Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (and Frankenstein’s monster) celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. In commemoration, gothic scholars like Western professor Steven Bruhm are looking back on the classic and haunting tale to tell truths about the present.
Bruhm gave a lecture at Wordsfest this Saturday, a literary festival focused on authors, scholars and designers abased in Southwestern Ontario. Bruhm’s inaugural Wordsfest presentation focused on the parallels between the monster and the trope of the perfect but deadly child often used in gothic horror. He also touched on the parallels between Victor Frankenstein’s arrogant god complex and modern day politicians.
This was not the only celebration of Shelley’s masterpiece at Wordsfest. On Oct. 25th, WordsFest screened the 1931 silent movie Frankenstein at Museum London accompanied by electro-acoustic duo Wormwood, with their interpretation of the movie's score. Wormwood added drama and suspense to the already iconic silent movie.
Bruhm has always been fascinated with horror. After earning his doctorate through writing about bodily pain in romantic literature at McGill University in 1994, Bruhm began to submit to gothic publications. For the past six years, he was a managing editor for the publication Horror Studies, an academic journal that looks at the cultural and historical context of horror.
In his lecture, Bruhm explained that Frankenstein originated after a ghost story competition between Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley and their poet friend Lord Byron while on vacation. After telling their best ghost stories, Shelley’s vision of the original mad scientist came to her in a dream. After inception, the story has been updated, republished and made into countless film adaptations. Frankenstein inspired the entire genre of science fiction and updated the female gothic tradition that began with author Ann Radcliffe. The female gothic had previously focused on domestic issues while the male gothic delves into supernatural territory; Shelley merged both.
With a modern reading, Shelley’s classical tale warns against toxic masculinity. Bruhm explains that the act of procreation without the role of a woman demonstrates Victor Frankenstein’s arrogant attempt to play god. However, the absolute destruction and mental terror Frankenstein experiences illustrates Shelley’s critique of a society without the need of women.
“In this novel, there’s a kind of assumption that this crime against nature that he’s committing in creating this creature is also a crime against God,” Bruhm says.
The crux of the novel can be summed with the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for.” In wishing to play God and in wishing to bring a creature to life who would completely understand him, Frankenstein creates his own worst nightmare.
“What we fear most is often what we desire most. What we desire most is often what we fear,” Bruhm explains.
Earlier this year, Bruhm wrote an article for Western News detailing the link between Frankenstein and President Trump. He compares their struggle for power and complete control.
“I relate it through the idea of a kind of masculinist assertion of power and control; that notion that to be a man and to be a man in leadership or at the forefront of something — for [Frankenstein], it’s science, for Trump, it’s politics — is to create in the absence of a community of other people, to speak things into being,” Bruhm explains. “It’s about arrogance.”