An Argument for the Uncanny:  A Brief Analysis of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)

In 1931, Universal Pictures released what would become the definitive version of Frankenstein, directed by English director, James Whale.  This film is based on the theatrical play which itself is based on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 gothic classic, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.  The film tells the story of Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) who has been conducting experiments in an attempt to reanimate lifeless bodies.  With a brain stolen from his former professor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), Frankenstein attempts not only to reanimate a dead corpse, but to give life to a wholly made monster he has assembled from various body parts collected from graveyards and gallows.  Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), and friend, Victor (John Boles), call on Dr. Waldman to help check on the welfare of Frankenstein for fear that he has been spending too many hours with his experiments, and is neglecting his family.  Once the Monster (Boris Karloff) is brought to life, tragedy ensues. 

Due to fear and frustration, the Monster kills first Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), then Dr. Waldman, then inadvertently a young girl (Marilyn Harris) playing by a river.  The Monster then invades the home of Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) and threatens Elizabeth.  Dr. Frankenstein is determined that the Monster must be stopped and the villagers, with Dr. Frankenstein in the lead, organize a mob to ensure he does not escape.  To the original 1931 theatrical audiences, Frankenstein’s Monster represented the embodiment of all their troubles, downfalls and mistakes.

This classic Universal horror film can best be understood through the concepts of Dr. Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis.  Freud’s model of the psyche is made up of three parts:  the ego, super-ego, and id.  The super-ego can best be described as our conscience; morally bound, always striving for the betterment of the individual.  The id is in contrast to the super-ego, unorganized, representing our primal instincts; the source of our desires and impulses.  The function of the ego is to reconcile the needs of the id without sacrificing the reality of the super-ego.  In the film’s climax, there is a rotating mill wheel, whose cogs through which the Monster stares down Dr. Frankenstein.  This mill wheel acts as a mirror where we only then understand the duality of man and the constant struggle between the super-ego and the id.

The film’s windmill rotating wheel scene (1:05:00) is a great example of the super-ego confronting the id.  The scene lasts less than a minute and is shot in deep focus.  In this scene, Dr. Frankenstein is attempting to escape the clutches of the Monster.  The scene opens in a full 2-shot, panning left as Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster align themselves on opposite sides of the rotating mill wheel.  Point-of-View close shots are interspersed of the two of them staring each other down through the gaps in the cogs of the wheel.  Then a cut to a medium 2-shot of the two of them circling each other around the wheel as it turns, before quickly panning left following Dr. Frankenstein as he tries to flee out to the terrace.

This short scene is visually strong in that you can see the determination, will and ultimate realization in each of the character’s eyes.  The Monster is determined to vent his frustration and anger for being brought into this world and Dr. Frankenstein’s determination to see his greatest mistake ended.  It is at this point, it seems, that Dr. Frankenstein finally realizes that he and his creation are connected more than he originally believed.  As he looks into the Monster’s eyes, it is as if he’s peering into a mirror image of his own soul.  He is the Monster.  They are one and the same; opposite sides of the same coin. 

This scene brings to mind the concept of the uncanny.  Freud’s 1919 essay, The Uncanny, argues that the nature of the uncanny is that it is unfamiliar while remaining strangely familiar, as when Dr. Frankenstein looks into the eyes of the Monster.  The audience watching this scene no doubt felt a strange kinship with the Monster.  Not because they believed that such a creature could exist but because they could invest emotionally into the story that was unfolding on-screen.  The audience thrilled at the sight not because they believed it to be true, but because they could relate, if even only on an unconscious level.  The narrative of the story was a metaphor for the embodiment of all that is uncanny in their lives.  The audience could impose their misfortunes onto the screen. 

There, Dr. Frankenstein, looking through the cogs of the mill wheel, onto the gaze of the Monster, no doubt realized that the wheel was a mirror onto which he was gazing on his own double.  According to Freud, the “double”, as it relates to the uncanny, is a fortification against the utter destruction of the ego.  The “double” is the buffer between the super-ego and id.  The uncanny functions to bring to the surface the impulses of our id.  The Monster was the mirror image, or “double”, of Dr. Frankenstein, his id, embodying all that was animalistic, primal, and angry. 

