Frankenstein’s monster is arguably one of the most iconic creatures of horror; various depictions of the monster have appeared in over fifty films and countless books, tales, and television shows since his incarnation in the early 1800’s. While his outward appearance seems to change from film to film, the monster typically has a few key features: a squared head, an elongated forehead, stitches on his face, bolts in his neck, and opaque green skin. Interestingly, most of these features are nowhere to be seen in Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein. The book says little about the shape of the monster’s head and mentions nothing of bolts or stitch placement– these embellishments are simply the product of later creative interpretation– but the monster’s color is explicitly stated. And it’s not green.
According to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster has “yellow skin [that] scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath,” meaning that somewhere along the line, the cinematic depiction of the monster became more important than the original. This likely started in 1931 with James Whale’s hit film that donned the same title.
Although two Shelley-inspired films came before it, Whale’s Frankenstein was largely the birthplace of the monster as we imagine him today. Whale’s monster features the squared head, long forehead, and neck bolts we know and love, and while this particular incarnation is free of any facial stitches, there is a visible cut across his forehead. This version of the monster, however, is yellow. Although it’s impossible to distinguish his specific color in the black-and-white film, the original movie poster clearly shows a yellow monster.
Whale’s monster– yellow skin and all– appeared in numerous sequels, including Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). I will note that although the monster is probably yellow in the Son of Frankenstein movie poster, a shadow cast over his face gives off the illusion of greenness. Whale’s version of the monster remained largely the only one on film until 1957 when I was a Teenage Frankenstein introduced a monster with a grotesquely disfigured yellow face. The film spawned a few sequels, but it ultimately had little historic impact on the face of the monster.
Whale’s version of the monster was resurrected in 1964 in the form of Herman Munster, husband on the hit television sitcom, The Munsters. Interestingly enough, Herman Munster was perhaps the first in a long line of Shelley-inspired monsters that wasn’t yellow. This is because all of the monsters in the Munster family had a blue-green tint to their skin. Although The Munsters was shot in black-and-white when it aired on television, its movie sequel, Munster, Go Home! (1966) was shot completely in technicolor, revealing the monsters’ true colors.
When it’s all said and done, there is no concrete answer to the question of why Frankenstein’s monster is green. It seems unlikely that The Munsters was the culprit, especially considering that the Mad Magazine cover featuring a green monster came out two years before the show’s technicolor sequel was released. It’s possible that the idea spawned from illustrations or comic books much like the Dell Comics series. Or perhaps, more simply, the monster turned green because its true color was lost in translation in the days of black-and-white cinema.