Everything in pop culture builds off what came before, but sometimes it’s not so obvious exactly what inspired your favorite video games. Luckily game recognize game, and Source Code is where Playboy explores games’ eclectic origins and finds out what influences video game developers.
I meet Charles Dickens in a pub, ready to check out London’s most haunted house. As we ride to the address, he tells me 50 Berkeley Square’s reputation for strange noises and violent assaults. Soon, we’re inspecting a rocking crib and a piano that plays by itself—and exposing the machinery that controls both. The haunting, it turns out, has a disappointingly normal explanation: a murderer lives in the attic, driving the curious away with manufactured ghost phenomena. It’s Scooby Doo with more blood.
And unfortunately, that’s really all it amounts to. While Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s Dickens missions provide a roll call of famous hauntings and hint at the era’s love affair with Spiritualism, the missions don’t fully explore why ghosts occupied such a prominent place in the Victorian psyche.
There’s a lot to it, so read on—if you dare.
THE GHOST CLUB
Syndicate portrays Charles Dickens as a paranormal investigator—an elder statesman ghost-hunter, if you will. And that portrayal does have a shroud-thin layer of truth. In 1862, a group of Cambridge academics and clergymen called The Ghost Club publicly announced their intention to investigate paranormal phenomena. And as the game claims, Dickens was in fact the club’s key member. His presence was apparently so important the original society dissolved after his death in 1870.
But while The Ghost Club was technically devoted to evaluating evidence of hauntings, they took special interest in Spiritualist mediums who claimed to communicate with the dead. In other words, they often acted as debunkers, not ghost hunters.
The Ghost Club’s most famous investigation involved the Davenport Brothers, a pair of American magicians who performed stage tricks with the “aid” of ghostly entities. In the Davenports’ most famous illusion, the “Spirit Cabinet,” audience members would tie them up in a large cabinet with several musical instruments between them. When the cabinet closed, the audience would hear spirits “playing” the instruments and ghostly hands appearing through holes in the cabinet. Upon reopening the doors, the audience would see the brothers still tied down.
No points for guessing how professional magicians managed to undo knots.
The results of the Club’s investigation were never made public, but given how easily later investigators exposed the brothers’ trickery, it’s likely Dickens and company found them out. Throughout the Davenports’ career, skeptical persons—from magicians, to professors, to college students—regularly foiled their tricks in front of audiences.
In this sense, Syndicate is broadly correct in how it frames these missions—almost every time Dickens and the Assassins Evie and Jacob look into seemingly paranormal events, a human actor emerges as the culprit or an alternate explanation presents itself. It’s a clever twist, with light reference to events that really took place. Unfortunately, it’s also a missed opportunity. Without the historical context of how Victorians views on death and the soul, these endings are an empty resolution, telling us little about why ghosts fascinated the Victorian mind.
THE GOOD DEATH
When historians speak about the Victorian attitude toward death and mourning, they often use words like “obsession,” “fixation,” and “fetishism”—but there were good reasons for the era’s morbid outlook. Death, quite literally, hit closer to home in the 19th century.
Mortality rates in the early Victorian period were high, with gentlemen averaging a 44-year lifespan while the working class averaged about 22 years. Don’t take that too literally though, since an exceptionally high child mortality rate skewed the statistics—57% of children died before the age of five. Added to that, death often took place at home, with elaborate deathbed rituals. Families would sit vigil with the dying loved one, ready to hear their last words and witness their transition to the afterlife. There was much emphasis placed on dying a “good death,” surrounded by friends and family.
After death, families displayed a loved one’s body at home before burying them in an elaborate and expensive funeral, and the household’s women (who did not have to leave the house to support the family) would enter two and a half years of mourning. During this period, women wore strictly prescribed clothing (black in the first two years, grey or lavender for six months after that) and spend their time in seclusion.
These practices got a celebrity endorsement from Queen Victoria herself, who mourned her husband Albert for 40 years. Victoria’s mourning rituals were extreme, even by the standards of the time. Not only did the Queen wear black for the rest of her life, but she instructed servants to keep Albert’s chambers exactly as they were, to the point of laying out fresh clothes and shaving soap every morning.
Syndicate hints at these extreme death rituals, but doesn’t directly address them. Hang around the game’s churchyards and you’ll see examples of the period’s extravagant tombstones, as well as mourners crying over graves and some modest funerals. Occasionally there’s a young woman who resembles Henry Alexander Bowler’s 1855 painting, The Doubt: Can these Dry Bones Live? where a pretty young woman leans over bones emerging from a churchyard grave. However, these tableaus don’t give a sense of the period’s elaborate death rituals, and though you’ll occasionally see women wearing mourning clothes, these characters have nothing to do with the cemetery scenes.
In any case, as the Victorian era steamed ahead, Britain’s expanding empire complicated these elaborate funeral traditions. The idealized “good death”—at home, surrounded by family members—was not possible for Britons in far-flung colonial outposts like Hong Kong and Delhi. Friends of the deceased tried to do what they could, including passing the deceased’s last words along to the bereaved family, but this unusual distance added an extra layer of tragedy and ambiguity to the mourning process. (This wasn’t an exclusively British phenomenon—in the U.S. Civil War, soldiers dying on the battlefield would place family photos around themselves to simulate the deathbed experience.)
Unsurprisingly, this fascination with death fueled an interest in ghosts and the spirit world. Families who had seen loved ones slip away wondered if death’s barrier could be breached, and those who lost friends and relatives far from home longed for a last connection with the deceased.
