By Bill Quinn

The concept of the “Mad Scientist” is not a new one in popular culture. Our folklore has been filled for countless generations with tales of the scientist working in his laboratory amid test tubes and boiling concoctions in an attempt to bring his creation to life. The 19th century tale of Frankenstein is perhaps the most famous. In this novel Dr. Frankenstein, the scientist, discovers the secret to creating human life only to live to regret his actions when the monster turns against him. A similar theme is seen in the 1940s horror classics The Walking Dead and The Body Snatcher. In the first of these films, a doctor brings a condemned man back to life after his execution, only to have him kill all the men who framed him for murder.  In the second, a murderer provides subjects for the new industry of human body dissection by killing people and then providing the bodies to a local medical college for dissection. 

The common theme in all of these fictional stories is the sacredness of life, and man’s attempt to take control of its creation and destruction at his own peril. The mad scientist is mad precisely because he is so intoxicated with the thrill of his own power that he fails to see this basic truth. Laughing widely in his laboratory, the raving mad man assumes the role of the divine ruler of the universe and attempts to usurp what is not his.  Of course, attempts have been made throughout history to do this both in works of fiction and in real life. One can find many recorded attempts in the 19th century to bring corpses back to life with the use of electricity. Even the crimes depicted in The Body Snatcher were based on the real life exploits of Burke and Hare, two of Scotland’s most notorious criminals who were hanged 200 years ago for doing exactly what the film depicts. 

However, there had always been an assumption in popular western culture that those who attempted to trample on the sacred by attempting to manipulate the creation and destruction of human life had crossed a moral boundary and could rightly be called “mad scientists.” The 1940s culture in which the aforementioned films were produced was no exception. What of today? To be sure, many would point to the benefits of modern genetic engineering and Invitro fertilization as miracles of modern science. These technologies have made it possible to do what the creators of the old sci-fi movies only dreamed of.  What of the ethical concerns? It seems that the old prohibition against manipulating human life for our own purposes has largely vanished. The old taboo against doing this has given way to an excitement at the prospect of advances in medical science and the eradication of illness and disease. Are the scientific advances of manipulating human life correct or has the mad scientist returned to 21st century America? I submit that the mad scientist has returned. The mad scientist has indeed returned and infected an entire culture with his raving lunacy. Those who think otherwise would do well to read Frankenstein and watch the old 1940s horror films, for they reflect a truth that has been largely forgotten today. The attempt to create and manipulate human life for our own purposes will only bring danger to the human race.   

Edited by: GraceAnne Sullivan

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