Category Archives: City of Horrors

Victoria Atkinson on Class & Horror

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Underneath the smog of London lie the true horrors of English society.  When imagining London most people think of the Queen, telephone boxes, double-decker buses, and many other stereotypical images that pertain mainly to the upper tiers of civilization.  What most forget to realize is the existence of the city’s underclass.  The images in the collage depict the lower levels of society that many people forget about and the repulsive aspects of the city that many refuse to acknowledge.

The burned Union Jack signifies the class divisions that plague society in London.  As seen in some of the images there is prostitution, homelessness, rioting, and separation of rich and poor through housing situations.  This problem of poverty is deeply rooted in the history of London as the working- class laborers, such as chimney sweeps and sewer laborers, have always been regarded as lesser people.  The problem has been portrayed through art too, as seen in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s comic book From Hell (1999), which portrays the serial murders of Jack the Ripper, and Walter Sickert’s painting What Shall We Do for the Rent? (c. 1908) which depicts the possible images Camden Town Murders.  The horrors of London are a completely separate world from the London much of the world sees.  The problem of class division is a historically based issue in the city, continues to be one today, and will linger into the future of London as a center of civilization and life in Europe and in the world.


Danielle Wais on London & Monstrosity

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) tells the tale of the life of Benjamin Barker, an innocent barber, and his transformation into Sweeney Todd, a murderer.  After returning to London from prison, Todd teams up with Mrs. Lovett, an unsuccessful bakery owner, and opens his new “barber shop”.  Together they wreak havoc on London to seek vengeance for all the oppression they have endured.  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and its theme song, There’s No Place like London depict London as a city of filth, poverty, and corruption (see below).  Furthermore, they demonstrate how these perils of society convert Benjamin Barker into a ruthless killer.

There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it / and its morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit / and it goes by the name of London… / At the top of the hole sit the privileged few / making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo / turning beauty to filth and greed… / I too have sailed the world and seen its wonders, / for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru / but there’s no place like London!

Through the setting and song lyrics, the movie illustrates London as a grim and filthy place.  In the opening scene, the ominous fog and dark clouds envelop the Thames River and its surroundings.  Amongst the darkness, the Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral stand prominently as representations of the city.  This mixture of fog and London architecture thus symbolizes the evil that envelops the city.  The movie echoes similar representations of London and the Thames River that already exist in the art world.  George Vicat Cole’s Thames of London, 1888 [Figure 1] illustrates the similar ways in which the film and London painters symbolize the Thames River.  In this painting the smoky clouds look as if they are shrouding the city of London, which is recognizable because of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background; therefore, the painting shares the movie’s portrayal of London as a dark and obscure place.  The film not only represents London as gloomy but also as physically dirty.  Throughout the film (specifically in the background of Mr. Todd’s shop) there are chimneys and factories depositing smoke into the air.  This continuous pollution exemplifies the extremely unhealthy air quality in London.

Fig. 1. George Vicat Cole. "The Pool of London," 1888.

Fig. 1. George Vicat Cole. “The Pool of London,” 1888.

In addition, the movie exposes the foulness of the city when Mrs. Lovett and Todd travel through the sewers.  The sewers display London’s grandeur of architecture; they represent a modern and magnificent advance in hygiene.  However, the rats, which signify the utmost filth, seek refuge in the sewers.  The image Ratcatchers by Henry Mayhew (1851) from London Labour and the London Poor [Figure 2] suggests the prevalence of rats lurking in the sewers, by exposing the tactics in which men have to exterminate them.  This image displays a paradoxical relationship of beautiful archways of the sewers in the background and the man grasping a vicious rat in the foreground.  This combination turns something of beauty into a disgusting fortress of filth.  Therefore, the film reveals the grotesque underbelly of the city of London.

Fig. 2. Henry Mayhew, "The Rat-catchers of the Sewers." Illus. in "London Labour and the London Poor," 1861.

Fig. 2. Henry Mayhew, “The Rat-catchers of the Sewers.” Illus. in “London Labour and the London Poor,” 1861.

The song lyrics from “There’s no Place like London,” which Todd sings, also contribute to the grand picture of London as a dirty place.  The lyrics refer to London as “a great black pit”.  The use of the word “black” suggests the color of the city due to the pollution and the word “pit” negatively connotes a dumpy place.  In other words, this line conveys the message that London itself is a disgusting abyss.

