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Early 19th century physicist, Giovanni Aldini, practiced a dark brand of science: electrocuting corpses in an attempt to raise the dead. His most infamous experiment succeeded in shocking his audience instead, scaring one spectator to death.
They Did The Mash: A Brief History Of “Monster Rally” Pictures
Something peculiar happens -- or more accurately, doesn’t happen -- in 1944’s House of Frankenstein, the first “monster rally” from Universal Studios: at no point in the film do the monsters meet up with one another! Filmed under the working title The Devil’s Brood, the movie’s promotional materials promised the first-ever onscreen team-up of Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man and Dracula. But House of Frankenstein not only skimps on delivering the monstrous goods, it fails to give its monsters a single scene together.
Dracula is played here for the first time by John Carradine theories vary as to why Bela Lugosi didn’t reprise the role, but his disastrous turn in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, where he was largely replaced by a stuntman, couldn’t have helped his relationship with the studio. On top of that, records indicate Lugosi was performing in a touring stage production of Arsenic And Old Lace in Newark when House of Frankenstein began filming, a rotten bit of timing for the unlucky actor. Bruised ego aside, the role would have hardly been worth the plane trip for Lugosi the Count is introduced and dispatched before the 30 minute mark, completely segregating him from the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), neither of whom see any real action until the film’s final 15 minutes. Indeed, the big draws pop in and out of an episodic programmer plot that focuses on a pair of escaped criminals (Boris Karloff and J. Carrol Naish) in search of Dr. Frankenstein’s research materials for their own nefarious means. At a brisk 70 minutes and with its weird “no monster overlap” policy in place, it’s a pretty thin outing, though Universal’s team of journeymen creatives ensure that, aesthetically at least, the film is never a chore to experience.
1945’s House of Dracula repeats the formula as well as the failings, featuring parallel plots in which Dracula and Larry Talbot (Carradine and Chaney once again) seek cures to their respective curses from a well-meaning scientist. Once again, the monsters are kept out of each other’s hair, with Frankenstein’s Monster (Strange) relegated to another cameo at the end, resurrected just long enough for a burning lab to collapse onto him. On the plus side, we get to see a man turn into a vampire onscreen for the first time in a Universal film, sort of the bloodsucker equivalent of the Wolf Man’s famous transformation scenes. The Wolf Man gets a memorable moment as well, transforming inside a jail cell in front of astonished onlookers. But it was clear the monsters were losing their power by now. There was no trace of the hypnotic dream world of Tod Browning’s Dracula none of the expressionist shadows of James Whale’s Frankensteinremained. Crowding them all onto one bill and trotting them out with all the nuance of a carnival sideshow only seemed to dilute the monsters further.
In 1948, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello cracked the formula for a successful monster rally: the monsters could share the screen, interact even, as long as the parade came with a built-in excuse to giggle. Embracing the inherent absurdity, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein turned the horror icons into straight men for the comedic duo, and it worked like gangbusters. In a series of classic scenes, the Universal Monsters (Chaney, Strange and a returning Lugosi) were allowed to keep their dignity, while Abbott and Costello delivered the panicked pratfalls and petrified punchlines. The film, Universal’s second-lowest budget release of 1948, was a huge hit, and it had the odd side effect of sending the two comedians into a tailspin of monster interactions (Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy, Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
Bud and Lou’s onscreen social schedule wasn’t the only casualty: the iconic Universal Monsters were now officially kid stuff, to be either lampooned or avoided going forward. In fact, an argument could be made that just about every iteration of the classic monsters from this point on were, in a way, spun out from Abbott and Costello’s use and abuse of the horror legends.
Hammer Studios ran screaming from the wreckage. Its lusty and busty offerings drastically reinvented the familiar characters one by one, self-consciously zigging where Universal had zagged. The results were enormously successful, but Hammer always kept its monsters out of each other’s respective sandboxes, and not just because Christopher Lee was playing most of them. While the British studio swam against the tide of parody, the rest of pop culture got on board with the silly. The Munsters reimagined the familiar characters as a sitcom family. Mad Monster Party was a Jack Davis Mad Magazine strip brought to stop-motion life. By the 1970s, the monsters had become both literal and metaphorical comfort food, as kids spent their Saturday mornings eating Count Chocula and Frankenberry cereal while watching eitherThe Groovie Ghoulies, a cartoon which turned Drac, Wolfie and Frank into a Monkees-esque pop band or The Monster Squad, a live-action confection which featured the triumvirate as unlikely crime fighters.
In many ways, 1987’s The Monster Squad(no relation to the aforementioned TV show) feels like the final word on the subject. Full of affection for its beleaguered monsters and packed with charm to spare, the film is very much the spiritual successor to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, upgrading that film’s protagonists to a group of foul-mouthed, monster-crazy kids who find themselves reluctant heroes when Dracula and his very Universal-influenced crew of creatures descend upon their small town to kick off nothing less than the Apocalypse. Scares and laughs are had, PG-13 rating limits are pushed, and nards are kicked. Bud and Lou would have likely been pleased.
But is the film truly the final word on monster rallies, or just the apex? From The Evil Dead to Ghostbusters to The Monster Squad, the 1980s seems to be the last decade in which the scary and silly were really encouraged to co-exist. (Possible exception: Charles Band’s all-dwarf monster rally from 1997, The Creeps.) Hollywood keeps trying to reinvent the formula in a climate where genre fans will tolerate no such silliness. But from Van Helsing to Twilight to Being Human, the industry keeps proving that delivering a “serious” monster team-up is no guarantee it will be taken seriously. (That hasn’t deterred Monster Squad producer Rob Cohen from trying -- unsuccessfully, as of this writing -- to get a remake off the ground.) Making these monster mashes fly is a tricky balancing act, and the number of times it’s legitimately worked onscreen can be counted on one hand. Those few instances are special films indeed.
