Posted on December 25, 2018

The Monster Inside: Frankenstein’s Legacy

Guest Post

Thanks to the Howell Carnegie District Library in Howell, Michigan, who invited me to give the talk from which this article grew.

One afternoon on a late summer weekend in 1983, I was flipping through the channels looking for something to watch on TV. I’m not even sure cable was something ordinary folks could have back then, but in any event, my family didn’t have it, just plain old network TV. For some reason on that summer weekend afternoon, one of the stations was playing The Exorcist, and I discovered it while flipping through the channels. I was 11 years old; I don’t think before that moment I knew that a movie called The Exorcist even existed. I was too young to have found it on my own, and I didn’t have older siblings to frighten me with it; that job was left to network TV. I happened to tune in to one of the most disturbing scenes, when the two priests are performing the Rite of Exorcism and the devil is using the possessed girl Regan’s body to thrash around, vomit, and say a wide range of alarming things (some of which were awkwardly censored).

I was terrified; I didn’t watch more than these few minutes. I grew up Catholic so knew a little something about the devil and also about religious rites; that didn’t help. I didn’t sleep that night, and that scene has haunted me, turning up unbidden in my mind for years—even still now.

What happened to me on that late summer afternoon in 1983? What frightened me so much about that brush with Regan and why has it remained so terrifying to me? One answer is that it caught me off guard, surprised me. Another is that it was my first encounter with real horror—and, even if it had been, say, my fourth or fifth: as isolated scenes from horror films go, it’s kind of a doozy. But I think the reason that encounter left such an impression on me is this: that possessed girl was the first monster I encountered that I could identify with; that practically demanded my identification. I could see myself in her, and that made her scary in ways I’d never been scared before.

Not all horror stories ask us to identify with the monster; more typically, they ask us to see ourselves in the monster’s would-be victims. But some horror stories push us the other way. The Exorcist does this by blending victim and monster—two separate entities, young girl and devil—into one. Other horror stories use a different tactic, packing some victimhood deep within the monster, secret freight that is, over the course of the story, revealed to us, compelling us to understand the monster in a new light, see and care about why it is a monster, what made it a monster—and identify with it.


Frankenstein—the first sympathetic monster

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is of course an example of such a story; it persistently asks us to identify with its often highly sympathetic monster, a creature who is considered monstrous at first simply because his physical form is repellant to the people he meets—even his creator, who runs from him the moment the creature is conscious. Reviled, rejected, and lonely, Frankenstein’s monster eventually turns to violence to compel his maker to produce a mate for him, then, when Frankenstein refuses, out of revenge. This, of course, gives audiences a better reason than his mere appearance to see him as monstrous, but it’s also a reason the novel gives us plenty of opportunities to understand, based on the monster’s grievous mistreatment by society. As he tells Frankenstein, “I am malicious because I am miserable.” But Frankenstein’s monster is more than just an example of a horror story that compels audiences to identify with its monster; it’s the foundational instance of this narrative strategy in stories of horror told in English—and the novel’s most significant enduring legacy in horror.

Many consider Frankenstein the first horror story; I’m not convinced of that, and it’s an issue I’m addressing in other projects I’m at work on. For my purposes here, I’ll leave that issue aside and simply make the case that several stories older than Frankenstein that have at least moments of horror don’t ask us to identify with the monster; they allow the monster to remain totally other, unknowable and incapable of being understood. But how to identify these moments? Horror is a singularly subjective genre; we all know what terrifies us, but how do we identify horror more generally? Even attempts to define horror rely on categories that are up to us. In his seminal study The Philosophy of Horror, for example, Noel Carroll explains that in order for a story to be horror, it needs to conjure two emotions in audiences: first, fear, a sense of danger or threat in the world of the story that audiences experience vicariously; and also loathing, which is a feeling of disgust, a visceral revulsion, a bone-deep shudder.[1] Without loathing—with just fear, you don’t have a horror story but a thriller: a particularly good episode of Law and Order or a Grisham novel. You need the shudder for it to be horror. At the very least, Carroll’s definition gives us benchmarks to look for when we consider whether a text is horror, and I’ll use those benchmarks in what follows.


