I might as well lower everyone’s hopes right now. No one is actually fighting in this essay. If you want to see Frankenstein’s monster duke it out with the Count, I recommend tracking down this film instead. No, today I’m more concerned with the theme than the monster used to showcase it. In particular, I’m going to be discussing how two of the western world’s most famous monster stories have polar opposite themes, and how they have informed (American) society in the past century.
Frankenstein: Humanity before Progress
Those who have not read Mary Shelley’s 1817 novel or witnessed the 1994 film adaptation by Kenneth Branagh may be surprised to learn that the story of Frankenstein is, in part, bookended by the story of Captain Robert Walton, a failed writer turned would-be explorer out to “discover” the North Pole in the name of scientific progress – ice and freezing temperatures be damned. It is through this misadventure that Walton meets Dr. Frankenstein and hears the tale of the creation of the creature.
After learning of how Frankenstein’s blind ambition and irresponsibility destroyed his family and cost lives, Walton has a choice to make: Push on or turn back. Victor Frankenstein, near death though he is, urges everyone to keep going. After all, forward progress must be maintained! Walton, however, decides to not listen to his newly discovered nutcase friend and instead orders the ship to return. Frankenstein dies shortly thereafter, but not before telling Walton “happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition.”
It’s pretty on the nose. Dr. Frankenstein is depicted as someone controlled by his desire to keep going, his ambition toward discovery, progress, and knowledge. Responsibility, and by extension, humanity, come second. Even after the creature has murdered and destroyed, Victor still wants to go on. He’s not someone to say “enough is enough.”
Dracula: Humanity due to Progress
In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, by contrast, depicts progress in a much more positive light. It is a man of learning, Professor Abraham Van Helsing, who leads the charge against Dracula. Moreover, Van Helsing and his vampire hunters use technological advances (such as the railroad) to outmaneuver Dracula and arrive in Transylvania ahead of him. This allows the vampire hunters to set a trap, killing the Count before he can return to his castle.
In this way, Dracula actually shares something in common with another famous monster, King Kong. Both are shown to be apex predators in their native lands, killing with impunity and dominating the local people. Once they enter modern civilization, however, they are met by forces they do not understand, forces that – while at first appear weaker – have an understanding of technology that prove to be fatal to the would-be invader (it is worth noting that Dracula comes to civilization willingly, while Kong is forced).
This is not to say technology is the sole good guy. Indeed, Stoker’s approach is far more nuanced. Many of the techniques used by Van Helsing are spiritual tools, rather than scientific instruments – and the professor himself chastises many of his scientific colleagues for being too dismissive of possibilities (such as the existence of vampires) if science cannot offer an immediate answer. That said, I feel that Van Helsing’s attitude, his “let’s keep an open mind and gather all the facts” is intrinsically a scientific mindset, and he is simply being critical of human weakness, it’s ability to lapse into “easy answers, no questions” rather than continuing to progress, even if it means challenging pre-existing beliefs.
In this way, Dracula is an even more progressive book, as takes a man of scientific height in society as showcases him as a hungry learner, someone who is never content to just listen to what other people have done, but who must earn the knowledge himself.
Dracula’s Adaptations: The Loss of Progress
The reason I focus on the role of technology in Dracula (the book has numerous other critical interpretations) is because it is often overlooked. Heck, the Wikipedia page of Dracula doesn’t even include modernization and technology as a major theme. To date, I have never seen a film or television adaptation of Dracula that actually preserves this aspect of the novel. Most are too concerned with the women’s necklines or the allure of a sexual predator to even think about what the heroes are doing.
While pretty much every adaptation preserves the cautionary conservatism of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, very few (none judging by what I’ve seen) deem Van Helsing and co.’s use of modern science to defeat Dracula as worth keeping. Perhaps it is because the latter is more timely than the former. After all, few readers in 2021 are reading about phonographs and railroads and going “wow, the future is here, man!”
And yet, given the larger body of American horror cinema, I can’t help but wonder if the fear of the new just lends itself better to horror. Let’s take a look.
Legacy in America: Dangerous Progressives
Okay, I know everything in America is political today (including so much that shouldn’t be – vaccines, climate change, freaking He-Man), but I want to stress that when I say progressive and conservative, I’m not talking Democrats and Republicans. Heck, I’m not even talking about anything new. Just look at the 1950s, an era when fears of radiation and communism dominated American horror cinema. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms – all of these and more essentially said “hey look at this new idea, it’s pretty scary when you think about it!”
It carries over, even today, into “liberal” Hollywood. Thanos, the most famous movie villain in recent memory, can be seen as a metaphor for climate extremists. And he’s not alone: Kingsmen: The Secret Service (2014) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) also feature similar antagonists. Those who wish to upend the status quo are often seen as villains, even if their motives are just:
It’s very common and shows no signs of slowing down. This is not to say that conservative ideas are never depicted as villainous – heck, while Disney is doing dangerous progressives in Marvel, they often save evil conservatives for their animated feature films. In general, however, I feel that the Frankenstein theme of “progress must be checked constantly by humanity or else disaster ensues” is more prevalent than Dracula‘s “yeah science isn’t perfect but we can vanquish a lot of longstanding evils with modern tools and weapons.”
Of course, every now and then you get a work of fiction that goes for a more complicated route…something more challenging and thus, more difficult to pull off. I encountered one such work recently, which is why next time we’re going to be talking about Ready Player Two.