October 24, 2018

Brainstorming Fear on the 200th Anniversary of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”

By Stuart Mitchner

With the fear-is-fun holiday looming, Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House is a runaway best-seller while Republican midterm candidates are running on fear and dread.

“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear,” according to Edmund Burke (1729-1797), quoted in Princeton professor Susan Wolfson’s Cultural Edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. After referring to “popular tales” concerning “ghosts and goblins,” Burke cites those “despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally on the passion of fear.”

Hitchcock Goes “Boo!”

One of Halloween’s patron saints, Alfred Hitchcock locates the connection between fun and fear in the moment a mother goes “boo!” to her baby, who responds by giggling in delight. I grew up laughing at exponents of funny fear like Bob Hope in the Road movies and Lou Costello scared speechless stammering “A-A-A-Abbott!” and holding to his derby for dear life as a monster appears, unseen by his sneeringly dismissive partner Bud Abbott.

I wasn’t laughing the night my mother acted scary. I was five or six at the time. Suddenly she wasn’t my mother any more, the loved and trusted known had become the fearsome unknown, her face distorted, her eyes wild, her voice horrifically distorted. As soon as she saw my reaction, she tried to give me a hug, making cooing sounds meant to console me, but I flinched away. Some years later I lost a steady job as a babysitter after making up a bedtime story for a child who until then had felt safe and secure with me. Like my mother, I got carried away. I improvised, added some eerie flourishes, and assumed a sinister voice. When I saw the terror in his eyes, I tried to smooth it over, make it funny. The parents never asked me back.

The Power of Fear

When Horatio describes the apparition of Hamlet’s father in terms of the “fear-suprised eyes” of the two watchmen who were “distilled/Almost to jelly with the act of fear,” he’s setting the stage for the moment the ghost tells Hamlet “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,/Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,/Thy knotted and combined locks to part/And each particular hair to stand on end/Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”

One of the most notorious tellers of harrowing tales was Edgar Allan Poe. Writing about “The House of Usher,” D.H. Lawrence says of Roderick Usher, he “has lost his self, his living soul, and become a sensitized instrument of the external influences; his nerves are verily like an aeolian harp which must vibrate. He lives in some struggle with the grim phantasm, Fear.” Lawrence goes on to invoke the ground zero of horror: “All this underground vault business in Poe only symbolizes that which takes place beneath the consciousness….Beneath, there is [the] awful murderous extremity of burying alive.”

“A Thrill of Fear”

In Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she describes a conception founded on fear and prompted by her part in a storytelling competition with Shelley, Byron, and Byron’s doctor John Polidori. Her story “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”

In bed after a night during which she had been “a devout but nearly silent listener” to Byron and Shelley’s discussion of galvanism and the possibility that “the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth,” she saw “with shut eyes, but acute mental vision … the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” The idea “so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me.” What if she could contrive a story that would frighten a reader as she herself had been frightened that night? “Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. ‘I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.’ “

Screaming Frenzy

As much as Shelley’s Frankenstein has charmed, excited, and fascinated me, it’s never had the chilling effect of certain films. In fact, her reference to “the thing” standing by the bedside brings to mind Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing (1951), which roused the audience to such screaming frenzy that the projectionist in my hometown theatre actually had to stop the film. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho turned day to night for me, making my afternoon stroll back to a London B&B as fearsome as a midnight walk on a fog-shrouded moor. Discussing the film with François Truffaut, Hitchcock says, ‘I don’t care about the subject-matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the photography and the sound-track and all the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion.”

Politics and “Psycho”

The most truly fearful thing about Woodward’s Fear, from what I’ve read of it, isn’t so much the impression of an administration in chaos as the way the narrative lays out the sequence of events that culminated, incredibly, in the horror of November 8, 2016. It’s like a bloodless political variation on the masterfully crafted sequence of events in Psycho leading the unsuspecting woman played by Janet Leigh to her doom in that shower at the Bates Motel. Reading Fear is like reliving the 2016 campaign, from the nightmare of the convention to Access Hollywood to the stalker debate to Comey’s October surprise, while Clinton drives unsuspectingly along what seems to be the highway to victory unaware of the dark forces converging to destroy her.

Now here we go again down the dark road into the season of dread looking for faint gleams of hopeful light through the rainy film noir night, a prospect Edmund Burke seems to intimate with his vision of fear as “an apprehenson of pain or death” operating “in a manner that resembles actual pain.” One big difference is that Burke’s despotic governments “keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye,” since to “make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary.”

Try keeping this commander in chief from the public eye. Back when Trump was nominated, then-Senator Harry Reid dubbed him the GOP’s Frankenstein. Of course he was thinking of Hollywood’s rampaging monster, not Mary Shelley’s well-read and well-spoken Creature.


In the Contexts section of Wolfson’s edition of Frankenstein that includes the quotes from Burke, she offers “Frankentalk: Frankenstein in the Popular Press of Today.” Among numerous examples of the way the novel continues to haunt contemporary media is Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter’s reference to how the press has become conditioned to playing “character cop,” in which he imagines “the hulking character issue” turning into “the Frankenstein monster of American presidential politics. And just as in the movie, the monster eventually turns on its creator — in this case, the press.” That’s from an article dated 19 October 1987.

Frankenread Alert

Princeton’s part in the Frankenstein bicentennial, which is being supervised by Susan Wolfson, will be marked with a marathon community reading of the novel in the Chancellor Green rotunda beginning begin on Halloween night, Wednesday, October 31 at 6:30 p.m. and continuing on November 1 and 2. Some 65 readers will participate. The event is free and open to all; refreshments will be served.