Whale’s Message to the World

Whale’s Message to the World


Are there inherent qualities that make one race or type of people superior over others? Are there in fact inferior human beings? These are the questions that arose amongst scientists, anthropologists, and sociologists during the eugenics movement, which gained popularity during the early twentieth century. According to Charles Benedict Davenport, a prominent biologist and eugenicist, “eugenics is the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding.”1 Essentially, eugenicists believe that certain principles such as disease, phenotype, and disabilities are inherent qualities that contribute to an “inferior” peoples. Furthermore, they assert that only through calculated offspring between individuals that lack these “inferior” qualities can we advance as a humans that “will be fully effective in rendering productive our three million square miles of territory, in otherwise utilizing the unparalleled natural resources of the country, and in forming a united and productive nation, leading the remaining 93 percent of the globes population to higher ideals.”2 While the ideology of eugenics is not widely accepted today, the practice and application of eugenics was once one of great controversy for over half of the twentieth century.

Popular media and culture such as television, books, and magazines brought the eugenics movement into the mainstream consciousness. While this was done mainly for the purpose of propaganda, themes of eugenics still appeared in mainstream movies of the early twentieth century as well. Specifically, Frankenstein, a film directed by James Whale, deals with themes of eugenics, arguably even more so than Mary Shelley’s novel from which it was adapted. While the film is often dwindled down to an archetypal horror movie, there are instances that are worth further exploration and questioning regarding the film’s use of imagery and the relationships between its characters. A viewer well accustomed to the novel’s portrayal of the Monster will certainly be shocked upon seeing Whale’s differing interpretation of the Monster in his film. Whale gives himself the license to portray the Monster as far more inferior and sinister than the way Shelley originally wrote its character to be, which is indicative of Whale’s pro-eugenics stance. In addition to illustrating the Monster as having low intelligence and being violent, Whale goes a step further to show how it obstructs purity and whiteness through its “savage” and feeble minded ways. It is reasonable to come to the conclusion that not only is Whale pro-eugenics, but his film is a way to spread and warn the masses of the larger danger that the inferior pose to a stable, pure, and white society. Specifically, Whale emphasizes the Monster’s mental and physical inferiority in addition to its “Blackness” and savagery in order to give the audience a reason to hold on to whiteness, protect themselves from African Americans, and keep their society as pure as possible.   

While Shelley illustrates the Monster’s journey, giving voice to its thoughts and rationality, Whale refuses to depict the Monster in such a way, highlighting how the “inferior” are incapable of such things. Whale decides to simplify the Monster’s behavior down to the result of an “abnormal brain,” ignoring and neglecting any form of hopefulness that the Monster may possess a “normal brain.” When introducing the audience to his newly formed plot, Whale focuses on drawing attention to the differences between the “normal brain” and the “abnormal brain.” Specifically, Doctor Waldman uses scientific terms to differentiate the two, explaining how the dysfunctional brain is one that has “deteriorated.” By ingraining scientific terms in the audience, Whale ensures that they are aware of both the physical and mental differences between the “normal brain” and the “abnormal brain.” This differentiation, emphasized through science, is indicative of a pro-eugenics directorial decision because eugenics was widely accepted as an idea proven through science. By emphasizing this distinction, Whale is encouraging the viewer to “trust” or “believe” that this science has been proven correct. Although the idea of eugenics predates the novel, the underlying theme of inferiority evident through the Monster’s appearance is still clearly visible in Shelley’s writing. Shelley describes the Monster as ugly and scary. However, she gives voice to the Monster by showing the ways in which it is mentally and emotionally intelligent. In a way, Shelley argues against eugenics by showing how the Monster is unfairly treated and misrepresented in society through its appearance and that alone. While Shelley only distinguishes the Monster physically, Whale goes a step further in his film by ensuring that the Monster is mentally inferior as well through the inclusion of the “abnormal brain” plot. The idea of mental inferiority among a population is of prime interest and concern to eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard. Stoddard claims that “the special traits of intelligence which distinguish man from the animals appeared only a few hundred thousand years ago, and have developed strongly only in a few human stocks. Biologically speaking, therefore, high intelligence is a very recent trait, which is still comparatively rare and which may be easily lost.”3 He adds that we should be more careful about mental inferiority compared to physical inferiority because it is hidden.4 Simply stated, “normal” looking people can still be “mentally inferior.”5 By portraying the Monster as being both physically and mentally inferior, Whale makes the Monster far more nefarious than it should be. As a result, Whale’s inclusion of mental inferiority on top of the Monster’s physical inferiority highlights his pro-eugenics stance, which becomes more clear as the film progresses and he adds new plot lines to the existing storyline.

