The Weird Science of Bloodborne

When it first came out, Bloodborne passed itself off as a Gothic hor­ror game — vam­pire and were­wolf tropes set among Victorian spires and bleak­ly moon­lit cathe­drals. Under the sur­face, though, Bloodborne is square­ly in the Weird Horror tra­di­tion found­ed by HP Lovecraft. The Victorian set­ting is more than just a bait-and-switch. It places the game at a moment in his­to­ry cru­cial to the evo­lu­tion of Weird Horror and of the place of sci­ence in soci­ety. In doing so, it goes to the heart of the world-shattering sci­en­tif­ic rev­e­la­tions that fright­ened and inspired Lovecraft. It explores the early moti­va­tions of the genre and adapts its core ideas to match mod­ern con­cerns.

Bloodborne fol­lows in the nar­ra­tive tra­di­tion of its pre­de­ces­sors, the Souls games,1 plac­ing the play­er in aban­doned envi­ron­ments and telling its story in the objects and marks left by his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. But unlike the Souls games, the char­ac­ters in whose foot­steps we fol­low are not sol­diers and knights. They’re sci­en­tists and the­olo­gians. Instead of king­doms of cas­tles and wilder­ness, we visit lec­ture halls, schools, and church­es. Byrgenwerth College, the School of Mensis, and the Research Hall of the Healing Church are all dec­o­rat­ed in dark-stained wood pan­els, ornate but taste­ful­ly carved (strict­ly speak­ing, Jacobean Gothic — as seen in the St John’s College Old Library). They have shelves of old books and unla­beled bot­tles of mys­te­ri­ous liq­uids. They’re full of spec­i­men con­tain­ers, pick­led organ­isms and body parts. It’s a very con­tem­po­rary con­cep­tion of what Victorian sci­ence looked like, echoed in the work of Victorian Weird sculp­tor Alex CF. The over­all aes­thet­ic places Bloodborne not just in a height­ened Victorian Gothic set­ting, but in a pas­tiche of Victorian insti­tu­tion­al sci­ence — specif­i­cal­ly, Victorian biol­o­gy.

A display of Victorian Weird sculptures by Alex CF.

A dis­play of Victorian Weird sculp­tures by Alex CF.

Though we trav­el through many libraries, we only ever read a few eso­teric and arcane pieces of infor­ma­tion direct­ly: clues like “Three third umbil­i­cal cords” or “Seek pale­blood to tran­scend the hunt.” We can’t sim­ply look to the work of past schol­ars for answers. We have to exper­i­ment on our own and find things out the same way they did: through trial and error. We have to crush umbil­i­cal cords in our fists and inject our­selves with Old Blood like they did. As play­ers, we are sci­en­tists in two respects: as schol­ars stand­ing on the shoul­ders of pio­neer­ing arca­nol­o­gists like Willem and Laurence, and as lore-hunting archae­ol­o­gists, piec­ing togeth­er the story hid­den with­in the game’s eso­teric item descrip­tions and care­ful­ly detailed envi­ron­ments.

At many lev­els, then, Bloodborne goes out of its way to put us in the shoes of Victorian sci­en­tists. That’s no coin­ci­dence. Science in the Victorian era was the locus of a pro­found change in Western cul­ture: the tran­si­tion from a the­o­log­i­cal world­view to an amoral, exis­ten­tial­ist one. The ten­sion in that trans­for­ma­tion, the fear and reac­tionary anger it evoked, were the rich vein that HP Lovecraft mined in found­ing the Weird Horror genre. Addressing that theme at its root allows Bloodborne to con­tex­tu­al­ize and mod­ern­ize the anx­i­eties at the heart of the genre.

Evolution and Victorian Biology

The pop­u­lar story of the his­to­ry of sci­ence imag­ines it as a force of rea­son grad­u­al­ly tear­ing down the super­sti­tious mythol­o­gy of orga­nized reli­gion. But the early cen­turies of mod­ern sci­ence, far from spread­ing athe­ism, brought a new rigor and ortho­doxy to the late-medieval Christian world­view — a process ret­ro­spec­tive­ly known as the Enlightenment. Science, it was under­stood, described the order of the uni­verse cre­at­ed by God for the good of mankind, an order that applied to fam­i­ly and class struc­tures as rigid­ly as the motions of the plan­ets. The social order was per­ceived as unique only in the role of human rea­son: a unique gift given to mankind, which allowed them to choose to embrace or reject God’s all-encompassing plan.

