“The publishers did not see that my purpose was to write a moral lesson of the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.” — Mary Shelly’s character in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
October is horror film month because of Halloween (“Hallow,” not “Hollow”). The genre has come a long way. The older horror films often blend elements of legitimate science with the occult, alchemy, sexual innuendo, evolution, and terror with something of a moral lesson. The earliest horror or “monster movies” relied on science that had gone awry, either by miscalculation or by the cool determination of a scientist who wanted to stretch the limits of scientific convention. The mad scientists believed they could do anything without the need for moral restraints. Much like climate scientists and politicians who believe they can control the weather or create wealth ex nihilo. A top United Nations official boasted that global elites “own the science,” which means, anything they do is done in the name of science whether it’s scientific or not.
Works of literature were put on the big screen, significantly modified from their original stories. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) are early examples.
Mind Games: The Need for a Christian Worldview
One of the foundational ideas to a worldview is an individual's view of man. Is he like Frankenstein's monster or is he more like Jekyll and Hyde? Is he inherently good or inherently bad? In this two-part series, Jeff Baldwin makes the point that since a worldview is really nothing more than a series of ideas, we must have the correct worldview in order to make sense of these ideas. Further, a worldview necessarily leads to action, whether good or bad.Buy Now
These early horror films did more than scare their audiences. They tinkered with our philosophical and religious perceptions of reality. Frankenstein is described in the subtitle as a “Modern Prometheus.” Prometheus defied the gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to humanity in the form of technology and knowledge.
The Enlightenment was flexing its muscle in the nineteenth century and Shelley’s novel exploited the theme to its fullest.
[T]he recent controversies over creationism versus evolution overlook the central point: that the most potent creation myth of modern times is not Genesis or Darwin but Frankenstein…. [T]he Frankenstein tradition took shape in the nineteenth-century struggle between Scripture and science, romanticism and rationality.
These mad scientists saw themselves as titans—a new breed of gods—creating men and women in their own image. Transgenderism is a modern-day manifestation of the Frankenstein myth. In the superior sequel to Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Ernest Thesiger (who often dressed in drag), playing Dr. Pretorius, confirms our suspicions as he toasts, “To a new world of gods and monsters!” Dracula hopes to live forever on the blood of his victims. “Darwin dancing with Dante, as it were.” James Whale, the director of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, was a prominent and public homosexual in Hollywood at the time. Dr. Pretorius is Whale’s alter ego. Frankenstein and Pretorius “work together to ‘give birth’ to a woman, two homosexuals replacing the heterosexual model of male and female parenting and replacing God—annihilating those noxious enemies of homosexuality, society and religion in one blow.”
When Dr. Pretorius arrives at the Frankenstein house to meet with Dr. Frankenstein, the maid remarks, “He’s a queer fellow!”
The monsters in Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein were brought to life with elements from the original creation. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, electricity was more than just a symbol of scientific discovery. Some were touting it as the substance of life. Electricity was seen as a “life force” independent of the need for a divine Creator like the way mathematics was being used to unravel the orderliness of the universe independent of any divine intervention.
The theme of reanimation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, the novel on which the first film is loosely based, was written against the backdrop of emerging humanistic science. The study of electricity was all the rage in Shelley’s day, from Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with kites and keys to European scientists who had applied electrical currents using batteries “to dead animals and human cadavers, creating muscular contractions.” Some have suggested that the “Frank” in Frankenstein may have been inspired by the electrical experiments done by Benjamin Franklin. Mary Shelley’s husband experimented with electricity and dead animals. Like any good science fiction writer, Shelley wove contemporary science and character traits of people she knew into a powerful literary metaphor infused with moral lessons.
Incantations, witches, and magic spells play no role in the creation of Frankenstein’s monsters. These are borrowed capital man-made beasts. Keep in mind that there is no way to avoid God as the Creator in these films since Dr. Frankenstein reanimates only what God first animated. Frankenstein’s monster was put together from other humans of God’s making. There is no ex-nihilo creation or even a creation from the “dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). Even so, it still would have been God’s dust.
In the Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorious beguiles Dr. Frankenstein into playing God. He convinces his former pupil of the unlimited possibilities of science with no religious restraints. The spooky doctor, dressed in black clothes, including a medieval alchemist’s skull cap, shows Frankenstein some of his latest creations, seven miniature, toy-like beings in jars. When Henry (Victor in the book) Frankenstein gazes upon the little people, he comments appropriately, “But this isn’t science. It’s more like Black Magic.” Pretorius dismisses the notion, informing Frankenstein that he grew them “as Nature does—from seed.”
