Frankenstein and the Myth of Modernity

©Copyright 2003 by Dr. Strange. All Rights Reserved

I was thirteen when the great horror movie fascination took hold. Trying to understand fear, I proceeded to scare myself silly with an endless diet of vampires, werewolves, zombies, and all the other monster motifs the early sixties could provide. After a while, the make believe horrors began to pale. But, I can vividly remember one dark late night in front of the TV screen when I found something that really shook me.
It was a scene in the classic Frankenstein. The monster, stumbling around loose, comes on a young girl playing at the edge of a pond. I had of course seen the movie many times, but somehow here was a new scene, one I couldn’t remember having seen before. The monster plays with the girl; they throw flower petals in the water. And then, suddenly, tragically, the monster misunderstands and throws the girl into the water.
My thirteen-year-old self was chilled to the bone. Evil was impersonal, random, and even well intentioned. Nothing felt safe; nothing could be safe, until some sort of balance was re-established. And yet I knew that no balance was possible. I had seen a Truth, and it was not comforting. Innocence was no protection.
In the depression dark days of the 1930s, Universal Studios turned out horror movies like Warner Brothers and MGM did musicals, and for the same reason – they made money by giving their audiences a way to deal with the darkness and despair of a post-apocalyptic world. Musicals, such as the Gold Digger movies with their geometrical extravaganzas of costumes and dancers, offered viewers an escape into a never-never land of sophistication and wealth. Horror movies, such as Dracula and Frankenstein, offered their viewers a different kind of escape. They embraced the darkness, and, captivated by their mythic qualities, audiences responded.
In 1929, “Uncle” Carl Laemmle, one of the founding fathers of Hollywood, made his son Carl Junior the studio’s general manager. Junior, as he was universally called, brought the struggling studio a prestigious hit in 1930 with All Quiet on the Western Front, and sought to follow up this success with what was at the time a tried and true theatrical property, Dracula. From Bram Stoker’s 1888 novel, Dracula had been a hit on the stage, in various versions, almost since its publication. In 1927, a new adaptation made it to Broadway, starring a Hungarian former matinee idol, Bela Lugosi, and Junior Laemmle snapped up the rights.
Originally planned as a reunion for director Tod Browning and silent movie character actor Lon Chaney, Dracula was self-consciously planned in the style of Chaney’s other horror works, such as Phantom of the Opera. Chaney however died suddenly before filming began, and the role of the Count passed by default to Bela Lugosi. As interesting as Chaney’s version would have been, drawing perhaps on the original Nosferatu and the make-up designed by the mysterious Max Shreck, the film version of Dracula is dominated by Lugosi.
And it was a hit, striking a deep nerve of Victorian eroticism and Gothic morality. The Count was a nightmare image from the old world of pre-war decadence and his survival, even to the present in the novels of Anne Rice and others, depends on the key fact of alienation. Count Dracula is a medieval personality turned loose on a suddenly modern world, London in the 1880s, and his response is one of pure predation; his evil that of Elizabeth Bathory, Gilles de Rais and the Marquis de Sade. It is no accident that Stoker’s Dracula and Jack the Ripper are contemporaries.
As a follow-up, Junior Laemmle turned to an odd old book, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, hardly a classic in anybody’s sense of the word, and an even odder director, James Whale. The resulting film, Frankenstein, created a cinematic version of the only valid archetypal personae, the mad scientist and his ambivalent creation, for the myth of the twentieth century. In hindsight, we hear echoes of Oppenhiemer quoting the Rig Veda at the Trinity test, the first atomic explosion, in Frankenstein’s repeated “It’s alive?”
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with its nightmarish monster, its brooding terror of the unknown, and its destruction of the idyll of nature by a dark, ambiguous force, is firmly in the tradition of the Gothic novel of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Shelley’s novel, however, manipulates the conventions of the genre, replacing the stock Gothic villain with morally ambiguous characters who reflect the depth and complexities of the human psyche. Frankenstein is cast as a Promethean figure, striving against human limitations to bring light and its benefits to mankind, but ultimately his obsessive quest destroys his very humanity.
