Welcome to the Creature Double Feature
Growing up in suburban Massachusetts in the 1970s, I spent my Saturday afternoons, like most kids in the Boston area, watching the Creature Double Feature on Channel 56. The double feature consisted of two monster movies—usually beloved B-movies made by Universal Studios of Hollywood, Hammer Studios of London, and Toho Studios of Tokyo from the 1930s through the 1960s. In the matinee lineup, there was typically a giant monster movie, such as Mothra vs. Godzilla, paired with a small monster movie, such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Battles between monsters (usually of the same size) were common, but these battles derived their interest from the original Universal monster movies of the 1930s, which centered on a single creature of supranatural (and typically malevolent) powers.
In this ménage, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's Creature loomed large in my imagination. They were the archetypal monsters from which all other monsters were made—though small compared to Godzilla and the radiation-spawned mutants of the Pacific Rim. The Japanese giant monster movies, in fact, all seemed to mine from the core theme of the Frankenstein story: humans could use the power of science to create or alter life irresponsibly, thus causing their own destruction. In the aftermath of Hiroshima, this lesson from fiction felt all too real.
To my childhood self, however, Dracula was the scariest monster by far. The Count appeared human yet used his supernatural powers to deliberately and emotionlessly do inhuman things to his vulnerable human victims, who were usually young women. By contrast, werewolves were frightening if only because a completely innocent person could become one by chance, as when bitten by a wolf in the middle of the night. After that stroke of bad luck, all it took was the light of the full moon to trigger one's transformation into a bloodthirsty animal ruled by instinct. Dracula was scary for his intentions, but the Wolf Man was frightening for his lack of them.
The real puzzle to my young mind was why Frankenstein's Creature was even considered a monster. The Frankenstein films were simply not scary in the way that the blood-soaked vampire and werewolf flicks were. Most of the time, I could not even watch the opening credits of a Hammer Studios vampire movie without running out of the room as soon as their signature special effect—Technicolor blood—dripped down the neck of a maiden victim of the Count. Unlike Dracula and the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's Creature commanded a spooky fascination and awe but not horror. Although he was assembled from the parts of human and other animal corpses, then animated by electricity, his oversized, even clumsy frame—grotesque as it was—elicited more sympathy than fear. The Creature was not evil incarnate like Dracula, nor an animal gone haywire like the Wolf Man. The Creature was more like an orphan child, made and abandoned by his scientist father and abused by nearly everyone he encountered as he strove to survive in the world on his own.
The Universal Frankenstein films of the 1930s reinforced this view of the Creature as a child who was not born evil but rather made monstrous as a result of mistreatment. In the 1931 classic Frankenstein, directed by James Whale, the reanimated Creature first greets the light with the sensitive eyes, inarticulate sounds, and inquisitive hands of a newborn. This innocent moment is soon disturbed by his sadistic abuse at the hands of Dr. Frankenstein's servant Fritz, who tortures him with a stick set on fire. Once he escapes, the Creature roams the countryside looking to satisfy the basic needs denied him by his father and Fritz: food, water, shelter, security, care, companionship, and love. He instead finds villagers who respond to him with violence due to his strange appearance. Seeking a respite from this abuse, he encounters a little girl, who has been let outside to play by her parents. In a striking cinematic image, the towering Creature and the tiny child sit together contentedly, tossing daisy petals into a sunlit pond. When the petals run out, the Creature assumes the girl, pretty like a flower, wants to be thrown into the water. Unaware that she will not float like the petals, he unintentionally causes her to drown. Horrified, the Creature runs away, as a child does when he cannot face the consequences of what he has done. In fact, the actor Boris Karloff wanted to underscore the Creature's innocence by laying the girl in the water gently like a flower, but Whale directed him to pick her up roughly and throw her in the pond. Either way, Karloff ingeniously interpreted the Creature as an affectionate and playful child who, without the guidance of a parent or any other adult, does not know his own strength or how to reason the consequences of his actions. Sensing the childlike quality of Karloff's Creature, the actress Marilyn Harris—who played the girl by the pond—felt a strong sympathy for the "Monster" on set. She developed a fond relationship with Karloff, perhaps because she had suffered abuse and physical torture by her sadistic stage mother since infancy.
Whale's 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, manipulates the image of the Creature as a child to both comic and tragic effect. In an almost slapstick scene, the Creature proves himself to be an amiable companion to an old blind man living alone in the woods. Unafraid of his guest because he cannot see him, the hermit unwittingly spills soup on the grunting Creature but cheerfully bonds with him over shared wine and tobacco. "Mmmmm good!" the Creature blurts to his "phwend," as a toddler would happily babble to a parent who feeds him. Some villagers stop by the cottage and disrupt this brief domestic idyll, attacking the Creature on sight. Later, the Creature learns more words under the tutelage of Dr. Pretorius. He uses the power of language to demand that his father furnish him a companion. Dr. Frankenstein makes him a bride despite his reservations about Dr. Pretorius's plan to use the so-called monsters to create a new species. When the bride unexpectedly rejects her intended mate, the Creature does not seek revenge against his father or his wife, Elizabeth. All grown up, yet truly alone, he chooses to immolate himself, his bride, and Dr. Pretorius in the flames that consume his father's laboratory in order to prevent further harm that they (or his father's science) could do to others. Watching these films directed by Whale, my young self sympathized with the Creature more than anyone. As Stephen King cogently remarked, "We see the horror of being a monster in the eyes of Boris Karloff."
