In Demon Seed (1977), obsessive scientist, Alex Harris, leads the team that created Proteus IV, a robot with sentient AI. The machine wants more than self-awareness. It wants to be evolve beyond metal and circuitry. It wants to be human — to feel what it means to be alive.
The name Proteus IV references the Ancient Greek god Proteus, who was both all-knowing and a shape-shifter. (Proteus was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, book IV.) Like the monster in Frankenstein, Proteus IV quickly learns that ‘he’ (the robot speaks with a male voice) is his own master. He seeks to be more than just a servant of scientific research. He desires a human form with a human identity. The machine’s self-awareness brings both incredible problem solving skills — and a burning survival instinct. Unlike the creature in Frankenstein who is given ‘life’ by his ‘master’, Proteus IV creates it for himself.
To become human, Proteus IV imprisons Susan Harris. (She’s a child psychologist and the wife of the research scientist leading the Proteus IV project.) The robot sexually assaults her, stealing her eggs and DNA to create a new AI/human hybrid.
In the novel Frankenstein the ‘monster’ is described as an evil ‘creature’. Through the language alone it’s clear that he’s a force for bad. The monster is referred to as an ‘abomination’, a ‘fiend’, and a ‘demon’. This notion operates within a religious framework. One where only God is supposed to create life. Anything else, not created by God, must therefore be intrinsically evil.
The monster even describes himself as a ‘fallen angel’. In other words: Lucifer. Rejected by humanity because of his terrifying appearance, the monster reacts with bitterness, and resorts to violence. He is conscious of his otherness, of his disfigurement, much like the characters in Freaks or John Merrick in The Elephant Man.
Disfigurement is often used in storytelling as a way of representing an evil personality, externally. The violent monster looks like a mutation or a half-beast — it doesn’t resemble an attractive, healthy, ‘normal’ person who might grace the covers of Vanity Fair or GQ. When not used to express a character’s darkness, disfigurement represents their inner turmoil, for example David Aames in Vanilla Sky. This stereotype of disfigurement runs contrary to much contemporary thinking where disability and physical disfigurement is not viewed as ‘otherness’, but as people who are whole in themselves, as humans. They are not monstrous or embarrassing. They are people who deserve to be socially included and treated with dignity.
Nonetheless, the stereotype of violent behaviour being linked to disfigurement persists in horror and other genres, including the James Bond stories like Dr No. Alternatively, stories like The Shape of Water subvert the normalcy by having a monstrous looking non-human character who resembles the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon. He is, however, decent and heroic. The devil is the ultimate evil villain and he is traditionally represented as a hideously monstrous beast with horns and goat-eyes.
Frankenstein’s monster is alone and wants to belong. But he is rejected (because of his horrific appearance) and thus forced into the role of ‘the other’. The monster can also be interpreted as a rebellious teenager fighting a self-obsessed, weak parent. The graphic novel Black Hole explores identity and belonging when teenagers become genetically mutated and turn into ‘monsters’. Ashamed and confused they flee into the forest to escape the normalcy of small town society.
Frankenstein attempts to rectify his ‘mistake’ by reconciling himself with his creation. Traumatised by the experience, and terrified of the creature, he suffers a mental breakdown. His breakthrough creation turns out to be an affliction.
The monster in both stories is a metaphor for artistic and scientific creation. Once a work is completed it literally takes on a life of its own. In the case of the novel Frankenstein, it might be divisive and contentious (written by a women at a time when women were supposed to occupy themselves with acceptably feminine pursuits). And, once out in the open, an artist’s or scientist’s work reflects well, or badly, on the author. It will be judged by the public.
Mary Shelly had experienced personal trauma when she lost her premature baby. The father (who was allegedly having an affair with her step sister) was married to another women (who later committed suicide). The story of the monster can be interpreted as a metaphor for the horror of her own experience.
Like Frankenstein’s creature, Proteus IV is also a monster. He is psychopathic, like Hector, the demented robot in Saturn 3 (from a script that’s, incidentally, written by Martin Amis). While Frankenstein’s monster is tormented, robot-monsters tend to be impervious to the pain they cause. When Proteus IV is reborn as an attractive, healthy, ‘normal’ human child, it seems like he may have transcended his evil, until he says, ‘I’m alive’ in his creepy robot voice. The birth of this devil-child recalls Rosemary’s Baby.
White the technology in Demon Seed is of its time (nothing dates quite as fast as technology and fashion). It’s sufficiently menacing and creepy to feel scary (although at times it lapses into the comical). Both stories shy away from too much detail and fudge the issue by keeping things sufficiently vague.
Susan Harris is imprisoned in her own home, a highly automated dwelling (that echoes Buster Keaton’s The Electric House from 1922). This is a familiar scenario. An automated environment that’s either comically out of control, or part of a terrifying dystopia. In THX 1138 the system is controlled by a computer system and creepy robot policemen. Efficiency and automation have been taken to a point where everything becomes absurdly bureaucratic and dysfunctional.
Proteus IV’s world is authoritarian and violent. Susan’s husband, Alex, is blinded by his obsession with scientific research, and his dispassionate rationalism. He ignores Susan’s trauma, seeing the whole thing as a new epoch in evolution.
Her torturous experience feels voyeuristic, bordering on the juvenile-absurdity of Saw. Her weak role, that of a passive victim, contrasts with Ripley in Alien, who is able to see what needs to be done to stop the monster, and acts to make this happen.
Demon Seed’s has a deliberately shocking ending. The machine-monster is reborn as a monstrous machine… that turns out to be an angelic looking child… who turns out to have the same evil mind as the original robot.
Frankenstein’s monster loses: Proteus IV wins. His psychopathic behaviour is rewarded when he is gains human life. The monster-machine (which sounds vaguely like Kraftwerkian terminology) gets what he wants, to shape-shift, to shed his metallic form for a human body. The reveal at the end aims to mimic the shock of Don’t Look Now. And, if the story didn’t end here it would turn into a version of The Omen.
What are these stories about?
They are stories as a warning rather than a celebration, or a celebration that turns into a warning. They are about technology running amok. They are tragedies. They are stories about a world out of balance, out of control. A world where technology promises amazing potential — but brings unforeseen problems. A dream turns into a nightmare.
Demon Seed takes the satanic monster, out of the Gothic novel, retaining the same well-meaning but obsessed scientist character (who provides a contextual emotional and ethical framework). Instead of having a monster made from flesh, Proteus IV is made from software and computer controlled hardware. The monsters in both of these stories want to be accepted as human. Whereas Frankenstein’s creature is lost, inept and ultimately self-destructive, Proteus IV is frightening because of his focus and absolute ability to succeed.
While horror will always have an element of cheap thrills, Demon Seed goes further away from being intelligent and plausible, into the voyeurism of pulp horror.