Doing Theology with the Bride of Frankenstein

October 30, 2011

“It’s the most theological movie ever made.” That was the surprising statement a minister friend made to me a few Halloweens ago. Honestly, I’d never stopped to wonder what film might claim that title, but if I had, I’m sure I’d never have come up with Bride of Frankenstein (1935), if only because I’d never seen it.

I’ve now seen this expertly crafted, entertaining, and genuinely moving film many times. If you’ve never seen Bride of Frankenstein, you should (especially before reading any further—spoilers ahead!) The movie packs an amazing amount of punch into its short running time (just shy of an hour and a quarter). It is, in Roger Ebert’s words, “satirical, exciting, funny, and an influential masterpiece of art direction.” It is also “one of the greatest science fiction movies” (John Clute and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1993, p. 158)—and, sure enough, it offers plenty for theologically minded viewers to think about.

I see at least four classic theological concerns (re)animating Bride of Frankenstein:

1. The promise and peril of human creativity

“Know ye that the Lord he is God,” the psalm-singer exhorts us; “it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves” (Psalm 100.3, KJV). The human race did not will itself into existence: we were made, and made in the image of God (Gen. 1.27; 5.1-2). The “image of God” means many things, but I think it means, in part, that though we are creatures, we share (in a derivative but still real degree) God’s ability to create.

The Bible doesn’t contain too many texts celebrating human creativity, of course. The schemes of our easily misguided minds and desperately deceitful hearts have been going awry since the Tower  of Babel. But even as a fallen race, we have not entirely lost our God-given capacity for creation, and God still calls on us to exercise it in right and holy ways.

Do you remember Bezalel? He’s not someone mentioned in Sunday school too much, but maybe he should be. God commissioned him and his fellow artisan, Oholiab, to use all their creativity and craftsmanship in designing the Temple and its fine fittings: “See, I have called by name Bezalel… and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft…” (Ex. 31.2-3). Bezalel offers a model for using our creativity in the service of God.

Human creativity is not, in and of itself, problematic. Problems arise when we forget that it depends upon and is ultimately accountable to our Creator. Case in point: the decrepit and devilish Doctor Pretorius, the true villain of Bride of Frankenstein. Pretorius (a riveting performance from Ernest Thesiger) urges his former pupil, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), to join a quest to do far more than spark dead tissue back to life: “Leave the charnel house and follow the lead of nature—or of God, if you like your Bible stories.” In this scene, Pretorius shows Henry the perverse results of his initial attempts at creating life, tempting him to help manufacture a “new world of gods and monsters:”

It’s a familiar trope of science fiction—the mad scientist playing God—but it has such staying power precisely because it dramatizes spiritual truth. In The Gospel according to Science Fiction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), Gabriel McKee explains: “Stories like Frankenstein assume a balance in the universe that human science, if not approached with appropriate humility, risks upsetting. Humanity, according to such stories, has a place in the cosmos, and creating new life exceeds this place. The result”—as Pretorius learns too late, in the film’s explosive conclusion—“is inevitably disastrous” (p. 27).

2. The character of the church

How can we identify the true church? It’s a question theologians have argued about for centuries, often conveniently “proving” that their expression of Christ’s body is the correct one. In A People’s History of Christianity (HarperOne, 2009), however, Diana Butler Bass offers a compelling criterion:

Unlike almost every other contested idea in early Christianity, including the nature of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, the unanimous witness of the ancient fathers and mothers was that hospitality was the primary Christian virtue… In greeting, meeting, eating, and caring, the church acted as a community with its arms open, attracting inquirers through a practical demonstration of God’s love (pp. 61, 64).

No Christian congregation appears in Bride of Frankenstein—but we do see a community characterized by hospitality. The hermit (O.P. Heggie) and The Monster (the brilliant Boris Karloff) form a community of only two—but Jesus himself promised that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18.20). Surely you spotted the crucifix on the hermit’s wall! This man is unambiguously Christian: he plays Schubert’s Ave Maria on the violin; praises God for sending him his new friend; and even leads The Monster in a unique “Eucharist” consisting of bread, wine—and smokes! (1935 was a long time ago!)

God’s love, the hermit believes, has created a new community. In this community, the needy are welcomed and cared for. People support and build each other up, and learn to discern good from bad. They nourish each other not only with God’s good material gifts, but also with God’s greatest spiritual gift, selfless love.

Where is the true church? Perhaps it is where we all say, with The Monster, “Alone bad. Friend good!”

3. The evil of isolation

God said of the first human being, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2.18). In Bride of Frankenstein, it is not good that The Monster be alone, either! Most of the movie’s terror and tragedy in the film arise from the fact that The Monster feels the pain of his isolation so deeply. Watch how Pretorius, in this scene, takes advantage of The Monster’s loneliness in order to enlist him as an ally:

What Pretorius offers The Monster is a parody of the church-like community he had found with the hermit. Pretorius presides at an unholy table, where God’s good, even sacramental, gifts of bread and wine (and tobacco—again: 1935!) are abused because they have been removed from a context of friendship and mutual upbuilding. The Monster’s vulnerability to Pretorius’ predatory behavior reminds us that when healthy relationships are lacking, unhealthy ones may take their place. Perhaps that dynamic, as much as the expectation of Christ’s imminent return, motivated the author of Hebrews to warn his readers against “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some,” for we do need
to be “encouraging one another,” even “provoking one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10.24-25)—not the hatred and mayhem to which Pretorius will provoke The Monster.

4. The suffering, saving scapegoat

The first time I watched Bride of Frankenstein, I was unprepared for its most audacious theological move: it casts The Monster himself as its Christ figure. Even now, the unavoidable identification of The Monster with the Messiah strikes me as strange—but perhaps that’s only fitting, since—as Isaiah’s prophecy of him anticipated (Isa. 53) and as the gospel accounts of his Passion confirm—Jesus and his saving work struck people as strange.

