Moumita Milton
Professor Ramos
English 102
7th August 2019


Monsters are a paradoxical cultural phenomenon: although abnormal creatures inspire fear and uncertainty, the movies featuring them never lose popularity. This statement is particularly true of Frankenstein, a popular interpretation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Surprisingly, the 19th century novel has dozens of cinematographic interpretations exciting the public imagination, despite all the breakthroughs in the field of medicine. This paper will examine the canonical Frankenstein produced in 1931 by Carl Laemmle Jr. The objective of the analysis is to explain why the outbreak of the Great Depression was the right time for the monster horror film based on the philosophical novel about the physical and ethical limits of human capabilities.

Frankenstein is a monster film telling the story about things going wrong and disturbing the pastoral life in a village of the Bavarian Alps. While ignoring his fiancée’s suasions, the young scientist Henry Frankenstein seeks to create human life from different parts that he and his assistant Fritz have been collected from various sources. Despite its simple and innocent character, the creature inspires fear in many people, which becomes the beginning of a sad saga about the consequences of human attempts to play the god. The monster kills several people but saves the master’s life at the cost of his own existence. The story of the monster was a success given that the box office exceeded the budget almost fifty times (The Numbers n. p.). Therefore, it is interesting to learn why a fairly simple plot attracted thousands of people seeking to survive amidst the global economic crisis.

At times, monsters come back explaining why the plain story does not lose its relevance. Jeffrey Cohen, probably the most famous monster expert, asserts that a monster always escapes to “reappear someplace else” (4). Cohen mentions that “No monster tastes of death but once”; and this statement may explain why Shelley’s story gained an unexpected popularity with the 20th century public (5). In Shelley’s novel, the monster disappears after Frankenstein tries to shoot him to emerge a century later bringing an important message to who it may concern.

(Frankenstein, Boris Karloff, 1931)

The message that the creature brings has been bothering experts for decades.  According to Lamb, it is the message about the limits of human will that had been significantly extended by Victor Frankenstein’s attempts to create the human life (305). Similarly, Salotto interprets Frankenstein’s experiments as a way to remember himself and reconstruct own identity by creating “a creature of his likeness” (190). Salotto asserts that Frankenstein’s attempt to manufacture a creature from different parts of various human bodies is a way to survive the traumatic loss experience (191). Frankenstein seeks to recover after his mother’s death by creating someone who is similar to him but who is not overwhelmed by sad memories. The numerous interpretations of Frankenstein’s decision agree on the fact that a monster appears at some critical point in the individual or collective history. For instance, Hartman asserts that monsters reveal the tension between tradition and innovation predetermining the national course (1). Interestingly, this assumption is valid in the context of Frankenstein. Shelley wrote the novel as a rebel against the “age of reason” underlying the superiority of logic over traditional values like faith(Lamb 305). The 17th and 18th century Enlighteners believed scholars could conduct the experiments that were previously viewed as immoral (Lamb 305). In turn, Shelley created the monster to show that going against the laws of religion and morality would have disastrous consequences. A century later, people followed the monster story because it resonated with changes occurring in their personal existence and the life of the entire country. The cinemagoers saw the destruction of the old world and emergence of the new economic order. The changes were so terrifying that the story of the monster was ironically comforting.

Moreover, watching Frankenstein could be motivating by seeing the difference between the monster and the viewers made of flesh and blood. According to Cohen, “…the monster is an incorporation of the Outside, the Beyond – of all those loci that are rhetorically placed as distant and distinct” (7). Although the monster is made from different parts of the human body, he is very different from an average person in terms of physical and mental capabilities; and understanding of the difference evokes a pleasant sense of self excellence. At the beginning of Frankenstein, the monster is timid and awkward, hence, requires a master to oversee his actions and protect him. As the monster leaves the place where he was created, he learns to interact with other people. However, the attempts have dramatic consequences and eventually result in the monster being captured and killed. The scene where the monster saves the master’s life at the cost of his own aims to underline the superiority of a man over an abnormal creature. Since the monster is different from the master, his life appears to be less valuable, and the scene where Baron Frankenstein celebrates the wedding of the recovered Henry seems logical.

However, it is necessary to keep in mind the fact that a monster always dwells at the door of difference. According to Cohen, the thesis implies that all the things making a monster different from a man “originate Within” (7). The statement means that the monstrous difference is an exaggeration of cultural, political, or economic differences. Therefore, people attribute monstrous features to a phenomenon that they cannot understand or control. For instance, scientific experiments may inspire fear because of the unpredicted consequences. Unfortunately, people are unwilling to take responsibility for their careless decisions, so the monstrous features are ascribed to the creature rather than the scientist manufacturing it.      

