Frankenstein – from Mary Shelley to the movies!

In the year 1818, a female author Mary Shelley published a novel that would prove to be one of the landmarks of the horror genre for the next two hundred years. Frankenstein was the terrifying account of a Swiss doctor by that name who creates a monster made of human body parts harvested in cemeteries and dissecting rooms. Shelley’s novel was an instant success and soon became a theatre play before being taken up by the movies in the early 20th century.

Shelley herself admitted to lacking the confidence to write even though both her parents were famous scribblers. Her father, William Godwin, was a radical political journalist. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an early feminist writer. Mary married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who, to his credit, encouraged his wife to put pen to paper. Her feverish imagination had already created Frankenstein in her head – what she needed was the self-belief to write it down.

Frankenstein in the words of Mary Shelley

The Frankenstein novel begins with a ship in the frozen Arctic north chancing upon two sledges speeding across the ice. The passengers are Doctor Frankenstein and his gigantic monster. The ship captain quizzes the doctor to find out exactly what is going on. It turns out that this man of medicine has been mixing science with alchemy and the occult. The result in his laboratory is an eight-foot monster built of various dead human parts stitched together.

Having breathed life into this creature, Doctor Frankenstein then promptly rejects him. Finding himself not wanted by anybody – the monster’s fury rises to boiling point. He embarks on a string of murders that includes those close to his creator including the doctor’s brother, best friend, and wife.

The last of these murders is revenge against the doctor who had promised the monster a female companion but then torn her to pieces in a fit of regret and thrown the body parts in a lake. This was the final straw for the monster. Condemned to miserable solitude – what else could he do but lash out?

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Why Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein

The story of how Frankenstein came to be written has become something of a legend. A byword for Regency decadence fuelled by alcohol and opiates. Mary Shelley, her husband Percy, Lord Byron, and a hanger-on called Doctor Polidori are holed up in a Swiss villa on a stormy night in 1816. They tell ghost stories to each other and out of this long night of mayhem emerges two great horror stories: The Vampyre by Lord Byron and Polidori – and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

This party was depicted in the 1986 movie Gothic directed by Ken Russell.

In an 1831 newspaper interview as she produced a new edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley verified this account of how her novel came to be written. Her ambition had been to create a story “which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awake thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart”.

Shelley says she was aware of “Galvanism”, which I’ve blogged about elsewhere. In short, the use of electricity to make human beings appear to return to life. The humans in question were normally executed criminals whose bodies were provided to anatomists. They then passed electric currents through the corpse thrilling audiences as dead person’s eyes opened and their limbs twitched.

I say ‘audiences’ because medical operations in the 1830s were performed in front of a crowd who might be medical students and doctors but could equally have paid for admittance – and a thrill.

FIND OUT MORE: Galvanism – Frankenstein science in the early 19th century

Frankenstein parts company with the Mary Shelley novel

By the middle of the 19th century, the Frankenstein story was already parting company with Mary Shelley’s version. Stage plays introduced new characters and steadily dropped the melancholic, philosophical ramblings of the monster in favour of terrifying campy fun. So, The Observer newspaper on 30 December, 1849 reports on a new Frankenstein theatre production that I’m guessing was Christmas entertainment for London theatregoers at the Adelphi Theatre.

Two years later in 1851, Mary Shelley died with her obituaries acknowledging that Frankenstein would be her everlasting memorial – as has proven to be the case. But the adaptations of her novel got progressively sillier becoming fodder for pantomime. In 1887, the Gaiety Theatre in London put on a Christmas ‘burlesque’ of Frankenstein with a female actor playing the doctor and a very camped up monster. The audience hated it.

The actors were well-known faces. The costumes and staging were brilliant – according to contemporary accounts. But the rowdy London theatre crowd were booing loudly before the curtain had even risen. Why? It’s hard to know now. At the same time, other theatres were putting on pantomime versions of much loved stories including Robinson Crusoe. But – it seems the Gaiety theatregoers wanted to be terrified and not amused by Frankenstein.

