Clad in a wool coat, dark glasses, and a mask of tattered bandages, a man trudges down a blizzard stricken road towards a rowdy country inn. The revelers inside fall silent as the man enters, and after he retires to a bedroom they can still speak only of him and the mystery of his hidden features. Soon enough, the man’s private and hateful demeanor compels the others to throw him out, and that is when he reveals his true self. “I’ll show you who I am and what I am,” he shouts, plucking off his glasses and prosthetic nose to reveal gaping holes in his head, like the cavities of a skull. With a mad cackle, he unravels his bandages to expose the frightened onlookers to his missing visage, to the invisible face of THE INVISIBLE MAN.
But what is it about an invisible man that is so frightening, exactly?
The man is shortly revealed to be the scientist Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), who has been researching an antidote for the formula that has made him invisible. It is only when a mob gathers to throw him out that Griffin embraces his condition, finally recognizing the untold freedom it grants.
“An invisible man can rule the world,” he proclaims to the terrified crowd. “Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob and rape and kill!”
To prove his point, Griffin strangles one man and batters the others before walking out the front door, breaking pitchers and cups along the way. These victims are the first to witness what it means to be invisible, that a man who cannot be seen also cannot be stopped.
Yet it’s not just the freedom to kill that makes Griffin such a terrible figure, but also how capriciously he uses it. Upon taking refuge with an old colleague, Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan), Griffin describes his crazed plans for revenge against the town:
“We’ll begin with a reign of terror,” he says, “a few murders here and there. Murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. Might even break a train or two. Just these fingers around a signalman’s throat. That’s all.”
Those killings are distinguished as much by their violence as by their arbitrary nature, the lack of distinction Griffin makes between one life and another. Even more unsettling are the anarchic pranks that Griffin enjoys between murders, such as knocking off an old man’s hat and stealing an officer’s pants. Griffin’s murders and pranks are carried out with the same casual and sinister glee, as though the value of a life was the same as an article of clothes and death itself was just another gag.
Griffin therefore proves to be an entirely uninhibited creature, willing to indulge any frivolous or fatal thought that crosses his mind. In time, such thoughts become the sole contents of his mind, his sole response to any situation.
“Sit down unless you want me to knock your brains out,” he says to Kemp, using the most extreme threat to extract the smallest of courtesies.
That would be an unthinkable remark under normal circumstances, in which people are accountable for what they say and do. There is nobody who can hold an invisible man accountable, though, nobody who can imprison him or even look at him with a scornful gaze. Without such accountability, what is there to hold back even Griffin’s most monstrous whims? How can he feel guilt about what he does if there’s nobody to see him do it?
At one point in THE INVISIBLE MAN, it’s theorized that Griffin’s behavior is a side effect of his formula, but perhaps it’s invisibility itself that drives him mad. With that power comes freedom, not just from physical prisons but also from the bonds of morality and shame that keep mankind’s worst impulses in check.
Maybe that’s the most frightening thing about an invisible man, not just the loss of skin and bone but also of accountability as a man realizes that everything he does is secret, and that he’ll never again have to look another person in the eye.. The result is both a physical and ethical void, a being of vanished humanity. It is a cruel and elusive phantom composed of a wickedness that may be found in all men, but that is rarely seen.