Early horror literature

At least a few monsters of early English literature have these two key elements of horror. For example, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late fourteenth century poem by an unknown author, opens with a mysterious green-skinned knight showing up in King Arthur’s court and asking for someone to have a beheading contest with him—and he volunteers to be beheaded first. The court assumes the stranger will be beheaded and that will be the end of that, but here’s what happens after the green knight is beheaded:

The bright edge of the blade bites into the ground,

And the fair head falls to the floor, tumbling down;

Where it’s bounced back and forth by the boots of the guests.

The blood quickly bursts out, shines bright on the green.

But his form neither falls down nor falters a bit;

It stoutly strides forth on the strongest of legs.

And, reaching out roughly where the retainers stood,

He heaves his head high; yes, he holds it aloft!

He strides to his steed, seizes the bridle,

Steps in the stirrup, and straightaway mounts.

His own head by the hair he holds in his grip,

As he steadily sits in the saddle on high,

Not stunned from the stroke, though he sits there with

            No head.[2]

A newly headless green man carrying his own head and stalking around aggressively might seem merely a curiosity to us, historically distant from courts and knights as we are, but consider how the depiction of this stranger might have played in its own era and you begin to see the terror it’s capable of inspiring. The revulsion in this scene is more timeless: the head abjectly dribbling among the feet of the spectators, the knight bleeding copiously from his stumpy neck. Fear and loathing are definitely in this text.

They’re present as well in The Showings by Julian of Norwich, another late fourteenth-century text (one which has the distinction of being the first book we know to have been written by a woman in English). It’s autobiographical, telling the story of a series of visions Julian has of Jesus on the cross. After those visions, which comfort and calm Julian, she has one more—this one of the devil—and it terrifies her:

And as soon as I fell asleep it seemed the Fiend was at my throat, thrusting a visage like a young man’s close to my face; and it was long and extraordinarily thin, I never saw one like it. The colour was red like newly fired tiles, with black spots on it like black freckles, fouler than the tiles themselves. His hair was as red as rust, clipped in front, and with locks hanging down over the temples. He grinned at me with a wicked expression, showing white teeth, so that I thought him even more horrible. His body and hands were not properly shaped, but his paws gripped me by the throat and he tried to strangle me. . . .[3]

The devil is immediately more recognizable as a threat than a green-skinned stranger is, but it’s more than his mere identity that makes Julian’s visitor horrifying. He’s clearly physically threatening, setting himself at her throat, trying to choke her; and he’s also loathsome, with his hands like paws, red skin, and wicked, teeth-baring smile.

One last example, this one much earlier than the two preceding examples, from the poem Beowulf, which was written down around the year 1000 but was composed orally, likely by a number of poets who passed their work on, from one to the other, around the year 700. This text tells the story of a monster called Grendel who attacks soldiers in their mead hall for inscrutable reasons, but who obviously delights in the attacks:

In off the moors, down through the mist bands

God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping. . . .

Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open

The mouth of the building, maddening for blood,

pacing the length of the patterned floor

with his loathesome tread, while a baleful light,

flame more than light, flared from his eyes.

He saw many men in the mansion, sleeping,

A ranked company of kinsmen and warriors

Quartered together. And his glee was demonic. . . .

He grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,

Bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood

And gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body

Utterly lifeless, eaten up

Hand and foot.[4]

Fear and loathing are barely separable in this passage: Grendel can tear doors off with his bare hands and gobble up soldiers in a few bites, demonstrations of force both terrifying and repulsive.


