One of the scariest moments of my childhood was watching The Pagemaster, and seeing the part with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To see Dr. Jekyll writhe around his laboratory, to hear his screams of pain turn to ape-like grunts, then to a soaring maniacal laugh as he gleefully revealed his monstrous face…it still sends chills up my spine. For a long time, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella about the idealistic Dr. Jekyll attempting to separate mankind’s dual nature of good and evil has been touted as a classic of horror. But the truth is that, just like with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this Gothic story, long touted as one of the most frightening tales ever written, is more tragic than horrifying.
As per the title, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde is a mystery. Gabriel John Utterson, a lawyer and friend of the esteemed Dr. Henry Jekyll, hears gruesome stories of an off-putting figure named Edward Hyde, whom he learns is the sole beneficiary of Jekyll’s will. As more murders mount and Jekyll becomes more secluded in his laboratory, Utterson will soon discover the dark consequences of an even darker idea.
Pop culture paints the base story of Jekyll and Hyde as nothing more than a horrific transformation tale. And indeed, every iteration I’ve seen involves watching an ordinary man transform via lightning strikes and anguished screaming into the embodiment of evil and horror. That, in itself, is frightening, but the deeper themes of the story make it less a cheap penny-dreadful-esque vessel for fear, and more a platform for asking deeper questions.
I hate to keep drawing comparisons to Frankenstein, but hear me out.
As Frankenstein is relegated to cheap pop-cultural parodies of its most famous scenes, so is Jekyll and Hyde. People remember the Frankenstein creature as a zombie-like monster that grunts like a simpleton ape and drowns little girls, when in reality, he is an intelligent, emotional creature who yearns for personal connection. The same way, people remember the transformation of the pure and idealistic Jekyll into the evil and anarchistic Hyde as merely a revenge fantasy. But Jekyll and Hyde is not about revenge in the least. The reason for Hyde’s existence is so that Jekyll can indulge in immoral or unlawful activities, and not have it affect his normal self. Whatever Jekyll does as Hyde does not taint him, because Hyde can disappear—as if the person who committed those immoral acts never existed.
Perhaps Jekyll and Hyde is horrific in that it presents the most gruesome possibilities of human nature. The specifics of every misdeed Hyde performs is not mentioned, but the speculations among those aware of Hyde’s violent nature entice us to imagine his other vices. But it is more another tragic example of hubris, a popular topic in Victorian Gothic literature. If Victor Frankenstein, for example, committed hubris by believing that he could successfully create life from flesh and electricity, then so did Henry Jekyll commit hubris by literally trying to separate his good side from his evil side.
Hence why stories like Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde are less horrific and more tragic. Sure, they both feature death, murder, and their fair share of dark manor corners, but at the center of each is a man who dares to meddle with human nature. It presents the danger of when human curiosity demands that we reach too high.
Jekyll and Hyde contains certain Gothic elements that do make it unsettling, though. For example, we don’t get a detailed description of Hyde’s face. We know he is young and small and spritely, but all we know is that, if you look at him, you automatically feel ill at ease. Hyde is supposed to be the embodiment of evil, but evil looks different to each of us. Like many other Gothic stories, en epistolary style—telling a story through journal entries and letters—is used. Since the letters are between dear friends or confidantes, this makes the horror and tragedy feel a lot truer.
But the mastery of Jekyll and Hyde is that, even after pop culture has spoiled the ending of the mystery, the buildup is still suspenseful and tense. The clues come together pretty well, and the progressing desperateness is palpable.
I came into Jekyll and Hyde expecting to be scared, as pop culture says I should. But, much like other Gothic stories that came before it, I was less horrified and more provoked to thought. Either way, it is a positive reaction, and that’s the least that any author, regardless of their original intent for writing, can ask for.