A Halloween Anime Worth Its Salt
Moderate spoilers for the beginning Black Butler’s first season.
While easily dismissible as an edgy or pandering manga adaptation at first glance, Black Butler is surprisingly polished and well-realized. The show’s most striking feature is perhaps its atmosphere. Upon a sturdy Victorian gothic foundation, Black Butler builds upwards to great heights of conspiratory urban fantasy with embellishments of black comedy, Western witchcraft, German horror, and more. Although some of these macabre elements are more derivative than they are inventive, the show manages to piece together its own unique brand of horror. It’s a show I have to recommend for Halloween.
As that opening description suggests, Black Butler plays off the horrific elements of much of Western art and history—a fitting catalog for a story set in London. The first episode of the series takes the grim (and often redacted) moments of classic fairytales and pre-Renaissance folklore and sets them in the Phantomhive Manor. A haunted house, essentially. A hive for phantoms.
The disrespectful and conniving visitor to the Phantomhive Manor plays a board game with the young master Ciel, and suffers the penalties of the game in real life. This “playing for your life” trope dates back to Greco-Roman mythology, though takes on its iconic form of “chess with the Devil” once Christianity spreads through Europe. This is a classic staple of horror, and the inspiration for stories as diverse as Saw to The Seventh Seal. Given Ciel’s demonic butler and corrupted soul, this is a fitting allusion.
The connections to the more horrific elements of Western culture don’t end there, however. After fleeing from specters and ghastly visions, Ciel’s treacherous visitor finds himself hiding in an oven, and is then cooked alive (in a vision, anyway). The Hansel and Gretel reference cannot be missed here. Black Butler begins tapping into a diverse set of horror building blocks right from Episode 1. This tonal development is the groundwork for where the series progresses later.
There are endless other allusions to point out—everything from character names to distorted renditions of nursery rhymes—but those are better experienced via the show than my writing. Instead, it’s worth exploring the historic parallels between one arc and the Jack the Ripper serial murders.
The infamous case begins the same way in the show as it did in reality. Prostitutes are murdered and disemboweled throughout the East End of London, beginning in Whitechapel. Scotland Yard takes up the case, but can only collect useless clues about the killer’s potential background in medicine/surgery. The show even goes so far as to replicate the victims’ names and the killer’s modus operandi.
Ciel and Sebastien ultimately solve the case via Sebastien’s otherworldly powers, which is where the show takes its first dive into thematic horror. Earlier episodes represent traditional moral themes through horrific or occult punishment (Episode 1’s ghastly retribution, for example), but don’t quite push for revelations through horror like is common in classic horror movies. A film like Nosferatu actualizes a perceived threat to womanly or cultural purity through the existence of Count Orlok (among other thematic explorations). This practice of personifying fear has persisted up through today—last year’s The Witch is a prototypical exploration of witch hunt hysteria that again seeks to pin our abstract paranoia or unexplainable fears on something we can see (and fight against).
The real Jack the Ripper was supposedly never identified, leading some to call Jack’s murders perfectly executed crimes. Perhaps inhumanly perfect. The likelihood Jack’s crime being “perfect” or untraceable aside, his (?) actions gained infamy as human bloodlust satisfied through inhuman means. Contemporary logic and science could not “explain” how these murders occurred without an identifiable perpetrator, and thus our mental image of Jack becomes something abstract and unexplainable—much like the crop failures, sudden illnesses, etc. that inspired witch hunts. There is also the question of why a human would be motivated to commit such gruesome acts, which likewise dodges our natural reasoning.
Black Butler confronts these fears and mysteries in the same way classic horror always has: by establishing a tangible foe. The human will behind Jack the Ripper turns out to be Madam Red, and her inhuman execution of crime is thanks to none other than Grell the grim reaper. Sebastien and Grell, the inhuman components of this horror, immediately engage in combat, but Madam Red and Ciel actually experience a moment of unrestrained humanity before the former’s death. The emotional impact of Madam Red’s backstory establishes a methodology to her selection of victims and means of murder, in contrast to the real Jack’s apparent insanity. Both the human and inhuman sides of Jack the Ripper are made into something understandable, as well as something our protagonists can fight.
Though, sometimes horror isn’t content to simply explaining the unexplainable. Sometimes horror likes to construct an internal logic or a structure of rules and order for its more horrific elements. There’s a risk of ruining the beautiful simplicity of horror this way (the Insidious series comes to mind), but also a promise of payoff when executed well. Because Black Butler has a more grandiose vision in mind for its story, it takes the time to develop some storyworld order.
The introduction of William T. Spears as an administrator of grim reapers quickly establishes said storyworld order. Spears puts an end to the fight between Sebastien and Grell (as well as Grell’s killings), claiming the Jack the Ripper murders Grell facilitated were in fact outside grim reaper jurisdiction. These historic, senseless serial murders are confirmed to be outside the storyworld’s own order as well. I find that this places extra emphasis on the tragedy of Madam Red’s backstory, and further humanizes her madness/anger. Even to an association of grim reapers, these killings were not meant to be.
Black Butler is not top-class in any capacity except perhaps a certain variety of fanservice, but it does move with vision and purpose. From its enchantingly gothic atmosphere to its dramatic occultism, the show is wholly engaging. The show knows what it wants to be, and that identity can be quite horrific at times. Though not spooky enough to inspire true fear, it certainly forces us to confront a type of thrilling discomfort.