© 2016-2019 by Cait Peterson

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London's dead


Despite having lived in the UK for eight years, I still can't really deal with the lack of sunlight this time of year. It seems like all of the sudden, our short summer is over, and the days are rapidly shortening.

Perhaps this is why I'm drawn to Halloween, because it makes something darkly dramatic out of an otherwise depressing time. This season marks the end of nature's growth period, and the start of death and decay. It's easy to see why many different cultures have a celebration of the harvest, as well as a reflection on death and our departed ancestors. The realm of the dead seems closer to that of the living this time of year. I like the idea of Día de Muertos, where the dead return to celebrate with the living, a theme echoed in many other traditions where ancestors are worshipped.

It seems odd then that Western traditions reflect more on fear of the supernatural than its potential benefits to the living. It may be the Christian conception of the afterlife, or the linear conception of time that cast such negativity over the idea of dwelling on death, and the possibility of the dead returning.

I recently read a fantastic book called Necropolis: London and its dead by Catharine Arnold. Arnold explores the layers of history that make up London, how millennia of living and dying has built the geography of the city. The Victorians probably helped to shape our current attitudes and traditions of death more than any other time. They had a fixation on death typified by Queen Victoria herself, who stayed in mourning for Prince Albert for forty years. They also did the most to sanitise and commodify death, creating a whole process in which death was made to resemble life as much as possible. According to Arnold, the Victorians distinguished between a 'good' death and a 'bad' death. A 'good' death came at the end of a virtuous Christian life, with the promise of heaven to follow. Death occurred peacefully at home, surrounded by family and friends. The transition from peaceful sleep into eternal sleep was eased by Victorian customs. The 'good' death left no room for 'corporeal decay' (pp.182-183).

Part of the sanitisation and commodification of death in Victorian times included the construction of the 'Magnificent Seven' London cemeteries. Due to overcrowding in inner London parish churchyards, these suburban cemeteries were developed in the 1830's and 40's. They are all within a six-mile radius of the city, the first being Kensal Green, followed by Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets. This idea was suggested by an inventor and landscape gardener, John Claudius Loudon, in a letter to the Morning Advertiser (p. 124). Loudon advocated having these new cemeteries double as public botanic gardens. Certainly for me, London's cemeteries seem more like a peaceful retreat than a macabre graveyard.

Kensal Rise Cemetery, photographed on my first visit in 2007

I've always had a fascination with these cemeteries. Perhaps it is the fact that they show more about the Victorian conception of death than a connection with the physical reality of death. One of the first things I did when I arrived in London was visit Kensal Rise cemetery. The juxtaposition of the grand monuments with the overgrown foliage and the gasworks makes for a uniquely London landscape. Many of the cemeteries fell into disrepair in the 1970's, and this is apparent in some areas where there are still damaged monuments and overgrowth. The only cemeteries I had seen before then were immaculately cut lawns with rows of evenly spaced, modest headstones. This layered, chaotic, indulgent, morbid cemetery was unendingly fascinating for me. There is such a mix of influences like the city itself; the language of Victorian decoration was blended with older pre-Christian traditions and now sitting alongside the monuments a variety of different cultures and religions.

One of my favourite books is another masterpiece of the Victorian era, Bram Stoker's Dracula. The story is told in an innovative way, unfolding in a series of journal entries, letters, newspaper articles and transcribed voice recordings, compiled by Mina Harker. Mina and her group of friends are unravelling the mystery of what Dracula really is, and then embark on a mission to stop him. In a lot of ways, it's a fairly straight-forward adventure story of good vs. evil. However, when you realise the origins of the story lie in what was essentially Stoker's own sexual anxiety, you see how modern audiences have easily latched on to the idea of vampires as being metaphorical for a whole host of fears around sexuality, foreigners, disease and addiction.

Two of a series of illustrations for Dracula done during my illustration course

Halloween now seems to be an orgy of fear and phobias, and Hollywood keeps upping the ante on what can thrill and frighten. Most of the tropes of horror films go back to literature, and stem from relatively mundane fears about mortality, disease, sex, etc. It's interesting how horror can be dissected and pathologised, the fears of each generation relating to their specific phobias. I enjoy most when these ideas are subverted, and the old-fashioned stereotypes are turned on their head.

I recently went to see Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak. The plot itself is deliberately predictable, serving up all the signposts of your typical Gothic Victorian horror story. However, the female protagonist is hardly a damsel in distress, and her discovery of her sexuality isn't her downfall. The ghosts are probably the most frightening part of the story, but they ultimately want to help the protagonist, and the actions of the living are what really frighten. Even the actions of the antagonists are understandable in some way. They are wracked by guilt at what they have become, but they can't stop themselves, they keep digging themselves deeper. The message seems to be that what we're all really afraid of is our own appetites and emotions, and what could happen if we couldn't control them.

I grew up watching the X-Files, and I have probably seen every episode at least five times. One of my favourite episodes is the incredibly silly 'Hollywood A.D.' where Mulder and Scully find a 'Lazarus bowl' that apparently contains a proto-recording of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and have to deal with Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni (then Duchovny's real-life wife) playing them in a Hollywood film. At the end of the episode, Mulder muses about the undead and why they always seem to want to hurt the living. Scully says 'ghosts and zombies are just projections of our own repressed cannibalistic and sexual fears and designs, They are who we fear that we are at heart, Just mindless automatons who can only kill and eat,' to which Mulder replies, 'Well, I got a new theory, I say that when zombies try to eat people, that's just the first stage. You see, they've just come back from being dead, so they're gonna do all the things they missed from whey they were alive. So first, they're gonna eat. Then, they're gonna drink. Then, they're gonna dance and make love.'

Just off the top of my head, I can think of a few films where dancing is the raison d'être for the undead: there's the ending of Beetlejuice, and my favourite scene in Jim Jarmusch's vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. If ghosts do exist, I think the majority of them would choose to spend the afterlife enjoying themselves rather than haunting the living. It seems appropriate that I spent Halloween night dancing at the Rivoli Ballroom, where all the features of the original 1950's dance hall are still intact. One can imagine the ghosts of many a South Londoner happily spending their time in the same place they enjoyed their youth, surrounded by oblivious living revellers.

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