The most impor­tant dis­cov­ery for Lovecraft, for Bloodborne, and arguably for the mod­ern world­view, was evo­lu­tion. Mollusk shells, unearthed in lay­ers of sed­i­men­ta­ry rock assem­bled in a chrono­log­i­cal series, told a story of pro­gres­sive change in life over an unfath­omably long time. They pro­vid­ed the first clue that the earth was far older than the bib­li­cal story held it to be. The dis­cov­ery opened the eyes of sci­ence to the true vast­ness of the uni­verse, and even­tu­al­ly, to the story of evo­lu­tion that under­pins biol­o­gy today. Evolutionary biol­o­gy empow­ered humans to under­stand ecol­o­gy, arti­fi­cial selec­tion, and inher­it­ed dis­eases, and opened the door to genet­ic manip­u­la­tion of human beings: inten­tion­al evo­lu­tion.

The cit­i­zens of Yharnam, Bloodborne’s met­ro­pol­i­tan set­ting, in turn unearthed the mollusk-like “Phantasms” from pro­gres­sive­ly deep­er lay­ers of the Pthumerian labyrinth. Through them, they learned that they could ascend their brains to think on a high­er plane, to com­mune with the Cosmos. But most impor­tant­ly, they learned of their place in a spec­trum of beings much more diverse in appear­ance and power than they had ever imag­ined. And they learned it was pos­si­ble to trans­form them­selves to explore those new forms.


The medieval world con­ceived of biol­o­gy in a spir­i­tu­al hier­ar­chy known as the Great Chain of Being. God sat at the top, with angels, men, mam­mals, birds, inver­te­brates, and then plants beneath them. Each rank was designed to serve those above it on the chain. The scale of the Chain has infi­nite gra­da­tions — texts rank Seraphim above Archangels, dogs above cats, gran­ite above lime­stone — so of course it accom­mo­dat­ed every shade of social hier­ar­chy, from class to gen­der, and espe­cial­ly race. Humans sit in a unique place on the Chain: “‘half-angel and half beast,’ […] pulled in two direc­tions, by rea­son and pas­sion.” (Toulmin & Goodfield. 1965. The Discovery of Time, 123) Within the vari­ety of human cul­tures, races, and class­es can be found a range of ten­den­cies towards ascen­sion and beast­li­ness.

Vicar Amelia, a beast-transformed member of the Healing Church hierarchy.

Vicar Amelia, a beast-transformed mem­ber of the Healing Church hier­ar­chy.

The the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion under­mined the Chain in two ways. It removed the neces­si­ty of design, and there­fore the unshak­able import of rank­ing and ser­vice. But more impor­tant­ly, it dis­solved the illu­sion that our posi­tion on the Chain was immutable. Hence Lovecraft’s eugeni­cist abhor­rence of mis­ce­gena­tion: once evo­lu­tion sug­gest­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty that humans might “regress” towards apes, might become beasts again, mixed race mar­riage posed a threat to the essence of human­i­ty appar­ent­ly legit­i­mat­ed by sci­ence (despite the lack of actu­al evi­dence of such degen­er­a­tion).

At the time of its con­cep­tion, peo­ple rec­og­nized the weight evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry brought to bear against the Enlightenment Christian world­view:

If cur­rent in soci­ety,’ [Adam] Sedgwick [an influ­en­tial early geol­o­gist and one of Darwin’s teach­ers] declared, such beliefs could lead to ‘noth­ing but ruin and con­fu­sion… It will under­mine the whole moral and social fab­ric, and inevitably will bring dis­cord and dead­ly mis­chief in its train.’ To his great sor­row, he found sim­i­lar defects in Darwin’s argu­ment, which also destroyed the ‘essen­tial link’ between the moral and mate­r­i­al worlds:
‘You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mis­take your mean­ing, you have done your best in one or two preg­nant cases to break it. Were it pos­si­ble (which, thank God, it is not) to break it, human­i­ty, in my mind, would suf­fer dam­age that might bru­tal­ize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degra­da­tion than any into which it has fall­en since its writ­ten records tell us of its his­to­ry.’
(Toulmin & Goodfield, 224225.)