The stage was set for Spiritualism’s rapid rise.
SPIRITUALISM, FRAUD AND WOMEN’S RIGHTS
Modern spiritualism originated in the 1840s in upstate New York—an area known to birth divergent Protestant movements (see also: Mormonism). Broadly, Spiritualist adherents believed it was possible to communicate with the dead in order to gain wisdom or get messages from God. Initially a fringe belief system, the movement exploded after two teenage girls, the Fox sisters, toured the country claiming they could ask ghosts questions and have them knock in response. (In reality, the sisters made these noises with their feet—Victorian propriety meant investigators couldn’t look under their dresses.) Soon imitators sensed a gold rush and flooded the public with shows that combined religious catharsis with entertainment. Mediums used a variety of tools from automatic writing to magic tricks in their acts. One popular technique was hypnosis—an element Syndicate includes in its Dickens missions.
Though the movement was rife with fraud, Spiritualism did have benefits as a belief system. At a time when science began eroding the Biblical creation story, it offered reassurance about the afterlife. Séances, which sometimes involved kissing or fondling the medium, offered a rare form of sexual liberation. (It’s no accident that many mediums such as Cora L.V. Hatch, an American medium who toured England in the 1870s, were attractive young ladies.) Families torn apart by war or illness could gain closure by “contacting” loved ones. A distraught Mary Todd Lincoln even conducted séances with Abe in the White House in an attempt to contact their dead son Willie (the president himself remained unimpressed).
This connection with the Lincolns wasn’t surprising, since Spiritualism tended toward progressive ideals. Because Victorian society considered young ladies more “attuned” to spirits, Spiritualism offered women a position of religious authority unique in their time. And because these messages came through the medium rather than from her, women could use spirit trances to voice radical opinions they couldn’t raise in normal discourse. Through the lips of young ladies, the higher spheres called for governments to abolish slavery and give women the vote.
Given this unique background, it’s disappointing Spiritualism plays little to no role in Syndicate. The closest it comes is the villain Lucy Thorne, who as an occultist with an interest in old manuscripts and black dresses seems based on Theosophical Society founder Helena Blavatsky, who herself did time as a Spiritualist medium.
It’s a paper-thin connection, but at least it’s something.
While the upper classes toyed with the other side through spirit mediums and occultism, working-class Londoners had a more visceral and immediate experience of ghost culture—as stand-ins for their fears.
Between 1837 and 1904, multiple reports describe a figure that came to be known as Spring-heeled Jack (not to be confused with Jack the Ripper), who ambushed people on the street, assaulted them, and disappeared into the brick alleys. But that’s where the accounts stop agreeing. In early reports Jack seemed fairly human—grabbing a servant girl and tearing her clothes with claw-like fingers—but subsequent sightings claimed he could also leap over nine-foot walls. The attacks, initially a curiosity, quickly accelerated into mass hysteria. Soon, two women separately claimed Jack ambushed them breathing gouts of blue fire. Penny dreadfuls—Victorian pulp magazines—churned out sensationalist accounts of the attacks, triggering Jack sightings all over England. As his fame spread, his powers increased as well—instead of a man, witnesses began reporting a demon from hell with blazing eyes.
This fanciful version, barring a few details, is the Spring-heeled Jack we meet in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. But what’s most interesting about these missions is how they put the player in the shoes of a London mugging victim. Stalking Jack means getting caught in his attacks and sent reeling as he vanishes into the night—which was the underlying fear Jack legends touched on.
Muggings were common in Victorian London, with assailants knocking victims senseless with truncheons or, in rare cases, garroting them while associates stripped their belongings. Night was a particularly dangerous time, and lower-class women—like the servant girls Jack preferred—highly vulnerable targets. Whether true or not, the sheer popularity of Spring-heeled Jack stories indicate underlying Victorian anxieties about street crime.
Indeed, this wasn’t the first time spook stories acted as a stand-in for fears about assault. In 1803, a ghost supposedly haunted the Hammersmith area of London, attacking pedestrians by night. Another Jack predecessor, The London Monster, supposedly stalked beautiful young ladies in the 1790s, stabbing them in the buttocks with a needle or spike. In other words, Jack comes from a long tradition of Londoners creating—or inflating—vessels for their fear of street crime.
Syndicate’s Spring-heeled Jack missions come at this sociological point a bit sideways, but they do put players in the position of walking through the streets in a foggy London night, wondering whether they’ll be jumped and overpowered by an assailant. Early missions even take the side of the Lord Mayor’s inquiry, which suggested that the attacks were nothing more than young aristocrats playing a prank.
Interestingly, there are few who fit Jack’s description better than Jacob and Evie Frye, the game’s titular Assassins.
WHAT THE DICKENS DOES IT MEAN?
Like many Assassin’s Creed elements, the Charles Dickens missions are a bit of a mixed bag historically. While they do touch on elements of Spiritualism, the fear of street crime, and death rituals, they never explain how these missions link to the wider Victorian world. That’s a pity. The in-game encyclopedia would’ve been the perfect place to fill in these gaps, and the Dickens missions could’ve benefitted from a fraudulent medium or two. And while the existing environmental cues are evocative, it’s jarring to walk into a graveyard without seeing the classic signs of mourning culture.
Or perhaps, as big as the game’s recreation of Victorian London is, I simply haven’t yet been at the right places at the right times. Perhaps a funeral procession lurks around the next corner, along with a spring-heeled fiend.
If it does, I won’t know until I hear the wailing.
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