An Arguement for Frankenstein as Body Horror

John Carpenter’s The Thing. Ridley Scott’s Alien. Any entry in David Cronenberg’s filmography. All three are prime examples of body horror, a genre of filmmaking that focuses on depicting the defilement of human anatomy to elicit scares out of its audience. Many of the most iconic body horror movies were released in the 1980s, but the blueprints for the genre stretch back to Victorian novels. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley carves out and assembles a story that belongs in the same tradition as Carpenter and Cronenberg.
Like body horror, Frankenstein relies on the uncanny to inspire fear. The most revered of body horror films make heavy use of special effects makeup to create realistic recreations of human anatomy, only to warp it disgustingly. In The Fly, a scientist tests a transporter on himself and accidentally mixes his DNA with that of a fly. At first, it brings the advantages of increased strength and libido, but over time his skin and humanity rots away to reveal an insect hybrid. In The Thing, an alien creature appears human on the outside, but then transforms into a mass of misplaced body parts and appendages. Seeing something appear humanlike, only to move or contort in unnatural ways creates unease in the audience. Shelley plays off of similar fears while describing her monster. When Frankenstein brings his monster to life, he endows his creation with several beautiful features-“his hair was of luxurious black,” “his teeth of pearly whiteness”, “limbs in proportion,” –which only serve to highlight the creature’s unnaturalness. Indeed, they “contrast with his watery eyes (…) his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips.” “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.” Like The Thing, Frankenstein undermines the idealized human body with the grotesque. As a result, Shelley’s readers begin to see their own bodies, an intimate part of themselves they cannot escape, as something unfamiliar.
There is also plenty of overlap between the themes of Frankenstein and body horror cinema. Shelley’s monster allows her to explore the dangers of scientific advancement and human sexuality, often in ways that overlap. Against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, the monster served as an admonishment against scientific discovery. Frankenstein also explores themes of sexuality through the ramifications of Victor’s experiments. It presents a male centric form of conception in the monster, and portrays birth as a less than joyous affair. Here, science provides an unnatural way to force the human body to experience rebirth. Likewise, the marriage between technology and sexuality/birth is present in many examples of body horror. In Alien, H.R. Geiger meshes human anatomy and sexual imagery with industrial aesthetics to create the iconic alien. The result is a monster whose lifecycle plays with the audience’s fear of phallic penetration and relies on violating the human body. The film also highlights the dangers of space exploration given the indifference in nature and the vast emptiness of the universe. The parallels to Frankenstein are even more explicit thanks to Kane, an android made to simulate human life. Body horror is also populated with mad scientists who, like Victor, push technology to far. The Fly’s tragic ending is a result of its protagonist’s obsession with perfecting instantaneous teleportation. In Re-Animator, a dark comedy that plays off the Frankenstein figure, the protagonist brings a disembodied head back to life using mad science.
Cinema is intrinsically a visual medium. Which is why the body horror genre takes Mary Shelley’s ideas and expresses them in gory, literal ways. Like the genre films of the 1980s, Frankenstein combines the familiar and the uncanny, the sexual and the technical, the human with the primal. As such one cannot truly study body horror cinema as a whole without analyzing Frankenstein, or vice versa.

3 thoughts on “An Arguement for Frankenstein as Body Horror”

  1. Being a fan of 80s culture I really enjoyed this blog post. I’d like to tie your blog post to biological horror. By graphically deconstructing the body, fear is promoted in the individual. Body horror explains that feeling as if there is something crawling underneath your skin. By employing body horror Shelley places us in the discomfort zone. In culture, almost always this notion of body horror is directly linked to science or scientific experiments gone wrong. I recently watch the John Whale adaptation of Frankenstein and found it to be rather intriguing. I definitely recommend it.

    1. I’ve seen Whale’s Frankenstein and agree with your recommendation, it’s iconic for a reason. These types of stories force us to grapple with the grotesque aspects of human anatomy.

  2. These are some of the films I grew up on, so I really enjoyed this post, as well.

    But I couldn’t help wondering about the *technical* side of body horror. It arrives in films of the 80s in part thanks to the intersection of three things, it seems to me: tacky 70s gross-out horror, huge leaps forward special effects (from Star Wars to the more relevant An American Werewolf in London), and a proto-“indy” sensibility encouraging adult themes (sexuality, identity, the nature of embodiment, and so on).

    Shelley’s *Frankenstein* certainly has the complex, grown-up themes, but it has few gross-out moments, perhaps in part because Mary Shelley (and Percy?) wanted to distinguish the novel from low gothic thrillers, but also because it’s not a visual medium. We may feel we hear the creature’s voice on the page, but it’s harder to get the sense that we see his face.

    So Mary Shelley, or James Whale, may help set up the intellectual framework for body horror, but they don’t really create its (often Giger-esque) visual sense. And this is critical not only because film is a visual medium (of course) but because part of the force of these movies is to combine thematic exploration with visual gore, complex ideas with visceral shock.

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