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The Morbid Feminist Voice Behind the First Sci-Fi and Dystopian Apocalyptic Horror Novels

Mary Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Why on earth would a delicate woman of your stature write about such awful, disturbing, and blasphemous things?

As the daughter of the brilliant feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as the reformist writer and philosopher William Godwin, Shelley is famously noted for her 1831 introduction to a reprint of Frankenstein. Her explanation that, “it is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing…” shows exactly how significant they were to her self-image.

The Liberating Feminine Voice of Horror

It is genuinely not surprising that the daughter of the renowned mother of the modern feminist movement was a feminist herself. Mary Shelley’s life reflected by the inspiration she took from her mother’s radically forward-thinking when it came to equality on the basis of sex. Her mother’s best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, lived on through Shelley’s own lifestyle and unstoppable life-force, but how did that translate into her own voice as an author? There is a lot of dialog between scholars as far as interpretations of her motivations behind the wonderfully disturbing work she created in her lifetime. Some suggest that Frankenstein is a horror story of maternity as much as it is about the perils of intellectual hubris.

From the time that Mary ran away with Percy Shelley all through the time she spent writing Frankenstein, Mary was going through maternal horror of her own—she was ceaselessly pregnant, confined, nursing, and then watching her first three children die at young ages. It doesn’t help matters that Shelley’s life was haunted by the fact that her mother died only ten days after Mary was born. Truth be told though, it was unsanitary practices by the attending physician, Dr. Poignand, and not through any fault of Shelley’s. It was Puerperal Fever, caused by doctors moving directly from autopsies to births without any means of sanitation, that took Shelley’s mother from her.

The tragedy of her mother’s death so early on in her life influenced Shelley greatly and losing three of her own children just compounded upon her morbidity. She used this mindset to her advantage though and translated her message of what it felt like to be born without a right to history—for, “what is woman but man without a history…” as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar stated in The Madwoman in the Attic. We can see Mary Shelley in Frankenstein’s monster, as a creature born without a history, or at least without an unalterable or supported history. Both Shelley and Frankenstein’s creation shared the feeling of being born without a soul, “as a thing, an other, a creature of the second sex,”—for being a woman in the time that Mary Shelley lived was to be a second-class human being.

A Symbol for Early Equality

Shelley can be considered a symbol for both feminism and equality of sexual orientation; a less discussed topic than anything else of her life, there is evidence that shows that Mary sought the company of women after her husband’s death. This is an important topic to mention, as it is signifies the very secretive intimate history of homosexuality and how big of a part it actually played during the Romantic era.

Life From the Bed of a Grave

Writer Sandra Gilbert insists, that Mary Shelley’s, “only real mother was a tombstone,” but she didn’t mean it figuratively—when Mary was a child, her father brought her to the churchyard where her mother was buried and she would continue to visit on her own after that. This became especially true when her father married their next-door-neighbor Mary Jane Clairmont, a woman who could never replace her own mother and who made Shelley’s home life unbearable. In her earliest years, Shelley used, “reading … [as] an act of resurrection,” due to feeling excluded from her father’s household after his marriage. In a sense, it is said that she “read,” or knew her family then determined her sense of self through her mother and father’s literary works. She would endlessly study her mother’s works during her younger years while sitting at her mother’s graveside.

The burden of this type of childhood was also expressed through Mary’s first work when she included a scene wherein Victor Frankenstein visits the cemetery where his father, brother, and bride were buried before leaving Geneva to search for the monstrosity that he had created. “As night approached, I found myself at the entrance of the cemetery … I entered it and approached the tomb which marked their graves … The spirits of the departed seemed to flit around, and to cast a shadow, which was felt but seen not, around the head of the mourner,” where Victor ultimately calls for revenge against his creation, “O Night, and by the spirits that preside over thee, I swear to pursue the daemon … And I call on you, spirits of the dead; and on the wandering ministers of vengeance, to aid and conduct me in my work.” Godwin passed on his idealization of books being a sort of host for the dead, that to read a book by a departed author would be to know them entirely. Then again, Godwin was also fiercely interested in communicating with the dead, another trait that he passed to his daughter through that fateful visit to her mother’s grave.

[The dead] still have their place, where we may visit them, and where, if we dwell in a composed and a quiet spirit, we shall not fail to be conscious of their presence.

William Godwin, Literary Tourism, And the Work of Necromanticism

Necromantic Preoccupations of Her Father

Like father, like daughter; Shelley picked up her father’s proclivity for intrigue in the dead. Godwin often tried to connect his readers to the dead by encouraging the placement of illustrious graves. In his eyes, such a grave would honor them in their place of rest and give both the deceased and their mourners a way to stay on speaking terms, of sorts. He even expressed his desire to do so himself in quite an illustrated manner, when he said, “[he] would have [the dead] … around [his] path, and around [his] bed, and not allow [himself] to hold a more frequent intercourse with the living, than with the good departed.” He meant this of course as a means of conveying his desire to communicate with the dear ones he had lost in his lifetime and not in a sexual context.

