Eugenics in Frankenstein

Eugenics in Frankenstein

Black and white film still still in which a mob carries the Creation, bound to a pole, through a forest; those in the background wield sticks In the scene; in the foreground, a man leads a two-horse cart
Still from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

James Whale’s Frankenstein films are arguably some of the best horror films around. Though they are not necessarily the most faithful adaptations of the novel, they were and are regarded as great Frankenstein films. A part of this comes from how they produce the thrilling emotions of Mary Shelley’s novel (for example, seeing the Creation was horrifying for the film’s audience in the same way that imagining the novel’s Creation was for its readers). Another part of the films’ legacy comes from the ways they interact with the ideas of their time. The 1930s were marked by a rise in the ideology of eugenics. In his films, director James Whale picked up on the potential for commentary on eugenics in Shelley’s novel, an idea and practice that did not yet exist in Shelley’s lifetime. However, when watching the film, it is difficult to determine whether Whale was making a statement for or against eugenics. While there are components of Frankenstein (1931) that feel very anti-eugenics, it seems that the lasting note of the film—the destruction of the Creation—may be a pro-eugenics statement. Despite this perplexing question of his motive, Whale’s film The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) makes a clear statement against the misguided ideals of and culture created around eugenics.

To understand Whale’s viewpoint, it is first necessary to understand what eugenics is. As recounted by Charles Davenport in 1911, the idea behind eugenics was “the improvement of the human race by better breeding” in “reference to offspring.”1. Eugenicists believed that it was an insult to the abilities of abled humans that they should “have to support about half a million insane, feeble-minded, epileptic, blind and deaf” people for over $100 million a year, which would amount to $272,153,667.89 in 2018. 2 Because of this great cost in both time (in terms of the support provided by caregivers) and money, the solution was to eliminate defects by limiting the possibility that those traits could be passed on to future generations, leaving a population that is both abled and self-sufficient.

With his abnormal brain, the Creation is an exaggerated example of what eugenicist Stoddard calls “the ‘defective classes’— the feeble-minded. . . and certain categories of the deformed.”3 With the Creation’s appearance in the first film, particularly his sunken-in cheek and electrodes, Whale created someone who looks physically deformed. However, it is his actions in the films that firmly place him into this defective class. The Creation is feeble-minded in Stoddard’s terms, displaying “dull intelligence,” in his inability to speak, and “low moral sense,” seen as he antagonizes Elizabeth on her wedding night.4 Stoddard states that feeble-mindedness is “highly hereditary, and. . .  associated with great physical strength and vitality,” both of which Whale shows.5 The role of the Creation’s brain is a point of interest in Frankenstein: Henry Frankenstein sends his assistant, Fritz, out to source the brain to be used for the Creation. Stealing from a school lab, Fritz drops the “normal” brain and has to take a criminal’s “abnormal” brain. As this is emphasized in the film, we are led to believe that the Creation’s abnormal brain is the reason for his “feeble-minded” behavior. It is also clear that the Creation has enhanced strength and vitality based on things like his continued escapes in Frankenstein and his survival between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. The latter is particularly telling: to be caught in a windmill on fire, as the Creation is at the end of the first film, essentially guarantees death for any normal man. However, the Creation survives and does so with only physical scars; he hardly slows down from the first to the second film.

In Frankenstein, Whale offers a comprehensive character study, presenting to viewers who the Creation is. In Bride of Frankenstein, Wale reaps the rewards of this careful portrayal. The entire idea of eugenics is not allowing defective individuals to produce offspring, allowing their defective genes to die out (or, as Davenport puts it, “inducing young people to make a more reasonable selection of marriage mates”6). Whale seems to address this idea in the basic premise of his film— while the goal in Frankenstein is clear-cut (to kill the Creation), in Bride, the goal is more enigmatic. Portraying both sides of the eugenics debate, the main characters of the film aim to create a mate for the Creation, though the villagers (and perhaps the audience) hope that the tale will end with the Creation’s death.

