Boris Karloff in Frankenstein.
Mark Blankenship, editor of Primetimer’s Reviews, isn’t just a TV fan: he’s also a movie buff. Every once in a while, something on the small screen will inspire him to write about a movie, which is why Shudder’s Queer for fear inspired this deep dive into Frankenstein.
Is Frankenstein’s monster really a monster, or is it just misunderstood? You almost have to ask that question in 2022, now that we’ve spent several postmodern decades reframing our perception of the terrifying villains of the past. In Nasty, the wicked witch of the west is a feminist icon. In true blood and Dusk, vampires are romantic heroes. So doesn’t it make sense that Frankenstein’s creature, driven by cruel science and then immediately turned on by villagers who don’t understand him, is actually a noble outcast, suffering because he’s different?
This is a central question in a first segment of Queer for fear, Bryan Fuller’s docuseries for Shudder about the deep connection between horror fiction and queer identity. Several of the experts interviewed note that Mary Shelley, who created Frankenstein, was herself queer, as was James Whale, who directed the classic 1931 film. his creature as stand-ins for people who feel like outcasts, especially those with taboo desires.
Even though I hadn’t seen Frankenstein before, I nodded while watching this part of the show. “Yes,” I thought. “It’s good.” I had sort of internalized that idea about the creature, so when I streamed the Peacock movie, I thought I’d be happy to see my received wisdom validated.
Except it wasn’t that simple. On the one hand, Frankenstein’s Monster does do terrible things. He attacks Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancee Elizabeth in her room. He kills both Fritz, the doctor’s assistant, and Waldman, his former teacher. In a crazy scene, he throws a little girl named Maria into a lake, where she drowns.
It’s bad! It’s not like the creature minds its own business at home. He’s over there ending people’s lives, which is why a crowd of villagers are chasing him with torches. In fact, they only spring into action after Maria’s father carries her corpse through the streets. Even if we disapprove of their justice, it is easy to understand what inspires it.
But that doesn’t mean the monster is pure evil. The film complicates matters by showing the reasons why he is so violent. For one thing, we know that when Dr. Frankenstein builds the monster’s body out of spare parts, he’s using an “abnormal brain.” It’s even kept in a jar with a label that explicitly says “abnormal brain.” Right away, then, we’re shown that there’s something wrong with the bully. (From our modern perspective, there are many ways to interpret the concept of “abnormal brain,” which deepens the film’s resonance as a parable about strangers.)
Moreover, the monster reacts by pure instinct. He is terrified of fire, so when Fritz taunts him with a torch, he kills Fritz out of fear. He kills Waldman because Waldman is trying to cut him into pieces in order to end his reign of terror.
And little Maria? He throws her in the lake after throwing flowers in it and watching them float. It’s clear he’s having fun, and he just wants to watch Maria dance like a daisy on water. He gets upset when she sinks – and Boris Karloff’s performance communicates legitimate grief – but it’s not a ringing endorsement of his character. He’s dangerous, thoughtless, and unsophisticated, which means he can’t be trusted. One could pity him, but the film frames his existence as an abomination.
So if Frankenstein really is about outcasts, so it suggests that their inherent flaws have doomed them to suffer and hurt. Some of the people interviewed in Queer for fear hint at it, but there’s nothing quite like watching the original to get a full and desperate sense of what’s going on beneath the story’s surface.
If you see this movie through a queer lens, then it’s a tough one, because a lot of queer people (myself included) felt like freaks who deserve all the bad treatment we get. But no matter how unpleasant it is, it’s important that we watch all the same. Queer stories don’t always need to be empowering to have an impact, and it’s up to us to decide what to do with those that show this kind of pain. I don’t feel that particular pain anymore, and remembering what it was makes me even more grateful to have let go of the belief that I’m a monster.
Queer for fear premieres September 30 on Shudder. New episodes Friday. Frankenstein stream on Peacock.
Mark Blankenship is the editor of Primetimer. Tweet it at @IAmBlankenship.