You know the walk: stiff, stilted, slow. As iconic as the bolts in his neck, the unnatural squareness of his head. But where does it come from?
Not from Mary Shelley’s novel, that’s for certain. “More agile” than the average man, his joints “more supple,” her monster moves “with superhuman speed,” and is described as descending a mountain “with greater speed than the flight of an eagle.”
Many a film historian will tell you the iconic walk of Frankenstein’s monster in James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation—the standard by which all later Frankensteins would be judged—was heavily influenced by the eponymous creature of the 1920 silent German film The Golem. While this explains where, it still fails to explain why—as in, why would James Whale and company choose this prototype over Shelley’s own words, which so clearly point in the opposite direction?
Though it has very rarely been addressed, there actually is a compelling answer to be found for this question.
Horror films frequently reflect cultural fears. Instead of trying to start a fire from scratch, they look to fan the flames of fear already there into a roaring inferno. These fears are quite often specific to their time. They burn out sooner or later, as fires are wont to do, and are replaced by something else. The horror films themselves don’t usually mind, as they have already burned their way straight to the bank.
However, it means that watching a horror movie from many years ago is something like watching a Star Wars movie for the first time with no context and the opening crawl spliced out. You’ll still be able to follow along just fine, but you’ll miss a lot of subtext. So let’s go back to 1931.
In this time, real-world horror has a name, and that name is polio.
It creeps up slowly upon the American public, a disease that has existed since antiquity in a minor form but mostly laid quiet, then attacks with devastating speed.
The bellwether of what lies ahead comes in 1894, when the first polio epidemic strikes the U.S.—132 cases in Vermont. Similarly sized outbreaks flare up around the country over the course of the next two decades, but it is not until 1916 that the terror truly strikes: 27,000 cases across the country resulting in over 6,000 deaths.
For many, the disease is mild. Flu-like. But even those who manage to survive the paralytic form of the disease often never return to full mobility. Over the course of the illness, patients can be left completely trapped inside an unresponsive body. Survivors are often left with limbs that do not work the way they used to, or even at all.
In 1931, one such survivor is just two years away from becoming President of the United States.
Ever since that 1916 outbreak, the disease has returned every summer with the regularity of clockwork, flaring up in different communities across the country. No one knows how the disease is spread, so no one really knows how to even try to protect themselves or their kids—”infantile paralysis” is the favored name for the disease, as the majority of its victims are young children—except to run. Some people try.
I say “try” not just because outside of living in total isolation there is nowhere to hide, but because of the many obstacles there could be to fleeing; the households of those diagnosed are quarantined, and there are places families with children cannot run to—entire towns banning the entry of people under the age of sixteen. A huge source of fear for children becomes a huge source of fear of children. In falling victim to the disease they become the monster, facilitating its spread.
So, a child-killing monster characterized by restricted mobility, where the categories of “monster” and “victim” are heavily conflated—is any of this beginning to sound familiar?
The thing about subtext, though, is that unfortunately neither James Whale nor any of his colleagues left a note reading “we had Boris walk that way because we wanted to remind audiences of polio.” The case is built on circumstantial evidence. But thankfully, there is a lot of it, so even if you are not fully convinced yet, stick around, because there are several other lines of evidence that further support the polio-Frankenstein connection. One involves looking back to Shelley’s novel some more, a second looking forward to audiences of polio survivors that watched Whale’s Frankenstein, and a third looking forward to later entries in the Universal Frankenstein series which further implicate a polio connection beyond the monster’s gait.
Looking at Shelley’s book, it is almost impossible to imagine someone reading it in 1931—just three years after the first clinical use of the horrific-looking but lifesaving iron lung to keep polio-stricken children from dying from respiratory failure—and not thinking of the disease.
In Whale’s Frankenstein the monster most notoriously drowns a little girl, but his first victim is Dr. Waldman. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster’s first victim is Frankenstein’s much younger brother, William. He learns of the murder in a letter from his father:
“About five in the morning I discovered my lovely boy, whom the night before I had seen blooming and active in health, stretched on the grass livid and motionless: the print of the murderer’s finger was on his neck.”
Note that the monster does not just kill a child, but strangles him, much like polio would. As mentioned above, it is respiratory failure that kills in the case of polio. Though the Whale film adaptation removes William’s character, the monster killing through preventing his victims from breathing, either by strangling (Dr. Waldman) or drowning (the little girl), remains.
Dr. Waldman’s demise, ‘Frankenstein’ (1931)
Now, let us turn to Frankenstein‘s audience. While I could not find any references to polio made by Whale and his colleagues nor cultural critics of the time, Dwight Codr, in “Arresting Monstrosity: Polio, Frankenstein, and the Horror Film,” one of the few sources discussing the monster walk-polio link, hunted down quotes from polio survivors that indicate that they definitely saw the connection. If you don’t want to take my word for it, perhaps you’ll find the words of those with firsthand experience more convincing.
Playwright Charles Mee, who got spinal polio in 1953 at the age of 14, described an experience with his doctor and three of her assistants as, “[they] sat me up on a cot and swung my steel-clad leg over the side. Like Frankenstein…. Then they tilted me forward and lifted me up at the waist on my left side only so that the foot came off the floor, and my steel leg swung forward absurdly.” Fellow polio survivor Michael Perrault similarly wrote of the aftermath of his illness:
“Eventually, I did [walk again]. But it wasn’t without cold hard metal inserts under my arches in ankle-height orthopedic shoes attached to heavy chrome braces that clunked and gave men Frankenstein-like movements.”
Lastly, we turn to the 1931 Frankenstein‘s sequels, especially Son of Frankenstein (1939) and House of Frankenstein (1944), which take the polio-adjacent imagery even further—as one would only expect, considering the polio situation only grew more and more severe, with still no cure in sight.
Son of Frankenstein, the first sequel to feature a major child character in Peter von Frankenstein, also features said child re-enacting the monster’s walk, dialing the whole monster-victim-child situation I discussed earlier up to eleven:
Meanwhile, the very same film also includes the image of the monster hooked up to some sort of apparatus to assist breathing:
This thread is later picked up and reinforced by House of Frankenstein, which turns assisted breathing into a full-blown transparent iron lung of sorts:
While the polio subtext is present throughout the Universal Frankenstein series, the next cycle of Frankenstein films, done by Hammer Film Productions, begins with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957—two years after Jonas Salk’s successful polio vaccine is deemed safe for general use. There is less polio-related imagery to be seen in this newer iteration, and this negative trend continues in later Hammer Frankenstein installments.
Regarding polio, last Tuesday was the fifth annual World Polio Day, part of the ongoing efforts to eradicate the disease. In the 2017 annual report of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates wrote that “if things stay stable in the conflicted areas, humanity will see its last case of polio this year.” If Gates’ prediction proves true, it will be an incredible achievement and a worthy cause for celebration.
That said, if the Bill Condon helmed Bride of Frankenstein remake postponed earlier this month actually does end up getting made, they might want to consider speeding up their monster a little bit.