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Why Frankenstein is the story that defines our fears

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bbc.com / “It’s alive! It’s alive!! It’s alive!!! – Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

One night during the strangely cool and wet summer of 1816, a group of friends gathered in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. “We will each write a ghost story,” Lord Byron announced to the others, who included Byron’s doctor John Polidori, Percy Shelley and the 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.

Frankenstein is simultaneously the first science-fiction novel, a Gothic horror, a tragic romance and a parable all sewn into one towering body

“I busied myself to think of a story,” Mary wrote. “One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror.” Her tale became a novel, published two years later as ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’, the story of a young natural philosophy student, who, burning with crazed ambition, brings a body to life but rejects his horrifying ‘creature’ in fear and disgust.

View image of Mary Shelley

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Frankenstein is simultaneously the first science-fiction novel, a Gothic horror, a tragic romance and a parable all sewn into one towering body. Its two central tragedies – one of overreaching and the dangers of ‘playing God’, the other of parental abandonment and societal rejection – are as relevant today as ever.

Are there any characters more powerfully cemented in the popular imagination? The two archetypes Mary brought to life, the ‘creature’ and the overambitious or ‘mad scientist’, lurched and ranted their way off the page and on to stage and screen, electrifying theatre and filmgoers as two of the lynchpins, not just of the horror genre, but of cinema itself.

Frankenstein spawned interpretations and parodies that reach from the very origins of the moving image in Thomas Edison’s horrifying 1910 short film , through Hollywood’s Universal Pictures and Britain’s Hammer series, to The Rocky Horror Picture Show – and it foreshadowed others, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are Italian and Japanese Frankensteins and a Blaxploitation film, Blackenstein ; Mel Brooks, Kenneth Branagh and Tim Burton all have their own takes. The characters or themes appear in or have inspired comic books, video games, spin-off novels, TV series and songs by artists as diverse as Ice Cube , Metallica and T’Pau : “It was a flight on the wings of a young girl’s dreams/ That flew too far away/ And we could make the monster live again…”

View image of Kinetogram

As a parable, the novel has been used as an argument both for and against slavery and revolution, vivisection and the Empire, and as a dialogue between history and progress, religion and atheism. The suffix ‘Franken-’ thrives in the modern lexicon as a byword for any anxiety about science, scientists and the human body, and has been used to shape worries about the atomic bomb, GM crops , strange foods , stem cell research and both to characterise and assuage fears about AI . In the two centuries since she wrote it, Mary’s tale, in the words of Bobby Pickett’s comedy song, Monster Mash, has truly been “a graveyard smash” that “caught on in a flash”.

‘Mysterious fears of our nature’

“All them scientists – they’re all alike. They say they’re working for us but what they really want is to rule the world!” – Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974).

Why was Mary’s vision of ‘science gone wrong’ so ripe a vessel to carry our fears? She certainly captured the zeitgeist: the early 19th Century teetered on the brink of the modern age, and although the term ‘science’ existed, a ‘scientist’ didn’t. Great change brings fear, as Fiona Sampson, author of a new biography of Mary Shelley tells BBC Culture: “With modernity – with the sense that humans are what there is, comes a sense of anxiety about what humans can do and particularly an anxiety about science and technology.” Frankenstein fused these contemporary concerns about the possibilities of science with fiction for the very first time – with electrifying results. Far from an outrageous fantasy, the novel imagined what could happen if people – and in particular overreaching or unhinged scientists – went too far.

View image of Galvani

Several points of popular 19th Century intellectual discourse appear in the novel. We know from Mary’s writings that in that Villa Diodati tableau of 1816, Shelley and Byron discussed the ‘principle of life’. Contemporary debates raged on the nature of humanity and whether it was possible to raise the dead . In the book’s 1831 preface, Mary Shelley noted ‘galvanism’ as an influence, referring to Luigi Galvani’s experiments using electric currents to make frogs’ legs twitch. Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini would go further in 1803, using a newly-dead murderer as his subject. Many of the doctors and thinkers at the heart of these debates – such as the chemist Sir Humphry Davy – were connected to Mary’s father, the pre-eminent intellectual William Godwin, who himself had developed principles warning of the dangers and moral implications of ‘overreaching’.

Despite these nuggets of contemporary thought, though, there’s little in the way of tangible theory, method, or scientific paraphernalia in Frankenstein. The climactic moment of creation is described simply: “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” The ‘science’ of the book is rooted in its time and yet timeless. It is so vague, therefore, as to provide an immediate linguistic and visual reference point for moments of great change and fear.

Monster mash-up

But surely the reason we turn to Frankenstein when expressing an anxiety about science is down to the impression the ‘monster’ and ‘mad scientist’ have had on our collective brains. How did this happen? Just as the science is vague in the book, so is the description of the creature as he comes to life. The moment is distilled into a single, bloodcurdling image:

“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

View image of Frankenstein

It’s a double-edged sword that Hollywood’s version secured the story’s longevity but obscured Mary’s version of it

With his ‘yellow skin’, ‘watery eyes’, ‘shrivelled complexion’ and ‘straight black lips’ the creature is far from the beautiful ideal Frankenstein intended. This spare but resonant prose proved irresistible to theatre and later film-makers and their audiences, as Christopher Frayling notes in his book, Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years. The shocking novel became a scandalous play – and of course, a huge hit, first in Britain and then abroad. These early plays, Frayling argues, “set the tone for future dramatisations”. They condensed the story into basic archetypes, adding many of the most memorable elements audiences would recognise today, including the comical lab assistant, the line “It lives!” and a bad-brained monster who doesn’t speak.

