in the country. My freshman year of college my “Twice Told Tales” class spent half of a semester analyzing Little Red Riding Hood. It turns out it isn’t just a simple story of a little girl who gets lost in the woods, but serves a metaphor for womanhood, sexual transgressions, and the fear of strangers (ie immigrants). Stories were not (and are not) just a form of entertainment, but of indoctrination. This and other tales also evolved over time, and different authors used its framework to promote their own agendas. For instance, in the original Little Red Cape, she dies at the end. There is no heroic woodcutter, the wolf eats the grandma and the little girl up and lives happily ever after, ergo the fear of the dark stranger. Cinderella is propaganda geared towards women who want to better their lots in life (please the right man and all your dreams will come true), Rumplestiltskin tells children to work hard or suffer the consequences, and Rapunzel ends up in her tower because her father was a thief.
But not everyone was taken in by just the stories, they wanted proof of the supernatural. And as that master of the fantastic, J. R. R. Tolkien tells us, “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
Check out Part 2 of this post tomorrow for information about the ways that people strove to prove and disprove the supernatural.
You can also read the rest of the How to Punk Your Steam series.