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Written by Timothy Sexton
Lightning is the mysterious power of the heavens which rains great flashes of illumination accompanied by terrifying noise. The mystery of lightning is bound together with the mysteries of God and His domain which mortals must not enter which is a persistent theme throughout all the Frankenstein films. Lightning is a spectacular gift from above which is respected for its power; a power so mysterious that it just might possibly be capable of resurrection through electrification.
Fire is a symbol infused with the duality of purpose. On the one hand, fire represents a tool for knowledge in that it can be used to light the way through darkness. This association with fire is connected to Dr. Frankenstein’s desire to explore the darker corners of science and discover the secret to giving life. His assistant Fritz directly connects other side of the fire equation to film: in the wrong hands fire becomes not a tool for knowledge for a weapon for destruction. Fritz’s sadistic—and ultimately masochistic—use of fire to torment the Creature is the realization of this symbolic aspect of the movie’s use of fire.
Allegory: Rebooting the Status Quo
The original 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein climaxes with an ending that becomes such a repetitive motif for all it various sequels and inspirations that it retrospectively situates the film as allegory of how an insular, relatively backward and uneducated, rural community adopts a conservative reactionary collective mindset that views the introduction of anything new into society as a threat worthy of annihilation. The plain fact of the matter is that the townspeople reach for their pitchforks and torches (fire as a weapon) and proceed to hunt down Frankenstein and his Creature for a crime with very little evidence supporting their suspicion. No trial, no jury, no judge: just execution. The apparent death of the Creature as he falls from atop the burning windmill succeeds not in bringing justice to the villager, but in re-establishing the status quo. The replication of essentially the same ending in every subsequent Universal Studios sequel merely confirms the ignorance of such a reactionary approach to the unstable footing of progress. In this particular instance, the reboot to the status quo is quite literal, because the torch and pitchfork crowd seem content that everything is just as it was before...a world where the secret to reanimation belongs only to God.
The Abominable Lawbreaker
The Creature is not just feared and hated and hunted down because of the suspicion of having killed, of course. On a deeper symbolic level the Creature inspires fear because he represents an abomination. Having once been dead and now brought back to life, he is the living representation of the most inviolate and democratically applied law on the planet: everything must eventually die and stay dead. That the Creature has broken that most indissoluble terms of the contract of existence plants the seed of suspicion that anything is possible in the world of the unnatural.
The Mad Scientist
Although precursors initiated the template—especially Rotwang in Metropolis—the very moment that actor Colin Clive hits the perfect of the mixture of intense emotions overcoming Dr. Frankenstein when he cries “It’s alive…now I know what it feels like to be God” is the very moment that symbol of the Mad Scientist which populates thousands of movies and television shows was born.
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