Paying homage to Whale's classics in his 1974 dark comedy, Young Frankenstein, the director Mel Brooks even used the same sets, similar scenes, black and white film—and, most crucially, the image of the Creature as a child. Like Bride, Brooks's adaptation sardonically played with the absurdity of the Creature's predicament as a stitched-together, electrified, hulking orphan, even as it recognized its tragedy. In one of the most evocative scenes, Gene Wilder—in the role of the great-grandson of Dr. Frankenstein—enters a cell that contains the wailing Creature, thinking he will be killed by the supposed monster. But when his friends break in to save him, the doctor is found cuddling the giant Creature like a baby, promising to love and care for his child forever.
Young Frankenstein thus responds to a comic counterfactual that cuts to the heart of the tragedy of Mary Shelley's original story: what if the Creature had been given a hug by his father, instead of being exposed to suffering by him? Even the seemingly facetious title Young Frankenstein suggests that the deeper meaning of Shelley's story is rooted in the intense, yet perhaps insatiable, demands of parent-child relationships. Imagining the impact of a hug between Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature is no joke, even as it makes us laugh at Wilder.
I was in high school in the late 1980s when I first read Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. I picked it up partly out of curiosity to see the genesis of all those Creature Double Features that had mesmerized me not so long ago on Saturday afternoon television. What I found in Shelley's text was a story that resembled, in themes and symbolism, its many film adaptations. Yet the novel—with its three-tiered, Chinese box-like structure—was far more complex, mysterious, and compelling than any of its cinematic versions.
Plot points also differed in important ways across the novel and the films. Unlike the 1931 Frankenstein, the Creature's major wrongdoing was not the accidental drowning of a girl. For his first and worst crime, Shelley had the Creature kill Victor's Frankenstein's little brother, William, in a fit of vengeful and jealous rage against his maker's family. The Creature recounts how the murder was a deliberate attempt to avenge his father's abandonment of him: "I gazed on my victim, and my heart swelled with exultation and triumph: clapping my hands, I exclaimed, 'I, too, can create desolation; my enemy is not impregnable.'" The Creature's joy in causing the death of the young boy is childish, as he claps his hands with glee for his evil deed, but it is not childlike, for it marks the end of his innocence. To compound the gravity and intentionality of this offense, Shelley had the Creature frame the servant girl, Justine, for the murder of William, the child she helped to raise.
The Creature's growing sense of desolation in the wake of these crimes drives him to demand of his father the provision of a basic "right" to "live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being." Because Victor had failed as a parent to provide the Creature love, he as a parent must arrange for a loving substitute. Since his monstrous features cause people to fear him, the Creature reasons that this substitute must be a female companion who is equal to him in every respect, including ugliness, so that they may live together in sympathy and peace, alone in a South American desert far away from the hostility of human beings. Unlike the 1935 film by Whale, Shelley had Victor begin but then abruptly terminate the making of the equal female companion—not a "bride." Robbed of any hope of finding friendship and community in this life, the Creature responds with gruesome violence of the most calculated kind: he murders Victor's best friend, Henry Clerval; frames his maker as the killer; and then strangles Victor's wife, Elizabeth, on her nuptial bed. Through these dark episodes, Shelley consistently stressed how the Creature's cruel intention to do evil for the sake of vengeance made him into the immoral monster that society had originally, tragically, mistaken him to be.
In college, I was fascinated enough with the story to read it for fun during summer breaks—along with my other (quirkily chosen) favorite books, Augustine's Confessions, Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, and Dickens's Great Expectations. Coincidentally, the Creature taught himself to read with three books—Milton's Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther—before he deciphered the story of his own creation in his father's journal. With more of a literary background, I was able to appreciate the philosophical richness of Shelley's story, especially her reworking of the narrative of the fall of once innocent creatures into sin, death, and tragedy. In this light, Frankenstein looked like a bildungsroman gone wrong.
What kept drawing me back to Shelley's novel was the sympathetic aspect of the character of the Creature, despite all of his crimes. Growing up in the security of a loving and prosperous family, the story confronted me with a truly terrifying thought experiment: what would it have been like to be brought into this world only to be immediately rejected and exposed? Contemplating this worst-case scenario, I came to see the Creature's double identity as a superhuman avenger and a hideous monster to be a dangerous psychological fiction, foisted upon his self-image by his father's and society's horrified reaction to his features. Once his two-faced mask of inhuman mutant and righteous nemesis was removed, one could see the Creature for who he really was: a stateless orphan, abandoned by family, abused by society, and ignored by the law. A product of circumstances beyond his control, yet ultimately responsible for his own actions, the unnamed Creature deserved sympathy from other people, even when he had behaved very, very badly.
Even—perhaps especially—a child could see that.