2018 Film Essays

We Belong Dead: Immortality and Mourning in Boris Karloff’s Monster Movies

The 1931 film Frankenstein, one of James Whale’s two masterful tales of a mad doctor and his monstrous creation, has a curious opening. A man walks out from behind a curtain, warning the audience that what they see might horrify them, before going on to say that the film tells the story of a man attempting to create “a man after his own image, without the reckoning of God.” That’s the line that’s been used to analyse the source material, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for two centuries; it serves as a warning of someone playing God by creating life.  However, it is death, rather than life, that animates Frankenstein and his creation. The deathly, inhuman nature of Frankenstein’s Monster places it in a strange place in relation to mortality; while the end of Bride of Frankenstein shows that the Monster can be killed, he is not mortal in a human way, being literally built from the dead and revived. This is what informs the humanity, or lack thereof, that the Monster understands, and his lack of an understanding of death throughout most of his journey illustrates the ways in which the Monster learns to mourn — first others, and then himself.

Post-prologue, the proper opening of Frankenstein is a funeral, with Henry Frankenstein and his assistant looking for a corpse that will serve for the doctor’s experiments. This immediately situates the film, and the Monster, with one foot in the land of the dead. In building life from the dead, Henry does succeed in playing God, but this spectre of death clings to the Monster through both the criminal brain that is implanted in him and the ways in which he learns about the world. In a now iconic scene, Frankenstein declares “It’s alive, it’s alive. In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God.” He looks at his own hands with reverence, in awe of what he is capable of doing, even if he is called “inhuman” by those around him. Indeed, if there is anything that truly links Frankenstein and his creation, it is a lack of humanity; the arcs of humanity for the two characters seem to move in opposite directions: while Frankenstein loses his, the Monster’s develops. The story arc of Frankenstein and its sequel both belong to the Monster; he develops more than any other character, moving from uncertainty to a final knowledge that allows him to make his last, destructive decision.

One thing that is universally known is that Frankenstein’s Monster has a fear of fire. This fear points to his lack of humanity, as well as his fractured connection with the living. In Greek mythology, Prometheus grants the gift of fire to mankind, and he’s eternally tormented as a result. Fire is integral to an understanding of humanity, an emblem of human progress and a spark of divinity. The Monster’s fear of it situates him outside of mankind; he has an uncertainty around the elements, not knowing what they are or how to respond to them. In the build-up to the infamous, often-censored sequence in which the Monster accidentally drowns a young girl, she takes his hand and gives him a flower. He smiles at her. He watches as she throws flowers into the water, and they float; he mimics her actions, trying to learn from her, trying to understand humanity and the world around him. But his understanding is limited; he throws her into the water, confused that she doesn’t float like the flowers did. He cannot yet understand the consequences of his actions, with no understanding of death and its permanence; how can death be permanent in the eyes of a creature built up and raised from the dead?

Bride of Frankenstein, one of the few sequels to surpass an already exceptional first film, continues to explore the arc of Frankenstein’s Monster as he begins to comprehend the world around him. The once silent Monster learns fragments of speech from a lonely blind man. He is taught what bread and wine are, and that friendship is a good thing. It is through compassion that the Monster develops something close to a soul, and tries to overcome his fear of fire, and the perception of the world. Just as he learns humanity from a friend, he learns fear from other people; he learns about who he is through the lens of other people, their reactions teach him that he is considered to look, and to be, monstrous. While the Monster learns humanity, his creator also repents on his actions, reflecting that “perhaps death is sacred. And I’ve profaned it.” The emphasis here is put on the sanctity of death, rather than life; it is mortality, dying and mourning the lost that makes people innately human, and the Monster’s warped perception of this informs his perspective and his actions throughout both Frankenstein and its sequel.

As Bride of Frankenstein reaches its climax, and the Monster returns to meet his maker, he shows an understanding of where he’s come from, saying that Frankenstein “… made me. From dead. Love dead. Hate living.” His fractured speaking shows the idea of not only hating the living, but hating being alive, as if life were an ill-fitting suit on the body of the dead. The Monster’s first meeting with his would-be-bride, built and revived by Frankenstein and Doctor Pretorius, is an illustration of the way that people, even those who are the same as the Monster, fear him. The Bride screams when they first meet, causing the Monster to say “… she hate me. Like others.” She, like the Monster in the first Frankenstein, has no understanding of the world yet, and no understanding of herself: she can’t see the similarities between herself and the Monster, and can only be afraid of him. He rebels against both of their creators, pulling a lever to destroy the lab after declaring “we belong dead.” In his final act, the Monster grows to understand himself, and the finality of death. There is a moment of recognition on his face before he pulls the lever; he seems able to mourn for himself in his final moments.

These ideas of immortality and mourning also feature prominently in another one of Karloff’s monster films, 1932’s The Mummy, in which Karloff’s Imhotep stalks a woman that he believes is his reincarnated lover. Imhotep, like the Monster, has come from the dead, and this informs the ways in which he relates to the living. More importantly, it impacts the ways in which he relates to death and mortality. In trying to explain his past connection with Helen Grosvenor to her, he says that he “knelt by the bed of death,” linking love and death together in his mind, going on to say that “no man ever suffered as I did for you.” But in this suffering he couldn’t let her go or mourn her passing, which leads to his attempts to recreate her.

In The Mummy, resurrection is described as an “unholy” thing; one of the similarities between it and the two Frankenstein films is the approach to death as something necessary, and even sacred, in its link to a fundamental sense of humanity. Imhotep manages to revive his former lover in the body of Helen, but this alone isn’t enough; in order for him to love her, she must have her soul returned to the body it inhabited when they were together. He cannot mourn her, and would even temporarily kill her so that her soul could move from one body to another.

When trying to hold on to a present life while addressing the past, Helen says to Imhotep “I loved you once, but now you belong with the dead,” another echo of the Frankenstein films. The monsters that Karloff shows on screen are so grotesque because they lack humanity and mortality, two concepts that — in The Mummy, Frankenstein and its sequel — are fundamentally linked. To leave the land of the dead means returning to the land of the living, but in a way that is soulless and devoid of humanity. The difference between the Monster and Imhotep, for all of their echoes of each other, is that while the former learns to mourn, the other does not. Imhotep cannot regain any of his lost humanity, still clinging on to the past in his final moments, compared to a Monster who, in a split-second of awareness, manages to understand the humanity of mortals, and of himself.

Sam Moore (@Sam_Moore1994) is a graduate student at the University of Oxford, studying for an MSt in Creative Writing. He is a freelance writer covering politics, pop culture and LGBT issues.

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