Pathogenic Sight in 1933 and 2020’s The Invisible Man

CW (Content Warning): Domestic Abuse

You stand in a dim kitchen, your back to the counter, your hand on the knife rack. There is no sound, no movement, other than your own. And you are on your own right? A creak from the dining room. You peek, but there just some dirty dishes. Another creak. Then another. Growing closer, you can see dust lifting from the floorboards, padding towards you. A knife rises from the table and brutally swings across your neck. Your blood floats in the air, suspended as you fall to the ground. You reach for it, confused and curious. You feel an arm that is not there, stained with your blood. The knife swings again.

We have all been afraid of the invisible man at one point or another. We start looking for things when we are alone, it’s something filmmakers like David Lynch have explored thoroughly. Just the notion that there is always someone watching, someone tucked away in our own shadow so we cannot see them. The fear is that one day we might move just a little too suddenly and catch something in the corner of our eye. Perhaps an object moves without us, a door swings open and close. It’s not like a ghost, as it has more logic and ambition then that. It’s not even like a viewer watching your life on the big screen, because it’s in the room with you. I think it ultimately relates to control and sanctity, or the way we define a space when we are alone. If something were to invade that space without us seeing, then we would go along assuming things were fine, without realizing that everything has changed. The inability to know if we are alone or not is the real threat. That ambiguity makes Universal’s The Invisible Man (1933) the deadliest foe in its collection, especially as the film’s villain plans to make more invisible people. The later 2020 adaptation continues this trend by focusing on anxiety and PTSD, issues which arise in the original, but are often played as jokes. Both films operate with the same premise and fear- that there is an invisible man somewhere in the room who wants to hurt you- but what they do with this situation is seemingly contrary. The difference stems in how the films approach victimhood and ambition with different intentions.

“We’ll Begin With a Reign of Terror.”

Both films are based on a novel from 1897 with the same name, written by H. G. Wells, who is perhaps better known for his famous War of the Worlds (1897) novel. I mention this because there are certain themes which overlap between the novels, specifically panic and pathogenic hysteria, but more on that later. The original 1933 film is fairly accurate to the story, apart from one element. The invisible man in the story is insane before he becomes invisible, whereas the film argues that he becomes insane after taking the drugs to become invisible. The 2020 film returns to the story’s suggestion, as its villain is controlling and violent throughout the film, and the invisibility suit merely enables that violence. The fact that both the story and later film use this characterization suggests that the root of monstrosity in the 1933 film is more than a drug.

Dr. Jack Griffin is an ambitious scientist, which, if you have seen any Universal monster film, is a dangerous thing. Ambition and monstrosity are kin in these creature films, as ambition is just a short step away from insanity and obsession. That is especially apparent in the 1933 film as it was directed by James Whale, who also directed Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). There are several similarities between Victor Frankenstein and Griffin, although Griffin is a step further than Victor, as he operates on himself instead of a cadaver. His relationship to monstrosity is thus closer than Victor and his creation. The 1933 film uses the same model as the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), as you are never sure if monstrosity is always there or if it arose from overly ambitious science. What is interesting about Jekyll and Hyde is that there is a troubling level of overlap between the two personalities in Robert Louis Stevenson’s original text, meaning they are not that distinguishable. Hyde knows things that only Jekyll should, and vice versa. The two are clearly communicating, so although Jekyll blames his actions of Hyde, and claims to be innocent and unconscious when these terrible things happen, the personalities are not entirely severed. I’ve always read Jekyll as a horrific figure who uses Hyde as an excuse for wrongdoing, as it’s easier to accept that something horrible has happened to you rather than accepting that you are horrible to begin with. The Invisible Man plays with this dynamic, as you are never sure what Griffin’s ambition is. He makes several dramatic claims about wanting to be visible again, but also mentions his plans for world domination and pillaging. The only reason he wants to be visible is so he can switch back and forth, much like Jekyll and Hyde, and thus be both respectable and horrific.

Griffin is the deadliest figure in the Universal collection, killing 122 people in the film. What is worse is that Griffin is also the most human in the collection, as unlike the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Frankenstein’s Monster, Griffin is just a person who became invisible. He isn’t scarred like the Phantom, and he wasn’t banished from society. He chooses to leave his fiancée and the scientific community to study independently. They try to help him throughout the film, but he refuses. He also can’t be banished from society because society can’t see him. When they try to kick him out of the hotel, he leaves, but not before tormenting the village, knocking the inn owner down some stairs, and injuring several pedestrians. He also returns later that night to cause more chaos and kill the Police Captain. It’s noteworthy that Griffin kills the Captain right after he dispels the villager’s claims about an invisible foe. Griffin doesn’t mind if people know that there is an invisible man running around, he likes the confusion and paranoia that causes. Rather than retreating from society, he invades it multiple times for fun.

