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'Frankenstein' and other horror tales endure as a way to talk about what we fear today

By Mark Brodie
Published: Friday, February 9, 2024 - 11:36am
Updated: Friday, February 9, 2024 - 12:27pm

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The new film, "Lisa Frankenstein," opens Friday. It’s the story of a teenager who has a crush on a corpse.

Last year’s "Poor Things," starring Emma Stone, is also generating a lot of buzz right now — including winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture for Musical or Comedy. Stone won for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.

These are just two of the most recent reimaginations of the classic novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley, but there’ve been a number of them over the years.

To find out why, and why the story has been so popular over the more than two centuries since it’s been written, The Show talked with Brian McAuley, a clinical assistant professor of screenwriting at Arizona State University's Sidney Poitier New American Film School. He’s also a WGA screenwriter and a published horror novelist.

Brian McAuley in KJZZ
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Brian McAuley in KJZZ's studio.

Full interview

So, Brian, what is the appeal of Frankenstein broadly? And what do you find so appealing about it?

BRIAN MCAULEY: Yeah, I think what's great about Frankenstein is that it kind of covers every possible theme imaginable from creativity and science to nature and ambition and prejudice and loneliness, family love. Like it's all baked into this concept and this story that for me, I just found an immediate connection to when I was younger. I think especially the, the sort of search for meaning in life is the, is the core theme of it.

You know, it's ultimately about a creation that was rejected by its, its parent and is therefore alone in the world trying to find its way. And I think for most people that's pretty relatable, we all kind of feel like we're trying to find our way in this world. And I think that's one of the reasons that it kind of endures through the ages.

Do you see the story, do you interpret the story differently, like at different stages of your life?

MCAULEY: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think that and I channeled it into my first novel. "Curse of the Reaper" was about an actor who played a monster in horror movies. And then later in life, that character takes on a life of its own and starts to mess with his mind and his life. So I, I've directly channeled that sort of archetype into a story before.

But every time I come back to Frankenstein, I see something different or I relate to something different in the story. I just finished a reread of it where, yeah, I was, I become less and less interested in Victor Frankenstein. Frankly, I find him pretty intolerable the older I get. And I've always, but I've always been more drawn to the creature. And when it gets to that turn in the story of now, it's my turn to tell you what my life has been since you rejected me. There's, there's that immediate emotional connection I think.

Why do you think that is, why do you think that you've sort of moved away from the story of the creator and maybe relate more to the story of the creation?

MCAULEY: I think, especially as a, as a growing up, as an aspiring artist, there is something some point of connection to aspiring to like do and be something great. But I think the older that I've gotten and the more experience that I've had, the more that that kind of ambition takes a backseat to just kind of wanting to feel connected to humanity. And that's now my goal in creation is to, to connect with other people. And that's kind of the creature's goal, is to find some sense of acceptance in the world.

It's so interesting when you talk about finding a sense of, of connection, finding a sense of like connecting to other people that you find all that through a story about something that is not human.

MCAULEY: Yes, I mean that for me, I've always been a huge fan of the horror genre and studied it and have written in it. And I think because the horror genre really does focus on all of the aspects of society that we try to push away and repress and keep in the dark that need to have a spotlight put on them. And I think that's what these stories can do for people is to make them, make them feel more seen and heard through stories about, you know, monsters and creatures that have been rejected by society.

Do you think in some ways it's easier to talk about those things that are difficult as you say to talk about when you're doing it through a monster or some other nonhuman being as opposed to, you know, two people talking about it.

MCAULEY: Yeah, absolutely. I think, I think that's the big benefit of kind of having a layer of disconnect from it. So you're not directly tackling the subject, but you're kind of creating, you know, a myth and allegory. This is how storytelling has been for ages is to create these allegories that allow us to process what it means to be human.

In one of my classes, we screened the Jordan Peele film "Get Out" recently, and a lot of the students really responded to it, like I had no idea you could make a film about racism but make it a fun, funny, scary horror movie. And that I think is why it's so successful, is that it's horror can kind of tackle these big weighty subjects, but through a genre that is much more accessible.

Yeah, that is interesting. Well, so you mentioned that, you know, people continue to relate to the Frankenstein story and there continue to be sort of reimagined versions of it, new movies coming out, new ways of thinking about it. Is there something about now that leads you to think this is a particularly good time for more of these?

MCAULEY: Yeah. You know, I think that one of the biggest things I'm noting in that, in that trend, what I'm noticing, especially with "Poor Things" and the upcoming "Lisa Frankenstein," is that they're centering a woman's experience in this narrative. Whereas the book is much more focused on Victor and the creature as male figures. But "Poor Things" uses that paradigm of this creation in search of autonomy and makes it very specifically about a woman's experience with her body in the world and men telling her that she's not allowed to own her body and use it however she wants.

So it's really, I think at a time when we're seeing things like the overturn of Roe v. Wade and women being stripped of rights, that it makes a lot of sense to use this paradigm to show a woman who is in search of and embracing that autonomy.

And do you consider that sort of the same thing we're just about in terms of maybe it's sometimes easier to talk about a difficult issue like that through fiction or through, you know, sort of a scary story as opposed to, you know, hearing about it on the news or seeing a documentary about it or something like that.

MCAULEY: Yeah. And that's something, you know, when I teach screenwriting, the first lesson every day is always going to be about empathy. That stories allow us an entry way to feel and experience a life that is not our own, so that when we go out into the world, we can have more compassion empathy. So my hope would be that, you know, especially for a movie like "Poor Things," if there are men who do not understand or support women's rights, they might get to get to know Bella Baxter that character and live through her experience and therefore come out much more compassionate and empathic for that character and people like her.

Do you find that that works? That people see movies like this, see stories like this and come away with more empathy?

MCAULEY: Yeah, absolutely. I've seen it myself and there have been actual like neurological studies of the way. And it, it only really works if it's a, if it's a certain kind of a well-structured narrative, which is why it's important to learn dramatic storytelling and the ways in which stories can engage us in our empathy.

It's interesting because I think for a lot of folks, they think about like a horror movie or like a creature movie and they don't necessarily think of great storytelling. They don't think of like morality and messaging. They think of like, you know, people with hockey masks hiding out in a garage, like, with a chainsaw and think, like, anybody can write this. It's not hard. Like, you just have to scare a lot of people and have a lot of blood and guts. But what you're saying is that's, that's not really so, for, for the good ones.

MCAULEY: Yeah. I think, I think that, you know, because the horror genre deals with fear, it can be a really good lens from a historical perspective to see what were people really afraid of it in different eras? All you have to do is look at the horror movies that were successful and what fear were they, were they tapping into? Was it a fear of religion? Was it a fear of, you know, outside ideologies like communism became "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." You and there's always going to be an undercurrent of a fear of feminine power that's, you know, from "Carrie" up through "Poor Things" and everything in between. There's always that idea of trying to control women and being afraid of the power they have.

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