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James Whale's House of Cards
by William Max Miller
Copyright 1999 by W. M. Miller

Did Famous Horror Director James Whale Use 
Tarot Symbolism in Frankenstein Films?

    In my article "Of Gods and Monsters: A Pathology Report on Dr. Pretorius" (in Midnight Marquee #56, Spring, 1998) I mention my theory that director James Whale may have been influenced by Tarot card symbolism when he filmed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. A reviewing of these two horror classics shows that many of their central images are based on the strange symbolism of this enigmatic deck of cards.
The traditional figure of Death makes an appearance in the opening scenes of Frankenstein in the form of a statue of the Grim Reaper which stands behind the grave Frankenstein and Fritz are robbing. While engaged in digging, Frankenstein throws a shovel full of dirt in the Reaper's face, indicating his defiant ambition of usurping the powers of life and death for himself. The Grim Reaper also appears in Bride of Frankenstein in the graveyard through which the mob chases the hapless monster. He stands near the entrance to the underground crypt, where the monster meets the necrophilic Dr. Pretorius.
The motif of the Hanged Man figures prominently in Frankenstein. Soon after exhuming the cadaver from the graveyard, Frankenstein and Fritz travel to the local gallows where the body of an executed criminal swings in the cold night air. Frankenstein orders a reluctant Fritz to climb the high wooden structure and cut the rope which suspends the dead man. Later, Fritz himself becomes a hanged man. The monster, enraged by sadistic treatment, wraps a whip around the hunchback's neck and hangs him from a convenient ceiling beam.
Lightning strikes high tower laboratories in both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and rains down sparks of life upon the misbegotten creations of mad science, thus closely duplicating the Tarot's Tower card. In Bride of Frankenstein, Karl, an assistant of Dr. Pretorius, is thrown to his death from the top of the tower by Frankenstein's angry creature. Frankenstein had suffered a similar fall in the earlier film when the monster hurls him from the burning mill tower. At the end of Bride of Frankenstein the monster throws a switch which causes the whole tower laboratory to explode into flames and collapse, truly becoming a "Tower Struck by God," as the card is traditionally named. Whale's scenes of exploding towers with striking lightning and bodies plummeting to their dooms closely duplicates the symbolism of this card.
    The Tarot's Hermit plays a very significant role in Bride of Frankenstein as one of the few benign, morally conscious characters in the film. As the starving, wounded monster stumbles through the woods, he discovers the hut of an old, blind hermit and makes his first adult friend. Whale's hermit teaches the monster his first lessons in speech and shows him love and compassion. He embodies the spiritual characteristics which the Hermit of the Tarot pack symbolizes, and stands at a lofty distance from the other evil beings which populate Whale's dark cinematic universe.
    The Tarot's ever-spinning Wheel of Fortune makes a notable appearance in Frankenstein during the climactic burning-mill scene when Frankenstein and his hostile creation face each other through the revolving wooden spokes of the mill wheel's main axle. Whale's use of this unusual device helps increase suspense. As the roulette-like wheel momentarily separates the two antagonists, we wonder who Fortune will favor in this conflict between the monster and his maker.
The Five of Wands appears in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein whenever mobs of angry villagers stampede through the countryside, spreading strife and destruction. They represent the herd mentality and act as agents of conformity, always willing to use violence to stamp out anything which differs from their narrow concept of normality. The angry mob became a standard feature of subsequent monster-on-the-loose movies, but rarely was it given such sadistic appetites as in the films of James Whale.
In Bride of Frankenstein, a whole cluster of Tarot images appears in the famous homunculi sequence set in the "humble abode" of Dr. Pretorius. The good doctor proudly shows off his diminutive creations, among which we find a King, a Queen, a Bishop, and the Devil (with whom Pretorius arrogantly identifies.) All of these characters can be found in the Tarot Deck. In this scene, Pretorius also adopts the pose of the Tarot's Magician as he stands behind the table on which his homunculi are displayed. The Magician traditionally stands for a person with the ability to produce results and make his plans become reality, a good description of Pretorius, who manages to coerce Frankenstein into helping him make a female monster. In older Tarot packs, the Magician is often portrayed as a kind of con man, another accurate characterization of the devious Dr. Pretorius.
There are far too many correspondences between these Tarot cards and key scenes or images in James Whale's Frankenstein films to be merely coincidental. An investigation into the biographical details of Whale's life might reveal when, and by whom, he could have been introduced to Tarot symbolism. If you have any information pertaining to this fascinating subject, contact me at the address below.


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