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Man Made Monsters
A Field Guide to Golems, Patchwork Soldiers, Homunculi, and Other Created Creatures
By Bob Curran, Gina Talucci Hoogerhyde, Ian Daniels
Career PressCopyright © 2011 Dr. Bob Curran
All rights reserved.
The Horror of Frankenstein
Grant me a figure, tall and spare,
The speed of the elk, the claws of a bear,
The poison of snakes, the wit of a fox,
The stealth of a wolf, the strength of an ox
The jaws of a tiger, the teeth of a shark,
The eyes of a cat that sees in the dark.
—An alleged magical creation invocation
Probably no creature typifies the idea of the man-made monster more aptly than the figure of Frankenstein, which appears in the novel of the same name, first published in 1818 and written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although the name Frankenstein has often been attached to the shambling man-like shape made from reconstructed and reanimated body parts, the being itself is actually nameless, but nevertheless takes the name of its creator Victor Frankenstein.
Shelley's novel portrays Victor Frankenstein as an arrogant, egocentric individual with a prodigious intellect who is obsessed with his own brilliance, imagining himself to have almost God-like abilities. He is widely read—mainly old alchemical volumes such as those by Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus, which he feels still have relevance is his modern world—and has become obsessed with the "secret of life," which is hinted at in several of these tomes. At the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria, where he goes to study, Victor proves to be an exceptional scholar but, as he attempts to marry the ideas of the ancient alchemists with those of more modern science, he is laughed at and mocked. In a fit of anger, he returns to his family's castle in order to conduct clandestine experiments to create a being for himself. He employs servants to bring him parts of bodies—mainly from executed criminals—which he puts together to create a gigantic man-like figure. This he brings to life through the medium of electricity, diverted from a passing storm. However, that which he creates has the strength of many men but the mind of a child.
The being that Victor unleashes on the world is clearly a monster. Approximately 8 feet tall, it is ugly, with translucent, yellow skin—the rotting flesh of the dead—that "barely disguised the workings of the vessels and muscles underneath," with glowing eyes, black hair and lips, and white teeth. Although Shelley sought to describe him as a man, perhaps the most abiding image of the creature is the one taken from James Whale's 1931 film Frankenstein with Boris Karloff in the title role and with makeup by Jack Pierce. The actual creation of the "Frankenstein look" remains controversial, because Whale stated that Pierce had only been following suggestions made by him. Pierce, of course, stated that the image was his idea. Whoever created it, Karloff made the look his own, and it has formed the basis for many subsequent adaptations of the monster. We are all familiar with the bulky, grotesque, shambling figure with its slightly elongated and bulbous head and face; its hideous stitched and surgically scarred features; its bolted-together neck; and its hooded eyes and neck spikes where electrodes might have been attached. It wears a dark suit, which is clearly far too short, thus exaggerating long arms that end in surgically scarred hands. The look is completed with heavy workman-like boots, which only serve to give it a clumsy, stiff-legged walk. Although there have been several attempts to "modernize" the monster by making it appear slightly more human, this is the image that most of us retain.
Victor cannot control his creation, which escapes and wanders abroad in the surrounding countryside. Here it demonstrates the patchwork of characteristics that created its personality. It can, for example, show great love, and it attaches itself to the family of a blind peasant—who cannot see its ugliness—and learns a rudimentary form of speech by secretly listening as the old, sightless man teaches his Arabic daughter-in-law to speak French. On the other hand, it kills a small boy who is terrified of its appearance. Innately horrified by its own act, it swears vengeance on humanity and upon Victor who created it.
The two—creation and creator—face each other on the top of a desolate mountain; rather than attack Victor, the creature demands that the scientist listen to his plight. It demands that Victor now create a mate for him so that he can live out his days like a normal man, albeit in isolation. Victor is horrified at the thought that this might create a species of such creatures that could one day threaten humanity itself, so he refuses. The creature flees, renewing his vow to destroy Victor and declaring ominously, "I will be with you on your wedding night."
On Victor Frankenstein's wedding night, the monster once again appears and kills his best friend, Henry Clerval, and also his bride, Elizabeth Lavenza. The double tragedy causes Victor's father, Alphonse, to die of grief. The monster that Victor created has effectively ruined his world. Now it is Victor who is consumed with rage and hatred, and he vows to hunt the creature down, wherever it might be, and destroy it. He pursues it to the Arctic Circle where Victor loses control of a dog sled and plunges into freezing Arctic waters. He manages to save himself from drowning and is found, near to death, by members of an expedition. Suffering from acute pneumonia, Victor relates the entire incredible tale to Captain Robert Walton, the expedition leader, who is not sure whether he can believe him or not. Before Walton can question him further Victor succumbs to the fever and dies. Later, the creature manages to board the expedition vessel, intent on fulfilling its revenge, only to find itself thwarted. Its creator is already dead. In frustration, it curses humanity once more and announces its intention to go to the uttermost ends of the earth, burn itself, and die. It leaps into the Arctic Ocean and is never seen again.
