The Monster in the Media. Assessing the Monstrous in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Stuart Beattie's "I, Frankenstein"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2014 24 Pages

American Studies - Literature




1 Defining “Monster”
1.1 The Criterion of Appearance
1.2 The Criterion Of Behavior or Character
1.3 The Criterion of Effect

2 Assessing the Monstrous in Frankenstein and I, Frankenstein
2.1 Summary of ‘Frankenstein’ (1818)
2.1.1 Summary of ‘I, Frankenstein’ (2014)
2.3 Application of the Criterion of Appearance
2.4 Application of the Criterion of Behavior or Character
2.5 Application of the Criterion of Effect




“One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses and oppresses” – Robin Wood

As Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui write in their Reader “Monster Culture” from 2013, Robin Wood states that horror films and the monsters therein “represent our [the society’s] collective nightmares” (4). According to him, the visual embodiment of the repressed, or society’s repressed collective desires, anxieties, and nightmares in the figure of the monster enables society to deal with and overcome its subconscious fears (cf. 4). Levina and Bui also mention another representative of this opinion, namely David Skat who underlines that monster films represent not only cultural anxieties, but, moreover, reflect “first and foremost a history of the culture that produced these monster images” (5). With respect to this idea of a correlative dependency between monsters and their particular cultural and historical background, one could conclude that the definition of monstrosity and monsters is fluid and underlies a continual change.

Using the example of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and the contemporary film I, Frankenstein (2014), this term paper will examine the question if the way monstrosity is perceived and defined actually is influenced by and dependent on the society’s value systems and anxieties. Therefore, it will be investigated what differences can be found in the portrayal of monstrosity in the 19th century novel and the contemporary film, and from what circumstances these differences might derive.

In order to do so, it has to be disclosed, who or what poses as the monster in the novel and the film, and which anxieties affect the respective society. Hence, this term paper first of all provides some selected approaches to monsters and monstrosity. Next Mary Shelley’s Novel Frankenstein as well as Stuart Beattie’s I, Frankenstein will be shortly summarized, analyzed, and compared with respect to their cultural background and the introduced criteria that form monstrosity. Finally, the findings will be summarized and evaluated with regard to the investigated questions.

1 Defining “Monster”

“Monster, n. Any creature so ugly or monstrous as to frighten people; any animal or human grotesquely deviating from the normal shape, behavior, or character; a person who excites horror by wickedness, cruelty, etc.”- Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

This definition of “Monster” already contains the most common approaches to characterizing a monster. The first suggestion it makes is that any creature, i.e. any living being, can be called a monster if it exhibits one or more of the characteristics that are afterwards specified. The first criterion is the criterion of appearance: A monster is something that is ugly and/ or monstrous. However, the adjective ‘monstrous’ can describe both the appearance (e.g. gigantic, extraordinarily ugly), but also the behavior (e.g. extraordinarily vicious) of something. Thus the second criterion that is mentioned is the criterion of behavior or character. The third criterion is the criterion of effect: The monster is something that frightens people and excites horror. By clarifying the first statement in more detail, the definition even offers a first proposition of what is perceived to be ugly, monstrous, or frightening: A monster is that “which grotesquely deviates from the norm in shape, behavior, or character”. In other words, ugly, monstrous, and frightening is that which is excessively abnormal in the eyes of the majority.

1.1 The Criterion of Appearance

As the appearance of someone or something is usually the first thing that can be perceived by those who encounter it, it seems to be self-evident that the assessment of humans by means of their physiognomy can be traced back as far as the ancient Greek treatise ‘Physiognomics’. Supporter of the science of Physiognomics interpreted human character by analyzing physical appearances, as they adhered to the belief that exterior traits also revealed a person’s inner life. The tendency to judge someone with regard to his appearance has been recorded in various texts ever since.

Dana Oswald refers to Sir John Mandeville’s travel narratives in her book Monsters, Gender, and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature. She states, “Sir John tells us that […] a monster is a thing deformed against kind” (2), and that he does not differentiate between human and animal (cf. 2). Thus, he already introduces the possibility of a human monster. Dana Oswald’s work indicates that his approach to a definition of monstrosity is still effective, as she argues, “monstrosity is a primarily physical and visible category: in order to be monstrous, one must manifest a clear and usually visible physical difference from that which is ‘normal’” (5). She further differentiates between three kinds of monsters: a) the monster of excess which is characterized by a body that is more than human, i.e. a body that is, for example, abnormally big or has an additional arm, b) the monster of lack which is characterized by a body that is less than human, i.e. a body that lacks something or is, for example, extraordinarily tiny, and c) the hybrid monster which is characterized by a body that is “human plus some other element not intrinsic to an individual human body” (cf. 6). Although Dana Oswald admits that there is something such as monstrous behavior which helps to “mark the monster as a cultural as well as a physical Other” (6), she later denies that it would render the actor a monster and supports this standpoint with the argument that “actions are temporary and can be changed” while appearances are mostly immutable (cf. 7).

