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.