“Even the Moon’s Frightened of Me! Frightened to Death!”

The 1933 film is aware that it’s operating with an insane premise. It’s one of the darkest comedies I’ve seen from this era, as again, he murders 122 people. That level of excess is unmet in the rest of the Universal cannon. There is even a scene where he explains to Kemp the brutal way he plans on killing him. First, he will run Kemp off the road, down a cliff, where Kemp’s arms will break then his neck in a final fiery explosion. We then see that exact thing, as the car rolls off the cliff and Kemp screams while Griffin laughs ecstatically. It’s an insane sequence for a film which is preposterous in all the best ways. Keep in mind, these deaths are perpetrated by a streaker. Griffin is running around naked, murdering people. The film understands that its environment must match this bizarre protagonist. In the first scene, we see a wrapped-up Griffin as he trudges through the snow towards an inn. The inn is chaotic even before he arrives, as the floors are covered with snow and drunk patrons are throwing axes at a wall. Then there is the landlady, who is arguably the funniest character in the film, what with her constant shrieking and latch rustling. There is a rumor that director Whale found the actress, Una O’Connor, so funny that he had to hold himself so as not to laugh during takes. Simply put, the 1933 film is not meant to be taken seriously, although it does have some truly frightening moments because of it relies on this excessive lens.

Griffin is terrifying, in fact, he is one of the inspirations behind Mark Hamill’s Joker. There is no limit to what he is willing to do, and his morals change between scenes. He seems almost honourable when he is with Flora, but the moment she is gone, he is off strangling people or inciting a train crash. His egotism is so extreme that he claims that the moon is afraid of him, that the very environment bows to his whim. Except it doesn’t, and that is his downfall. Griffin is just a person, which means that he can be seen in the snow or on foggy nights. The environment lands on him, outlines him. There is nothing supernatural about him, so he cannot really disappear. If he wants to travel from one place to the next, without being seen, he will have to run naked through the woods, and deal with the cold.

“You’ve driven me near madness with your peering through the keyholes.”

I mentioned earlier that Wells has a slight tendency to focus on pathogenic horror in his writing, and he often links anxiety with sight. In War of the Worlds, bloodthirsty aliens arrive on earth and kill thousands, but are eventually stopped by germs. The humans are a pathogen to the aliens, but the aliens are also pathogenic towards the earth. Their ships look like needles, they inject themselves into the earth, and they grow asexually. The humans are likewise infected by the mere sight of the aliens, it drives them instantly insane, and their raving gives away their location. Sight is thus a disease in Wells’ novel, just as much as the literal sickness which the aliens experience. His The Invisible Man novel is also preoccupied with seeing and madness, and it’s likewise found in the film adaptations. Both the 1933 and the 2020 film treat the invisible man like some frightening bacteria that could invade and infect any space. The 1933 goes further with this by suggesting that the panic caused by the ‘lack’ of sight is also infectious.

In an early scene, a radio alerts the public that a strange disease has appeared in a nearby town, and the populace has gone mad thinking there is an invisible man. No one believes the town, officials just assume that it’s a bizarre story, akin to a disease. Gossip that has spread across the town and caused mass hysteria. When the radio later declares that an invisible man does exist, and could be anywhere, it causes global panic. People begin fortifying their houses, walking around with guns, the police even wander around in large groups with nets, trying to catch someone who may or may not be there. The fear that someone is there, that they cannot see, but who can see them, renders everyone into a paranoid lunatic. Some of their theories and suspicions are true, but they cannot prove it. The panic grows, expands beyond the invisible man’s presence. He could be in one spot, or across the country. There is no certainty.

The film classifies panic as a form of hysteria and emotional overload. Hysteria is a deeply troubling and gendered misnomer, often used in the 19th to early 20th centuries as a ‘women’s disease’. It’s a catch-all term for any excessively emotional or contrary behaviour in women, used for a variety of mental illnesses and anxiety. We are still seeing the effects of this blanket-term in modern psychiatrics, as research on women and mental illness has been (and continues to be) suppressed and misdiagnosed, and the biases still exist. I’ve written about this issue at length in my post on Häxan, a 1922 film which argues that witchcraft is just undiagnosed hysteria. Häxan tries to be progressive without acknowledging or understanding that hysteria is a deeply problematic term, and much like The Invisible Man, it blends superstition with ‘modern’ science. I hate using the term because of this troubling background, but it’s important to recognize that the 1933 The Invisible Man arrives at the height of that terminology and logic, and although it doesn’t mention it by name, it certainly highlights its connotations. The scientific community regularly dismissed all disorders labeled as hysteria (rather than further researching) because it’s a woman’s disease, just as they initially dismiss claims about the invisible man.

