Steampunk inspiration and resources

How to Punk Your Steam Part 9.1: Make it Scary

On display at the Museum of London

On display at the Museum of London

The world is a much safer place now than it ever was for our ancestors, and yet studies show that modern day people are extremely fearful. Despite the lack of wild beasties waiting to pounce, the taming of most diseases, and the relative comfort we enjoy, we are afraid. In a large part, this is due to the media and the way it over-reports tragedy in exchange for higher ratings. This is not a new phenomenon, but because of our unprecedented access to news sources on account of television and the internet, the problem has continued to grow. Likewise, it was not at all uncommon during the Steam era for newspapers and periodicals to do exactly the same thing to their readers, and the general public could be whipped into a frenzy by a few carefully chosen words. One famous example of this is the media hoopla over Jack the Ripper, but there were other stories that got blown up and disseminated by the media and word of mouth.

Urban Legends

  1. Spring-heeled Jack. He was first sighted in 1837 in London, and people claimed to have seen this strange figure for at least a decade to come. He supposedly attacked young women, breathed fire and could leap over tall fences in a single bound. Read more
  2. Animals in the Sewers. Rumors of alligators in New York City’s sewers still persist to this day, but did you know this wasn’t the only city supposedly overrun with subterranean inhabitants? London was apparently infested with “The Black Sewer Swine of Hampstead.” Rumors of these little piggies ensued for years, and were even mentioned in an article in the Daily Telegraph in 1859. If given the choice, I am sure we’d all rather meet a pig in the sewer than a gator.
  3. Visions of Crises. It was not uncommon for a person to report that they had received a vision of a tragedy as it occurred even if they were in another part of the city. The newspapers would print their accounts of unaccountable panic and sightings of apparitions, and the public would eat it up.
  4. Doppelgangers. What if there was someone out there who looked and sounded just like you, but were bent on your destruction? This was a real fear for 19th century Londoners, who would give accounts of chasing themselves through the streets or blaming their double for their own wrong-doing.
  5. “New Humans.” After Charles Darwin’s treatise was released, many people began to believe in (and fear) the next step in human evolution. Some believed that humans and animals could be combined to make frightening creatures, such as the ones who populated The Island of Doctor Moreau. 
  6. Death by Garroting. In 1862, a man named Hugh Pilkington was strangled during a mugging on his way home one night. Soon, the story grew into a fervor as people feared a band of men roaming the streets and killing people at will.
  7. Big Cats (or Dogs) Roaming the Countryside. Starting in the middle of the 1800’s, people began reporting sightings of large, black predators. Some described something like a black panther, while others reported seeing a huge black dog. The latter tales inspired the Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

As you can see, the supernatural only comes to play in a few of these examples. There were lots of things that people feared that were rooted in the mundane or in science (at least, science as they understood it then) and this made them susceptible to exaggeration by the media.

1874maneating_thumbThere were pranksters who played on these fears, as well as the media’s willingness to disseminate them, who helped to fan the flames as well. For instance, Mark Twain successfully hid a critique of utility companies in a story of murder and mayhem in 1863. A fiction by reporter Edmund Spencer about a man-eating tree in Madagascar circulated for years before it was revealed as a hoax. In 1874, residents of New York panicked as they read an account of zoo animals escaping and running rampant across the city, but the fine print at the bottom revealed it to be completely fabricated. The author, Thomas Connery, wrote the article to bring attention to the appalling conditions of zoo animals. If you are interested in reading about more hoaxes, you should check out the website for the Museum of Hoaxes.

There are many urban legends that I learned as a child or teen that are utterly false. For instance, “Daddy Longlegs” spiders are not extremely venomous, a tooth will not dissolve in a glass of Coke, and there is no man with a hook for a hand waiting to attack teenagers on date night. Yet, these stories persist. One can only conclude that humans like to be scared, disturbed and titillated by these types of strange tales, and this was no different in the past. Steampunk works can play on the fears that were actually reported, but there is ample space to create a new horror and support it by the same means as the Victorian-era pranksters. Rumor mills and the media spread fear better than any other means, and our capacity to believe these stories in the absence or proof, or even in the presence of proof to the contrary, is a testament to how much we delight in fright.

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  1. Pingback: Two Years of Halloween Fun at your Fingertips | For Whom the Gear Turns

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