The Monster acts as a Christ figure in two of the film’s sequences. In the first, he is fleeing from the angry mob that is so much a part of the Frankenstein film mythos. He is verbally and physically assaulted—he is “despised and rejected… a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isa. 53.3)—and, ultimately, he is “crucified.” The scene’s breathtakingly bold imagery can’t be ignored:

Like the suffering servant Isaiah foresaw, however, The Monster is innocent. He is being punished under “a perversion of justice” (Isa. 53.8). I know, The Monster killed people in the first film. He kills a few people in this film as well, albeit off-screen. But Bride of Frankenstein makes clear that The Monster acts out of an instinctual sense of self-preservation, not of malice. And it is his attempt to save a little girl from drowning (a neat inversion of a controversial scene from the 1931 Frankenstein) that precipitates the crowd’s pursuit, capture, and punishment of him.

We might dismiss as a cliché the concept of the “monster” who isn’t evil, merely misunderstood (heck, it seems Doctor Who fans see stories along those lines at least three times per series!). The motif retains visceral power here, however. It’s not an airtight analogy—Christians understand Jesus’ death to be God’s will, a necessary part of the mystery of our salvation (Isa. 53.4-6; Mark 8.31; Luke 24.25-27; et al.)—but the film’s point of contact with the Passion emerges strongly enough: The Monster is “crucified” not for his own sins, but for the sins of the people. They use him as a sacrificial scapegoat, piling on him all of the ugliness they cannot bear to carry within themselves. At this point, the townsfolk are the real monsters of the piece.

In the second sequence, the film’s unforgettable conclusion, The Monster meets his intended mate (the iconically coiffed Elsa Lanchester). She, however, recoils from him with hisses and shrieks of horror. What happens next is another unexpected, peculiar parable:

Not grace for everyone, you no doubt noted—Pretorius goes up in flames, the inevitable consequence of his sinful pride. But The Monster, who would have had every reason to demand the life of the maker who abandoned him, initiates his own destruction while giving Henry and his bride a chance to avoid forever being alone. He gives his life as a ransom, if not for many, then at least for those two. His growl at Henry—“You go! Live!”—is nothing less than the growl of grace.

Tomorrow night, when the last trick-or-treater has rung your doorbell and you extinguish your jack-o-lantern for the last time this Halloween season, you might consider watching and reflecting on Bride of Frankenstein. I fully expect you will enjoy the movie–and I hope you will find yourself pondering the intersections of your faith with at least one of “the most theological movies ever made.”

Except as noted, Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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8 comments on “Doing Theology with the Bride of Frankenstein

  1. Mike, I’m so glad you shared a link to this on my blog. This is a wonderful post, and now you’re making me wish that I had done something similar. “The most theological movie ever made” kind of surprised me too, and while I don’t quite think it was THE most, you’ve certainly laid out a very compelling and interesting case here. In fact, while I picked up on some of the more obvious correlations, you’ve made me aware that there’s so much more going on here than meets the eye, and the next time I watch this film, I’m going to be thinking about what you said and will be paying much closer attention.

    I went and answered your comment on my blog, and then realized I’d forgotten to say anything about Dr. Pretorius, so I’ll do that now. Your number 3 here is just spot on. I like that you point out how the scene with Pretorius mirrors the scene with the hermit, but how the intent is so opposite. I hadn’t really considered this before. Definitely brings to mind “bad company corrupts good character”. And how true is it that in real life, men like Pretorius go out amongst God’s people and twist the truth. They masquerade as angels of peace, yet their purpose is to bring death and suffering, or to further their own gains in their attempts to play God. And I think this is why it is says not to forsake the fellowship. We all need to remain vigilant and be mindful of the Dr. Pretoriuses that roam around us. To protect ourselves and others.

    Pretorius is such an important character in this film, so deep and complex, and Thesiger nails his performance. The scene with the his “creations” would be impressive even by today’s standards. So to see something like that back in 1935? Amazing. It is chilling and very disturbing, which is definitely what they were going for. I wish they had dedicated more time to learning more about Pretorius, though I suppose it’s not really NEEDED as you’ve already done a great job of deconstructing him here with what they provided. Kudos to the script writers for making that possible.

    I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that you’ve got a excellent, thought-provoking post here, Mike. I liked the film before, but now I feel as though it has so much more to offer than I originally thought, and I can’t wait to watch it again.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback, Wendy! (I am sorry I am so late in replying!)

      One of the reasons Thesiger’s performance as Pretorius is so gripping (and disturbing) is that I don’t think he really does “masquerade” as any kind of angel. He seems pretty clear on what he wants to do — usurp God — and really seems to relish the thought of doing it!

      You have more knowledge of these characters than I do – was Pretorius ever revisited in other incarnations of the Frankenstein story?

      • Good question, Mike! Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of any other Pretorius appearances. But you got me curious, so I did a little searching around. Seems that “Doctor Pretorius” appears in a few novels and a spoof film. In a 2007 movie, there was a Professor Jane Pretorius. Other than that, there are just a few Pretorius-like characters kicking around, but not actually him. Kind of strange really. He’s such a great character in “Bride”, I’m surprised they never truly tried to resurrect him. But then again, Thesiger’s performance would be tough to top. As I understand it, both Claude Raines and Bela Lugosi were considered for the role, but as much as I admire both actors very much, I just can’t picture ANYONE else as Pretorius. Bela’s character in “White Zombie” had a commanding presence, and Raines played a pretty convincing madman in “The Invisible Man”. But … I don’t think either of them could have merged those qualities the way Thesiger did to create the perfect Pretorius. So I guess I’m kind of glad that his is the only one!

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