By: Sarah Kelly ’22, a Business Management and Psychology double major.
The following work was created for ENG 101: Literature and Composition
Brief description: “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankensteinhas had a lasting influence on the horror genre. While Shelley’s Creature is physically characterized by a frightening and gruesome appearance, it is the horrors of reality embodied by the Creature that leave a lingering feeling of fear in the reader. Shelley’s concept of the ‘monster’ embodying the horrors of reality can be seen in all great horror films and novels. Like Shelley’s Creature, zombies are physical manifestations of the terrors of reality. This essay explores several of the tragic realities that Shelley’s Creature and ‘the zombie’ embody.”
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein sparked a change in literary culture that set the standard for modern horror novels and films that many either love or love to hate. What is it about horror movies that bring a chill to the spine? Why do we flinch at the sight of hideous “monsters?” How do these fictional “monsters” have the power to scare us even when the book is shut? Is it simply the pure disgust at the sight of a beastly creature or is it the underlying horrors of reality that they represent? While the unsettling appearance that characterizes a majority of “monsters” may cause an initial fear-mongering reaction, the deeper level of fear exists because of the real-life horrors that the monsters represent. Shelley, who is the first writer to implement the idea of a “scary monster” alluding to a “scary reality,” has inspired writers and directors for decades, especially in the zombie movie industry.
The physical depiction of Shelley’s Creature aligns with what one would imagine a stereotypical monster to look like. Shelley described the Creature as follows, “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriance’s only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips” (Shelley, 114). The gruesome physical appearance of the Creature is only a surface-level horror of the novel. Similar to how the Creature’s yellow skin barely covers his internal features, the physical appearance of the Creature barely encompasses the element of fear that has made Shelley’s work one of the most famous horror stories of all time. The everlasting impact of terror exists in a psychological way—it exists in the underlying horrors of reality.
What gives Frankenstein its “fear factor” is not necessarily the Creature but the tragedies of real life that the “monster” symbolizes. There are several different theories as to what Shelley intended for the Creature to represent. One implied horror of reality within Frankenstein is slavery. Shelley, a known advocate for the abolitionist movement, created the novel in a prime transition time for slavery in England. Noted in an annotation within the novel, Frankensteinwas originally published a decade after the slave trade was abolished (1807). Work on the novel continued through a time of progressive movement in abolitionist activism (Shelley, 256). Given this historical context, it is not a stretch by any means to assume that the repulsion of human enslavement was prominent in many slaves and activists’ minds. Several times throughout the novel, the master-slave dynamic is referenced. The dynamic is used by the Creature to create fear in and establish dominance over Victor Frankenstein, “Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master; — obey!” (Shelley, 256). The “monster” implemented the terminology of the very fear he represents. The annotation for the previous quote suggests, “The language of master and slave is embedded in the abolition controversy…Frankenstein alludes to both sides of the debate: it is reactionary (the alarm of subhuman creatures acquiring power) and progressive (a recognition of how maltreatment of abject creatures as subhuman can lead to social crisis)” (Shelley, 256). Since Shelley alludes to both sides of the slavery debate, the fears embodied by the Creature could be provoked in anyone with an opinion on the matter.
Yet another horror of reality represented by the Creature is the basic human fear of neglect, specifically the neglect of a parent. The “evilness” of the Creature is a byproduct of parental neglect. The monstrous and murderous acts of the Creature are justified (by the Creature himself) as a result of being neglected at birth, “…I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone…it is in your power to recompense me, and deliver them from an evil which it only remains for you to make so great, that not only you and your family, but thousands of others, shall be swallowed up in the whirlwinds of its rage” (Shelley, 171-172). The universal human fear of neglect is especially relevant to Shelley. As mentioned in the introduction to the novel, Shelley’s mother died during childbirth. Spiraling from there, for a portion of her life, her own father sent her away to live with other family members (Shelley, 8). Shelley’s clear connection to the lonely “monster,” further exemplifies the idea of the “fear factor” of monsters stemming from their embodiment of real-life trauma and touchy subjects. Shelley’sFrankenstein can be credited as the inventor of this idea of the “monster” being a physical embodiment of the horrors of reality.
Shelley’s invention has trickled into more modern horror films and novels. Horror films and novels often have monsters that consciously scare viewers with grotesque appearances but unconsciously trigger the dark fears of human nature. While there are many monsters who are scarier less because of their physical appearances and more so because of the deeper human fears they represent, I will hone-in-on one type of monster in particular—the zombie. These “living dead” brain-hungry fiends, like Frankenstein’s Creature, are much more complex than they appear to be. Ever since the first zombie movie White Zombie (1933), Hollywood has used these “monsters” to bring light to real-life traps of which people should be weary.