1. Sharon Tate
In a May 1970 issue of Fate magazine, Dick Kleiner published an article describing how Manson Family victim Sharon Tate had a disturbing vision/waking dream a couple years before the gruesome events of August 9, 1969. The article, “Sharon Tate’s Preview of Murder,” goes into great detail about the vision, which can more accurately be described as two visions in one.
In the summer of 1967, while romantically involved with another eventual victim, Jay Sebring, Tate told of spending a night alone in Sebring’s home, which was previously owned by a man who died in it – Hollywood agent Paul Bern. That night, Tate had a “funny feeling” and saw a “small man” bumbling around the bedroom – a man who looked exactly like Paul Bern. Terrified, she fled the room and headed downstairs, only to behold another horror:
“I saw something or someone tied to the staircase. Whoever it was – and I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, but knew somehow that it was either Jay Sebring or me – he or she was cut open at the throat.”
Double terrified, Tate proceeded directly to the liquor cabinet, like any normal human, and had a drink to calm herself down. She nervously ripped some wallpaper off the bottom of the liquor cabinet. Then she returned back upstairs, walked past the mortally wounded figure and the strange little man, flopped into bed, and somehow fell asleep for real. The next morning, when Sebring returned and Tate told him of her dream, the two dismissed it all with a chuckle. Then they went into the room with the liquor cabinet. The cabinet was open, and there were scraps of wallpaper scattered about the floor.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
Aside from reanimation, Winterson’s inventive novel also concerns itself with the notion of reincarnation. In 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Shelley suffer the company of Lord Byron, Doctor Polidari, and her stepsister Claire in a damp villa, as Mary experiences the first vision that inspires her immortal story. In 2019, Doctor Ry Shelley, a trans man, encounters sleazy entrepreneur Ron Lord and his sexbot Claire, pushy journalist Polly D—and the alluring, seemingly ageless scientist Victor Stein, obsessed with eternal life of the mind, released from the shackles of the body. Amid ethical arguments about cryogenics and robots as simultaneously job-stealers and sex toys, Ry and Victor debate whether the future of humanity is found in changing our bodies or transcending them altogether. Writing in an age of political and global uncertainty, Winterson examines the ways in which history repeats itself, especially in questions of what makes us human and therefore what we must take with us (and what we must leave) into the future.
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Natalie Zutter was going to say she was holding out for a proper Mary Shelley biopic, but now all Hollywood has to do is adapt Frankissstein. Share your favorite Frankenstein retelling with her on Twitter!
Frankenstein Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-8
On a chill night of November, Victor finally brings his creation to life. Upon the opening of the creature's "dull yellow eye," Victor feels violently ill, as though he has witnessed a great catastrophe. Though he had selected the creature's parts because he considered them beautiful, the finished man is hideous: he has thin black lips, inhuman eyes, and a sallow skin through which one can see the pulsing work of his muscles, arteries, and veins.
The beauty of Frankenstein's dream disappears, and the reality with which he is confronted fills him with horror and disgust. He rushes from the room and returns to his bedchamber. He cannot sleep, plagued as he is by a dream in which he embraces and kisses Elizabeth, only to have her turn to his mother's corpse in his arms.
He awakens late at night to find the creature at his bedside, gazing at him with a fond smile. Though the monster endeavors to speak to him, he leaps out of bed and rushes off into the night. He frantically paces the courtyard for the remainder of the night, and determines to take a restless walk the moment that morning comes.
While walking in town, Frankenstein sees his dear friend Henry Clerval alight from a carriage overjoyed, he immediately forgets his own misfortunes. Clerval's father has at last permitted him to study at Ingolstadt the two old friends shall therefore be permanently reunited. Henry tells Victor that his family is wracked with worry since they hear from him so rarely. He exclaims over Frankenstein's unhealthy appearance Victor, however, refuses to discuss the details of his project.
Victor searches his rooms to make certain that the monster is indeed gone. The next morning, Henry finds him consumed with a hysterical fever. Victor remains bedridden for several months, under the assiduous care of Henry, who determines to conceal the magnitude of Victor's illness from his family. Once Victor can talk coherently, Henry requests that he write a letter, in his own handwriting, to his family at Geneva. There is a letter from Elizabeth that awaits his attention.
In this chapter, Victor's scientific obsession appears to be a kind of dream -- one that ends with the creature's birth. He awakens at the same moment that the creature awakens: the moment the creature's eyes open, Frankenstein's own eyes are opened to the horror of his project. He is wracked by a sickness of both mind and body this reflects the unnatural character of his endeavor, in which he attempted to take the place of god.
The narrator's sentences become abbreviated, abrupt, indicating his nervous, paranoid state. It is significant that Victor dreams of his mother and Elizabeth: as women, they are both "naturally" capable of creation (through giving birth). With their deaths, the natural creation and earthly virtue they represent dies as well. Victor's kiss is the kiss of death, and his marriage to Elizabeth is represented as being equivalent to both a marriage to his mother and a marriage with death itself.
At the moment of his birth, the creature is entirely benevolent: he affectionately reaches out to Frankenstein, only to have the latter violently abandon him. Despite his frightful appearance, he is as innocent as a newborn child -- and, in a sense, this is precisely what he is. Victor's cruel treatment of the creature stands in stark contrast to both his parents' devotion and Clerval's selfless care: he renounces his child at the moment of its birth. The reader begins to recognize the profoundly unethical character of Frankenstein's experiment and of Frankenstein himself.
Elizabeth's letter expresses concern for Victor's well-being, and gratitude to Henry for his care. She relates local gossip and recent family events. The family's most trusted servant, Justine Moritz, has returned to the family after being forced to care for her estranged mother until the latter's death. Victor's younger brother, Ernest, is now sixteen years old and aspires to join the Foreign Service his other brother, William, has turned five and is doing marvelously well. Elizabeth implores Victor to write, and to visit, as both she and his father miss him terribly. Frankenstein is seized by an attack of conscience and resolves to write to them immediately.
