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The Timeless Message of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

This article is now available on Horror Obsessive Radio.

When you think of 1930s horror, what comes to mind? For most of us, our first answer is probably the Universal monsters, and for good reason. Characters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and even the Bride of Frankenstein have forever etched themselves into our cultural consciousness, so those movies are hands down the crown jewel of 1930s horror. But they weren’t the only great genre films made in that decade. The 1930s also gave us a whole host of other, lesser-known classics, and one of my favorites is the 1931 gem, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The film is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s landmark novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it tells the story of a good-natured scientist who creates a potion that unleashes his baser nature and turns him into a homicidal maniac every time he drinks it. It’s a classic cautionary tale about the darkness that resides within each one of us, and it’s brought to life with an unforgettable lead performance as well as some superb special effects (for its time, of course).

On top of that, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also put a really great spin on its central theme, and for my money, that’s the best thing about the film. Sure, we’ve seen a million movies that delve into the evil lurking inside ordinary people, but very few do it quite like this. While most similar films just hold up a mirror to society and show us that we’re not quite as good as we like to think we are, this one goes a step further. It also uses its fantastical story to teach us a crucial lesson about the value of character (as in your moral makeup, not the people in a story), so let’s take a deep dive into this classic movie and see just how it conveys its timeless message.

The Main Metaphor

Dr. Jekyll gives a medical lecture

In one of the opening scenes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll gives a medical lecture about his latest research, and it pretty clearly explains the main point of the entire film. Here’s what he says:

[M]an is not truly one, but truly two. One of him strives for the nobilities of life. This we call his good self. The other seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to some dim animal relation with the earth. This, we may call the bad. These two carry out an eternal struggle in the nature of man, yet they are chained together. And that chain spells repression to the evil, remorse to the good. Now, if these two selves could be separated from each other, how much freer the good in us would be. What heights it might scale. And the so-called evil, once liberated, would fulfill itself and trouble us no more. I believe the day is not far off when this separation will be possible. In my experiments I have found that certain chemicals have the power…

Once Jekyll mentions his experiments with “certain chemicals,” his voice trails off and becomes inaudible, so we can’t be entirely sure what he says after this. But if you know how the rest of the story plays out, it’s not hard to see where his speech is going. He’s clearly talking about the potion that will eventually turn him into his murderous alter ego, so this whole movie is essentially a metaphor for the good and evil inside each one of us.

The potion Jekyll creates, that mixture of “certain chemicals,” is the fulfillment of his belief that it would one day be possible to separate a person’s “good self” from their “bad self,” so the two personas that later inhabit his body represent those two selves. Dr. Jekyll is his “good self,” and Mr. Hyde is his “bad self,” and the rest of the film bears that out pretty clearly.

Jekyll, Hyde, and Ivy

Mr. Hyde speaking to a waiter

Jekyll isn’t perfect, but for the most part, he’s a very kind and caring soul. To take just one example, there’s a scene later on in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where he’s walking home with a colleague named Dr. Lanyon, and along the way, he comes across a woman named Ivy who’s being attacked outside her house. Since he’s a doctor, he does what he can to help her, and he personally brings her up to her bedroom. Because of his kindness, Ivy is instantly attracted to him, so she throws herself at him and tries to seduce him.

However, Jekyll is engaged, so he ignores her advances. To be fair, things get a bit complicated when Ivy grabs him and kisses him, but on the whole, Jekyll proves himself to be a pretty standup guy. He even admits some of his flaws to Lanyon when they talk about the kiss immediately afterward, and he says that he wants to uproot those flaws from his actions as well as from his “innermost thoughts and desires.”

In contrast, when Hyde goes out into the London night, the first thing he does is track Ivy down and force her into an abusive sexual relationship. In fact, he’s so despicable that Ivy wants to go to the police for help, but she’s afraid of how Hyde will retaliate if she does. She becomes so emotionally broken that she loses all hope of living a happy life, and whenever she’s with Hyde, you can see the despair on her face and in her body language.

It’s pretty heartbreaking, and it shows just how different Hyde is from his virtuous alter ego. Unlike Jekyll, he doesn’t care about anybody but himself. He’s even willing to hurt and abuse other people to get what he wants, and his brutal treatment of Ivy is just one example of that loathsome trait.

Hyde’s Takeover

Mr. Hyde

When Jekyll takes control of his body back, he’s so disgusted with Hyde’s actions that he sends Ivy some money and promises her that Hyde will never hurt her again. He doesn’t explain how he can promise that, but he apparently intends never to drink the potion again. He’s done willingly letting the deranged Mr. Hyde loose, so he thinks Ivy and the world are finally free of that terrible monster.

But he’s wrong. Later on in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll spontaneously turns into his murderous alter ego without taking the potion, and he murders Ivy. This distresses the good doctor to no end, but unfortunately, his nightmare is just beginning. He involuntarily transforms into Hyde a few more times, and during one of those episodes, he even attacks his fiance Muriel and her father.

And to me, that’s the most interesting thing about this film. Like I said before, we’ve seen a million movies that explore the evil lurking within seemingly good people, so that theme has been done to death. We’ve also seen countless films where a person is powerless to stop these sorts of transformations (like every werewolf movie ever), so even that isn’t the real draw here.

Rather, what makes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde so fascinating is the reason why Jekyll is unable to stop himself from turning into Hyde. The film never explicitly lays it out, but it appears that by willingly undergoing the transformation too many times (or for too long), he’s made Hyde such a part of himself that he simply can’t hold his “evil self” down.

The Importance of Character

Dr. Jekyll talking to Ivy

And if you think about it, that’s a really great metaphor for the importance of character. If we indulge our “evil selves” too much, even in seemingly trivial matters, we’re not going to be able to control ourselves when it really counts. To take a relatively minor example, if I’m used to eating whatever I feel like whenever I feel like it, I’m going to have a really tough time sticking to a healthy diet if I decide to change things up and take care of my body.

Or consider something much more consequential, like choosing political leaders. A lot of people say it doesn’t matter what someone does in their private life as long as they’re a good leader, but that kind of compartmentalization doesn’t work. If someone is a bad person before they’re given political power, they’re going to continue being a bad person after they’re given that power, and I don’t think I need to tell you how disastrous that can be.

Simply put, every good or bad action we perform helps mold us into a certain kind of person, so if we’re not careful, we might unwittingly mold ourselves into the wrong kind of person. We might find that we’ve become more Hyde than Jekyll, and we’ll be unable to do the right thing when it matters most.

That may not be a popular sentiment in our “if it feels good, do it” world, but it’s true. Character matters, and in all my years of being a horror fan, I’ve never seen a movie express that important truth better than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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