People also describe Flora, Griffin’s fiancée, in a similar light, noting, “Flora was nearly mad with anxiety”. Flora is the emotional character in the film, as she opposes the harsh logic of the other scientists, for her feminine sensitivity. She is prone to cry, but also asserts her emotions as a contrary form of logic, as she suspects that something terrible has happened to Griffin and refuses to dismiss his humanity like everyone else. She is ultimately wrong to do so, as Griffin is irredeemable, but her willingness to forgive is still noteworthy. In an environment where everyone is insensible (making up stories and panicking over nothing) or too sensible (the scientists trying to reason with Griffin), she is neither. She is sort of caught between, as she is emotional, but also sees beyond the scientists and forces them to perceive how she does. She convinces her father to take her to Griffin, knowing that he has been driven insane by the drugs, but recognizing that he should know that.

Flora is the one sympathetic gaze in the film. There is a kind of ignorance in her willingness to forgive, but it’s played as though it’s a strength in the film. She is the only one who isn’t afraid of Griffin, a man who, once again, murders 122 people in a few days. She doesn’t dismiss this, but she also doesn’t dismiss Griffin. Although she is a woman, she is also the only one who doesn’t show that strong emotional overreaction. There is no shrieking, or hysteria. Dismissal and belief are huge components in the later 2020 film, and I find it interesting that Flora is such a willing character as that plays into the later film. She is not found in Wells’ story, and she is barely in the 1933 film, but she is also different than the other love interests in the Universal collection. They are almost always repulsed by the monster, and end up with a different, more normative, love interest at the end of the film. That doesn’t happen here, as Griffin kills Kemp, the only person Flora might turn to. When Griffin dies at the end of the film, and turns visible, she is alone. That is where the 2020 revival begins.

“The only thing more brilliant than inventing something that makes you invisible was not inventing it, but making you think he did.”

It’s honestly difficult to compare these films because they are so tonally different. The 1933 film is a comedy, and although Griffin is frightening in moments, he is hilarious in others. There is no humor in the 2020 film, in fact, it is a very conscious discussion about domestic abuse and PTSD. One thing that unites the two are their stellar special effects. The 1933 remains innovative, as some of the sequences are truly impressive even to modern filmmaking. For instance, the scene where Griffin first removes his bandages, and his face is half seen, half invisible. Or his death scene, where his face dissolves from a skeleton and then into different frightening shapes.

The effects in the 2020 film are less halved. Its most impressive sequences are those where Adrian Griffin is not seen, rather than the original’s half seen effect. You’re never sure where the invisible man is during the 2020 film, so the audience is constantly on edge, looking for him. This reaction recreates what Cecilia, the protagonist in the 2020 film, is experiencing, as she too is terrified and looking. I think the root of this difference is the era in which these films were produced. When the inn keepers meet Griffin in the original film, they assume that his bandages are covering up some hideous scar or accident, however, look at the date. The film takes place and was filmed in the strange time between WWI and II. There were victims of war who were wandering around in bandages, and such a sight was not uncommon for the era. Director Whale was also chosen by Universal Pictures for his work on Journey’s End (1930), a movie about WWI. The man in bandages is a conscious reference to the scientific terror that arose from this era, the new death machines that had emerged during the war, and the deep pessimism felt by most nations. Griffin is also obsessed with war, of creating invisible soldiers for whatever global battle happens next. It’s never said in the film, but war is everywhere, it’s the invisible presence in a film preoccupied with invisibility. Griffin thus isn’t the only invisible element in the film, as there is much it implies but never makes visible. For instance, the hypothetical terror that Griffin could perpetrate but doesn’t have the chance to is implied but not seen. The film also suggests that every international government is immoral enough to buy and unleash invisibility drugs, implying that the next global battle isn’t so much a question of if but when. The film is pessimistic, which figures, given that it was released in the height of the Great Depression. The 2020 film is not interested in global war, but in personal destruction. Griffin largely attacks strangers in the original film, while Adrian mainly attacks and manipulates his girlfriend in the later adaptation.

