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Dr. Pretorius by Katie Merriam

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Author: Katie Merriam
Student project: Dr. Pretorius. Copyright 2007 Katie Merriam.

    In the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, a very significant and very historically based figure is introduced with the tall, thin, mad scientist Dr. Pretorius. Dr. Pretorius is a character who does not receive as much attention and analysis as he deserves, for he truly is one of the most important and symbolic characters in the film.

    According the film, Dr. Pretorius, a philosopher, was one of Henry Frankenstein’s professors, but once his horrible monster was discovered, Dr. Pretorius was fired for his involvement in Frankenstein’s experiments. Dr. Pretorius arrives at the Frankenstein mansion one stormy night, introduced by an echoing knock on the door, the classic horror film indication of an evil character. Dr. Pretorius attempts to persuade Henry to join him in creating another human being, but when Henry refuses, Dr. Pretorius convinces him to travel with him to his cottage to see his latest project. This project turns out to be the creation of numerous homunculi, miniature humans whom Dr. Pretorius claims to have grown from seeds. He has an entire collection of homunculi: a king and queen, a bishop, a mermaid, a ballerina, and a devil. Frankenstein is fascinated by these tiny beings, but he still refuses to join in the creation of another monster. It is only when Dr. Pretorius and Frankenstein’s monster team up and threaten Henry with the safety of his fiancée Elizabeth that he agrees to make a female monster. Dr. Pretorius dies at the end of the film when the monster restrains him in the burning laboratory because he deems him unfit to be amongst the living.

While Dr. Pretorius has come to represent mad scientists in general, he is actually modeled after one mad scientist in particular, Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as simply Paracelsus. Paracelsus was a Swiss alchemist and physician who made a number of significant contributions to science. Paracelsus claimed to have created homunculi, miniature human beings developed from human seminal fluid. There are many allusions to Paracelsus in Bride of Frankenstein the most notable one being the homunculi that Dr. Pretorius grows from seeds which are analogous the homunculi that Paracelsus claimed to have produced from sperm.

Paracelsus is also mentioned both in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and in the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the novel, Victor mentions that “Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus…had so long reined the lords of [his] imagination” (23). Victor’s early readings and education consisted of antiquated and irrational scientists, and Mary Shelley’s reference to Paracelsus in this list of Victor’s early readings demonstrates that Shelley herself thought Paracelsus to be ancient and out of date. In the 1994 film, Professor Krempe, after hearing of Victor’s early education, called Paracelsus “an arrogant Swiss” and Victor “another Swiss”. These references to Paracelsus tie together the films and novel with the character Dr. Pretorius. It may also have been Dr. Pretorius who began the tradition that continues today of calling Frankenstein’s monster by the name of its creator. Dr. Pretorius was the first to refer to the monster as Frankenstein when he shouts “the bride of Frankenstein” upon the creation of the female monster.

    The character Dr. Pretorius has long been regarded as a symbol of homosexuality in the film. Dr. Pretorius became a very popular figure in the gay community after the publication of David Skal’s book The Monster Show, which identifies cultural symbols in the media and includes the identification of Dr. Pretorius as homosexual. Bride of Frankenstein is thought to be a camp film with many references to homosexuality, and Dr. Pretorius is one such reference. Dr. Pretorius as a homosexual image is in keeping with the homosexual themes in the novel and in the other films. First of all, Dr. Pretorius, like Victor in Mary Shelley’s novel and the other Frankenstein films, attempts to create human life without the aid of a woman. In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, not only tries to produce a human without a woman, but he attempts to create life with another man. The entire creation of the female monster can be seen as a homosexual event as Dr. Pretorius “seduces” Henry to join in his project, and the resulting female monster can be seen as their child.  Also, the scene in which Dr. Pretorius comes into Henry’s bedroom and tells the maid that “what he and Henry do in the room is private” is an allusion to homosexuality.

    While Dr. Pretorius is a symbol of homosexuality, he is also seen as an image of the devil. The first reference to Dr. Pretorius as the devil comes from Pretorius himself when he shows Henry his homunculus of the devil and comments that it looks a lot like him. Also in relation to the homunculi, while Henry creates life in the same way that God created Adam and Eve: he pieces their bodies together and then gives them life, Dr. Pretorius creates life in a way that is completely different from Henry and God’s way: he grows his humans from seeds. This demonstrates that he is the opposite of God and thus is symbolic of the devil. Dr. Pretorius makes contracts with both Henry and the monster, a distinctive devilish act. Pretorius makes a pact with the monster that he will make him a bride if he kidnaps Elizabeth, and he makes a pact with Henry that if he joins the project of making a female monster, Elizabeth will be safe. In the same way, the devil is often depicted as making pacts and deals with people, like when he promised to give Jesus all of heaven and Earth if Jesus worshipped him. Dr. Pretorius also shows his disturbing devilish nature when he eats a meal and drinks wine in the graveyard with the coffin that he has just unearthed. Thus, through his unorthodox creation of life, his making of pacts, and his disturbing comfort with the dead, Dr. Pretorius proves himself to be an image of the devil.

    Dr. Pretorius has but one counterpart in the other Frankenstein films, Professor Waldman

from the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Professor Waldman and Dr. Pretorius are similar in that they are both teachers and advisors to Henry Frankenstein in his pursuit of the natural sciences and the creation of human life. Both are also token “mad scientists” who have themselves undertaken the creation of human life but fall short of their desired goals and turn to Frankenstein to complete their projects. Both Dr. Pretorius and Dr. Waldman are also looked down upon by higher authority for being involved in unorthodox undertakings. Both characters also die horrible deaths. Whereas Dr. Pretorius dies in the burning laboratory, Dr. Waldman is stabbed to death with a vaccination needle. 

    Dr. Pretorius is certainly one of the most symbolic characters in the entire film series, for he represents the scientist Paracelsus through his creation of the homunculi, homosexuality, and the devil. We, as modern viewers, can read the association between technology and homosexuality with the devil as illustrations of societal views at the time of the movie’s filming. Clearly, creating life through technology and homosexuality were seen to be evil and culturally unacceptable because they are represented by a character who is portrayed also as the devil. Dr. Pretorius also connects to both the Frankenstein novel as well as to the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the image of a mad scientist and advisor to Victor in the creation of life, so he most certainly is one of the most significant characters in Bride of Frankenstein.

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