“I HAVE FOUND IT!” Mary Shelley remembered thinking when she awoke from a fateful nightmare in the summer of 1816 with a thunderclap of inspiration. “What terrified me will terrify others.” These terrors provided the raw material for “Frankenstein,” which she composed at 19 and published anonymously in London two years later, unleashing one of the great ogres of the imagination into the world. “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out,” she wrote, “and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life.” To quote the mad doctor responsible for him in the 1931 Universal Pictures film: “It’s alive!” Now, as the 200th birthday of Shelley’s Monster — or, really, her monstrous allegory — fast approaches, he remains at large.
But a monstrous allegory for what, exactly? Like all great myths, Shelley’s tale shape-shifts to suit any number of freaky interpretations without sacrificing the original’s hellacious powers. It could be a 19th-century premonition about the dangers of biotechnology, or a fable about the possibilities of male birth and all the horror such transgressions of the so-called natural invoke. Though “Frankenstein” also remains one of the most savage tales about father-son dysfunction, the Monster is a daddy, too, responsible in some ways for fantastic creations including Marilyn Manson; “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), which turns, like Shelley’s tale, on the education of an “uncivilized” beast; and Rei Kawakubo’s “bump” dresses (1997), recently on view at the Met, which distort the bodies of their wearers to throw monstrous shadows. Yet there’s something about this story of unhallowed arts that makes it darkly resonant for queer artists beyond any other group.
When you’re gay and grow up feeling like a hideous misfit, fully conscious that some believe your desires to be wicked and want to kill you for them, identifying with the Monster is hardly a stretch: A misunderstood beast finds solace in the solitude of the woods, but seems to endlessly face the wrath of the torch-bearing, small-minded inhabitants in the world beyond. There have been explicitly queer representations of Frankenstein’s creature at least since “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the camp classic that has been screened more or less continuously since its release in 1975, in which the titular monster (created by transvestite Frank-N-Furter) is a lithe blond male in skimpy gold lamé. (The X-rated “Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein,” a retelling of Shelley that gleefully chronicles the doctor’s attempt to create a “perfect” man, predates “Rocky Horror” by about a year.) More recently, on television, “Penny Dreadful” (2014) and “The Cleveland Show” (2011) have starred gay versions of Frankenstein or his Monster.
The artist accepts T’s challenge to make an object in under an hour using a select few items – including a copy of The New York Times – with spooky results. Photo by Scott J. Ross.
If vampires occupy a magical role in the erotic life of adolescents as cultivated loners (consider Robert Pattinson in the “Twilight” saga, 2008-12, or everybody in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” 2013), Frankenstein’s Monster is their nightmarish queer counterpart. He’s a misfit child spurned by his father who grows up to be a sensitive oddity, too strange to be accepted by society or reproduce naturally and forced to seek refuge in seclusion. The artist Richard Hawkins, whose oeuvre could be understood as a complex wrestling match with the meanings of the Monster, and who has painted stitched-together creatures alongside lusty young men, wisely pinpointed the reasons for this queer sympathy as well as whatever divides the zombie from the vampire in a 2009 interview in the book “Of Two Minds, Simultaneously.” As a child he fell for Frankenstein‘s Monster “because he’s clumsy, shy and misunderstood; Dracula because he’s dandyish, nocturnal and misunderstood.”
Bill Condon’s 1998 film “Gods and Monsters” created both a kind of queer origin story and creation myth for the Monster’s continuing presence in popular culture. An account of the last days of James Whale, director of the 1931 adaptation of “Frankenstein,” the film begins as a tame biopic but soon mutates into a very peculiar discursion about the seductions and strangeness of flesh. It features Ian McKellen as Whale fighting a naked handyman played by Brendan Fraser, his beefcake head obscured by a gas mask, steamy poolside shenanigans straight from a Honcho magazine dreamscape and evocations of a putrid soldier strobe-lit by lightning strikes. Whale’s unrequited lust for the hunk kinkily inverts the longing-loathing dynamics between Monster and Doctor, but a hint of romance still quivers through the proceedings and at its climax, the Monster (or Fraser?) escorts Whale over eldritch moorland to his death. (Condon has been enlisted to direct a new version of Whale’s “Bride of Frankenstein” in 2019.)
