Yharnam beckons far and wide; its mystique, architecture and promises draw people in. Despite the noted distaste for outsiders exhibited by the city’s inhabitants, a great number of its significant historical figures come from outside its walls. You enter the city as another outsider drawn in by tales of Yharnam’s miracle blessing, driven to ease a mysterious ailment. How and when you arrived, where you arrived from, the state of the city, and even the nature of reality in and around the city are unclear. Taking the miracle blood of Yharnam into your veins, you awaken again, left to wander to your death at the hands of a mob taken to the streets brandishing torches and pitchforks. The Yharnamites howl in despair, throw accusations and, while themselves taken by some bestial transformation, declare you a “beast”.
The nature of beasthood in Bloodborne is murky, understanding it is essential to grasping the nature of the game itself. Contradictions abound already within your initial scramble through the militia overrun streets: can these men not see what has become of their own forms? If this is the result of Yharnam’s blood, how is it they’ve come to see outsiders as a vector of this “plague”? The nature of “the hunt” is complicated by questions as well. The inhabitants of the locked up houses laugh and sneer you away, as nobody “would open their door on the night of the hunt”. This is an event people are used to, one that they’ve managed to incorporate into the rhythm of their lives. Seeing you as another “hunter”, some residents go out of their way to convey that they realise everything the hunt does for them, while fearfully imploring you to leave them in peace. Having carved out relative peace within this paranoid routine the Yharnamites are only too happy to huddle inside and will not risk opening their doors to any in the street, least of all an outsider.
It is no coincidence that the huntsman militia rampaging through the streets exhibits such signs of beasthood. Their stated role and justification is the protection of society from beasthood, and in this pursuit, no length is too far. The player character, looking as human as possible is designated a beast by the hunt, while clearly transformed hunters amongst them are not. It seems, in fact, that beasthood in the eyes of the militia is not based solely in the physical but instead has a more fluid definition. As they lay the source of the beast plague on outsiders, they define an ideology that places the blame for the decline of Yharnam’s glory on foreign corrupters. Their power, literally built on the vaunted superiority of their blood, laid low by mingling with the dirty, plague-ridden blood of outsiders.
In this we can see a system of belief popular amongst Victorian society – on which the Victorian horror aesthetic of the game is based – especially among the academics of cities like London, on which Yharnam is clearly based. In defining themselves as an enlightened class of rationalists, rising Victorian academics supported a great deal of repression; perhaps most famous among them (and certainly well represented in multiple other games written by Miyazaki) are the witch hunts, a brutal period of slaughter and torture justified and motivated by a supplanting of all other belief systems. Folk beliefs had to be stripped of their social power to pave the way for the supremacy of the Enlightenment, to tie people to their new economic organisation and to cast resistance as inhuman terror. Much of Victorian horror revolves around fears of of how inscrutable and chaotic an element the early formations of the modern working class were in the imaginaitons of this new bourgeois intelligentsia. This fear found expression in tales of dark rituals occuring amongst the servants, mysterious meetings of displaced peasants in the night and the beating heart of it all – the duality of man, the beast that lurks in the hearts of us all and the struggle of the enlightened man to control it.
This metaphorical structure justified much to this new ruling class. Man was a beast, yes, but man could also resist his base passions and elevate himself through these institutions of rational thought. Within this framing any that would stand in the way of this “betterment” could be defined as clinging to their bestial natures at the expense of not only themselves but society. Thus a granular scale of beasthood is created with rational men at the top, beasts at the bottom and society at large in between ever perched on the percipice of beasthood, kept truly human by their “betters”. In this metaphor a class formed the intellectual foundations of its power: they rule because they are able to control the beast; others are ruled because they cannot be trusted to do the same. From this, alongside a need to suppress collective organisation of the lower class against the power of this new proto-capitalist elite, arose a body of scientific thought aimed at delineating different kinds of human, some inherently more bestial than others, a system of categorisation based on defining arbitraty “racial traits” aimed at defining their own race as superior. In doing so they were not only ensuring “rational thought” be enshrined as inherent to themselves, but convincing a white lower class to assist them in the suppression of the rest, their alleged biological destiny. Thus the subjugation of not only the working class but of all other races was justified, defining an ideology that has motivated unspeakable brutality after brutality and lives on to this day.
