A Black Cat in a Masonic Temple
Published in Eyesore Magazine #4
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon earlier this year, I made my way through the empty weekend streets of London’s square mile and through the doors of a nondescript luxury hotel in Bishopsgate. Ushered in by a friendly doorman past aggressively tasteful modern art and statement seating, I took the lift to the second floor and slid behind a heavy wooden door – here, the surroundings transformed completely, distorting into the location of a half-forgotten but still unsettling dream.
This hotel has changed hands several times over the years. When first built in 1884 it was known as the Great Eastern, named as the establishment where the vampire hunter Van Helsing stays during his first visit to London in Bram Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula. Before this, the ground on which the hotel stood was home to the Bethlehem Royal Hospital – also known as Bedlam, the nightmarish repository for London’s mentally ill which encouraged wealthy visitors to pay to come and stare. Now it is the Andaz, a 267-room luxury hotel owned by the multinational American chain Hyatt Hotels Corp, which boasts on its website of a 24/7 health club and daily complimentary canapés provided every day at cocktail hour.
The room I wanted to see was the hotel’s Grade-I listed Masonic temple. Added to the building in 1912, it was left hidden and unused for decades behind a false wall until its discovery on blueprints during a 1990s refurbishment. It is a bewilderingly flamboyant confection of masculine ritual – the huge wooden doors open onto a chequerboard marble floor edged by rows of mahogany chairs and thrones, above which boom the inscriptions ‘To God and His Service’ and ‘Avdi Veda Tace’ (Hear, See, Be Silent). A vast gilt ceiling piece is decorated to look like the night sky, punctuated by the twelve signs of the zodiac along with a large eight-pointed blazing star (a Masonic symbol intended to illuminate the quest for truth and knowledge). English gentlemen’s club pieces such as claw-footed bronze candelabras and a golden pipe organ sit alongside neoclassic Grecian features, with Doric and Ionic columns towering over the straight-backed thrones.
A feminist horror film collective called The Final Girls had chosen this setting for a showing of Kuronuko (‘A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove’), a black and white ghost film set in feudal Japan and directed by Kaneto Shindo in 1968. It is a shadowy tale of two onryō – a mother and daughter-in-law (Nobuko Otowa and Kiwako Taichi) who transform into vampiric cat spirits after death to get their revenge on the band of samurai who raped and murdered them. The film is spare and strange, with a twilit setting filled with mist and silk gowns, silvery bamboo trees and porcelain. The two peasant women, once rustically healthy-looking, return after their murders as pale-pallored ladies in aristocratic finery – complete with pointed Kabuki eyebrows and long black ponytails that twitch and wiggle like a cat’s tail.
Even surrounded by horror film-lovers, I felt instinctively unsettled and out of place within the temple. My outfit was more appropriate for a sunny pub garden than a cold hotel entombment, and it was impossible to stop shivering – as if the room itself was rejecting my presence. I don’t believe in ghosts, exactly, but I do believe in the secrets and rituals of patriarchy – and the claustrophobic threat of a cold, windowless room. On-screen, daughter-in-law Shige was being sucked into hell as a punishment for breaking her oath of revenge, stiffening the resolve of the more cut-throat Yone to enact bloody vengeance on every samurai she meets – even her own son. Off-screen, fidgeting with nervous energy on the slippery oxblood leather seat, I couldn’t stop thinking about the generations of men who have visited this space. It felt fitting to be watching such an eerie, unpredictable tale of female retribution here in the temple – the film’s simmeringly muted energy providing a counterpoint to the bombastically unsubtle grandeur of the room itself.
Some crime researchers now believe that Jack the Ripper could have been a wealthy freemason, cutting out his victim’s wombs and posing their eviscerated bodies with reference to the symbolism of Mason mythology – as a local of this area, it is possible that he could have attended this temple itself. And then of course, a couple of hundred years before Jack’s reign of terror, wealthy visitors were paying to come and stare at captive mentally ill inhabitants. I’m not sure if that’s what gives me the shivers about this room – not just the coldness of twelve types of imported Italian marble, but the weight of so many strange ceremonies and rituals that ring across the decades.
From the abuse of hundreds of Bedlam patients to the sterile sparkle of a Hyatt Hotel chain, via the secretive all-male cabal of the Masons and the world’s most famous serial killer – this is a place where the ghosts of London’s history whisper across to one another through space and time. The hotel transcends its own materiality, with porous membranes leaking the past into the future and the present into the past. Sublime in the most menacing sense, the Temple’s expensive splendour made me consider what other secret structures are tucked away out of sight across the city.
Stepping out of the hotel into the sun and heading east towards Whitechapel on foot, my thoughts about the room immediately started to ebb away – though I wonder how many other concealed and forgotten spaces stand silently all around me, watching millions of Londoners pass by across the years. It seems that the ghostly cat-demonesses of Kuroneko are just another tiny, gossamer-thin strand to the Andaz hotel’s history – a feather-light reckoning, with a long braid that waggles like a black cat’s tail.