Sedgwick’s moral link was quite firm under the Enlightenment Christian world­view. Science described a ratio­nal order cre­at­ed by God and main­tained by His active influ­ence for the ben­e­fit of ratio­nal men. But this anthro­pocen­trism, and the pri­ma­cy it gave to human rea­son, were the­o­log­i­cal premis­es. Both were inex­orably erod­ed by the accu­mu­la­tion of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence. Freud’s uncon­scious mind revealed the forces coun­ter­vail­ing rea­son in indi­vid­ual decision-making. Materialist the­o­ries of his­to­ry showed that fac­tors beyond debates in pub­lic forums or the will of kings shaped the course of his­to­ry. And the dis­cov­ery of the true age of the Earth and the uni­verse dwarfed the works of men with their scale. All these real­iza­tions under­mined a sys­tem with strict rules, designed inti­mate­ly to match the best inter­ests of ratio­nal and moral men, point­ing instead to an arbi­trary, sto­chas­tic world gov­erned by vast, moral­ly neu­tral process­es. As Lovecraft’s def­i­n­i­tion of “Weird Fiction” illus­trates, the eldritch gods of his Cthulhu mythos can be under­stood as avatars of these forces, man­i­fes­ta­tions of the hor­ror elicit­ed by the over­throw of an all-encompassing ratio­nal monothe­ism:

A cer­tain atmos­phere of breath­less and unex­plain­able dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seri­ous­ness and por­ten­tous­ness becom­ing its sub­ject, of that most ter­ri­ble con­cep­tion of the human brain–a malign and par­tic­u­lar sus­pen­sion or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safe­guard against the assaults of chaos and the dae­mons of unplumbed space.
(H.P. Lovecraft. 1927. “Supernatural Horror in Literature”)

In the real world, the dis­cov­ery of the earth’s age, the accu­mu­la­tion of incom­pre­hen­si­bly large, ancient, self-driven sys­tems gov­ern­ing human lives, and the real­iza­tion of humanity’s shared lin­eage with the rest of life on Earth were in part respon­si­ble for a tran­si­tion from default Christian pre­em­i­nence to an increas­ing­ly sec­u­lar cul­ture. Conspicuously, the oppo­site occurs in Bloodborne. Scholars and archae­ol­o­gists, implic­it­ly sec­u­lar to begin with, dis­cov­er and engage with a pan­theon of pow­er­ful beings and begin to wor­ship them, seek­ing enlight­en­ment and ascen­sion. Superficially, the logic of this inver­sion is straight­for­ward: for us, by answer­ing ques­tions that before had only been answered by folk­tales and reli­gious texts, sci­ence removed the hand of a benev­o­lent God from the daily func­tion of the world. In Bloodborne, on the other hand, real and tan­gi­ble deities, with arcane motives, were found where no process had been sus­pect­ed before.

By plac­ing reli­gion after the down­fall of sec­u­lar acad­e­mia, Bloodborne revers­es our nar­ra­tive of his­tor­i­cal progress. But it retains the sense that that progress has unmoored soci­ety from a tra­di­tion­al moral­i­ty. The foun­da­tion of the Healing Church by Byrgenwerth schol­ars marks the vic­to­ry of reli­gious zeal over sci­en­tif­ic objec­tiv­i­ty, but the Church brings none of the social val­ues of the Christian church it is mod­eled after. In fact, the Healing Church is quite the oppo­site, because Bloodborne’s reli­gion emerged after the sev­er­ance of the moral and phys­i­cal real­i­ties. While in a sense, Bloodborne’s Great Ones are treat­ed as Gods, they are not con­ceived of as moral points of ref­er­ence. They exist at high­er rungs on the Chain of being, but the Chain no longer car­ries spir­i­tu­al con­no­ta­tions.

Science is a Beast

It is a premise of Lovecraftian hor­ror that humans are insignif­i­cant, specks in the cos­mos with mar­gin­al power to sway the forces that con­trol our lives. Modern envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence has dis­proven that insignif­i­cance rel­a­tive to the plan­et, if not the cos­mos. Scientific knowl­edge has con­quered our fear of the vast nat­ur­al forces that deter­mine our fates by empow­er­ing us to deter­mine their futures. We have erad­i­cat­ed small­pox, expo­nen­tial­ly increased food pro­duc­tion, irre­versibly altered the cli­mate, and notice­ably reduced the species diver­si­ty of our world. The knowl­edge that deeply weird things exist in the world, that humans are relat­ed to other organ­isms, that our lives are parts of ancient and abstract forces — all these things are mun­dane, even beau­ti­ful, to con­tem­po­rary audi­ences. Institutional sci­ence, on the other hand, no longer retains the priv­i­leged objec­tiv­i­ty Victorian sci­en­tists ascribed to it. Contemporary Weird Horror must, to avoid anachro­nism if not to remain relat­able, take account of these changes.

