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S1E5: A Living Terror – Part 1

Gateways to Terror

The films that served as my gateway to the horror genre were one of two types of movies: horror-comedies and giant monsters. Movies like Ghostbusters, Godzilla, Gorgo and The Giant Claw were staples of my youngest memories. There are layers of camp to these films; traits which helped ease me into horror. The humor of these films allowed me to gain an appreciation for the more terrifying aspects of these films. This helped make the transition to more intense experiences far less jarring than they might have been otherwise. 

Growing up, I was always the weird horror movie kid. In high school and college I was always trying to find ways to involve my friends in my hobby. I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to win anyone over by showing them Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. People who think that they don’t like horror movies aren’t going to be converted by being shown the most hardcore horror experiences. 

There are some people that just don’t like being scared. That’s not me, but it’s perfectly understandable, much in the same way that some people just don’t like roller coasters. Other people don’t like being scared in front of others. In both of these cases, you need to be able to appeal to their other sensibilities. Movie night, even a horror movie night, can and should be a fun event. For a general audience, show a film that has horror elements, but which is funny and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I’ve had a lot of friends who thought that they didn’t like horror movies in all of their forms, but who came away having thoroughly enjoyed watching Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II or Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator

In much the same way, audience members at the turn of the 20th century had to be lured to horror. I don’t know whether or not filmmakers of the time period were actively aware of this, but all of the earliest horror films are more properly classified as comedies or melodramas. Without prior, positive experiences to help draw them in, it would have been incredibly difficult to coerce an audience into enjoying films designed to elicit intense discomfort or unease. 

Georges Melies, a constant figure thus far on each episode of Horrid, is often credited as being the first filmmaker to include the thematic elements of horror in film. Melies himself referred to his special effects as “tricks,” and, as an illusionist, it is my impression that Melies designed his stage shows to entertain, or perhaps shock, his audience. While it’s not possible to step into the shoes of one of Melies’ audience members, it’s my belief that his films were not meant to scare. This is an opinion also held by film historian Rick Worland. In his 2007 book, The Horror Film: An Introduction, Worland writes:

The miraculous transformations or mischief of fairies and imps were the self-sufficient “attractions” in Melies’ films, regardless of narrative motivation. Trick films were not intended to horrify as much as astonish and amuse the viewer with images of absurd or physically impossible events. 

I often hear disparaging reviews of horror movies in which folks say a film “wasn’t scary” and, to be clear, this is not the implication that I’m trying to make about Melies’ films here. Rather, the assessment that Melies’ films weren’t scary isn’t a criticism; it is simply a reality of the state of the film medium at the time. Further, I would make the argument that Melies’ trick films were the gateway that audiences needed. Just like the horror comedies of my childhood, Melies’ films helped acclimate viewers to sights and effects that were only possible on film, setting the stage for more intense horrors over the coming decades.

The End of the Beginning

We’re entering the time period of the 1910’s. After featuring rather prominently in the history of horror presented in the last four episodes of horror, it is now time for film to begin to progress beyond the era of Georges Melies. Although Melies continued to make ambitious films at the start of this decade, his work did not continue to find the same level of success with audiences. After a series of poor performing movies and bad business decisions, Melies and the Star Film company went broke. Melies never made another film after 1912, and he spent much of his later years languishing in poverty and obscurity, working as a clerk in a newspaper and candy shop in a Paris train station. 

Although the history of horror will now steer away from Melies, I thought it appropriate to at least mention that his story does have a happy ending. In the mid-1920s, the news began to rediscover his films. Journalists were able to track down Melies and his contributions to cinema began to be more broadly recognized. Finally. a gala was held in his honor in 1929, an experience which Melies called “one of the most brilliant moments of his life.” 

The recognition led to Melies being able to live out the last five years of his life free of worry over money, food, and shelter. Both Melies and his second wife were invited to live at the film industry retirement home in Paris. It was here that Melies became the first conservator of what would eventually become the Cinematheque Francaise, a nonprofit organization that holds one of the largest archives of film and film-related items in the world. Melies continued to draw, a favorite activity of his since his days in grade school, and he consulted with young filmmakers and for the rest of his life.

