Frankenstein's monster: Why gothic is more popular than ever

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein still stokes our fear of apocalypse, bad science and corruption. As a new documentary looks at its cultural legacy, Philip Hoare explains why gothic remains a perennial theme

Gothic remains a perennial theme but never more so than today. Why so? For one thing, the gothic imagination of writers such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker is so vividly visual that it is eminently adaptable into 21st-century media – from cinema to TV to video games. Also it reflects teenage angst – Shelley was just 17 when she wrote Frankenstein.

But it also reflects deeper contemporary fears of the apocalyptic and the macabre: of bad science and corrupt power. It reflects dark times, too, and offers escapism from austerity or insecurity – a safe, containable way to be scared. Most of all, perhaps, it addresses dark themes of psychosexuality. This autumn the gothic is everywhere: from Radio 4's Gothic Imagination to Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, and, tomorrow night, a new Channel 4 documentary examining the Frankenstein myth screened, fittingly, on Halloween.

My own first intimation of the gothic came with the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu, which I saw on our crackly black-and-white TV one sunny afternoon in the 1960s. Later, I'd attend college in Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill on the banks of the Thames – a castellated confection that sparked off the 18th-century craze for the "gothick", fuelled by the stories of Matthew "Monk" Lewis, Mrs Radcliffe, William Beckford, and Walpole himself. (I can even boast that my own grandfather, born in Whitby in 1891, lived two streets from where Bram Stoker was then writing Dracula.)

But more than anything, it is the myth of Frankenstein and his monster that has lodged in the popular mind – to the extent that Hurricane Sandy has been dubbed "Frankenstorm". Shelley's story has inspired everyone from Herman Melville to James Whale, from Mel Brooks to Robert Harris, and, most recently, Danny Boyle for his hugely successful National Theatre production. It was this that inspired award-winning director Adam Low to make tonight's film, Frankenstein: A Modern Myth. Featuring interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch (who also narrates the film), Jonny Lee Miller and Danny Boyle, among others, it delves deep into the psychological and cultural resonances of the most famous of all gothic stories.

Like Moby-Dick and Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein is a unique, sui generis work, born of obsession. It feeds on sensational, science-fiction elements to make subtler points about our essential disconnect with nature. It's why Shelley's image of the Creature – as much pathetic as it is terrifying – is invoked ever more often in contemporary culture and a world in which science and technology appear to be stealing a march on the species that created them. Last year, commentators evoked Frankenstein when the Japanese tsunami broke open the Fukushima nuclear reactors.

What is extraordinary is that all this was the product of the mind of a woman barely out of girlhood. Storms attended her life: from her illicit start as the bastard child of the revolutionary writers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecroft, to the climatic catastrophes in the year of her birth and that of her novel, which coincided with a volcanic eruption that darkened the skies of Europe and America. "She entered the world like the heroine of a gothic tale," Shelley's biographer, Emily Sunstein has written, "conceived in a secret amour, her birth heralded by storms and portents, attended by tragic drama, and known to thousands through Godwin's memoirs".

At 16, she ran away with Percy Shelley to Europe, and holed up with Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. In a bravura sequence, Low's film compares the Shelleys and Byron to rock superstars, like the Rolling Stones in their decadent pomp and satanic majesties. Byron always carried a condom; Mary's half-sister, Claire Clairmont became his lover, and bore his illegitimate child, even as she professed her love for Percy Shelley, too.

Here in "sublime, awfully desolate" Switzerland, these bohemians set up a kind of commune, "a modern Promethean cadre", watched all the while by tourists through telescopes on the other side of the lake, mistaking the laundered tablecloths for the womens' soiled petticoats. The press dubbed them the "Vampyre family", "that knot of scribblers, male and female, with weak nerves, and disordered brains, from whom have sprung those disgusting compounds of unnatural conception, bad taste, and absurdity". If they'd had mobile phones, they'd certainly have been hacked.

Frankenstein came as a shock tactic, a perverse first novel. It was heavily edited by Percy Shelley – the original manuscript in the Bodleian Library, shows how the poet added words and crossed out others, striking out Mary's description of the Creature as "handsome" and substituting an emphatic "beautiful". But Mary Shelley had the power of expression, and as a teenage girl was empowered by words as much as by her bizarre upbringing. Literature represented liberation for her sex, as her mother taught her, from beyond the grave.

Low's film takes its cue from the recent, hugely successful National Theatre production, in which Cumberbatch and Miller appeared on alternate nights as Victor Frankenstein and his Creature (who, in a memorable opening scene, appears naked). From there, Low proceeds in a typically eclectic manner, mixing interviews with scientists and biographers with fictional representations, culminating in a hilarious interview with director John Waters who declares his love for "The Monster Mash", a 1960s hit that he performs as his party piece. It's a tribute to Hollywood's assimilation of the myth. "I'm sympathetic to monsters," says Waters, "and this was the first one I came across as a child."

Somewhere between these wild extremes lies the essential strangeness of Mary Shelley's legacy. Her novel, which emerged from a dream, is an expression of defiance, a blasphemous book that almost accidentally had huge reverberations into the future. Other dystopian visions have faded with time. But Shelley's prophetic and often violent fantasy, written almost 200 years ago, remains as powerful as ever – if not more so.

'Frankenstein: A Modern Myth' is broadcast tomorrow at 11.10pm on Channel 4

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month