Frankenstein – A…Dissection

By Marc Gilson

A note about this piece: In spite of the fact that I poke a bit of fun at the Frankenstein movie throughout this essay, I want to state that I have the utmost respect for classic film, including this one. While lighthearted, I offer this as my own small tribute filmmakers like James Whale who made spines tingle then and now.

It’s October. The sun-drenched days of shorts, sun block, and barbeques have faded into a chilly mist. Football is on TV, school is back in session, and (as anyone writing about Fall is obliged to report, for some reason) the leaves are turning burgundy and orange and falling to the cool earth. In this gentle season, my tastes also begin to change. I’m drawn to classical music over classic rock, hot apple cider over iced tea and lemonade, and grotesque undead creatures violently terrorizing helpless villagers over, well, whatever the opposite of that would be.

I was ten years old when I first saw James Whale’s 1931 horror masterpiece, Frankenstein. The scene was perfectly suited to a night of cinematic creepiness: a cold and rainy night in October, 1977, me in my Snoopy pajamas sitting on the sofa with my mother, (a classic movie fanatic) who was putting her hair up in curlers while the TV flickered in the corner. Other than the TV, the house was quiet and dark, the hour was late; I remember it being past my usual bedtime. But I had learned long before that my willingness to watch an old movie with mom would automatically grant me a reprieve from going to bed.

It must have been nearly Halloween, and Frankenstein was being shown that evening, along with two other classics Dracula and The Wolfman; a night of triple-feature bone-chilling excitement! It was Frankenstein, though, that had the biggest impact on me.

I spent most of the movie nervously munching on popcorn, tucked tightly into one corner of the sofa, my knees drawn up to my chest, uncertain as to what this hideous cadaverous creature would do next.

I make no apologies for my trepidation; when the film debuted in 1931, audience members gasped, some even fainted, at the sight of the ghastly ghoul as he clumsily made his entrance and proceeded to wreak his fiendish havoc (this is, in my view, a testament to both the makeup artists and to Boris Karloff who brought Shelley’s creature to life, no pun intended). In fact, when Frankenstein and Dracula were shown together in a San Francisco theater in the 1930s, Universal included the provision that ambulances would be on standby for those who couldn’t stomach the visions of horror that would dominate the screen that night.

Frankenstein ranks as my all-time favorite horror movie, and most critics agree that it deserves a high place in the storied echelon of monster movies. But I’d like to indulge myself with a little personal review of the film as seen through my ten year old eyes, and also from the (hopefully) more reflective standpoint of my own middle age. I’m one of those annoying people who believes that there can be important lessons to learn from exploring films and their meanings. I love taking movies scene by scene and examining how, when the scenes are artfully put together, a story emerges that stays with you for a lifetime. Or maybe I’m just a guy who loves movies and is too easily carried away by such things as mummies, monsters, and the macabre.

Whatever the case, I hope you’ll turn out the lights, pour yourself something hot to drink, and come along with me for a little journey into one of the eeriest and most remarkable films ever made. 

Frankenstein is a film designed from beginning to end to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. Before the Motion Picture Censorship Code went into effect, films released before 1934 were free to depict more daring images and dialogue, both in terms of sexual situations and innuendo, as well as violence and horror. While there is no sexuality and little in the way of harsh language in Frankenstein, Whale took advantage of this freedom in his own ways. Interestingly, the censorship board did omit and alter several key scenes of the film in subsequent releases, thus diluting some of the original feel of the film (the film has since been released in its original uncut format).

The film opens, not with a scene from the story, but with a man, Edward Van Sloan, who steps from behind a curtain – as though on the very stage of the movie theater – to address the audience. His message is delivered in a congenial manner, with a kindly smile. But his words are more warning than welcome.

We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation – life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to – uh, well, we warned you.”

This would not be the last time we see Mr. Van Sloan, for he also plays the role of Dr Waldman, the professor from the medical school who we’ll get to know in just a bit.