As the light of Melies’ Star Film Company began to fade, other filmmakers continued with the development of the burgeoning horror genre. Just like with the Faustian and Haunted Hotel motifs discussed in the last two episodes of Horrid, filmmakers turned to established mediums like theater and literature for inspiration. Perhaps the most popular literary work adapted at the  beginning is the French Gothic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, written by Victor Hugo and first published in 1831. There were four adaptations before the famous 1923 Universal Studios adaptation starring Lon Chaney, but all four of these have been lost to time. The earliest, titled Esmerelda, was produced in 1905. The next, Notre Dame de Paris, was released in 1911. The third film, The Darling of Paris, was released in 1917. The fourth adaptation, also titled Esmerelda, was released in 1922.

Since none of these early adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame still exist, I instead focused my research on an early adaptation of another literary work. Perhaps the earliest and most notable of the surviving horror films is an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s popular 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. I will speak more in depth about this first film version of Frankenstein in the next episode of Horrid. In this episode, I will present information that I found as I began delving deeper into the life of Mary Shelley. 

I recall learning about Shelley in high school. Everyone has likely heard how Mary accompanied her husband, Percy Shelley, to Lake Geneva during the summer of 1816. They vacationed there with Lord Byron, the famous poet and Greek independence revolutionary. According to the most melodramatic accounts of the story, the group found themselves forced inside on one particularly stormy night. They passed the time telling each other ghost stories by the fire. It was from this night of whimsy and terror that the idea for Frankenstein was born. Or so the story goes. 

While reality resembles this sanitized version of events, the truth can only be appreciated with a greater understanding of who Mary Shelley was. Part of why I found Mary Shelley to be such an incredibly interesting historical figure is because historians and critics doubted her accomplishments and abilities for so long. Many doubted that Mary truly authored Frankenstein on her own at such a young age, and perhaps that Percy Shelley was the true author. Literary scholars largely did not have a great appreciation for Mary’s abilities until the record was corrected by the excellent and scholarly biography, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality, was researched and released by Emily Sunstein in 1989. 

The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in 1797, the daughter of two prominent English authors and progressive political radicals, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Sadly, Mary’s mother died not long after childbirth, but her ideals and writings would greatly influence the moral compass by which her daughter conducted her life. As Mary matured, she became a soulful, and intellectually impressive young woman. Mary Godwin was highly intelligent and sharing in the ideals of feminism and freedom that she viewed as her birthright.

Entering into her adolescence, Mary developed a skin condition on her arm for which she was prescribed salt water treatments and fresh air. Her father arranged for an extended stay with a family in Scotland. In 1812, Mary returned home for a brief break from this extended stay abroad. It was during this break that a 15 year old Mary Godwin would meet the love of her life, the great Romantic English poet Percy Shelly. 

Shelley was five years older than Mary. He was from an affluent family and was the son of a member of Parliament. Despite his family’s hopes for a perfect son and heir, Percy was a passionate and intellectual young man. He loved literature and history, and he came to embrace many forms of radical, romantic philosophy. The year prior to meeting Mary for the first time, Shelley had been expelled from Oxford College for co-authoring a pamphlet entitled, The Necessity of Atheism. Following his expulsion, Percy sought out Mary’s father as he was deeply inspired by the senior Godwin’s writings. Although Godwin’s fame was decidedly on the decline at this time in his life, it was still common for Godwin to be frequently visited by like-minded intellectuals, commonly known as Godwinian disciples. 

It was under this premise that Godwin initially welcomed Percy’s presence into his house. Godwin’s second wife, Mary’s stepmother, had also slowly and shrewdly convinced him that it was his right to ensure his future finances were secure through the generosity of his followers. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Percy Shelly would be tangled up in this aspect of Godwin’s life, as he pledged to help pay off Godwin’s many substantial business debts. 

Although Shelley was due to leave London to attend to some business in Wales, scholars believe he put off his trip so that he would have the opportunity to meet Mary who was due home from Scotland. In many ways, it appears as though Shelley was deeply infatuated with the idea of Mary before he ever met her. He described her as a “child of love and light,” meaning the offspring of two monumental intellectual figures. 