Within a fortnight (two weeks), Victor is able to leave his chamber. Henry, after observing his friend's distaste for his former laboratory, has procured a new apartment for him and removed all of his scientific instruments. Introducing Clerval to Ingolstadt's professors is pure torture, in that they unfailingly exclaim over Victor's scientific prowess. Victor, for his part, cannot bear the praise, and allows Henry to convince him to abandon science for the study of Oriental languages. These -- along with the glorious melancholy of poetry -- provide Frankenstein with a much-needed diversion.
Summer passes, and Victor determines to return to Geneva at the end of autumn. Much to his dismay, his departure is delayed until spring he is, however, passing many marvelous hours in the company of Clerval. They embark on a two-week ramble through the countryside, and Victor reflects that Henry has the ability to call forth "the better feelings of his heart" the two friends ardently love one another.
Slowly, Victor is returning to his old, carefree self. He takes great joy in the natural world, and is able to forget his former misery. The two are in high spirits upon their return to university.
With Elizabeth's letter, we realize how utterly Victor has been cut off from the outside world. His narration of his first two years at Ingolstadt mentions few proper names, and concerns itself not at all with anyone else. The reader realizes how much time has passed, and how much has changed in faraway reader. We learn the names of Victor's brothers, and of the existence of Justine. Elizabeth's relation to Justine is much like Caroline's relation to Elizabeth: she cares for the less fortunate girl and heaps praise upon her, calling her "gentle, clever, and extremely pretty."
Justine's history, however, illustrates two of the novel's darker themes: the inevitability of atoning for one's sins, on the one hand, and the kind of suffering that atonement entails, on the other. Justine's cruel mother could not bear her, and had her sent away after Justine's departure, her cherished children died, one by one, and left her utterly alone. She therefore had to rely upon Justine to care for her on her deathbed. This amply illustrates the code of justice propounded by the novel: one must always pay for one's cruelty, and pay with the thing that one holds most dear.
Victor's abandonment of science and natural philosophy is illustrative of his irrational attempt to deny that the events of the past two years have ever occurred. Victor seems to truly believe that he is impervious to harm: he does not pursue his lost creature, but goes about his life at university with supreme carelessness. He takes up languages and poetry -- two things in which he has never before shown the slightest interest -- and attempts to forget all that has come before. Victor thus displays a highly questionable relationship to reality: unless directly confronted by his mistakes, he refuses to acknowledge that he has made them at all. He is exceedingly weak, as his prolonged illness (which was both mental and physical) makes clear.
Ending the chapter at the height of springtime, Shelley emphasizes Victor's wish to be reborn. The reader, however, already knows that such a wish is entirely in vain.
At Ingolstadt, Victor and Henry receive a letter from Victor's father: William, Victor's youngest brother, has been murdered. While on an evening walk with the family, the boy disappeared he was found dead the following morning. On the day of the murder, Elizabeth had allowed the boy to wear an antique locket bearing Caroline's picture. Upon examining the corpse, Elizabeth finds the locket gone she swoons at the thought that William was murdered for the bauble. She comes to blame herself for his death. Victor's father implores him to come home immediately, saying that his presence will help to soothe the ravaged household. Clerval expresses his deepest sympathies, and helps Victor to order the horses for his journey.
On the way to Geneva, Victor becomes seized by an irrational fear. Certain that further disaster awaits him at home, he lingers for a few days at Lausanne. Summoning all his courage, he sets out again. Victor is moved to tears at the site of his native city, since his estrangement from it has been so prolonged. Despite his joy at being reunited with Geneva, his fear returns. He arrives at night, in the midst of a severe thunderstorm. Suddenly, a flash of lightning illuminates a figure lurking among the skeletal trees its gigantic stature betrays it as Frankenstein's prodigal creature. At the sight of the "demon," Victor becomes absolutely certain that he is William's murder: only a monster could take the life of so angelic a boy.
Victor longs to pursue the creature and warn his family of the danger he represents. He fears that he will be taken for a madman if he tells his fantastic story, however, and thus resolves to keep silent.
At the Frankenstein estate, Victor is greeted with a certain melancholy affection. His brother, Ernest, relates a piece of shocking news: Justine, the family's trusted maidservant, has been accused of William's murder. The missing locket was found on her person on the night of the murder. The family -- particularly Elizabeth -- passionately believes in her innocence, and avers that their suffering will only be magnified if Justine is punished for the crime. They all dread Justine's trial, which is scheduled to take place at eleven o'clock on the same day.
The account of William's death is written in highly disjointed language: the sentences are long, and frequently are interrupted by semicolons, as though each thought is spilling into another. This indicates the magnitude of the distress felt by the narrator's father as he writes. Letters, in general, play a central role in the novel: it begins and ends with a series of letters, and many important details of plot and character are related through them. They enable Shelley (who has, for the most part, committed herself to Victor's first-person narration) to allow the voices of other characters to interrupt and alter Victor's highly subjective account of the novel's events.
Victor's reaction to the letter reveals a great deal about his character. Though he is wracked with grief, his thoughts soon turn to his own anxiety at returning to his home after so long an absence. His self-absorption begins to seem impenetrable to the reader. Victor's uneasiness also foreshadows the moment of horror that greets him at Geneva the reader has come to share his distress, and is thus as horrified as he by what the lightning illuminates.
The lightning storm that greets Victor is a staple of Gothic narrative. It evokes the classical (not to mention clichéd) preamble to any ghost story: "It was a dark and stormy night. " It also reflects the state of imbalance and chaos in which Victor finds his family. Though William's murder is described as taking place on an idyllic day in spring, it is chill and stormy when Victor arrives shortly thereafter.