Often times zombies are used in order to play to the fear of racism and consumerism. Dawn of the Dead (1978) focused on the fears and dangers of consumerism. The main setting of a mall is a key element of the movie that plays to the zombies’ embodiment of the dangers of consumerism. According to film critique Dave Wilson,
The mindless living dead horde’s attempts to get into the mall are never-ending, as their memories from their former living selves reminds them that this was once a place they needed to be at, they have a compulsion to be there …an excessive feeding to satisfy their gluttony for materialism…George A. Romero makes a correlation between the zombies and the mindless living consumers – they do not [know] why they want flesh/items; they just know they want it.” (Wilson, “Apocalyptic Consumerism”)
The use of the word “mindless” links the stereotypically material-obsessed consumer to the flesh-obsessed zombie. In a society that places high value on individualism, sameness to others is something that many fear, the trap of consumerism ropes many into the ever dreaded “horde” mentality.
The Night of the Living Dead (1968) used zombies to feed on the fears of racism. The protagonist, the only African American within the entire film, is an intelligent man who tries to help all survivors he encounters. Although he proves time after time that he is reliable and helpful, certain survivors remain weary and hostile towards him. In the end, despite all zombies being white, he is “mistaken” for a zombie and is shot and killed. Film historian, Mark Harris relates the horde of zombies in the film to the likeness of a lynch mob (Ericson, “Visualizing Racism”). With Harris’ commentary in mind, one could infer that the zombies represent people who possess the inhumane inclination towards racist ideologies. During the time this movie was made, race relations were at a low and activists within the Civil Rights movement were working fervently to obtain equality. Given this historical context, one would think that the director intentionally used the movie as an allusion to the racial tensions of the time. Interestingly enough, it was not until the film was released that Romero realized the very clear connections between the zombies and race relations. On an unconscious level, the image of the “zombie” was reconstructed to embody the very prevalent racial tensions that were fresh in the minds of many Americans. The unconscious (or conscious) construction of a “monster” with social issues and harsh realities as blueprints is seen in several characteristics of Shelley’s monster. As explored earlier in this essay, many believe that the Creature is used as a physical embodiment of the horrors of slavery and the twisted dynamic between master and slave. Frankenstein was written in a time when the battles against slavery and for progression were being fought rigorously and with widespread attention (Shelley, 256). Whether the many cases of symbolism behind “the zombie” or “the Creature” were implemented intentionally or not, the underlying messages portrayed by their mannerisms and characteristics are clearly linked closely with the struggles of real-life.
The spine-chilling tragedies of reality create the deeper-level fear of the Creature and “the zombie,” however, there is still some validity to the fear caused by the disturbing physical appearance of “monsters.” The aspects of ugliness and beauty prominent within Frankenstein are still essential elements of the novel’s plot. Reoccurring descriptors of the Creature’s physical appearance such as “wretched” and “hideous” certainly add to the eeriness of the novel. The extent to which these descriptive words are impactful fade into the background when compared to underlying elements of horrific reality exacerbated by the “hideous monster.” To provide some backing to the previous statement, the quote describing the Creature’s physical attributes must be considered (Shelley, 114). While the descriptive words are likely to conjure up some form of discomfort in the reader, a much more intense reaction is provoked by the scene in which the Creature blames his monstrous acts on the impacts of Frankenstein’s neglect (Shelley, 171-172). The feeling of “discomfort” invoked by the description of the Creature is minuscule in comparison to the Creature’s heart-wrenching recollection of the deep emotional scars caused by his creator’s neglect.
While the sight of a twisted beast, ghoul, or creature may cause an initial reaction of fear, the lasting fear lies in the human realities that create such beasts, ghouls, and creatures. Shelley and her novel Frankenstein set the stage for this concept of a living or unliving fiend being the product of human fears and tragedies. This concept is exhibited in many zombie movies as the “living dead monsters” often represent heavy topics such as racism and consumerism. The zombie is just one of many monsters existing within the horror genre. It would be interesting to explore the ways Shelley’s invention is implemented in other horror films and novels. Another thing to be considered is that if all “monsters” have the potential of being complex symbols of the horrors of the human mind, couldn’t all monster-based horror movies be considered psychological thrillers?
Ericson, Amanda. “Visualizing Racism in ‘Get Out’ & ‘Night of the Living Dead’.” Outtake by Tribeca Shortlist, Outtake by Tribeca Shortlist, 23 Feb. 2017, outtake.tribecashortlist.com/visualizing-racism-in-get-out-night-of-the-living-dead-b3a604213dd2.
Halperin, Victor, director. White Zombie. A Halperin Production, 1933.
Harper, Stephen. Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm.
Romero, George A, director. Dawn of the Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1978.
Romero, George A, director. Night of the Living Dead. The Website Reade Organization, 1968.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan J. Wolfson. The Annotated Frankenstein. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.
Wilson, Dave J. “Apocalyptic Consumerism: George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) – A 40th Anniversary Retrospective.” Diabolique Magazine, 1 Sept. 2018, diaboliquemagazine.com/apocalyptic-consumerism-george-a-romeros-dawn-of-the-dead-1978-a-40th-anniversary-retrospective/.
Sarah Kelly ’22 is double majoring in Business Management and Psychology with a minor in Marketing. She is a member of Zeta Tau Alpha. In her free time, she enjoys volunteering, creative writing, and listening to music.