Yeah, I’m obsessing over Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein again. I know, you’d think I’d be over it by now, but I’m not. The thing is, I keep stumbling into things that are all about dichotomy lately (Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, Stephen Moffat’s Jekyll, etc) and obviously, that particular dynamic really appeals to us humans. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of horror, but it’s applicable to every genre.
The reason things like Frankenstein and Jekyll work is because instead of relying on cheap slasher movie gimmicks like gore, they prey on universal, subconscious fears. Of course on the surface, you have the fact that the creature from Frankenstein has literally been pieced together from body parts, but let’s face it: modern audiences are so desensitized that if dead bodies were all there was to Frankenstein, it would be a snooze fest. Stories like Frankenstein go deeper than that.
On the second level, you have the story of these two men, Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, who are almost binary opposites. One represents the ruthlessness of rational thought (Dr. Frankenstein is so obsessively consumed by his work that he hurts the people who love him) and the other represents the danger of human emotions when left untempered by logic (Frankenstein’s creature is driven by raw emotion, which leads him to commit horrendous acts). The fear, at this stage, comes when the audience realizes that these men represent basic human nature. Mankind is engaged in a constant struggle to find middle ground between science and nature, logic and emotion, love and hate, and whenever we let any of these go too far in one direction, terrible things happen; we murder, we steal, we destroy, and we inflict misery on others as a result.
Once that realization is in the audience’s head, it doesn’t take much to shove them toward the third level of terror, because it’s only a matter of time before they realize how horrifyingly easy it would be for them to become the vicious men standing right in front of them. That is what finally closes the gap between the story and the audience, because as soon as the audience realizes they’re staring themselves in the face, they can’t help but feel sympathy for Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, who are both isolated by the extremity of their natures. And if you can get an audience to that point, where you’ve inspired such conflicting emotions in them that they’ll walk away from the story questioning themselves and their reactions (or if you’re very lucky, the world around around them), then you know you’ve told a story that will last.