Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Mad Scientist

A staple of the horror movie is the mad scientist, and with good reason. The purpose of the horror film is to present a deformed destructive being (DDB), and the mad scientist, through his demented experiments, produces just that: a monster that is new, unnatural, and terrifying. In so doing, he is almost an avatar of the filmmaker, doing within the movie what the filmmaker tries to do through the movie.

The granddaddy of mad scientists is Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein in Frankenstein. With his intense, neurotic look, his tendency toward screeching, his desire to play God, he set the pattern for mad scientists throughout horror film history. The DDB he created from dead flesh, the Frankenstein monster, was the pattern for later experimental monstrosities.

An ethical rule of horror films that Frankenstein violated is the rule prohibiting tampering with nature, often set in a religious context (God is the ruler of nature; therefore, altering nature is forbidden). This rule continued to be violated in future films. In The Invisible Man, the title character confesses on his deathbed, "I meddled in things that man must leave alone." Invisibility might not seem like such a sacrilegious thing to aim for, but in the horror film any monkeying around with nature can be disastrous.

The mad scientist is always trying some new alteration of nature: teleportation in The Fly; turning animals into people in The Island of Lost Souls; reviving the dead in Re-Animator; separating out the good and evil components of man in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; creating a twelve-limbed humanoid in The Human Centipede; reconstructing alien DNA in Species. The plan is always to create something that can be controlled, but the experiment always turns on the creator; the DDB breaks its bounds. This is true whether the DDB is, respectively, a fly-human hybrid, animal-men, crazed zombies, Mr. Hyde, the human centipede, or a deadly Natasha Henstridge.

The mad scientist is sometimes remorseful for what he has done, but sometimes he doesn't care. Peter Cushing's Frankenstein in the Hammer Frankenstein series never seemed repentant for his monstrosities. In any case, we can expect more mad scientists in horror movies, because they are so successful in creating DDBs.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

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