Eigen League of Monsters Part 6: Creatures, Frankenstein’s
Part of my ONGOING SERIES about just what distinguishes the classic monsters in my WORLD FAMOUS Monster Hierarchy from each other. The first part was about the Vampire, and it’s also got my thoughts about what an “Eigen League” is and why I think it’s meritorious to discuss this subject. Long story short: in a group of monsters like the kind on the hierarchy, my theory is that they sufficiently fulfill a necessary number of roles in the human consciousness with regards to horror.
This one is about Creatures in the subcategory of “Made by Dr. Frankenstein.”
As I’m sure basically everyone knows by now, the Creature in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein — the one that’s Boris Karloff lumbering around as just a giant idiot who tries to be nice but then keeps smashing things — is essentially nothing like the creature in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Wikipedia tells me that the 1931 movie was based on a 1920 play by Peggy Webling, I didn’t know that. In any case, though, for many years it was that Boris Karloff interpretation (maybe created by Webling, but definitely popularized by Whale) that was the standard notion of the Creature. Huge, lumbering, bone-headed. This is him in Monster Squad:
Hermann Munster was based on this version of the Creature, everything was based on this version. I’m not going to go into the history of film-interpretations of the Creature, because I’m not really an expert in them, but I’m willing to bet that it’s not really until Robert De Niro’s portrayal in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) that we start seeing a real committed effort to try to recapture the personality of the Creature from the book.
And what’s interesting about that isn’t just that they’re different, but that they’re wildly, completely different characters. Mary Shelley’s creature was intelligent, spoke with a kind of archaic poetry (it had learned to read and speak from reading Milton’s Paradise Lost). As the story progressed it became a kind of cruel sociopath, consumed with hate for Frankenstein himself, but also patient, calculating. I think this version is much creepier than the giant lughead that Whale introduced us to.
Consequently, we’re going to have to look at at least two different notions of the Creature.
Frankenstein and Rabbi Loewe
There’s often a comparison made between Frankenstein’s Creature and the famous Golem of Prague — a clay man who was brought to life for the purpose of defending the Jewish ghetto in Prague from a bunch of jerks. The golem eventually grew violent and uncontrollable and had to be destroyed. The comparison is obvious because the similarities are obvious — but, interestingly, there are no extant, written accounts of the Golem of Prague that predate Mary Shelley’s publication of Frankenstein. Of course we can say, maybe there was an oral tradition of the Golem prior to that, and there very well might have been — but as it stands, there’s no way to tell if either of these stories influenced each other and, if we assume some kind of influence, which story influenced which.
At the root of this, I think is a kind of sense of the rebellion of technology against us: objects that were created to serve a purpose, or that represent the pinnacle of science or learning (the creation of a golem is purportedly the highest achievement in Kabbalist scholarship — in which the scholar has become so close to God that, like God, he is able to create life from dust), and then those things become rebellious or otherwise uncontrollable.
From that perspective, there’s a lot of neat connections to Frankenstein-based-Creatures that might not have otherwise come up: if we cross out the “manufactured from dead bodies” part and the “fear of a huge dude” (a valid fear, but one that applies to a lot of things outside of the Creature category) part, then we start to get things like: HAL 9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The car from Christine. If you think about it, what more closely resembles the Creature narrative? If John Cusak builds a car from spare parts, and uses it to beat Johnny in the big car race — or if, I dunno, Gary Oldman or someone restores an old car (not assembled from parts of other cars) and then it tries to kill him? In fact, the death of the golem in the story of the Golem of Prague is something kind of sad — the golem, like HAL, isn’t evil, or even malicious; it’s just dangerous because it’s imperfectly made.
The assembled-in-pieces part of the story is actually kind of incidental; it’s gruesome, a cool detail thrown in there that resonates with I think just a natural human fear of things that are disgusting, like rot and death (I suspect its hardwired just to make sure we don’t get hungry and try to eat that stuff). It’s a kind of technophobia — a fear of the limits (and limitlessness) of technology, of the dangers of man’s reach exceeding his grasp.
Supplantation and the Malign Tangible Intelligence
Closer to the story in the book, I think, is something that’s maybe less about technology and more about a very, very deeply-coded fear: the fear of children.
We’ve got a mythic precedent going back for this one; every god was replaced by the son that murdered him. People were always getting prophecies that their children (Oedipus) or their grandchildren (Theseus) would one day murder them, and so babies were always getting left on mountainsides or thrown into pits or whatever.
