Horror Cinema and the Mad Science of Nature

Bryan Stone
Bryan Stone

From as far back as ‘King Kong’ (1933), horror films have capitalized on human fears of the natural order turning on us, whether it be plants, monkeys, ants, leeches, sharks, birds, dogs, bats, rats, bees, fish, earthworms, alligators, spiders, snakes, cockroaches, dinosaurs, or even swamp bacteria.

The twentieth-century witnessed advance after advance in our ability to understand and control nature, to harness and direct it. And yet for all that, nature remains unpredictable — a place of transcendence and mystery that can, with no advance notice, dwarf our intellects and punish our arrogance.

Horror films capitalise on our increasing sense of alienation from the natural environment in the West, an alienation embodied in a growing ecological crisis, and symbolised on film by nature in revolt.

This dimension of horror undoubtedly “works” in film because of our primal confidence that nature is actually quite benign. Accordingly, the moral subtext in many of these films is that when and if nature goes out of control, that is generally the fault of human beings who, through their own evil machinations (Willard, Ben), scientific experiments gone awry (‘Piranha’, ‘Bats’), nuclear detonations (‘Godzilla’), radiation (‘Them!’), pollution, or greed, mistakenly attempt to alter, exploit, or contain and market nature (‘King Kong’, ‘Jurassic Park’).

Even the havoc caused by ‘King Kong’ or ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’, for example, is not really their own fault; they are both portrayed as “children of,” rather than “mutations from” nature. The arrogance of self-described “advanced” civilisations is that we forget our own ties to nature and inevitably do little more than plunder creation, turning it into our enemy.

But while many horror films presuppose and play off of our confidence in the benignity of nature, others chip away at that confidence or build upon the cracks in that confidence.

Perhaps we humans will simply find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time as when a hoard of migrating tarantulas are heading through town (‘Kingdom of the Spiders’) or when our pet St. Bernard has been bitten by a rabid bat (‘Cujo’).

Some of the most powerful horror films in history, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ (1963) and Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975), call into question our confidence in nature by simply refusing to offer us any kind of explanation whatsoever for why their subjects go so uncharacteristically out of control.

The net effect can be powerful indeed. There are people who, twenty-five years later, still refuse to wade too far out into the ocean.

In effect, nature functions in horror film as the turf of the gods, and terror is the human penalty for having trespassed on that turf by having become either so complacent or so obsessed that we fail to give it proper respect.

Again, it is not that nature is evil, but rather that it cannot ultimately be predicted, harnessed, or exploited without horrifying consequences.

In contrast to the clearly moral nature of evil that originates within the realm of the supernatural or the hidden recesses of the human psyche, nature’s revolt is fundamentally amoral. Therefore, to the extent that a religion — say, Christianity, for example — has been reduced largely to a moral-cultural code, it is virtually impotent on this turf within the cinema of horror.

Though in other horror contexts Christianity might offer a reservoir of images, narratives, and motifs that thematise evil and symbolise resistance against evil, it is helpless against threats posed by nature (though two of its secular counterparts in the West, science and the military, do manage to bring nature into check at times).

There is, however, within horror film an almost romantic interest in and fear of more “primitive” religious traditions in Africa and the Caribbean, among Native Americans, or even the early Egyptians — especially their “black magic” — an imagery that goes well beyond mere semantics in horror film, but describes the skin colour of those who, over against the Whites, practice such magic.

These religions are portrayed as having a keener respect for the forces of nature, as understanding its power and being careful to pay homage to its deities. While these more primitive traditions may, in some contexts, be feared by the Whites, they are also envied.

Whites in horror films frequently experience the same threats and dangers as the “natives,” but, as Michael Perez points out, “it is forbidden to the Whites to seek antidotes to their anguish in magic sources.” There is “neither remedy nor solace” for what Perez terms “the puritan despair”.

The “Methods of Science”. If nature can be construed as something like the turf of the gods in horror film, one of the primary vehicles by which we trespass on that turf is science. Thus, the threat we experience from nature is closely associated with a threat from science.

The classic form of scientific horror is the gothic morality tale featuring a “mad” scientist who inevitably oversteps his bounds and thus stands accused of attempting to “play God,” the archetypal instance of which is ‘Frankenstein’ (1931).

The mad scientist was extremely popular during the thirties and early forties in a number of low budget films (many of them sequels) that starred the likes of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lionel Atwill — for example, ‘The Invisible Man’, ‘The Man Who Changed His Mind’, ‘Black Friday’, ‘The Raven’, ‘Doctor X’, ‘Man Made Monster’, or ‘Island of Lost Souls’.

Though this particular sub-genre would become far less common after the 1950s, it continues to show up from time to time in films such as ‘The Fly’ (1958), ‘The Brain that Wouldn’t Die’ (1963), ‘Re-Animator’ (1984), ‘Flatliners’ (1990) and, most recently, ‘Hollow Man’ (2000).

In science-horror, the scientist is portrayed as “an outcast from the scientific community, a disaffected professional, staking his all on the one mighty scientific breakthrough that would redeem his reputation.”

Though the mad scientist could be merely seeking revenge or using science as a means to some other evil end, many of the scientists in these films operate out of the most humane of intentions and are merely misguided in their search for truth, oblivious to the divinely imposed limits that have been placed upon knowledge.

The anxiety about science reflected in classic Gothic horror films tended to focus on those sciences that transgressed nature, usurped the power of God over matters of life and death, or failed to appreciate the reality of a divinely created and immortal soul.

