Stories of mad scientists date back much longer than most would think, and well beyond anything approaching modern science as we know it. Every culture has told tales of people creating life from something previously inanimate. In Hebrew folklore, one of the most prominent of these stories is that of the Golem of Prague. In this story, a rabbi sculpts a creation from clay in order to act out his will in defending the city from anti-Semitic attacks. The golem was a wandering, mindless creature, a thing with no place and no natural origin. It was absolutely an influence on Mary Shelley when she wrote her seminal horror masterpiece—and maybe the most influential horror novel of all time—Frankenstein (1818).
Daughter of feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary lost her mother not even a month after her birth. She was raised by her father, novelist and philosopher William Godwin, who provided her with wealthy comforts and an informal but incredibly strong education. It was through her father that she met her greatest love and strongest influence, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Death was a constant presence in Mary’s life. She grew up having never known her mother. In 1816, she married Shelley after the suicide of his first wife and even that just after she and Shelley had just lost their prematurely born daughter.
That same summer, Mary and Shelley famously spent time with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, John Polidori and Lord Byron, leading to the contest to see who could create the scariest story among them, which led to the impetus for Frankenstein. But it’s also important to note all of the other factors in Mary’s life that played a role in her being at Villa Diodati in Geneva, having just gone through everything she had gone through, before she even uttered the first word of her tale. The summer brought a heavy rain that kept them inside for days, so the group recounted German ghost stories to amuse themselves before Lord Byron fatefully declared that they should each write one themselves.
Mary could not conceive of one right away, unlike Polidori, who wrote a tale of a ruthless and egotistical vampire based almost entirely on his unrequited love for Byron. Two things happened that ran together to form Mary’s story: a nightmare in which she was stalked by a ghoulish, corpse-like creature and a discussion one evening as to the nature of life. Mary, to the shock of the others, noted that it could be possible to reanimate a corpse, citing galvanism as an example that people had at least already appeared to come close.
Though surrounded by death most of her life and certainly around her time at Villa Diodati, Mary had never necessarily been one to fear it. She had lost her virginity on her mother’s grave and would carry her husband’s calcified heart after his death until the end of her own life. She had a fascination and a curiosity for the nature of life and death and that was what inspired Frankenstein more than anything. Victor Frankenstein is not in the right for conquering God and creating life with his own hands, but neither is his creation inherently evil. Frankenstein is not a novel meant to condemn either God or man, but to question both.
Mary had been correct in that galvanism was still talked about at the time, though it was hardly considered a scientific practice. Galvanism was a way to shock audience with the appearance of reanimation through bursts of electrical energy sent coursing throughout a body. It was a practice frequently put on display at carnivals and sideshows. One of the most famous (or infamous) men involved in this practice was Giovanni Aldini, nephew of Luigi Galvani from whom the term galvanism is derived. Aldini turned galvanism into a public display, often using his electro-stimulation technique to stimulate severed limbs, causing hands to clench as though they were still alive.
In London, in 1803, Aldini procured the corpse of an executed criminal named George Foster for his largest experiment ever: the apparent reanimation of an entire human being. Foster had been executed for having killed his wife and daughter by drowning them in the Paddington Canal. Over a century later, evidence into Foster’s case strongly suggests that he did not actually commit the crime. His wife was extremely suicidal and spoke of not only ending her life but killing their daughter with some regularity. Foster’s confession was obtained under extreme duress and it is actually extremely possible, even likely, that Aldini actually paid to fast-track the whole trial so that he would have the freshest corpse possible for his reanimation experiment.
If true, that would make the reanimated corpse a helpless victim and a pawn to a man driven by obsession that he would cross any line to see his experiments through to the end. In that respect, this real-life experiment into the limits of mortality runs directly parallel to Mary Shelley’s classic tale, whether it served as a direct influence or not. While Mary speaks of Galvanism in her 1834 introduction to the book, she does not mention Aldini nor the Foster experiment by name. These experiments certainly had some kind of impact on her as she set down to write the book.