Upon seeing the creature through Frankenstein's eyes, the reader is inclined to jump to the same conclusion that he does. Victor's hatred of the creature reaches an almost hysterical pitch in this scene, as is indicated by his diction: he refers to his creation as a "deformity," a "wretch," a "filthy demon." The reader, too, immediately wishes to blame the creature even though we have no real grounds for doing so. The reader is thus made subtly complicit with the creature's outcast state.
Victor's decision to keep the monster's existence a secret in order to preserve his reputation reveals him as both selfish and foolhardy. A child has been killed, and a monster brought to life: in a world so severely out of balance, Frankenstein's reputation ought be the furthest thing from his mind.
The trial commences the following morning. Victor is extremely apprehensive as to what the verdict will be: he is tortured by the thought that his "curiosity and lawless devices" will cause not one death, but two. He mournfully reflects that Justine is a girl of exceptional qualities, destined to lead an admirable life because of him, her life will be cruelly foreshortened. Victor briefly considers confessing to the crime, but realizes that, as he was at Ingolstadt on the night of the murder, his confession would be dismissed as the ravings of a madman.
In court, Justine stands calmly before her accusers her solemn face lends her an exquisite beauty. The prosecutor brings forth a number of witnesses, who provide compelling evidence against her: she was out for the whole night on which the murder was committed she was seen near to the spot where the body was found when questioned, she gave a confused and unintelligible answer and she became hysterical at the sight of William's body. The most damning piece of evidence, however, is the fact that William's miniature, which he had been wearing at the time of the murder, was found in the pocket of Justine's dress.
Justine, called to the witness stand, provides another account of the events: with Elizabeth's permission, she had passed the night of the murder at her aunt's house in Chêne. Upon hearing of William's disappearance, she spent several hours searching for him unable to return home, as it had grown too late, she determined to spend the night in a nearby barn. Justine says that if she was near the body, she did not know it her confusion was only a manifestation of her tiredness. She remains unable to explain how the picture came to be on her person she can only assume that the murderer himself placed it there.
Though few witnesses are willing to come forth to aver Justine's innocence, Elizabeth insists on speaking on the girl's behalf. She praises Justine's character, and says that she was beloved by the entire Frankenstein family Elizabeth, for he part, will never believe that Justine is guilty. Despite this brave display of loyalty, Justine is condemned to death. Victor considers Justine's plight to be less than his own she is consoled by the fact of her own blamelessness, while he must live with his guilt.
Shockingly, Justine confesses to the murder, and expresses a wish to see Elizabeth, who asks Victor to accompany her. Justine tells them that she confessed to a lie in order to obtain absolution and avoid excommunication in her last moments. She does not fear death, and nobly spends her last moments in comforting Elizabeth and Victor. This only serves to heighten Victor's anguish, and he reflects that Justine and William are the first victims of his "unhallowed arts."
The minute attention paid to Justine's appearance, history, and speech only serves to heighten the sympathy felt by the reader. Her impassive countenance recalls that of a fragile doll: like a doll, she is a mere plaything, a pawn whose fate is entirely beyond her control. Throughout Chapter 8, the sentences are confused, and semicolons are frequently used to connect disjointed thoughts. In this way, Shelley indicates the magnitude of the chaos that has befallen the Frankenstein household: they have lost all control over both the present and the future, and are even unable to organize their own thoughts.
Though the reader might be tempted to hold Victor responsible for the verdict, this is an overly simplistic view of events. Frankenstein's decision to conceal the truth is terribly misguided Shelley, however, gives us no indication that he does this in order to absolve himself of guilt. "Fangs of remorse" tear at him, and, in his own heart at least, he bears the guilt for both William's murder and Justine's execution. He can share his terrible secret with no one, and is thus utterly isolated, an outcast from human society.
Did a Real-Life Alchemist Inspire Frankenstein?
M ary Shelley is sometimes called the mother of science fiction for concocting the tale of a lab-made man who becomes a monster &mdash but she may have had a real-life alchemist in mind when she created the character of Victor Frankenstein.
Shelley&rsquos Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus was first published anonymously in London on New Year&rsquos day, 1818, when Shelley was just 21. (Her name didn&rsquot appear on the cover until a second edition was printed five years later.)
Critics with a psychoanalytical bent have read Frankenstein&rsquos monster as a metaphorical figure drawn from Shelley&rsquos tragic childhood and scandalous adolescence &mdash for example, as the personification of her guilt over having an indirect hand in the deaths of two people: her own mother, who died in childbirth, and Percy Shelley&rsquos first wife, Harriet, who drowned herself after Shelley left her, pregnant and alone, to embark on a European tour with Mary.
After all, it was during their European travels, while staying in Geneva with the poet Lord Byron, that Mary Shelley dreamed up Frankenstein in response to a ghost-story competition among the literary group. But since she and Percy had recently traveled through mountainous southern Germany, not far from the centuries-old Frankenstein Castle near the town of Darmstadt, some have speculated that she&rsquod probably also heard the rumors of an eccentric inventor there who claimed to have discovered an “elixir of life.”
According to the History Channel documentary Decoding the Past: In Search of the Real Frankenstein, which aired in 2006, both Shelleys were already intrigued by the use of electricity to animate limbs &mdash newly popular in the scientific community &mdash when, on their way through the dark forests of the Rhine Valley, they likely heard tales of the alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel, a controversial figure rumored to have robbed graves and experimented on corpses at Frankenstein Castle.