Since then there have been many additions to the Frankenstein tale as writers and film directors have sought to extend it. Reference has already been made to James Whale's Frankenstein in 1931, and he directed another Frankenstein movie in 1935, The Bride of Frankenstein (which built upon the creature's wish, in the original tale, for a mate). There is also Earl C. Kenton's Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), House of Frankenstein (1944), Richard Lee's Son of Frankenstein (1939), Roy McNeill's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein directed by Charles Barton in 1948, all from Universal Studios. All these together with subsequent movies and countless books served to firm both the notion and image of the Frankenstein monster in the public psyche.
But how did the idea come about?
Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin in 1797, the daughter of two celebrated intellectuals of the day—William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. She grew up in an unconventional household where poets and thinkers came and went. One of these was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley with whom she formed a relationship, eventually marrying him in 1816 when his first wife died. Her life remained unconventional—her husband had a mistress Jane Clairmont (who later called herself Claire), who actually lived with them—and was compounded by her husband's friendship with the talented Lord Byron. In 1816, this entourage set out for a holiday in Switzerland, accompanied by Byron's physician, Dr. John William Polidori. They took a chalet on the shores of Lake Geneva, not far from the Villa Diodati. There, on a particularly stormy night, Byron challenged them all to write a ghost story in keeping with the elements outside.
At this literary session Polidori is supposed to have written the first vampire story in English—The Vampire (later erroneously attributed to Byron) — but it is for Mary Shelley's contribution that the gathering is chiefly remembered. Fascinated by her husband and Byron's discussion about galvanic electricity—a form of electricity that was supposed to generate within and power the body—Mary wrote down part of a first draft of Frankenstein, which she intended to be no more than a short story. However, the themes contained in the tale intrigued both Mary and her husband, and throughout 1817, she developed the tale in the countryside at Marlow in England and created the novel. Throughout the years, there were many other publications of the book, each one adding to the myth and the horror of Frankenstein's man-created monster. Shelley herself added a subtitle to the overall title—"A Modern Prometheus," which may give some idea of her own insight into the character of the creature.
In classical Greek mythology, Prometheus (the name means "forethought") was one of the Titans, the son of Iaptus and Themis, and according to some versions of the creation tale was charged, together with his brother Epimethus (meaning "afterthought") with the creation of men and animals. Prometheus created men out of clay and Epimethus created the animals. However, Prometheus wasn't terribly pleased with his creation—the humans were weak and miserable things that went about on all fours. As all the attributes from the gods had been used up by his brother in giving the animals protection from the world, Prometheus resolved to give Mankind something special. Being something of a rogue and a trickster, he was able to steal a spark of Divine fire from the table of Zeus and took it to Earth to give to his creations. This gave men both heat and light and enabled them to walk upright, similar to the gods themselves, and began civilization as we know it. The gods, however, were not pleased—Zeus captured Prometheus and chained him to a rock where his liver and intestines were eaten by a vulture, and then they were constantly renewed. Thus, Prometheus lived in perpetual pain. This was the image that Mary Shelley sought to convey in her tale: a broken creator overwhelmed by the thing (or situation) that he'd created.
Origins of Frankenstein
Of course as with any major tale, the novel reflected all the concerns and alarms of the day, and although I do not propose to go into the allegories and subtexts that it contains I do intend to probe a little deeper into the idea of the monster.
For example, did the tale have any basis in reality? Although Victor Frankenstein is regarded as one of the earliest examples of what is now known as "the mad scientist," was he actually based on someone who had attempted a similar experiment? Might somebody have tried to create such a creature as the Frankenstein monster or perhaps bring the dead back to life using scientific means? And if so, who?
The times in which Mary Shelley wrote were rather tumultuous from an ideological perspective. It was a time when the last vestiges of superstition were slowly disappearing, and a new scientific light was beginning to dawn on western Europe. The two traditions—the old notion of alchemy (which in many respects bordered on magic in the popular mind) and the scientific rigor—merged together in the common perspective, and such an amalgam forms the basis of Mary Shelley's novel. Alongside the interest in scientific methodology lay the works of the early thinkers on magic, such as Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus—writers whom Victor Frankenstein avidly read. Indeed, in the book, he successfully blends the alchemical tradition with that of electricity and "modern" science in the creation of his creature. In a sense he is a man of his time. If he did have a base in fact just who might he have been?
