Someone who may not be an entirely obvious gay icon is a monstrous amalgamation of grave-robbed body parts. However, despite his odd origins, Frankenstein’s Monster is just that – an icon. Frankenstein has influenced queer art for decades, whether he’s starring in art installations or inspiring some of our favourite cult films like Rocky Horror Picture Show – the community has embraced this gay horror icon. A lot of this is thanks to the director of Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), James Whale, who was an out gay man during his career. His perspective on the character and story is an important one and resonates with many in the community. The original text, written by Mary Shelley in 1818, can be read as a critique of an evolving scientific world but The Monster’s story arc is primarily one of prejudice and oppression. This interpretation, along with Whale’s specific perspective as a gay man in the early 20th century, gives life to a completely queer story.
An iconic story such as Frankenstein hardly requires a recap of it’s synopsis, but let’s quickly run through it for the heathens who don’t know. A scientist – Dr Frankenstein (Colin Clive) – has dedicated his career to creating life; he steals body parts from a nearby graveyard and models a hodgepodge man from these parts – Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karoff). The scientist grows fearful of his creation and rejects him, as does the nearby village. Cast out as the feared outsider, The Monster is buried underneath a burning windmill, supposedly leading to his death. There are a few queer readings for this film but the main one – and the reason for the queer community’s love – revolves around The Monster and society’s reaction to him.
The Monster is instantly rejected for simply existing, he is the classic misunderstood protagonist. Many in the LGBTQ+ community can relate to The Monster. Many of us have faced rejection from family members or friends and many tackle mob-like hatred online every day. Susan Stryker, a trans woman writer and theorist, takes her interpretation of the character one step further and writes in her 1994 essay, My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix, “the transsexual body is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born.” Obviously Stryker’s interpretation does not represent the experiences of every trans person, however, the mob-reaction of villagers regarding The Monster can certainly trigger memories for many in the community, such as dealing with TERFs and bigots. Drag performer, Lady Bunny, has also joked about their parallel with The Monster’s experience, “I completely identify with the character of Frankenstein’s Monster. I wake up, put on makeup and scare people.”
Even though the first Frankenstein film is what many initially think of in reference to The Monster, the film that’s heralded as the most queer in the series is actually the second film – The Bride of Frankenstein. Reactions to The Monster still exhibit the same oppressive subtext as seen in the first film, but this time it’s Dr Frankenstein’s story that explores the queer subtext more. In Frankenstein, there were shades of this subtext, with Dr Frankenstein seeming more interested in his pursuit of creating life than marrying Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) like his father insists. In Bride of Frankenstein we are still on the cusp of Dr Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s marriage. Having had his body dug out of the windmill – where he was presumed to have perished in the last film – and returned to her, Elizabeth discovers Dr Frankenstein is still alive. Taking him to her bed to rest, she cries about how she envisions a dark spectre coming to take Dr Frankenstein away from her. As she weeps, she sees this spectre drawing closer, but suddenly there is a knock at the door. From the night arrives Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), an old friend of Dr Frankenstein who insists he leaves his fiance’s chambers and comes to his laboratory.
Dr Pretorius has also dedicated his career to creating life and he desires Dr Frankenstein’s help. The subtext in their relationship is that there are two men with a mysteriously close relationship, who wish to rebuke “God’s will” and create life together. In Frankenstein, the subtext that science is the alternative to normalcy, an aversion to the natural way, was already established. Dr Frankenstein wishing to reject the normal life of being a husband for his obsession with science could be read as his aversion to a heteronormative life. In Bride of Frankenstein, this subtext is deepened by the personification of this desire leading him away in the form of Dr Pretorius. Two men wishing to create life together is another obvious hint at this subtext, as it could be interpreted as two gay men wishing to have a family and having to find an alternative way of achieving this without the presence of female reproductive organs or adoption. The image of fatherhood for these creatures is emphasised once The Bride (Elsa Lanchester) is created. She is dressed almost like a bride, with fabulously long billowing white robes. When she is presented to The Monster, Dr Pretorius walks her out like a father would walk a bride down a church aisle.
It is generally agreed that the final released cut of this film is queer right up until the end. In the lead up to the final act, all main characters are within the laboratory’s parameters. Dr Frankenstein, Dr Pretorius, The Monster and The Bride are in the main laboratory, whereas Elizabeth is being held captive below. In the final moments of this film, the laboratory collapses with everyone inside bar two people – Dr Frankenstein and Elizabeth. The Monster bellows in his last moments to Dr Frankenstein and Elizabeth, “You live” and then turning to Dr Pretorius, “You stay. We belong dead” and doing so, all characters that personify the queer subtext are buried whereas the two characters who choose to succumb to a heteronormative life are allowed to survive. The ending is in conflict with the overarching message of the story and that’s because this was never the intended ending.
The Motion Pictures Production Code was a set of regulations that prohibited certain themes in films, one of which was sexual perversion (which at the time included LGBTQ+ stories). Bride of Frankenstein was censored by this board and had 15 minutes removed from the final cut and an alternative ending added. In the original ending of this film, Elizabeth’s heart was used to create The Bride. Including this would mean that Dr Frankenstein effectively chose a life with Dr Pretorius over one with his fiancée. A story where the heterosexual normalcy was sacrificed for one of science, and a rejection of the “natural ways of God” could not be shown, so instead we had to settle for one where the Straights survived.
The Frankenstein films are yet another casualty of deep systemic homophobia that haunted the film industry and prevented the full embrace of queer subtext, thankfully the films are generally not spoiled by this. The themes are still clear to those who know how to look for them and strict moral regulations couldn’t stop Frankenstein from becoming a queer icon. He is loved in our community and love is what this “monster” deserves.