&ldquoDippel was convinced that he could bring a body back to life by injecting it with a concoction of blood and bone, often made from both mammal and human corpses,&rdquo writes Miranda Seymour in her biography, Mary Shelley. &ldquoIn Mary&rsquos novel, Victor Frankenstein would use animal bones to help manufacture his monstrous creature.&rdquo
While Dippel reportedly claimed to have found a way to live to the age of 135, he himself fell far short of the mark. He died at 61 and became part of a repertoire of local legends, Seymour writes, including &ldquogruesome tales of a cannibal monster who, in times long past, used the grim little castle as his headquarters.&rdquo
Whether or not Mary was influenced by Dippel&rsquos story, the premise for Frankenstein seems to have been lurking in her subconscience. In her 1831 preface to the novel, she attributed her inspiration to a nightmare she had at Geneva, where the company spent their evenings terrifying each other with chilling stories.
When she went to sleep, she writes, &ldquoI saw &mdash with shut eyes, but acute mental vision &mdash I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion&hellip&rdquo
Read a book review of 1979’sThe Endurance of ‘Frankenstein,’ here in the TIME archives: The Man-Made Monster
How Real-Life Science Inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published 200 years ago this year, is often called the first modern work of science fiction. It's also become a fixture of pop culture—so much so that even people who haven't read it know (or think they know) the story: An ambitious young scientist named Victor Frankenstein creates a grotesque but vaguely human creature from the spare parts of corpses, but he loses control of his creation, and chaos ensues. It's a wildly inventive tale, one that flowed from an exceptional young woman's imagination and, at the same time, reflected the anxieties over new ideas and new scientific knowledge that were about to transform the very fabric of life in the 19th century.
The woman we remember as Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (who tragically died shortly after Mary's birth). Hers was a hyper-literate household attuned to the latest scientific quests, and her parents (Godwin soon remarried) hosted many intellectual visitors. One was a scientist and inventor named William Nicholson, who wrote extensively on chemistry and on the scientific method. Another was the polymath Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles.
At just 16 years old, Mary ran off with poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married at the time. A Cambridge graduate, Percy was a keen amateur scientist who studied the properties of gases and the chemical make-up of food. He was especially interested in electricity, even performing an experiment reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin's famous kite test.
The genesis of Frankenstein can be traced back to 1816, when the couple spent the summer at a country house on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. Lord Byron, the famous poet, was in a villa nearby, accompanied by a young doctor friend, John Polidori. The weather was miserable that summer. (We now know the cause: In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, spewing dust and smoke into the air which then circulated around the world, blotting out the Sun for weeks on end, and triggering widespread crop failure 1816 became known as the "year without a summer.")
Mary and her companions—including her infant son, William, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont—were forced to spend their time indoors, huddled around the fireplace, reading and telling stories. As storm after storm raged outside, Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story. A few of them tried today, Mary's story is the one we remember.
THE SCIENCE THAT INSPIRED SHELLEYA lithograph for the 1823 production of the play Presumption or, the Fate of Frankenstein, inspired by Shelley's novel. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Frankenstein is, of course, a work of fiction, but a good deal of real-life science informed Shelley's masterpiece, beginning with the adventure story that frames Victor Frankenstein's tale: that of Captain Walton's voyage to the Arctic. Walton hopes to reach the North Pole (a goal that no one would achieve in real life for almost another century) where he might "discover the wondrous power that attracts the needle"—referring to the then-mysterious force of magnetism. The magnetic compass was a vital tool for navigation, and it was understood that the Earth itself somehow functioned like a magnet however, no one could say how and why compasses worked, and why the magnetic poles differed from the geographical poles.
It's not surprising that Shelley would have incorporated this quest into her story. "The links between electricity and magnetism was a major subject of investigation during Mary's lifetime, and a number of expeditions departed for the North and South Poles in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the planet's magnetic field," writes Nicole Herbots in the 2017 book Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.
Victor recounts to Walton that, as a student at the University of Ingolstadt (which still exists), he was drawn to chemistry, but one of his instructors, the worldly and affable Professor Waldman, encouraged him to leave no branch of science unexplored. Today scientists are highly specialized, but a scientist in Shelley's time might have a broad scope. Waldman advises Victor: "A man would make but a very sorry chemist if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science, and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics."
But the topic that most commands Victor's attention is the nature of life itself: "the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?" It is a problem that science is on the brink of solving, Victor says, "if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries."
In the era that Shelley wrote these words, the subject of what, exactly, differentiates living things from inanimate matter was the focus of impassioned debate. John Abernethy, a professor at London's Royal College of Surgeons, argued for a materialist account of life, while his pupil, William Lawrence, was a proponent of "vitalism," a kind of life force, an "invisible substance, analogous to on the one hand to the soul and on the other to electricity."
Another key thinker, the chemist Sir Humphry Davy, proposed just such a life force, which he imagined as a chemical force similar to heat or electricity. Davy's public lectures at the Royal Institution in London were a popular entertainment, and the young Shelley attended these lectures with her father. Davy remained influential: in October 1816, when she was writing Frankenstein almost daily, Shelley noted in her diary that she was simultaneously reading Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy.
Davy also believed in the power of science to improve the human condition—a power that had only just been tapped. Victor Frankenstein echoes these sentiments: Scientists "have indeed performed miracles," he says. "They penetrate into the recesses of Nature, and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited Powers …"
Victor pledges to probe even further, to discover new knowledge: "I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown Powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of Creation."
FROM EVOLUTION TO ELECTRICITY
Closely related to the problem of life was the question of "spontaneous generation," the (alleged) sudden appearance of life from non-living matter. Erasumus Darwin was a key figure in the study of spontaneous generation. He, like his grandson Charles, wrote about evolution, suggesting that all life descended from a single origin.
Erasmus Darwin is the only real-life scientist to be mentioned by name in the introduction to Shelley's novel. There, she claims that Darwin "preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with a voluntary motion." She adds: "Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth." (Scholars note that "vermicelli" could be a misreading of Vorticellae—microscopic aquatic organisms that Darwin is known to have worked with he wasn't bringing Italian pasta to life.)
