Ever wondered how cosplaying started? (INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)


November 30, 2023   7 mins

In 1984, the tiny Irish seaside town of Burtonport attracted a swarm of international press attention. The occasion was the opening of a new educational establishment: St Bride’s School for Girls, residing in a former hotel previously home to a New Age commune known locally as “The Screamers”.

At the opening, Burtonport’s mayor cut the ribbon. The community expressed pride. But the school wasn’t for children: it offered adult women — paying guests — the opportunity to roleplay as schoolgirls for a holiday.

The story of this strange establishment isn’t just about ooh-la-la play-acting. The house was home to the “Silver Sisterhood”: a female separatist subculture so reactionary they wore Victorian clothing, rejected electric lighting, and refused to listen to music except on a wind-up gramophone. And yet, its members were in some ways 50 years ahead of their time: forerunners of reality-warping contemporary phenomena such as BDSM, cosplay, computer gaming — and also the weird online Right.

The roots of this sect reach back to mid-century counterculture Oxford — and, still further, into the febrile occult subcultures of nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe. There, a group of eccentric scholars and antiquarians began positing a syncretic “Perennialist” or “Traditionalist” doctrine of eternal, immutable, spiritual truth, evident throughout all traditional cultures – but that had been in decline since the Renaissance. The principal exponent of this outlook was the French writer RenĂ© GuĂ©non (1886-1951), whose The Crisis of the Modern World (1946) sets out his doctrine of modernity as decline.

Where GuĂ©non’s work is relatively apolitical, Traditionalism’s other leading light was the aristocratic Italian writer and one-time Dadaist painter Julius Evola (1898-1974), a pagan monarchist and esoteric race theorist so far to the Right that in 1942 his passport was confiscated by the Italian Fascist party for political extremism.

Traditionalism’s legacy has spread in some strange directions since. Those influenced more by GuĂ©non today include King Charles, for example, and, on the more Evola-flavoured side, Right-wing figures including Trump’s one-time strategist Steve Bannon, and “Putin’s Brain” Aleksandr Dugin.

That legacy also includes the Silver Sisterhood. According to a 2022 BBC interview with one of its founders, who now goes by the name Mary Guillermin, it all began at an Oxford feminist consciousness-raising group in the Seventies, exploring ancient goddess worship. Presumably that was also where Guénon got into the mix; in any case, what emerged was an all-female Perennialist group, keen to put their Goddess-tinged ideas into practice.

This they did this first at Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, where they tried to live as though men and modernity had simply never happened — even coining their own pseudo-ancient dialect, “Rhennish”. This group then found its way to Atlantis House, via a previous social link to the “Screamers”, to pursue spiritual withdrawal from modernity. An American radical women’s magazine recounts the experience of visiting, in early 1984, what sounds like a devout, low-tech pagan feminist sect: “I enjoy praying, wearing skirts among women, living in a structured household with a low technological level, and dissolving somewhat the accumulated patriarchal grime in my brain cells”.

But with money constantly an issue, the group’s commitment to formal hierarchy seemed to offer a more lucrative business opportunity than craft shop and tea room — and thus a disciplinarian retro-roleplay establishment was born: St Bride’s School for Girls. With Guillermin (then calling herself Brighe Dachcolwyn) as headmistress, the prospectus promised a “total experience” of vintage-themed, all-female schoolgirl roleplay. Journalists descended, fascinated by the surreal combination of Victorian dress and lifestyle with discipline so strict as to hint at the fetishistic.

Guests, meanwhile, extolled its immersiveness, with one telling the BBC: “It’s an entire world. It envelops you.” This is the consistent theme in the bizarre history that followed. Guillermin, in her 2022 interview, describes their creation as a key spiritual practice for the early community: a practice she calls “living theatre”.

Along with exploring the mind-altering effects of action roleplay, the group also pursued another emerging form of world-building: text-based adventure gaming. For paradoxically, despite ostensibly rejecting modernity out of hand, the women of Atlantis House also made pioneering contributions to early gaming, developed by the mysterious “Priscilla Langridge”, a founding Silver Sister who often appeared veiled, and refused ever to be photographed by the press. The two most noted of Langridge’s games were “The Secret of St Bride’s”, published 1985, (you can play it online here) and a “Jack the Ripper” game, the first such creation to receive an 18 certificate.

According to some reports, the mysterious Langridge was a Sixties Oxford theology scholar, who played a key role in developing the group’s founding “Aristasian” religious outlook: a blend of Perennialism and Seventies feminism with both esoteric and exoteric components. The esoteric dimension of this worldview was most clearly set out some years later, in The Feminine Universe, where the probably-pseudonymous author “Miss Alice Trent” argues that very earliest instances of Perennial Wisdom were feminine, because “the original Creator is feminine”.

Since then, though, the world has declined from the primordial eternal truth, and expelled the divine feminine principle from mainstream culture. This decline reached its nadir in “the cultural collapse of the 1960s”, which Aristasians call “the Eclipse”. Everything since that time is referred to as “the Pit”: a hellish apotheosis of patriarchy “in which the Masculine Principle has come to dominate the culture absolutely, extirpating femininity even from the heart of woman itself”.

For its original adherents, Aristasianism was a self-contained esoteric outlook, with a practice of “living theatre”, ritual goddess-worship, and technological simplicity. For those who didn’t go home again, the immersiveness could be too much. One woman, “Sophia”, spent nearly a year as a “maid” in the house, where she was frequently beaten; in the end she escaped and later brought criminal charges against Guillermin for assault.