Beyond the overarching story, Whale uses specific moments that make commentaries on the ideals of eugenics. One major example of this occurs as the villagers find and bind the Creation. In the scene, Whale forces the audience to take the perspective of the Creation as he is tied up on a pole, raised from the crowd. The camera displays a high-angle shot, looking down on the people as they jeer. As Minnie and the Burgomaster discuss the capture as if the Creation he wasn’t even there (“Have you got him?” “Of course we’ve got him, good woman!”) we are looking from this angle at a close-up on their faces.7. By putting us in the position of the Creation, Whale forces the audience to experience the discomfort of being discussed as if you weren’t standing right there, and of being positioned in such a way that you are made to be different from the crowd

Whale doesn’t end here. In a wide shot, we see the crowd passing the pole, with the Creation still tied to it, shouting and waving their sticks around. After being put into the point of view of the Creation, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the intimidating experience of being helplessly handled. Whale makes sure we can understand his emotions, as the next two shots are a medium of the Creation being raised up on the pole and a close-up of the Creation’s face in anguish as the villagers shout, wave their sticks, and throw things at him. Whale’s intent here is clear: the “feeble-minded” Creation is not the menace; it is the able-bodied society that wishes to exterminate him that is the villain.

Whale takes this one step further still in the following wide shot. The Creation is raised on his pole in a distinctly Christ-like manner as the villagers protest his existence. With this telling shot, Whale is equating this “defective” character to Christ, making the those in society that eugenicists would regard as superior akin to the crowd that crucified Christ. Here, Whale is commenting less on a similarity between Christ and the Creation beyond their similar situations in a community that turns against them, but instead drawing a parallel between this protesting crowd and the crowd at Christ’s crucifixion. This visual parallel points out the ridiculousness of persecuting those who, according to eugenicists, are “inferior.”

Just as indicative of Whale’s point of view on this issue is the storyline of the Creation with the blind man. After breaking free from the mob, the Creation wanders into the forest and comes across the house of a man, whom we learn to be blind, playing music alone. While others took one look at the Creation and ran in terror, the blind man welcomes him as a friend and begins to teach him to speak in more than just grunts. Both of these characters would be viewed as “inferior” in the minds of eugenicists— Davenport states that it is the “feeble-minded, . . .  blind and deaf,” etc. who must be supported and are, because of this, “a reproach to our intelligence.”8 However, Whale portrays that these characters are both capable and worthy of redemption. For one thing, the blind man is shown to live off in the woods in a cabin, fully self-sufficient, never depending on anyone else to live the life that he does, and which appears no less privileged than that of anyone living in town. The only difference between his life and the lives of the villagers is his loneliness, which is alleviated by the arrival of the Creation.

However, their friendship is ended when two villagers come across the blind man’s home, see the Creation, and choose to remove the man and burn his home in hopes of killing the Creation. This section of the film offers an interesting comparison to the same section in the novel. In Shelley’s novel, it is the blind man’s family who objects to his relationship with the Creation while in Whale’s film, it is two nameless villagers. This is a very specific change that Whale made, one that goes to reinforce his statement against a society of eugenicists that aims to enforce their vision of a perfect society. Rather than being motivated by family ties and concerns for safety, the villagers represent a mob mentality that persecutes difference and destroys at will.

