'Til Death Do us Part?
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is most known for Frankenstein's Monster, created by a supposedly mad scientist out of body parts of the dead. Said of an early film version of the novel, "In the dark, foggy night, his castle looms large like a tower of evildoing-but the good doctor, intent on creating a living specimen out of pieces of his stolen cadavers, doesn't realize that his genius may well harbor a core of insanity" (Yakir). This revolutionary and gruesome idea of recreating the dead and giving them a new "life" has haunted readers and moviegoers for ages. Shelley's terrifying idea of reanimating corpses and bringing back the dead like in Frankenstein has been shown as emotionally, psychologically, and physically negative, especially in the last 50 years, throughout popular culture media forms such as film and literature.
Reawakening the dead, whether brought back intentionally or not, causes negative emotional stress to all those involved. In Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Victor Van Dort and Victoria Everglot were supposed to be married, but Victor fled the wedding rehearsal after completely forgetting his vows. While practicing in the woods, he accidentally broke the Corpse Bride's curse and ends up having to marry her. Once the families of Victor and Victoria find out about Victor's marriage to the dead woman, they are shocked and appalled. The Corpse Bride instantly became jealous when introduced to Victoria. At one point in the song "Tears to Shed," the undead bride sang, "If I touch a burning candle, I can feel no pain/ If you cut me with a knife, it's still the same/ And I know her heart is beating/ And I know that I am dead/ Yet the pain here that I feel/ Try and tell me it's not real/ For it seems that I still have a tear to shed" (Tim Burton…). As the movie progressed, Victor became emotionally torn between Emily, the Corpse Bride, and Victoria, his original fiancée. Emily, realizing Victor was distressed, released him from the marriage so he could continue his life with Victoria.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, introduces another magical form of bringing back the dead: "…what about the stone, Mr. Lovegood? The thing you call the Resurrection Stone?" In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Rowling, writing as the character of the title bard, mentions bringing the dead back to life in two of the stories. The more notable case of the two is "The Tale of the Three Brothers," a tale which is also featured in the final Harry Potter book. In this story, three brothers are confronted by a personification of death while trying to cross a bridge over a river. Death tricks the brothers by giving them each an item that they believe will help them conquer death itself. "So Death picked up a stone from the riverbank and gave it to the second brother, and told him that the stone would have the power to bring back the dead" (Rowling, The Tales… 89). After returning home that night, the brother tried to resurrect an old girlfriend, but "Though she had returned to the mortal world, she did not truly belong there and suffered" (Rowling, The Tales… 92). The girlfriend was so distant that the brother became depressed and committed suicide.
"Reanimating" the dead, though the dead may not always be completely physically "reanimated," can cause harmful psychological issues. In Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1960 film Psycho, Norman Bates lives with his sick old mother, whose voice is heard throughout the movie, but never physically seen (at least, until the very end of the movie). According to the article "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time," the defining moment is the scene described as "His speech, after future victim Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) suggests that his mother be put 'somewhere,' in which the real rage he's incapable of incorporating into his personality makes a brief, stunning appearance" (Borgeson). As it turns out, Mrs. Bates, or Mother Bates, and her boyfriend had been killed by Norman ten years before the main action of the movie.
After killing his mother, Norman stole her corpse and preserved it, but he still had trouble making himself believe that she was still alive. At the end of the film, actor Simon Oakland's character, psychologist Dr. Richmond, states, "Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all, most unbearable to the son who commits it" (Psycho). Norman had started to talk as his mother, dress up like her, and act like her, causing himself to gain a split personality. Richmond continued, "At times, he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. And other times, the mother half took over completely. Now, he was never all Norman, but he was often only Mother" (Psycho). This "Mother" personality became threatened whenever a new woman came into Norman's life. For example, when Marion arrived at the Bates Motel, "Mother" became jealous and killed her in the film's infamous shower scene. The psychological impact of "reanimating" his mother caused Norman to murder again.
Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, loosely based on the classic story by Washington Irving, takes a new spin on the story of the Headless Horseman. The Horseman was a Hessian mercenary that cuts people's heads off to replace his own missing head. In reality, the legend of the Horseman disguises the poor emotional and psychological state of Lady Van Tassel, stepmother of Katrina Van Tassel, an important character in the film. Years before, when Lady Van Tassel's father had died, her family lost their home. While living in the Western Wood with her sister, Lady Van Tassel witnesses the beheading of the Hessian mercenary, and later explained to Katrina, "I saw his death. At that moment, I offered my soul to Satan if he would raise the Hessian soldier from the grave to avenge me" (Sleepy Hollow). She used the Horseman to terrorize the town of Sleepy Hollow and to get revenge on the people responsible for her family's eviction. To regain some control over her life, she killed the people she felt got in her way. For instance, Katrina, Katrina's father and her birth mother got in the way of Lady Van Tassel getting her old home back. Lady Van Tassel had to kill them because her husband, Katrina's father, owned the land her that old home once sat on. She told Katrina, who had everything Lady Van Tassel wanted, "You have, my dear, by your father's will. I get everything in the event of your death" (Sleepy Hollow). Katrina was saved from her stepmother's plan when the movie's hero, Ichabod Crane, returned the Horseman's skull to its owner and the Horseman took Lady Van Tassel back to Hell with him.
The physical state of reanimated corpses is quite shocking to characters who deal with the dead. At the end of "The Tale of the Three Brothers," the J. K. Rowling story discussed earlier, there is a commentary by character Albus Dumbledore, which refers to Inferi. "Inferi are corpses reanimated by Dark Magic…" wrote Dumbledore, "…these are ghastly puppets, not truly reawakened humans" (Rowling, The Tales… 98). The sixth book in Rowling's Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, introduces this idea when Harry and Dumbledore are trying to retrieve one of Voldemort's magical artifacts, known as Horcruxes. Although Inferi were once living people, these frightening, lifeless creatures became indestructible when fended off: "But though gashes appeared in their sodden rags and their icy skin, they had no blood to spill: They walked on, unfeeling, their shrunken hands outstretched… thin, fleshless arms as cold as death…" (Rowling, Harry Potter… Prince 575). This description of the physical state of the Inferi carries on the tradition established by Mary Shelley's monster.
Popular culture has been influenced by Mary Shelley's famous monster by showing the negative emotional, psychological, and physical effects of bringing back the dead. Writers like J. K. Rowling and directors like Tim Burton and Alfred Hitchcock have addressed bringing back the dead in some of their most well-known works. Death and the so-called "undead," although they spark curiosity, also create a sense of fear. It could be argued that the fear and negativity surrounding the reanimated dead could reflect the fear of what people do not know or understand about death. As Albus Dumbledore tells Harry Potter, "There is nothing to be feared from a body, Harry, any more than there is anything to be feared from the darkness… It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more" (Rowling, Harry Potter… Prince 566).
Borgeson, Kelly, and others. "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time." Premiere April 2004: 53+. Sirs Knowledge Source. SIRS Researcher. Hylton High School Library, Woodbridge, VA. 18 February 2010. .com/.
Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins. Universal Pictures, 1960.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005.
-. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
-. The Tales of Beedle the Bard. New York: Scholastic, 2008.
Sleepy Hollow. Dir. Tim Burton. Perf. Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci. Paramount Pictures, 1999.
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. Dir. Tim Burton and Mike Johnson. Perf. Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp. Warner Brothers Pictures, 2005.
Yakir, Dan. "Scary Movies: Classic Horror Films Are Back." Stereophile Ultimate AV Oct. 2004: 58+. Sirs Knowledge Source. SIRS Researcher. Hylton High School Library, Woodbridge, VA. 18 February 2010. .com/.