The story of Doctor Frankenstein and his creature is a classic horror story as well as a classic literary tale. The idea of a monster created from salvaged parts of human beings and given life by a “mad scientist” is one that inspired many books, movies, and TV shows. It’s tantalizing to humans to think of creating a new life form that mimics humans and has human understanding but isn’t human. However, in the original tale the suffering of the creature is an important part of the story and a warning about the pitfalls of creating another life form.
The original story was written by Gothic writer Mary Shelley when she was just 18. At the time the novel was written the Industrial Revolution was just coming into full swing and the novel was written as a warning against widespread use of machines as much as it was written as Gothic and Romantic novel. Understanding the context that the book was written in is very important to understanding the significance of the story. Machines that were being created at the time were represented in the story by the monster itself. Pieced together from parts, made larger and stronger than humans, and designed to make life easier for humans it’s not hard to see the correlation between the two. The monster breaking free of Doctor Frankenstein’s control is a metaphor for what Marry Shelley saw as the fate of humankind if it became too dependent on machines.
At the heart of the story though are the classic elements of a Gothic tale that inspire both fear and understanding in the reader. The story of Doctor Frankenstein working in his lab day and night to try and figure out how to bring the monster to life is horror storytelling at its best, and the film versions of the story leave little of the grisly process to the imagination. After a moment of triumph when Frankenstein is able to bring the creature to life comes the horrible realization of what he has done. He has created an incomplete life form, one that will suffer endlessly and needlessly because even though it has the capacity to feel it lacks the capacity to reason or understand at a functional level. The size and strength of the creature make it frightening and dangerous, but Mary Shelley also wanted readers to feel sorry for the monster and its suffering.
The monster that Frankenstein creates is really the first zombie representation in Western literature. Brought back from the dead with limited reasoning and understanding but an insatiable desire to survive the Frankenstein monster touches off primal fears of what comes after death, the existence of monsters, and the terror of being hunted by something totally alien to the human experience. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was a novel about the human condition as well as a story intended to frighten and fascinate readers. Movie versions of the story, like the classic 1935 Boris Karloff Bride of Frankenstein movie, presented a very different version of the original monster. Both versions will live forever in popular culture thanks to the impact of the story and the visual impact of the monster as brought to life by Boris Karloff.