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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein – Movie Night Discussion Guide

Every so often we have a "movie night" with our congregation - not just to watch a movie and be entertained, but to discuss and to learn something from a great film.  What follows is the brief discussion guide I printed up for the group when we watched Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (Directed by Kenneth Branagh (1994)) a few years back.

Why Horror Films?
The Dark Side of Christianity – Here There Be Monsters – O God! What Have I Done? – Have Nothing to Do with Fruitless Deeds of Darkness but…

Mary Shelly
A Brief but Tragic Biographical Sketch of Science Fiction’s Mother

Or Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death – Or The Year Without a Summer

Victor Frankenstein
Striving for Godhood

Wherein the Reader Is Encouraged to Contemplate What Frankenstein Means in Today’s World

A Bibliography

Why Horror Films?
The Dark Side of Christianity 
For many Christians “horror” is a genre of the devil.  They see the occult themes, the use of witchcraft, the monsters, and the blood drinking zombified creatures of the night, and they want nothing to do with it.  They take refuge in the apostle Paul’s exhortation to, “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness…” (Ephesians 5:11)

It is true that the Horror genre is filled with depictions of sin, vice, and carnality – but the same is true of any and every genre of writing or film.  There is just as much wickedness in Westerns and Romance Stories as there is in a tale of Horror – but because the Horror genre often includes the demonic (or, rather, what is labeled “demonic”) Christians often shy away from these tales of the gross and grotesque.

There is, however, a strong emphasis in Christian art throughout the centuries on the dark and the macabre.  A quick glance at the gargoyles carved into the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe, the apocalyptic woodcuts of Albrect Dürer, the fantasies of C, Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and the trip through hell described by Dante Alighieri should convince us that it is, after all, a genre appropriate for Christians to consider. 

Here There Be Monsters
If we accept the Bible as the foundation of our worldview, then we should not automatically oppose tales of the supernatural and monstrous, because the Bible itself is filled with stories about witches, demons, and monsters.  There are Sea Monsters (Genesis 1: 21).  There are Unicorns (Isaiah 34: 6 – 7 in the KJV) Dragons (Revelation 12) and Satyrs (Isaiah 13:21). In Leviticus we find the desert demon named Azazel (Leviticus 16).  The prophet Isaiah describes the desert as the home of the “night hag,” Lilith – the enemy of newborn children (Isaiah 34:14).  Daniel includes a story of Lycanthropy (more accurately, Boanthropy, -Daniel 4).  Genesis describes the giant offspring resulting from intercourse between angels and human women (Genesis 6).  If we can accept monster stories in the Bible, why are we unwilling to accept other popular monster stories as well?

“Christianity is not a narrow, materialistic, boring world-view, such as the one satirized in the Harry Potter novels and taught in today’s schools. It is Christianity that has the open universe with room for both the natural and the supernatural, for the ordinary and the miraculous.  It is Christianity that recognizes the unseen truths of goodness and beauty and believes in a genuine battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light.” (Vieth, 22)

O God! What Have I Done?
One of the reasons monster stories are so popular (and so beneficial) is that they allow us to confront our own evil in a safe – though sometimes frightening – situation. When we watch Lon Chaney Jr. in the classic Universal film The Wolf Man beg to be locked away before the next full moon because he’s afraid that he won’t be able to control his darkest, most animalistic desires, we can confront our own lusts.  When we watch the ambitious Victor Frankenstein attempt to reanimate dead tissue we can identify with his plan and reasoning.  We can confront our own fear of death and dying when we see zombies – those living, walking dead – lurching across the screen.  We can think about ourselves and our own ritualistic ‘going through the motions’ without thinking about the reasons (Ekolf, 2).  Monster movies allow us to see the reflection of ourselves that we’d rather not confront.

Monster movies give us a way to exorcise our demons, to shine the light of Christ on the vampires of our soul, and to fire the silver bullet of faith at the werewolves that plague us.  Wes Craven, graduate of Wheaton College and director of numerous horror films, including A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Dracula 2000, describes the cathartic potential of horror films: “Modern horror films of which I’m admittedly a practitioner, are to me simply post-traumatic nightmares of a world that has seen more horror than it can handle alone.  When we go to the theatre, it’s to have the terror of real life marshaled into some sort of order so that it can be dealt with.  The chaos is caged for a few hours in a graspable narrative.” (Stetson, 2)

Have Nothing To Do with Fruitless Deeds of Darkness, But…
While Paul encouraged Christians to have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness, that passage of refuge to Christians who shun the Horror genre actually goes on to say that light makes everything visible.  “This is why it is said, ‘Wake up O Sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine upon you.” This is what a horror story that is well told does; it shines the light of truth, the light of beauty, the light of Christ on the creatures of darkness that haunt our lives, and empowers us to rise from the dead.

Mary Shelly
A Brief but Tragic Biographical Sketch of Science Fiction’s Mother
Mary Shelly, the daughter of Mary Wollstoncraft – an early feminist and author – was born in 1797; her mother died a few days later. She was raised and educated by her philosopher father, William Godwin.  When she was 15 she met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelly, a political radical and free-thinker like her father.  In addition to being a friend and intellectual stimulus to Godwin Percy was also financially supporting the Godwin family. In 1814 the 16 year old Mary eloped with Percy Shelly (who had abandoned his own pregnant wife to be with her.)

