Bringing Horror to Life: The Origin of Frankenstein

The story of Frankenstein started during a rainy summer night in 1816. After a year marked by an extremely long and bitter winter, Mary Shelley and her lover, Percy Bryce Shelley, sought to escape the weather by visiting Lord Bryon’s villa in Switzerland. The three friends wandered around the vast expanse of the lake on Byron’s property, searching for inspiration in the serenity of the natural world around them. Unfortunately, frequent rain showers confined the group to the house.

Victor Frankenstein looks at his creation in horror and disgust. Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.
Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

Sitting in Bryon’s library by the dim light of assorted candles, cradled by the dull roar of the storm outside, the three writers turned to ghost stories to pass the time. Both terrified and enlivened by the tales of monstrous apparitions and cursed households, Bryon proposed an idea: Each of them should write a ghost story and share it with their peers. From that point on, Mary Shelley pushed herself to write a story that would chill the blood, haunt the mind, and set itself apart from all other works of supernatural fiction that had come before it.

Inspiration did not come quickly or easily for her. The loftiness of her goal and the immense pressure she placed upon herself to see it through forced her into a state of writer’s paralysis. As Percy and Bryon shared the results of the previous night’s work, Mary repeatedly had nothing to show. During this time, Bryon and Percy spoke at length about philosophy; specifically, the concept of life and whether it could be created using current scientific technology and methods. Of special interest to Mary Shelley was the concept of galvanism.

Luigi Galvini introduced the idea of galvanism through a series of experiments on the remains of dissected frogs. Holding a copper probe at one end of the frog’s legs and a piece of iron at the other end, he was shocked to find that the legs twitched as if they were still alive. His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took his research a step further and applied it to the human body. In a public demonstration in 1803, Aldini subjected the body of an executed criminal to a series of electrical shocks. The result was bone-chilling. The corpse moved as if he were still alive. His muscles spasmed, his jaw opened, his hands clenched, and one eye actually opened due to the electrical shocks.

The men eventually lost interest in the topic and went to bed. Mary, however, remained haunted by the horrific potential of science to give humans power over life and death. She tossed and turned in her bed, finally falling asleep in the middle of the night, but her sleep was far from peaceful. She had a singularly vivid and horrifying nightmare which impressed itself on her mind, described here in her introduction to Frankenstein:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.

She finally had come up with the perfect ghost story: A man who, in trying to test the boundaries of scientific potential, creates a monster. Her protagonist, named Dr. Victor Frankenstein, is so hungry for knowledge about life and the human body that he turns to charnel houses and grave robbery in order to experiment on the bodies of the dead. After cobbling together a makeshift human from the remains of deceased criminals, Dr. Frankenstein uses the electricity from a lightning storm to give the monstrous creature life. Horrified by what he has created, Dr. Frankenstein flees from it and sets into a motion of series of tragic events for both his creation and those around him.

On that night in Byron’s villa, Mary Shelley took her worst nightmare and fashioned it into a living and breathing monster that would haunt readers for centuries to come. This Halloween, celebrate the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein’s release by visiting this classic. Find a dark corner, settle down, and see for yourself just why Mary Shelley’s “midnight specter” has chilled the blood and haunted the mind from the moment it took its first lumbering step in her dreams.

Celebrate Franken Fridays with us! Frighteningly fun events are held each Friday to celebrate Frankenstein’s 200th publishing anniversary. Connect with us on social media using the #FrankenFriday tag.

 Upcoming Events:

 Friday, Oct. 5: “Frankenstein’s Originality” by Anne Williams, University of Georgia professor and Gothic Writer

  • 11 a.m. to noon – Cleveland Ballroom, Nesbitt 3110, Gainvesville Campus
  • 2-3 p.m. – Hoag Auditorium, Dahlonega Campus (reception to follow)
  • 2-3 p.m. Student Resource Center 581, Oconee Campus (broadcast from Dahlonega)
  • 2-3 p.m. Cumming Campus (broadcast from Dahlonega)

 Thursday, Oct. 11:

  • 5:30p.m., Library Lobby, Dahlonega campus—David Plunkert, artist and illustrator for The New Yorker will present his creative process of illustrating the gothic novel and 200th anniversary edition of Frankenstein with modern influences. There will be a book signing before the event and afterward in the Library lobby.
  • 6 p.m., Rare Books Collections, Library 382, Dahlonega Campus—“The Monster in the Music of Mary Shelley’s Romantic Period.” Aria Performance by Benjamin Schoening, UNG Department Head of Music.

Friday, Oct. 12:

  • 1 p.m., Library 134, Gainesville campus—”The Many Faces of Frankenstein” film presentation by Dr. Candice Wilson of UNG and Dr. Tobias Wilson-Bates of Georgia Tech
  • TBA, Student Resource Center 311, Oconee Campus—From “Frankenstein” to Fake News: A brief history of science fiction by UNG instructor Derek Thiess
  • Film screenings of 1931 “Frankenstein” and selections from Films on Demand by Drs. Melissa Schindler and Ann Marie Francis and co-sponsored with the Student Government Association, Forsyth County Library (1931 film) and classroom on Cumming Campus

Thursday, Oct. 18:

  • 3:30 p.m., front of Library, West End Art Exhibit in Library, Dahlonega Campus—Birthday Party for Mary Shelley’s Creature. Reading by Scott Fugate

Friday, Oct. 19:

  • 11 a.m. to noon, Library 134, Gainesville Campus—Visiting artist Drema Montgomery, who creates art by assembling various found objects, will demonstrate her work and correlate it to Dr. Frankenstein’s manufacturing the monster.
  • Noon to 4 p.m., Forsyth County Library and Cumming Campus—Frankenstein-themed rock art by World Literature II students
  • 1 p.m., Library 134, Gainesville Campus—English faculty panel including Dr. Diana Edelman, Anita Turlington and Dr. Kasee Laster
  • TBA, Student Resource Center 311, Oconee Campus—The Many Faces of Frankenstein: media and roundtable discussion with Drs. Dan Cabaniss, Stephanie Rountree and Shane Toepfer

Friday, Oct. 26

  • 11 a.m., Library 134, Gainesville Campus—”Frankenstein and Posthumanism” faculty panel featuring Dr. Lynn Berdanier, Dr. John Hamilton, Dr. Jeanelle Morgan, and Dr. Kristin Yager
  • Noon to 3 p.m., upstairs lobby, Cumming Campus—PoeDown and costume contest
  • Noon, Library 134, Gainesville Campus—”Monster Theory” faculty panel featuring Dr. Jeff Pardue, Dr. Phil Guerty, Dr. Patsy Worrall
  • 3-5 p.m., Mount Hope Cemetery, Dahlonega Campus—”Secrets from the Grave” guided tour of Mount Hope Cemetery by Thomas Scanlin