Whale adds to Shelley’s story by including a scene where the Monster kills an innocent white girl. This scene highlights the relative importance of physical and mental inferiority and alludes to the danger of Blackness and savagery. In this scene, the Monster is dressed in all black and is tracked rummaging through high grass and trespassing into what the father of the girl imagines to be a safe space: the surrounding area of his home. When the girl sees the Monster, she looks confused but doesn’t judge the Monster for its looks. Rather, the girl asks if the Monster wants to play with her and leads it over to the lake. There, she offers the Monster a flower, a sign of peace and innocence. One may view this action as being anti-eugenics because it emphasizes that the girl is looking past the Monster’s deformity and is accepting of its true nature. However, this action is actually used as a mechanism to make the viewer more upset when the drowning sequence subsequently follows. Specifically, Whale portrays the Monster’s actions as a result of its ignorance. The little girl obviously tells the Monster to put her down; however, because Whale neglects the story line where the Monster learns to understand emotion and speech, the Monster doesn’t recognize what the girl is saying or evoking through her emotions. The ignorance that becomes an inherent characteristic of the Monster points to Stoddard’s claim about the inferior: “feeble mindedness is a condition characterized by such traits as dull intelligence, low moral sense, lack of self control, shiftlessness, improvidence.”6 It is clear that Whale is using the Monster’s lack of intelligence and self control as a way to illustrate its inferiority. With our understanding of Whale’s intention to make the viewer cognizant of the Monster’s mental inferiority and the violence it inflicts on a young child, we can understand this scene as a warning to the audience to be cautious of the inferior and to defend their mental superiority. 

The other way Whale portrays the Monsters inferiority is through its violent actions that a eugenicist such as Whale would credit to its savage and animalistic tendencies. For example, the action of killing the young girl is criminalistic in nature. In The Revolt Against Civilization, Stoddard writes that “criminalistic tendenc[ies] can be traced back to the darkness of remote generations in a way that forces us to conclude that these traits have come to us directly from our animal ancestry and have never been got rid of.”7 According to Stoddard, given that the Monster naturally has “criminalistic tendencies” because of its “abnormal brain,” it is animalistic in nature. Animalistic tendencies infer a lack of cognition, emotional intelligence, and a civilized way of living. Furthermore, animalistic tendencies allude to an inherent savagery. Stuart Hall draws connections between the savage and the Black man in his article Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. In this article, Hall emphasizes the racialization of the “other” or the “Black man” in comparison to whiteness. Hall writes, “the link between the black races and whatever is institutional—the open expression of emotion and feeling rather than intellect, a lack of civilized refinement in sexual and social life, a reliance on custom and ritual, and the lack of developed civil institutions.”8 Not only is the Monster depicted as savage for killing the little girl, but he is also dressed in black. It is hard to not then draw connections between Stoddard’s claim about the inferior having animalistic tendencies and Hall’s statement about these tendencies being within the Black race. When viewing the Monster’s character with an understanding of both Stoddard and Hall’s claims, one can come to the conclusion that Whale is associating Blackness with mental inferiority and is showing this visually through the embodiment of the Monster. By pairing the Monster’s lack of moral sense with its inherent savage ways, Whale is encouraging the audience to think critically about the danger that the inferior pose. 

