The Victorian Age is typically remembered as being incredibly buttoned-up, conservative, and at times rather boring. While many important technological advancements were made, we mostly think of the era as a time where the mere silhouette of a woman was hyper-sexualized, and the strict mores of Queen Victoria – the ultimate stiff upper-lip matriarch – ran supreme.
However, the Victorians were a complicated lot, and a great deal of subversive entertainment was produced in their time. For one, they produced ghost stories at a glorious speed, and saw the relatively benign Christmas holiday as the perfect opportunity to share spooky stories over a crackling fire. They also adhered to many bizarre and downright creepy traditions, some of which we couldn’t imagine doing nowadays.
Here are some of the most disturbing practices those supposedly reserved Victorians came up with, and some of them are exceptionally unnerving.
1. Taxidermy Animal Hats
This particular craze is perhaps an extension of the overall fascination with taxidermy, and the ways in which the Victorians pushed creative boundaries with the controversial practice. Complete tableaux featuring dead bunnies studying in a library, for example, were all the rage, and giving the animals human characteristics after death – reading, having tea, playing croquet – was especially popular.
However, it’s still not totally clear how or why this became super fashionable with upper-class Victorians. But apparently, donning a dead, stuffed animal on top of one’s head was considered the ultimate in haute couture. Birds were a popular choice, although the more adventurous types went with squirrels, mice, and kittens…which, when you think about it, is especially sad and awful in its own way.
2. Mourning Dolls
Mourning culture in the Victorian Era was rather elaborate and entailed a number of traditions that helped the living overcome the passing of a beloved. Everything from pieces of jewelry with locks of hair from the dead, or taking photos with the corpse of the dearly departed were all the rage.
While these traditions can be seen as a way of honoring the memory of the deceased, they are still rather disturbing for the darkness they conjure. Perhaps this inherent creepiness is nowhere near as apparent as in the form of mourning dolls.
Since medicine was still not terribly advanced, the mortality rate for children and infants was frightfully high. For wealthy families who lost a child, it was customary to create a mourning doll bearing the likeness of their dearly departed. The dolls were typically made from wax, and sometimes, the hair would be taken straight from the dead body of the child it was meant to resemble and added straight to its head – this was in the hopes of finding some misguided level of authenticity. Then, the dolls would be placed in a crib, sometimes having its clothes changed and generally cared for as though it were a real child.
For some reason, this was seen as a healthy way for the family to cope with their loss. It’s really no wonder, then, that the Victorian age is known for giving birth to any number of spine-tingling horror stories – their everyday reality was filled with macabre details.
3. Halloween Costumes
While we may take great pride in donning the most absurd or ghoulish costumes now more than ever, the Victorians arguably had this tradition down pat, just through the sheer creepiness of their masks. One didn’t have to be wealthy to look scary for Halloween at the time, and come October 31st, children would be seen running around, donning horrifyingly realistic masks of pigs or dead animals over their faces. The gaping “Os” in the cheaply made plastic disguises somehow looked more realistic than any number of Freddy Kreuger or Jason getups we see nowadays – and definitely far more surreal.
4. Safety Coffins
Another peculiar tradition originating from the all-consuming fear of death, the use of safety coffins is decidedly less melancholy or romantic. In the 1800s, people truly feared the specter of being buried alive. Whether this grisly preoccupation had to do with the incredibly high mortality rates, or the fact that one of the era’s most important writers, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a number of short stories about being trapped or buried alive, people were deathly – eye-rolling pun intended – afraid of waking up in a coffin under the ground.
A safety coffin is essentially an odd contraption allowing for a person to get some air and signal to people above ground, usually by using a bell. Someone would hear the signal in the graveyard, and would then rush to save the person who had been accidentally buried. That way, the person who had been erroneously buried alive would not be suffocated underground and could be saved. Hence the popularity of phrases like “saved by the bell,” or “dead ringers.”
However, just how often people were mistaken for dead in the Victorian Age is not clear, and whether these coffins truly came in handy a great deal is kind of up for grabs.
5. Bloody Mirrors
Mirrors have a history of creeping people out. Maybe it has its origins in Greek mythology, when Narcissus stared at his reflection for on and on, much to his doom. Or vampire stories; the idea that a truly nefarious demon or creature does not have a reflection like flesh and blood humans.
But perhaps no other group in history were more suspicious of the power held by mirrors than the Victorians. If a member of the family died in a home, the women would rush to cover all the mirrors with dark cloth. This was done for several reasons. One is that they believed if they walked past the mirror and saw the deceased looking back at them, it meant that he or she would die next.
Another, perhaps more spiritual reason is that they believed the soul would forever remain trapped inside the mirror, never able to find peace.
In addition to this odd extension of the Victorians’ rather rigorous mourning rituals, mirrors also served as the inspiration for dozens of odd games during their time. Most kids have played “Bloody Mary” at least once in their lives, quietly staring at the mirror in the dark, whispering the name like an incantation, determined that the tortured spirit of the demonic Bloody Mary would appear. This is in part due to the influence of the Victorians, who apparently were the first to dream up the spooky urban legend.
The popularity of ghost stories and all kinds of freaky customs in the Victorian Age is usually traced to the rapid pace of change at the time. Suddenly, people were moving into massive houses that squeaked in the night, with hidden areas for their servants to live. The hushed sounds of factories in the nighttime awoke new fears of “things” rushing about, seeking to destroy the living. Great advances were made in science, but still, not quite enough. So much was still left unexplained, and as a response to a society moving along so quickly, the Victorians dreamed up their own peculiar coping mechanisms.