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The Tawdry History of Penny Dreadfuls

This tidbit of pop culture from the 19th century changed the landscape of horror.

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  • A penny dreadful featuring Spring-heeled Jack.Photo Credit: Public domain via Pinterest

In the 1830s, a new form of entertainment emerged: the penny dreadful. Also called penny horrible, penny awful, and penny blood, it got its name from its cheap and sensational nature, costing eager consumers—you guessed it—just a single cent. These easily digestible stories for the masses spawned horror tropes, urban legends, and anti-heroes that we still know and love today. But to understand the far-reaching influence of penny dreadfuls, first we have to take a look at their dark origins.

As recently as the 18th and 19th centuries, public executions were still a spectacle in Britain. Among the crowds that gathered to witness the hanging of criminals, pamphlets were sold by enterprising printers. These broadsides typically featured some reproduction of the crime or the criminal in question, along with a grim warning not to follow in their footsteps.

Not too long after, penny dreadfuls began popping up on newspaper stands—likely inspired by the success of crime and execution broadsides. Each penny dreadful fell between eight and 16 pages, with an attention-grabbing illustration taking up the first half page. The serialized stories were published in weekly installments, not unlike the tales penned by the contemporaneous Charles Dickens—but of a much more sordid nature. Rather than revolving around the lives of the noble poor or haughty aristocrats, penny dreadfuls featured the exploits of criminals, detectives, monsters, and supernatural villains. Gruesome and violent, they may have been considered lowbrow, but they were a huge hit.

Related: Gaslight Murder: 12 Gripping Victorian True Crime Books

Several factors helped spur the popularity of penny dreadfuls as a new form of entertainment. Victorian-era Britain was undergoing social changes that led to rapid industrialization and the introduction of railroads. Mass distribution of literature was possible like never before. With the rise of capitalism, members of the working class were also earning their own money, rather than forking everything over to landowners as they did in feudal times.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

That’s not to say that everything was peachy keen—working conditions were notoriously dismal during the Victorian era, when labor was largely unregulated by law. Taken into account with the fact that literacy rates were also increasing, and it’s no surprise that the lurid escapism of highly affordable penny dreadfuls found an avid readership in the working class.

Mirroring the development of pulp fiction in the U.S., another cheap serial which has been credited with bringing about the sci-fi and mystery genres, British penny dreadfuls influenced the horror genre as we know it today. Some of the stories were undeniably rip offs of the earliest Gothic novels, but others retold well-worn tales in a fresh and exciting way. 

Still others created new stories altogether, such as that of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Modern audiences have become acquainted with the vengeful barber who murders his customers and bakes them into meat pies through the 1979 Stephen Sondheim musical and the 2007 musical slasher film by Tim Burton. However, the character first appeared in the 1846 serial The String of Pearls, and thereafter became a fixture of Victorian urban legend.

Speaking of urban legends, the tale of Spring-heeled Jack also rose to notoriety, partially due to the influence of penny dreadfuls. This diabolical entity was said to resemble a gentleman, but with otherworldly features, such as clawed hands, fiery red eyes, and the ability to leap inhuman distances. 

After numerous citizens reported that they had been terrorized by such a creature on the nighttime streets of London, penny dreadfuls cemented Spring-heeled Jack in the public imagination by publishing tales about him that were marketed as true stories. Various other myths were also given the penny dreadful treatment, with the serial Varney the Vampire introducing the now-canonical aspect of the bloodthirsty creature’s sharpened fangs.

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  • A promotional still for the 2014 horror drama series 'Penny Dreadful'.

    Photo Credit: Showtime

By the 1850s, there were as many as 100 publishers of penny dreadfuls vying for the attention of readers. With their fanciful tales of murder and devilry, people began to heap blame on penny dreadfuls for planting sordid ideas in the minds of the youth and causing systemic societal issues, to the extent that The Guardian has called this form of literature “the Victorian equivalent of video games.”

Related: 14 Horror Books for Fans of Penny Dreadful

Penny dreadfuls were eventually eclipsed by competing literature, such as the serials published by Alfred Harmsworth. Priced even cheaper at half a cent, his publications were creatively called the “halfpenny dreadfuller.” 

Few original penny dreadfuls have survived to this day due to their cheap quality. However, they live on through the horror tropes they inspired—and even through the occasional pointed homage, like the horror drama television series Penny Dreadful. They may have been considered nothing more than a guilty pleasure in their Victorian heyday, but penny dreadfuls influenced generations of readers and writers to come.

Sources: BBC, The Guardian