On Sunday, April 14, the Forum for Questioning Minds presented a lecture hosted by Angela Smith, an associate professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Utah who teaches and researches film and literature.
The topic of the lecture was based on Smith’s book, Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema, which explores how the directors and filmmakers behind films such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde both exploited and undermined the sensationalist attitudes society had towards disability at the time these films were released.
“My argument in the book is that classic horror films on one level were like eugenic texts,” Smith said during her lecture. “[These texts] tried to persuade Americans to act eugenically by depicting the dysgenic horrors that would otherwise result.”
She expanded on that argument by pointing out how Jack P. Pierce, the makeup artist on Frankenstein, studied several scientific texts, including anatomy, surgery and criminology texts, prior to designing the iconic makeup worn by Boris Karloff. Many of these texts at the time relayed the eugenic ideas of being able to identify negative traits, such as the potential for criminal activity, by analyzing the facial structure and size of the cranium.
Smith’s lecture was accompanied by still images and clips from the 1931 version of Frankenstein in addition to excerpts from studies, statements from scholars, historical documents and treatises on eugenics, the science of controlling human population via controlled breeding in order to increase the occurrence of desirable traits and decrease the occurrence of genetic defects.
Many of the documents presented were a product of their time, dating from the mid 19th to the early 20th century
The presentation wasn’t only about how Hollywood was pushing eugenics in their horror films but rather how the films were more ambivalent of, if not outright undermining, the ideals of the eugenic norm. Smith primarily cited how, rather than making the monster in Frankenstein a being of destruction capable of only committing evil, we are instead made to sympathize with the monster as we would with a child that’s cruelly abandoned by its parent.
In this case, Dr. Henry Frankenstein turned away from his creation even telling his colleague Dr. Waldman to kill the creature. Rather than being a product of bad genes and macabre science gone mad, we see the monster as more of a product of a hateful society.
Smith went further in depth in explaining how the eugenic heroes, Dr. Frankenstein and his fiancée Elizabeth, who represent the ideal couple that would produce the ideal offspring, are essentially “corrupted” by the events of the film.
Henry Frankenstein slowly descends into madness as he works on the creature leading to neural exhaustion termed as neurasthenia and treated as a psychological illness.
Elizabeth is thrown into hysterics after her encounter with the monster leading Henry and the townspeople to hunt it to the windmill
After Henry is thrown from the top of the windmill, Smith noted how in the epilogue, where Henry is resting in bed and being tended by Elizabeth, our “eugenic couple” is shown in the background as opposed to being the subject of the scene like in other films at the time.
“This ending seems to affirm the dispelling the dysgenic monster and the reestablishing of the eugenic family,” Smith said. “But as one scholar writes, ‘As the Baron toasts the future heir to the House of Frankenstein; we see no expected close-up of Henry and Elizabeth. Instead, we view two background figures who could be substitutes.”
The scholar whom Smith was quoting later states that the composition and blocking could imply the statement that the “eugenic couple” is a work of fiction. She explained that rather than a reunion and consummation of an ideal relationship, the reunion is that of a traumatized woman with a man who was driven to hysterics by his own intellect. If the eugenic ideals are to be believed, then the offspring of these two people would inherit those genes responsible for insanity and hysteria.
Smith concluded her presentation by outlining the lasting impacts and successes the horror genre had on popular culture citing that many of the films that would follow Frankenstein would depict the disabilities of the monsters as something created by society rather than a predetermination of genetics.
“The possibility opens to us that classic horror films provide for us a potent experience of a connection to disability as something at once intriguing, fearful, exciting, and utterly human,” Smith said, reading an excerpt from her book. “An intimate experience of impairment that was both repressed by and yet at the heart of their eugenic culture.”
Smith’s book, Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema is available from Columbia University Press via Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart, and Amazon.com.