However it is not Frankenstein and his Faustian yearnings that compel the reader’s attention, but the struggles of his creation, the monster. The monster is caught between the state of innocence and the evil of experience: like Adam he is “apparently united by no link to any other being in existence,” but as an outcast and wretch he often considers “Satan as the fitter emblem” of his condition. Fittingly, he reads Milton and struggles with the burden of self-consciousness. This very literate monster is only vaguely modern; at best he is a romantic vision of self-conscious alienation, his nightmarish-ness tempered by his ersatz humanity.
Mary Shelly had her prophetic vision in 1816. A generation later the streets of London, Paris, Berlin, New York and all the other industrial capitals were full of “Frankensteins.” The industrial revolution pulled people off the land and forced them into crowded cities. Like rats in an over-crowded maze, the basic qualities of “human-ness” frayed and dissolved altogether.
This was the “message” of the first serial murderer media superstar, Jack the Ripper. Jack, by dramatising the brutalisation of innocence in the slums of Whitechapel, held a mirror up to the whole Victorian world view. The reflection was not pretty, but it became utterly fascinating as the last century drew to a close. The entire Victorian world of nineteenth century science and smug social complacency faced a fate that made the violence of Jack the Ripper, or even Count Dracula, seem completely insignificant. The Great War, with its mechanised slaughter of innocence on all levels, turned the wasteland into an institution.
The post-war imagination found the idea of re-animating corpses and the soulless destruction of innocence to be contemporary and charged with significance. Hence, the popularity of the classic film Frankenstein. The monster became an icon, an archetypal shadow persona at the core of modern culture.
When Junior Laemmle decided on Frankenstein, he turned to Universal’s new talent, director James Whale. Fresh from his first American hit, the sentimental Great War story of a naïve soldier and a hooker with a heart of gold, Waterloo Station, Whale embraced the challenge. While script and cast difficulties were ironed out, Whale sat down to screen what he considered the classics of the genre, the German Expressionist films – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem, and Metropolis. Whale mastered the idiom, turning an Expressionist sense of light and shadow into a majestic, and very Gothic, view of the power of light to inhabit space.
But the film version of Frankenstein is more than just an updated Golem or Metropolis without the political implications. Whale used the visual vocabulary of the Expressionists to turn Mary Shelly’s romantic fantasy into a grim archetype of post-apocalyptic despair, an almost Elizabethan meditation not on man’s hubris, but on the blind and mechanical nature of God-like forces. A tragedy in three acts that describes humanity’s estrangement from the divine, including our very modern attempt to kill off God altogether, Frankenstein’s moral is not that there are things men aren’t meant to meddle with, but that if we do assume God’s mantle, then we must be prepared to accept His responsibility as well.
This shift in meaning is subtle, but profound in terms of the film’s overall effect. It’s what makes Frankenstein and his monster into archetypes for our modern selves. Frankenstein’s monster looks a lot like modern man, patched together from fragments of the dead past and animated only by electricity, the electronic media. This monster can never find love; its only response to innocence is to smash it. Science’s orphan, the monster searches for a soul and ends up destroying its creator, an aptly prophetic metaphor for science itself.
But it is Frankenstein himself in this version that is the true monster. He creates life from the scraps of the dead, a god-like action, but unlike God, doesn’t love or feel compassion toward his creation. In the most significant scene in the film, the monster wordlessly strives upward, even though bound and shackled, toward the flood of light pouring through an opening in the ceiling. As the monster’s anguish rises, Frankenstein enacts the hubris of the Demiurge, and shuts out the light.
Frankenstein, our modern scientific culture, can create life, or the imitation thereof, but he/it cannot allow that to grow to self-consciousness, to actually claim that light. The monster and his bride are the perfect inhabitants of the post-apocalyptic wasteland. They no longer notice or care about its dark soulless-ness, they are comfortable members of the modern collective labour camp’s techno-consumer class.