For all of Halloween-themed October, ComicsVerse is creating magic. By magic, we mean analyses of Halloween films, shows, music, and anything else we can find. If you want to keep posted on the newest and greatest content in this particular series, you can check it out here. Stay tuned for more ComicsVerse series coming your way, Spoopy Ghostoween and beyond! Today we’re checking out perennial horror favorite, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


If you took a literature course in college, chances are you encountered Frankenstein. The novel is considered a classic for many reasons, not least its status as a progenitor of the horror and science fiction genres. It has also been fodder for innumerable adaptations over the years.

Shelley wrote the story in 1817, and it was published January 1, 1818. So we are going to take a look back at 200 years of Frankenstein to understand the impact of this story.

The Story

The story behind Frankenstein is actually fairly famous. Mary Godwin was in Europe with Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom she had recently eloped. They were staying in Geneva with a group of fellow writers but were unable to do typical fun touristy things because of the weather. (1816 was the “Year Without A Summer,” a volcanic winter sparked by the eruption of Mount Tambora.)

Frankenstein

To alleviate the boredom, Lord Byron suggested they tell scary stories. Mary struggled to come up with a story, but famously “dreamed” about a man creating life through unnatural means. The story was a hit, and PB Shelley encouraged her to write it up. The book was published anonymously in 1818 and was a relative success, with a second edition published in 1823.

You would have to live under a rock to not know the famous plot of Frankenstein. A young doctor, Victor Frankenstein, dreams of creating life without the assistance of God. He is brilliant but perhaps unhinged. He is ultimately successful in creating life, but it is not what he had hoped for. Rather than a worthy successor to humanity, Victor creates a monstrosity (or at least what he views as a monstrosity).

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Victor rejects his creation, and the creature ultimately seeks revenge. He becomes intelligent through study of the classics and asks Victor to make him a bride so that he won’t be lonely. The creature is treated horribly by humankind and becomes bitter. In the end, he taunts and torments Victor. The novel ends with the creature alone in the Arctic.

Legacy

Frankenstein is one of the first science fiction stories. There are supernatural elements at play, certainly. But Shelley seeks to explain these elements through popular science of the time. This isn’t just magic or something similar. Although highly unrealistic, the novel was based on real theory.

The story also deals with popular social movements of the time, such as the Enlightenment. The creature gains intelligence by reading books like Milton’s Paradise Lost. These books were essential education at this point.

Frankenstein

It is worth noting that this novel, which is based on rational thought and science, and which becomes the forerunner to modern science fiction, was written by a 20-year-old woman. Science fiction is often thought of as more of a male genre than female, but it wouldn’t exist without Mary Shelley.

Frankenstein has received a lot of critical and academic attention in the two centuries since its publication. A notably interesting theme is a queer studies perspective on the relationship between creator and creature. Victor creates life through unnatural means, without the procreative potential of a female.

The creature seeks to connect with his creator, even taking him away from his wedding night. This reading is perhaps one reason for the lasting legacy of Shelley’s novel.

Adapting Frankenstein

The novel was adapted as early as 1823, the same year the second edition was released. Richard Brinsley Peake staged Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein at the English Opera House in 1823, and Shelley herself saw the play. Frankenstein continued to receive stage adaptations, but it was with the advent of film that the story became popular.

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Universal’s 1931 FRANKENSTEIN is one of the most famous horror films of all time. Featuring Boris Karloff as the monster, FRANKENSTEIN was monumentally successful. It is thanks to FRANKENSTEIN that the horror genre picked up; although Bela Lugosi’s DRACULA premiered first, FRANKENSTEIN helped horror pick up steam. Two sequels followed:  BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Frankenstein

These three movies changed the perception of the story. It’s thanks to FRANKENSTEIN that we have iconic moments like “it’s alive!” FRANKENSTEIN also created the typical look of the monster, with green skin and neck bolts. The movie also changed the creation of the monster to use electricity as animation, and to give Frankenstein an assistant (though not Igor) to assist in the creation.

The Universal trilogy set the stage for all future Frankenstein adaptations. Many future adaptations would be more adapting the Universal trilogy than the original novel.

Parody

While Universal’s trilogy changed some fundamental aspects of the story, it was ultimately a straight telling. However, parodies of the story abound; as the story became more and more frequently adapted, the market saturated with Frankensteins. Eventually, Frankenstein became so well known that it was frequent fodder for humorous retellings.

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is one of the most famous parodies. In the movie, Dr. Frank-N-Furter creates a new life for less academic purposes. The movie is a rollicking romp full of straight-up absurdity, playing with popular horror film tropes and the well-known story of Universal trilogy.

Frankenstein

Even more popular than the cult-hit ROCKY HORROR is YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Mel Brooks’ comedy extravaganza is one of the most well-loved films in history. The movie stars Gene Wilder as Frederick, the grandson of Victor Frankenstein. The movie doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at its famous forebear and remains popular for its irreverence.

Other less serious adaptations include THE MUNSTERS and FRANKENWEENIE. Both play on the well-known tropes that come as much from Universal as from Shelley.

Today

Adaptations of Shelley’s novel — or Universal’s retelling — show no signs of slowing down. Victor and his monster feature prominently in PENNY DREADFUL, the 2014 Showtime series that focuses on famous gothic literature. I, FRANKENSTEIN, a very loose retelling starring Aaron Eckhart, also came out in 2014. The Frankenstein family featured in season 10 of SUPERNATURAL.

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Universal is famously rebooting FRANKENSTEIN as part of its “Dark Universe” franchise. This franchise is drawing on Universal’s history of featuring its monster characters in films, often together. It also seeks to capitalize on the success of “cinematic universes” a la Marvel.

Javier Bardem is the current choice to star as the creature, though this may very well change. The first film in the “Dark Universe,” 2017’s THE MUMMY reboot, did not do as well as hoped; this may change Universal’s plans.

In the 200 years since Shelley first told the story, FRANKENSTEIN has left an undeniable mark on fiction. Between its status as the forerunner of modern science fiction and its numerous adaptations, FRANKENSTEIN is a definite pop culture icon. Shelley’s work captivated audiences two centuries ago and has stayed in cultural consciousness ever since.

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