The Monster’s intrusion into Elizabeth’s bedroom on her wedding day is another example of a way in which Whale attempts to warn the audience of the dangers that the inferior pose to a stable, civilized society. In this scene, Elizabeth sits on her bed while waiting for her husband Frankenstein to return. She is dressed in all white and her submissiveness toward Frankenstein contributes to her docile and pure character. These characteristics are heavily emphasized as being “white and feminine” in nature. While Elizabeth waits idly, the audience sees the Monster creep into her bedroom through the window. However, Elizabeth does not see the Monster, which slowly walks towards her from behind dressed in all black. Whale employs dramatic irony as a tool to make this scene all the more eerie for the audience to watch. The color palette difference between the Monster (Black) and Elizabeth (white) creates a visual distinction that is hard to miss. Furthermore, the setting of the bedroom paired with the action of the Monster creeping up on a white woman alludes to an omnipresent sexual danger with an underlying theme of an “other” or “savage” that can’t be restrained due to its animalistic tendencies. It is possible that Whale is targeting the physically inferior characteristics that the Monster possesses through visual distinction: Blackness. While it is hard to know for sure where Whale stands on African Americans in relation to the “savage,” we can’t ignore the Monster’s “Blackness” paired with its inherent violence considering Whale’s pro-eugenics stance and his addition of the “abnormal brain” plot. If we accept the use of Blackness and whiteness as a visual distinction between inferior and superior, we can begin to make sense of Whale’s decision to portray the Monster as being more animalistic in nature than the way Shelley originally wrote his character to be in her novel. Specifically, Whale is using this visual distinction to elicit fear from the audience in hopes that they will associate Blackness with savagery. This would make sense coming from a eugenicist who sees African Americans as inferior. In his article, Hall states, “heavily emphasized was the historical case against the black man based on his supposed failure to develop a civilized way of life in Africa.”9 This lack of civility Hall speaks of refers to the Black man having an animalistic and primal way of life, something that Whale warns the audience of through the sexual connotations in the bedroom scene. Hall also asserts that, “there was the appeal to deep-seated white fears of widespread miscegenation… as pro slavery theorists sought to deepen white anxieties by claiming that the abolition of slavery would lead to inter-marriage and the degeneracy of the race.”10 It is possible that Whale uses the bedroom scene as a way to ignite this “white anxiety” that Hall speaks of. Specifically, by portraying the Monster as predatory and violent and connecting these characteristics visually with Blackness, Whale is warning the audience of the danger that interbreeding poses to a white society, which gives the white male a reason to protect white women. 

Whale employs a Hollywoodized ending to his film in order to elicit a sense of calm and joyfulness out of his audience. This is purposefully done to ease the fears of the “superior” whites and show how the death of the “inferior” Monster is a good thing and something worth celebrating. A Hollywoodized ending in a film refers to the desirable outcome that is achieved by both the protagonist and the audience. Usually, positivity overcomes negativity and the viewer leaves the theater happy. It is interesting to then consider why the final scene of the original film depicts the burning of the Monster, which, according to a Hollywoodized ending, is something that is celebratory. This cheerful tone is indicated by the white mob that surrounds the burning house containing the Monster, a Black figure. This white mob is depicted as having a shared hatred of the Monster and sense of collective unity. They all gather torches and vehemently yell out at the Monster who is trapped on the top floor. There is a “we got you” mentality that is communicated both between the characters on screen and the audience that are subconsciously participating in this desirable outcome. Furthermore, the imagery of this scene can be compared to the burning rituals practiced by white terrorist groups such as the KKK and lynching mobs who saw African Americans as inferior and often times worth eradicating completely. If we accept Whale to be a eugenicist who holds similar beliefs to that of the KKK about the inferiority of African Americans, we can interpret this ending as a happy ending: the eradication of the (Black) Monster. In addition, we can begin to ponder why this scene acts as a Hollywood ending to this film. Is it because we should be happy that the Monster, which Whale portrays as inferior, is dead? Is this gruesome death a desirable outcome considering the imagery of the white mob? Considering Whale’s overblown interpretation and portrayal of the Monster as savagery and intellectually inferior, it is not surprising that his ending is in celebration of its demise. The ending of the film is a way to calm white anxieties surrounding the fear of “savage” African Americans and reaffirm the superiority that whites hold over inferior others. 

Whether Whale is actually a eugenicist or not, it is hard to ignore his addition of irrelevant plot lines, violent interactions between white women and the Monster, and the omnipresent color distinction that causes subconscious associations between savagery and Blackness. Considering the film released at a time that coincided with extreme racial tension between white people and African Americans, it would be harmful to view this film without a third eye dissecting Whale’s direction. Through close analysis of Whale’s film in comparison to articles about eugenics and racialization by Stoddard, Davenport, and Hall, one can conclude that Frankenstein is a message and warning to the white, “superior” world of the early twentieth century to protect themselves from the inferior and tread carefully through society.

  1. Charles Benedict Davenport, 1.
  2. Davenport, 3.
  3. Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt Against Civilization, 89.
  4. Stoddard, 90.
  5. Stoddard, 90.
  6. Stoddard, 94.
  7. Stoddard, 263.
  8. Stuart Hall, “Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices,” 243.
  9. Hall, “Representation,” 243.
  10. Hall, “Representation,” 243.
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