Mary returned to Scotland, but permanently returned home in 1814 at the age of 16. At this point, Shelley was a regular fixture at her father’s house. On this second meeting, there was an immediate attraction between the two. Percy and Mary’s relationship quickly developed, and Shelley learned that Mary was indeed the embodiment of the “child of love and light” that he had supposed she was. Mary was intelligent and curious; she had interest in the same abstract ideas and a desire to ponder the same deep thoughts that the poet delighted in. Mary was stoic and calming, but had a sharp, teasing wit. Mary proved to be the embodiment of her hereditary potential. For Shelley, Mary was his ideal companion, and Mary felt the same. They pronounced their love to one another later that Summer.

Although this might first appear to be the makings of a perfect love story, it is complicated by the fact that Shelly was already married. This was a time and an era where divorce was uncommon for all but the most influential and powerful of men. For Mary to be Shelley’s mistress was nothing short of societal disaster for her, and potentially deeply damaging for her family. However, Mary was again inspired by the writings of her mother. From Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel, Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman, a mother speaks to her daughter:

I would… with fond anxiety, lead you very early in life to form your grand principle of action, to save you from the vain regret of having, through irresolution, let the spring-tide of existence pass away, unimproved, unenjoyed. – Gain experience – ah! Gain it – while experience is worth having, and acquire sufficient fortitude to pursue your own happiness; it includes your utility, by a direct path. What is wisdom too often, but the owl of the goddess, who sits moping in a desolated heart…

Despite their families’ protests, Percy and Mary eloped to France in July of 1814. They were accompanied by Mary’s step sister, Claire. The couple traveled Europe for only two months before running out of money and returning to London in September. Upon their return, Mary and Percy were surprised to find that neither of their fathers would take them in, leaving them broke and homeless. William Godwin would continue to communicate with Shelley through lawyers and letters, but it would be two and a half years before Godwin would acknowledge his daughter again.

The best way to describe this time of Mary’s life is complicated. Her father had always been a godlike figure to her, and his sudden absence from her life was crushing. She had become pregnant with Percy’s child in August, and she struggled through the pregnancy suffering from both depression and constant illness. Mary’s stepsister continued to live with the two lovers, and throughout Mary’s pregnancy Claire grew closer and closer to Percy. Shelley believed in the tenants of free love, and although Mary agreed with the concept of sexual freedom in this way, she struggled to put it into practice. Ultimately, Mary was sexually fulfilled by Shelley and had no want for other lovers.

In February of 1815, Mary gave birth to a daughter. The baby was two months premature,and died less than two weeks later. Mary sunk into greater depression and often dreamt of the baby. Mary recovered swiftly when she learned that she was once again pregnant during the summer. Around this time, Shelley’s grandfather died, and the inheritance helped ease their financial issues. They moved to the countryside, where Mary became pregnant again. They lived a rather harmonious life, spending their mornings studying literature and history, and exercising and enjoying nature through the afternoons. Life continued on this leisurely but structured path until Mary gave birth to their son, William, in January 1816. The boy was born full term and healthy.

Sometime after William’s birth, Clare became acquainted with Lord Byron, who had recently separated from his wife. Clare immediately saw her chance to grab fame and pursued the chance to become Lord Byron’s mistress, and hoped to bind herself to him by bearing his child. Lord Byron was an extremely charismatic and desirable man, his desk literally bulging with letters from love-struck female admirers. To his credit, he did his best to discourage Clare, but when he found out that she was the step-daughter of William Godwin, he used her acquaintance to request a meeting with Mary, whose heritage he greatly admired. In what can only be described as the world’s most bizarre seduction, it was two days after meeting Mary that Lord Byron slept with Clare for the first time. 

Lord Byron sailed from England at the end of April, leaving on a trip that would see him spend  the summer in Geneva, Switzerland. After he had left, Clare told Mary and Shelley that she was Lord Byron’s mistress and that they had all been invited to vacation with Lord Byron in Geneva. It didn’t take much convincing, and soon the trio was on their way to Geneva as well, Mary’s young son William also in tow.

Mary and her party arrived in Geneva and spent about two weeks studying, sailing, and sight seeing before Lord Byron and his physician, John Polidori, arrived. It was an awkward greeting. Lord Byron was displeased to find Clare waiting for him in Geneva, as it seemed that Clare may have somewhat overstated her relationship with him, as well as his invitation to Geneva. Luckily, Lord Byron took very quickly to Shelley; the two would be friends by the time the summer was over. Clare was even able to resume her sexual relationship with Lord Byron, and, before long, she was pregnant with his child.

