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Book cover of Frankenstein: A Cultural History. Image source:

Frankenstein: A Cultural History traces the history of Frankenstein’s monster from his birth in Mary Shelley’s imagination, able to speak French and evoke audience sympathy, to an unspeakable horror killing without mercy, to a subject of comedy, parody, children’s literature, and Halloween parties everywhere. Hitchcock begins by examining Shelley’s conception and revision of the tale, as well as its public reception and rapid adaptation to the stage.  Hitchcock then traces the development of the cinematic monster through many film adaptations into the green, hulking creature that we think of today. The book contextualizes the tale by explaining the historical circumstance surrounding during each stage of Frankenstein’s evolution.

The book explores the story’s trajectory of the “first myth of modern times” (4). Frankenstein’s monster is well known as a contemporary subject of film, literature, and pop-culture. Hitchcock starts at the inception of the monster: the novel, and she follows the legacy throughout its relatively brief history as far as iconic imagery goes; and the monster is an iconic image. And it’s more than that. It represents a concept whose survival reflects the changing and evolving attitudes and epistemologies of the periods that fostered its evolution.

Book Review

Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s Frankenstein: A Cultural History is precisely what it’s title indicates: a cultural history. From appreciative fans to Mary Shelley scholars, there is something to be gleaned from Hitchcock’s straightforward telling of Frankenstein’s legacy. Shelley’s novel features a monster made by a man. However, the cultural iconography that we know, the bolts from the neck, the green skin, the lurching walk: this is all part of the ongoing narrative of the original narrative, what Hitchcock calls “the monster made by man” (my italics, 4). Frankenstein’s progression through history, like many canonical texts, approaches a point at which it affects cultural history, but rarely does cultural history appropriate a text and turn it into its own uncontrollable monster. This is the story of Hitchcock’s A Cultural History. Broken into three parts—“Birth,” “Coming of Age,” and “Our Monster”—the book follows from inception to the present the relatively short life of the original text and its adaptations along a complex line of history, biography, politics, and media.

The novel was published anonymously in 1818 into a space of scandal created by the Godwin-Shelley-Byron-Polidori circle, writers whose narratives were already culturally prominent. Parody is publically aimed at the group as soon as 1819, through which the first confusion of the creature and creator’s name occurs. Within a few years the stage adaptation Presumption by Richard Peake becomes a pulp hit. Presumption then develops its own popular narrative through the goings-on of backstage mishaps, which then incorporate themselves into the sequel of the adaptation: Another Piece of Presumption. By 1823 five retellings abound in London. By the middle of the 19th century the creature itself becomes a sympathetic figure as a metaphor for the working class in the surrounding English political rhetoric. By the 20th century American political rhetoric is mixing the myth of the novel with the myth of the Greeks. Thus the very meta tale of Frankenstein, by the middle of part one, has clearly taken shape, and “[t]he more the references, the vaguer the meaning” (114). Hitchcock demonstrates that Frankenstein has in the arena of western media “entered the vernacular” (106). A Cultural History then follows the novel into all of its media forms—from film to cereal boxes.

Hitchcock revitalizes the familiar story of Villa Diodati by establishing the list of secondary  characters so to speak: Shelley, Byron, Polidori, all of whom would go on to affect the text in its initial publication. The impression of this period was one effected by advances in science that rival the 21st century. Scientists and philosophers were experimenting with animals in vacuumed jars; they were galvanizing corpses, using battery power to animate, jolt, and create spasms in the dead bodies. Enlightenment thought of this sort gave rise to the scientific and political discourse within the villa that summer from which Shelley would conceive of her text.

Throughout part one and part two the epistemologies of the historical period are expertly exampled, and the examples are accompanied by entertaining visuals that suit the expository aims of the book. A Cultural History contains an impressive amount of biography and history, and the first part—nearly half of the book—simply transitions from the detailing of Shelley’s life to the production and publication aspects of the text. It’s not until roughly a quarter of the way through that the reader gets the first glimpse of the extraordinary trajectory of the novel’s legacy, at which point we appropriately get the famous line “it lives” (83), which, incidentally, comes from an adaptation. The circumstances under which Frankenstein is written are absolutely necessary in order to comprehend its birth, however the connections between the shape of the novel and those circumstances are rarely more than implied.

