A NEW documentary explores the role Scotland played in molding an English horror classic.
Tortured, monstrous and misunderstood; For generations, Frankenstein’s grotesque monster has thrilled readers, moviegoers and comic book fans.
Reconstructed in the lab and animated solely to terrify, Mary Shelley’s gruesome creation has become entrenched in popular culture and influenced countless works of gothic horror literature.
Now a new documentary will explore how one of literature’s most enduring monstrous creations was forged in Scotland, and the important role Dundee played in Shelley’s remarkable imagination.
Embodied in the chilling depiction on grainy black-and-white film of horror film legend Boris Karloff, scientist Victor Frankenstein’s monster turns out to be a tormented soul.
Reconstituted from body parts, repulsed by its creator and thwarted in its quest for companionship, it becomes increasingly violent.
As his anger mounts, the novel takes readers on a journey to Orkney, where, in a lonely weather-beaten cottage, Frankenstein struggles and fails to build a companion to appease his gruesome creation.
The story reaches a macabre and thrilling climax amid icebergs and crashing seas in the frozen north.
It was written when Shelley was just 18 as part of a challenge by poet Lord Byron to see who among his entourage could write the scariest story.
Presented by the Cathy MacDonald TV channel, the BBC documentary Alba Sàr-sgeòil: Frankenstein (Classic Tales: Frankenstein) revisits the classic novel and examines how the Scottish landscape and history, vibrant sights, sounds and smells whalers and crews in bustling Dundee harbor and the wild climate of Orkney, played a supporting role in crafting the gripping Gothic story.
Although the novel’s links to Orkney are obvious, the influences of the City of Discovery are more enigmatic but, according to experts on the programme, appear to have strongly influenced the young writer.
Mary was born into an academic and influential family in London, but lost her mother, Mary Wollstoncraft, when she was less than a month old.
She was raised by her father and, aged 15, was sent to Dundee to stay with the wealthy Baxter family, apparently for education and health reasons.
However, the program learns that the teenager had formed a close relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, later her husband, and the move may have been her father’s attempt to put some distance between them.
Dundee at the time was a city of intense industrial activity, with a bustling harbor filled with whalers, a thriving jute industry and a turbulent recent history it would have been hard pressed not to be aware of.
Shelley noted her impact in the introduction to the 1831 edition of her novel: “I lived chiefly in the country as a girl, and spent a considerable time in Scotland,” she wrote.
“I made occasional visits to the more scenic parts; but my habitual residence was on the empty and dreary northern shores of the Tay near Dundee.
“It was under the trees of our home grounds or on the desolate sides of nearby woodless mountains that my true compositions, the aerial flights of my imagination were born and developed.”
The documentary indicates that the Baxter family were at the forefront of the city’s industrial growth while the morbid and darker side of the city, with its ties to grave robbing, plague and witch burnings, was part of its recent history.
According to Dundee-based art enthusiast John Morrison, it would have been difficult for young Mary not to feel the impact of all these elements.
“The Battle of Culloden had taken place recently and there were people living in Dundee who had fought in the battle,” he adds.
“Fifty or sixty years ago there was a plague in Dundee. Near where Mary Shelley lived was Roodyards Cemetery where those who died of the plague are buried, covered with lime to prevent the plague from escaping.
“Shortly before this time, the last witch to be killed in Dundee was strangled and burned.
“All of those things would have been part of his life with the Baxter family.”
The port would have been an acrid hive of activity due to the constant flow of whalers and their hardened crews.
“When they came back, they were dirty and smelly. They arrived at the port in stinking ships with carcasses of whales and seals on board,” he adds. “They would take the whale blubber and return it to the port, the resulting oil was then used in the jute industry to coat the strands.
“She would be aware of the smells, sounds and commotion that were involved, so I’m sure those experiences were incorporated and skillfully woven throughout the book.”
Her novel was written while she was staying by Lake Geneva, but the documentary suggests that Scotland in the early 19th century, when science was developing at a rapid pace in the country’s medical schools, played a role.
Although his story does not specify where his fictional scientist found the body parts for his monstrous creation, Dundee was among the Scottish towns where grave robbers operated under cover of night to meet the demand of anatomists and surgeons.
She may also have been influenced by experiments in which scientists at the time used electricity to stimulate the legs of dead frogs, apparently bringing them back to “life”.
An experiment conducted shortly after the publication of her novel fueled the public imagination and perhaps stimulated interest in her work.
Thomas Elliott, of the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh, recounts how Glasgow doctor Andrew Ure used the corpse of a convicted murderer, shaking the body with electricity so that the dead man’s chest heaved and lowered as if breathing.
“There was a real scientific investigation going on there,” he adds. “We now know that the body conducts electricity from place to place and it’s a physical reaction to that.
“It would add to the reaction to the release of this novel, for this mad scientist to take it to its full potential and reactivate the bodies.”
Documentary reveals 200-year-old work remains relevant, inspiring comics and graphic novels, and with modern messages about science’s impact on nature, social media’s judgment on appearance and behavior , and the human cravings for acceptance and affection.
Registered Psychologist Dr Rachel Allan concludes: “This book remains relevant today, where it is common for us to comment on our own appearance and that of others, and to want to improve what we believe needs to be improved, in whatever way. which others perceive us.
“It’s as if Mary Shelley had by chance taken a time very distant from her own and woven it into her story our ideas of what we should be like, and the dangers some would say are inherent in the relentless pursuit of the rejuvenation.”
Sàr-sgeòil: Frankenstein (Classic Tales: Frankenstein) airs on BBC ALBA on Thursday June 9 at 9 p.m. and is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days after.