Through its role in atroc­i­ties like colo­nial­ism, ‘sci­en­tif­ic’ racism, nuclear weapons, and envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion, sci­ence has gone from reveal­ing hor­ri­fy­ing truths about the uni­verse to per­pe­trat­ing them. Bloodborne first links this explic­it­ly to its Victorian set­ting, ref­er­enc­ing breach­es of med­ical ethics close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with that peri­od in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. Victorian doc­tors infect­ed chil­dren and pris­on­ers with dis­eases like syphilis, gon­or­rhea, and the plague to study their effects. Similarly, in Old Yharnam, the Healing Church infect­ed peo­ple with ashen blood dis­ease, then burned the neigh­bor­hood as the plague spread out of con­trol. Undeterred, the Church exposed cit­i­zens to taint­ed blood under the guise of a panacea cure — the name­sake min­is­tra­tion of the Healing Church — in order to study its effects.

The story in the Old Hunters DLC is a good illus­tra­tion of the way the Healing Church prized per­son­al enlight­en­ment at the expense of moral behav­ior. The sce­nario is a direct homage to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”: an ocean-side vil­lage ded­i­cates itself to serv­ing an ocean god, and peo­ple trans­form into fish­men (this com­par­i­son comes from YouTuber Jerks Sans Frontieres). In the end of Lovecraft’s story, the US Navy destroys the deep-sea home of the Deep Ones and near­ly erad­i­cates them — their fail­ure to achieve com­plete extinc­tion is a ter­ri­fy­ing twist end­ing. In Old Hunters, the same events play out but with a total­ly dif­fer­ent spin. The author­i­ties dis­cov­er the fish­peo­ple and raid their vil­lage, dis­sect­ing peo­ple and mur­der­ing a Great One. And in doing so, they incur a curse. The pre­sen­ta­tion feels colo­nial­ist — indige­nous peo­ple with an eso­teric local reli­gion are abused by sol­diers of a greedy regime inter­est­ed in tak­ing their knowl­edge and power by force, with­out cred­it­ing their achieve­ments or con­tri­bu­tions.

A Giant Fishman in the Old Hunters DLC.

A Giant Fishman in the Old Hunters DLC.

There is a link in Bloodborne, though per­haps a more ten­u­ous one, to indus­tri­al pol­lu­tion as well (this story was dis­cov­ered and elab­o­rat­ed by YouTuber Redgrave). Quicksilver, or mer­cury, is a cru­cial bio­ma­te­r­i­al in the game, pow­er­ing both guns and eldritch spells. It is a blood con­t­a­m­i­nant, one that seems uni­ver­sal and has an unex­plained link to other cat­e­gories of defiled blood. The pol­lu­tion of bod­ies with mer­cury may be a ref­er­ence to two of Japan’s Four Big Pollution Diseases, rep­re­sent­ing some of the land­mark indus­tri­al pol­lu­tion sto­ries in Japanese his­to­ry. People in the city of Minamata, many of whom worked at a chem­i­cal fac­to­ry and ate a diet rich in shell­fish, fell ill with a neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­der called Minamata dis­ease. It was later dis­cov­ered that methylmer­cury dis­charged from the chem­i­cal plant had been rou­tine­ly dis­charged into the ocean, where it bioac­cu­mu­lat­ed in fish and shell­fish and poi­soned the peo­ple of Minamata.

In Bloodborne, hor­ror no longer comes from the break with divine­ly ordained ratio­nal­i­ty and the intru­sion of vast, amoral process­es. Rather, it is how humans react to the power of those process­es, how they manip­u­late those forces and deploy them for good or ill, that over­whelms the audi­ence with its dis­re­gard for human life. It is not the the Great Ones them­selves, but the Healing Church, that is the main threat in Yharnam.

The Ethical Blood Consumer

It might be tempt­ing to con­clude that Bloodborne sim­ply reflects an anti-science per­spec­tive. Jaded after a cen­tu­ry of sci­en­tif­ic com­plic­i­ty in some of the worst moral crimes, Weird Horror now knows that Lovecraft was naive. That the White, ratio­nal­ist, impe­ri­al­ist power struc­ture he iden­ti­fied with was in fact far more fright­en­ing than the things that seemed to threat­en its cen­tral place in his­to­ry. That the real mon­sters in Bloodborne are very clear­ly the peo­ple in power, not the Great Ones they invoke.