As the opening credits roll (against a rather ill-chosen background of disembodied spinning eyes), we see that the role of “The Monster” is played by: “?” No name appears. 

Of course the role of the creature belonged to Boris Karloff, and would singularly define his career, despite being in many dozens of films and television programs between 1919 and 1971. Karloff was not the first choice for the role. It was originally intended for another giant among horror movie actors of the 30s, Bela Lugosi, and while Lugosi would not ultimately appear in the film, Universal Pictures used the rumor of his presence to its advantage in its pre-release promotional materials. Indeed, many moviegoers attended the film expecting to see Lugosi as the creature.

After the opening credits, we’re presented with a grim scene: a graveside burial service attended by a few somber mourners and a priest. Unbeknownst to them, they’re not alone. For lurking nearby in the shrubbery are a small, burly, wild-eyed man and another, thinner, dour-looking gentleman; Fritz, and his master, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (in Shelley’s story, the misguided doctor is called Victor).


Henry is played by Colin Clive, an English actor who tragically passed away only six years after Frankenstein was released, at just 37 years old . Fritz was played by Dwight Frye who also had a role in the other great horror pic of 1931, Dracula, as Renfield, the hapless visitor to Count Dracula’s castle who ends up a lunatic, although with a steady job as the Count’s roadie after being relieved of a little of his blood.

Watching from the shadows, Henry and Fritz wait impatiently for the mourners to disperse and the gravedigger to finish burying the coffin. When the coast is finally clear, they emerge with shovels and proceed to undo the gravediggers work. A keen observer will notice that Henry manages to toss a shovel of dirt right into the face of an effigy of the Grim Reaper himself, posed a few feet behind – a symbolic moment of hubris in which Henry disrespects the very image of mortality.

As they extract their new pal, Henry lovingly pats the coffin. “He’s just resting…waiting for a new life to come.” Wheeling their macabre prize back home, Henry and Fritz come upon yet another body, this one hanging from a gallows on the roadside – likely a criminal who apparently didn’t deserve a proper burial. Henry makes Fritz climb the gallows and cut the body down. But alas, as Henry examines the body, he determines, “The neck’s broken. The brain is useless. We must find another brain!” Don’t you just hate when that happens?

Later, the ever-obedient and posture-challenged Fritz manages to break into the local medical school late at night to steal a brain conveniently sitting in a jar just begging to be used in some sordid experiment. Instead, Fritz is startled into dropping it into a splattering mess on the floor, and grabs the next best thing he can get his dirty little hands on: an “abnormal brain.” This, of course, proves to be a bad idea for everyone involved.

For all his sinister deeds, Henry is, in fact, a gifted doctor. And what he does in his off-time is really none of anybody’s concern. The thing is, he’s also slated to marry the lovely, if slightly ostentatious, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is worried sick (sick, I tell you!) about her fiancée’s apparent decline in mental stability, what with the being out until all hours of the night in some isolated laboratory doing who knows what to who knows whom.

Elizabeth is played by Mae Clarke, known not only for her role in Frankestein, but also for being the woman into whose face James Cagney famously shoves a grapefruit in “The Public Enemy.”

We see a distraught Elizabeth receiving her friend, Victor (yeah, I know, the name thing is confusing if you’ve read the book), and proceeds to read a letter to him from Henry in which it’s pretty apparent that Henry is in need of a stiff drink and a few days off. Nevertheless, the message is clear: Henry doesn’t expect Elizabeth to understand what he’s up to, but asks to be left alone to complete his very important work, going so far as to tell her that his work must come before her.

For his part, Victor (played by American actor John Boles) is the very picture of the supportive friend. He’s also the very picture of a man who would gladly sweep the lovely Elizabeth away to his mansion in the hills, ply her with a decent Chablis, and impress her by bench-pressing stable ponies whilst wearing a red velvet smoking jacket, if only she’d get over this ridiculous fixation on the science geek, Henry.

