Fear of Frankenstein’s Monster: The Indefinable and The Uncontrollable

Xinyu Luo

Regarded as the first science fiction (SF) story, Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus contains pioneering SF elements that have been emphasized and widely studied; however, apart from this science side, horror elements in Frankenstein are equally crucial and inspiring for analyzing later SF works. Since Frankenstein, numerous SF works have blended genres from SF and horror fiction. Among them, some deliberately display and stress the horror elements, like the film series Alien (1979-2017) and the video game series Resident Evil (1996-2021), while others manage to trigger audiences’ goosebumps in a more subtle way, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Ex Machina (2014). Various elements eliciting fear in SF works, no matter the obvious or obscure ones, can be traced back to Frankenstein.

In Frankenstein, the most compelling climax and horrifying moment should be Victor, the creator, succeeding to vitalize the monster, the creature. By examining fear evoked by the creature, the creation process, and the creator, one can find many similar terrifying features underlying horror elements of countless SF works, including indefinability and uncontrollability of creatures.


  • Fear of the Indefinable

One of the most thought-provoking topics from Frankenstein emerges when Victor realizes he “might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing” (Shelley 57) as the exact definition of this monster: Is it a human? Is it a living being? It is undeniable that humans are obsessed with giving clear definitions of newly encountered subjects, where the initial step in defining is judging whether this new subject fits into any existing category. Essentially, it is based on a dualist system: in this case, human vs. nonhuman, lively vs. lifeless. For the ambiguous Frankenstein’s monster, dualism seems invalid, leading to the failure of a conventional definition. There have been many frequently appeared creatures in SF works share this indefinability, like cyborgs. According to Haraway, cyborgs transgress boundaries, including those between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, challenging traditional Western dualisms that enable humans to mirror the self (Haraway 152-176). In this way, failing in defining new creatures can make humans realize their limits on knowing the others and their inability to identify themselves: If one cannot assure whether the monster or cyborg is a human or life, then what is human? What is life? Consequently, the raised confusion, panic, and anxiety about definition and self-identification are easy to become fear, which applies to other SF creatures blurring boundaries such as AI, chimeras, and avatars.


  • Fear of the Uncontrollable

Losing control of the created monster is equally horrifying. As a species proud of their creativity, humans tend to enjoy the creators’ superiority over their creatures and assume they naturally deserve appreciation and submission from the creatures. Also, the created are supposed to be benevolent. Before creating the monster, like most creators, Victor fantasizes, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (Shelley 54). However, the monster breaks Victor’s illusion even kills humans. Such uncontrollable creatures are ubiquitous in SF works, like the AI killer HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the rebellious androids in Detroit: Become Human (2018). Isaac Asimov further symbolizes Frankenstein by referring to this fear of losing control of artificial creatures as the Frankenstein Complex (Beauchamp 84). In a broader context, the horrifying subjects of the Frankenstein Complex can extend beyond humanoids to any newly developed science and technology, which are often depicted in SF works, like the Autonomous Drone Insects capable of killing people stealthily and easily in Black Mirror (2011-2019) reflecting fear of drone technology, and highly intelligent and aggressive chimpanzees mutated by a new drug in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) containing fear of biotech.                



Beauchamp, Gorman. “The Frankenstein Complex and Asimov’s Robots.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 13, no. 3/4, 1980, pp. 83-94.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, 1991, pp. 149-181.

Shelley, Marry. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Keynote Classics, 2020.