The Human Soul and the Frankenstein Effect

Movies are an amazing part of our culture. Each movie has a message through which directors, editors and producers take the art work of the actors, camera men, sound men, prop builders, makeup artists, etc and build out a (hopefully) coherent slant or idea. Sometimes it’s as base as revealing our crass natures to be compelled to watch vile trash. Sometimes it’s highly intellectual and perpetuates water cooler conversations about life’s mysteries.

One recurring theme in science fiction and horror movies is the Frankenstein base. This book poses two questions: At what point is the act of science crossing the boundary of playing God, and at what point does the human soul exist or not exist?

There are certainly other aspects to Mary Shelley’s story, and I don’t want to typecast her novel into just these two ideas, but they are core concepts that have riddled philosophers for ages.

It appears that the first question is loosely tied to another theme. When man uses science to overcome mortal fear, the result is something to be infinitely more feared. In conjunction with this, the outset of the creation can never exceed the creator. In other words, we can’t make humans better than they were created to be in the bounds of the natural laws and trying to do so creates a monster. Even in reality, medication has side-effects which include mortal danger. The balance and trade-offs that typify a “lesser of evils” concept is prevalent throughout nature. The question remains – where is that balance, and who are we to determine it?

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s book “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde,” a scientist tries to separate the mortal sin from the soul. The problem is that sin dominates our lives so instead of an angelic and benevolent personality surfacing, he split out a psychotic and horrific personality fit for the city of Sodom.

Frankenstein is not much different. A scientist is looking for a path to immortality, but discovers that with an immortal body comes an eternal pain. The monster is never given an identity, leaving it soulless. Though the experiment is a success, its level of suffering significantly outweighs the level of elation, and readers are left to view meddling with nature in such a fashion as a failure to all humanity.

These themes have only become more modern with scientific discoveries. The 1958 version of “The Fly” takes a scientist who intends to defy the laws of creation to disintegrate and rebuild molecules of living animals in a God-like manner but finds himself a victim of carelessness. This leaves those around him struggling with the concepts of morality and the limits of the human soul.

At first, Andre the scientist is arrogant. He claims to know God’s purpose for humanity without acknowledging God’s limits: “God gives us intelligence to uncover the wonders of nature.” After catastrophic failure he denounces that statement: “There are things man should never experiment with. Now I must destroy everything, all evidence, even myself. No one must ever know what I discovered.” His wife tries to convince him not to follow through: “You can still reason, Andre… You’ve still got your intelligence… You’re still a man with a soul. You’ve no right to destroy yourself!”

“The Fly” equates intelligence and reason with having a soul. As long as the half-man-half-fly can reason and shows intelligence, the man-creature is considered to have a soul, and killing him/it is considered murder. In the movie, the truth is merely twisted to simplify the innocence of Helene, but even the Inspector, after squashing the fly in the web considered his act the same as murder. You can’t murder a thing, so it must have still had a human soul in context.

The newer version of the fly from 1986 was much more atheistic and followed more of a “using science to overcome fear results in something more feared” approach. There are some thoughtful punches about how cognitive and intelligent behavior separate man from beast, but references to a human soul were absent. The Brundle-Fly transformation showed more of a reverse evolution effect, and the duration of Seth’s transformation into a fly was prolonged only because it felt good rather than out of hope to return to a human state.

A new model of Frankenstein effect has come out recently under the context of zombies. Specifically, genetically altered humans. Movies such as “Resident Evil”, “28 Days Later” and “I Am Legend” have been hitting the theaters since 2002 where everything from military experiments to pharmaceutical greed to philanthropic science has been the seed to bring about deadly results.

What makes these so frightening is that, like other Frankenstein effects of their time, it involves a science that most people know little about – even the scientists who currently explore these new venues. Creating life from the genetic level is also known to be problematic because of genetic mutation. Life that can change function or resistance over a few generations of reproduction is unpredictable and thusly, frightening. Using a virus as a mechanism to inject the genetic instruction amplifies the mutation and unpredictability because of its short reproductive cycle and its massive growth rate in a short period of time.

Because as a collective race we know so little about genetic based medicine, it has become a modern-day equivalent to technologies of electricity and surgery back in Shelley’s time.

Nevertheless, the heart of the matter is the human soul. To be spoken of with any credibility or seriousness, zombie manifestation, like all apocalyptic events have to deeply coincide with faith and spirituality. If not from Biblical context (Revelation 9:6), it should at least be taken in the context by the merit of the soul.

If any one of us were to turn into a zombie, would we have a soul? What is a zombie? Could someone be both dead and alive at the same time? What is the essence of man and when does it leave the body and can the body survive without it?

Ghosts are easy – they’re disembodied spirits. But zombies hold the paradox. Not only does it question life after death, but like in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, it questions life-in-death. At what point, if any, is man reduced to a dumb animal? At what point is the human soul lost beyond redemption? If it can be redeemed, then what’s the price?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold :
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

-Rime of the Ancient Mariner