But after hearing the letter, Victor looks stern and worried too. He also looks like he’s made of reinforced sheet rock. Even so, he promises to speak to Henry’s professor, Dr. Walden, at med school on Elizabeth’s behalf and see what can be done about Henry’s shenanigans. Elizabeth appreciates the gesture, but insists on going along, and after she begs the old professor to help the three of them set off to confront Henry at his remote laboratory. (I should really mention here that if you want the full effect of reading this piece, you should try to pronounce it, “labooor-ah-toray” in your head.)

Meanwhile, Henry is a busy beaver; frantically mixing fizzy chemicals and ordering Fritz around. There’s a wild electrical storm raging outside the laboratory, and Henry’s making preparations to fire up the equipment and give this “bringing a dead guy back to life,” thing a whirl.  

But – wouldn’t you know it! – right in the middle of things, there’s a knock at the door downstairs. An interruption! Now?? Henry tells Fritz to get downstairs and send the unwanted visitors away. Of course they persist, and Henry finally relents and lets them in out of the storm. Shaking off the rain, Elizabeth, Victor, and the professor all express their concern for Henry and his zany behavior, Victor finally calling Henry, “crazy,” right to his face. The impertinence!

Henry decides to show them just how “crazy,” he is by escorting them to his lab where he intends to wow them with his mad (scientist) skills. He is SO going to win the big science fair competition at school this year.

We all know what happens next. Tesla coils spark to life, switches are thrown, electrical equipment buzzes and whirrs, and the corpse is hoisted up to the roof on a gurney as the thunder and lightning explode in peals. It’s all very suspenseful and noisy. The moment of truth comes as the body is brought back down and – sure enough – the wretched, ghastly hand of the corpse begins to twitch and move from beneath the sheet.

Henry, of course, is beside himself and heady with power. “It’s alive, it’s alive!!! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” he raves (that comment about being like God was one of the things the censors eliminated once the censorship code went into effect). Dr. Waldman and Victor try to calm him, even physically restraining him in his moment of giddy triumph. Personally, I think they should have let him enjoy the moment. It’s not every day you get to bring a dead guy back to life. And things won’t be nearly so merry once the electric bill arrives.

Strangely, we don’t know what exactly happens immediately following the hand-twitching incident in the lab. Do they go out for drinks? Sit around playing Scrabble and watching Letterman? Is Fritz ordered to get out the clean bedding for the guest rooms? All we know is that later, presumably the next morning, Victor and Elizabeth pay a visit to my favorite character of the entire film, Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s dad (played by Frederick Kerr).

The baron is in his study and he’s not a happy man. He’s wearing a kind of fez, smoking some sort of hash pipe, and has on a vest with a bow tie. He’s like a cross between Winston Churchill, WC Fields and an inebriated Shriner. He’s a wise man, but also a man who simply speaks whatever happens to be coursing through his mind and never mind the consequences. He looks like he’s killed a few charging rhinos in his day, and rather enjoys a good German lager every couple of hours.

He’s entirely befuddled, displeased, and bothered by the news Elizabeth is bringing him, namely that the wedding may have to be postponed due to Henry’s experiments and the little matter of his insanity (the latter Victor and Elizabeth hide from the old man).

You have to admit, Elizabeth and Victor are in a rather awkward position. They’d like to reassure the Baron, but telling him the truth wouldn’t accomplish much. It’s very hard to tell a father, “Your son is fine! He’s just busy robbing graves for body parts in the middle of the night with the help of a strange little Quasimodo guy, and reanimating corpses using an impressive collection of high-voltage machinery and mysterious chemicals, while laughing maniacally in the very face of God. Now won’t you please just relax!”

Without the benefit of specifics, the Baron is left to draw one conclusion: Henry’s gone off with another woman, and, dash-it-all, he’s going to go find out just who this hussy is and have a man-to-madman talk with his son, end of discussion.