The Morbidity of Her Truest Love

Mary may have strayed from that viewpoint in a way, after she was introduced to an impassioned devotee of her father’s, Percy Shelley. The two spent much of their time together at the grave of Mary’s mother, where her father likely believed they were conversing about their reformist ideals. The truth lay a bit beyond that, however, as it was by her mother’s grave that she lost her virginity and pledged herself at sixteen to a twenty-year-old Percy. While it may seem creepy, to Mary the cemetery was more than just a resting place for the dead, she saw it as a place where all of life converged for her.

Learning all of this about Shelley definitely brings us some clarity on how she possessed the wit and imagination to create two new genres within literature—that of Science-Fiction horror, along with the brilliance of the first Apocalyptic Dystopian styles.

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Horror Mystery and Lore

The Real Annabelle and Other Truly Haunted Dolls

Close up view of a creepy dirty porcelain doll
Photography by Patrick Hendry

Any object can be haunted, but perhaps due to the fact that dolls are physically modeled to bear a resemblance to human beings, they have more of a proclivity to be vessels of spirit possession. According to Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend, “haunted dolls are either possessed by malign, nonhuman entities or earthbound spirits—who are usually female—either children who died as a result of a horrific accident or women who are the victims of domestic violence. In both instances, prospective buyers are cautioned to treat the dolls with respect and to rehome them with another buyer if the object becomes too much to handle; destruction would free the spirit and either cause it distress or make it more dangerous.”

The Real Annabelle doll locked up in the Warren Occult Museum
Artwork by Mary Farnstrom

An exception to the gender stereotype that plagues the haunted doll theory, is Robert the Enchanted Doll. This particular doll has been located in Key West, Florida since 1904 and is still on display in the Fort East Martello Museum. The original owner of Robert was a four-year-old boy named Robert Eugene Otto—Gene to his family—the doll was given to him by the family’s maid and activity started immediately after Gene came into possession of the doll. While the doll’s name is Robert, little is known about the spirit that haunts the doll, all is known are the stories that are told about its activity. During Gene’s childhood, Robert was frequently blamed for items being scattered across the home, as well as upturned furniture. As an adult, Gene maintained ownership of the doll, but knowing what it was capable of, he locked it in the turret of his home, where neighborhood children said they saw it staring at them from the windows, often changing places on its own.

It’s unclear as to why people still insist upon wanting to own spirit-possessed dolls, but what is clear is that it’s sure to be a trend that continues on for quite a while. One possible reason why these things continue to be items that are sought after is that there are a lot of would-be paranormal investigators who have little to no experience dealing with spirits in the first place. They get the idea that they can collect evidence and make it big if they come into ownership of a doll, simultaneously proving the existence of ghosts and the dolls they haunt, as well as making a name for themselves. Whatever their motivation, it feels like they lack the guidance to understand what they are getting themselves into and therefore are making decisions without knowing the full risks of their endeavors.

Annabelle the Doll: The Origins Documentary

The True Horror Story Behind Annabelle

Annabelle (2014) Trailer

Haunted dolls are considered a commodity in today’s culture, due to popular horror culture making them popular with horror films like The Conjuring (2013), Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017), and the most recent horror movie Annabelle Comes Home (2019). People enjoy the fictional horror stories so intensely that they feel a connection to haunted objects without realizing the perils that can be attached to them. The story behind The Conjuring and Annabelle franchise though is actually more real than many people realize—sure the movies are amped up to create the thrills and adrenaline rush that people so desire, but these movies were based on true accounts of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Annabelle: Creation (2017) Trailer

The Warren’s Museum of the Occult contains more haunted and cursed objects than any other museum presently known, which serves as evidence of the paranormal and supernatural forces that are at work within this world. Although I have never been to the museum myself, it is said that the collection is dominated by dolls that are haunted or inhabited by evil spirits—the most well-known of which is actually the real Annabelle doll. There is a rather long and convoluted history about the doll and its origin, which is further convoluted by the fictional embellishments added to the movies.

Annabelle Comes Home (2019) Trailer

What has been alleged is that the doll’s original owner consulted a medium who said the doll was actually inhabited by an evil spirit and not a ghost at all—which is when the Warrens took possession of it, had it exorcised, then locked it in a blessed cabinet to ward off any potential activity from starting at their own house. The whole story is spoken of in-depth in the book The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren. The real Annabelle is quite a bit different from her presence in the films, where she is portrayed as a fragile, yet incredibly creepy porcelain doll with exaggerated features. In reality, she is what seems to be a run of the mill Raggedy Ann doll, the same type that many of us girls owned as children, something that would seem soft, safe, and cuddly.

Dolls like Robert and Annabelle remain objects of scary stories and fascination for a lot of people across the world and while the idea of them definitely belongs to the public, the dolls belong in a place where they can be properly warded and kept away from unsuspecting bystanders.