The origins began on a cold, rainy evening in Geneva while Mary Shelley, her not yet husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori sat around a fire sharing old German ghost stories. As a dare, the four writers embarked on a journey of self-discovery to create the most horrifying story that their minds could imagine. And so, in 1816 Mary Shelley began her work that would one day be known to all the world.
The book “Frankenstein” was first published in 1818 as an anonymous author, it wouldn’t be for another 5 years that Mary Shelley’s name would be associated with the work. A new discovery about the creative mind behind the monster was revealed when Shelley revised the preface in the third edition published in 1831 to add how the idea had come to her.
It was a dream. A terrifyingly haunting dream where she said she saw a pale student kneeling beside an invention he created, and stretched out in front of the student was a “hideous phantom of a man” who showed signs of life. There has been debate whether Shelley fabricated the story in order to generate sales but there is a ring of truth to the dream as it related directly to what the 4 writers would discuss over that fire in Geneva.
During the early part of the nineteenth century there was a large serge in the interests of the sciences through new developments and inventions, thanks to the industrial revolution. The group would discuss a new and interesting development in biology called Galvanism where the scientist Luigi Galvani tested the effects of electricity on animals that resulted in the reanimation of the muscles within the animals, rats specifically.
With the discussions ranging from philosophy, anatomy, religion, biology and a variety of other subjects, it would be of no surprise that Shelley would dream of the image she saw in her sleep.
The dream became a reality when in 1818 the book, which appeared over the course of 3 volumes, was printed at 500 copies. While her success was not immediate, as she only made 41 pounds, 13 shillings, and 6 pence, it would be after Shelley’s death that Frankenstein would become a household name. More specifically, it would be the silver screen that brought the monster to life.
The most common misconception about the story of Frankenstein is that he is the monster, which is of no wonder considering most of the movies made were about the monster and not the doctor. Dr. Victor Frankenstein was the mad genius who created the monster whom we know so well today. Unfortunately, with movie titles such as “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”, “Bride of Frankenstein”, or “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman”, it is plain to see that Hollywood saw Frankenstein as the monster.
Sadly, Mary Shelley did not see any of this success during her life. Fifty-nine years after Mary’s death in 1851 would see the first real explosion of her masterpiece when “Frankenstein” became a major motion picture, if you consider a 16 minute long silent film major. The movie that was released in 1910 sparked a new generation of those intrigued by Victor and his monster that would start a new fascination to last for decades. This Frankenstein movement is still going strong today with the most recent film having been released this year aptly named “Frankenstein”.
The end of the intrigue behind the man and his monster may never stop as history has proven that mixing both science and horror together creates the perfect villain who is both fiction and inside all of us at the same time. This combination has been repeated and used successfully in stories ever since.
Mary’s did not enjoy an easy life, especially after her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, died on December 30, 1822. His death left Mary to care for herself and their son with only a small income provided by Percy’s father until her son came of age to inherit Percy’s fortune and title in 1844.
At 53 years old, after several years of battling illness which caused her health to severely deteriorate, Mary died on February 1, 1851. The physician attending to Mary had suspected that the cause of death had been a brain tumor, which explained her frequent headaches and recurring partial paralysis that would come and go, part of the battles she experienced prior to death.
What was found after her burial at St. Peter’s Church, Bournemouth seemed to be something straight out of a book as opposed to actual events. While searching her home, Mary’s family opened up the desk that Mary wrote at to find the locks of her dead children’s hair, along with a poem written by her husband which had been wrapped around a piece of silk containing Percy’s ashes, as well as the remains of his heart. While this is a romantic notion of how Mary kept her husband’s heart close to her, the story has never been confirmed as fact or fiction but he was supposedly buried with his son in 1889.
Another part of Percy’s story that sounds more fiction than fact is that he was cremated after his death. Once his ashes were gathered, it was discovered that his heart didn’t burn at all, it was completely in tact and it was a friend of Percy’s who took the heart and gave it to Mary to keep. A rational explanation to the probable cause of this occurrence was given in 1955 after The Journal of the History of Medicine published an article suggesting that it may have been that Percy had a heart that was calcifying, which would cause the heart to react to flame the same as bone.