While this is going on, Henry and the professor are hanging out in the lab. Henry is still feeling rather pleased with himself, casually smoking, and waxing poetic about the wonders and necessary risks involved in scientific discoveries. This, despite Dr. Waldman’s warnings about having created a dangerous monster, and how only evil can come from all this, and yadda, yadda, yadda. A lot of rubbish from a foolish old man, as far as Henry’s concerned. But it’s during this talk that Henry learns that the brain that was stolen from Waldman’s medical classroom was not a normal one, but a “criminal brain.” Henry is caught off guard by this revelation, scowls, and seems to be making a mental note to self, “Remember to beat Fritz soundly about the ears.”

Suddenly, the conversation is interrupted by a sound coming from the other room. “Here he comes,” says Henry, getting up in a hurry. What follows is a truly remarkable scene, including our first real look at the creature.

We hear no ominous music. We see no special lighting effects. There’s no groaning or growling or banging around. What we see is simply a large door opening, and a huge figure backing awkwardly into view. The creature turns to his left to face the room and reveals the effects of Henry’s handiwork; the famous flat-headed, dead-gazed, neck-bolted, pale monstrosity. The one cinematic effect Whale does utilize is extremely a very disconcerting one; a brief and sudden close-up of the monster’s face, followed by yet another even closer shot so that for just a moment the gruesome face takes up the entire screen. I can almost imagine a few gasps from the theater-goers of 1931.

Flashing back to that night in 1977, I can trace at least a dozen subsequent nightmares to that particular movie moment; that huge face staring at me in my dreams.

What happens next is not terrifying but more poignant and affecting. Henry cautiously manages to get the monster to sit down, albeit rigidly, in a chair. We see Henry open a window above the monster, letting in sunlight. The creature clumsily gets to his feet and begins to stretch and awkwardly reach upward for the light, as though to gather up the sun in his arms. Henry closes the window and the monster settles back down into the chair, but with pleading, imploring hands outstretched to Henry in a gesture of pitiful confusion and distress. “Where did the light go? What has happened to me?” he seems to say. All of this is portrayed by Karloff silently and brilliantly, as viewers are both repulsed and yet sympathetic to the plight of this creature.

But the mood changes once Fritz arrives with a torch. It turns out, the monster isn’t too keen on fire, and he makes his feelings known by scuffling with the other three, and trying to get Fritz to put the damn torch away. It’s the first time we see the monster become violent. After a struggle, they manage to subdue the creature, restrain him with ropes, and then chain him up in a dank and sparsely furnished holding cell that could really benefit from some Ikea stuff and the Martha Stewart touch.

As the creature strains against his chains, Fritz comes in to shush him using a whip. Henry urges Fritz to leave the creature alone, takes the whip away, and seems to be in the throes of regret about the whole matter. “Just leave him alone!” he pleads, running from the room. But Fritz persists in taunting the creature, this time with the torch. Word to the wise: If you ever encounter an upset massive, undead monster, do not taunt it with fire. Just walk away. Just. Walk. Away.

Moments later, Henry and Waldman hear a horrendous scream coming from the holding cell. Rushing to see what’s up, they open the door of the cell to find Fritz hanging from the ceiling, a chain around his sorry broken neck, and the creature none too happy about how his day is going. Frankly speaking, I remember feeling a certain satisfaction at this scene. For all his work ethic and devotion to his master, Fritz was a jerk.

Henry and the professor now realize they’ve got a real problem. While you can almost hear Waldman thinking, “I told you so, Henry, I told you!” the fact is that the monster is now a liability. Murdering people, even Fritz, makes you a bit unpopular amongst non-murderers. The professor convinces Henry that the only solution is to kill the monster using lethal injection. 

