Zombies once represented consumerism: more recently as the promotional material for WWZ illustrates they can serve as a form of narrative device for the end of the world. Vampires represent sexuality, lust and eternal life. But what about the iconic figure of Frankenstein’s monster?
The most obvious theme of Frankenstein is of course that of the mad doctor whose distorted scientific ambitions create a monster. At its heart this reflected an anxiety about the scientific revolution and industrial progress in the 18th century and its implications of progress which challenged the long-standing beliefs of society. This is reflected in the fear of a creature that arose from Victor’s own dangerous pursuit of knowledge. Today we can find a similar anxiety over scientific advancements in genetics. Such an example is the emergence of what critics call designer babies – the ability to select hair colour, eye colour and intelligence before birth, but more critically the ability to remove harmful genes from embryo’s that may cause blindness or unwanted psychical defects.
The concept of Frankenstein’s monsters is also, to a degree, a relevant symbol of the extent to which consumerism today has infected our psyche. Individuals aim to become as commoditized in their appearance through advances in medicine such as plastic surgery. I would describe this as an extension of the pursuit of consumer goods within society which Romero commented on in Dawn of The Dead.
Today, due to what the media perpetuates as a normal body image and therefore what vulnerable people think society demands of them life threatening conditions develop to severely affect people’s lives. In this role society almost acts like the village mob we see in the Frankenstein films, promoting a perfect body image through its media and television and therefore creating a climate where tragic conditions such as anorexia exist. In Antiviral (2013) Brandon Cronenberg takes this idea of the pursuit of a perfect celebrity body to a disturbing level.
Today surgeons have the ability to create the body in a individual’s desired image. Additionally the nuclear and chemical weapon’s deployed in Nagasaki, Fallujah and, if reports our true the ongoing Syrian conflict the ability to distort genetics in as a horrific manner as any mad scientist could wish to achieve. If Mary Shelley was distressed at the extent of scientific progress during her time then she would surely be horrified at what monstrous effects our technologically advanced weapons can have. Like Frankensteins own monster their victims are created by conditions and intentions out of their own control.
Simultaneously there seems to be a contemporary re-emergence of social issues some academics have argued exist in the original novel. In the novel Frankensteins monster potentially symbolises the poorer lower classes of the books time period and their demand for greater voting power and suffrage. This is reflected through his own desire for a bride with whom he can relate and not stay a mere pawn of his master. Today, as argued in several political discourses there exists a 99% representing the disaffected majority versus the 1% which fuels the cause of ongoing social movements such as Occupy.
In parallel during the first decade of the 21st century the fear of islamic terrorism and other domestic or global threats has inevitably created in sections of our society a paranoia of the ‘other’ which can be, and has been used by political figures on both sides to their own strategic benefit. Throughout history there are many and clear examples of this. In both the novel and film adaptation the general population fear the monster – the ‘other’ – who cannot integrate into society, his hideous appearance a barrier.
In the context of 18th century slavery the anger and unpredictable nature of the creature which stems from its brute strength can be seen as an allegory for the fear over the potential results of slavery’s abolition, which is reflected by the racist descriptions of the inherent violence within the African American character at that time. This is reflected by the literature which originated from the West Indies and that surrounded Mary Shelley – an example is Mungo Parks Travels – before she undertook her novel. These often portrayed African-American slaves, and indeed other cultures alien to her own in a language which emphasised these bestial characteristics. They sometimes also contained explicit accounts of horrific and violent slave rebellions. Subsequently Frankenstein’s monster may have been a construct of the dangerous ‘other’ that Shelley encountered in her own societies often xenophobic language.
Upon reflection it seems that it is the very universality of themes within Shelley’s novel that form its true elements of strength however. This is why I therefore argue that Frankenstein and his creature are indeed monsters of the past, our time and most likely for beyond.