Penny Dreadful S01 E08: Grand Guignol and S01 Closing Thoughts


And so this marvelous show’s first turn upon the stage comes to an end. The last episode of Season 1, “Grand Guignol,” brings many of our characters together for a final climactic night at the theater. Along the way, other characters end up isolated or dead (for now), and some pieces get moved into place for our next season.

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That Transgressive Quiver

Rocky Horror Poster
Picture from

Where does one even begin with The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

My first memory associated with Rocky Horror is of the cover on the case of the movie at Hollywood Video when I was growing up. I wouldn’t actually see the movie until years later, towards the end of high school, but that image of Tim Curry in corset and fishnets reclining on those lips sure stood out.

The first time I saw the movie was, if I remember correctly, on someone else’s computer one night when a group of us were at the state science fair in eleventh grade. Having little to no idea what to expect while watching with someone else who’s already been to live showings is, from what I understand, one of the more common ways of being introduced to the movie. As a still fairly sheltered teen who’d spent most of my life in Catholic school before being exposed to all these wild public school kids, I didn’t quite know what to make of it all.

And yet…

Something about the movie resonated. I wouldn’t have the experiences necessary to understand why until later, but there was definitely a quality to the thing that stuck with me.

Relatively early in college, I pulled together a few other acquaintances in my new dorm to go to my first live showing (and their first experience with the movie in any form). I wound up going a few more times in college, although I never became a devotee of the experience like some do.

To this day, The Rocky Horror Picture Show holds a certain attraction, even as many parts of it are intellectually problematic. In a way that is similar to the Universal monsters and the broader panoply of fringe-y “dark geekdom,” the movie continues to have an appeal that is part aesthetic and part something else. (Before I go any further, I strongly recommend reading this analysis by Vrai Kaiser, either before or after reading this post.)

So what’s up with Rocky Horror?

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Frankenstein and the Monstrous Questions

Frankenstein Face
From Flickr user Insomnia Cured Here.

I’ve always been tall and big, and when I was growing up, I tended to identify with the large characters in teams or ensembles. To this day, I often find myself being self-conscious about how much space I’m taking up and whose view I might be obstructing. I was also very much a math and science nerd growing up, and even though I no longer do much with those subjects, I’ll get excited at the possibility of having an idea that could change the world. The part of me that is still eight years old, in applying that emotional logic to the Universal monsters, leads me to identify with both Frankenstein and his monster.

Acts of Varying Immorality

Of course, I don’t have anyone’s deaths on my conscience. Frankenstein’s monster, on the other hand, kills three people over the course of Universal’s Frankenstein, and attacks a few others. The extent to which he is aware of the moral consequences of his actions is up for debate, though.

(Oh, I’m skipping plot recap for this one – you almost certainly know the key details of the Frankenstein story already.)

The connection between the “abnormal” nature of the monster’s brain and his actions is fuzzy. Does he show so little remorse about killing Fritz the assistant and Dr. Frankenstein’s old professor because his physical brain used to belong to a criminal, who potentially had a skewed or nonexistent moral compass himself? Or are his actions more those of an animal reacting in self-defense to Fritz’s torment and the professor’s impending dissection?

The amount of brutality the creature displays certainly varies. The three deaths he causes – those of Fritz, the professor, and Maria, the little girl – follow a decreasing arc of murderousness. The monster straight up hangs Fritz, presumably with the whip the assistant used to torture the monster. The professor’s murder seems more of an act of self-defense. Despite having plenty of potential weapons at hand, the monster settles for strangling the old man. Maria’s death is the least intentional; it appears to be a misunderstood extension of the let’s-throw-pretty-things-in-the-water game (and it’s honestly a little surprising that she died of being tossed a few feet into the water). There’s no apparent ill will motivating the monster when he kills her.

However unintentional the monster’s killing of Maria may have been, there’s no question that his assault of Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth, is no fault of hers. She’s simply a tool of the monster’s quest for vengeance against Frankenstein. His later near-murder of Frankenstein comes in a moment of self-defense after his attempts to flee the angry villagers fail and is thus easier to defend. The attack on Elizabeth, though, makes the monster’s morality in the last act of the movie complicated. As sympathetic as he sometimes is, and no matter how much he may misjudge his own strength, he is not a blameless innocent.

Frankenstein Chase
Not from the actual movie. Image from Flickr user Pascal.

The Monstrous Questions

This leads us to a pair of enduring questions in many monster stories, questions that Dracula didn’t raise. The simpler of the questions is, “Who is the real monster of this story?” The second is, “What makes someone (or something) a monster?”

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