The portrayal of this relationship indicates the lack of difference between the superior “us” and inferior “them” presented in the film; in fact, it suggests that the category of superior and inferior based on genes may be wrong. While the supposed “us” (the superior able-bodied villagers) crucified and jeered the Creation, the “them” (the inferior blind man) was kind to the Creation. The Creation displayed benevolence in his interactions with the blind man, and learned speech. Not only does this show that the “defective” blind man is able to teach accurately, demonstrating a benefit he brings to society that would be counted out by eugenicists, the interaction between the blind man and the Creation is important to the characterization of the Creation. While in the first film, it may be easier to place the Creation in a category that is distinctly different from humans due to his off-putting grunts, this film eliminates that difference. Though he does not have perfect syntax, the fact that he is able to speak shows his ability to learn and improve upon the behavior that is natural to him. Eugenicists emphasized the role of genes in making a population that is close to perfect, but the Creation’s ability to supersede what is written in his genes shows that genes are not the only, or even the most important, determinant of one’s behavior. Stoddard and Davenport were adamant that the defective class, which the Creation and the blind man fall into, are beyond redemption and should end their gene lines, but Whale’s portrayal suggests that they may actually be the best of us, and can become more than their genes.

A convincing counterargument to the film’s anti-eugenics position is rooted in the ending of the film. After the Bride has been animated, the Creation supposedly recognizes that he, the Bride, and Pretorius are not meant to live, leading him to destroy the castle, allowing only Henry and Elizabeth to survive. However, upon a closer look, I believe that Whale doesn’t want us to agree with the Creation’s conclusion. As the Creation tells Henry and Elizabeth, “Go, you live!”, Whale shows the audience a close-up of his face as he smiles.9 His change of heart toward Henry suggests that the Creation recognized the love he shares with Elizabeth and believes that his own Bride will never reciprocate that kind of love for him. After he tells Pretorius “we belong dead,” Whale shows a close-up shot of the Creation’s face as he cries. Emphasized by cuts to the Bride hissing at the Creation, we can recognize that he is crying due to the realization that he won’t be loved by the creature made to love him.

With the dramatic emphasis placed on this shot of the Creation crying, it is evident that Whale not only wants us to take pity on him, but to think beyond this moment. He wishes for us to look at the circumstances that have led to this moment of the Creation’s self-loathing and to recognize the error in his ways. This reflection brings the viewer back to the storyline of the blind man, which shows that the Creation is not doomed to live a life without love. Only the society that wishes for the end of his existence is dooming him to live without love. Removed from society in the forest with the blind man, it was not difficult for the Creation to take up a friendship with another. Thus, we can recognize the tragedy in his conclusion is not that it is true but that it is false. His tragedy is the fault of able-bodied people who deny the privilege of love to him.

The importance of this camerawork throughout this film can’t be overstated. While the plot may seem ambiguous without further reflection, Whale’s use placement of the camera and what he chooses to show the audience is clear in its intent to reveal an anti-eugenics interpretation. In his review of the film for Variety, Kauf states that “none can review [the film] without mentioning the cameraman. . . in the same breath of the actors and director.”10 This shows that the work in scenes like the otherwise ambiguous ending, which relied heavily on the camerawork to garner audience sympathy and produce the desired effects, were not lost on audiences and critics. Recognizing this technical work is key to understanding Whale’s commentary in many scenes, so Kauf’s recognition of the cameraman’s work acts also as a recognition of some of the deeper themes that it took the cameraman to fully reveal.

In the Bride of Frankenstein, Whale shows the audience the errors in the ideology of eugenics in both subtle and overt ways. The film in its entirety is clear in what it is intending to say, and the ways that it conveys this message come through in both the storytelling and the technical aspects of the film. Working in tandem with the story and a basic knowledge of the ideas of eugenicists, it is clear that Whale’s film ultimately displays a condemnation of eugenics. Though it may not be the most faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s original work, the ability of the film to capture so much in its small moments is an impressive demonstration of the power of cinema.

  1. Charles Davenport, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911), 1
  2. Davenport, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, 4.
  3. Lothop Stoddard, The Revolt against Civilization (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 93.
  4. Stoddard, The Revolt against Civilization, 93.
  5. Stoddard, The Revolt Against Civilization, 94.
  6. Davenport, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, 4.
  7. Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale (Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 1935)
  8. Davenport, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, 4.
  9. Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale.
  10. Kauf, “Review of Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale,” Variety, May 15 1935, 19.
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