The dirty setting along with the characters’ personal backgrounds helps describe the poverty prevalent in London.  The notion of poverty is illustrated by the stark difference between the living conditions of the upper and lower class.  The rich side contains beautiful marble buildings and finely dressed people as seen in the setting outside of the house of Judge Turpin, a high class society member.  In contrast, tattered houses and crowded streets encompass the poor side where Mrs. Lovett lives.  This reveals the suffering of the working class in comparison to the bourgeoisie.  Mrs. Lovett’s history serves as an example of the common life of poor individuals.  She is an impoverished shopkeeper whose meat-pie business suffers because she cannot afford fresh meat.  In addition, she lives in a bug-infested home in a filthy, poor part of town.  This exposes the link between the dirtiness of the city and the poor people.  Her house and story of failure (due to her lack of funds and inflation) show the huge role that poverty plays in London society.  Toby, a young slave boy, also displays a life of hardship.  Society forces Toby from a young age as an orphan to work in order to survive.  He even tolerates whippings so he will not be cast off in the streets – homeless.  Luke Fildes’ Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, 1874 [Figure 3] portrays  poverty in London.  The painting shows how the poor civilians of London wait in lines to have a place to sleep because they cannot afford a place of their own.  It reveals the extreme issue of poverty in which a large portion of the city’s population is displaced because they cannot profit off of London society.  Furthermore, the lyrics to “There’s No Place like London” refer to the characteristics of poverty.  The song represents the lower class as the “vermin in a lonely zoo”.  Vermin are dirty creatures that signify the lowest form of life.  Yet, the song uses them as a metaphor for the poverty stricken people.  This displays the upper class’ image of the poor.  The term, “The lonely zoo”, stands for the concrete jungle in which these poor people inhabit.  Referring to their home as a zoo reveals the animalistic actions one must take to survive in the city of London.

Fig. 3. Sir Luke Fildes, "Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward," 1874.

Fig. 3. Sir Luke Fildes, “Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward,” 1874.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street not only depicts the poverty in London, but it also exposes the corruption that causes this class struggle.  Besides the contrasting appearances between the rich and poor sides of town, Barker’s downfall directly results from corruption within society.  Judge Turpin covets Benjamin Barker’s wife, Lucy.  Therefore, he utilizes his power (due to wealth and status) to exile Benjamin to prison and steal his wife and child, Johanna.  Similarly, once the judge discovers Atoney, the sailor boy, plotting to free Johanna he becomes livid.  The judge decides to imprison Johanna in a madhouse in effort to stop Atoney.  Thus, this reveals the basis of the class struggle in London where the rich exercise their supremacy over the lower class.  Therefore, through greedy intentions, the film suggests the rich only care for themselves instead of the greater good for all of society.  In addition, the lyrics describe corruption: “at the top of the hole sit the privileged few, making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo, turning beauty to filth and greed…”  “The privileged few” indicate the wealthy citizens who reign over the “hole” or the city.  They “mock the vermin” which describes how the upper classmen persecute the lower class people.  The song blames these powerful individuals for the development of two distinct classes: one of “filth”, the other “greed”.  Ultimately, the music and Barker’s tragic story display how corruption molds London into an immoral wasteland.

Finally, through Todd’s actions, the film illuminates how corruption, filth, and poverty in London combine to create monstrosity.  The unjust treatment of Barker by the judge (as seen in the previous paragraph) provokes Barker to seek vengeance.  He changes his name to Sweeney Todd and sets out to seek revenge for the dismantling of his life.  His main goal is to kill the judge; however, this spirals out of control.  The movie proposes that Todd finds peace in slaughtering numerous men.  In addition, Mrs. Lovett encourages the murders after she discovers she can bake fresh, tasty meat pies from the dead bodies.  She needs fresh meat in order to attract customers and collect revenue.  Since society fails to help her with this task, she resorts to becoming Todd’s accomplice.  Here, the movie demonstrates how poverty leads to desperate measures, in this case cannibalism.  The dirty, gloomy setting also contributes to the madness of the tale.  By adding in the dark buildings and perpetual smoky fog, the film constructs the perfect place for a murder story to occur.  Furthermore, the demonic manner in which Todd repeats these specific lyrics to “There’s No Place like London” shows his hatred for the corrupted city.  He mutters the words as if he is under some sort of trance that he cannot control.  The vehement way in which he sings these lyrics showcase his anger of the past conquering him into a state beyond control.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the song, There’s No Place like London, represent London as an unjust and heinous city.  They suggest that the poverty, filth, and corruption prevalent in society induce monstrosity.  The film paints London as the culprit responsible for murder and disaster; the people merely serve as puppets in response to the situation.  The conditions in which the poor live and the atrocities they endure force them to act immorally.  Thus, London is a society of corruption that can corrupt even the most innocent into killers.

Emily Huffman on Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper slaughtered five prostitutes: Mary Ann Nichols, also known as “Pretty Polly”, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly (Crow, 109-111). The murders were never solved; however, stories have been written that give an identity to Jack the Ripper. Two of those stories are From Hell (1999) by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell and Black Butler (started in 2006) by Yana Toboso. By giving the Ripper a face, these depictions give some closure to the story.

