May 14, 2021

Yes, I know it’s Frankenstein’s Monster But I’m Still Going to Call it a Frankenstein

This is the finest haircut money can buy

You settle down at the edge of the pond as your horse slurps water beside you, and you’re both ready for some rest after a long day on the road. 

As you prepare your camp, you hear the snap of branches as something lumbers through the forest toward the pond. A man lurches from the trees, or at least, something in the shape of a man. He’s tall, too tall, and his skin is gray blue, the wrong color for human skin. He looks at you, or maybe looks past you, and takes a few jerky steps in your direction. 

Time to meet a Frankenstein. 

There are lots of stories of the dead returning, often reflected in a civilization’s’ burial practices, from the mummies of Egypt to the giant rocks ancient Greeks used to make sure the dead stayed buried. But Mary Shelley created a very specific type of undead, one that has made its mark in pop culture and storytelling since Frankenstein was first published in 1818. 

Unlike the older stories of revenants, vampires, and ghosts, Shelley’s monster was reanimated by science and human invention. This was a creature given life not by supernatural forces but by the deliberate hand of a scientist, pieces of the dead reassembled into a new creature that was supposed to be stronger and smarter than most humans. 

Shelley’s original version of the monster was strong and smart. He was eloquent, could speak German, French, and English, and chose to be vegetarian. But he was also sensitive about rejection, and had a vengeful streak that ultimately lead to a lot of death. 

Movie versions of the monster ditched the braininess of Shelley’s creature. Boris Karloff gave us the silent, square headed, lumbering hulk that is probably the first thing you think of when you hear “Frankenstein” (even though yes, it is Frankenstein’s monster, we know). Karloff’s creature was all brute strength with a criminal brain. In the Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein, Christopher Lee plays a monster with sculptor’s hands, a damaged professor’s brain, and a very… well, melty looking face. Lee’s monster is also mute and intensely violent. 

What the silent and intelligent versions of the monster have in common is that they are not what their creators intended. In pretty much all retellings of Mary Shelley’s story, Victor Frankenstein sets out to create a man who is better than he is and fails. He creates a creature that is violent, possessive, and repulsive, and quickly distances himself from his creation, kicking off a cycle of rejection and repulsion that leads the monster to violence. The only version of the Frankenstein story that avoids this pattern is Rocky Horror Picture Show (which is also the only musical worth watching, don’t @ me). While Victor Frankenstein tried to create something that would be a better version of man and failed, Dr. Frank-N-Furter just tried to make a beefcake and totally nailed it. The lesson here is to be realistic in your goal setting, I guess. 

If you do encounter a Frankenstein, step one is going to be to figure out if you’ve found the talking type or the silent type. Get a talking Frankenstein? Great! You can invite him over, maybe share some food. Just be super kind and patient, and maybe let him know up front when you need to leave so he doesn’t feel abandoned and get violent. Same tactics would probably work with a silent Frankenstein, there will just be less fireside conversation. 

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