Hitchcock delivers the biography of Shelley’s complex upbringing, her problematic situations with her marriage, and the overwhelming loss of life Shelley experienced; the psychological effects on Frankenstein then seem wonderfully set up for a rich critique, but what often accompanies the history is little more than a passage of analytical language. While doing little to complicate or mire the reader in academic-speak or theory, this also does little to create the grander, more exciting readings that some may want after receiving all the history: Sections and sections go by containing valuable summary, and we get a potentially brilliant trellis for a psychological reading of the text: “[Frankenstein’s] flight and denial shape the character of his creation…[the] creature rises above this birthright and develops into an intelligent, articulate, and reflective character” (47). The table is set for a critical reading here, the biography well intact, but the reader is left with: “In a sense Godwin’s novel was an experiment itself, exploring the psychology of the abandoned newborn…borrowing principles from John Locke…Locke argues that the human mind begins as a tabula rasa, a blank slate” (47). Hitchcock then transitions back into summary and history without following this lead. This is a pattern in the book.

Part two is primarily the monster in the era of film, which, gaining momentum as a powerful cultural medium, naturally “locked in new and indelible imagery for the monster” (138). Again, examples dominate the bulk of the writing. Rousing statements often introduce the sections, e.g. “[t]he word “Frankenstein” evoked a cluster of ideas…gathered up connotations of irreverence and sacrilege, of a renegade willingness to cross ancient boundaries into realms of knowledge meant only for God” (119). Hitchcock then launches into summary and historical context without delivering on such an enticing sentence. Those will find the book lacking who are looking for the bridge between the gap from Frankenstein’s cultural history to an analysis of that social attitudes that cultivated the history.

The book follows a trend: brief crests of potential analysis to long troughs of examples and anecdotes. The data, the visuals, the context, and the history of Frankenstein’s narrative is all there. Hitchcock’s book is very readable, and that’s part of the pleasure. The cultural mechanisms, however, connecting the wealth of history to the legacy of the text are conspicuously absent. It would be interesting, albeit a tall order, if Hitchcock employed the same readable language to tackle analytical aspects in order to offer a more complete picture of what Frankenstein’s legacy means and why the systems of history have fostered the text’s prosperity.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 8: The Horror and the Humor

In Chapter 8, Hitchcock covers the conceptions of the monster in 1940s and 1950s movies and print. After the initial films released by Universal studios, the myth of Frankenstein began to spread into other aspects of culture. In the 1940s, Shelley’s Frankenstein was one of 1,324 titles published and shipped overseas for American soldiers during World War II (194). Many copies of Frankenstein were included in the three million books sent between 1943 and 1947 (195). The monster was a frequent subject for political cartoonists during the war (194). This brought increased demand for additional films.

Universal put out several movies using the Frankenstein mythology in the 1940s, ranging in genre:

In 1942 Universal producers summoned the Ghost of Frankenstein ; in 1943 they arranged it so Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man ; in 1944 the monster fought Boris Karloff, now playing a crazed villain, and ultimately dragged him to his death by quicksand near the House of Frankenstein ; in 1945 the monster and other ghoulish creatures gathered in the House of Dracula ; and by 1948, it was time for peacetime frolics, and the studio had Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein . (197)

Through these films, the Frankenstein myth evolved considerably. Ghost of Frankenstein, for example, makes Ygor a central character. Since the monster’s first brain is that of a criminal, Ludwig Frankenstein, another relative who happens to be a brain surgeon, plans to replace the monster’s brain with that of “Kettering, his brilliant young assistant.” Instead, Ygor’s brain ends up implanted in the monster (200). Because Ygor and the monster did not share a blood type, this rendered the monster blind, resulting in Lon Chaney Jr.’s development of the gait and groping posture we now commonly associate with Frankenstein’s monster (201). Additionally, Hitchcock offers that it was not only the need to refresh the Frankenstein narrative for additional movies, but the evolution of medicine itself which required a shifting emphasis to the monster’s brain. Other body parts were being transplanted successfully during this time, including hearts (215). This lead the films, including those produced by Britain’s Hammer Films between 1957 and 1973, to focus on the brain as what gave the monster his life and his motivation (210-11).

Movies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Dick Breifer’s Frankenstein Comics rendered the monster non-threatening. The comics, whose hero is known as Franky, got into hijinks such as meeting the devil, going to the Statue of Liberty, and fighting Nazis (208). Albert Lewis Kanter’s graphic novel version of Frankenstein was “reprinted nineteen times between 1945 and 1971” (217) while Dell Comics published Frankenstein: The Monster is Back! in 1963, putting the monster out to sea on a steamship (220). Three years later, Dell published another comic that presented the monster as a handsome, muscular superhero type who aims to protect the world from evil (222). This “moralistic superhero” did not last long, as Marvel reverted back to the frightening image of the monster, created by Mike Ploog, in twenty-eight comics published between 1972 and 1975 (223). Though these comics depicted copious violence, Hitchcock argues that they also portrayed the monster as sympathetic at times, “recaptur[ing] the essential ambiguity of Mary Shelley’s work” (226).