The name Frankenstein gives us little clue other than to establish the scientist's noble status—an important factor in Mary Shelley's day. The name simply means "rock or hill of the Franks" and refers to a location in West Germany that may have been the site of a hill fort constructed by the ancient Frankish peoples who were an indigenous Germanic people. In many films, Frankenstein appears as a "baron," but the Frankensteins never held such rank—they were, in fact, landgraves (substantial landowners), a title that was just as powerful. They traced their ancestry from ancient German nobles. In 1250 Lord Konrad II Reiz von Breuberg built a castle near Darmstadt, Germany, which he called "Burg Frankenstein" (Castle Frankenstein), and from then on added the title "von und zu Frankenstein" to his name. Documents drawn up in 1252 show that he and his family now used the name "the Knights Frankenstein" and that they maintained a Free Imperial Lordship (which meant that they had only to answer to the Holy Roman Emperor himself), as well as substation land holdings that stretched as far as Hesse. In 1292, their territory became part of the lands of the Counts of Katzenelnbogen to whom they opened the courts and tried to form an uneasy alliance. However, the knights were riven with internal dissentions between various members of the Frankenstein family and bloody feuds were common. In 1363, Castle Frankenstein was divided into two parts, each held by a different part of the family between whom relations seemed to be strained, but in the late 15th century only one branch of the Knights Frankenstein possessed it, and it extended and enlarged the fortress. In 1662, the Lord Frankenstein, Johannes I, sold his lordship to the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt after various lawsuitsbetween members of his family, and the Knights Frankenstein died out. In the 1680s the castle became a hospital and a refuge for locals fleeing from the armies of the French king Louis XIV as they rampaged through the countryside before later falling into ruin. Victor Frankenstein (had he existed) would therefore have been descended from a noble and military line, and might have been extremely wealthy, but that would probably be his family's only connection to the legend.
There may be, however, one connection to the Frankenstein tale of which Mary Shelley may have been aware. In 1673, the castle was the birthplace of Johann Conrad Dippel, a controversial theologian and alchemist (some would say, black magician) who came and went there from time to time during succeeding years. Dippel may well have been related in some way to the Frankensteins, but if he was, the nature of his familial link is not known. However, he used their name when it suited him. It has always been suggested that he was the template for Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's story, but the facts about his life are so vague, and just how much Shelley would have known about him is open to question, so the issue is questionable. We will look more closely at Dippel a little later, but perhaps a more profitable avenue might be to look at another scientist about whom Mary Shelley would almost certainly have heard.
Giovanni Aldini was born into a wealthy and noble family in Bologna, Italy, in 1762. His family was indeed an illustrious one, for he was the brother of a senior Italian statesman, Count Antonio Aldini, Secretary of State for the Kingdom of Italy and advisor to Napoleon on Italian matters. More importantly, he was also the nephew of the medical scientist Luigi Galvini, whose work he championed. Galvini had noticed that the limbs of frogs seemed to move spontaneously when subjected to a spark of electricity. This formed the theory (published in 1791 and edited by his nephew Giovanni Aldini) of "galvanic electricity" or "animal electricity." Put simply, this postulated the idea that the muscles of all living animals were powered by a certain form of natural electricity that circulated through their bodies. Both the source and the generation of this form of electricity lay within chemical reactions, which were constantly occurring within the body. It was thought that such reactions did not stop, even with death, and so it might be possible to restimulate them in the moments after a body had expired and restart the muscles (including the heart). It might be possible, it was argued, to bring life back to the dead.
The idea fascinated Aldini and he was determined to prove it. The movements of individual parts of dead animals when excited by electricity—what today we might describe as "muscular spasms" brought on by the electrical current—seemed to bear out his uncle's theory. However, there was one difference between Galvini and Aldini: the former was a studious scholar; the latter was something of a showman. And, although a professor of physics at Bologna University (appointed in 1798), Aldini still engaged in "shows" and "diversions" in order to raise money for his proposed experiments. Many of these concerned electricity and were designed to entice his wealthy audience to invest in some of his wilder scientific activities. It is difficult for us to conceive that this was a world in which electricity was an extremely novel and terrifying concept, and the sight of a severed dog, sheep, or monkey head moving and twitching involuntarily or opening and closing its eyes was enough to cause wonder and awe in most people. And Aldini seems to have been the consummate showman, building a fevered expectation in his audience and then producing "terrifying" results to gasps of wonder and admiration. He would even charge his own body with electrical current and throw bolts of electricity from his fingertips in a spectacular arc across a darkened room to the astonishment of onlookers.
Excerpted from Man Made Monsters by Bob Curran, Gina Talucci Hoogerhyde, Ian Daniels. Copyright © 2011 Dr. Bob Curran. Excerpted by permission of Career Press.
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