Victor pursues his quest for the spark of life with unrelenting zeal. First he "became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body." He eventually succeeds "in discovering the cause of the generation of life nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter."A page from the original draft of Frankenstein. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
To her credit, Shelley does not attempt to explain what the secret is—better to leave it to the reader's imagination—but it is clear that it involves the still-new science of electricity it is this, above all, which entices Victor.
In Shelley's time, scientists were just beginning to learn how to store and make use of electrical energy. In Italy, in 1799, Allesandro Volta had developed the "electric pile," an early kind of battery. A little earlier, in the 1780s, his countryman Luigi Galvani claimed to have discovered a new form of electricity, based on his experiments with animals (hence the term "galvanism" mentioned above). Famously, Galvani was able to make a dead frog's leg twitch by passing an electrical current through it.
And then there's Giovanni Aldini—a nephew of Galvani—who experimented with the body of a hanged criminal, in London, in 1803. (This was long before people routinely donated their bodies to science, so deceased criminals were a prime source of research.) In Shelley's novel, Victor goes one step further, sneaking into cemeteries to experiment on corpses: "… a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life … Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses."
Electrical experimentation wasn't just for the dead in London, electrical "therapies" were all the rage—people with various ailments sought them out, and some were allegedly cured. So the idea that the dead might come back to life through some sort of electrical manipulation struck many people as plausible, or at least worthy of scientific investigation.
One more scientific figure deserves a mention: a now nearly forgotten German physiologist named Johann Wilhelm Ritter. Like Volta and Galvani, Ritter worked with electricity and experimented with batteries he also studied optics and deduced the existence of ultraviolet radiation. Davy followed Ritter's work with interest. But just as Ritter was making a name for himself, something snapped. He grew distant from his friends and family his students left him. In the end he appears to have had a mental breakdown. In The Age of Wonder, author Richard Holmes writes that this now-obscure German may have been the model for the passionate, obsessive Victor Frankenstein.
A CAUTIONARY TALE ABOUT HUMAN NATURE, NOT SCIENCEA Plate from 1922 edition of Frankenstein. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
In time, Victor Frankenstein came to be seen as the quintessential mad scientist, the first example of what would become a common Hollywood trope. Victor is so absorbed by his laboratory travails that he failed to see the repercussions of his work when he realizes what he has unleashed on the world, he is overcome with remorse.
And yet scholars who study Shelley don't interpret this remorse as evidence of Shelley's feelings about science as a whole. As the editors of Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds write, "Frankenstein is unequivocally not an antiscience screed."
We should remember that the creature in Shelley's novel is at first a gentle, amicable being who enjoyed reading Paradise Lost and philosophizing on his place in the cosmos. It is the ill-treatment he receives at the hands of his fellow citizens that changes his disposition. At every turn, they recoil from him in horror he is forced to live the life of an outcast. It is only then, in response to cruelty, that his killing spree begins.
"Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded," the creature laments to his creator, Victor. "I was benevolent and good—misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."
But Victor does not act to ease the creature's suffering. Though he briefly returns to his laboratory to build a female companion for the creature, he soon changes his mind and destroys this second being, fearing that "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth." He vows to hunt and kill his creation, pursuing the creature "until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict."
Victor Frankenstein's failing, one might argue, wasn't his over-zealousness for science, or his desire to "play God." Rather, he falters in failing to empathize with the creature he created. The problem is not in Victor's head but in his heart.
The Gruesome, True Inspiration Behind 'Frankenstein'
On January 17, 1803, George Foster sat in a grim cell of Newgate Prison, in London, awaiting execution. Having been arrested, indicted, and found guilty of murdering his wife and child, gallows had been erected, from which he would hang. January 17th dawned bitterly cold, much like that frigid morning when the bodies of the two Foster women had been found.
Foster had argued his innocence: he had been traveling to visit his other children at the time of the deaths. True, he had wanted out of his marriage, but not by killing his wife and his child. He had been relatively drunk that evening, but that didn't necessarily lead to murder. Those who spoke on his behalf agreed: he was a decent man, good in his soul but otherwise poor. He worked hard to care for his children and wife.
Despite those who spoke on his account, the juries were not convinced: George Foster would hang, and worst still, his body would be anatomized. Dissection had been added to the Murder Act of 1752 to inflict "further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy." So distasteful a procedure, it was believed that the mere notion of it would deter criminals from committing illegal acts.
English laws only allotted a few bodies for dissections, so arguments erupted from the medical schools eager to perform experiments. These ordeals were not pretty: oftentimes the bodies were skinned, eviscerated, and cut to pieces, what remained either burned or disposed of like refuse.
For many who awaited the procedures, the fear was palpable. All over London, stories of people who'd awaken while a dissection was being performed were heard. These people were then taken to the gallows for a renewed hanging, then properly dissected. And for those who believed in an afterlife the implications were even greater. If the dead physically arose from their graves on the Day of Judgment to meet the Lord, then, how was a hanged and dissected man supposed to do that with his remains scattered who-knows-where?
George Foster approached his final hours with trepidation, even though there were those outside his cell who looked toward his death with glee.
The body of George Foster was going to an Italian, Giovanni Aldini, who had approached the college members with a claim almost as big as his ego: if they would find him a perfect corpse, he would bring it back to life.
Though Aldini knew that his proposal seemed farfetched to some, it had not come about without assiduous study and experimentation. Hailing from Bologna, which boasted one of the greatest universities in the world, The University of Bologna, he was the nephew of the doctor and scientist, Luigi Galvani. It was Galvani's experiments into animal electricity that had sparked Aldini's interests in the field.
For more than a decade, Luigi Galvani had studied the properties imbued in dead frogs. He had became aware that when the amphibians' legs were touched by an electrical arc, they twitched, clearly indicating that a vital fluid circulated through all living creatures, running from head to toe, and this could be manipulated with an outside metal apparatus. If this happened, vitality could be restored.
