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I, Creature: The Real Origin Of Frankenstein

By Dave Gonzales | Think Pieces | January 28, 2014 |

By Dave Gonzales | Think Pieces | January 28, 2014 |

Chances are, everything you think you know about Frankenstein is wrong. In the age of intellectual property, copyrights, unified story worlds remakes, reboots, reinterpretations and straight up sequels, the origin of an idea is often contested and almost always twisted as part of the process of recycling. But, disposable tissues are called Kleenex, a photocopier is a Xerox machine, and when you picture Santa Claus, you’re picturing a character designed by Coca-Cola; no one seems that annoyed when American culture latches on to something it likes and promotes it out of the sphere of an ancillary work and into the base idea itself.

Such is the case with Mary Shelly’s story-turned-novel Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus and its evolution to a place where Aaron Eckhart can play a modern version of The Creature in a movie titled I, Frankenstein..


In 1816, an eighteen-year-old Mary Godwin and her step-sister Claire were attending the Villa Diodati off of Lake Geneva in Switzerland at the invitation of Lord Byron. Claire was there because she was courting Byron while Mary attended having fled England to avoid the scandal of secret boyfriend and future husband Percy Shelly (Shelly was married to someone else when they met). There were a few notable if uninvolved other guests including John Polidori, an English writer who would eventually be credited with writing The Vampyre, one of the first English-language vampire stories originally attributed to Byron. The weather was poor and the outdoor activities were abandoned, the group instead spent evenings by the fire reading Germanic ghost stories from the French collection called Fantasmagoriana. Also discussed were the current fringe sciences of the day, including ‘galvanism’ of organic objects and the ability of electricity to animate something previously dead. Part magician, part scientific showman, a man named Giovanni Aldini was travelling Europe at the time electrocuting the corpse of a hanged man, causing his muscles to contract and — in one case — his eyes to open.

With the neighboring locals reportedly warily observing the relatively well known Lord Byron as he lounged around The Villa Diodati, once a home of Paradise Lost author John Milton, the holiday took a turn towards the cloistered when someone suggested each guest write their own short ghost story. This, despite the ominous discussions of electrocution and the dreary mood, proved to be difficult for young Mary Godwin until on the 16th of June 1816, sometime between 2am and 3am, Mary had a “waking dream” she’d describe it thusly in the introduction to the 1831 edition of the story:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

Her story was one of Victor Frankenstein (often discussed by modern scholars as being named after God, frequently called “the victor,” in Milton’s Paradise Lost) a University student who sees lighting strike an oak tree and builds a creature out of dead flesh that he manages to reanimate. Disgusted by his creation, he flees, pissing off the Monster, and beginning Victor’s life-long struggle with his creation. Frankenstein refers to his monster as a “creature,” or “devil,” or — in many sly references to Paradise Lost — “Adam” after the first man.

With the encouragement of and contributions from Percy, then Mary Shelley expanded her short story into a novel that was published anonymously in 500 limited prints in 1818. It wasn’t until the 1831 version that Shelley was credited as the sole author and her own foreword replaced Percy’s ahead of the text.


Only five years after the first publication of Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, it was adapted to the stage in Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peak and other derivative Frankenstein works had begun to be produced. Steven Earl Forry, a modern dramatist published one of the most complete collections of Frankenstein adaptations titled Dramatizations of Frankenstein, 1821-1986: A Comprehensive List catalogs 96 stage adaptations, including the genre-hopping productions that transpired between the original publication and An Adventure in the Macabre, the play that would eventually become Universal’s take on Frankenstein:

Pre-Karloffian dramatizations played an important role in disseminating popular conceptions—and misconceptions—of Mary Shelley’s novel, from the incipient gothic melodramas such as Peake’s Presumption, Henry M. Milner’s The Demon of Switzerlandand The Man and the Monster (1826), and Merle and Antony’s Le Monstre et le magicien (1826) to their burlesque counterparts—Humgumption; or, Dr. Frankenstein and the Hobgoblin of Hoxton, Presumption and the Blue Demon, and Frankin-Steam; or, The Modern Promise to Pay—through political burlesque in the form of William and Robert Brough’s Frankenstein; or, The Model Man (1849), the musical comedy of Richard Butler and Henry Chance Newton’s Frankenstein; or, The Vampires Victim (1887), the farce of Paul Dickey and Charles Goddard’s The Last Laugh (1915), and finally Peggy Webling’s drawing room melodrama Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre (1927).

From Gothic melodrama straddling Enlightenment and Romantic ideas, through burlesque and farce, into musical comedy and eventually the melodrama written by Peggy Webling. Webling, in comparison, doesn’t have that much separating her from a Superman-fan that eventually writes for Smallville. Webling had grown up a fan of literature when her and her sister would tour while reciting verse. These verse recitings gained her a certain notoriety in the literary circles early 1900s, drawing her personal audiences with notable authors of the time (especially a lecherous-sounding Lewis Carroll who insisted on writing puzzles that he wanted to watch her solve … gross). After a brief career as a novelist, she began writing for the stage in the early 1920s and was approached by Irish playwright and director Hamilton Deane who had been touring Europe with a dramatic interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Deane asked Webling to re-unite the vampire and Frankenstein’s creature, who were anglicized over a century ago at Villa Diodati, on the stage.