The Year Without A Summer

The summer turned out to be unseasonably dark and wet, with rain falling almost every day the month of June. As an aside, the uncharacteristic climate was actually the result of a volcanic eruption that had occurred the year before at Mount Tambora in the East Indies. The ash and volcanic gases actually measurably dimmed the sun and caused devastating extreme weather across the world. In New England, 1816 was known as the “Year Without a Summer,” or “Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-to-Death.”

One June 16th, 1816 there was such an incredible downpour that all three of Mary’s group ended up spending the night at Byron’s rented villa. They all gathered at the fireplace and read from an anthology book called, Fantasmagoriana, a collection of eight German ghost stories  translated to French. The introduction of the book made mention of the occult in Scotland, a subject which Mary fondly recalled being fascinated with during her extended stay overseas as a girl. As the groups read the stories aloud through the night, Lord Byron eventually challenged the group to each write their own ghost story.

I found that five of the stories in this collection were later translated to English as part of another anthology. I found one of these stories, The Family Portraits, to be of particular interest. In this story, a wealthy gentleman is riding in a horse drawn coach, and is looking for a place to stay overnight. They come to a town, and the man follows the sounds of music to the house of the local pastor. Inside, he finds a group of individuals that have gathered together for the purpose of sharing personal ghost stories with one another. Incredibly, it would seem that Lord Byron’s famous challenge may itself have been inspired by the very stories they were reading aloud to one another late into that fateful, stormy night. If you’d like to read The Family Portraits for yourself, a link can be found under the Related Media heading on the transcript page for this episode on horridpodcast.com

Byron and Shelley immediately got to work on their stories and shared the beginnings of these with the group the following night. Mary suffered from writer’s block, in no small part likely due to feeling the immense pressure of producing a story that both Shelley and Lord Byron would deem worthy of her heritage and potential. After three days, both Lord Byron and Shelley had given up working on their ghost stories, but Mary persisted in the endeavor. The men would ask her if she had come up with a story each day, and each day Mary would answer that she had not. Then, on June 22, Mary experienced a waking nightmare as she tried to drift off to sleep. In her own words:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life… His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away… hope that… this thing… would subside into dead matter… he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains…

Mary awoke in a state of terror, but quickly realizes that she had found the idea for her ghost story. On the morning of June 23rd she got to work. It would take nearly a year and a half for Mary to finish and see her manuscript published. This period of time was marked by two personal tragedies, name the suicide of Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, and two months later, the suicide of Percy’s wife. This latter event did allow Mary and Percy to marry, which not only entered her back into the graces of her father, but is also why Frankenstein is known to be authored by Mary Shelley and not Mary Godwin.

Final Thoughts

I’ll end my retelling of Mary Shelley’s life, and the first part of this two-part episode, here. When I first started researching for this episode, I had no idea just how interesting I would find Mary Shelley. In some ways her life makes perfect sense within the context of Frankenstein. The Godwin philosophy of writing was to write what you know, and in learning about Shelley’s life you can see where she found the basis for the Monster’s feelings of abandonment and ostracization.

I will again mention and recommend Emily Sunstein’s biography, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality, if you’d like to learn more about Shelley’s later years. I will unhappily note that tragedy always seemed to find its way into Mary’s life. If you’d like to read the biography, it is available to rent from the OpenLibrary, a free online resource run by archive.org. A link to the free rental page for Sunstein’s book on the life of Mary Shelley will appear in the Related Media section of the transcript page for this episode on horridpodcast.com

If you’ve noted any factual errors in this episode, please send a message to [email protected]. You can follow Horrid on Twitter and Instagram, @HorridPodcast, and you can follow me, @DocManson.

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Until next time, stay scared.

Related Media

References & Further Reading

  1. Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. United Kingdom, Wiley, 2007.
  2. Sunstein, Emily W.. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. United States, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
  3. “Abridged Biography.” Mary Shelley Wiki, https://mary-shelley.fandom.com/wiki/Abridged_Biography. Accessed 8 Aug. 2020.
  4. Wollstonecraft, Mary. Maria: The Wrongs of Woman. N.p., Independently Published, 2020.
  5. Apel, Johann August. “The Family Portraits.” Tales of the Dead, White, Cochrane and Co., 1813. Wikisource. Accessed: October 4, 2020. Available: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tales_of_the_Dead/The_Family_Portraits