The public executions in Yharnam’s streets, the almost religious use of fire by the hunters, and the tales of covert hunters qualified by the state to quietly discern and excise sources of “beasthood” evoke the image of the witch-hunts. As argued by Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch, the spectre of witchcraft was mobilized by the Church and the ruling classes in late medieval Europe to demonize and undermine the relative power and prestige that women wielded in many agrarian rural communities, assault their growing autonomy in the cities, and collectively punish them for their prominence in heretical movements and peasant rebellions. Fundamental to imposing the new and heightened conditions of capitalist exploitation on the populace these tactics allowed the definition resistance as irrational, motivated by barbarous hysteria, closer to the actions of beasts than of civilised society. Certainly the Healing Church of Bloodborne has its own sort of gendered hierarchy – it has created a group of “blood saints”, women whose sole role is to produce blood for their purposes, and elevates them as paragons of purity and femininity; expropriating the concept of the knowledgeable community leading “wise women” while simultaneously waging a war against the “corrupt servants of a vain vileblood queen”, a neighbouring monarch engaging in blood ministration practices literally stolen from the Healing Church.
Yharnamites are consumed by xenophobia, obsessed with the idea that outsiders to their society corrupted their pure blood and must be purged. Civilian militias root out all signs of this “beasthood”, while themselves morphing into the brutal beasts they imagine they are hunting. The hunt stripped now of its organisers, its heroic figureheads and its heraldry can be seen for what it is, a violent mob in which men give up their humanity. The more brutality this ideology justifies in the name of rationality and civilization, the more brutal and bestial its adherents become. The Healing Church, the great nexus of rationalism and organised religious power, was once able to conduct its violent suppression with an air of feigned dignity and even heroism. Organising the quiet slaughter of outsider elements through the use of a private army cloaked in glory and heraldry alongside a covert policing force, they were able to not only distance themselves from their ideology’s actions but to present that violent reality as an expression of their commitment to humanity. Before the days of Cleric Beasts and bestial mobs The Healing Church and its agents were able to maintain human forms, their violence invisible to the world juxtaposed as it was against what it claimed to stand against. Now, amongst the wreckage of Yharnam’s final days, the powers that be have fled into their enclaves. The true violence of their lackeys, now unfettered from its guiding organisation and uncloaked by their justifications finds expression in elongated limbs, mottled fur and snarling teeth. The Beast breaches the surface of the skin as the illusions of power come crashing down around the city.
Behind their walls, however, the true wielders of power in Yharnam are said to transform into the most ferocious beasts of all, their capacity for violence far exceeding the scope of militiamen with pitchforks. The grand holy institution of the Healing Church is uncovered, layer by layer, as a brutal order of human experimentation and slaughter. The Church’s officials, often compared to doctors and medical researchers, toil endlessly to elevate themselves to a state higher than human, under the guise of religious charity. In discovering the “Old Blood”, the new ruling class of Yharnam has found a true source of power – harvested, like so many of the architectural and cultural elements of Yharnam, from the remains of an ancient civilization. The order of this class is built on a convenient belief system imposed from on high, built on stolen relics and iconography, the landscape littered with statues alike those found in the tombs of an older world. It is maintained by organised violence and an ideology of “beasthood” that allows it to define what is and is not considered violence.
The first trace of the Church’s history of domination the player encounters is the burnt ruins of Old Yharnam, put to the torch as a “necessary step” towards containing the plague of beasts. Both historical evidence in the form of item descriptions, and the eyewitness testimony of the retired hunter Djura make it clear that this act of “cleansing” was carried out to quell a threat to the ruling order, as well as to cover up the gruesome results of its own experimentation on the populace cloaking an outbreak of their own making in the imagery of their own heroism.
Djura impresses upon the player that the “beasts” of Old Yharnam are people that he intends to protect. Moreover, in the glimpse of the glory days of the hunt granted in the hunter’s nightmare the player sees well equipped hunters slaughtering droves of cowering beasts that look identical to the ones in Old Yharnam. In other words the victims of the church’s experimentation turn into much more meek beasts, keen to defend themselves but not much else, whereas the hunters become hulking, ravenous wolf creatures, and the clerics of the Church become gigantic unstoppable entities embodying destruction. In creating an ideology defining man and beast, alongside their desperation to rise above the scale entirely they both create the plague of beasts and come to embody the violence they mark as inherent to their lessers. If the violent beast at the heart of man is a metaphor finding expression in reality through this plague, then the most violent become the most bestial of all. The contradiction between their own self-image and their means of preserving it fuels the Healing Church’s decline and its desires, growing ever more bestial in their desperation to escape beasthood which they see as inherent to human existence.
