Why THE INVISIBLE MAN Is The Most Timely And Relevant Of The Universal Monsters
To be clear, all of the Universal Monsters are eternal. They’re never going to go away, which is pretty obvious considering that some of these characters have been around for over a hundred years. The Invisible Man is one of those characters. Published in 1887, the same year as Dracula, the source novel celebrates its 120th birthday this year. Generally, the Invisible Man is not the first villain people think of when they think of the Universal classic monsters. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, these are typically the first names that pop into the average moviegoer’s mind.
But the Invisible Man is in many ways the most terrifying part of that group. The other classic monsters are defined by their sympathy. As Dracula points out in the original film, he just wants to be dead and at peace. The same is basically true for the Mummy, but in addition to that you have a doomed, reincarnated romance that would (somewhat ironically) go on to completely define later versions of Dracula. Frankenstein’s Monster and the Gill Man just want to be left alone. They didn’t ask for any of this, they just want to live in isolation away from humanity and it’s humanity that keeps preventing that.
The Wolf Man is, I think, the most sympathetic out of the bunch. Ironically, he doesn’t start out as a great guy. He’s actually kind of a pervy scumbag before he gets bitten. Once the curse of the werewolf is upon him, though, it’s as if all of those animalistic qualities transferred into the beast, transforming Larry Talbot on a fundamental level into a scared, lonely and deeply remorseful human being. His story even gets more tragic as the franchise progresses, learning that he actually cannot die and that he is doomed to live with his curse forever.
And then there’s Griffin. His place in this group is, I think, necessary. In a pantheon of deeply sympathetic monsters, there needs to be one that isn’t sympathetic, one that stands in stark contrast to the others in order to provide a necessary counterbalance. That’s the Invisible Man. He turned himself into this, albeit accidentally, and he loves it. He can’t get enough of being the Invisible Man, of doing whatever he wants to anyone he wants, simply because he can get away with doing it. He’s not motivated by revenge or love, his ambitions are pure chaos and anarchy. It’s made obvious by the casual way he can go about planning “a few murders here and there.”
For these reasons, the Invisible Man is also the timeliest of the Universal monsters and the most relevant to our own cultural fears in 2017, because the Invisible Man is, simply put, a domestic terrorist.
Since 2001, Terrorism has grown into one of the largest, most deeply rooted global fears. In that time, it’s something that we’ve struggled with on a fundamental level, something we’ve struggled to narrow down, to blame on a particular group, when the truth is that terrorism on its own is a concept that could be adopted by anyone. Terrorism isn’t defined by any one group, religion or nationality.
That, of course, is where Griffin comes in. The Invisible Man does not seem a likely choice for a metaphor for terrorism, given the fact that the novel was released in 1897 and the film in 1933, but the first global terrorists actually surfaced in the 1890s, right around the same time that H.G. Wells must have begun writing the novel. At that time, of course, they were called anarchists. But one of these anarchists accidentally killed himself, setting off his own bomb while he was on his way to bomb the Greenwich Observatory in London.
While I obviously cannot say whether or not this had any influence on Wells as he was writing the novel, it’s easy to imagine that it could have at least been on his mind, as this was happening in his own backyard. You could easily look at the text and the climate of London at the time and claim that The Invisible Man has always been a novel about terrorism, or could at least easily be read as such.
The definition of terrorism has changed over time, as has the severity. Attacks have become overwhelmingly frequent in recent years, let alone the past century, and weapons have only become deadlier. But that only goes to prove the lasting power of great fiction, of why we’re still teaching Shakespeare in the classroom centuries after his death. Great stories resonate, especially genre work like science fiction and horror.
The Invisible Man is the perfect embodiment of a concept that is, well, invisible. It could happen anywhere to anyone at any time. Griffin himself has no perfectly clear motivation other than the fact that he can get away with it. He’s literally spending his time plotting a course for world domination that no one will see coming because they literally can’t see him. He’s driven by ego as much as his own insanity, if not more so.
I think ego is a crucial character trait for Griffin—and another that also feels particularly relevant now—because he becomes so self-obsessed and sure of his ambitions that he begins to lack any and all oversight. He doesn’t double check or think too deeply about anything he’s doing because he simply becomes so sure that there’s no way he could fail. Griffin charts his own downfall, even if he doesn’t realize it. He concocts elaborate schemes, speaks of huge ambitions, goals like world domination that he should know are probably unattainable.
He’s making plans for mass-murder, elaborate theft, all sorts of intricately thought-out horrific deeds and yet he dies because he didn’t even stop to think about the fact that people would see his footprints in the snow. It’s his vanity, self-centeredness and confidence in his inability to fail that all lead to his defeat.
Like Dracula and Frankenstein, The Invisible Man is a story that will probably always continue to resonate on some level, but it’s nonetheless one that feels particularly poignant right now. Fear, terrorism and megalomaniacs gone mad with power are ultimately the things that have defined 2017. Whether that’s going to get better or worse from here could be anyone’s guess.
But with any luck, life will imitate art as it often does and the power players that got us to this point will—like Griffin—fail to see their footprints in the snow.