Fig. 1. "Sir William Gull."  Illus. in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, "From Hell" (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2004). Web.

Fig. 1. “Sir William Gull.” Illus. in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, “From Hell” (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2004).

In From Hell, Alan Moore assigns the role of Jack the Ripper to William Gull, Physician Extraordinary, who was given that title after saving Queen Victoria’s son and Prince Albert’s father, the Prince of Wales (Colby-Newton). In From Hell, Gull (Figure 1) kills five prostitutes after Queen Victoria asks him to prevent them from sharing Prince Albert’s secret that he married and had a child with a prostitute. Because the murders were commissioned, albeit unknowingly, by Queen Victoria and perpetrated by a Physician Extraordinary, both of whom were public figures, From Hell casts the story as a royal scandal, which would create a public fascination. Moore suggests that the murders occurred to prevent a different royal scandal, Prince Albert’s child, from becoming known to the population of Britain. If the child were to become known the Empire would be seen badly. However, in From Hell, Alan Moore creates a different scandal that could have brought the empire down.

Fig. 2 "If Graffiti Changed Anything - It Would Be Illegal." Attributed to Banksy.

Fig. 2 “If Graffiti Changed Anything – It Would Be Illegal.” Attributed to Banksy.

In From Hell, and also in reality, letters were sent to the police, addressed to “boss” and signed “Jack the Ripper”. By giving the murderer a name, the letters made him a more fascinating figure. The Ripper is given a name, either by himself or by others. That he had a name may have been what caused him to become a legend. This is similar to the modern work of the graffiti artist, Banksy (Figure 2). People know when he leaves graffiti on London; however, they do not know who he is. In regards to Banksy and Jack the Ripper, people want to know their identities because they want to credit the work to an actual person, not a  mere name or pseudonym.

Fig. 3 "Black Butler," Bob Sempai. Deviant Art.

Fig. 3 “Black Butler,” Bob Sempai. Deviant Art.

Black Butler, a Japanese manga series by Yana Toboso takes place in Victorian London. Ciel Phantomhive and his butler Sebastian Michaelis (Figure 3) investigate crimes. In the second volume, Queen Victoria requests that they investigate the murders committed by Jack the Ripper. In Black Butler, Tosobo offers three suspects: the Viscount of Druitt, Madam Red, and Grelle Sutcliffe. Ciel and Sebastian originally suspect the Viscount, because he has no alibi; however, while they attend a party at his home, another murder is perpetrated, so Druitt gains an alibi. They deduce that Mary Kelly will be killed, so they go to her home. Unfortunately, the Ripper kills her. He enters her home without being seen by Ciel or Sebastian. Grell Sutcliffe exits the home covered in blood, and Madam Red arrives. Ciel and Sebastian learn that Grell and Red (Figure 4) are responsible for the murders. Red wanted to kill the prostitutes after aborting their children; she could not conceive, so this made her angry. Grell, a grim reaper, assisted her with the murders.

Fig. 4 "Grell and Madam Red."

Fig. 4 “Grell and Madam Red.”

In real life, Druitt was not a Viscount; he was a school teacher. His family believed that he was the Ripper because he was insane and considered himself a doctor; additionally, his body was eventually found in the Thames River, where many London prostitutes drowned themselves, after Mary Kelly’s murder. Inspector Abberline dismissed Druitt as a suspect, however, claiming that his insanity and suicide were coincidental. (Harrison, Diary of Jack the Ripper). While Druitt was an ordinary man, Tosobo may have portrayed him as a Viscount to give him a higher status, and make his status as a suspect more scandalous. Like Abberline, Tosobo dismissed Druitt as a suspect, choosing instead to portray the Ripper as an angry abortionist, who is aided by a Reaper. Toboso recreates the story as a story of vengeance.

Jack the Ripper, a public fascination, has been portrayed in much media. He was a public fascination because he had a character name. Gull is a captivating suspect because his status as a suspect creates royal scandal. By transforming Druitt into a member of high society, Toboso gives him a scandalous nature, but then removes the scandal by assigning the role of the Ripper to a woman from an abortion clinic. While the Ripper will never be caught, he will most likely remain a person of interest and subject of many portrayals.