Nevertheless, Frankenstein suggests that the difference between the man and the monster may be subtle which encourages people taking a closer look into their choices and decisions. In Cohen’s theory, a monster is standing at the creator’s threshold looking for the reasons why he has arisen from the unknown (25). In a broader sense, the monster is the result of Frankenstein’s attempts to create someone who is like him but is not overburdened by moral dilemmas (Salotto 190). However, the 20th century suggested new reasons why the monster arose from the years of oblivion. Obviously, the monster is an allegory of the national economy that did not live up to the expectations and almost destroyed its creator. During the late 1920s and the early 1930s, American economy resembled Shelley’s monster manufactured from unsustainable ideas and driven by inflated expectations. When the monster left its gloomy shelter, thousands of people wondered how it happened that the creature came to life and made everyone feel insecure. In turn, capturing the monster meant there is always a solution if humans think of the ways how their own thoughts and actions preconditioned the disaster.

Therefore, monsters will always be part of culture because they are the product of human desires, fears, and ambitions. The old monster plots do not lose their relevance because the abnormal creatures appear in the time of crisis and encourage people thinking how their worldview opened Pandora’s Box. Understanding of the relationship of a monster to a man is, probably, the best way to make the plot exciting and thought provoking.

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. University of Minnesota Press, 1996, 3-25.

Hartman, Emma. “Tradition vs. Innovation and the Creatures in Spirited Away.Digital Literature Review, vol. 4, 2017, pp. 1-13.

Laemmle, Carl, director. Frankenstein. Universal Pictures, 1931.

Lamb, John B. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Milton Monstrous Myth.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 47, no 3, 1992, pp. 303-319.

Salotto, Eleanor. “Frankenstein” and Dis(re)membered Identity.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 24, no 3, 1994, pp. 190-211.

The Numbers. “Frankenstein (1931) Domestic Box Office.” The Numbers, <>. Accessed 6 August 2019.

Annotated Bibliography

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. University of Minnesota Press, 1996, 3-25.

  Although monsters are a common occurrence in world culture, there is no consensus why they exist and continue to excite the imagination. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that monsters embody a difference, hence inspire fear and uncertainty in their creators (3). Cohen further elaborates on the nature of monsters by putting forward seven “monster theses” (3). According to Cohen, the monster embodies a certain cultural moment, always escapes to reappear in another place or time, defies existing order and rules, reveals cultural differences, policies the borders of the possible, represents forbidden practices, and brings attention to the link with humans creating abnormal creatures (3-25).  By introducing the theses, Cohen offers an insightful explanation why monsters emerge, develop, and reappear to appear somewhere in a different time or place. Moreover, the theses explain the longstanding phenomenon by shedding light on the link between the monsters and the people creating them.

Hartman, Emma. “Tradition vs. Innovation and the Creatures in Spirited Away.Digital Literature Review, vol. 4, 2017, pp. 1-13.

Hartman suggests an in-depth analysis of Spirited Away, “the highest grossing film in the history of Japanese cinema”, with an aim to explain the essence of kami and their relation to Japanese culture (1). According to Hartman, kami possess monstrous features, like supernatural abilities or threatening agendas that are not quite understandable from a Western perspective. Nevertheless, examination of the kami through the prism of Japanese tradition suggests that the monsters embody the tension between tradition and innovation in the country (Hartman 1). Hartman asserts that the kami were invented with an aim to prevent the Japanese youth from slipping away from the tradition (1). Therefore, Hartman’s conclusion is in line with Cohen’s thesis that monsters portend a crisis (6). In Spirited Away, the kami appear when the tension between the traditional and innovative development reaches its peak and becomes a major cause for public concern.

Lamb, John B. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Milton Monstrous Myth.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 47, no 3, 1992, pp. 303-319.

Lamb conducted an intertextual analysis to identify the relationship of Shelley’s Frankenstein to Milton’s Paradise Lost. According to Lamb, tracing the relationship between the two works is “problematic” because despite Milton’s hold on literary imagination, Shelley succeeded in “changing the discourse of identity from monologue to dialogue” (319). The changing discourse is insightful in terms of understanding who the monster is, why it has appeared, and whether he is able to survive without the master. The own voice is the distinctive feature of Shelley’s monster who can explain how he feels and why he seeks to find the master, despite the challenges on his way. When the creature gains his voice, the reader understands the moral dilemmas of engaging into forbidden practices and breaking taboos underlying the process of creating a monster. A person transcends the limits because of inner fear, uncertainty, and problematic identity.      

Salotto, Eleanor. “Frankenstein” and Dis(re)membered Identity.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 24, no 3, 1994, pp. 190-211.

Salotto suggests an in-depth analysis of Shelley’s narrative as a way to explain the origins of one’s life. Although Frankenstein is divided among three narrators, the distinction between the narrative parts is arbitrary and suggests a close relationship between Frankenstein and the monster he has created. According to Salotto, Frankenstein’s experiments “to create a creature of his likeness” are the attempts to remember and reconstruct one’s own identity after the mother’s death (190). Salotto’s analysis explains Frankenstein’s decision to create a monster and addresses a plethora of moral dilemmas associated with the intention. Also, Salotto’s analysis elaborates on a number of Cohen’s monster theses. In particular, the examination of Frankenstein’s narration reveals the reasons why people create the creatures that inspire fear and uncertainty. Moreover, Salotto elaborates on Cohen’s seventh thesis by underlying the inextricable relationship between the monster and his creator.