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?

DISCOVER MORE: The London of The Frankenstein Chronicles

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.

Vampires explained – the history and horror!

In a new series of videos, I’m going to be looking at the history of horror. And I’m starting with vampires. The origins of these blood suckers goes all the way back to ancient Greece and the myth of the Lamia. Interestingly a female vampire. Men, it would seem, do not have a monopoly on sinking their fangs into the living and draining their blood!

Vampire history and real-life murders!

Fascinating that over the last century several murderers have claimed – sometimes in mitigation for their appalling crimes – that they were vampires. The infamous English killer John George Haigh is referred to today as the Acid Bath Murderer on account of how he disposed of the bodies. But at the time, Haigh claimed he drank the blood of his victims and was referred to as the Vampire Killer back in the 1940s.

In the 1920s, the German city of Hannover was rocked by a series of murders of young men and boys. Their necks were savaged by the killer’s own teeth as he tore at their jugular veins. Eventually Friedrich Haarman was apprehended and confessed to everything. He begged the state to behead him. If you’ve watched the TV drama series Babylon Berlin – set at this time – you’ll be aware that beheading was still a form of capital punishment in Germany. Haarman got his wish and was decapitated in April 1925.

The Irish history of Vampires

One curious aspect of vampire literature that I discuss in this film – which I hope you enjoy – is the preponderance of Irish Protestant authors who loved to write about vampires. Charles Maturin was a Church of Ireland cleric and the descendant of French Huguenots – as were the other vampire scribblers, Sheridan Le Fanu (wrote the lesbian vampire drama Carmilla in 1872) and Dion Boucicault (wrote The Vampire as a theatre play renamed The Phantom for American audiences in 1856). And of course, Bram Stoker – author of the novel Dracula – was also an Irish Protestant.

DISCOVER: The Slovakian female vampire of the 17th century!

I note their religion because Stoker in particular is keen to show that only Roman Catholic sacred items like the crucifix, rosary, and communion wafers, can deter Count Dracula. A very odd twist on the ancient vampire myth from an Anglican. And even stranger when you consider that Transylvania is actually in a part of Europe where the form of Christianity is Eastern Orthodox. I’d be curious to know what you think about this.

Do watch the video – it’s pretty comprehensive and should give you a thorough understanding of the history of vampires!

The London of the The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you’ve watched the Netflix horror series The Frankenstein Chronicles you might be wondering what part of London were all those sordid and foul alley ways and run down houses? Well, it might surprise you to know that it was a district very close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Frankenstein Chronicles

I’m a latecomer to The Frankenstein Chronicles so you have to excuse my belated interest. But watching it, I was keen to know where all those squalid slums were set. And it turns out to have been an area of Westminster that Charles Dickens referred to as the Devil’s Acre. Those of you who have watched The Frankenstein Chronicles will recall that Dickens appears in the TV series (seasons one and two) as a young journalist using his pen name “Boz”.

FIND OUT MORE: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

The Devil’s Acre is very near where I worked for a few years at the Home Office (equivalent of the US Department for Homeland Security). And that’s ironic because the Home Office is all about law and order while the Devil’s Acre was notorious for its thieves and beggars. In the early 19th century, it was a part of London that you entered at your peril – at the very least, you would be robbed blind.

Pye Street, Duck Lane, Anne Street and Stretton Grounds were full of ramshackle buildings that were overcrowded and insanitary. As early as the 18th century, the area was getting a disagreeable reputation. One member of parliament, Lord Tyrconnel, said in 1741 that it was an embarrassment to have this seething den of iniquity so close to parliament where foreign visitors couldn’t fail to note the “herd of barbarians” who lived there.

At the state opening of parliament, the king’s coach had to whip through the area – no doubt His Majesty holding a perfumed hanky to his nose! So deep were the ruts in the muddy road that piles of wood had to be thrown into the holes to stop the king’s coach toppling over and ejecting the monarch into the mud.

The buildings in this massive slum district were often made of wood and illegally constructed. They might once have been ground houses in the 17th century but now reduced to tenements where people slept on the floors and several to a bed.

Much of the area was below the level of the nearby river Thames and so was prone to flooding. And the unhappy folk lived by their wits providing cabs by day then counterfeiting money and possibly picking pockets by night. This is a description by the journalist Thomas Beames in 1852:

Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.

The problem of the Devil’s Acre was solved in a familiar way by the Victorians. Firstly, they rammed a massive road through it – Victoria Street – which is still there today. Then having sliced through the slums, they began redeveloping the area piecemeal. But it took a long time.

To wander those streets, get out at Victoria Station and meander behind Westminster Cathedral (the centre of British Roman Catholicism) up to Westminster Abbey. Very different today but see if you can spot any London Ghosts!

Victorian movies from the 19th century!

The idea of Victorian movies may seem weird – people in the 19th century able to watch films – and yet it actually happened!

We’ve grown up with TV and film so the idea of living in a world were there are no recorded motion pictures would seem bizarre – even more so with our smart phones and social media.

But up until the 1880s, film had never been experienced. There had been crude motion pictures using a series of slides projected on to a screen but movies were unknown. However, once the Victorians discovered the technology – there was no going back!

The dawn of Victorian movies!

Victorian movies became a staple of popular entertainment by the turn of the 20th century.

DISCOVER: Victorian slang for beginners!

Documentary and drama in primitive form developed pretty quickly. Many of the Victorian movies were purely observational – pointing a camera at people and just marvelling in the ability to capture them moving.

Here is a heap of footage of industrial workers leaving factories and mills at the turn of the 20th century, which I find fascinating. Note the youngsters who just stare at the camera as if they’re about to experience something.

London traffic seems to have mesmerised film makers with its hustle and bustle. As a Londoner myself, the presence of so many horses and what seems to be smog (fossil fuel pollution) is really striking.

Royalty got in the act and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was the subject of a very long film circulated around the empire. Here is Victoria attending a garden party. She loved being the obvious star of Victorian movies.