What Lies Within: The Grotesque in Early Horror and the Fear of the Other Side of Humanity

Given the nature and form of the modern horror film, such antique fare as Frankenstein, The Island of Lost Souls, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fail to invoke the same reactions as they once did—in fact, they seem quite every day in comparison. And yet, these films once held captive the minds of audiences around the country and stood boldly in the face of a censor board who were utterly appalled by the monsters at their door. While it is true that for a time they managed to tame the beasts, it seems rather strange to the modern viewer that such an act was even needed—and yet, there was clearly something about these films that flew in the face of everything that the Production Code deemed lawful and good. Skimming through the production notes of a long-lost era offers clues as to what warning signs each film bore: usually, fear of the film being too frightful or grotesque, or scenes that were deemed too violent or sexual—or, as the case may be, profane by use of the name of or comparing oneself to God. Yet looking beyond these tantalizing glimpses into the makings of these films seems to suggest that there is another fear at play—that of the Other, though not in the traditional sense. For while the Others of these films are, onscreen, separate individuals they seem to be representative of fear that perhaps we are not so different from them—and, perhaps, that they lurk within the deepest recesses of our souls.

As is quite clear from the plot of the movie alone, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explores the idea that there is a baser, more primitive side to the modern man that has not been yet purged from him and that which, when given free reign, causes chaos. As it is heavily implied both in the production notes and in the memos regarding scenes that needed to be edited or cut, much of this chaos has its roots in sexuality or violence—Jekyll’s pining for his fiancée, whom he cannot immediately wed; Hyde’s pursuit of Ivy, whose temptations Jekyll resist, though not completely. In a later meeting, after Ivy’s encounter with his alter-ego, Jekyll promises Ivy that she will never see Hyde again, however, in spite of this promise, Hyde is later able to resume his pursuit of Ivy and ends up murdering her when she will not give him what he desires.[1] This seems to suggest a fear of the baser, animal instincts of humanity—but could it be more than that?

After all, this was a time when the theory of eugenics was beginning to come into play, twining itself with the theory of evolution. Surely, said the proponents of this theory, if Man evolved from the ape, there would be physical identifiers of such a shift? Surely, if this were the case, there would be those races of Man that were lower in the chain of evolution, and those that were higher up? Note that when Jekyll transforms into Hyde, his features shift, becoming less refined—more animalistic, suiting form to the darker nature supposedly inherited from one’s evolutionary ancestors. However, they also shift as to mimic those considered of “inferior races.”[2] Taking note of this when also comparing the personalities, natures, and actions of both Jekyll and Hyde, it seems to also reveal a fear of inferiority—that is, a fear imbedded in the “civilized” of the “savage”, who are a threat for the very reasons that they are considered inferior. We also see a fear of meddling in affairs beyond the ken of the mortal—particularly when it comes to the secrets of mankind’s evolution. For it is not long after taking the potion that unleashes Hyde that Jekyll begins to shift between his forms and personalities without warning or control, setting off the fatal chain of events that ends in Ivy’s murder and his own euthanization—his punishment for meddling in that which he should have left alone.[3]

The Island of Lost Souls shares some characteristics with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although instead of breeding being a major eugenic factor, it is instead direct manipulation of the genome. On the island which Moreau has chosen to make his home and build his laboratory, he receives shipments of animals—a strange delivery to be sure, but as the viewer learns through castaway Edward Parker, who is unfortunate enough to be delivered to the island with the latest batch, the animals are forcibly evolved into the near-human Beast Men, over whom Moreau presides as king and deity. Enforcing his rule with the threat of the House of Pain, Moreau binds the hybrids with three Laws: not to run on all fours, not to eat meat, and not to spill blood. However, when Moreau himself breaks the third law by ordering the death of the ship captain attempting to rescue Parker, his “subjects” realize that the Law’s contract no longer binds them, and Moreau is taken by the Beast Men into the House of Pain, where they exact their revenge upon him.[4]

As mentioned, there is still the fear of the beast within, as noted by the Beast Men and their struggle to abandon their former nature for the one thrust unwillingly upon them. Many would prefer to return to their old ways and forms—save for Lota, who is the only female among them, and as Moreau’s latest and most successful experiment, the most human in appearance and behavior. Upon noticing the return of her former “beast flesh”—her claws—Lota is horrified, begging Moreau to cure her of it.[5] There is also the fear of the uprising—of the lower class turning on the higher. This again is similar to the fear of the inferior, but it brings with it another—the fear that when the Law is rendered null and void, that that is the moment at which the beast is set free. Note that the Beast Men did not truly rebel until Moreau himself had broken one of the laws by which he governed them, as by breaking the law against killing, he had shown himself to be no better than them—Moreau, who the Beast-Men had been trained to see as their superior!—had broken his half of the “contract” that bound them to him, much as Moreau had broken the laws of Nature to create them. And if Moreau, their god-king, was no better than they, and he was a man…What did that make them? Would that not also make them men, as they had been conditioned to say? A “lesser breed” of man—but man nonetheless. And while the Beast Men rejected this forced identity, The Island of Lost Souls, when distributed to Australia, was done so with a special designation: N.E.N, or “not to be exhibited to natives”, so as to prevent a similar series of events from arising.[6]

