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Mary Shelley: The Myth Behind the Monster

About the Episode

This is the story of how Mary Shelley faced steep competition to write one of the most famous, most frightening, most enduring scary stories of all time.

This story is from the new Rebel Girls app! You can listen to more stories like this, PLUS sleepy stories, soundscapes, and all the podcast episodes you know and love. Just go to go.rebelgirls.com/dream-on to download and listen for free!

This story was produced by Giuliana Mayo with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Alison Nieder. Narration by Farah Karim and Joanne Griffith. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Maybe you know the name Frankenstein. If you do, you’re probably thinking about a giant green man with bolts in his neck. But that’s not the real story, as it was imagined by Mary Shelley on a summer night that should have been warm and clear, but instead was cold and wet. 
Our story about Mary begins in Switzerland. And like all good scary stories, it begins on a dark and stormy night. 

Some people called it the “year without Summer.”  Some say the skies over Europe were clouded with ash from a volcano that exploded far away.

Mary and her friends, Byron, Percy and John, spent much of their time in a sprawling mansion Byron had rented in Geneva. The stormy weather drove the group indoors where they read aloud to each other from a book of ghost stories they found. 

PERCY READING:  The shape was lost beneath the shadow of the castle walls….but soon a gate swung back…. a step was heard… the door of the chamber opened…

PERCY READING: There before him was his beautiful bride, once lost to him, but now returned. As he reached to wrap his arms around her, her familiar rose-scented perfume, he found himself wrapped up in nothing but mist, the rose-scented haze fading into the night.

JOHN: Oh, I liked that one!

MARY: Tell another!

BYRON: No, I have an idea. We should each write a ghost story. We can take turns telling them to each other and judge which among them is the best.

Mary was intrigued by this idea. Her friends were all established (and pretty fancy) writers. Byron was a wealthy and popular poet, Percy was also a poet, and John was a doctor and an author. 

At that time in history, it may have seemed to those famous male friends and the outside world that Mary would be an unlikely spinner of scary stories. Back then, it was unusual for a woman to have a career as an author. Especially for a woman to write horror stories, let alone a story as ghastly as Frankenstein.

But Mary was the daughter of famous writers herself and she was well educated. Her parents had raised her to be independent and a free thinker. 

Though her famous friends’ accomplishments might have been intimidating to some, Mary wasn’t scared in the least. She decided she was going to write the best – and scariest story – of them all! 

Over the next few days, Percy and Byron read their tales to the group neither of which Mary found very frightening. They were nothing like the ghost stories they had been reading. 

John came up with some chilling ideas, including a woman with a skull for a head. But his story was hard to follow and kind of forgettable, Mary thought. 

But Mary was having trouble coming up with a ghost story of her own. She wanted hers to be as frightening as the ones that inspired the challenge. She wanted to write the kind of story that gives the reader chills and makes their heart race. 

Each morning at breakfast, Mary’s friends asked if she had thought of a story to tell. And each morning she had to reply…

MARY (to herself): mortifyingly…

…no. 

Where do stories come from, Rebels? How do writers come up with the ideas? Some write about their own lives or things that happened to them or their family and friends. Some writers are inspired by something they read or heard; and they take that scrap of inspiration and begin molding it into a story, adding people — characters — and then imagining a world around those characters and giving them challenges and obstacles to overcome. 

Sometimes that takes a long time, like when Mary struggled to come up with her story idea. 

And sometimes it happens quite suddenly, like the rumble of thunder after the flash of lightning. 

That evening, Mary was still searching for an idea as she sat with her friends, who were conversing amongst themselves…

MARY: (to herself) A scary story…. My tiresome, unlucky ghost story…..  

It’s not enough to just give a person a skull for a head or have someone jump out of a closet and yell “Boo!” 

My story needs to feel real. It needs to feel true…

As she pondered, Mary’s attention was caught by the mens’ discussion, about a recent scientific experiment they had heard of…

JOHN: I was reading something … Erasmus Darwin…

PERCY: The physician? 

JOHN: Yes. He’s been experimenting with tiny animals…Microscopic vorticella...

BYRON: Vermicelli? 

JOHN: Vorticella…in a suspended state. Sleeping in water… twitching…growing…moving about. As if they’d been brought to life.

BYRON: Fascinating! 

Fascinating indeed. Mary herself was fascinated. And then…

Inspiration!

MARY: Is the real terror people who think they’re doing something noble, but it ends up being terrible…

Like an experiment they hope will lead to exciting new discoveries…discoveries that will benefit mankind…

But … what if it all goes horribly wrong…

That night, when she went to bed…

MARY: It was well past the witching hour.

… Mary was still thinking about her story, some of the details of her friends’ conversation began forming in her mind, the scientific experiment providing a spark of inspiration…

MARY: In my mind I see a man, a pale student of unhallowed arts…

He is kneeling beside a thing. A thing that he made. It looks like a person, but not really …The creature begins to stir with an uneasy, lurching motion. 

Terrified, the doctor runs away in horror…

He goes to his room, throws himself in his bed and hopes the creature will fade away by morning…

But then … he wakes and there before him is the horrid thing standing next to his bed. It is looking at him with yellow, watery but clearly intelligent eyes. 

And it was at that moment Mary realized she had her scary story. 

She gets out of bed and begins to write…

The next day, Mary presented her story to the group.

MARY:  This is a story of a doctor — I have named him Frankenstein…

PERCY: I’m listening… 

MARY: He has been conducting experiments…trying to create life. 

JOHN: Like Darwin!

MARY: Exactly. (begins reading) It was a dreary night of November…

MARY: (reading)  It was already one in the morning and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open, it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs… 

MARY: (reading) …with that, the creature sprang from the ship onto a floating iceberg which lay close to the boat. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance…THE END. 

PERCY: Goodness! I won’t be able to sleep tonight. 

JOHN: That was quite a riveting and bone-chilling tale! 

BYRON: It will be some time before I get the image of that creature out of my head! 

PERCY: Well done, Mary! 

JOHN: Indeed! 

Mary’s story not only won her friend’s scary story contest hands down, it went on to be published nearly 300 times and has been translated into multiple languages. It is today  — 200 years later — one of the best-known horror stories of all time. 

MARY: And now … once again … I tell my hideous creation to go forth and prosper.

Just like the creature in Mary’s book, Frankenstein and his monster do indeed live on forever in movies, books and TV shows …  and especially at Halloween.