In 1927, Webling delivered, making a few tweaks to the overall story. Victor Frankenstein the University student became Henry Frankenstein the mad scientist and — most notably — the creature was referred to as ‘Frankenstein.’ Where as the original story had the Creature as an-over-sized man because it was easier to work on over-sized human organs, Webling’s play is more concerned with comparing and contrasting Henry and his monster in the vein of the 1880s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The play went through several versions, but as Deane’s Dracula was picked up by a Hollywood producer, so was Webling’s play. Both plays would be adapted and become the one-two-punch of Universal movie monsters in 1931.


The first cinematic portrayal of the Frankenstein story was released in 1910 by Edison Pictures and features the monster rising out of a cauldron as if he was made by some sort of magic stew.
The on-screen portrayal that would become the most widely known began when Universal bought the rights to the Peggy Webling play for $20,000. Carl Laemmle, Jr., the producer of Universal’s Dracula success was in charge of the project and had picked a writer/director named Robert Florey to adapt the play for Bela Lugosi, Dracula’s star, as Dr. Frankenstein. Eventually, Laemmle decided Lugosi was unfit for the role and had him do some makeup tests to play the Creature. The Florey script didn’t have much character in terms of the Creature, frustrating Lugosi and leading to both him and Florey being dismissed from the movie.

British director James Whale was imported to rework the script and direct and it was his contributions to the story and design of the Creature that would lock themselves into the American zeitgeist because of the success of the movie. Whale, make-up artist Jack Pierce and Boris Karloff, who was brought in to play the monster, developed a new make-up for Frankenstein - the flat-topped, heavy-eye’d, slightly green hulking behemoth we know today. The Creation experiment involving electricity was fleshed out much more than in the original text and the creation of an assistant named Fritz - often incorrectly remembered as being named Igor - and his acquisition of a criminal brain were added. The Creature was made mostly mute in stark contrast to Shelly’s wordy creation and a single encounter with fire in the book becomes a core fear that feeds into the film’s climax.


If there was any doubt about the creature being called “Frankenstein” after the smash-hit success of the 1931 film, the following sequel washed it away. If the poster for the original movie, featuring Karloff’s iconic monster, with the name Frankenstein written above it didn’t cement the Creature’s new name, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein blurred the iconography even more. Yes, Henry Frankenstein marries Elizabeth, but the titular Bride of Frankenstein will always be pictured as the Creature’s Bride as played by Elsa Lanchester. Where Whale’s 1931 movie ended with a fabricated mill fire, returning director James Whales’ 1935 sequel picks up from the original Shelly narrative, where the Creature briefly sought a bride. In an odd decision, Whales cast Lanchester as Mary Shelly in the film’s prologue to represent how horror fiction could find it’s roots in dark fantasy - subtly suggesting Shelly wanted to marry the Creature?

If you consider Frankenstein and Dracula forever bonded at the Villa Diodati and reunited in two blockbusters from 1931, the second period of Universal Horror probably belongs to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in your mind. Such was the prevailing opinion in 1938 when the ‘31 versions of both films were re-released as a double feature. This 2-bill evening of horror did so well that even though Lugosi was booted out of the Frankenstein Franchise in 1931, he returned in 1939 for The Son Of Frankenstein, a movie that would bring Universal’s horror stars together. Karloff is back as Frankenstein (now totally the monster, even if the titular Frankenstein’s son is related to Doctor) and Lugosi plays Ygor, the quiet villain of the piece. Lugosi’s Ygor is a blacksmith that survived a hanging, leading to the popular hunch-backed interpretation of the character today. The fact that it was Lugosi and that Ygor plays a bigger part than Fritz did in 1931 probably explains the misuse of this character in future retellings. The Son of Frankenstein was wildly successful for Universal, but the end of the serious Frankenstein story. Karloff abandoned the character when he thought the Creature was become the butt of broad jokes, Lugosi reprised Ygor in the jokey Ghost of Frankenstein, but everything that was going to change about what America considered cannon had begun to solidify.

The initial reaction to people who know the first thing about Frankenstein, and something that routinely comes up around every October amongst college freshman in Lit classes, is that “Frankenstein” is the Doctor and the green, flat-topped monster is “Frankenstein’s Monster.” Like many annoying facts, this is true but a simplification of both the history of Frankenstein and how we use language.

The Frankenstein myth, as an amalgamation of the most popular versions of the character, involves a mad scientist creating a giant monster from dead human body parts and an abnormal brain his assistant retrieved. Almost all of those motifs — the scientist over the student, the abnormal brain, the assistant — are absent in the original text.


Sources: YouTube, Listverse, UPenn, Monstrous, The Monster Show, and Film School Rejects.

Dave “Da7e” Gonzales works in cable television for MTV Networks. He podcasts weekly at and does a special Legend of Korra podcast at He founded his own production company where he made shorts, commercials, music videos, TV shows and one gay romantic comedy that won Best First Feature at Outfest (it’s on Netflix now!). He has written for online publications ranging from (gossip!) to (facts!) with a ton of movie blogs in-between. Marvel threatened him once. Michael Bay has twice said he’s full of crap. He does a weekly column on superhero movie news at He had a webcomic once that still lives at He likes cartoons and smoking. His spirit animal is the Mongoose. Follow him on Twitter.