View image of Boris Karloff

It’s a double-edged sword that the monstrous success of Hollywood’s vision (James Whale’s 1931 film for Universal starring Boris Karloff as the creature) in many ways secured the story’s longevity but obscured Mary’s version of it. “Frankenstein [the film] created the definitive movie image of the mad scientist, and in the process launched a thousand imitations,” Frayling writes. “It fused a domesticated form of Expressionism, overacting, an irreverent adaptation of an acknowledged classic, European actors and visualisers – and the American carnival tradition – to create an American genre. It began to look as though Hollywood had actually invented Frankenstein.”

Making a myth

And so, a movie legend was born. Although Hollywood may have cherry-picked from Mary Shelley to cement its version of the story, it’s clear she also borrowed from historical myths to create her own. The subtitle of Frankenstein, ‘The Modern Prometheus’, namechecks the figure of ancient Greek and Latin mythology who variously steals fire from the gods and gives it to man (or makes a man out of clay) and represents the dangers of overreaching. But the other great myth of the novel is of God and Adam, and a quote from Paradise Lost appears in the epigraph to Frankenstein: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man?”. And it is above all the creature’s tragedy – and his humanity – that in his cinematic transformation into a mute but terrifying monster, has been forgotten.

View image of Karloff and girl

Mary gave him a voice and a literary education in order to express his thoughts and desires (he is one of three narrators in the book). Like The Tempest’s Caliban, to whom Shakespeare gives a poetic and poignant speech, the creature’s lament is haunting: “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

As an allegory of our responsibility to children, outsiders, or those who don’t conform to conventional ideals of beauty, there isn’t a stronger one

If we think of the creature as a badly made and unattractive human, his tragedy deepens. His first, catastrophic rejection is by his creator (man, God),which Christopher Frayling calls “that post-partum moment”, and is often identified as a parental abandonment. If you consider that Mary Shelley had lost her mother Mary Wollstonecraft at her own birth, had just buried her baby girl and was looking after her pregnant step-sister as she was writing the book – which took exactly nine months to complete – the relevance of birth (and death) makes even more sense. The baby/creature is alienated further as society recoils from him; he is made good , but it is the rejection that creates his murderous revenge. As an allegory of our responsibility to children, outsiders, or those who don’t conform to conventional ideals of beauty, there isn’t a stronger one.

View image of Mary Wollstonecraft

“The way that we sometimes identify with Frankenstein, as we’ve all taken risks, we’ve all had hubristic moments, and partly with the creature; they are both aspects of ourselves – all our selves” Fiona Sampson tells BBC Culture, “they both speak to us about being human. And that’s incredibly powerful.”

Some modern interpretations, such as Nick Dear’s 2011 play (directed by Danny Boyle for the National Theatre), have highlighted the question of who is the monster and who is the victim, with the lead actors Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating roles each night. And in this shapeshifting context, it’s fitting that the creature is widely mistaken as ‘Frankenstein’, rather than his creator.

View image of Cumberbatch and Miller

So could a new, cinematic version of Frankenstein be on the cards? One which brings together the creature’s humanity, the mirroring of man and monster and contemporary anxieties? Just like the Romantics, we edge towards a new modern age, but this time, of AI, which brings its own raft of fears and moral quandaries. A clutch of recent films and TV shows have channelled Frankenstein, exploring what it means to be human in the context of robotics and AI – Blade Runner, Ex Machina, AI, Her, Humans and Westworld among them. But there is one film director (rumoured to have been developing the story for a while) who might be able to recapture the creature’s lament as a parable for our time.

View image of The Shape of Water

Collecting a Bafta for a different sci-fi monster fable, The Shape of Water, this year, Guillermo del Toro thanked Mary Shelley, because “she picked up the plight of Caliban and she gave weight to the burden of Prometheus, and she gave voice to the voiceless and presence to the invisible, and she showed me that sometimes to talk about monsters, we need to fabricate monsters of our own, and parables do that for us”.

When the then-Mary Godwin thought up her chilling parable that summer of 1816, she couldn’t have imagined how far it would go to shape culture and society, science and fear, well into the 21st Century. “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper,” she wrote in the preface to the 1831 edition. The creator and creature, parent and child, the writer and her story – they went forth, and did they prosper? Two hundred years since its publication, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is no longer just a tale of “thrilling horror” but its own myth, sent out into the world.

BBC Culture’s Stories that shaped the world series looks at epic poems, plays and novels from around the globe that have influenced history and changed mindsets. A poll of writers and critics,   100 Stories that Shaped the World, was published in May.

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