Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon

In his essay collection The Rub of Time, novelist Martin Amis assembled his ultimate Tennis Monster inspired by Victor Frankenstein – the head of Thomas Muster, the torso of Boris Becker, the legs of Michael Chang, etc.

With the metaphor being extended to something as genteel as tennis, does the mystique of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, still speak to us 200 years after it was published?

That’s the thrust of the book, Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, an essay collection whose principals seek to contextualize a story which is just as relevant, if not much more so, as when it first appeared.

Today, we are completely immersed in an era of the transhumanism – extending life and transcending mortality, pushing ourselves further and further from death’s door. However, at the same time we are futilely convincing ourselves it’s quality, not quantity that matters most to a life best lived.

Dubbed “China’s Dr. Frankenstein” in some circles, He Jiankui claimed to have produced the world’s first genetically edited babies. Initially a bid to thwart the embryonic transmission of HIV, the researcher went a step further, skirting ethical boundaries and implanting genome-edited embryos into a woman’s womb. It’s ironic given the country’s high-profile attempt to limit the creation of human life by mandating a one-child policy. We also saw the debut of a robotic news anchor (a literal robot that is, many a TV personality has already appeared thus).

Of course, there’s the ubiquitous discussion of Frankenfoods/GMO fear-mongering and humorists continue to get comic mileage out of the monster’s physicality. In 2016, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson depicted then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump as the lumbering creature carting off a woman dubbed, GOP; Insult-comic Jeff Ross asked Everybody Loves Raymond co-star Brad Garrett (who is 6’8) “how he got his head so far up Ray Romano’s ass with those bolts sticking out of his neck.” (Incidentally that series co-starred the late Peter Boyle, who played the monster in Young Frankenstein and Mel Brooks provides insights here in a chapter, “Frankenstein, Young and Old”)

Frankenstein’s creature, like Freddy Krueger, may have morphed into mainstream acceptance, but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t have loads to tell us about how we are responsible for our moral choices, as science trudges on.

In the chapter “Frankenstein and Synthetic Life,” Sidney Perkowitz digs into the mythological roots of robotics – Talos, “a giant, bronze, manlike construction” that defended Crete by hurling boulders – and explores Freud’s “unheimlich” or uncanny, which perfectly describes how we feel repulsed by, yet oddly attracted to, a creature made in our own image. It was a feeling felt by many when Nadya Denise Doud-Suleman aka Octomom (A Gothic horror of a portmanteau if there ever was one) pushed reproductive assisted technology to the forefront by birthing octuplets a decade ago.

In “Who is a Monster, When?” Steven J. Kraftchick attempts to put a finger on nebulous definitions – how the word “monstrous” describes everything from egos to children. It’s a term as interpretation-resisting as Shelley’s novel itself, a “hideous” idea (as Shelley describes it in the preface), without referencing her creation. Kraftchick asks, “who, ultimately, is responsible for the horrific destruction and death that the story entails?” He says the lesson of Frankenstein is that “we do not have, cannot have, a ‘God’s eye’ viewing of ourselves or our worlds – when we presume to have attained such a view and act on I, all hell quite literally breaks loose.”

In “Frankenstein’s Creatures,” Carol Colatrella looks at how children’s toys and video games shape current understandings of the monster. These “share many of the themes that dominate adult books, TV shows, and films about aliens, zombies, vampires, and Frankenstein.” According to Colatrella, “playing with Frankenstein figures or games provides children…opportunities to continuously transform and adapt the…story.”

Sesame Street may have “normalized nonhuman figures,” but for this author and kids growing up in Canada, it was the oddball children’s show, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein which proved more impactful than the kid-Gothic counterpart, The Count (The legendary Vincent Price contributed to hundreds of episodes.) Colatrella goes on to discuss the wealth of children’s books offering up some version of Shelley’s myth, as well as live animations that did the same for the young and the young at heart (Frankenweenie).

In the chapter, “Frankenstein at the Boundaries of Life, Death and Film” Evan Lieberman parallels the fear response to the creature, to that of early cinema itself (the 1896 Lumiere brothers’ spectacle which had patrons fleeing for the exits) – and Boris Karloff struggling for speech in the iconic 1931 film, as experimentation with sound in motion pictures transmogrified from title card to sonic synchronicity.

The subject matter tackled in 13 chapters of this book is as broad as the various meanings attached to the creature in two centuries. A century hence (if we make it that far) another volume will surely be filled.

Christopher Lombardo is co-author of Death by Umbrella! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons and co-hosts the Really Awful Movies Podcast.

Horror Movie Dictionary: Christmas

Horror movies are notorious for being calendar cash-ins. There are movies centred around Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, New Year’s Eve Spring Break, and of course, Christmas. Things have gotten so out of hand, there’s even a Bloody Wednesday.

Since their advent (see what we did there?) there’s seemingly a new Kris Kringle killer film every year.

For the most part, they’re exquisitely awful. Luckily for us though, there are exceptions.

There is the morose, downbeat psycho-slasher Christmas Evil, cited by John Waters as “the greatest Christmas movie ever made,” (take that, It’s a Wonderful Life). The French new waver, À l’intérieur (Inside) is undeniably excellent, and there’s no denying Black Christmas was influential laying down the North American template for stalk ‘n’ slash POV, even if Mario Bava beat it to the punch.

The 2010 Dutch import Saint (Sint) gives us a not-so-jolly St Nick light years removed from cringy fire-engine felt mall Santas, and Night Train Murders is a stylish Video Nasty from the 70s, set in Munich on Christmas Eve.

When it comes to snowy desolate isolating winters, nothing beats Kubrick’s The Shining for capturing the chilly milieu.

And for our money, far and away the best snow death is featured in the Canadian classic, Curtains (For our take on that epic tax shelter flick, check out our Curtains discussion on the Really Awful Movies Podcast).

And speaking of Christmas, if you’ve got a horror movie fan in your life (and really, if you don’t, you probably should)…check out our book, Death by Umbrella! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons.

It’s the perfect stocking stuffer (or is that, “stalking” stuffer?). But don’t take our word for it (this is just an expression. Take our word for everything else that appears on this site). Rue Morgue Magazine said:

“…what separates Death by Umbrella! from your run-of-the-mill glossary is the amount of heart and appreciation within its pages…Recommended for gorehounds, list-lovers and trivia fiends…”
The very best (and even some of the worst) films have heart and appreciation. We did our best to reflect that in our selections.