Black box monsters

The monsters we meet during these indubitable moments of horror from early English literature aren’t easy to identify with: A headless green knight who walks and talks is profoundly not like us; in Julian’s story, we identify with her, not the devil attacking her; and what motivates Grendel to attack at all, let alone his ferocity, is unfathomable. We don’t get these monsters; or more precisely, a key element of their monstrosity is that they’re un-gettable. In this respect, they’re similar to several modern monsters: the xenomorph aliens from the Alien franchise, the monster from the Netflix series Stranger Things, and the super-aural monsters of the 2018 movie A Quiet Place. Each of these monsters is largely unknowable; we tell ourselves that they must surely kill for some biological imperative, but even that is unexplained in their stories, and their predatory habits often seem unnecessarily taunting and cruel for such a natural justification. They kill because they’re monsters and there’s no use asking why; there’s no hope of understanding or identifying with them. These monsters are black boxes, mysterious to us, and I’ll refer to them from here forward as the Black Box Monsters. The Green Knight, Julian’s devil, and Grendel are Black Box Monsters, too, the ancestors of these more recent predators—and very unlike Frankenstein’s monster.

Tragic heroes          

To be fair, there are stories from English literature earlier than Frankenstein in which some of the characters we’re asked to identify with might be considered monstrous. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (first performed in 1606), for instance, Macbeth is told by three witches that he’ll be king, and he interprets their message as a cue to take matters into his own hands, killing the king and several others to bring his fate about. That’s pretty monstrous. Then there’s Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (first performed at the end of the sixteenth century), a play about a talented scholar who early on decides to pursue whatever path of study will make him the most powerful and concludes that path is black magic. So he makes a pact with the devil and profits amazingly from it, but as death draws near, he regrets this decision—though not enough to save his soul, and he’s dragged to hell at the end of his story. These stories ask us to identify with their characters; part of the experience of reading them is getting to try on these characters’ contemptibleness, even monstrousness. But these characters, however monstrous they are, are not monsters; they’re not the villains or antagonists of their stories. They’re the protagonists, the leading characters, though they’re very flawed characters, seriously flawed—one might even say tragically flawed. Indeed, these characters are Tragic Heroes (a designation I’ll use to refer to them from here forward), and that fact makes plain that their stories aren’t horror stories, but rather tragedies.

Of course, the other tell that Macbeth and Dr. Faustus aren’t horror stories is that there’s nothing repulsive in them. The Tragic Heroes do plenty that’s fearful—bad decisions, megalomania, wrongheaded alliances—but it’s all very normal, very human. To a certain extent, this is true, too, of the monster in Frankenstein; his nefarious acts are all explained (though not justified) by his mistreatment and rejection at the hands of society. Shelley need not have depicted him this way; think how easy it would have been for her to present her monster as something more like one of the Black Box Monsters, as basically unknowable. But she didn’t do that; she humanized him, told us his feelings and motives, just like we learn about what Macbeth and Faustus are feeling and what’s motivating them. The difference, of course, is that Frankenstein’s monster is an animated collection of corpse parts, and that makes him repulsive, capable of delivering the shudder. He’s not just monstrous like the Tragic Heroes; he’s a monster.


Slasher film killers as sympathetic monsters

And he was a new kind of monster in his day; no Black Box like his monster forebears, he has motives we can discern, perhaps even understand, that we even work hard to discern and understand as we read his story. This quality links him to a distinctly modern category of monsters: Slasher Film Killers. It seems an unlikely affinity, I know; hear me out. The truth is, in their first appearances, most slasher killers have motives that aren’t explained at all or are hardly explained, and they barely seem human; early on, they’re Black Box Monsters. But they capture our imaginations; we want to know more—we want to know why, what made them the monsters they are. And sequels try to explain them to us—try feverishly and with many contradictions, as the sequels pile up—but always try to explain what motivates these monsters. Permit me a few abbreviated examples; the dogged diligence of these movies’ efforts makes my point clear.[5]

Let’s start with Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. The first movie depicting this monster came out in 1974, yet just last year he had a feature movie, Leatherface, devoted to his origin story. In a nutshell: he is taken away from his family by the sheriff and put in a psychiatric institution for years and years. Eventually, during a riot, he escapes and finds his way back home where his family gives him two welcome home presents: a chainsaw and the sheriff who took him away—whom he recognizes as the start of all his troubles and cuts in half. An earlier film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) offered an entirely different origin story: Leatherface’s mother died while giving birth to him in the slaughterhouse where she works. The manager throws the baby away in the dumpster, but someone saves him and raises him, and as a young man, he ends up working in that same slaughterhouse for that same manager. No good comes of this.

