It’s (Still) Alive!
A haunting tale invented by a culturally well-connected teenage girl went on to become a genre-defining literary classic and a masterpiece of cinematic horror. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein features a rogue scientist and his tragic, nameless creation, the result of his quest to reanimate dead matter and create new life. This map traverses Frankenstein’s unlikely, sometimes forbidding “terror-tory” to trace its origins and connections to more recent works that have rendered the story deathless.
Written by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein was first published anonymously and received mixed reviews. Despite the anonymity, some reviewers of the first edition were aware that Shelley was the author. One particularly harsh review printed in The British Critic in 1818 delivers an outright dismissal of the work for no better reason than the gender of its presumed author: “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”
In a preface to the 1831 edition, Shelley writes that she experienced a kind of vision when she came upon her idea for the scientist who creates life in the form of a horrifying alter ego. Reflecting on the novel at age 34, after her husband, all but one of her children and several other family members and friends died, Shelley calls it her own “hideous progeny,” yet also states that she has “an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days.”
Mary Shelley’s socially progressive and cultivated parents greatly influenced her political and artistic sensibilities. Her father, William Godwin, promoted reform, utilitarianism and anarchism in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), and his work had a profound impact on the poets and writers of the Romantic movement, including Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Godwin family kept company with literary luminaries such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom Mary met when she was a child and whose poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” she cites in Frankenstein. Mary dedicated Frankenstein to her father, having found particular inspiration in his Gothic novel St. Leon (1799).
Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a philosopher and an advocate for women’s rights. Her best-known work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues for equal rights and rational, progressive social and educational reform. Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth to Mary. While Wollstonecraft and Godwin promoted radical political ideals and disdained conventional propriety, and while both opposed monarchy and marriage, Godwin nevertheless disowned Mary after she took up with the married Shelley until the two wed several years later.
Frankenstein’s origins are almost as mythologized as its characters. In summer 1816, Mary Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, and the poet and free-love advocate Percy Bysshe Shelley (Mary’s lover and, later, husband) visited poet Lord Byron at Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Mary and Percy were evading Percy’s wife and the disapproval of Mary’s father. Byron was escaping creditors and scandal, while Claire was pursuing Byron and was pregnant with his daughter. The members of the group, which also included Byron’s physician John Polidori, amused themselves indoors during this unusually cold summer with a ghost story–writing contest. Besides Frankenstein, the other lasting result was Polidori’s tale “The Vampyre,” which encouraged countless writers (including Dracula author Bram Stoker) to conceive their own vampire stories.
Mary recorded the “waking dream” that was her inspiration for Frankenstein:
I saw the pale student of 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…. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
Poets Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and the other members of the Romantic movement in literature and art were steeped in Gothicism, and for many of their contemporary readers, distinctions between the aims and effects of Gothic fiction and Romantic poetry were hazy. Byron’s larger-than-life persona and reputation—probably more than his poetry—inspired the archetypal Gothic “Byronic hero,” as defined by Lady Caroline Lamb’s character Glenarvon in her 1816 novel of the same name. Lamb, Byron’s former lover, characterized him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” (The magnetic Lord Ruthven in John Polidori’s story “The Vampyre” is also based on Byron.)
The members of Byron’s ghost story circle lived with an intensity that in some ways outdid even the high emotional pitch and sweeping landscapes of their work. The drama of their lives—particularly during the summer of 1816—has inspired a number of artists, writers and filmmakers. Ken Russell’s movie Gothic (1986) presents them as uninhibited and obsessively lascivious as they explore the boundaries of nature, sex, sobriety and sanity. Tim Powers’s alternative history novel The Stress of Her Regard (1989) pits the group against a secret class of vampires.
Frankenstein combines the supernatural, the awe of the sublime—i.e., the sense of potent grandeur inspired by nature and art—and, in Mary Shelley’s words, the “thrill of fear.” It influenced many Victorian Gothicists, including horror writer Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. Frankenstein became a phenomenon, spawning the science fiction and horror genres and inspiring legions of artistic interpretations. One of these, James Whale’s film Frankenstein (1931), established the visual language of modern horror movies.
The word Gothic has more recently expanded to a cultural sensibility in fashion and music. Gothic fiction, horror films (notably The Hunger, a 1983 vampire movie starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve) and punk rock collectively inspired the Goth movement. The dark look involves Victoriana-meets-bondage clothes, heavy makeup and a sullen, tomb-dweller attitude. Musically, Goth includes early pioneers such as English band Bauhaus (known for the epic song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” performed in The Hunger) and American band 45 Grave. The Gothic novel flourishes today with such books as China Miéville’s steampunk Perdido Street Station (2000), Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005–2008) and Tim Powers’s Anubis Gates (1983) and The Stress of Her Regard (1989).
All the hallmarks of Gothic fiction—reckless heroes and monstrous villains, social transgression and emotional excess, a sinister atmosphere and supernatural terror—luridly permeate the horror movies released by Hammer Films from 1957 through the early 1970s, most notably The Evil of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Taste the Blood of Dracula. Smash hit The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) stars Peter Cushing as mad scientist Victor Frankenstein; tall, brooding Christopher Lee (who also played Dracula in several other Hammer releases) costars as Frankenstein’s disaffected Creature.
Cushing reprises his role in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), in which Playboy Playmate Susan Denberg plays Christina, a disfigured girl who drowns herself but is reanimated by Frankenstein with the soul of her wrongly executed lover, Hans. Christina-Hans unites the lovers in body and in purpose, methodically seducing and killing three young rakes responsible for Hans’s death. Christina-Hans personifies such Gothic dualities as pleasure/terror, angel/devil, beauty/grotesqueness, female/male and hero/villain. Christina is not a composite body (like Mary Shelley’s Creature), yet she is not “all woman.” Like most Hammer films of this era, Frankenstein Created Woman employs a lush visual style, and its Victorian set and costumes add to the film’s decadence.
Frankenstein’s comic-book and cartoon versions have explored the scary, uncanny and incongruous qualities of Mary Shelley’s Creature. The novel’s first such adaptation was Dick Briefer’s New Adventures of Frankenstein (1940), in which the Creature eventually evolves from a goofy “merry monster” to the darker, gloomier brute that anticipated the popular horror films of the 1950s. Briefer’s long-running series was among the works the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency cited during hearings that led to the 1954 creation of the Comics Code Authority, which aimed to keep depictions of violence and sexuality out of the hands of easily corruptible American kids.
Bernie Wrightson’s muscular, sinewy 1983 version of Shelley’s Creature is a far cry from the hulking Boris Karloff of James Whale’s film adaptation, which has defined the character’s look since 1931. Wrightson said he “wanted the book to look like an antique; to have the feeling of woodcuts or steel engravings, something of that era.”
Frankenstein has also inspired a variety of animated films, including the cartoons Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles, Milton the Monster, Mad Monster Party? and Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, featuring a monstrous bull terrier named Sparky, a joke on the electrical energy needed to reanimate the dead.