Henry agrees and prepares the syringe. They let the creature out, Henry deftly distracts him by nearly getting throttled to death, and Waldman administers the shot. The creature drops like a ton of… firewood (not bricks, I flatly refuse to let it be bricks).

Right at that moment, there’s a knock at the door (what is it with people coming over without calling first?). It’s Victor, who announces that the Baron and Elizabeth are right behind him and will arrive at any moment! Now, personally speaking, I would love to have seen a “Weekend at Bernies” situation where Henry props the monster up between he and Waldman while they pretend to have been drinking, telling jokes, maybe a cigar stuck into the monster’s mouth for added effect. More Young Frankenstein, than Frankenstein, I suppose.

Instead, they drag the monster back to the cell, out of view. Elizabeth and the Baron are now at the front door, the Baron babbling on about how this isn’t a place fit for his son, etc. They’re finally let in by Victor, who is immediately peppered with questions from the Baron about “what the devil is going on around here.” The professor emerges, but he too fails to sooth the Baron’s concerns. He’s here for one reason only, which is to gather up his son and take him away from this filthy place. Eventually, the Baron, having grown tired of everyone’s hemming and hawing, takes Elizabeth’s arm, points with his cane and says in his thick British accent (despite being cast as a German Baron), “Well…let’s go and see what’s up these awful stairs!” I’m telling you right now, the Baron is awesome and I sometimes wonder if most of his dialogue was improvised.

When Elizabeth and the Baron find him, it’s clear Henry’s having a rough day. He promptly faints to the ground, murmuring things like, “It’s all my fault,” which it really is. Henry is taken away to recover from this mess, and Dr. Waldman is left in charge of Henry’s papers, the lab, and of course, the creature, who he promptly decides to dissect.

While Elizabeth is seeing to Henry in the warm and sunny garden of the Frankenstein estate, the doctor is back at the lab preparing to dismantle the monster. Things don’t go as planned, though. The monster awakens, gives the professor a good strangling, and escapes the lab.

We somehow then flash forward and – it’s Henry and Elizabeth’s wedding day! The ceremonies are presided over by the ever gregarious and ever-mumbly Baron. There is much celebrating, dancing in the streets, and copious amounts of adult beverages being consumed. The Baron addresses the villagers and announces that there’s plenty of beer, and “lots more where that came from,” which naturally elicits a cheer from the crowd. Free beer?? Cue the merriment and dancing men in lederhosen!

Meanwhile, the monster is staggering through the countryside, completely bereft of beer and merriment. And we’re about to see one of the most famous and controversial scenes in horror movie history.  

We see a man and his young daughter at their humble lakeside home. Dad tells his little girl that he has to go check his traps, to stay there and play with her cat, and then he’ll come back and they’ll head into town for a grand old time at the reception. Dad leaves, and moments later you-know-who shows up, stumbling out of the brush like Foster Brooks (Google him, young people).

Maria, the little girl, turns to see the creature emerging from the bushes. Rather than screaming her head off like a normal little girl, Maria introduces herself, invites the monster to play with her, and leads him off by the cold, withered hand, to the shore of the lake. Even the monster seems confused. Maria happily hands him a flower and we see the poor creature smile in spite of himself. Maria hands him more flowers and keeps a few for herself. She tosses a flower into the water to show him how they float like little boats, and the creature follows her lead with his own flowers. They take turns with the flowering throwing and it’s all fun and games until he runs out of flowers, and decides to scoop Maria up and throw her into the water too. Maria does not know how to swim.

This scene so shocked movie audiences in the 30s that the censorship board forced Universal to delete portions of it so as to make it less horrible. This, to me, is a kind of cinematic tragedy of its own. For here we see the ultimate problem, the reason the monster cannot survive, the sad truth; that despite the obvious horror the creature feels at the results of his own actions, he’s unable to control them and is forced to make decisions using a subpar brain. And his logic isn’t really all bad. Don’t all pretty things get thrown into the lake? No?