1.2 The Criterion Of Behavior or Character

Abigail Burnham Bloom offers another approach to the key characteristics of monsters in her book The Literary Monster on Film. She explicitly states, “monstrousness is more than looks” (16) and tries to ascribe various characteristics to Monsters, differentiating between the representation of literary monsters in movies and monsters in the 19th century novel. A. B. Bloom detects and describes some profound differences in the characteristics of monsters on Film and monsters in 19th century novels: The monster in movies is commonly unique and unconnected with the main character and apart from mankind. It is an outsider that often acts without a motive and was created by an outside and/or an uncontrollable force. The monster in the 19th century novel, however, is not a marginal entity hidden out of sight but instead functions within society. It most commonly comes into being by a process within the society or the actions of an individual, and is a manifestation of the protagonist, often reflecting the negative potential of each human being and the ills of society. (cf. 7-8)

In addition to A. B. Bloom’s propositions, Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui introduce three further theoretical approaches to the study of monsters in their Reader Monster Culture; namely the psychoanalytical, the representational and the ontological approach (cf. 2-8). These approaches also include some suppositions about typical characteristics of monsters that can be used in order to analyze monstrosity or monstrousness in terms of the criterion of behavior or character. The psychoanalytical approach follows Freud’s explanation of the uncanny, and suggests that the monster is something that “used to be a part of the self and needed to be cast away in order for the self to become unified or, at least, functional” (3). The representational approach refers to the work of Robin Wood and also focuses on the processes of repression although it regards it a cultural and social procedure. Monster, then, do not represent solely that which is repressed by an individual process but rather that which is culturally and collectively repressed in the current society (cf. 4). The ontological approach introduces the monster as something that appears for the first time, that is unknown and not yet recognized. The monster is, hence, an always future-situated event and necessarily loses its monstrosity when it is analyzed and, thus, becomes familiar (cf. 6-7).

1.3 The Criterion of Effect

Both, the criterion of appearance and the criterion of behavior or character influence the criterion of effect. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the effects of monsters are related to qualities of the other criteria: Regarding the abnormal body features of some monsters, Dana Oswald quotes Susan Kim who stated that the monstrous body “demonstrate[s] what can happen to the human body” (3). Thus, it does not only reflect the threat of deformities or other abnormal features, but it also defines and confirms the norm by representing that which it is not. Dana Oswald writes, that especially the hybrid monster confronts the human society with the instability of its categories and organizational concepts (cf. 6). Monsters, hence, exploit the boundaries of the human categories, explore and challenge its integrity and remind humans of what it means to be human by confronting them with its abnormality.

However, they do not only help to define humanity, they also evoke very different kinds of fears in readers. The most obvious fear is the fear of encountering the monster and being murdered by it or, for example, being eaten. But the fear of being a victim of the monster is not the only fear that readers encounter. According to A. B. Bloom, monsters also provide the reader with a moral message and are supposed to make the reader think about his own potential monstrosity, particularly in the 19th century novel (cf. 7-8). The monsters of the typical 19thcentury novel ought to be something with which the reader could identify. As Bloom states, it was the possibility of being like the monster, of being monstrous themselves that made the reader experience fear, not the threat of being the victim of the monster (cf. 6-7).

2 Assessing the Monstrous in Frankenstein and I, Frankenstein

2.1 Summary of ‘Frankenstein’ (1818)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein resolves around Victor Frankenstein and the Creature he brought to life to create a new race and to find glory. When his efforts are successful he is horror-stricken by his creation and abandons it immediately. While Frankenstein struggles to forget what he has done, his Creature is confronted with various forms of distress, in the form of rejection. Being violently cast away after entering a village, he finds shelter behind a hut in a low hovel. Observing the inhabitants of the hut, he begins to admire their benevolence and tries his best to support them in secret. Over the period of his stay he learns to speak French, and his desire to bond with human beings and to find companionship consistently increases. When he eventually finds the courage to reveal himself to the inhabitants, he is, again, brutally chased away and decides to seek vengeance on all who mistreat him and especially on his creator. At the encounter of Frankenstein and his Creature, the Creature offers a trade: If Frankenstein consents to his demand and creates him a companion, he and his companion will settle down in America, far away from all mankind, and live a peaceful life. Frankenstein finally agrees and sets out to finish his task. Yet, shortly before completing it, he has a change of mind and destroys his work. Being not allowed to find love and companionship, Frankenstein’s Creature is eager to let Frankenstein experience the same pain as he does, and deprives him of his most beloved family and friends by killing them. Ultimately, Frankenstein chases his Creature to the North Pole, and after telling his story to the leader of an expedition, in order to dissuade him from the unlucky pursuit of glory, Frankenstein finally dies of exhaustion. When the Creature returns to his deathbed, he expresses his remorse for his wrongdoings and leaves after promising to commit suicide.

