Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
Given that electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... has been associated with the creation (or resurrection) of life since the 18th century, this almost supernatural quality could only serve as a source of inspiration for writers. Filmmakers also drew on this idea later on, producing infinite variations on the theme of the extraordinary creature brought to life through the powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... of electricity, to the point of creating new myths.
Galvanism and the Origins of Life
The work of Italian-born Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) was a great success among all of Europe’s scientific community. In 1791, Galvani carried out multiple experiments on frogs’ legs, through which he passed an electric current causing them to rapidly contract, despite the frogs’ being dead. (In doing so, the scientist gave rise to the term “to galvanize”.) Galvani deduced from his experiments the existence of “animal electricity”, which could be demonstrated with weak electric currents (Alessandro Volta [1745-1827] sought to prove the opposite some years later with an electric battery). At a time when everyone was fascinated by spiritualism, magnetism and electricity, Galvani’s research pushed some to extend experimentation from animals to people. Toward the end of the century, Galvani’s own nephew carried out similar experiments to those of his uncle on the corpses of executed criminals, a morbid undertaking that gave the impression of bringing the dead back to life, or at least produced spectacular movements. These demonstrations rooted the belief that the “spark of life” was thus named because it surely had to be electric, inexorably electric. Electricity was thought to be the life force, the ultimate explanation for the unity of the world, the fundamental and central principle of Nature. These theories captured the collective imagination in the Pre-Romantic and Romantic eras. In 1838, Théophile Gautier, author of numerous tales of the fantastic, wrote, “Animal magnetism is now an accepted scientific fact leaving no more room to doubt the existence of galvanism or electricity. We are surrounded by marvels, wonders and mysteries that we take for granted yet understand nothing thereof. Shadowy worlds exist within us, of which we are not even aware.” These “mysteries” and “shadowy” worlds had already been illustrated by a young novelist twenty years previously.
The Birth of Frankenstein
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a novel written by Mary Shelley (1797-1851) in 1816 and published in 1818. The story intertwines several narratives around the adventure of Victor Frankenstein and his monster (the monster is not named in the book), which he brings to life. At 19, the young author was already well acquainted with the study of electricity and “galvanic fluid” through her family. Her father socialized with renowned scientists such as Humphry Davy (1778-1829), inventor of a safety lamp for mines, and Joseph Priestley (1732-1804), philosopher, pastor and author of a highly influential treatise on electricity; in other words, some of the great British names in the young field of electrical science. Mary Shelley had traveled throughout Europe, and even set her tale on the shores of Lake Geneva. The novel was given a somewhat unexpected fantastical theme by a group of promising young writers, which included Shelley and Byron. The young friends would tell each other supernatural tales about raising the dead with electricity and each one went on to write a horror story; for Mary Shelley, this was Frankenstein. Electrical theories are clearly alluded to in the novel’s preface and opening chapters. In the story, Dr. Frankenstein is fascinated by a tree struck by lightning, which is presented as a bad omen of things to come. In her novel, Shelley only touches on how the monster is actually brought to life. Dr. Frankenstein briefly says, “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs” (Frankenstein, Chapter 5). This spark could only be electricity, but the novel suggests this more than states it. Like Prometheus who, according to Greek mythology, gave fire to humans and was punished by the gods, Dr. Frankenstein sees the monster he has created turn against him, as no one can actually take the place of the Creator. The work quickly became a great success and was soon adapted for theater.
Still from James Whale’s Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, 1931:
A very electric poster from 1964:
A Perfect Woman, Thanks to Electricity
Toward the end of the 19th century, another author, French-born Villiers de l’Isle Adam (1838-1889) continued the theme of electric creatures but moved away from the curse that afflicted Dr. Frankenstein. Although a little overlooked, the French novelist’s works are highly original and portray a kind of fantastic that has led the author to potentially be considered a pioneer of science fiction. In 1886, he wrote a novel entitled The Future Eve, in which one of the protagonists is none other than the very real inventor Thomas A. Edison. Edison meets his old friend, Lord Ewald, who is in an unhappy love affair with a very beautiful yet rather vapid woman (the novel is quite misogynistic). With Lord Ewald on the verge of suicide, Edison, the “inhabitant of a superelectrical, a supernatural world” (Chapter 2, 1), resolves to create a new machine-woman that will have both beauty and intelligence, a sort of ideal woman, called Miss Hadaly. Thanks to some electrical manipulations, she is incarnated in a flash of magnesium. Edison explains, “At present it is not an entity; it is no one at all! Hadaly, externally, is nothing but an electromagnetic thing” (Chapter 2, 4). This is followed by chemical explanations for the flesh and electrical explanations for the “galvanic marrow” connected to electrical wires. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam uses the word “andraiad” to describe the Future Eve, one that is “molded for the first time by the amazing vital agent we call electricity.” This andraiad, from which the word “android” is derived, is a human-imitation but has the qualities Lord Ewald is looking for. The rest of the adventure is rather complex and holds some surprises for the English nobleman. While Frankenstein is a terrifying monster escaping his creator, Hadaly is instead adorned with all graces.