But this is FROM Software. The moral of this story is not to demo­nize sci­ence for its mis­takes, nor is it to make a trite point about the respon­si­bil­i­ties that come with power. The game spends as much time devel­op­ing the evils of the Healing Church as it does bring­ing us to iden­ti­fy with their story. Like Willem and Laurence, we find our­selves sud­den­ly immersed in a world full of ter­ri­fy­ing eldritch mon­sters, a world that offers the promise of power and insight along­side the specters of death and suf­fer­ing at unfath­omable scales.

Patches the Spider, who has achieved some sort of enlightenment.

Patches the Spider, who has achieved some sort of enlight­en­ment.

As we fol­low the foot­steps of schol­ars from Byrgenwerth and the Healing Church, we make some infer­ences and learn some trou­bling things. But the game’s tight-lipped nar­ra­tive style leaves us con­stant­ly won­der­ing, des­per­ate­ly look­ing for more con­crete answers. Simon the Harrowed mocks us: “You sense a secret with­in the Nightmare, and can­not bear to leave it be.” And while the game occa­sion­al­ly implies that the play­er is undo­ing dam­age caused by the indis­cre­tions of past schol­ars, it more fre­quent­ly points out that in our curios­i­ty, our lust for objects that will make us more pow­er­ful fight­ers or grant us greater under­stand­ing of the world, we are no dif­fer­ent from the schol­ars who made those mis­takes in the first place. As Simon puts it, it’s “as if the spir­it of Byrgenwerth lives on with­in you!”

Even as we may imag­ine our­selves to be dis­man­tling the evil edi­fices of the Healing Church, we become com­plic­it in the sys­tems of exploita­tion they assem­bled. At the very out­set, we are sym­bol­i­cal­ly and bio­log­i­cal­ly induct­ed into the Church’s blood cult by an infu­sion of taint­ed blood. As we pro­ceed, we use the Church’s hunt­ing equip­ment to kill inno­cent crea­tures— hunter Djura tells us that “the things you hunt, they’re not beasts. They’re peo­ple.” We take blood from “saints” and immerse our­selves in the web of mercy-contaminated blood to sup­ply our killing. The beasts them­selves, aware of our impli­ca­tion in the web of blood and quick­sil­ver, retort, as we kill them: “you’re a beast!” The dis­cov­ery of Minamata dis­ease (even­tu­al­ly) ended methylmer­cury pol­lu­tion in the area, but it did­n’t remove its vic­tims from the lega­cy of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, and it did­n’t end the sys­tem of chem­i­cal pro­duc­tion and pol­lu­tion that sci­ence, not to men­tion every­one else, still relies on. The bru­tal exploita­tion of the Fishing Hamlet enables our own ascen­dance to become a Kin of the Cosmos. Modern med­i­cine is irrev­o­ca­bly linked to uneth­i­cal research, but that does­n’t keep us from rely­ing on its tools or fur­ther­ing its goals.

Bloodborne’s Victorian sci­ence set­ting invokes the dis­cov­er­ies that under­mined the ratio­nal­ist world­view and opened the door for Lovecraft’s eldritch deities. But it paints a com­plex and nuanced pic­ture of our rela­tion­ship with those deities, medi­at­ed by sci­ence and enmeshed in sys­tems of exploita­tion, a pic­ture that rings true as a mod­ern take on sci­ence. It acknowl­edges that we are still specks among potent and ancient forces. It remem­bers the trau­mat­ic mis­steps irrev­o­ca­bly baked into the his­to­ry of our attempts to under­stand those forces. It explores the dev­as­tat­ing suf­fer­ing unleashed by their clum­sy mis­use. It knows that there is hor­ror in all of these things, that they can con­front us unex­pect­ed­ly with their bru­tal­i­ty and blood­i­ness. This is col­lec­tive­ly the purview of Weird Horror now, and the best exam­plars — like Bloodborne, but also Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach tril­o­gy — treat them in their messy inter­ac­tions with a nuance that feels mature, or at least con­tem­po­rary. Because Bloodborne also under­stands that all of these night­mares are part of what we are fac­ing now, and we can­not turn our backs on them. There is no path for­ward with­out that hor­ror. We can do noth­ing but go deep­er, try to learn the past and gain insight from it, and con­tin­ue to do bet­ter — know­ing that we will fail, that pain is inevitable, that we will repeat the mis­takes of the past despite our best inten­tions.



  1. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls I & II []