Questioning Authority: Elizabeth Young on Frankenstein

In honor of Halloween and all things scary, Questioning Authority caught up with Elizabeth Young, associate professor of English and gender studies, whose forthcoming book is Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor (New York University Press, 2008). Young shares her thoughts on Frankenstein, and horror in books and film.

QA: Why does the Frankenstein story continue to captivate us?

EY: For many reasons, I think. I see three very distinctive features of the Frankenstein story as compared to other monster stories. One is where the monster came from, which is other corpses; another is how he is "born," through a magical moment of reanimation, usually electrical; and a third is what happens to him--or rather, what he does with what happens to him, which is to rebel against the man who created, and then abandoned, him. Those three traits are vivid alone, and unforgettable together. Also, at this point there are so many versions of the Frankenstein story in circulation that I think we also take pleasure just in seeing him pop up anew, sometimes in unexpected places and doing unexpected things. For example, Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein is about to open on Broadway; one of the many pleasures of that affectionate film parody is the scene in which the monster dresses in a top hat and tails and does a song and dance number on stage. We enjoy seeing the story of the monster recombined and reanimated in fresh ways--paralleling the way the monster is himself is brought to life anew within the story.

QA: Is there something especially resonant about Frankenstein these days?

EY: Well, I have Frankenstein on the brain. I tend to find him resonant in every era, in different ways. I'm particularly interested in the way the Frankenstein monster has served as a political metaphor in different eras. For example, I've just finished writing a book about the relation between Frankenstein and racial struggle in U.S. culture. From the 1830s onward, rebellious slaves were compared to Frankenstein monsters, while African American writers and artists in the last two centuries have consistently reclaimed the Frankenstein story as a way to talk about black uprisings and to condemn racism (the original force "creating" the grounds for uprising).

Today, one place where you frequently see the Frankenstein monster invoked as a political metaphor is in discussions of Iraq. For example, several commentators have characterized Saddam Hussein as "America's Frankenstein"--that is, as a monster who was partly created by initial U.S. support, who then rebelled against his creator. In these examples, as in many others, it's the relation between monster and creator that is so resonant for political discussion. Invoking the metaphor of the Frankenstein story provides a way of talking about violence as something that has indirect or long-term "creators" as well as immediate perpetrators.

And there are lots of other ways the Frankenstein story continues to resonate. For example, one of my favorite Frankenstein films is Gods and Monsters (dir. Bill Condon, 1998), which uses images from the famous 1930s Frankenstein films to re-tell the story of their director, James Whale, and specifically his gay sexuality. The director brilliantly uses the story of being shunned because he is different--that is, the monster's story--as a way to reflect on how Whale (wonderfully played by Ian Mackellen) is made "other" as a gay man in a homophobic world.

QA: What's the scariest book you've ever read?

EY: Don't know if this is the scariest, but I'm reading a very scary one right now, along with the students in my women writers course: Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Jackson is better known for her short story "The Lottery" but everyone should read this novel. It's a haunted-house story written so vividly and specifically that the reader enters into the terror of the characters. For example, in one chapter, the main character, Eleanor, survives a very frightening period--the room she is in goes dark, and is filled with frightening noises of someone seemingly in the room--by tightly clutching the hand of Theodora, another woman character. But when the lights come back on, Theodora is sitting across the room. So whose hand was Eleanor holding?

Another scary book I highly recommend is Shelley's original 1818 novel Frankenstein. It's shocking to encounter it if you're only familiar with the movie version--less because it's scary (though some moments are) than because it's so sad and moving. The monster is eloquent, articulate, and sympathetic in describing his mistreatment.

QA: Could you recommend a scary movie for Halloween?

EY: Here are some of my favorites:

Rosemary's Baby (dir. Roman Polanski, 1968)
Night of the Living Dead (dir. George Romero, 1968)

These movies both came out in 1968--a kind of "golden year" for horror films. They're scary in completely different ways. They also lend themselves to endless (if creepy) re-viewing. Rosemary's Baby, for example, has spectacularly weird images of women and pregnancy--what is the film saying about gender? Night of the Living Dead is really interesting in terms of its relation to the social flux of 1968 just outside of it--there are images in the film that recall the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam war, mixed in with scary zombies.

The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)

This film so scared me when I first saw that it basically started me on my career as a film scholar. I was so unnerved by it that one day I got up and started writing an article about it to get it out of my system (though of course that didn't happen!).

Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1976)

Some scary films often derive their power from turning the body inside out, so you see parts and fluids that are usually out of sight, or by having intruders suddenly show up in unexpected places. The indelible image of the alien bursting through a human body does both.

And, of course, Hitchcock: Psycho (1960) is the classic scary movie, but I am more terrified by The Birds (1963). The idea of something scary in the sky, assembling stealthily, and swooping in--without apparent reason and possibly without end--to peck, craze, and kill you: horrifying.

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