Chapter 9: Monsters in the Living Room

The 1950s and beyond were important for Frankenstein because it offered another medium in which to present the story: “in 1950, 9 percent of American families owned a television. By 1973 . . . 96 percent – more than 65 million American households – owned and watched TV” (227). Hitchcock explains that, to take advantage of this new market in 1957, Screen Gems marketed a “package of fifty-two Universal horror films to local broadcasting stations and started a coast-to-coast craze” (229). Major cities found local talent to introduce the films in various horror-inspired personas. The segments took a variety of names, including “Shock Theater, Creature Features, Thrill Theater, [and] Chiller Thriller” (231). The movie specials were directed at adults, but many adolescents were exposed to the Frankenstein films and other horror giants in this way.

As a result of a new, young generation’s interest in Frankenstein, films suitable for drive-ins like I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958) emerged (237). The proliferation of new films was not limited to the US, and between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, films came out in France, Mexico, Egypt, and Germany, among others (238).

Though horror was still a popular genre, campy interpretations of horror became common. Defined by author Christopher Isherwood, “to ‘camp’ about something was not to make fun of it but to make fun out of it” (243). The television show The Munsters portrayed campy versions of several horror tropes, putting Fred Gwynne in the forefront as the patriarch of the Munster family, appearing very reminiscent of classic images of Frankenstein’s monster. The Addams Family appeared at the same time, presenting the family’s butler, Lurch, as a Frankenstein’s monster-esque character, although most agree that the similarities between the two characters are coincidental (247). Versions of the monster appeared in children’s cartoons alongside Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, and Milton the Monster, a bubbly, animated version of Frankenstein’s monster that gained his personality when his creator accidentally added too much tenderness (256). In 1974, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is a comedy, but as Hitchcock points out, it also finally provides the monster with his creator’s love (260).

Hitchcock cites The Rocky Horror Picture Show as another campy send up of Frankenstein, the character of Rocky representing the monster, created to be an attractive boy toy. Though Rocky Horror Picture Show seems to deviate far from Shelley’s original intentions for Frankenstein’s monster, Hitchcock argues that the film’s “high-camp…dared to carry the myth of Frankenstein into radical new directions” and signaled the beginning of a “gradual return to the original novel, powered by a cultural shift during which Shelley’s monster made friends with a new and youthful generation” (253).

Chapter 10: Taking the Monster Seriously

As cloning and the combining of DNA became real possibilities in the scientific community, concerns arose about how much humans should intervene in the processes of nature. Concerns about in vitro fertilization and “test tube babies” raised questions about the ethics of these scientific advancements (268). Amidst concerns about the safety of genetically modified foods, the term “Frankenfoods” emerged, suggesting that the foods were of unknown origin and potentially dangerous (288). By 1996, when Scottish scientists successfully produced the first cloned sheep, fears about “‘carbon-copy people’ and ‘extra organ factories’” brought up some of the same concerns that Mary Shelley had proposed in writing Frankenstein about the implications of both creating and attempting to control life itself (290, 292). Hitchcock’s narrative of Frankenstein as a constant background to issues of bioethics asserts that the novel remains relevant especially as technological and scientific advancements bring us closer to the reality of creating human life in a laboratory.

Hitchcock also discusses the rise of Mary Shelley’s work as a viable part of the academic canon. No longer were anthologies focusing on the Romantic period limited to the Big Six, consisting of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge , Shelley, Byron, and Keats. The 1970s saw a significant increase in reading and teaching of women writers of the era, as evidenced by their appearances in scholarly anthologies: “now alongside the Big Six appeared Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley” (285). Shelley’s work was increasingly discussed at academic conferences and included in the syllabi of Romantic-era classes at universities.

The Monster and His Myth Today

In her conclusion, Hitchcock reaffirms the ubiquitous-ness of Frankenstein in popular culture, from political cartoons to cereal to medicine to movies. The monster is accessible to adults and children alike as a general story known by nearly everyone. Books, films, and plays continue to play off the myth in different ways, evolving the monster’s story for new audiences or taking small elements of the original for themselves, which is what continues to give Mary Shelley’s work life. As Hitchcock concludes, “the very ‘plasticity’ of the novel, as more than one critic has mentioned, goes far in explaining Frankenstein’s longevity” (323).

Further Reading/Resources

Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: A Cultural History. New York: Norton, 2007. Print.

Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein. New York: Back Bay, 2007. Print.

Mallory, Michael. Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror. New York: Universe, 2009. Print.

Contributed by Leighann Dicks and Zachary Meyer