Inevitably, upon Galvani's death Aldini took his uncle's ideas a step further: didn't it stand to reason that sheep, pigs, cows and oxen would react to the electrical arc in the same fashion as frogs? Crowds flocked to his laboratory to watch as animals' heads convulsed from side to side, eyeballs rolled back and forth within their sockets, tongues protruded ghastly, feces dripped from the anuses. The experiments became notorious, fashionable even.
But for a man like Aldini, there was only so much satisfaction in dead animals. Soon he began to stand in the cold shadows of Piazza Maggiore, awaiting a criminal's final date with the executioner. Then, he would lug the body beneath one of Bologna's many peach-colored porticoes to his laboratory, and there fire up his battery. He faced only one issue: Bologna beheaded its criminals, thus, despite his battery, it was impossible to restore life to a body drained of blood and missing its head.
But George Foster was intact. Unlike Italy, England hung its criminals, though the law required the body to dangle for an hour. When the body finally arrived at the Royal College of Surgeons, the officials surrounded it as Aldini attached probes and electrodes to arms and legs, chest and forehead.
Aldini powered the machine and began work on Foster. Right away "the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted and the left eye opened." For those in attendance, the movements on Foster's body must have seemed like an indication of its returning to life. Aldini continued his ministrations, hours passing, at a certain point Foster seeming to inhale sharply. But eventually the battery ran out and the body stilled. Silence reigned for a few minutes until all recognized the outcome of the ordeal: Foster had died at the gallows, and dead he remained.
The experiments on George Foster's body became well-known throughout London. Giovanni Aldini returned to Italy, blaming the battery for his failure. The doctors who had witnessed the experiments disbanded and on their own discussed them with family, friends, and acquaintances.
One member of the party believed to have witnessed George Foster's galvanization was the medic, Anthony Carlisle. For Carlisle, as for others at the time, reanimation was a fashionable topic of conversation in salons and informal get-togethers, particularly those he attended on Sundays at the home of his friend, William Godwin. These Sunday events were often attended by poets, writers, doctors, scientists, and all around natural philosophers, and had become an intellectually stimulating environment in which to discuss subjects of interests to all.
The house was a busy one. Aside from Godwin, there was his wife, the second Mrs. Godwin, Jane Clairmont Godwin's daughter, Mary, born with his deceased wife, Mary Wollstonecraft his adopted daughter, Fanny Imlay and Jane Clairmont's two children, Jane and Charles. Mrs. Godwin ran a strict household, ushering the children upstairs when the Sunday soirées took place, as she fearing the men's conversations would be inappropriate for the youngsters. Not surprisingly, the children often hid behind sofas or sat on steps, listening to the stories the men told.
George Foster's story made the rounds in London and the suburbs in 1803, as it did in every household, and Carlisle must have spoken of what he had been privy to, to friends and those in his circle. He must have described Foster's cheeks and jaw twitching and convulsing he must have told of the arm that had lifted slowly and then slammed back onto the table he certainly must have described the moment when Foster's eye had opened, as if gazing at all that was occurring. The sparks that flew from Aldini's electrical apparatus, the crackling sounds the machine made, Aldini's excitement upon beginning his experiment, and the depletion of it in realizing his failure. Did Carlisle mention the morality or immorality of the acts they were performing and witnessing? The idea of overriding nature in the pursuit of scientific knowledge?
There is no indication that Carlisle, or anyone else, ever asked those questions, nor that Aldini ever thought of the consequences of his actions. But someone else did. Some years later, the little girl that lived in the Godwin's household, Mary, took off where Aldini left off and completed his mission, albeit in fiction. Mary Godwin Shelley's fantastically mad and flawed character, Victor Frankenstein, bears a striking similarity to Giovanni Aldini: both are scientists bent down a path of forbidden knowledge both have a streak of showmanship about them both, they say, begin their ordeals with benign intentions only to be overcome by boastful pride. Both try to restore the dead. One difference separates the two men: in Mary Shelley's account, the dead return, and Victor Frankenstein fatally pays for his actions.
In Frankenstein, the human society that rejected the monstrous-looking creature triggered his killing spree
We learn that the real monster is both of them: Victor for his cruel refusal to make a female companion to assuage his creation's loneliness, and the creature for the trail of death he leaves before heading for his final solitude on the Arctic seas.
Ever since Shelley set the trend, other writers have enthusiastically explored quasi-human creations, all the better to explore what makes us human. One of the latest is Paul Braddon, whose debut novel The Actuality was published last month and has already been optioned for a TV series by BBC Studios.
The Actuality by Paul Braddon explores a future world from the viewpoint of Evie, an advanced "Artificial Autonomous Being" (Credit: Sandstone)
The Actuality is set around 150 years from now, and told from the viewpoint of Evie, one of two surviving, highly advanced Artificial Autonomous Beings (AABs), when such creations have been outlawed due to problems with earlier models. She lives in hiding with her human husband, and initially believes herself to be human: "She'd persisted in denying the truth even when the evidence had begun to stack and stack". (Ironically, a very human trait.) The tension in the story comes both from her own growing discovery of her true nature, and from her pursuit by the authorities and her need to flee or fight to protect her existence.
Braddon tells BBC Culture that he sees parallels between Frankenstein and Evie's story. "Like the monster, she becomes an outcast people fear her because they assume the worst. Like Frankenstein's monster, in theory Evie has the potential to be anything, but is limited by how her maker made her. She has to escape the bonds of her existence."
Why Frankenstein Is Still Relevant, Almost 200 Years After It Was Published
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Can I be totally honest? All I remember about Frankenstein is that Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster. What happens in it?
That’s harder to answer than you would think, because the book is studded with framing details and seemingly extraneous characters, but it goes something like this: Victor Frankenstein is a rich Genevan who shows great promise in scientific research. After his mother’s death, he somehow figures out how to endow dead flesh with life, but the being he makes is nightmarishly ugly, so he abandons it. In the wilderness, it manages to educate itself, becoming an astute thinker but also coming to resent its creator.