2.1.1 Summary of ‘I, Frankenstein’ (2014)

The movie I, Frankenstein does not, as one might believe, retell the story of Frankenstein and his Creature, but instead takes up shortly after the death of Frankenstein. When Frankenstein’s Creature, later called “Adam”, has buried his creator, Demons enter the scene and attack him. After he is struck down, Gargoyles appear and rescue him. He is brought to the Gargoyle Queen, and is asked to join the war between Gargoyles and Demons in order to protect mankind from their evil doings. He refuses, neither seeing himself as being a part of mankind, nor having an interest in saving them, and retreats to a solitary life apart from civilization. Adam decides to return to the human world, after he is once more attacked by a group of demons, and to become the hunter instead of being hunted. As a result, he is after all drawn into the war between Demons and Gargoyles, and discovers by chance that the former plan to overwhelm the latter and to subdue mankind by reviving numerous corpses in order to possess them. With the help of a female scientist Adam foils their efforts by killing the Demon Prince and, thus, causing the destruction of their ‘production site’.

2.3 Application of the Criterion of Appearance

Without regarding the actual information that the descriptions of Frankenstein’s Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel convey to the reader, the mere fact that they are continuously reiterated when someone encounters him already indicates an abnormality in his appearance. This impression certainly is confirmed, as the descriptions always underline the Creature’s physical abnormality with regard to his enormousness and morbidity. The description of Frankenstein’s Creature as having a “gigantic stature” (cf. 77) and the accentuation of “the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity” (cf. 77) includes all formerly mentioned properties of the criterion of appearance. With his gigantic stature and “superhuman speed” (101) Frankenstein’s Creature is, with regard to Dana Oswald’s approach to the monstrous body, a monster of excess. Yet, he also can be interpreted as a hybrid monster, as he is composed of human body parts but, apart from that, is neither human-born nor perceived to be human by anyone who sees him.

However, Frankenstein’s Creature is not the only being whose appearance is described abnormal in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In fact, it is Victor Frankenstein himself whose features are repeatedly brought to the reader’s attention: His “cheek had grown pale with study” (55) and his “eyeballs were starting from their sockets” (55); he appears “thin and pale” (61), and has a “haggard and wild appearance” (151). These attributes direct the reader to increasingly perceive Frankenstein as someone whose appearance more and more resembles that of a corpse through the course of the book, which is documented by Frankenstein, “I was a shattered wreck – the shadow of a human being. My strength was gone. I was a mere skeleton; […]” (187). This statement can be interpreted as describing him a monster of lack, since the formulation of being a “shadow of a human being” could also be rephrased to being something less than human.

In the film the reader is confronted with four different kinds of beings: The humans, Frankenstein’s Creature, the Gargoyles and the Demons. None of the humans has an abnormal appearance. However, the Demons and Gargoyles hide their original appearance by taking over human bodies (cf. 60:41) or morphing into a human form (cf. 04:43), respectively. Both, Demons and Gargoyles, and especially the Demon Prince and the Gargoyle Queen, originally have abnormal and monstrous bodies and are exceptionally strong and fast. That makes Gargoyles and Demons, on the one hand, monsters of excess, as they are more than human, but, on the other hand, hybrid monsters, because they take over or morph into human bodies and, thus, are part human and part something other.

When comparing the reactions of humans to the appearance of Frankenstein’s Creature in the novel and the film, one major difference can be detected: While every man and woman in the novel reacts horrified or with refusal to beholding the Creature’s countenance (cf. 109), the characters in the film seem to be much less affected by his appearance (cf. 05:02; 40:43). This is probably due to the fact that there is nothing in his visual features that distinguishes him from most humans besides a great amount of scars in his face and on his body (cf. 53:20). Regarding that and the fact that the society of the 21st century is much more accustomed to seeing physical handicaps and mutilations in the daily routine and the media than that of the 19th century, Frankenstein’s Creature has lost much of the horridness of his appearance and does not, like the Creature of the novel, represent all properties of the criterion of appearance. However, given that he is capable to fight and even outplay Demons (cf. 72:00) and Gargoyles (cf. 70:37), he still can be considered a monster of excess.

Summing up, it can be stated that both main characters of the novel inhabit characteristics of the criterion of appearance, and could, from this angle, be declared monsters. Quite interestingly, the film resembles the novel in this regard and also provides the reader with a set of characters that mostly serve at least one property of the criterion of appearance. What is different, is the fact that all characters that are originally and exclusively human are excluded from this and do not inhabit one or more of the characteristics. Yet, the other beings in the film inhabit human corpses, morph into a human form or are composed of human body parts, and are, thus, connected with humans or at least the human body.



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Frankenstein Mary Shelly Stuart Beattie Monster Monstrousness Monstrous Media I. Frankenstein Termpaper



Title: The Monster in the Media. Assessing the Monstrous in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Stuart Beattie's "I, Frankenstein"