October 3, 2018

Evil Scientists Play God

Murders in the Rue Morgue lobby card
Heresy? Do they still burn men for heresy? Then burn me, monsieur. Light the fire. Do you think your poor candle will outshine the flame of truth?
-- Dr. Mirakle (in Murders in the Rue Morgue)

As part of my quest to watch as many horror movies as I could cram into October of 2006, I watched many classics from the 1930's and 1940's. While these films were made 30-40 years before I was born, I found many of them to be more enjoyable than much of the crap being made today. I was happy to have the chance to see so many of them on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) during October.

For one Friday night, TCM selected the theme of the "mad scientist" and showed several appropriate classics. It was fascinating to see how the stereotype of scientists as evil, arrogant, crazy, etc. was presented in these early films. A theme that came up, again and again, was that scientists are evil because they "play god." In other words, they explain and manipulate things that are supposed to be "sacred." In light of today's battles over abortion, stem cell research, global warming, etc., I saw an uncomfortable number of parallels between these primitive views from the 30s and 40s and today's fundamentalist Christians.

1932's Murders in the Rue Morgue, starring Bela Lugosi and based very loosely on Poe's story of the same name, involved one of those evil "Darwinists" who killed women by injecting them with ape blood. It seems that he was trying to prove this crazy theory that humans descended from apes by showing that both human and ape blood could coexist in the same body. There was a great scene in which members of his audience at a carnival laugh at his crazy assertions about evolution. I had to remind myself that this was a movie and not a Republican presidential convention!

As much as I wanted to dismiss this and other classic "mad scientist" films as artifacts from a primitive time, I could not do so. This subject has remained popular throughout the history of film and continues to be so today. These early classics would give way to Eyes Without a Face (1960), Re-Animator (1985), Darkman (1990), Malice (1993), Hollow Man (2000), Serenity (2005), and many more. It appears that science has lost little power to scare audiences.

This post originally appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2006. It was edited in October of 2018 to fix broken links and improve clarity.