Meanwhile, back at the Frankenstein estate, Elizabeth is feeling apprehensive. She can’t quite put her finger on it, but even on her wedding day she’s worried sick (sick, I tell you!) that something’s happened to the professor (it has) and that something awful is going to happen to ruin the wedding day (it will). Henry tries to reassure her, but then gets word from Victor that the monster’s been seen in the countryside, running amok and scaring the hell out of people. Somehow, Henry has a sense that the monster is in the house, and the search is on. Elizabeth, alone and ensconced in her dressing room, preparing for the ceremony, is unaware that the creature has gained entry and is right..behind…her.

Elizabeth turns, sees him, screams her pretty little head off (like Maria should have done), and everyone comes running. By the time they arrive the monster has left, and Elizabeth is alive, but shaken. And stirred.

Cut to Maria’s father walking into town while the wedding celebration is in full swing. He’s carrying something. A body. A little girl’s drowned, lifeless body. He’s in a stunned trance. It’s all very sad. A lesson here: showing up to a wedding party carrying a dead body is going to bring everyone’s mood down.

One thing’s for sure, these villagers are versatile. Upon learning of the tragedy with Maria, the wedding party stops all the dancing and laughing, and has now suddenly become a lynch mob. Night has fallen. They split up into groups armed with torches, bloodhounds, and yes, pitchforks. There’s much yelling and cheering and blood lust. Henry is among them, having left Victor in charge of looking after Elizabeth, which, presumably, took no real coaxing.


During the hunt, Henry gets separated from the group and ends up crossing paths with his monster who does not seem pleased to see him. There’s a struggle and, predictably, Henry loses, is knocked out, and dragged away by his own creation. The villagers catch sight of the creature carrying Henry’s body away and let loose the hounds. Now the chase is on. The monster takes refuge in an abandoned windmill. Once inside, Henry comes to his senses and he and the monster have a tremendous fight at the top of the windmill, capped off by the creature throwing Henry down to the ground like a rag doll (probably because they used a rag doll). Some of the villagers cart him off. The rest now have nothing else on the agenda but to light that windmill on fire, much to the chagrin of the creature who, as Fritz could have told them, doesn’t like fire very much.

Finally, as the monster was meeting his fate in the burning windmill, I (still curled up in the corner of the sofa on that cold October night) was filled with a sense of satisfaction and relief. At last! The monster had his fiery come-uppance and would no longer be terrorizing the townspeople with that freaky stiff-legged gait and his deeply disturbing groans and growls.

My mother, however, was having a very different reaction. As the screen faded to black, I noticed her sniffling and dabbing her eyes with a tissue. I was confused. Crying? Crying over what? The monster was dead! This was cause to celebrate and relax! Rejoice! High fives all around! The monster was gone! Crying was simply not a sensible response to this situation, at least as far as I was concerned. Moms can be strange creatures in their own right.

Of course in later years, and subsequent viewings of the film, I understood mom’s sniffles. The Frankenstein monster, though a monster for sure, is a tragic figure; a victim of one man’s reckless dalliances with science and mortality. Engaged in an ego-maniacal tug-of-war with God over defeating death and creating life, Henry is the real monster of the film. The creature did not, after all, ask to be constructed from the body parts of corpses and brought back to life. And once on his feet, his limited intellectual abilities and childlike perception of the world around him caused him to function more like an animal than a human being. The creature was as fearful of his situation and surroundings as others were of him. Perhaps more so. He was scared, uncertain, upset, and liable to remove all your limbs if you lit a match. But he was a “monster” only in so much as he was grotesque in his appearance, unpredictable, and potentially violent when threatened. This description, however, also fits some perfectly decent animals, and some of my friends after a few beers.