And consider Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise, the first movie of which came out in 1978. That movie opens with a famous tracking shot that follows young Michael as he stabs his older sister to death, effectively putting us in the shoes of the monster as he makes his first kill.

That scene is an exercise in trying to piece together clues, to explain Michael’s actions from the first-person perspective we’re given of them. There are no real answers in that first film; director John Carpenter wanted Michael to remain inscrutable. But sequels worked hard to explain his motivations. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) and Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) develop a narrative involving a Druid-like cult that cursed Michael to kill in order to provide blood sacrifices to keep the cult alive. Rob Zombie’s remakes (2007, 2009) take a drastically different direction, suggesting that Michael was abused by his family as a child and began killing animals early.

Then there’s Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies, the first of which came out in 1980. He’s not even the killer in the first Friday the 13th; his mother, of all people, is. She murders counselors at the Camp Crystal Lake summer camp because Jason drowned on account of the negligence of camp counselors too busy drinking and having sex to watch their charges. In that first movie, she’s ultimately beheaded with a machete by one of the camp counselors, a detail I mention because the sequels say Jason did not in fact drown as a child; he did struggle in the water, but survived and hid out in the woods, where he remained and grew up alone. Watching from the woods, he saw his mother get beheaded and kept her head (for which he made a shrine) and more importantly, the machete she was killed with, which became his signature weapon.

In total there have been 31 movies made about these monsters: eleven in the Halloween franchise, twelve Friday the 13ths, and eight Texas Chainsaw Massacres. The efforts to get to the bottom of what made these monsters into monsters is impressive to say the least; the efforts are at times overwrought, sometimes even silly, and more than occasionally conflict with one another, but they’re something the Black Box Monsters never get. Unlike those unknowable monsters, we’ve built, added onto, and rebuilt the stories of Slasher Killers to give us ways in and ways to understand them—and also, more implicitly, perhaps even unconsciously, to deliver a warning: we could never be like the inscrutable Black Box monsters, but who among us is more than a few really bad life experiences away from being like Leatherface, Michael, or Jason? Or, for that matter, Frankenstein’s monster? None of us are made up entirely of corpse parts, but we’ve all felt lonely and rejected; we’ve all been, at times, miserable and malicious because of it.

As Frankenstein’s monster has aged in the popular imagination, his misery has stuck more than his maliciousness, to the point that we see him less as a monster than as a misunderstood figure of pure pathos. Consider this Apple commercial from 2016:

The selfsame quality that makes him capable of being turned into fodder for a sentimental holiday commercial in our day made him an innovative monster, singularly terrifying, in his own day. While his story might pale in our eyes compared to more contemporary horror, it’s worth remembering how much that horror relies upon his legacy. Frankenstein’s monster showed us that monsters don’t just come from outside the court or in off the moors, nor just from outer space or the Upside Down. Sometimes we make them. Sometimes we are them.

[1] Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror. New York: Routledge, 1990 (23-28).

[2] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. Eds. Malcolm Andrew, Ronald Waldron, and Clifford Peterson, trans. Casey Finch. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993 (229).

[3] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love. Trans. Elizabeth Spearing. New York: Penguin, 1998 (152).

[4] Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: WW Norton, 2000 (50-51).

[5] Thanks to my former student and slasher film expert Eugene Jehl for his assistance with the slasher killer details that follow.

Gina Brandolino is a lecturer at the University of Michigan in the Department of English and the Sweetland Center for Writing. She teaches courses in medieval literature, working class literature, comics, and most importantly, horror.  She curates a horror blog powered by her students; check it out at You can follow her on Twitter @ginabrandolino.

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