The invisible man’s plan in the original is to destroy global stability, what we would now call the nuclear powers. The modern adaptation is interested in the destruction of the nuclear family, specifically that ideology. We are presented with what should be the perfect life: a handsome genius, worth millions, and his wife, who turns out to be pregnant. Except everything in that description is warped. The genius is a narcissistic abuser who threaten and murders throughout the film. The movie starts with Cecilia’s escape and follows with what most characters dismiss as severe PTS, as Cecilia begins sensing he is in every room, even though he supposedly killed himself after she left. He frames her for murder, attacks her multiple times, and then it’s revealed that she is pregnant because he swapped out her birth control pills without her knowing. Their relationship is warped and toxic, and he makes it abundantly clear that he is at war with one person.

“He said that wherever I went, he would find me, walk right up to me, and I wouldn’t be able to see him.”

A prevalent criticism for the modern film is that people were confused why The Invisible Man is so focused on that one person. I even encountered a few YouTube comments which argue that he should be selling his invisibility suit rather than stalking his ex, which is what Griffin threatens to do in the original film. That money perspective completely misses the point about the 2020 film, as Adrian already has money. The film is more interested in real world abuse rather than hypothetical. It switches its protagonist, instead focusing on a Flora-type character who knows the invisible man personally. Whereas Griffin is constantly escaping authorities in the original, Cecilia (or Flora) must escape him. And most notably, Adrian can take off the suit and become visible, something which Griffin is unable to do. The suit is a tool which can be worn by anyone, it’s even worn by Adrian’s brother in a vain attempt to get away with everything. It’s also not some insane and vague drug concoction, it’s a suit that you could easily picture some ridiculous billionaire inventing in the next decade or so. What is most notable about the suit is that Adrian can go back and forth, which becomes a metaphor for his abusive behaviour. On the surface, from a distance, he seems perfectly charming and smart. But he can switch into this horrific abuser instantly, and that personality is always present, just more inconspicuous. His abuse and the suit thus operate in the same way. Always there, just hidden.

The modern film also arrives in a time where we are talking about domestic abuse more, certainly more than the 1930s. Horror monsters have always been metaphors for systemic trauma and abuse, just as the 30s was preoccupied with war profiteering and the instability of modern science and the horror it might perpetrate. Rather than positioning this instability on the global scale, of what could be, the 2020 film focuses on what is, the abuse that already exists and how often it is dismissed. Cecilia is dismissed by everyone in the film, police and friends, to the extent where she has no idea what is real or not. She truly believes that there is an invisible man stalking and attack people in her name, framing her, but she cannot prove it for most of the film. Most just assume she is grieving and afraid from her abusive relationship. I think it’s noteworthy that Flora was the only figure who never dismissed the invisible man, nor her emotional state, in the original film, as that is also true of the modern. Cecilia knows what Adrian is capable of, with or without proof. It’s also unsurprising that The Invisible Man story lends to well to sexual abuse, as he is already running around naked in the original text and film. His threats of rape and murder are apparent, and even fulfilled in later adaptations. He is a character in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and we first meet him in an all-girl school, where he has been raping girls while invisible. I believe this lends into the modern perception of the invisible man as sexual deviant, which plays into the reception to the 2020 film. We know, just arriving at the film, that the invisible man is tied to sexual abuse, and so the audience is already more willing than the other characters to believe Cecilia.

Cecilia becomes the new invisible (wo)man at the end of the film, and she mirrors a version of Adrian’s violence. She manipulates Adrian and takes advantage of other people’s dismissal, playing up the emotional victim card to get away with murdering her abuser. She also takes the suit at the end of the film, leaving the ending rather ambiguous. You are not sure if she will use it again, or hide it, but regardless, the threat of invisibility still exists. Except now it belongs to a woman who suffered invisible violence, the kind hidden away and covered with makeup. Being invisible is now in the hands of someone who knows what that means, and the consequences it arrives with.

“Aren’t you pleased you found me?”

Both films ask us to imagine what it would be like to be this afraid and uncertain of everything, from who you can trust, to the environment in which you are in. The 2020 asks us to look for the invisible man in every scene, as sometimes he is there, other times he is not. Either way, you are never sure, but forced to watch and wait. That is just a fraction of what Cecilia is experiencing, and what real-world trauma and domestic abuse survivors experience. The film isn’t interested its villain, it’s interested in an extremely relevant and difficult subject, and likewise refuses to focus just on the perpetrator. It doesn’t matter that Adrian isn’t as excessive as his predecessor and doesn’t murder 122 people. It matters that he was willing to hurt one. That alone makes him a monster.

Want to read more on horrific sight? Check out my post on Night of the Living Dead (1968).