It has been said that fear is one of the most powerful and ancient emotions in the human race. It should come as no surprise then that horror as an art form has existed for centuries. Throughout history, horror has let humans externalise their fears. It is my conjecture that the artists who make horror films and literature have, unintentionally, found a way to let people expose themselves to their very real fears by means of sophisticated metaphors.
Even though the monsters or villains in horror art are usually far from being realistic, when analysing horror through the context of the time period in which it was created, it is easy to see that many horror novels and movies are not about what they might seem to be. Indeed, films have long since been known to be related to how we view our everyday lives. In fact, there is even a documented psychological phenomenon, albeit a rare one, known as cinematic neurosis. Cinematic neurosis is defined as “the development of anxiety, somatic responses, dissociation, and even psychotic symptoms after watching a film.”
Much like the Greek mythology that lends its name to the novel, Frankenstein is a cautionary tale, warning about the dangers of science and technology going too far. Prometheus was a Titan who became the champion for mankind when he stole fire from Zeus to give to humans.
According to the legend, this is when Pandora, the first woman, was created out of clay by Hephaestus and sent to earth to punish man. She carried with her a jar containing all the evils, pain, and diseases that were unleashed upon men. Prometheus was also punished in the form of getting chained to a rock and having his liver eaten daily by an eagle, only to have it regenerate overnight.
Victor Frankenstein went a step further than Prometheus in his hubris. Instead of just stealing from the gods, Frankenstein actually encroached onto the territory of them by creating life. Frankenstein is arguably punished even worse than Prometheus because the monster does not just aim to hurt Victor Frankenstein, but decides to punish Victor Frankenstein by killing everyone close to him. Even though not everyone thinks that the novel is against advancements in science, it seems without question that the novel is clearly critical of how Victor Frankenstein practices science without regard for the consequences.
Victor Frankenstein’s pursuit of creating life is not a novel idea in the story, but rather an ancient one that he had been studying for many years. It is only with the combination of this newfound science that he is able to achieve what so many people before him had tried. Some have stated that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley draws comparisons between science, magic and alchemy. Others have argued that she has separated them and the book is actually in support of science. However, one could argue that the novel is actually more critical of science because it is with science that Victor Frankenstein unleashes such a terrible thing on the world. The novel also shows the dangers of reckless science and how even though someone could have good intentions, it can lead to disastrous results. This is a fear of a society that is still relevant today, with scientific advancements in areas such as genetic engineering, artificial reproduction, medicine, and cloning.
The novel goes beyond being critical of scientific advancements, and ventures into being critical of too much thought and too much education. This is reminiscent of Oedipus Rex who, like Frankenstein, saw himself as almost godlike due to his superior intellect, but it was ultimately also the cause of his downfall. This problem of too much education is also demonstrated through the monster. Unlike almost every adaptation of Frankenstein, in the original novel, the creature becomes educated, which eventually leads to his discontent and his eventually vow for revenge against his creator. By depriving the monster of intelligence and a voice, the story is unfortunately altered severely and loses much of its meaning.
Perhaps the monster’s gaining of intelligence and decided to seek revenge on his creator for making him was too subversive for most audiences. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is a warning of what happens when science goes too far and encroaches upon “God’s territory.” This sentiment is best expressed by Jeffrey Lynn Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park (1993). In it, he reprimands John Hammond by telling him, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”