Two hundred years ago, on the shores of Lake Geneva during a dark and dismal summer, the eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin created one of the most enduring monsters of contemporary history. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously as an epistolary three-volume novel two years later. The second edition was published in France five years after that in 1823, bearing for the first time the English author’s married name: Mary Shelley. Since then, the novel has become one of the most widely taught literary texts in the English language, and the creature commonly known as Frankenstein remains one of the most recognizable and popular monsters of the horror genre and beyond.
Shelley’s Creature is stitched together from parts collected from “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house” and brought to life by scientist Victor Frankenstein, and has a hulking, jaundiced appearance:
“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 these 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 shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. …
“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.”
—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
Little else of the story persists through some of our common popular conceptions of Frankenstein’s Monster, however.
One hundred years after the novel’s publication, Frankenstein was once again given new life. The nascent field of fimmaking brought us the first Frankenstein films in 1910, 1915 and 1920. But it was Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the Creature in Universal Studios’ electrifying 1931 horror hit Frankenstein (based more on the 1927 stage play adaptation by Peggy Webling than the novel) that became the prevailing cultural image of the Creature we are most familiar with today. That film also introduced us to the Tesla coils and spark-throwing electrical rigging now found in most depictions of the laboratory of the Monster’s creation. (In fact, many of those same laboratory props from the 1931 film were later used in Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy masterpiece Young Frankenstein, starring Peter Boyle as the Creature.)
Karloff’s Frankenstein, in both the 1931 film and its first two sequels (1935’s Bride of Frankenstein and 1939’s Son of Frankenstein), established the now-classic movie monster look: shabby and too-short suit of clothes dusty with grave dirt, neck battery terminals, flat-topped head, plastered-down black hair, sloped forehead, and thin black lips. Based on the same makeup design by Jack Pierce, Herman Munster of the ’60s comedy television show The Munsters helped cement the Karloff-style Creature look in the minds of sitcom and horror fans alike.
Just as 1974’s Young Frankenstein used props from the 1931 Universal Pictures film, the location as well as many set pieces and props from the English “Hammer Horror” film Curse of Frankenstein (1957, starring Christopher Lee as the Creature) were used in another Frankenstein-based film: camp cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (featuring Peter Hinwood as the creature Rocky). The reuse of props and sets in both the Hammer and Universal franchises, not only in sequels but in cross-genre films made decades later, surely contributed to our collective idea of how Frankenstein’s lab should look.
Frankenstein in Popular Culture
As Frankenstein’s Creature is one of the most popular monsters in horror history, there have been scores of films made about him over the past century (and Universal has plans to bring Frank back yet again in a series of Universal Monster reboots beginning next year, likely inhabiting a shared cinematic universe as the originals largely did). Portrayals of Frankenstein range from unfairly persecuted simpleton (Young Frankenstein , The Rocky Horror Picture Show , Van Helsing ) to intelligent, psychically tortured murderer (Life Without Soul , Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ), to elements of both (Bride of Frankenstein , I, Frankenstein ).
Frankenstein’s monster has appeared from time to time in DC comics, including Superman (1961), The Phantom Stranger (1973), and Batman (1995). In Marvel comics, the Creature can be found in The X-Men (1968) and The Silver Surfer (1969), and was featured in an 18-issue stand-alone series called The Monster of Frankenstein, published 1973–1975. Additional appearances can be found in books from just about every other comics and manga publisher one can name, including Dark Horse Comics’ 1991 graphic novel adaptation of the 1931 Universal film.
“You are so fragile, you mortals. Such things of skin and air. Such things of the past. The future belongs to the strong, to the immortal races—to me and my kind. Look upon your master.”
—The Creature to Dr. Frankenstein, Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful: The Showtime Victorian horror series Penny Dreadful (2014–2016, RIP) features the characters of Victor Frankenstein as well as three creatures, the first and most true to Shelley’s original being played by the wonderfully creepy Rory Kinnear. Doctor Who’s Billie Piper plays the Bride, Lily. (Alex Price, who played yet another creature, Proteus, also appeared on Doctor Who as Francesco Calvierri in the Season 5 episode “Vampires of Venice.”) While set in a compressed time frame to accommodate a larger span of classic monsters from literature into the wider story, the Frankenstein aspects of the show are more faithful to the novel than most other versions found in either TV or film.
“You needed a lack of graphic imagination to talk about personal issues with an Igor.” —Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: In Discworld novels ranging from 1998’s Carpe Jugulum (one of our favorites!) to 2008’s Making Money, Pterry combines both the Creature and Victor Frankenstein with the lab assistants of the Universal & Hammer Frankenstein films in the characters known as Igors. Like the werewolves and vampires of the Discworld, Igors are from Überwald. Igors traditionally work as servants, but their excellent surgical skills have helped many leave the landed estates of the Überwald wealthy, instead taking positions such as with the Borogravian military and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Igors (who, while all named Igor, are still somehow able to differentiate which Igor one is speaking of) often have limps and lisps, but these are apparently more of an affectation than a disability. Igors are very difficult to kill, as they can simply swap out damaged body parts or even perform upgrades on themselves, installing “sthpare” back-up organs. But Igors are generally kind and helpful by nature, so although they have an unnerving inclination to answer doors before one knocks or to be looming just behind people when called, they tend to get along well with others.
Let me tell you about my family business. You’re in way over your heads. The family is vast—spread over the world. And that power that you mentioned doesn’t come from the book. It comes from intelligence and will. The book facilitates. Stock market dive, recession, 9/11—any of them ring a bell? Arab Spring? Didn’t even break a sweat.
—Eldon Styne, Supernatural S10E21, Dark Dynasty
Supernatural: Members of the powerful and evil Styne family appear in Season 10 of Supernatural. According to lore, The Styne family has ancient roots in Eastern Europe and were the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s novel, the publication of which prompted the shortening of the family name from Frankenstein. Like Pratchett’s Igors, the male members of the Styne family are surgically enhanced with the body parts of others—but very unlike the Igors, they appropriate these parts from unwilling victims.
The Stynes are also practiced in dark magic, aided by their possession of the Book of the Damned (which they lost around the time of World War I). The family has had a hand in many global catastrophes over the centuries (“a thousand years of nasty,” according to Sam), from the Black Death to the rise of fascism in twentieth-century Germany. Dean Winchester, while still bearing the Mark of Cain, wipes out the entire American branch of the Styne family after the murder of Charlie Bradbury.
Shelley (and Victor Frankenstein) never give their monstrous creation a name. But whether known as Frankenstein’s Monster, the Creature, or simply “the wretch,” the abomination known to every schoolchild as “Frankenstein” has been with us for 200 years and shows no sign of slowing his looming, lurching rampage across our imaginations.