Noel Carroll’s theory on the role played by horror movie monsters in his landmark essays The Nature of Horror asserts that in these movies “The monster is so unwholesome that its very touch causes shudders. And this corresponds as well with the tendency in horror novels and stories to describe monsters in terms of, and associate them with, filth, decay, deterioration, slime, and so on... monsters are not only physically threatening; they are cognitively threatening. They are threats to common knowledge.” Such a theoretical positioning may explain why the characters in the movie respond so differently to the figure of the Creature created by Dr. Frankenstein in the film than its audiences have over the decades since its initial release in 1931.
Such an abhorrent creature posing such an authentic threat to everything that society as a whole cherishes so highly could not help but naturally arouse a strong emotional response in those movie characters who have been charged with stopping the threat in a way that film audiences never have to worry about. Robin Wood’s assertion that Frankenstein represents the tradition of movie monsters as a manifestation of repressed desires offers a logical theory for why audience members often replicate the emotional response of those characters, but it may be somewhat lacking in the particular case of Frankenstein where the personification of the Other in the form of the reanimated Creature fails to induce a phenomenon described by Carroll as one in which the emotive responses of the audience run parallel to the emotions of characters.” The failure of Frankenstein to follow the traditional path in which the audience becomes scared of exactly what the characters are scared of almost certainly exists precisely because the audience is made privy to scenes in which Boris Karloff endows the Creature with an emotional depth that is never given the chance to be displayed before the characters in the movie.
The dependency upon casting decisions to determine the success or failure of a movie monster to fulfill Carroll’s requirements for replicating the same emotional response in the audience as it does in the characters opposing it on screen was first put to the test with the release of Frankenstein. In the wake of the success of Dracula, Universal Studios hope to make lightning strike twice by casting their brand new star as the monster in Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi’s suave foreign manner was perfect for the vampire Count, but his diminutive physical status would have been utterly unfit for the menace to the other characters within the film required of the lumbering Creature. The casting of Boris Karloff put that particular issue to rest, but studio executives almost certainly could not have predicted that Karloff would so easily be able to shift the burden true monstrousness to Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein, thus creating a unique divergence between the reaction of on-screen characters and the reaction of audiences members to the identified threat to normalcy presented in the form of the Creature. Noel Carroll is describing Frankenstein with his observation that “The reports of characters' internal reactions to monsters—whether from a first person, second person or authorial point of view—in horror stories correspond to the more behavioral reactions one can observe in theater and cinema. Just before the monster is visualized to the audience, we often see the character shudder in disbelief, responding to this violation of nature.” In the case of most horror films, what happens next when the monster is visualized to audiences is a similar reaction to that of the characters, but here is where Frankenstein diverged from normalcy in its own way quite effectively and set a standard which many horror films have tried to repeat, but with far less success.
The emotional response stimulated in the audience becomes a key factor in the overall success in delivering the message the filmmakers are attempting to convey. In the case of Frankenstein, depending upon the point of view of the individual analyzing the film, the message can vary from the evils of scientific knowledge versus sacredness of knowing God to the unnatural relationships portrayed in the film and the evil in the indulgence of those which are not pleasing to God. The message of Frankenstein is more about warning the audience of the evil of possessing knowledge that should only belong to God and the destructive nature that such possession carries than it is about instilling fear of the Creature. The real villain here is the creator, not the creation and Karloff’s delicate endowment of the Creature with an emotional resonance which serves to obstruct the natural simulation of emotions in the audience of those emotions experienced by the characters in the story only serves to underline the authenticity of this fact.