Soon enough, the man-made monster begins to take revenge on Frankenstein by lashing out at his loved ones, a process that only accelerates after the scientist fails to meet the creature’s (relatively civil) demands. Before long, almost everyone is dead, everything’s on fire, and Frankenstein and his creature are chasing each other across the Arctic on sleds.
Wait, the Arctic?
OK, fine. I get that this book is important, but why are we talking about it in a series about emerging technology?
Though people still tend to weaponize it as a simple anti-scientific screed, Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, is much richer when we read it as a complex dialogue about our relationship to innovation—both our desire for it and our fear of the changes it brings. Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she began to compose Frankenstein, but she was already grappling with our complex relationship to new forces. Almost two centuries on, the book is just as propulsive and compelling as it was when it was first published. That’s partly because it’s so thick with ambiguity—and so resistant to easy interpretation.
Is it really ambiguous? I mean, when someone calls something frankenfood, they aren’t calling it “ethically ambiguous food.”
It’s a fair point. For decades, Frankenstein has been central to discussions in and about bioethics. Perhaps most notably, it frequently crops up as a reference point in discussions of genetically modified organisms, where the prefix Franken- functions as a sort of convenient shorthand for human attempts to meddle with the natural order. Today, the most prominent flashpoint for those anxieties is probably the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, gene-editing technique. But it’s really oversimplifying to suggest Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about monkeying with life.
As we’ll see throughout this month on Futurography, it’s become a lens for looking at the unintended consequences of things like synthetic biology, animal experimentation, artificial intelligence, and maybe even social networking. Facebook, for example, has arguably taken on a life of its own, as its algorithms seem to influence the course of elections. Mark Zuckerberg, who’s sometimes been known to disavow the power of his own platform, might well be understood as a Frankensteinian figure, amplifying his creation’s monstrosity by neglecting its practical needs.
But this book is almost 200 years old! Surely the actual science in it is bad.
Shelley herself would probably be the first to admit that the science in the novel isn’t all that accurate. Early in the novel, Victor Frankenstein meets with a professor who castigates him for having read the wrong works of “natural philosophy.” Shelley’s protagonist has mostly been studying alchemical tomes and otherwise fantastical works, the sort of things that were recognized as pseudoscience, even by the standards of the day. Near the start of the novel, Frankenstein attends a lecture in which the professor declaims on the promise of modern science. He observes that where the old masters “promised impossibilities and performed nothing,” the new scientists achieve far more in part because they “promise very little they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.”
Is it actually about bad science, though?
Not exactly, but it has been read as a story about bad scientists.
Ultimately, Frankenstein outstrips his own teachers, of course, and pulls off the very feats they derided as mere fantasy. But Shelley never seems to confuse fact and fiction, and, in fact, she largely elides any explanation of how Frankenstein pulls off the miraculous feat of animating dead tissue. We never actually get a scene of the doctor awakening his creature. The novel spends far more dwelling on the broader reverberations of that act, showing how his attempt to create one life destroys countless others. Read in this light, Frankenstein isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t try to accomplish new things, just that we should take care when we do.
This speaks to why the novel has stuck around for so long. It’s not about particular scientific accomplishments but the vagaries of scientific progress in general.
Does that make it into a warning against playing God?
It’s probably a mistake to suggest that the novel is just a critique of those who would usurp the divine mantle. Instead, you can read it as a warning about the ways that technologists fall short of their ambitions, even in their greatest moments of triumph.
Look at what happens in the novel: After bringing his creature to life, Frankenstein effectively abandons it. Later, when it entreats him to grant it the rights it thinks it deserves, he refuses. Only then—after he reneges on his responsibilities—does his creation really go bad. We all know that Frankenstein is the doctor and his creation is the monster, but to some extent it’s the doctor himself who’s made monstrous by his inability to take responsibility for what he’s wrought.
OK, hold up. I’m paging through the book now, and this is how Shelley has Frankenstein describe his creation: “yellow skin,” “watery eyes,” “shriveled complexion,” “straight black lips.” Plus, it’s like 8 feet tall. That sure sounds like a description of a monster.
What matters most there isn’t the creature’s terrifying appearance but how poorly the doctor responds to it. In his essay “The Monster’s Human Nature,” the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argues that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Frankenstein’s goals. Instead, Gould writes, “Victor failed because he followed a predisposition of human nature—visceral disgust at the monster’s appearance—and did not undertake the duty of any creator or parent: to teach his own charge and to educate others in acceptance.”
In other words, Frankenstein stumbles as a science educator, not as a scientist. Some academic critics have taken issue with that reading, arguing that the bad doctor’s faults run far deeper. But it may still be helpful to reckon with the connection between Frankenstein and Adam, a man given stewardship over the creatures of the earth. Shelley’s protagonist is monstrous because he doesn’t take his own similar responsibility seriously. The book’s subtitle—The Modern Prometheus—also contains an important mythological clue: Prometheus brings fire to the mortals and unleashes dire consequences in the process, granting them the ability to burn down the world.
That last association is fitting, since Frankenstein is, to some extent, a story about the unintended consequences of our actions. That angle on the book has helped turn it into a prop for those driven by anti-scientific skepticism, an interpretation of the text that’s been circulating for decades at the least—probably much longer. It’s been especially central to debates around genetic engineering, for example. There and in other contexts, it’s often colloquially cited (“You’re going to create a Frankenstein’s monster!”) to cut off scientific inquiries before they even begin. Indeed, as Romanticism scholar Richard Holmes has suggested, though many describe Frankenstein as the first major work of science fiction, we should also recognize it as “one of the most subversive attacks on modern science ever written.” For all that, Shelley spends far more of her book worrying over inadequate parenting than railing against bad science.