After last year’s Hallowe’en look at vampires we’ll look at that other classic movie monster this year – Frankenstein’s monster.
Like the modern image of the vampire, Frankenstein’s monster has his origin on a storm-ridden night near
Lake Geneva in 1816. The story was told to the group by young Mary Shelley, the plot being inspired by a nightmare she had had. She didn’t publish it until 1831, anonymously.
It has been speculated in recent years that Mary Shelley didn’t actually write it at all. She may have told the original tale, but in 2001 John Lauritsen published a book suggesting that the novel of “Frankenstein” was actually written by Mary’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Percy was present at that monster-making night in 1816. At the risk of upsetting the feminist movement, who had seen Mary Shelley’s authorship of “Frankenstein” as an example of a strong female writer in a man’s world, Lauritsen suggested that Percy wrote the novel as a gay love story.
A gay love story?! Looking at the Boris Karloff film I can hardly think so, but Lauritsen used his analysis of the original version of the novel and Percy’s own bisexuality to develop his theories. The idea of Frankenstein as a gay love story wasn’t new. It had surfaced in 1977 in a paper called “The Problem of Frankenstein”, which compared it to such literary classics as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, Lord of the Rings and even the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau. For those who like reading psychoanalytical gobbledigook you can read this paper for yourself here.
Lauritsen claims that Percy Shelley deliberately chose to allow his wife Mary to claim authorship of “Frankenstein” to distract attention away from his own sexuality, the original 1818 version of the novel being much more homoerotic in its subtext. After reading Lauritsen’s theories I am unconvinced – he hasn’t proved to me that Mary Shelley couldn’t have written it.
The power of Frankenstein survives to this day. All over the world children and adults will be dressing up as Frankenstein’s monster, all of them copying the famous make-up created for Boris Karloff in the 1931 film. Other films, such as the Hammer horror series, and recent tv and theatre productions have tried to follow the original novel’s description more closely, but the famous flat-headed, bolt-through-neck monster will never be replaced.
The Boris Karloff films were directed by a gay ex-pat from the
West Midlands called James Whale. He had gone to to direct one of his plays on Broadway. There he came to the attention of America Hollywood film producers. Signing for Universal Studios in 1931 Whale chose “Frankenstein” for his second film with them.
James Whale’s sexuality was a secret to the film-going public for many decades. He made no secret of it in his professional life, but he didn’t advertise it. Just like the original version of the novel recent historians have looked for Whale’s sexuality in his films. This has been suggested for both “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), in which the monster has been seen as symbolic of someone with “non-common” characteristics trying to exist in a world which hates and fears him. The parallels with 20th century homophobia is easily seen.
Whale died in 1957, drowning himself in his swimming pool. His last months were the subject of the novel which became the film “Gods and monsters” (1998) in which Sir Ian McKellen played James Whale.