I should mention that the film does not end with the burning windmill scene, but on a rather positive note. We see the housekeepers gathering to knock on the door to Henry’s room where he’s recuperating from a decidedly hectic wedding night. I’d love to see their wedding photo album! The Baron opens the door from inside, “What’s all this, then?” he asks them. The maids tell him they thought Henry might appreciate a glass of Frankestein wine to aid in his recovery. The Baron, a man who makes far better decisions than his son, declines to dose Henry, but instead happily downs it himself. A fitting end to a classic and unforgettable horror film.

So, class, what can we learn from the film? (Don’t worry, there will be no quiz)

First of all, we can learn that a truly great story can be retold for generations without losing its potency. Frankenstein is really it’s own ubiquitous brand. Its success has spawned at least a dozen other Frankenstein-related movies: The Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and, of course, the well-loved and often quoted spoof, Young Frankenstein, to name but a few. But beyond the entertainment and chills, Frankenstein is emblematic of a more sobering ideological struggle.

Frankenstein, the film (and of course the book by Shelley, which is an amazingly rich and complex novel you should read), forces us to acknowledge a difference between the actions of a monster and the one who may shoulder a deeper responsibility – the monster’s creator. We’re made to understand that the monster himself is constructed with a bad brain. His is the brain of a psychotic murderer. And that face! Sinister, expressionless, dead. We all know he could use a little botox and a good spa treatment. However, his mortal life is over. His crimes, whatever their nature, are somehow tempered by a fate perhaps greater than his own mortal death.

We all know that the Frankenstein monster is an ugly manifestation of the hubris of a man obsessed with power. Throughout the film we’re reminded that the man behind the mayhem is, in fact, intelligent, educated, wealthy, and loved. Why waste it all on a bad biology experiment? In a word, power. Power over the one eternal human problem: death.

Why do we return to this story over and over again, remaking and revisiting this seemingly simple story of a power-obsessed doctor who creates a monster?

Without dallying in my own dangerous hubris, I feel it’s rather obvious that the story of Frankenstein reflects a dichotomy of belief still very much alive in today’s society; that of the role of science in the creation and extinction of life. I would go so far as to say that Frankenstein is part of the genetic makeup of modern society and its dependence on science to answer the big questions. Perhaps the biggest of these questions entails a certain forced realization that the role of science is to push the envelope of what is possible. In so doing, science has to be acknowledged as the single greatest force to challenge our religious beliefs and ideals, as it should. Where are lines to be drawn between what can be done, and what should be done? Does our technology outpace our wisdom as to its uses?

It would seem that our ability to invent and devise ways of perpetrating human existence and ending it is almost infinite. Artificial inception, abortion, stem cell research, capital punishment, “right to die,” artificial life support systems, “do-not-resuscitate” orders, induced births, sperm banks; all of these thorny issues exist under the shadow of Shelley’s prescient story written nearly 200 years ago by an 18 year old daughter of philosophers in a castle near Geneva, Switzerland.

Frankenstein leaves us with a heft of unresolved philosophical and moral quandaries that, to this day, plague us. But for those of us who relish the chance to explore the outer edges of scientific facility, as well as both the limitations and merit of our own beliefs, Frankenstein remains a treasure trove of inspiration, examination, and fascination. And what more can we ask from a good old-fashioned scary story?

As for my own memories, Frankenstein represents a period of my childhood I relish. Aside from the intellectual exploits the story invites, those nights along-side mom, the two of us silently suffused in the blue light of the television, enjoying the handiwork of Whale (and Hitchcock, Lean, Wilder, etc) those were moments I’d gladly relive. And while the Frankenstein monster has staggered, big and menacing, into more than a few of my nightmares, I still have a soft spot for that big murderous oaf. For all his creepiness and brutality, he represents a period of innocent fascination with the strange but welcome sensations of being frightened, intrigued, and enthralled. For that, I will never be able to look on that horrible face without feeling a certain indebtedness to the likes of James Whale, Boris Karloff, Mary Shelley, and my own mother, who remains my favorite classic movie-watching partner. 

 –Happy Halloween!


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