My final essay for one of my classes was on Frankenstein and how Elizabeth Frankenstein fits into the “Final Girl” trope as laid out by Professor Carol Clover in her essay “Her Body, Himself.” I’m really proud of how this essay came out because it’s about two things that I’m fascinated by. Enjoy!
In the 1996 seminal horror film Scream, Jamie Kennedy’s character Randy Meeks carefully delineates the common tropes of horror movies, including that in order to survive, one must be virginal and (usually) a woman. This trope has come to be called the “Final Girl” trope, and is one that can be applied to a number of different horror movies, novels, and other mediums. As Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, originally published in 1818, is one of the original classics of horror, it is only fitting to try to apply the theory of the Final Girl to the novel and see how the Final Girl trope has changed over various adaptations. How does Elizabeth change from the 1818 novel, the 1931 film, to the 1996 film re-imagining, and, more importantly, does she fit the Final Girl description?
In her essay “Her Body, Himself” in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol Clover becomes the first person to coin the term “Final Girl.” She defines the Final Girl as such:
“She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued… or to kill him herself” (35).
This description is one that fits the final characters in many horror movies. Clover uses Sally from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Laurie from John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) as prime examples of the Final Girl; they discover the bodies of all of their dead friends, they know they’re in danger for much longer than their deceased friends knew, they are chased by the killer for far longer than their friends ever were, and fight the killer off long enough until they can be saved. The Final Girl trope is one often used by feminist theorists, as it becomes a way for film and literature theory to be more targeted on the female character, as the entire trope is about femininity and survival (notice that there is no “Final Boy” trope). Using this definition of the trope, it is possible to try to apply the Final Girl trope to other horror movies, as Clover does throughout the entire essay.
The Final Girl trope is one that is often retroactively applied to movies from modern horror: horror movies that came out after 1960, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which many people attribute to being the first modern horror movie. With a story like Frankenstein, however, adaptations have been made long before the beginning of modern horror, with the oldest being a 1910 silent film called Frankenstein, and they have been made long after the beginning of the era, with the most recent being the 2015 film Victor Frankenstein. Because of the long history of adaptations, Elizabeth’s status as a Final Girl changes from adaptation to adaptation.
‘ At first glance, the original 1818 novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley does not seem like one that is inherently feminist; the majority of the characters are male, while the main female character, Elizabeth, is confined to the house, does not seem to do much, and dies due to her husband’s inadequacy. If one takes a closer look, however, one can see that Shelley sprinkled in hints of Elizabeth’s defiance throughout the story that takes her out of the housewife stereotype. It is possible, then, that Shelley unknowingly also peppered in other strong feminist themes, like that of the Final Girl. Looking back at the definition of a Final Girl as laid out by Carol Clover, Elizabeth surprisingly fits a number of the characteristics. Elizabeth sees the bodies of the Creature’s victims, first when William dies and “she was very earnest to see the corpse… and entering the room where it lay, hastily examined the neck of the victim” (Shelley 47), and second through the Creature’s victim by proxy, Justine. Not only is Elizabeth present at Justine’s trial, but she is a vocal advocate in favor of Justine, even going so far as to testify in her favor, and while it is unknown if she attends Justine’s execution, she is definitely affected by it, as she “become[s] grave, and often converse[s] of the inconstancy of fortune and the instability of human life” (Shelley 63). Therefore, she fits the first part of Clover’s definition, that “she is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends” and, because of this, she “perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril” (Clover 35). Elizabeth is aware that there is something evil afoot far before other characters do; in fact, the only character that realizes before her is Victor, and that is only because he creates the evil. Neither William nor Justine were fully understanding of the danger that they were in. While Elizabeth does not know the exact danger (she is never made privy to the existence of the Creature), she has a more crucial understanding than other victims do.
The next part of Clover’s definition that Elizabeth fits is that the reader sees Elizabeth “scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again… she alone looks death in the face” (Clover 35). The evidence for this is at first hard to place, but it becomes evident when Elizabeth is ultimately attacked by the Creature. Victor hears “a shrill and dreadful scream [that] came from the room into which Elizabeth had retired…. the scream was repeated, and [he] rushed into the room” (Shelley 140). Quite literally here, the reader is seeing Elizabeth scream, fall, and scream again as she is attacked by the Creature, further cementing her status as the Final Girl. But this leads into the part of the Final Girl trope that Elizabeth does not seem to adhere to, where “[the Final Girl] alone… finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued… or to kill him herself” (Clover 35); Elizabeth does not survive the story. Victor discovers “the body of Elizabeth… her head upon her arm, and a handkerchief thrown across her face and neck” shortly after Elizabeth screams at the appearance of the Creature (Shelley 141). It is understandable to wonder how Elizabeth could possibly be a Final Girl if she does not make it to the end of the book. However, it is important to remember that Frankenstein was published in 1818, so Elizabeth is not going to follow every single criteria for the Final Girl rigidly. What is interesting to note, is that Elizabeth’s situation is similar to that of another famous semi-Final Girl, Marion Crane in Psycho (1960). Marion Crane is considered by many to be the first Final Girl, but she does not survive her movie, being killed off less than halfway through. Clover addresses this in her essay, acknowledging that “the appointed ancestor of the slasher film is Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Its elements are familiar… but still recognizably human” (Clover 23). Because Psycho is such an early rendition of the standardized slasher film, not every trope has been fully developed, including the Final Girl. Marion Crane acts as a Final Girl for the first parts of the definition, but she does not survive the ordeal. The same could be said about Elizabeth and Frankenstein. The novel predates slasher films as a medium, so the Final Girl trope is obviously not going to be fully fleshed out. Because of this, Elizabeth in the original 1818 novel cannot be fully classified as a Final Girl, but rather can be classified along with Marion Crane as a “semi”- Final Girl. However, this initial prototype of Elizabeth Frankenstein was adapted and evolved throughout various films to better fit the mold of the Final Girl during the age of modern horror.
