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Frankenfest jolts Shelley into 21st century

Frankenfest jolts Shelley into 21st century

INDIANAPOLIS — The Old Pathology Building's grounds at Central State Hospital have always attracted visitors with a ghoulish fascination.

Before it opened in 1895, many were medical students snatching bodies from the nearby dead house before they could be autopsied in what was a rite of passage for aspiring surgeons. After all, the deceased were insane asylum patients, wards of the state. Would they be missed?

The department's laboratories were closed in 1968, but the building was saved from demolition and resurrected as the Indiana Medical History Museum a year later.

While its exhibits bespeak of scary topics such as vivisection, electro-convulsive therapy and “ghastly things we don't like to discuss,” said Sarah Halter, the museum's executive director, she acknowledges the building is an ideal location for Frankenfest, the kick off of One State/One Story: Frankenstein, sponsored by Indiana Humanities.

The 12-hour read-a-thon of Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” will be from noon to midnight Sept. 30 in the museum's amphitheater, where Indiana University students once viewed autopsies as late as the mid-1950s with doctors searching for specific anomalies that might explain mental illness.

The free festival also will feature a theatrical performance, a Franks-n-Steins beer garden (the first 100 registered guests to arrive will receive a free Frankenstein beer stein), Franken Yard Games, a pop-up exhibit of rare anatomical texts, curator talks, guided tours of the museum and hands-on art activities. Register at

Shelley's book is incredible, and not just from a literary perspective, Halter says, pointing out that many pop culture adaptations are so different from the original novel.

“In writing 'Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus,' Mary Shelley pulled from contemporary philosophical, scientific, religious, political and anthropological thinkers,” Halter said. “She alludes to history, mythology, social justice, mental illness, personal and societal responsibility and many other complicated and consequential topics that are as important today as they were in the 19th century.

“The use of Frankenstein as a learning opportunity falls very much in line with our mission.”

While controversial practices like vivisection and body snatching were horrific, Halter points out, they were “also critically important in the development of modern medicine.” The foundations of anatomical study and advances in surgical knowledge and technology came from some practices that are seen in a different light today, she noted.

That is why she hopes the event will help spur conversations on such topics as:

Bioethics and questions about “playing god” or pushing science too far — where is the line, for example? and who should draw it?; whether these fields should be regulated, and if so, by whom?; what are the consequences, intentional or unintentional, and who is responsible for them? what is, or what should be, the role of humanities in STEM?

Such questions were debated in Shelley's time and society is grappling with them now, Halter said. What better place to discuss them than in a building that is so representative of many of the book's themes, she asks.


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