It's Alive!

Frankenstein is Alive and Well, Past, Present and Future

The year 2018 marked the 150th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s book ‘Frankenstein’. Originally titled ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’ Shelley was a mere twenty years old when she published this work. Frankenstein was written following a challenge from Byron for Shelley to write a ghost story. But this story has a surprisingly robust longevity and remains alive and well in modern western culture.


The story tells of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who allows grief and ambition to get the better of him and cause him to create human life from what we assume to be recently dead flesh. The resulting monster is eight feet tall and hideous to behold. But unlike some of the later movie versions, this original monster has sensitivity and intelligence.


In an effort to taunt, manipulate and even exact revenge on Victor Frankenstein, his creator, the monster murders the people closest to Victor. After a long chase Victor catches up with the monster who then debates with Victor the very meaning of his existence and the nature of good and evil, and their meaning in the context of his own strange, short life -a recurring theme of many a great story and great movies.


Mary Shelly’s book was likely to have had two major influences; (i) the scientific experimentation with electricity that was happening during her time and (ii) the story of the Golem.


Luigi Aldini from Italy and later Andrew Ure from Scotland had both experimented with passing electricity through human corpses. The results were quite startling as the dead writhed, grimaced, smiled and even pointed fingers toward those who were present. These experiments frightened people, particularly those conducted by Ure, who was actually interested in the possibility of re-animation. The public were worried that Ure would bring murderers back to life, as it was their bodies on whom he experimented. This was starting to look very satanic in the public eye and the public displays of those experiments soon fell out of favour.


Most people know the archetype of the Frankenstein monster as the mostly mute and lugubrious flat head created for the 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff. This version of the Frankenstein monster could be attributed to the European Jewish stories of the Golem. The Golem was a giant clay figure brought to life and fashioned by  sixteenth century Rabbi Loew of Prague. Created to defend the Jews from an impending pogrom, the legend has it the soulless Golem never died and went on to commit horrible crimes, some of which may have included child disappearances. The reason the Golem does this is simply because it had not, in its creation, been given a true purpose or direction.


The Golem proceeded Frankenstein’s monster not just in stories, but also in movies. During the age of silent movies the great German actor and director Paul Wegener took a strong personal interest in the Golem and directed three movies covering the story. Wegener’s portrayal of the Golem is a giant, mute and lumbering forerunner to the monster in the movie Frankenstein.


In Wegener’s surviving 1920 movie, ‘The Golem’, the monster can be used for good, but can also become an instrument of dark powers, much like a Darth Vader of its day. And, as in all good horror stories, innocents must die and the monster kills the knight Florian who is sleeping with the Rabbi’s daughter. The Rabbi’s daughter has been spied on by the Rabbi’s young assistant who in jealousy urges the monster to this terrible crime. In the final scene the now evil Golem is destroyed when it picks up a young Christian girl who suddenly removes the life giving amulet from its chest. In doing this she turns the monster back to lifeless clay and thus saves the Jewish community of Prague from its own destructive creation. Notably, there is a reversal of this scene in the 1931 movie Frankenstein, where the monster picks up and kills an innocent young girl. This scene had to be edited down because the initial audiences found the actual murder scene too much to bear. For the sheer fact of its influence; The Golem deserves to live on today and the movie is definitely worth viewing at least once, especially for horror and sci-fi aficionados.


It would seem that this notion that we might animate or re-animate living human-like creatures has never left us and might be destined to stay with us until we actually achieve this goal, possibly through Artificial Intelligence. Frankenstein itself has spawned dozens of movies and several spin-offs and this theme can be found in other works. Philip K Dick’s short story ‘We can Build You’ re-animates Abraham Lincoln and we are also well versed with his ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, which was made as the movie Blade Runner. In Blade Runner our Frankenstein is the replicant Roy Batty, who, like the original monster, seeks the answers to the questions of his existence from his maker. Batty was built from flesh but not born, so where does he come from and where will that take him before he dies? And what is the meaning of right or wrong, good or bad, and how do they apply to a creature of human manufacture? Sound familiar?


The question of AI becoming human has been raised in a number of interesting stories and movies. Recent notable movies include I Robot, AI and Ex Machina. This last movie, Ex Machina, uses the clever twist of turning Frankenstein’s monster into a beautiful young woman. In this story, a young man (Caleb) is asked to meet the beautiful machine and perform the Turing test on her (or it). The seemingly innocent machine cleverly hides her intelligence and deceptive abilities to devastating effect before unleashing herself onto the world. Whatever the future holds for AI or animated life, let’s hope it doesn’t finish up like that.


Failing the manufacture of a fully fleshed monster, or a very smart robot in the not too distant future, the cyborg might be the first out of the gate. The cyborg, generally a human with mechanical properties, has been most recently epitomised by the movie Ghost in The Shell (2017), a movie that perhaps lacked some of the power of its original 1995 animation. However, if the cyborg seems a long way off, think about how far we have come. A while ago Stephen Hawking was given a gift in the form of a computer generated voice. More recently, a woman has been given a mechanical hand, which she not only manipulates, but through it can also sense touch, much like the hand of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies. While that’s happening, Elon Musk has been looking into ways to interface the human brain with advanced technology. In time, those of us who are healthy and wealthy may also be part machine, and what will that mean for those of us who are not? If cyborgs really happen they are likely to be stronger, live longer and be faster adaptors of technology than existing humans.


Frankenstein may be 150 years old, but the questions posed in that book will live with us for some time yet.

Stephen Vega

December 2018