But by then things were already coming apart for the larger experiment. In 1992, not long after “Sophia” departed, so too did the Aristasians. Amid a dispute over property ownership, two of the previous Screamer owners broke into Atlantis House, where they found a dark, musty interior with almost no modern appliances or conveniences — and in a room upstairs, a row of tiny desks and a blackboard, complemented by willow canes leaning against the wall. According to reports at the time, the house was also strewn with antisemitic and sadomasochistic literature, along with correspondence between Guillermin and then-BNP leader, John Tyndall.

Even after this scandal-ridden dissolution of St Bride’s, though, “Aristasia” lived on: as reactionary as ever in its aesthetic, and increasingly BDSM-flavoured in its income streams. In 1993 Guillermin (now calling herself “Miss Partridge”) and Langridge cropped up again in Oxford, this time supporting an anti-metric campaign, hosting “Romantia” retro soirees, and offering discreet corporal punishment experiences. By this point, the more exoteric Aristasian mythology appears to have solidified: a kind of female-separatist high fantasy, with anti-technology retro styling and a side order of BDSM. In this world, Aristasia-in-Telluria is the corrupt, earthly imitation of the real world: Aristasia Pura, a parallel universe, world, existing on a different planet sometimes called “Herthe”. There are no men, and the two sexes are blondes and brunettes, respectively submissive and dominant.

Around the same period, the group founded Wildfire Publishing, which produced female-centric BDSM literature, including a title called The Female Disciplinary Manual, which is much what you’d expect. According to press reports of its 1995 launch, at that point there were several full-immersion Aristasian houses dotted around England, where members lived out the Aristasian reality including its practice of corporal punishment.

Certainly, at least one such establishment existed in 1996, when Channel 4 made a documentary about it. Guillermin, now styling herself “Miss Martindale”, features heavily, teaching lessons and disciplining “girls” for minor infractions. At Wildfire Publishing, meanwhile, fantasy, reality, and Perennialist theology found their most effective delivery mechanism yet: not video games, but fetish literature. The 1996 Children of the Void informs readers: “Morally and culturally, civilisation has ended, just as completely as it would physically have ended if it had been obliterated by atomic bombs.” Meanwhile the narrative mixes expositions of Aristasian feminine essentialism and slightly leaden dialogue with a hefty side-order of spanking porn.

It ought to surprise me that mashing up Right-wing reactionary occultism with Seventies radical feminism should produce mystical cosplay seasoned with BDSM. But somehow it doesn’t. Perhaps the extremism scholar Jeffrey Kaplan is right about the “cultic milieu”: that what matters for fringe ideologies isn’t their place on some imaginary political compass, but how far they are from the mainstream. But more than trying to place Aristasia politically, their enduring interest lies in the dedication they showed to testing just how far you can warp reality through force of play-acting.

“You can call it therapy,” Guillermin said in 2022 of the group’s “living theatre” practice, “or you can call it magic”. Was there really something occult going on? Or were they just kinky weirdos? Guillermin happily acknowledged in 2022 that Jack the Ripper, which despite its 18 certificate focused more on occult and Masonic subplots, was designed for “philosophical education”. And she repeatedly dismissed regular “kink” devotees as “silly monkeys”.

Whatever the original intent, though, the richness of Aristasian experiments in parallel realities collapsed with the ascendancy of the central, technological alternate reality that today structures nearly all of culture: the internet. By the end of the 2000s, Aristasia had largely lost its hold in “Telluria”, becoming an online-only fandom that finally imploded in a dispute over anime. Guillermin now resides in California, where she works as a therapist espousing the same “divine feminine” spirituality as ever.

But perhaps it didn’t fail. For Aristasia’s immersive practices — if not the aesthetic — are now almost as mainstream as the internet. The group was well ahead of the curve in realising the potential of computer gaming for those who dream of other worlds. And multiple reports suggest that Langridge was actually male, implying another type of personal interest in seeking to alter reality through performance.

More generally still, Aristasian “living theatre” anticipated cosplay. Internationally popular today, and usually viewed as a fun, it also attracts a minority who, like Guillermin, treat the hobby as a kind of consciousness-altering magic. Meanwhile, the notion that one can alter the world by “LARPing” — acting as if your version is already true — has become a crucial political concept in a world that appears increasingly unreal.

Meanwhile, Wildfire Publishing and the broader Aristasian fixation on power, hierarchy and corporal punishment has now become so normalised today that some even claim it’s reasonable to ditch a partner for not being kinky enough. And like cosplay, BDSM also attracts a minority who view it as something altogether more mind-altering.

So Aristasia succeeded beyond measure, in propagating previously mystical practices into mainstream culture. But it failed, just as signally, to have any effect on post-Sixties culture, except in pioneering the virtualisation of reactionary politics. For while the group’s actual links to the Right are ambiguous, the Aristasian route from efforts to do Traditionalism “IRL”, all the way to purely virtual fandom, reflects a broader contemporary tendency among the weird Right. Here, even as the liquefaction of “traditional” social forms seems ever more complete, nostalgic visions of bygone ages flourish: visions that, however, never seem to make it out of the digital realm.

What, then, is the lesson of Aristasia — whether for reactionaries, or anyone else? It is surely an ambivalent one: that the easiest dimension in which to create your own reality is the internet. But this comes at the price of being ever less able to realise your vision in real life. For that, you still need charismatic leadership, quasi-religious doctrine, real-world community, and a willingness to look silly in the eyes of the world. For those who embrace this more difficult path, though, the story of Aristasia offers a backhanded kind of hope: that if you roleplay hard enough, then even in apparent failure you end up shaping the future.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

moveincircles