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Does the Movie "Frankenstein" Impart a Message About Bigotry?

Bad brains: What makes a monster?

Key points

  • Unlike the movie, the 1818 novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley tells us nothing of defective brain convolutions.
  • The idea that some people were born with “defective” or “inferior” brains took flight in the late 1800s.
  • The idea that monsters are made from “degenerate” brains fits with a longer, and ongoing, process of labeling and stigmatizing “types” of humans.

In the classic 1931 movie "Frankenstein," Dr. Victor Frankenstein asks his hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, to fetch him a well-preserved brain for his infernal experiments. Fritz spies in on an anatomy lecture at the local medical school, where he observes a doctor in a white coat lecturing over two jars. In the first jar, says the doctor, is “one of the most perfect specimens of the human brain that has ever come to my attention at the university.” The label tells us it is a “NORMAL BRAIN.” Then the learned specialist gestures to the other jar. It’s labeled “DYSFUNCTIO CEREBRI” and “ABNORMAL.” He speaks on the various “degenerate characteristics” of this brain, which, we also learn, is “the normal brain of the typical criminal.” This evil character lived a life of “brutality, of violence, and murder.” His brain literally predicts it.

Guess which brain Fritz ends up taking?

Fritz wants the normal, good brain. He climbs through the window after the class exits and makes his way over to the jars. He grabs the good brain and starts to leave, but a sudden loud sound surprises him, and he drops the jar onto the floor. Saddened, he goes back and grabs the bad brain, which is now labeled in giant, sloppy handwriting (the same switch also happened to the good brain—a goof caught by intrepid IMDB users).

Off Fritz goes, bad brain in hand. The audience is prepared for the “abnormal” monster to come.

The idea of having a “criminal,” or “degenerate,” brain was not terribly old in 1931. The 1818 source novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley tells us nothing of defective brain convolutions. She wrote the book before neurology, eugenics, and racial “science” had changed the way people thought about brains.

Early Physiological and Moral Theories About Insanity

An early proponent of the notion that “bad” brains caused derangement was Amariah Brigham. He was an “alienist” (predecessors of psychiatrists) who argued, in his 1832 book Remarks on the Influence of Mental Cultivation, that “insanity is a disease of the brain, and whatever excites this organ may so derange its action as to produce derangement of the mind. Sometimes this disease is occasioned by blows or falls upon the head, at other times by inflammation or fevers, which produce an unusual determination of blood to the brain.”

He combined this physiological account of insanity with a list of “moral” possibilities as well. These include gambling, drinking, religious fervor, “doubtful business speculations,” and the always-devastating scourge of masturbation. For female sufferers, he added spousal abuse, “disappointments in love,” and poor health. Gendered divisions of insanity aligned with a longer history. For women, the problem often came not from the brain but from the “womb.” Hysteria, after all, comes from the Greek word for womb. To Brigham’s list, other mind doctors added everything from “Mormonism” to “meningitis” as well.

The Rise of Eugenics

Starting in the mid-19th century, a new field, neurology, challenged the psychiatric monopoly of mad doctoring. Neurologists believed that the psychiatric approach to mental illness was both archaic and inaccurate. They intended to put mind science on a firmer, empirical basis.

Using microscopes and other instruments, they focused on physical brain structures and traumas, and added in genetic theories of “racial difference.” The idea that some people were born with “defective” or “inferior” brains took flight in the wake of the eugenics intervention in science in the late 1800s. Authorities from a plethora of fields increasingly proclaimed that some people, often on a racial basis, were simply born less-than.

In the widely read and hugely influential The Passing of the Great Race, Madison Grant proposed “A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak and unfit—in other words social failures—would solve the whole question in one hundred years, as well as enable us to get rid of the undesirables who crowd our jails, hospitals, and insane asylums.”

By the year "Frankenstein" hit theaters, numerous states had eugenics laws preventing “degenerates,” including people with epilepsy and mental disabilities, from marrying. Thousands were even forcibly sterilized in hospitals. This was sanctioned at the highest levels. The Supreme Court famously ruled in 1927 to uphold the compulsory sterilization law of Virginia, with Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., ruefully arguing, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Not until 1967 did the same Court rule that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional.

Thus, when Fritz takes the bad brain, contemporary audiences knew they were in for it.

All of this is not just a quaint historical relic. The idea that monsters are made from “degenerate” brains fits in with a longer, and ongoing, process of labeling and stigmatizing “types” of humans—be they sufferers of mental illness, the intellectually disabled, members of “nonwhite” races, the gender-nonnormative, or people coming from certain parts of the world.

Bigotry was bad science in 1931 and remains a bad tendency today. Perhaps we are looking for the wrong monsters.

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