Brains, bodies, and mad scientists: Hollywood does neuroscience

Sheryl GINN
Wingate University, Wingate, North Carolina


The primary purpose of horrific cinema is to entertain, but explanations for phenomena that are unexplainable are clearly explored in such films. One theme explored in these films is the duality of nature. While psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists continue to debate the issue of monism and dualism, cinematographers explore the duality of homo sapiens in films as diverse as From Beyond and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Another theme concerns the inherent nature of human beings: are we by nature good or evil? The novel Frankenstein has frequently been analyzed in terms of this theme. For example, is the Creature evil because the brain used to animate him was abnormal, a plot device used in some of the film adaptations of the novel. Or, is the Creature evil because the normal brain used in the Creature's construction could not stand the horrific sight confronting it when awakened? Brains are infused with much power in horror films. Brains can live outside of the human body, for example in The Lady and the Monster (directed by Eric von Stroheim, 1944), a film adaptation of the novel Donovan's Brain, in which an insane financier hopes to control the world. Donovan's brain lives in a container of fluid from which it begins influencing people in order to obtain surrogate bodies. Fiend without a Face, filmed in 1958 and directed by Arthur Crabtree, concerns a series of mysterious deaths that have occurred near an Air Force base. Upon investigation a reclusive scientist is found to be tapping into the "latent powers of the brain". Unfortunately, he succeeds and unleashes a horde of brains possessing snail-like antennae. These brains are hungry for knowledge; they attack their "prey" and suck them witless through holes punctured in the neck (in the vicinity of the medulla). Many of the "brain" films star the "mad scientist." These movies have the general effect of convincing people that science is not only bad, but also downright evil. Scientists attempt to explore "worlds" that no one should, including the inner world. Some of these movies are blatantly anti-vivisectionist, and thus, influence the general public's view that scientists are sadistic beings, wanting to inflict harm on sub-human animals for harm's sake or for sheer curiosity. One example of this theme is H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896). To a mad scientist knowledge must be obtained, at any cost. In many highly popular films (such as Alien and Watchers) and television programs (such as The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond), scientists who work for the military and/or unidentified government agencies are totally unscrupulous in their quests for knowledge, fame, grant money, tenure, you name it. In most films dealing with this subject, scientists either create monsters that are truly horrific or locate alien creatures in the hopes of controlling the beasts. Usually these beasts turn on their creators, wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting populace, until finally the scientist receives his or her "just desserts." Considering the view that the general public receives from these films, is it any wonder that organizations such as NSF and NIH have difficulty obtaining funding for research? Or that scientific literacy in America is considered so abysmal?


Session VIII -- Frames of Viewing: Photography and Cinematography in Neuroscience History
Tuesday, 4 June 2002, 9:00 am - 12:30 pm

Seventh Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Los Angeles, California, USA