DJ, my 14-year-old son, is disappointed. He and I are discussing Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.
“There isn’t, like, a bunch of blood or dead body parts?” he asks.
“No, not really,” I say.
DJ looks exceptionally disheartened to hear this.
“Does anybody get killed, at least?” he asks.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “Lots of people.”
My son’s eyes light up again.
Pretty much everything DJ knows about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, originally published in 1818, was learned by watching the iconic, flat-headed monster grunting and lurching about in the classic horror movies by Universal Studios. But these types of films, with their forbidding castles, hunchbacked assistants, and bandaged cadavers waiting to be brought back to life by bolts of lightning, are more indicative of a Frankenstein-ish genre that is altogether distinct from any imagery presented in Shelley’s novel.
As a teenager during the 1980s, I eagerly sat through three back-to-back screenings of The Bride, starring Sting as Doctor Frankenstein and Flash Dance’s Jennifer Beal as his gorgeous and (somewhat) feminist female creation. Then, on Saturday nights, I pulled on a corset and garters to sing and dance on stage during midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Dr. Frank N. Furter cooed to the audience, “Don’t dream it, be it.”
What little I did know about Mary Shelley’s time in Geneva, where she conceived her story during the spring of 1816, I learned from Gothic, a 1986 New Wave horror flick, in which Shelley’s sensitive, yet sexy blonde husband, Percy, locks lips with a dangerous and darkly handsome Lord Byron. Once the clock strikes midnight in Frankenstein-inspired films like these, we’re beckoned to leave our daylight inhibitions behind and give in to our darkest, most erotic fantasies beneath the sensuous light of a blood-red moon.
More recently, and well into the age of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology, Frankenstein, more often than not, inspires horror films like 2009’s Splice, in which a genetic engineer named Elsa (after Elsa Lanchester, the actress who played the bride in Universal Pictures’ Bride of Frankenstein) splices together human and animal DNA to create a new hybrid creature that—spoiler alert!—transitions from female to male, and then proceeds to rape and impregnate its creator. Here, the story at least adheres to the novel’s cautionary theme of human as creator in which Victor Frankenstein, in the name of scientific discovery, attempts to usurp the power of God by “infusing life into an inanimate body,” but winds up unleashing his creation’s “insatiable thirst for vengeance” upon the world, instead.
Still, Frankenstein can seemingly be made to mean just about anything, from a slave narrative to a metaphor for postpartum depression. After reading the novel myself, I concluded that the main message Mary Shelley sought to impart is that “monsters” are created when someone is discriminated against because of a socially constructed difference, such as race, class, or sexual orientation. Indeed, even my own personal story played out within the novel’s pages: that of being transgender.
Like the many landscapes depicted in Shelley’s novel, Thailand is also renowned for its natural beauty. Nonetheless, on the morning when I was wheeled into a hospital operating room for my gender reassignment surgery, I could very well have been hidden away on the secluded island where Victor Frankenstein labored over his second creature, instead of Phuket.
Sanguan Kunaporn, my surgeon, greeted me, looking every measure the mad scientist in his surgical gown, apron, and cap. He was seated at a desk and positioned above a light box, which cast shadows across his face, giving him a somewhat demonic appearance. In one latex-gloved hand, he held what looked to be a semi-translucent sac of some sort. In his other hand, he pinched a threaded needle. He was slowly and methodically stitching the sides of the pouch together.
“Hello, Leith,” Dr. Sanguan said to me, his voice muffled beneath his surgeon’s mask. “I’m preparing your vagina, now.” That scene remains the most surreal experience of my life.
Like many trans people, particularly prior to transitioning, Frankenstein’s creature is acutely aware of the dichotomy that exists between his internal reality and outward physical presentation. “I cherished hope, it is true,” he says, “but it vanished, when I beheld my person reflected in water.”
This awareness of his nonconforming physicality also prevents him from approaching the family he has observed for months through the “small and almost imperceptible chink” that exists between his shelter and their cottage. “What chiefly struck me was the gentle manners of these people,” the creature says, describing the cottagers, “and I longed to join them, but dared not.” Repeated rejection has taught him that where others “ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster”—a familiar refrain for trans folk, and the reason why determining whether or not to enter a public washroom, or disclose one’s gender identity status to friends, healthcare providers, or a potential intimate partner always requires careful deliberation.
Still, to situate the creature’s story solely in this context is, admittedly, far too constrained. Frankenstein’s creature is, after all, nameless. As such, his story belongs to anyone who has ever felt “irrevocably excluded,” for whatever reason. While Victor Frankenstein clearly suffers great loss, it is the creature that suffers the most.
“Blasted as thou wert, my agony was still superior to thine,” the creature says, addressing Victor’s corpse as Shelley’s novel draws to a close. “But soon,” he continues, “I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt.”
The creature’s final sentiment is, unfortunately, also familiar. Each year, the trans community gathers together “on a dreary night of November” for Transgender Day of Remembrance. This is when, “by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light” of our own candles, we recall the trans folk who have died during the preceding twelve months, either of their own volition or violently at the hands of others, simply because someone considered them monstrous.
Leith Angel is the author of “Being T: The Riftgirl Blog,” a widely-read blog about her experiences living and dating as a single, trans woman during the early 2000s. More recently, she guest lectures on gender and sexual identities at universities and conferences throughout North America. She can be reached at leithangel.com.