Her summer at Villa Diodati remains the most influential, even still. Mary had just lost a child, so death was constantly on her mind. Even her compatriots at the villa that summer can be seen at least somewhat in the text. Victor Frankenstein embodies both the arrogance of Byron with the inferiority complex of John Polidori. Claire can be seen to varying degrees in both Elizabeth and the wrongly accused servant girl Justine. And for her love, Percy, his vulnerability, wounded nature and especially his poetic heart all made it into the misunderstood creature, the vilified fiend who wants only to be loved and to love in kind.
All of the elements for her story were there, but the biggest question remained the title. Frankenstein is not a common name, though it wasn’t an uncommon one in certain regions of Germany at the time, either. It is also the name of a castle in Hesse, Germany which likely served some degree of influence. The castle was also home to an alchemist named Johann Conrad Dippel, who studied alchemy and created an animal oil that he insisted was the “elixir of life” which he tried to buy the castle with, resulting in his offer being promptly turned down. Though Mary does not mention the castle in any of her journals, she did stay within ten miles of the castle on her visit to the river Rhine, making it a noteworthy possible influence. There are several completely unfounded rumors to this day about Dippel digging up corpses and using them in his experiments within the castle, most of which were conjured up after the popularity of Frankenstein, a few of which existed prior to the book’s publication.
Still, the notion of Dippel having a hand in alchemy—even simply for the purposes of being a day-to-day con artist—is an important one. While Frankenstein is often cited as one of the most seminal science fiction novels of all time, even sometimes cited as the first science fiction novel, it’s actually barely a work of science fiction at all. One of the most important elements of that story on the page is that Victor doesn’t find any of the answers he’s looking for in medical school. It’s not just that his views are frowned upon, it’s that they’re largely deemed impossible. The book is often acknowledged as being a story about the triumph of science over God, but truly, the experiment Frankenstein conducts is an affront to both. When Victor brings his creation to life, he primarily does it through the archaic practice of alchemy. He’s almost resorting to using magic.
All of these elements come together in the creation of the novel. While galvanism doesn’t play a part in the monster’s creation, the fact that most public experiments with galvanism were about reanimating individual body parts rather than a whole corpse does have a clear role. This gives way to the creature being a patchwork of individual parts loosely assembled together. The alchemy behind the creature’s creation, the notions of playing with the realities of life and death, all of these things are drawn from the real world, both within Mary’s personal life and without. Even as she set to writing the book, death was never far away. Her half-sister committed suicide while Mary was writing the book and she lost her second child before the novel saw publication. It’s easy to see why Mary Shelley, of all people, would be so invested in an idea like Frankenstein, as intriguing as it is macabre, the notion of creating life from death when she herself had lost more than one child of her own.
When the novel was first published, it was done so anonymously for many reasons, the most obvious of them being that Mary was a woman in a very male-dominated field. Once it was revealed that she had written it, the reviews began to change. While some were simply shocked by the subject matter, many reviews celebrated the boldness and voice of the author before Mary’s name was attached to it. The British Critic attacked her by pointing out that it would be impossible for her to write about this subject in any meaningful way due to “the gentleness of her sex” and dismissed the book entirely because it had been written by a woman. Unlike Dracula, however, Frankenstein almost immediately captured the cultural zeitgeist, with the first stage adaptations popping up only a few year’s after the novel’s publication.
Mary had the chance to see that adaptation in 1823, but of course the adaptations would not end there, and they continue regularly to this day. The first cinematic adaptation was a 1910 Thomas Edison production directed by J. Searle Dawley. Like the novel, it saw the creature brought to life through means of vague and unclear alchemy. Running only sixteen minutes in total, the silent production is a very quick and loose adaptation. It is noteworthy in that it tells the story of Frankenstein as a Jekyll & Hyde fable, with one turning out to truly be a reflection of the other, suggesting that the creation could simply have been a manifestation of Frankenstein’s own monstrous self-doubt and that by confronting it, the weight of his doubt was lifted and the monster defeated.