To the audience, the Monster represented the mirror image of themselves and their struggle against the wealthy capitalists during the tumultuous Depression-era, as Freud says, “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality, such as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions and significance of the thing it symbolizes”.  Or, more specifically, what was supposed to be an imaginary tale of science gone wrong had brought about this uncanny feeling in the audience that the story of their situation was being played out on the screen.  Thus the uncanny that is read about, in gothic literature, has become even more familiar and is being actually experienced by the theater-goers.

During this period, 1931, the audience was made up of people frightened about the present and very pessimistic of the future.  The heavy corporate losses and the stock market crash had a major backlash on the working man.  In The Great Depression, as edited by David Shannon, it is reported that by 1931, almost 8 million people in the United States were unemployed.  Many of those that were still employed found their wages reduced and their hours cut.  The work week dropped steadily from an average 48 hours per week in 1929, to 40 hours, then to 38 hours per week by the end of 1931.  At the time of Frankenstein’s release, U.S. Steel, one of the largest companies in the United States, had just cut salaries across the board 10-15%.  To say the working man was feeling oppressed would be an understatement.

Frankenstein was released in November 1931, in the opening years of the Great Depression.  Businesses were closing, banks were closing, and people were losing their jobs and their homes.  Although the depression was caused by a number of economic factors, some of the public felt society as a whole was to blame as the depression was in retaliation for the excessive lifestyles lived during the Roaring Twenties.  Metaphorically speaking, many theater-goers carried this chip on their shoulder when they went to see the film, Frankenstein.  The Monster was dressed in dingy, ill-fitting clothes, easily identifiable as reminiscent of the working man.  Dr. Frankenstein with his tailored outfits could be identified as the upper class, holder of the unevenly distributed wealth of the nation. 

The audience watches as Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster struggle to reconcile their relationship onscreen just as the audience struggles to reconcile their place in depression-era America.  All the monster wants is to be left alone; all the audience wants, in their everyday lives, is a chance to live and provide for their families.  Neither can do it all by themselves.  They both need their “doubles”, two parts of the same whole, in order to exist.  The audience is horrified at the sight of the Monster and projects their fears and anger upon him.  The Monster becomes the scapegoat for whatever wrongs the working man must have done to deserve their current hardships.  This goes back to Freud’s theory of the super-ego and id, the human sense of guilt and conscience doing battle against the more primal urges and instincts.  To the audience of 1931, this film could be heavily invested in emotionally, even if it was just on a subconscious level; it spoke to them.

Today, as we watch the film, it draws different responses.  A horror classic, a pioneering science fiction film, a marvel of early visual and sound effects, these are all descriptions that could be applied to this film by an audience in one of today’s theaters.  In 2014, the United States is definitely not prospering economically and unemployment is high, however, some could say the overall attitude is optimistic.  Though there are many underlying causes for our nation’s current woes, some allocate blame to our politicians, some blame big business.  Either way, we no longer can look at Frankenstein’s Monster and use him as a metaphor for the current problems facing our nation.  There just isn’t that type of connection.  There is no eerie similarity playing out on screen, just a fantastic journey into the sublime.  But there is no denying that this film has and will continue to be analyzed heavily due to its masterful production values and highly interpretive sequences.

by Randy Krinsky

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Das Unheimlich. 1919. The Uncanny, Trans. By Alix Strachey in Sigmund

 Freud, Collected Papers, Vol. 4. New York: Basic Books, 1959.

Mitchell, Broadus. Whistling in the Dark. Depression Decade: from New Era through New

Deal, 1929-1941. New York: Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1947.  Rpt. In The Great Depression. Ed. David A. Shannon, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960. 5.

Webbink, Paul. Unemployment in the United States, 1930-1940. Papers and Proceedings of

the American Economic Association, XXX (Feb., 1941). American Economic Association, 1941.  Rpt. In The Great Depression. Ed. David A. Shannon, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960. 5.

Lescohier, Don D. History of Labor in the United States, 1896-1932. New York: The Macmillan

Co., 1935.  Rpt. In The Great Depression. Ed. David A. Shannon, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960. 5.