And modern horror fiction has given us no shortage of evil kids, has it? The Bad Seed, The Good Son, I think you could even make a case for The Omen. The nature of the evil is immaterial, I suspect; the heart of it is that sickening realization that the child that you’ve created is a sociopath.
I can relate to that fear, anyway, I’m definitely afraid of having kids because what IF I start raising a sociopath? The only sensible thing to do would be to kill it, but I think Jeanine would probably not be very happy with me on that score.
There’s a lot in Shelley’s book that I think supports this idea, as closer to the heart of the horror than the idea of technology running away from us (although that’s there, too — listening to Frankenstein glibly natter on about how he’s penetrating the natural world and looting bones and meat from charnel hosues to make his monster is…pretty disturbing). But the book is also preoccupied with families and familial relationships; the Creature almost becomes well-adjusted when, after being cast out by its maker, it meets that blind man in the woods who isn’t afraid — but eventually the family discovers it, and when the Creature is greeted with horror, it becomes horrifying.
And the story then becomes about Frankenstein being hunted by the child that he, essentially, raised badly — chickens coming home to roost, et cetera. There’s an interesting fact about the book that always stuck with me, how Frankenstein at first sees the Creature as being something beautiful, but then gradually becomes disgusted and horrified by it. I’ve never had kids, but I can imagine the fear a parent might have, that the sense of love and affection you’ve got for your child might wear off, that what’s beautiful to you today might become one day hideous and malign.
The key element of malignity is that there is something out there that is thinking, cunning, and wants to hurt you — that’s playing on the same Theory of Mind fear that the Intangible Malign Intelligence plays on. And while a regular Tangible Malign Intelligence is legitimately frightening no matter the conditions, the fact of its intimacy — that it is YOUR CHILD, and in some sense made from your own heart, in some sense a part of and therefore inside you — in my opinion makes that fear all the stronger.
The entire sequence of Frankenstein’s Creature is confused furthermore by Frankenstein himself. He’s so closely associate with his Creature that we sometimes use their names interchangeably but! Once Whale had popularized the notion of the Creature as basically a dumb, giant thug, there developed a certain amount of room for Victor Frankenstein himself to grow as a monster. Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein was a kind of tragic figure, acutely aware of his own failures — both the fact that he went to far in his experiments, and his own weakness at being unable to stomach the sight of his child — but once the tragedy of the story began to shift primarily onto the shoulders of the Creature, Frankenstein himself became the malign intelligence, the ambitious sociopath. And it necessarily followed that, if there were going to be sequels to the movie, Victor Frankenstein can’t be a man filled with sorrow and regret at the monster he’d unleashed on the world — he had to be a mad genius undeterred by his failures, still committed to creating life.
This is where the Victor Frankenstein (played by Peter Cushing) of the Hammer films comes in — the monsters that he makes are almost incidental; the terror of this movie is that there is a man who makes monsters. There’s a level of that mad-scientists/witches fear, of a man controlling invisible forces, but also what makes some of Hammer’s Frankenstein movies worth watching is what I would call a perfectly reasonable “Fear of Peter Cushing,” who just looks like a man that would be definitely fine with cutting out your eyeballs and putting them in an orangutan.
He wouldn’t even be excited or happy about it, you know? It’s just another Tuesday at the office for Peter Cushing, vivisecting some poor sucker that wandered into the basement.
In conclusion: the Frankenstein-based-Creatures are probably the messiest of the modern monsters, and I think that’s pretty interestingly indicative. The fact that there’s this division means that there’s a question we’re still struggling with, as a society, about moral responsibility. Are children responsible for being evil? Are the parents that made them responsible? You can look at many of these Frankenstein movies as being sort of thought-experiments that posit one way or the other. Mary Shelley saw a struggle between the two; Victor was responsible, but so, in a way, was the creature. The 1994 Frankenstein suggests that it’s the creature who became malicious, but that he did so because of his environment, while the 1931 Frankenstein shows a monster who was less malicious than it was simply dangerous and that due to its nature and damaged brain, and the later Hammer films cast the Creature as an unwitting victim of a deranged and unrepentant parent.
Well, I think it’s interesting.
Well, you want to get a good spread on this one, so I will suggest:
They both have problems, but they’re both worth watching to see how wildly-divergent to interpretations of the same story can be. And let’s also throw
Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
in there, too. But really, one of the great things about the Creature is how adaptable it is — now that we’ve accepted this really open notion of the relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature, there are endless weird variations on the subject that are worth investigating. I would say watch them all, but most are pretty silly, so.