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The Doctor is In!

Here is the eccentric Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Septimus Pretorius in James Whale's masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein. Hieronymus Bosch supplies a suitable backdrop for this sinister individual.

    Few people realize the extent to which the character of Dr. Pretorius was modeled on that of Paracelsus, a famous alchemist and physician who roamed the troubled countryside of 16'th century Europe. Paracelsus was credited with the creation of homunculi, diminutive human-like creatures, which he formed out of human seminal fluid. In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley lists Paracelsus as exerting a major influence on the mind of the young Victor Frankenstein, and James Whale incorporates a number of allusions to Paracelsus in Bride of Frankenstein.
    Today, Dr. Pretorius has become a popular figure in the gay community primarily due to David Skal's contention (in his book The Monster Show) that the Pretorius character was a homosexual. However, this interpretation of the good doctor's sexual preferences is much too tame. As I argue in my article "Of Gods and Monsters: A Pathology Report on Dr. Pretorius," in Midnight Marquee #56, Pretorius was a necrophile with a penchant for sexual mutilation.
    Pretorius's necrophilia is made quite apparent in
Bride of Frankenstein's crypt sequence, where we see the withered scientist unpack a picnic meal on top of the coffin which he and his henchmen have just rifled. But Whale provided other hints in the film, one of which was cut out by censors. The dialogue from this scene, transcribed from memory by Forry Ackerman in Famous Monster's #21 (pp. 44-45) runs as follows:

(Pretorius is explaining why he was kicked out of the University.) "Actually it was a very small matter, a question of taking a corpse out of the mortuary. You know how difficult it is to get cadavers for dissections...there was some trouble about it. It happened that the lady--oh, I forgot to tell you it was a lady--was in the habit of suffering from cataleptic fits. Her townspeople were quite aware of her malady, but on her first day here in our town of Frankenstein she was seized with a fit in the marketplace and, thinking her dead, they placed her in the mortuary!"

"But how terrible!" Henry exclaimed. "And she was not dead at all?"

"So they said. But how was I to know?'

"But there were signs, surely?'

Pretorius nodded nonchalantly. "To be sure--when one is looking for them. Curiously enough, I did think the body rather warm before I started dissecting."

Frankenstein was now thoroughly horrified at the recital. "And you paid no attention?"

"It never occurred to me to realize what had happened. And then, when she did recover, it was too late to do anything about it. You see, I had done quite a lot of dissecting before she screamed...Afterward, I did the only merciful thing."

    This ghastly account makes one wonder just how ignorant of the signs of life Pretorius really was when he started to dissect the unfortunate woman. One suspects he enjoyed the whole nightmarish experience!

I've always had a soft spot for Dr. Pretorius, and have often wondered if Mervyn Peake, in his fantasy epic The Gormenghast Trilogy, patterned Dr. Prunesquallor after Bride of Frankenstein's maddest doctor. Peake's drawing of Prunesquallor, seen at left, looks just like Thesiger in his role as Pretorius.

Learn more about Ernest Thesiger by reading "The Importance of Being Ernest" at The Missing Link website.


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