The Threaded Cane, said to be a mainstay tool of the old hunters, demonstrates this elegantly. It is a symbol of class and status, a dignified fashion statement that transforms into a bladed whip literally revealing hidden teeth. The hunters who made use of these weapons were said to dress in high class garb, seeing it as the true means to distinguish and protect oneself from the beast: beasthood didn’t stem from violence but, as they had always said, from succumbing to one’s lower nature, a vice of the lower class. Donning these supposed trappings of humanity, these figures would go out and literally whip beasts as a ritual display of their superiority, slamming the cane down authoritatively to reassert its elegant symbolic form and the composed silhouette it exists to present. The image of a well garbed man enforcing and convincing himself of his own superiority via a whip cloaked by aesthetic principles is an evocative image, and its relevance to real world colonial history does not seem accidental. But as the glorious days of Ludwig’s holy knights came to an end – as the nature of their actions could not be hidden from their own forms – so too does this tradition fall, crumbling with the city and its myriad facades.
It is notable that the cane is the weapon of choice for members of The Choir (the ruling body of the Church) that are present in the game. This image of the beast hidden and built into the very system of class that claims to seek its eradication, it is present throughout the dealings and iconography of the scholar-priests of Yharnam. One of the very first eye-catching vistas of the game is a mob crowded around a burning and crucified beast, a display of both the violent culture of the hunt but a good look at the platonic idea of beasthood. Closer inspection of this figure reveals that the arm of the crucifix has broken off in such a way as to position the corpse in a pointing down and to the side akin to a clock-face, an exact inverse of the arms raised into an L shape pose of the Make Contact gesture said to enable communion with the gods. The visual implication is that this beast is the total opposite of scholars who operate so far from it, but as both appear to mimic the face of a clock they can be said to turn inexorably into eachother, one always becoming the other. The “metamorphosis” runes state that they represent evolution and can be found in both clockwise and anti-clockwise forms, sharing the same descriptions; if the player character is left performing the Make Contact gesture for long enough they will turn their hands in the manner of a clock and indeed when passing through the nightmare to witness the original sin of the Healing Church the player must literally pass through the face of a clocktower. Viewed from the right facing the Make Contact gesture shows a clock’s hands turning backwards; taken alongside the Church’s coveting the “old blood” of an old society Yharnam is built atop, “communion” can be seen as a desire to assert superiority via return to a historical glory based on the selective pillaging of the past; the anti-clockwise rune bearing a resemblance to a swastika further instills this image.
The Church’s foundational sins, in a wonderful inversion of Lovecraftian and Victorian horror’s basis in fear of the lower classes and foreigners, are the violent suppression and expropriation of the knowledge and bodies of lower class communities. The Hunter’s Nightmare’s glimpse into the past shows us a fishing hamlet, ravaged by the Healing Church’s father organisation Byrgenwerth. The trailer for the Old Hunter’s DLC shows us Gehrman, the founder of the Hunter’s Workshop, a man known to have served as a bodyguard and looter for the scholars of Byrgenwerth, stepping menacingly into the hamlet, . Here, far from eradicating a sinister peasant cult out to tear down rational society, the church has executed an unprovoked assault on a community that has come into contact with something more than human, amd has claimed it through violence. The Church even subtly acknowledges this debt in its iconography at the heart of its Grand Cathedral: as one climbs the stairs up to its main halls, they are flanked by strange mutated statues raising spears resembling those of the fishers of the hamlet. Passing into the anointed halls of the Healing Church then requires literally positioning oneself above these beasts who brushed with greatness.
Identifying the existence of things greater than human is the beginning of a frenzied search for a means to contact them and a dream of becoming like them. In pursuing an escape from the supposed inherent beasthood of human existence, the ruling structure of the Choir build a regime of bloody arcane ritual and human experimentation. Essentially transforming their society into a slaughterhouse for body parts to be used in ritual. Harvesting bodies both dead and living on which to test their theories of evolution, echoing the way the brutal suppression of the burgeoning working class and the witch hunts provided ample material for bodily study through mutilation and torture. This class has fashioned itself into cannibals in the name of rising above beasthood. In seeking to keep this inconvenient aesthetic truth from coming to light, big shows are made of disposing of remnants of an old order. The monarchy of Cainhurst, dubbed “Vilebloods”, holders of a stolen strain of the church’s “miracle blood”, are demonized and hunted down with gratuitous brutality. These are performative measures, designed to locate the crimes of ruling class cannibalism in the manors of the nobility and not the bourgeois academics that form the Choir. After all, their rationalism is said to have saved the populace from such barbarism.
