Jekyll and Hyde: The Real Story

Jekyll and Hyde: The Real Story

Boston College's famed "Professors of Horror" strike yet again

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

With their latest effort, In Search of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Boston College's "Professors of Horror" Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu shed new light on one of history's most compelling and devious criminal characters, and prove once again that truth can be stranger than fiction.


Raymond McNally (left) and Radu Florescu. According to McNally, the success of their books on the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein is based on the theory that "people enjoy horror under controlled conditions. " (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Their recently published book recounts the legend of William Deacon Brodie, who in the late 18th century allegedly terrorized Edinburgh, Scotland, with nighttime crime sprees while posing as an upstanding citizen by day. Apprehended and sentenced to die, Brodie reportedly escaped the gallows by feigning his death in a daring, last-second ploy. His intended gravesite was later found to be empty, and has remained vacant to this day.

The story became part of popular Edinburgh folklore, McNally said, but it held a special fascination for one boy. A cabinet that had once belonged to the notorious sociopath sat in the boy's nursery, and his nursemaid often recited the legend of Brodie at bedtime.

Years later, as an adult beset by his own inner demons, Robert Louis Stevenson published a retelling of this story from his childhood. His 1885 novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, quickly turned the Edinburgh tale into a crime literature classic that has endured in the public imagination for more than a century.

McNally and Florescu - a professor and professor emeritus, respectively, in the History Department - delve into the deep psychological and social themes that run throughout the Brodie and Jekyll-and-Hyde stories: crime, religious conflict, homosexuality, drug and alcohol abuse and the leading of a "double life."

McNally explains that interest in such topics can be linked to what Germans term the schadenfrende theory. "It's the joy when you see someone slip on a banana peel," he explained. "Most of us like to deal with somebody who is worse off they we are. You say, 'Hey, I'm in bad shape, but he's worse.'"

But to better appreciate the story of Jekyll and Hyde, Florescu and McNally say, it is also important to understand the life of Stevenson, author of books such as Kidnapped, Treasure Island and A Child's Garden of Verses. While Stevenson publicly reflected the staid British Victorian traits of propriety and piety, according to the authors, he engaged in his own secret life of narcotics, alcohol and sexual decadence.

"Stevenson led a double life, too," said McNally. "He was overtly respectable but loved to frequent - in his words, 'the whores and thieves' - in the lower part of town."

McNally and Florescu also follow the development of the Jekyll and Hyde legend in stage, screen, radio and television productions over the years. "There have been more Jekyll and Hyde movies than either Frankenstein or Dracula," McNally said, "and all of them follow the popularized story line."

He noted that a number of first-rate actors have played the story's lead role over the years, including Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Boris Karloff. The infamous crime legend has also produced its share of cinematic spin-offs; comedians Jerry Lewis (1963) and Eddie Murphy (1996) starred in two renditions of "The Nutty Professor," which is similarly based on the exploits of a man who leads a double life.

"When we studied these movies we knew that they were linked to a real personality," said Florescu, who said that students in his Legends of History class urged him to consider a book on the subject.

"Our emphasis, however," Florescu said, "was on finding the real story behind the legend."

In Search of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the third book by McNally and Florescu to provide an in-depth look at one of history's frightening legends. The duo co-authored In Search of Dracula, which has become a cult classic among readers fascinated with Dracula, vampires and horror. Florescu has also written In Search of Frankenstein, a study of the famous monster tale created by novelist Mary Shelley in 1818.

McNally thinks that the success of these books is based on the theory that "people enjoy horror under controlled conditions.

"If you take imaginary horror in small doses," he said, "you can always close the book or turn away from the screen. If you are criminally insane to begin with, then you might go overboard.

"But I don't know if there has ever been a literary work or movie that ever drove anyone crazy."

 

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