Finally, there is Frankenstein. As with the previous two films, one can find similar themes; for example, the fear of daring to toy with something best left alone, as a young Henry Frankenstein does when he creates the creature that forevermore shall bear his name. Likewise, there is an element of the fear of the beast within, although the “beast” itself is childlike in its innocence, reacting only as a beast when driven to that behavior by forces beyond its comprehension and control. There is also a reference, in the plot-point of Fitz and the abnormal brain, to the belief that personality and behavior were connected to the physical aspects of the self, and thus the theory of eugenics.[7] However, it is also here where the fear of “the Other” can be most easily seen.

A chimera being, the creature owes its humanlike appearance to the sources of its parts; yet its features remain different enough from those of a “normal” human being that one naturally recoils from the differences, and though physically mature, its thought processes and vocal patterns are comparable to that of a very young child’s. This juxtaposition is alien enough to force one to shy away; even Henry, the monster’s creator, turns away in horror from his creation upon the realization of what he has done, later disregarding Fitz’s cruelty towards the being he has “fathered”—a choice that will have drastic consequences later on.  The only individual who can see past the creature’s appearance to its gentle soul—perhaps due to her own youth and innocence—is the child Maria, who is accidentally and tragically drowned by the creature. When this terrible event is discovered, it triggers a hunt for the creature that ends in Henry being seriously wounded and the creature killed.[8]

Thus, the true tragedy of the creature is in the fact that it serves as the physical incarnation of the fear of alienation. Man is, after all, a social creature—what worse punishment than being rejected from society? There is an instinctive need to be with one’s own kind, yet at the same time, there is also the fear that if one is found to be “different” or “flawed” in some way, their group will turn on them in an instant, or else they will not be able to find a place to begin with. These “flaws” need not be physical or mental, however, as those of the creature are—personality, sexual orientation, interests, ancestry, and religion are but a handful of categories by which one can be sorted and identified, and those outside this narrow range are considered by those within it, even if only subconsciously, as “the Other”. Thus, while there is a fear of the Other, there is also the fear of being the Other, whether one is already the outcast, or has the shunned status thrust upon them. This theme is more prevalent in the novel from which the film was adapted, in which the daemon brought to life by Frankenstein is “human” in all but appearance and circumstance of birth, and as such is able to fully express to his creator the torment of his loneliness, brought on by abandonment and rejection.[9] This is something that the mute and childlike film version of the creature cannot do; Like the removal of the subplot of the creature’s mate, whom he asks for only to ease the pain of being alone, this change has been likely made so that, as the events of the film play out, the audience’s sympathies lie not with the creature, but with its creator, despite Frankenstein’s irresponsibility towards the consequences of his actions.[10] After all, despite all that he has done, Henry Frankenstein is human—his creation, the monster—the Other—is not.

Although it is for the grotesque elements of these films that they are classified in the horror genre, perhaps this is not where the true horror present in these films lies. Perhaps, the horror of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and The Island of Lost Souls is not in the hideousness of their monsters—or even in their scientists, for whom a case could be made that they are the true monsters of their respective tales—but rather in what, or who, they stand for. Thus, while the films may not be frightening in and of themselves, it is the recognition of the viewer’s inner self and their inner demons on the silver screen that generates the terror associated with the early horror genre. After all, while Hyde is a creature of base instincts and evil intent, and while Frankenstein’s monster is built from corpses and animated by lightning, and the Beast Men are animal-human hybrids, are they truly terrifying, or merely grotesque? Does the horror lie in Hyde’s pursuit and killing of Ivy, or in the monster’s rampage, or in the Beast Men’s revolt against Moreau…or does it lie in the recognition of the kinship between the viewer and these creatures, and that they, and the fears they represent, can be found within one’s very soul?


[1] “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” PCA Files. Microfilm.

[2] Kirby, David A. “The Devil in Our DNA: A Brief History of Eugenics in Science Fiction Films.”

[3] “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” PCA Files. Microfilm.

[4]“The Island of Lost Souls” PCA Files. Microfilm.

[5] The Island of Lost Souls. DVD. 1933.

[6] Doherty, Thomas. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema

[7] “Frankenstein” PCA Files. Microfilm.

[8] Frankenstein. DVD. 1931.

[9] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. N.p.: Penguin Classics, 2007.

[10] Brem, Sarah K., and Karen Z. Anijar. “The Bioethics of Fiction: The Chimera in Film and Print.”