However, another internal struggle at the highest levels of power arises within Yharnam. Following a disastrous success at contacting a higher power, an entire wing of Byrgenwerth is cut off from reality and trapped inside of a dream, the scholars within literally becoming beings of mercury cursed to aimlessly haunt the lecture halls. The School of Mensis learns from this event and forms their own organisation, throwing aside the relatively cautious experimentation of the Healing Church in favour of rallying together a rival organisation to the Choir that dispenses with its pretexts and dignified outward trappings. With crude, almost comical instruments of “contact,” fashioned as cages around one’s head pointing upwards into the sky, the school secretly brings together a vast contingent of followers. The player finds their withered corpses around the city, alone and in groups, having succeeded at contacting a Great One and leaving their bodies behind forever. Simultaneously calling into being the final nail in Yharnam’s coffin, as the beast plague runs rampant through the city, the corpses chained inside their coffins or left to rot in prison carts burst free fusing into hideous amalgamations; the prostrating and pleading statues multiply as though they have entrapped a populace within threatening to consume the streets entirely. Even the residents of the old world Yharnam is built atop arise and take to the steets. As the hidden realities of Yharnam take on a life of their own the haunting chorus of the secret Yharnam finds purchase in the hearts of the entire populace. As Yharnam entirely collapses into the thrall of this wave of populist violence literal manifestations of the fear and hatred permeating every aspect of reality emerge and/or become visible (as you can detect them in advance if you gain enough insight on the nature of Yharnam to perceive them), grasping onto buildings across the city, identified as Amygdalas, a name they share with the portion of the brain dealing with emotions, notably fear. Yharnam, uncovered by the rituals of Mensis, can now be seen for what it is, a city fully overtaken by its own xenophobia, its reactionary ideology of power given life amongst an unchained and violent populace, desperate to root out all of its perceived sources of the woe that they themselves sustain.
Removed from the literal aesthetics of the game environment, Bloodborne depicts a society built on colonial theft, using a broad spectrum of violence and complex justifications of that violence to create and maintain a system of hierarchical power. It depicts an ideology akin to scientific racism taking on a life of its own far beyond the scope of being merely a justification, into the foundation of a rabid militia force and a semi-related populist ideological construction. Deployed to establish and reestablish the power and ascendance of a ruling class, used to bludgeon a society in chaos with an outpouring of incomprehensible violence that literally pulls the city into multiple other planes of frenzied nightmare versions of reality. It depicts a system run by people so obsessed with their own inherent superiority and so overtaken by their own contradictions that they try to become gods. In Laurence and Gehrman and the respective organisations they fathered, The Chuch and The Hunters, we see two men whose desires and crimes spiraled out of control far beyond their designs and even their comprehension. In their pursuit of ascendance not only do they warp the world around them, but their own existences: one becoming a nightmarish beast burning forever in a nightmare of his own creation, the other a servant of a bloodthirsty power beyond his control tied inextricably to The Hunt.
Ultimately, after tearing a bloody path through this old order, the player who doesn’t attempt to follow in the footsteps of The Choir in their quest for ascendance is forced to choose between either fighting and replacing Gehrman as the patron of the bloodthirsty power he serves (“The nameless moon presence beckoned by Laurence and his associates. Paleblood.”) or to accept an execution of sorts, freeing them from the cycle of rebirth and servitude within the dream that endlessly sustains them. Submitting to Gehrman results in the player’s death awakening this time nolonger inside the dream but in what is suggested to be the real world. However, given only the briefest glimpse of what appears to be just another new morning in Yharnam; what The Hunter sees upon awakening from their nightmare is unknown. Perhaps though as the stories of Bloodborne are told through inference we as players can picture The Hunter’s experience, awakening as we do from our immersion in the lurid dreamscape of Bloodborne’s world projected into our own. A new day dawns, and as both the hunter and ourselves gaze up at the sky we’ve awakened to, can we be sure anything else has truly changed?