A FRANKENSTEIN FAQ
...I IMAGINE that I live in a shadowy theatre where an unbelievably
frightening scene is about to overwhelm me. I have the choice of putting my
hands in front of my eyes or to look directly into the gruesome screen. "If it
scares you so much, why look?," you might ask. I look because there are
eye-opening benefits in being horrified. To confront horror enables me not
only to test my courage but to check my discernment, that is, my ability to
see through things. What is it that I am really afraid of? Is it the scarred
monster conjured up on the screen that frightens me or my dread of not
being in control of what happens moment by moment? Is my fear that I am
ugly, miserable and sometimes violent? Is there anything in my life that is
actually worth being horrified or scared of? How do I relate profitably to my
nature without either denying or being engulfed by its dark side? Mary's
novel keeps me posing questions.
Mary nudges me out of my normal way of seeing things by keeping me
scared. I look because I search for a revelation of the darklight which will
transform me; perhaps, cause me to take life more seriously or value what I
have. Without contrast, the ability to tell the differences between things, how
can I detect good or evil. "Everything is beautiful," only when there are some
genuinely ugly things to compare them to.
There is another way of reading or viewing horror which keeps us blind to
the value of being horrified. Earlier I mention Nightmare on Elm Street,
while it may have some value in clarifying adolescent transition, I consider it
sub-horror or part of the "slasher" genre. Slasher enables us to see without
recognizing ourselves at all. If we allow exaggerated savagery and blood lust
to distract us from genuine fear, horror becomes vulgarity or stupidity. If we
expose ourselves to monsters so hideous they become hilarious then horror
becomes comedy. The film history of Frankenstein: or the Modern
Prometheus is replete with degrading parodies on the original book. Film
director James Whale and Boris Karloff may have started the trend in his
reinterpretation Frankenstein in 1931. He made the monster into a grunting
buffoon, so sub-human it couldn't talk, never mind quote Milton. Whale's
version of the monster was used to demonize anyone who was of another
race or ideology. The Creature was so unlike ourselves that when we looked
at him we saw no correspondence, nothing of our nature.
There are some benefits in watching Frankenstein as comedy. By looking at
a horrific scene-turned-hilarious, we give ourselves permission to laugh and
not take our foibles quite so seriously. We project ourselves onto the screen
and belly laugh at what would normally be enough to crush us. Better to
titter at it, joke about it, and allow horror to creep part way up our throats
even if only in the form of a joke. Better that, than to not see horror at all, to
live in the giddy bliss of sunshine with a heart full of malevolence. Young
Frankenstein or Vampire in Brooklyn are perhaps our best bets when in need
of this sort of horror fare.
If you are worried about "grossing the kids out," I have lately
the PBS series Wishbone will introduce children to Frankenstein without
terrifying them beyond their developmental stages. Wishbone is a little dog
who enters the classics of literature in a way that children can understand.
Surprisingly, Wishbone has entered Frankenstein in the episode called
"Frankenpaw". Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson) and the
Purloined Letter (Edgar Allen Poe), are also featured by Wishbone.
As you read the essays imagine yourself on holidays, perhaps around the
camp fire. In this way, you will be following the example of Mary Shelley
and her romantic friends telling tales of horror and macabre. In the summer
of 1816 they sought to open each other's eyes wide in horror and in
transformation. Mary invites us to follow her,
"I Busied myself to think of a story - a story to
rival those which had excited
us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature
and awaken thrilling horror- one to make the reader dread to look around, to
curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not
accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name."
Essay One: Marriage & Mary Shelley
In the first essay, I recount the story of the marriage between Mary
Wollstonecraft-Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the great Romantic poet.
Mary's marriage provided a fertile source for her tale of horror. It shouldn't
come as a surprise that relationships and horror parallel one another. This
alone will not cause you to put your hands over your eyes. When you read
and study the actual dynamics and attitudes that Percy and Mary expressed
toward each other, you might have some fairly frightening moments;
moments of recognition and regret about marriage and partnership.
Essay Two : Passions of Prometheus
Essay two is an exploration of the passions of Prometheus. Here we will
delve into the normative yet sub-adequate ways that males relate to women
and each other in the novel Frankenstein. In this session, the secret love life
of men will be revealed but not along the lines of those schmaltzy books
commonly entitled, What You Always Wanted to Know About How Men
Love. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that men typically relate poorly. When
they do form relationships they often swing from possessiveness to passivity.
We males are passionate all right, but our passion, says Mary Shelley, is
often self-centered and leads to wilfulness and weakness. Ready yourself for
a full blown attack on male machismo.
In the "Brides of Frankenstein" I attempt to unravel Mary's critique
women. Feminist interpreters have tended to think Mary Shelley held
patriarchal man-centered views concerning gender roles. This is a difficult
subject because most of her women are quiet, complacent madames, who at
first glance, share very little in common with self-confident women. Mary's
approach is more complicated than we give her credit for. She reveals
women as ambiguous and contradictory and not without a great amount of
power. The typical pattern shown here is expression-repression, which many
modern women share along with Mary and her heroines. The prevalent
complaint about the place of domesticity in a woman's life, the place of child
rearing, and the creation of a character-forming environment will be
contrasted with the demands of our modern situation. The concepts of
domestic and radical feminism form the backdrop for this discussion.
Essay Four: Monsters at the Margin
Frankenstein's children are monstrous but gifted. When children are spoiled,
rageful, and selfish, we should not be too surprised - given the promethean
spirit of their parents. Frankenstein, not directly a manual for child care, is
better than most of our modern depictions of how children malform. By
presenting such a convincing case for the injustice done to the monster,
Mary tempts us to coddle him morally. Then she cleverly reveals the victim
as a true victimizer. Living at the margins of the normal can create
monstrous humans and paradoxically human monsters. The obligations of
parenthood and personal responsibility weigh heavy, when we consider the
fate of the monster and the monster-like man who created him.
Pictures of Buffalo Point
These essays were first presented during the Watershed Community's
informal retreat at Buffalo Point Resort, Manitoba in July, 1996.
© Copyright 1996
by Arthur Paul Patterson, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
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Academic year 2008/2009
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