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Brian P. Easton

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The Unsung Invisible Man
by Brian P. Easton   

Last edited: Monday, August 05, 2002
Posted: Monday, August 05, 2002

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A look at the oft-ignored Invisible Man of Universal Studio's fame. The article investigates the lure and mysteries of invisibility and the consequences of such a power. One needn't be gtotesque or supernatural to be dubbed, monster.

The roster of classic monsters is lengthy, with certain entries more infamous than others. There has been no shortage of film, commentary, or tribute to the likes of  the Frankenstein's Monster, Count Dracula or the Mummy, and certainly the Wolfman and the Creature have shared this acclaim.

But, also occupying the list are villains less recognized for one reason or another.  Among this frequently neglected fraternity of fiends is the Invisible Man; almost as ignored as incorporeal.

The "no-see-em" chemist may stand apart from his monstrous kith in several aspects, but is no less worthy of our fear or recognition. The immortal Claude Rains brought to life the character of Jack Griffin  in Universal's 1933 adaptation of HG Wells novel, The Invisible Man.  Griffin is a scientist, a chemist, fallen from the purer faith in his quest for invisibility.

When we first meet him, he has already obtained his arcane goal, and is trying desperately to undo it.  The serum whereby he has attained his state of invisibility is robbing him of his sanity as surely as his appearance.   In a desperate race against time, the Doctor frantically endeavors to reverse his discovery before mad delusions of grandeur, already creeping into his mind, claim him completely.  But madness overcomes, his reign of terror begins, and the invisibility serum exacts its final toll in death.    

The notion of having the power to be unseen has always been attractive because of the escape from consequences it would offer.   "An invisible man could rule the world!" exclaims Griffin, and the power insinuated in that claim is the lure of invisibility; to get away with things that would be impossible under normal conditions.

But for Dr. Griffin, invisibility becomes a curse rather than a blessing.  He is trapped in an intangible state, with his sanity fleeting.  Not only has he lost his body to the serum, but stands to lose his mind as well; a symbolic loss of his soul.  The prospect of losing one's soul is always more frightening than death.

But a Monster? The title doesn't seem to suit the Invisible Man the way it does Dracula or the Phantom of the Opera, for he is neither quasi-human nor grotesque.  By popular standards the Invisible Man seems to fall short of the "monster mark," yet, he proves to be the most deadly of all the Universal Monsters.

The Invisible Man claims more victims in one film than the rest of his contemporaries combined.  Consider his sabotage of the passenger train.  To be a monster, one must inspire fear on some level.  

Like Griffin, Henry Jekyll is a chemist become alchemist, successful in his quest for metamorphosis, which backfires into his Mr. Hyde.   In Hyde we fear the primitive side to ourselves, hidden beneath the veneer of civilization. The Invisible Man embodies (or disembodies) that primordial nature with its most primal fear:  the fear of the dark.

Since early man drew pictographs on the walls of his cave, the unknown dark has horrified him. Storms must have been furious monsters in the skies, and darkness was the bosom of fear because it hid everything it touched.   The Invisible Man is the terror unseen, like gods and ghosts.

How does one defend against such an adversary?   The effect of an invisible man on the human psyche makes him monstrous indeed.

The Invisible Man straddles the shady border between horror and science fiction, one of the first Universal characters to do so. Thus, Griffin calls down another type of fear, one familiar in the person of  Dr. Frankenstein: the fear of consequence in science.  Like Frankenstein, Griffin's obsession pushes the boundaries of discovery into the esoteric.  He treads the "scientific" shadowlands, tempting the ethics of man and the restrictions of God.
Many times the maxim has been stated: "There are things man isn't meant to know."  Almost as frequently an awful price is demanded for its disregard.   Enterprising as mankind is, characters like Jack Griffin remind us there is such a thing as going too far.

The power to become invisible has become the stuff of fantasy and comic books, as writers and artists have given it legendary status.

Super-heroes and space-age crime-fighters use the power of invisibility to serve justice and truth, and they control their power with ease, or with the flick of a switch.   But H. G. Wells saw a different kind of protagonist,  one susceptible to the consequences of  ambition. By creating such a mortal character, he successfully suspends our disbelief  and demonstrates the wonder and terror that comes from walking where angels fear.

Sony Pictures has released The Hollow Man with Kevin Bacon, an adaptation of H. G. Wells' tale and the latest classic monster to get a big budget makeover.  The film seems promising enough and doesn't appear to stray far from Jack Griffin's footsteps. The trailer refers to the callusing effect of invisibility with the statement: "It's amazing what you become capable of, when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror anymore."

The sentiment is not only a play on words, but representative of the loss of conscience to which an Invisible Man is prone.  The power to be unseen is corrupting in the Lord Acton sense of the word; it absolutely robs morality.  A sociopath thus created, it is a small step across the threshold of madness.

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Reviewed by m j hollingshead 9/19/2002
interesting article

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