In 1816 the couple travelled to Lake Geneva, Switzerland to be near the scandalous poet, Lord Byron, and a number of other poets and writers.  The “incessant rainfall” of that “wet, ungenial summer” forced Shelly and her friends to stay indoors during much of their holiday.  It was after reading a collection of ghost stories that the group decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story.  Mary described her inspiration this way:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together – I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion…What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.”

Her novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818, when she was only 20 years old.

A series of tragedies marked the next several years of her life; three of her children died in three successive years. And in 1822 Percy drowned in a boating accident in Italy.  After his death, Mary continued to edit her husband’s poems and essays as well as writing a number of other works herself.  She died in 1851.  Frankenstein remains her most famous work.
Or Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death – Or The Year Without a Summer
1816 was noted for severe climate abnormalities around the world.  In the American Northeast snow, as well as lake and river ice, were reported in June.  Temperature changes for 95° down to near freezing occurred within a matter of hours.  Huge storms and abnormally large rainfalls caused floods across Europe.  Frost was reported in August.

The strange weather patterns of that year are thought to be the result of the volcanic eruptions of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, April 5th – 15th in 1815.  The eruptions flung immense amounts of dust and volcanic ash into the atmosphere.  Temperatures fell worldwide because less sunlight was able to pass through the clouded skies.

Victor Frankenstein
Striving for Godhood
Ever since the Garden of Eden and that temptation to eat from the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, humanity has been striving in various ways to, as the serpent said, “become like gods.”  Frankenstein is the tale of one man’s attempt to become like God.

The good Victor Frankenstein, the dedicated scientist and persistent innovator, wanted to do something grand; he wanted to infuse a spark of life into a lifeless form.  He wanted to appropriate the power of God for himself.

“Life and death appeared to me ideal bound, which I should first breathe through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.  A new species would bless me as its creator…

He was driven by scientific curiosity and tragic ambition.  But, in the end, he was unable to handle the consequences of his actions. When he finished he realized that all his work, all his struggle, all his effort had succeeded only in creating a creature of horror and disgust; his admirable intentions were unrealized and he failed to achieve his lofty goal.

We are all like an unclean thing
and all our righteousnesses are
like filthy rags;
Isaiah 64: 6

 1) Victor’s ardent desire was to “render man invulnerable to any but a violent death…”  Mary Shelly, whose mother died as a result of complications during childbirth, wrote this story shortly after her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage.  How does the fear of death and dying affect us?

2) The creation of Victor Frankenstein is never given a name – a fact that he laments at the end of the story.  He is repeatedly described by Victor as “my hideous progeny,” “monster,” “demon,” and “wretch.”  Of what importance is a name?  How does what we are called affect who we are?  Think of those in the Bible who underwent a change of name: Abram-Abraham, Jacob-Israel, Saul-Paul…

3) In the credits Robert De Niro’s role is listed as “The Sharp Featured Man” not as “The Monster” (the creature was never given a name).  Was he a monster?  Do we feel sympathy for him or for Victor Frankenstein?  Who is the bigger monster?

4) Kenneth Branagh, director and star of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein said, “The image I had in mind for the birth sequence is of a child born to parents who then walk out of the delivery room and leave this blood stained, fluid covered thing to just crawl around on its own.” How does our relationship with our fathers (and mothers) affect our relationship with the rest of the world?

5) Frankenstein, written at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, has sometimes been described as a warning against the dangers of technology.  What should the role of science be?  How far should science go?  What does Frankenstein have to say about issues like human cloning and genetic manipulation?

6) What are the consequences of trying to be God?

7) It has been argued that Victor Frankenstein didn’t create a “monster,” that he created a loving sensitive creature, but it was society (including Victor) that made him into a monster with its alternating neglect and abuse.  Describe the cycle of violence in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.  How can this cycle be broken?

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.  With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony I collected the instruments of life around me that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.  It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eyes of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”  - From Victor Frankenstein’s Journal

The Creature

A Bibliography
Aldiss, Brian W. The Detached Retina, “Science Fiction’s Mother Figure,”
                Syracuse University Press, Syracuse NY, 1995.

Eklog, Todd, Frankenstein Meets the Exorcist: Embracing Your Inner Monster  Oct. 31, 2004

Greydannus, Steven D. Horror, the Grotesque, and the Macabre: A Christian Appraisal,

Salisbury, Mark, “Bringing to life Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” Fangoria, November, 1994.

Shelly, Mary, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, 1818.

Stetson, Brad, “Nights of the Living Dead,” Christianity Today Magazine,

Tenner, Edward, Why Things Bite Back: Technology  and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences,
                Alfred Knopf, Inc, New York NY, 1996.

Veith, Gen Edward “Good Fantasy and Bad Fantasy,” Christian Research Journal,
                Volume 23, Number 1

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