The Invisible Man on the Internet
“…the whole world’s my hiding place. I can stand there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.” -Jack Griffin, The Invisible Man (1933)
The Invisible Man stands apart from the rest of the Universal Monsters in one very important way. For the rest of them, their origins lie either in some form of curse (as in the Wolf Man, the Mummy, or Dracula) or, in the case of Frankenstein’s Monster and the Bride, in being the creation of a mad scientist. The Creature from the Black Lagoon stands apart too in that he’s the only one who was a monster from the beginning and has no human origins, but the Invisible Man’s monster origin is a more intriguing and in many ways troubling one, because consider this: he’s the only one who consciously chose to become a monster.
On the other hand, he didn’t choose to become the type of monster he ended up being. Jack Griffin’s desire was simply to become invisible and, as he put it, “to make the world grovel at [his] feet.” It was all a power trip for him. What he sought was the power to be able to do and say whatever he wanted and be able to affect others — more often than not negatively — while maintaining complete anonymity. Imagine a life of getting to participate in and influence the world with no risk of consequences for your actions. That’s the sort of monster Jack Griffin wanted to become. He actively wanted to instill fear in others, partially because he did as so many unfortunately continue to do to this day by clinging to the fallacy that fear equals respect, and respect equals power, therefore fear equals power.
I would argue, however, that his choice to make himself physically invisible was not what made him a monster. I remember when I was a kid and was first obsessed with the Universal Monsters, the Invisible Man was the least interesting to me for this reason. I was only looking at the surface value of the character, thereby making the same mistake Jack Griffin himself did. Yes, sure, being invisible could be interesting, but does that really make him a monster? That’s what I thought when I was a kid, anyway. I mean, the Wolf Man was obvious: he was a man who transformed into a humanoid wolf and attacked people when the moon was full. Dracula was a vampire, of course. He was immortal, drank blood, and could turn into a bat. Frankenstein’s Monster was a giant amalgam of a bunch of body parts stolen from dug-up corpses and reanimated by a mad scientist. The Invisible Man was just…well, an invisible man. That didn’t strike me as all that monstrous. It seemed more like a sci-fi premise than a monster movie to me.
And of course, it was originally a sci-fi story, lest we forget. The source novel by H.G. Wells leaned much more heavily on the science fiction nature of the story and was not thought of as a horror novel at all. So how did the movie adaptation — which, while not completely faithful, didn’t deviate too much from the novel’s basic premise — come to be included with what is arguably the most famous series of horror films ever made? The answer lies in the difference in approach between H.G. Wells and James Whale. Wells went on record saying that while he enjoyed Whale’s film, he didn’t like that he changed the character of Jack Griffin from a brilliant scientist to a demented lunatic. Whale responded to this criticism by stating that “only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible,” which may seem like a bit of a snide comeback designed to dismiss Wells’s concerns as irrational (in fact, Whale did further state that he made his movie with a “rationally minded” audience in mind, cattily implying that perhaps Wells didn’t), but it actually gets to the point Whale was making with this movie about what it truly means to be a monster.
Jack Griffin doesn’t become a monster simply by making his body invisible. Rather, it is the descent into power-hungry madness and increasing disregard for human life that turn him into a monster. The “Invisible Man” Wells refers to in the title of his novel is purely a literal one, but Whale gave it a double meaning. Griffin is already physically invisible at the start of the movie. His character arc is one of losing touch with his humanity. It’s only when he completely forgets what it means to be human that he truly becomes an invisible man — not only physically, but spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. His humanity, in addition to his body, has vanished. And only at that point does it seem James Whale views him as a monster.
Alright, you saw the title of this article. So what does all this have to do with the internet? Because by making the changes he did to the novel, James Whale may have unwittingly made The Invisible Man the cinema’s first satirical commentary on the internet decades before the internet even existed. Think about it. What’s the first thing we see Jack Griffin do (er…don’t see him do, as it were) with his invisibility? He goes around the town playing cruel jokes on people, giddily taunting them while boasting of his own self-perceived cleverness, gloating smugly about how stupid everyone else is compared to his dizzying intellect, and relishing in the fact that he can remain totally anonymous doing it.
Jack Griffin was the original internet troll.
Played with magnetic eccentricity by the always amazing Claude Rains (in both his first leading film role and his first sound film, no less), the very issue that H.G. Wells took with his portrayal of the character is precisely what makes him even more relevant in today’s age of trolling and hate-mongering that run rampant throughout the internet. While I suppose we’re meant to draw the conclusion that he must be a brilliant scientist to have been able to turn himself invisible, the character that we see throughout the course of the movie certainly doesn’t seem to fit the description of “brilliant.” He’s juvenile, cruel, arrogant, and almost unfathomably narcissistic. He goes around making life a living hell for people just because he can get away with it. He has no real motivation beyond embarking on a massive ego trip wherein he derives a sense of power from hurting others. Griffin does resort to murder in the novel, but H.G. Wells frames the murders as acts of desperation done to keep his secret from getting out. The movie’s version of Griffin is openly gleeful about committing murder: “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men – well, just to show we make no distinction,” he says at one point. He has no agenda other than stroking his own ego by wreaking nihilistic havoc. Not only could he have been the first troll, he could have been the first edgelord.
If it seems like I’ve been one-sided in my comparison between the Jack Griffin of H.G. Wells’s novel and the Griffin of James Whale’s film, I don’t necessarily mean to imply that one is superior to the other. In truth, I totally understand the criticism Wells made of the characterization in the movie. At the time, turning a complicated genius who is essentially a tragic antihero in the book into a cackling, one-liner-spewing, giddily perverse villain was a huge downgrade in complexity. However, the internet was still decades away, and the question of how a person would act if they found themselves in the position of being able to directly interact with and affect others while remaining anonymous — or invisible — was purely hypothetical. But now that we’ve seen what billions of subreddits, YouTube comments, and angry tweets can do, Claude Rains’s performance appears to have been a pretty damn prescient observation about human nature under such circumstances.
“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, wreck, and kill.” So says Griffin during yet another one of his megalomaniacal tirades. In 1933, dialogue like that could only be relevant in speculative science fiction books or campy monster movies (I just realized I haven’t really touched upon the film’s supreme — and intentional — campiness, which is yet another aspect in which it was very much ahead of its time, but I suppose that’s not quite relevant to the main point I’m trying to make). In 2018, if you displayed that quote without providing the context, it’s not hard to imagine that most people would assume it referred to something in reality, whether it be cyber-terrorism, social media influencers, or just internet culture in general. Although Frankenstein is often regarded as the most obvious cautionary tale among the Universal Monster movies with its themes of man playing God and the dangers of mob mentality, it’s possible that in retrospect, The Invisible Man has become the even more prophetic cautionary tale. How would a person act if they had the power of invisibility? Well, now that we all have the power of invisibility, it turns out Jack Griffin wasn’t such a farfetched characterization after all. The whole world’s our hiding place. And there sure are a lot of Jack Griffins hiding in it.
Leave a Reply