Liz Vaadeland on Horror & Human Nature

In our FIG classes, “Introduction to Modern Literature since 1900”, “Europe and the Modern World from 1815-On”, and our seminar, “Historical Representations of London”, several themes and general ideas have overlapped between the lectures and materials. Though many of the similarities in concepts are quite interesting, none is as striking as the representation of horror and human nature. Through the works of From Hell (1999) by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) by Sigmund Freud, and Time’s Arrow (1991) by Martin Amis, we see the parallels aspects of the concept. Together these pieces, by illustrating the sheer violence and animalistic tendencies of humans, work harmoniously to convey a deeper understanding of mankind’s inborn inclinations.

"The death of Mary Kelly." Illus. in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, "From Hell" (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2004)

“The death of Mary Kelly.” Illus. in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, “From Hell” (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2004)

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell (Fig. 1), discussed in “Historical Representations of London” (October 16, 2012), is a graphic novel depicting a version of the infamous Jack the Ripper Murders of Whitechapel. In it, we are introduced to William Gull, who through lifelong fascination with death and destruction becomes the royal physician to Queen Victoria. Through this connection, he is dispatched to rid the royal family of a “problem,” that is, leaked information about the secret marriage of Prince Eddy to a very poor woman and the child the had together. Under orders of the Queen, William begins to murder the women connected to the secret, but takes his killings to a new level of deranged and vicious fantasy. Campbell’s illustrations of the all too graphic murders of five Whitechapel prostitutes convey the sickening horror felt by the detectives on the case, directly to the reader. Through the actions of Gull, we are able to see the true monstrosity of human nature come out from the depths of the mind and wreak havoc on society. Specifically in the truly ghastly scene of the murder and dismemberment of Mary Kelley, shown in Fig. 1, we see Gull give in to pure evil, not for the sake of the royal family but for his own atrocious desires to slice and tear the flesh of the prostitutes. In the image, we see how Gull, in a very cruel and intimate way, begins with a slow incision across Mary Kelley’s face, and then proceeds to gash out her nose and gouge out her eye. He later tears out her throat, slashes her breast, and rips out her cheek to expose her full set of teeth. This utter monstrosity performed on another human being shows the pure inhumanity of sadists like Gull. In Gull, we are able to see the absolute darkest nature of human kind become unleashed, and the horrific truth of human potential to destroy others.

In “History of Europe 1815-On”, we studied Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, in which Freud discusses and explains that all behaviors exhibited by human beings can be explained by animalistic drives. Freud even goes on to suggest that instilled in every person is the desire to kill, as in the following quote from Civilization and Its Discontents:

… men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. (58)

Indeed, Freud believed that humans are naturally inclined to truly aggressive behavior as well as a craving to take advantage of others for personal satisfaction. That horrific conduct should be ingrained deep within the human mind was a very bold claim by Freud, one that many do not agree with, though everyday violence can be interpreted as an effect of this innate need. Appalling behavior can also be seen throughout the history of mankind, especially in the 20th century with the advancements of technology used for death, which occurred during the time Civilization and Its Discontents was published.

Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, a novel we examined in “Modern Literature since 1900”, follows the life of Tod and its narrator, who seems to be separate from the aforementioned protagonist. Time itself works differently within the boundaries of the novel, as it starts with Tod’s death and moves backward through his life, ending with his birth. Over the course of the novel we learn that the American doctor, Tod Friendly, was once Odilo Unverdorben, a Nazi doctor at Auschwitz. Through the narrator’s eyes, we see the true horrors Tod – through several different aliases – commits, ranging from torturing Gypsies and Jews to aborting his own children. The narrator, who sees the events of Tod’s life backward, views events that are good, such as his giving a toy to a child, as bad because he instead sees Tod taking the toy away from the child. Likewise, awful events, like the massacre of countless Jews, he thinks are miraculous because he sees the creation of people from the gas chambers. In this way, Amis suggests that the actions of the Nazis in the concentration camps were truly backward to that of moral and righteous behavior. However, this is but another example of the direction human nature moves toward – that of aggression and cruelty. Horror – true horror – was witnessed in the camps such as Auschwitz, and only because people gave in to their animalistic desires.

The three classes that compose our FIG, “Introduction to Modern Literature since 1900”, “Europe and the Modern World from 1815-On”, and “Historical Representations of London”, deal with several of the same concepts, though none is as fundamentally remarkable as the connections of horror and human nature through each of the courses. Through the parallels between the visually explicit and gruesome graphic novel From Hell, the intellectually enlightening theory of Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents, and the jarring account of Nazi terrorism in Time’s Arrow, the similarities of horror throughout time and medium are much easier to see. Perhaps by learning the truth of human potential to commit such acts of terror, future generations will have learned the lesson of time, and be able to rise above the instinctive need to destroy.


Amis, Martin. Time’s Arrow. New York: Vintage International, 1991.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization And Its Discontents. Martino Fine Books, 2010.

Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell. From Hell. Marietta: Top Shelf Productions, 2006.