In his 1931 film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, James Whale takes a number of liberties with the story. Victor’s name is changed to Henry, the Creature is now unable to communicate effectively with everyone, and all of the deaths are radically altered. Because of these changes, Elizabeth’s Final Girl status cannot just simply be carried over from the novel, but rather needs to be reevaluated. In the film, the Creature’s first two kills occur outside of Elizabeth’s presence, and she never does discover the bodies, so the first part of the definition already does not fit. However, this part of the definition only serves to segue into the next part, that being that the Final Girl is fully aware of the danger that she is in because she sees the bodies of her friends. Elizabeth does not see the bodies of her friends, but she is fully aware of the danger of the Creature. In this version of the story, Elizabeth is present when Victor/Henry flips the switch and brings life to the Creature. She sees the Creature long before he ever comes to attack her, which is a stark contrast from the novel, where she is unaware of the Creature’s existence until her demise. Elizabeth’s awareness of the Creature from the beginning allows her to be fully conscious of the danger, which is the requirement from the definition that finding her friend’s bodies would cause; the cause for her to discover the danger that she is in has changed, but the awareness of the danger has not. Thus, Elizabeth still fits the criteria for the first part of Carol Clover’s Final Girl definition.
The next part of the definition is that the Final Girl must survive long enough to either be saved or to kill the killer herself. In this version of Frankenstein, Elizabeth does not become one of the Creature’s victims. Rather, Victor/Henry hears Elizabeth scream (which has already been established as a Final Girl staple, though not necessarily a requirement) and when he rushes into her room, she has fainted but is otherwise alright. From this moment on, Elizabeth stays in the house while Victor/Henry goes out with the mob to kill the Creature. This change from the novel fulfills “ending A” of Clover’s definition, as “she… finds the strength to… stay the killer long enough to be rescued” (Clover 35). This change brings Elizabeth out of the “semi”-Final Girl category and catapults her into a full-fledged Final Girl. The film predates 1960’s Psycho, so it is not technically part of the modern age of horror, but the fact that it so clearly fits into the Final Girl trope can be indicative of how horror tropes are ingrained in horror story telling, not just something that emerged with the modern age of horror.
A more modern adaptation of Frankenstein came in 1994 with the Kenneth Branagh directed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This film was advertised as the most faithful adaptation of the novel to ever come out, and as of now, it is. It retains the Captain Walton narrative that is so often left out of adaptations, the Creature is able to speak articulately, and it keeps Justine’s trial and subsequent execution. However, the differences come at the climax of the film. Like in the book, Elizabeth is unaware of the Creature’s existence and is therefore not aware that the Creature intends to kill her. She becomes a bit more aware when William is murdered, and is once again present for Justine’s trial. She even is present at Justine’s execution, so she checks off the category about the Final Girl seeing the bodies of her friends in order to understand the danger that she is in. Just like her novel counterpart, Elizabeth in this version fits the first part of the Final Girl definition.
In an attempt to make the film as true to the novel as possible, Elizabeth is not as lucky in this film adaptation as she is in the 1931 James Whale version. As in the novel, Elizabeth is killed by the Creature when Victor refuses to make a companion for the Creature. However, more is added to her death in order to increase her role. Instead of simply being murdered by the Creature, after she dies, Victor sews her head onto Justine’s body and brings her back to life. Unfortunately, Elizabeth is unable to cope with what she has become, and she breaks a kerosene candle over her head which engulfs her in flames. Once again, Elizabeth does not survive this adaptation, so once again she falls into the Marion Crane category of “semi”- Final Girl. Something that is interesting to note about this, however, is that this movie came out in 1994, well after the modern age of horror began and well after the Final Girl trope was cemented in 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It would have been easy and expected of Kenneth Branagh to adhere to the horror film tropes that had become all but required in horror films of the latter half of the twentieth century, but instead, Branagh chose fidelity over hopping on the bandwagon, and brings Elizabeth’s Final Girl journey full circle.
Save for the three versions of the story analyzed in this essay, Elizabeth Frankenstein does not appear in many other significant film adaptations of the novel. The most recent adaptation, 2015’s Victor Frankenstein, has Elizabeth replaced with Lorelei, a love interest for Victor’s assistant Igor (who is absent from the novel). However, Elizabeth Frankenstein’s popularity has grown with feminist theorists who have taken an interest in analyzing her role throughout the novel and whether or not it ties into feminist themes. Through Carol Clover’s essay “Her Body, Himself,” it can be proven that Elizabeth Frankenstein is the original prototype for the Final Girl, which is often the highest feminist praise for a female horror character to have. The modern analyses of Elizabeth Frankenstein do not stop here, however. A novel called The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White was released in September 2018 in tandem with the original Frankenstein novel’s two hundredth anniversary, and it explores Elizabeth’s psyche and her side of the story in a way never before done. Through more adaptations like this, Elizabeth’s status as an important heroine of horror is cemented and added to, causing her to become one of the most important characters in the horror genre over the past two hundred years.