In fact, in an age when psychological explanations of the human self were beginning to gain ascendancy, what made the “mad psychiatrist” as suspicious a character as the “mad doctor” is precisely his failure to recognize that what psychiatry calls the mind is really the soul (‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, ‘Cat People’).

Classic science-horror makes an especially interesting case study in the tenuous relationship between religion and horror.

On the one hand, Gothic science-horror constructed its anthropology within explicitly religious coordinates such as divine creation and the notion of an immortal soul.

On the other hand, it is precisely the humanism of Gothic horror, increasingly as suspicious of religion as it was of science, that facilitated “the shift from the Neoplatonic and Judeo-Christian soul to the secular model of the psyche”.

As Linda Badley notes, Gothic horror provided “an iconography, a process, and a mystique” for locating the sacred in one’s inner, “true” self. It is this “buried self” as sacred text, rather than the Judeo-Christian scriptures that must be “studied, translated, invoked, and consulted.”

Despite the ubiquity, then, of explicitly religious images, symbols, and metaphors within Gothic horror films, these increasingly become little more than external markers or filmic conventions that lend an aura of transcendence while, in fact, the self — and therefore the threat to the self — is being relocated from metaphysics to psychology.

Of course, the Freudian model did not escape a similar fate, having made the buried self both sacred and fantastic.

In the horror cinema of our contemporary post-Freudian era, as the grand narrative of psychiatry itself proves to be a quasi-religious explanation that must be rejected in the name of the embodied self, we are witnessing a new openness to religious interpretations of our situation.

In the last year alone, films like ‘Bless the Child’, ‘The Cell’, ‘Lost Souls’, ‘End of Days’, ‘Stigmata’, and ‘The Sixth Sense’ — not to mention the re-release of ‘The Exorcist’ — all feature a heavy reliance on religious iconography as a way of marking the presence of the supernatural.

A “New Openness”. It may be too much to call this new openness to the transcendent or to the supernatural a “religious” openness, for it is not necessarily related to a renewed credibility on the part of traditional religious institutions or their belief, value, and behavioural systems.

It is instead an openness to those dimensions of human experience that defy a rational or materialist explanation and that can perhaps best be described as “spiritual.” But in our culture, traditional religious institutions hardly have much more of a leg up on engaging the spiritual than do any number of self-help groups, meditational and exercise practices, or even popular gurus such as Oprah Winfrey, whose ‘Remembering Your Spirit’ portion of her show each week brings together food, mind, body, work, and relationships as a process of spiritual formation, and often claims more viewers than regular churchgoers in many mainline Protestant denominations in the United States of America.

And yet when Hollywood wants to point to a spiritual or transcendent dimension to evil, it does not hesitate to employ large quantities of religious symbols, often splattered together with no rhyme or reason — a little Buddhism here, a little Christianity there, maybe an ancient book, or a crucifix thrown in for good measure, anything that will render a pseudo-religious feel to the portrayal.

Limitations of space prohibit a further inquiry into the relationship between religion, science, and nature in horror film; but there are a number of additional areas here worth exploring. For example, as science-horror moved away from the humanistic impulses of Gothic horror films, a whole new generation of films brought us face to face with evil in the form of entities from outer space (for example, ‘The Thing’, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, and ‘The Blob’).

These films were especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s, often signalling geo-political anxieties arising from a cold war mentality. They reappeared with the blockbuster ‘Alien’ in 1978, which set off a renewed interest in the alien-horror genre that has yet to diminish.

The threat from outer space continues to capture the public imagination today and to function as a battleground for our engagement with the transcendent dimensions of horror.

By portraying the inbreaking of alien forces, films such as the ‘Alien’ series, ‘Screamers’, ‘Species’, ‘The Hidden’, or ‘The Borrower’ symbolises a persistent supernatural dimension — a threat from forces above us and beyond us (or even “below us” in the sea, as with ‘Leviathan’) — about which we know practically nothing and over which we have little or no control.

Interestingly enough, however, religious themes and symbols have generally played only a marginal role in alien-horror.

While religious figures and institutions are frequently portrayed as playing a chaplaincy role to comfort victims of alien invasions or to offer sanctuary in which to hide, shudder together, and pray for help (‘War of the Worlds’), broadly speaking, religion offers few resources to guide us in an encounter with aliens.

After all, aliens just do not play by the same rules as we do, and it is not clear that traditional religious coordinates for thematizing evil would even apply to aliens anyway.

For example, what effect could be had by waving a cross in front of “the Blob”? What evil lies within “the Thing” that a priest could exorcize? Would the creature from ‘Alien’ shrink back and wince in pain if holy water were thrown its way?

The futility of such actions also demonstrates, by the way, why religious iconography virtually disappears in psychotic “slasher” films where monsters with ordinary names like “Jason, Freddie, or Michael” belong to an extraordinary and even alien world where traditional conventions of sin and morality, good and evil, do not even come into play.

While older forms of science-horror may have largely disappeared, the fellowship between horror and science shows no signs of decline even as it undergoes ongoing permutations based on contemporary fears associated with negotiating our identities in the context of fragmentation and a wide array of social and technological forces beyond our control, forces identified especially with the ascendancy of computer technology — so that we get films like ‘Lawnmower Man’, ‘The Thirteenth Floor’, ‘Existenz’, or ‘The Matrix’, not to mention the success of the cable television “Sci-Fi” Channel.

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