Thursday, September 2, 2010

Zombie or Wannabe: Frankenstein’s Monster

Were I to ask you about Frankenstein’s monster, most of you would probably begin rambling about green-skinned, bolt-necked monstrosities in orthopedic shoes played by English character actors in black and white films. As embodied by Boris Karloff – a lumbering, violent collection of spare body parts prone to bouts of grunting rage – Frankenstein’s monster would certainly seem to carry a strand of DNA that would later culminate in the modern zombie asthetic. The story in some form has been a screen staple for 80 years that is the image cemented indelibly in popular consciousness, but as originally conceived, Frankenstein is not the tale of white-coated mad scientists with hunchbacked servants and a conveniently lightning-adjacent castles. It’s far more gothic. And far more emo.
I’m a primary sources kinda motherfucker, so before judging whether the monster deserves a wing in the Zombie Hall of Fame I pored through Mary Shelley’s epistolary novel for the first time in more than a decade. Written in 1818 by a 19 year old Mary Shelley as the result of a gothic horror story-telling contest one drunken, stormy night with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the mad, bad and dangerous to know Lord Byron, it’s the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss chemistry prodigy, who at 22 – an age when most modern students are only performing experiments with grain alcohol and the clap – is playing god and usurping the very secrets of life and death, stitching dissected corpse parts back together for his science fair project. No Igor, no lightning, Vic just gets all Lego with body parts in a spare room of the apartment he rents with murderously disastrous results.

The case for: From the moment the monster’s yellowed eyes silently pop open – sorry, no shouts of “It’s alive!” or lightning involved – Frankenstein is essentially a proto-zombie meditation on the ethics of transcending then-current human barriers of knowledge about the universe. Advance it 200 years, drop it in a military compound where an experiment is bound to end poorly, and we’re in fairly familiar territory here. In fact, the monster’s birth scene would make for a killer first zombie encounter in your next student film:
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but the luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.
One of the most interesting insights I gleaned is how Frankenstein manages to subvert a cliché that would not take root for another century and a half. Where pretty much every zombie story ever told has come down to a band of survivors fighting off overwhelming waves of organ hungry grave escapees, in Shelley’s tale it’s the monster that’s outnumbered and hunted by a superior force of vengeful humans bent on its destruction.

The case against: Though admittedly zombies, particularly as we conceive of them, were completely unknown to Shelley, she turns to other undead folkloric traditions to encapsulate the terror Victor feels in response to his creation. Such as in a scene after the monster murders his creator’s youngest brother:
I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.
Later, the monster is described as “in colour and apparent texture like that of a mummy.
Also, it can’t be ignored that most canonical zombies are not as much of a whiney emo bitch as Frankenstein’s monster, who spends the bulk of the book loudly lamenting – yes, the monster can speak and even read – how, like, nobody totally gets him and he just doesn’t have any friends. That’s right, Frankenstein and his wrathful creation spend the better part of 200 pages trying to prove they’re more miserable and unloved and friendless than each other. If heartagram tattoos and anime haircuts had been known at the start of the 19th Century, you know damn well they’d be sporting them.
Compounding the problem, the monster teaches himself to read after unearthing a conveniently symbolic trove of books that consists of Paradise Lost (leading to a serious fallen angel-identification crisis), Plutarch’s Lives and Goerthe’s suicide encomium The Sorrows of Young Werther, sending him into paroxysms of self-loathing at great length.
In fact, the crux of conflict between the monster and his creator is the demand that Frankenstein build a lady monster to keep him company. Frankenstein’s reanimated abomination is far more interested in procreating his own species than bringing down the wrath of overflowing hell upon an actively hostile humanity.

The verdict: Not a zombie by reason of antiquity. No knock on Shelley’s sci-fi/horror/emo classic, but Frankenstein just exists in a different philosophical and cultural continuum. However, you do have to give it a nod of a squared off head for inspiring a series of films that would trickle down through the centuries, ultimately influencing the zombies we love today.


  1. Sound reasoning. Frankenstein's monster is a proto-zombie at best. Kind of like Jesus Christ. Many claim Christ was the first Zombie, forgetting about Lazarus. So, if Lazarus was the first zombie (or proto-zombie, ala Frankenstein's monster), then Jesus, as his re-animator, was the first Frankenstein.

  2. or the first herbert west. kinda puts the liturgy in a new light. this is my body....