HOMOEROTIC SUBTEXT was haunting “Frankenstein” way before “Gods and Monsters,” though: Boris Karloff’s fond nickname for his favorite role was “the dear old monster.” Even in the book, the attacks on the Monster spoken by its creator mimic the rabid noise of a trans/homophobic chorus: “More hideous than belongs to humanity” or “some other species.” It’s also a chronicle of the electric fascination flowing between two men and the accompanying rumbles of repressed desire that destroy them.
For the trans woman writer and theorist Susan Stryker, any identification with the Monster was wrought from Gothic intensities of horror and melancholy. Never flinching from the physical disorientation or gore that sexual reassignment entails, she kicks off her ferocious 1994 essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix” with a description of her own rebirth that makes it sound like one of Frankenstein’s macabre procedures. “The transsexual body is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born.” Like any trans person, the Monster deals with a vertiginous alienation from his own body and the impossibility of passing as a “normal” person. In Shelley’s words, “I had never seen a being resembling me or claimed any intercourse with me … Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come?” Stryker doesn’t claim that everyone transitioning is doomed to live within a horror movie, but she does suggest that everyone identifying as other can seize the mythology of monstrousness for their own ends, using it to prove they’re nothing like the ordinary folk who chase the Monster out of town. I once asked Lady Bunny, the acid-tongued entertainer and trans superstar, about such matters. She quipped, “I completely identify with the character of Frankenstein’s Monster. I wake up, put on makeup and scare people.”
But for the original Monster, being scary is always coupled with being sad. This melancholy is captured in the artist Alex Da Corte’s new film “Slow Graffiti,” which premiered at Secession in Vienna this summer. In the work, the artist roams around a laboratory-like environment seemingly crossed with the interior of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, littered with domestic junk, baubles, fiery torches and food — all the while wearing a deluxe Monster mask, a dead ringer for a fully made-up Boris Karloff. Like Da Corte’s earlier video “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” (2010), “Slow Graffiti” stages an eerie romance between materials, probing how they, too, might be misunderstood. Electrical cable impersonates spaghetti and a black lipstick acts as the lonesome Monster’s cigarette. It wouldn’t be a mad scientist proposition to state that this discombobulating vision of the domestic world — a domain of gooey confusions — relates to queer feelings of alienation from “home,” since that’s where, as the critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum points out, “we are supposed to learn how to be straight.” Da Corte considers himself a sculptor; he investigates the properties of his body on video, wondering at how it can become a scarecrow, a tribute act, a freak. The Frankensteinish ramifications of all this are electrifying — Da Corte reimagines sculpture (a medium ordinarily dedicated to preserving inanimate material) as alive and bloody, ready to melt.
Staggering somnambulistically around the room or trying to comprehend its mysterious debris, Da Corte recaptures the fact that the Monster’s rage lies in his abandonment and isolation. He’s an embodiment of heartbreak. It is an experiment in empathy for the supposedly unlovable, continuing the queer tradition of sympathy for the Monster that resonates with the moment in Shelley’s novel where he finally speaks of his torment: “Man will not associate with me.” So much of Da Corte’s video fixates on odd dislocations of intimacy — the Monster caresses his face with ham; hands coated with slime touch the back of his neck, that zone where shivers live. “Love me tender, love me true,” a narrator intones in a gloomy voice, as the Monster continues the zombified exploration of the world symptomatic of his loss, slumping on the floor or skewered by a heap of brooms like Saint Sebastian on Halloween. “Why did you leave me?” he asks. “Why are you gone?” There he is, arms outstretched, lovesick, coming for you.