The Silent Film Era
Cinema emerged in the latter years of the 19th century. It did not take long for some pioneers to realize that this new media enabled them to produce supernatural phenomena. The recent invention inexorably drew inspiration from the aforementioned novels, but with the intention of scaring their audiences, even terrifying them by exaggerating certain psychological and physical aspects of the monsters born from electricity. Movies gave electricity a very wide playing field. Lightning, light fighting shadows, sparks, halos, flashes – in short, the whole electric panoply – made it possible to surprise the audience and provide a very simple explanation: life is created by electricity (but not just any electricity). A striking image of these possibilities can be found in Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang’s masterpiece and the last great German expressionist film. In this classic, a robot comes to life to imitate a young woman, Maria, and spread chaos and confusion between two worlds that everything opposes. The machine is directly inspired by The Future Eve, which Fritz Lang had read, and of course Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In an incredible scene requiring many unprecedented special effects, the robot’s appearance changes and its gestures become gradually more human. Electric circles rotate around the robot moving from top to bottom and vice versa, bringing it to life. The robot’s transformation required six film exposures to capture the large and small circles of light. Still today, the transformation into the false Maria remains a remarkable achievement (the Metropolis robot also inspired George Lucas’ kind, yet chatty, C-3PO in Star Wars).
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis:
Frankenstein and His Electric Birth
The advent of the talkies heralded a new era for cinema, and by extension, for fantasy and even horror movies. Frankenstein provided the perfect foundations. It would take too long to tally up all the successive versions to have appeared on the big screen but the first is believed to date from 1910. The story distanced itself from Mary Shelley’s novel during the inter-war period, with the monster becoming the focal point and not the creator. And although he well and truly remained a monster, he was bestowed with certain “human” qualities to evoke a mixture of empathy and terror. The films typically begin with the birth of the creature, which has to be a spectacular moment, and therefore electric. Frankenstein, now named after his creator, comes to life in film “through amazing special effects ranging from electrical storms in abandoned towers to supersonic generators and electric eels in amniotic fluid.” Frankenstein’s birth is clearly identified with electrical powers in the various films based (however loosely) on the eponymous book. The night, the storms, the darkness of a secret laboratory and the blinding lightning bolts all add to the creepiness. The most famous adaptation of Frankenstein is that of 1931 starring Boris Karloff, wonderfully made-up for the part, with two sequels in 1935 and 1939. Lightning bolts and electric phenomena are often depicted on the many Frankenstein film posters and emphasize the extraordinary birth of the main character. While the films of the 1930s remain the most famous adaptations of Mary Shelley’s tale, the number of cinematic versions is thought to exceed 80 today. The novel may be 200 years old in 2018, but it probably still has a bright future.
Find out more:
- -Books cited: Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Villiers de l’Isle Adam and his The Future Eve.
- -A website on the electric Frankenstein myth: http://www.ampere.cnrs.fr/parcourspedagogique/zoom/mythesetlegendes/frankenstein/index.php
- -Various film adaptations of Frankenstein, particularly those of James Whale with Boris Karloff (1931-1939) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (the latest restored version is the closest to the original).
- -The list of cinematic versions of Frankenstein (84!): https://www.senscritique.com/liste/Frankenstein/187556#page-1/
- -La vie électrique, Histoire et imaginaire XVIII-XXIe siècles, Alain Beltran and Patrice Carré, Paris, Belin, 2016, (work on perceptions of electricity since the 18th century)