In Johann Goethe’s nineteenth-century drama Faust (1773), the title character creates a living homunculus, or “little human being,” in a vessel over a fire. Faust, you will recall, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for esoteric powers and hidden (occult) knowledge. Shelley has Dr. Frankenstein studying the medieval works of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus who were noted for their work as astrologers, mystics, and alchemists.
One of Dr. Pretorius’s creations in a jar is the devil. Pretorius asks Frankenstein if he notices the resemblance. “The next one is the very Devil—very bizarre, this little chap. There’s a certain resemblance to me, don’t you think? Or do I flatter myself? I took a great deal of pains with him. Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn’t be much more amusing if we were all devils, and no nonsense about angels and being good.”
But it’s the laboratory with its machines and electrical current that will bring life to the amalgamated remains of the dead. Even so, the storyline of The Bride of Frankenstein leaves the dulling impression that there is something behind it all. Prior to meeting Pretorius, Frankenstein reveals his misgivings to his wife: “I’ve been cursed for delving into the mysteries of life. Perhaps death is sacred, and I profaned it…. I dreamed of being the first to give to the world the secret that God is so jealous of—the formula for life.” Elizabeth warns Henry: “Don’t say those things. Don’t think them! It’s blasphemous and wicked. We are not meant to know those things.” Henry won’t give up the wonder and exhilaration of it all. Deep down he believes he is “intended to know the secret of life. It may be part of the Divine Plan.” Elizabeth knows better. “No, no! It’s the Devil that prompts you. It’s death, not life, that is in it all and at the end of it all.”
It’s been said that the creation of Frankenstein’s monster was Shelly’s indictment of scientific pursuits that had gone astray. Dr. Frankenstein was tampering with God’s realm by creating autonomous man’s version of Adam and Eve. In fact, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) demanded that Clive’s line, “I know what it feels like to be God,” be cut from the Frankenstein film.
[Joe] Breen, a Catholic journalist prior to his appointment [to the Production Code Administration], immediately noted the story’s irreverent tone. “Throughout the Script,” he wrote, “there are a number of references to Frankenstein which compare him to God and which compare his creation of the monster to God’s creation of Man. All such references should be eliminated.”
Breen missed the depiction of the Monster, played by Boris Karloff, arms outstretched as he is tied to a pole, as a man-made Christ figure in the Frankenstein sequel, and his encounter with a blind hermit in the forest. “Trussing the Monster up in a Christ-like pose by a mob of jeering villagers is a heavy-handed conceit. The religious overtones are in full force in the hermit sequence. The Monster feasts on bread and wine, the Holy Sacrament, and the scene fades to black with the camera lingering on the luminous after-image of the crucifix.”
COLLISION: Is Christianity Good for the World
COLLISION carves a new path in documentary film-making as it pits leading atheist, political journalist, and bestselling author Christopher Hitchens against fellow author, satirist, and evangelical theologian Douglas Wilson, as they go on the road to exchange blows over the question: ‘Is Christianity Good for the World?’Buy Now
The point of the novel and the two films is an indictment of rationalism and scientism gone mad. Man without moral restraints can only create monsters. Shelley’s work was a “rebellion against scientific rationalism.” The French Revolution of the late eighteenth century had such high hopes for the materialists who made reason a god until blood literally ran in the streets. The concluding line uttered by the monster in The Bride of Frankenstein, as he brings the castle tower down upon himself, his “bride,” and Dr. Pretorius, is an appropriate conclusion to what life is like without God: “We belong dead.”
These classic horror movies were about man assuming the role of God, the very temptation that led to Satan’s fall and Adam’s sin. The same temptation persists.
David J. Skal, Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1998), 33.
Skal, Screams of Reason, 81.
Gary Morris, “Sexual Subversion,” Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 11 (July 1, 1997)” https://brightlightsfilm.com/sexual-subversion-bride-frankenstein/
For a helpful comparison of how the 1818 novel and the 1931 film differ, see Carol Adams, Douglas Buchanan, and Kelly Gesch, The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Frankenstein (New York: Continuum, 2007), 146-147.
Skal, Screams of Reason, 37.
Skal, Screams of Reason, 43.
Jeremy Dyson, Bright Darkness: The Lost Art of the Supernatural Horror Film (London, England: Cassell, 1997), 55.
David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1993), 137.
Skal, The Monster Show, 187.
Michael Brunas, John Brunas, and Tom Weaver, Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931–1946 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1990), 120.
Skal, Screams of Reason, 33.