Victorian Monsters

frankenstein

Last Halloween, I cracked open a book of Victorian vampire stories. I found it interesting how similar the lore was for each story, even though the setting and cultural backdrop was individualistic to the nation that created it.

The German vampires, for example, were more predatory-with-a-purpose than the English vampires, inclined to surround a single house and feed off the occupants until the entire family became vampires. The theme was “family curse,” with one family member’s sin coming back to haunt them all—a moralizing tale, in other words. The more poetic writers wrote imagery dripping in lush metaphors, praising innocence but warning against a dark world. The most famous vampire story, Dracula by Bram Stoker, is a symbolic tale warning against feminism and chauvinism in equal part; condemning women who strive to break free of their social roles as the “gentler sex,” and men who dominate and control them.

The genre of “Gothic Literature” (known for supernatural forces and creatures, damsels in distress, dark or haunted houses, and sinister anti-heroes) saw its rise in the Victorian era. Since that period (mid-to-late 1800’s) saw major technological advancements, many novelists explored themes of social justice through the written word. Stoker’s book is a condemnation of modern methods, forsaking the old “staples and superstitions” (only God, courage, and ancient practices defeat Dracula). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, far from being a tawdry read, is an intellectual exploration of the perils of “playing God,” through scientific advancement. Dr. Frankenstein creates his “Creature” and gives him life, but abandons him in disgust when he realizes what he has done, leaving a soulless creature to wander alone, raging against the injustice of his solitary state. In his anger, he seeks to destroy his own creator.

Was Shelley commenting on modern scientific achievements and the perils therein (playing God is dangerous) or writing a metaphorical criticism of God, alongside the increase in Deism? (Deism believes God exists but does not interfere. In Frankenstein, the Creator, abandons his creations to do what they will.)

What is interesting is, across different cultures and civilizations, some that appear not to have had much integration with each other, the same fears, beliefs, and stories arise, rooted in supernatural forces such as vampires or ghosts. Many cultures have stories of dead returning to visit the living and/or to inflict harm on them (sometimes in the form of vampires). All these tales tie these creatures to separation from God and an unhappy afterlife, some of them by explaining this person’s deeds in life were evil. Light is associated with Goodness and God. The dark is frightening and harbors evils.

What caused mankind to invent such stories? How much of it explored the psyche of those who wrote it at the time, and how much was a moralizing tale intended to frighten children and guide them in “the light”? Who decided what “goodness” is? And if these stories tell us much about the Victorians, what do modern stories say about us?

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Femnista features sinister, epic, chilling tales this week. Read our Halloween Issue.

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