Movies take different directions on Frankenstein

The 1910 silent movie Frankenstein was pretty much an extension of the theatre burlesque productions captured for the cinema by the Edison film studio. In 1931, the English actor Boris Karloff gave us the square-headed, bolts-in-the-neck, grunting and groaning monster we now associate with the character. At the same time, the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi was shaping Dracula for the movies with the cape and eastern European drawl. Hollywood was moulding these horror genre characters to its own liking.

That said – subsequent movie versions of Frankenstein either continued the camp horror tradition or endeavoured to swing back towards the Mary Shelley vision. The latter approach includes my personal favourite which is the 1973 movie, Frankenstein: The True Story. The screenplay was written by the veteran LGBT poet Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy.

It introduces the idea of Frankenstein’s monster being created handsome but then a defect in the scientific process renders his appearance increasingly hideous. This arouses all our fears about ageing and losing our looks. I think it’s a very smart variation on Mary Shelley’s original tale.

Galvanism – Frankenstein science and the dead!

The Georgians and Victorians did love the shock of the new. And science provided plenty of thrills and spills. For example, the use of Galvinism to bring the dead back to life. Or so it seemed! What we might call Frankenstein science.

DISCOVER: Frankenstein – from Mary Shelley to the movies!

Galvanism turns a dead criminal into a real life Frankenstein!

At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life through an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – something called Galvanism! It was this primitive use of electricity that inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein.

If you go to the Old Bailey in London today, you’ll just see the Central Criminal Court and nothing much else. But in the late eighteenth century, you would have encountered Newgate prison next to the Court of Justice and close by, the Surgeon’s Hall.

This was pretty much the journey that those condemned to death took on a single day: prison cell, hangman’s rope and then dissected on the surgeon’s table.

While on the surgeon’s table – the dead criminal might be exposed to the new technological trick of Galvanism – a Frankenstein technology that involved using electricity to bring corpses back to life!

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Galvanism turns dead murderers into entertainment

The bodies of murderers, once executed, were subject to a display of anatomy in front of an audience of students and other interested individuals – who may have paid to get access.

It seems incredible, but operations on the living and the dead were a spectator sport in London two hundred years ago. Although those present would have claimed they were there to be educated and informed!

A man called Foster was executed for killing his wife. Following the usual routine for the accused, he was brought from the typhus-infested Newgate prison out to the Court of Justice and condemned to death.

The sentence, up until the 1860s, was carried out in front of the court house on a platform for crowds to watch. He was then cut down and his body taken over to the Surgeon’s Hall.

Mr and Mrs Galvani – pioneers of Galvanism!

It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani and his wife, Lucia Galvani. They found that frogs’ legs could be made to twitch using an electrical current long after the animals had died. In London, they decided to see if this would work with dead humans. And yes – we are talking about the period when the author Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein.

The thrill for the spectators in the anatomy theatre was to see a dead murderer brought back to life using Galvanism – a brand new science. What would the killer do? Would he lunge at the audience? Would he speak? Could he be made to do their bidding?

Truly – Frankenstein stuff!

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A nephew of the Galvani duo was present as the doctors began applying electricity to the dead man’s face and jaw – at which point, one of his eyes opened! According to a contemporary account, “the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted”. Then the right hand rose up, clenched. Following that, his thighs and legs began to move.

Tony McMahon investigates how criminals were brought back to life using Galvanism in 19th century London
Luigi Galvani – and some frogs’ legs!

The contemporary account goes on to say that the object of the exercise was to show “the excitability of the human frame when animal electricity is duly applied”. It was hoped that this Galvanism could be used for victims of drowning, suffocation or even stokes (“apoplexy” as it was called) “thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality”.

Unfortunately, the account then claims that the right arm of the deceased rose with such force that it actually struck one of the employees of the Surgeon’s Hall “who died that very afternoon of the shock” (most likely a heart attack).

So instead of Galvanism presenting hope to those feared drowned – it became more associated with a the sort of Frankenstein horror that of course Shelley would immortalise.