The Halloween History of the Frankenstein Monster
This article is an excerpt of GolfBlogger’s book: Things In The Basement: A History of Halloween Horrors, available on Amazon at the link.
The limits of science – both actual and ethical – provides the theme for another of the elements of modern Halloween and horror imagery: that of the man-made monster.
The idea that man can be threatened by – even destroyed by – his own creations is an old one. The Jewish folktale of the Golem tells of a priest who created a servant out of clay (much as God created Adam out of clay). To activate the Golem, the priest wrote the word “Emeth” (life) on its forehead. Things work out for a while, but eventually the Golem rebels and the priest is forced to destroy it. He tricks it into bending over so that he can erase the “E”, converting the word to “meth” (death). The Golem immediately melts back into a large lump of clay, killing the priest.
Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is the classic of the genre – and one that provides seemingly endless Halloween fun. No set of Halloween decorations is complete without at least one flat headed, green monster with bolts in its neck.
In Shelley’s novel, Victor Von Frankenstein is a doctor who becomes obsessed with the secrets of life. Through the course of his experiments, he steals body parts and brings to life a creature, which remains nameless throughout the novel.
Note here that, despite what popular culture would have us believe, the creature’s name is not “Frankenstein” or (worse) “Frankie.” Frankenstein is the name of the Doctor. Shelley apparently declined to give the creature a name to emphasize the idea that it has no place in God’s plan. The monster, however, in several places compares himself to the biblical Adam, telling Frankenstein “I ought to be thy Adam.”
Several authors have taken this to indicate that the creature’s name was indeed “Adam.”
Of course, not all goes well with the creature. It is rejected by its creator – Frankenstein – and left to its own devices. Eventually, it returns to Frankenstein to demand that he make a suitable mate. When Frankenstein fails to do so, the monster destroys his family. Frankenstein then sets out to destroy his own creation.
Since its publication – just before Shelley’s 21st birthday – the story of Frankenstein has been told and retold in hundreds of plays, movies, comics and novels. Most got it all wrong and missed the main points of the novel.
It’s also worth noting that the creature in the novel looks nothing like the square-headed, bolt-necked being from the 1931 Universal Pictures movie. That image of the monster was created by Hollywood makeup man Frank Pierce for actor Boris Karloff, who has become the definitive Frankenstein.
Here’s how Shelley describes him:
His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.
Some more recent films have tried to recreate Shelley’s original image more accurately. But they weren’t particularly successful in redefining the creature. Karloff’s portrayal of the monster is the definitive one for our time.