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.