For years, the Edison production was believed to be a lost film before it was uncovered in the early 1960s. It was, however, almost immediately followed by a true lost film in 1915’s Life Without Soul. From what is known about this version, directed by Joseph W. Smiley, it featured a version of the monster called the Brute Man, who kills his creator’s sister on her wedding night, sparking the vengeful creator to hunt his creation across Europe before killing him and subsequently dying of exhaustion. While this changes some major elements, it keeps the rarely adapted last third of the novel more or less intact, the root of the story being that as much as they might hate each other, they ultimately can’t exist without each other either, both of them pursuing the other until death. When this production was reissued in 1916, its length was padded with inserted scientific documentary footage about the reproductive cycles of fish.
In 1920, another silent production was released titled The Monster of Frankenstein. While Italy is well known today for having been a driving force behind the horror genre from the 1960s into the 1980s, there were incredibly few horror movies produced there before 1950. Monster of Frankenstein was incredibly rare and it was treated harshly because of that. It faced a multitude of censorship issues and though it was a feature film, it was at one point cut down to 39 minutes. While some production stills and materials remain, Monster of Frankenstein is considered a lost film.
For a decade after that, there would be no further attempts to adapt Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece for the screen, but that next adaptation, despite the novel already being over a century old, would become not only the definitive adaptation, but the face of Frankenstein itself. It is the one single incarnation that people will always think of when they hear the name. But in 1930, Universal had been a struggling studio. It had lost $2 million, a huge number for the time, until the release of Dracula (1931). Within 48 hours of its opening, that movie had generated 50,000 ticket sales and so, just like that, Universal was in the horror business. Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. wanted horror pictures and he wanted them as fast as possible.
Because of the success of Dracula, Laemmle Jr. immediately cast Bela Lugosi as the monster, so that he could keep top billing on the poster now that people knew him as the bloodthirsty count. Lugosi was excited at first, believing that he would be playing the mad doctor, before realizing that he would be playing the silent creature, not the romantic lead. The early makeup tests featuring Lugosi did not go well and the actor’s heart was never in it. In these early scripts, though, there was nothing of the pathos and humanity that the monster would show in the finished film. It simply wasn’t there on the page. Eventually, Lugosi’s humiliation and embarrassment over the role boiled over and he left the production. He would eventually return to play the creature in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).
Boris Karloff replacing Lugosi on a film that obviously turned out to be incredibly successful was the genesis of a long-running rivalry between the two actors. When looking at the entire scope of Frankenstein’s legacy, one obviously has to wonder why this adaptation over all others has become so iconic. But it’s not just one thing, its success lies in a combination of the performance of Boris Karloff, the makeup work by Jack Pierce, and of course the direction of James Whale. These three things created an iconic monster, pieces assembled together to make a perfectly frightening whole, just like the monster himself. The film is so different from the novel in so many ways, but the heart of both the creator and the creation are intact. Frankenstein is still driven by obsession, the Monster still suffers from a yearning ache to be accepted. He’s not just a monster, but the perennial outsider, belonging to no home, not even the natural world.
For the most part, Frankenstein largely adapts the first half of the book, where the Monster mostly remains in the shadows before the reader is treated to any insight into his character, nor sees anything from his perspective. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is really the film that gets into those aspects of the story, giving the creature a voice and allowing him to express his pain verbally, and not just through his face and physicality. Having said that, the physicality of Karloff’s performance in that first Frankenstein are doubly astonishing because the actor gives a heartbreaking performance without the advantage of speech. While still very, very different from the book, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein together create one spiritually perfect adaptation.
Even though the Monster of the film is so, so different, he resonated with audiences for all of the same reasons that Mary Shelley’s novel had. The monster made people feel and the story made people think, not just about the nature of life and death, but the human beings treat that which they do not understand and have no desire to accept. The genius of Mary Shelley’s concept is that it will never not be timely. The themes are entirely universal. Life and death will always be mysterious and therefore the very thought of somehow conquering those concepts will always be alluring. This is a story that will always be told and retold, and will always continue to inspire others, just like the ghost stories that Mary and her friends recounted that fateful, rainy summer in 1816.