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IT’S ALIVE! HOW FRANKENSTEIN CREATED A CULTURAL MONSTER
Article By Jennifer Hillner
* Illustration: Viktor Koen *
Susan Tyler Hitchcock has a Frankenstein problem — just look in her closet. You’ll find 150 items of monster memorabilia at last count, from tea towels and aprons to socks and cereal boxes. “I admit it,” says Hitchcock, author of the new book Frankenstein: A Cultural History. “This has been an obsession.” It all started 20 years ago: She was teaching a lit course called Man and Machine to engineering students and chose Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic as the subject for her Halloween lecture. Hitchcock even wore the obligatory green monster mask, replete with bolts in the neck. And — zap — something came to life.
She’s not the only one with a Frankenstein fetish. For nearly two centuries, the monster has refused to die. It has been transformed into political cartoons, films (I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and 30-odd other gems), TV series (The Munsters), radio shows, theater, punk rock (The Cramps), and videogames. The iconic image adorns dolls, candy wrappers, stamps, and even boxer shorts. Frankenstein has been adapted and updated into countless works of literature, from Brian Aldiss’ futuristic Frankenstein Unbound to Dick Briefer’s graphic takes. Hailed by some as a “fantastical foreshadowing of current reality,” Shelley’s work is still cited in bioethics circles and, of course, gave rise to the term Frankenfood.
What is it about Frankenstein that has fascinated us for generations? “Frankenstein is about daring to go where your mind takes you,” Hitchcock says. “But that can be dangerous, and our society has a whole set of rules and regulations to keep us from doing that.” In a world of cloning, computers, stem cells, and transplants, it’s not surprising that the monster seems even more alive today than it did back at the dawn of the electrical age.
“We love and we hate the monster, and I think that’s true of technology as well,” Hitchcock says. “It is ourselves and the ultimate other all in one.” It can also be funny. In October, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, a song-and-dance version of his hilarious 1974 movie, opens on Broadway. Hitchcock has a theory about that, too: “It may be that we need to remind ourselves to look more closely at the dark side — face our enemies and talk to them,” she says. “So let’s go laugh about the goofy monster that does a tap dance for a couple of hours.” Besides, to do otherwise would be Abby Normal.