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Red Scare in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster

Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Bride of the Monster from 1955 includes all the requirements needed for a mad scientist movie: a secret laboratory with bizarre appliances, a mentally dull assistant, and, of course, a mad scientist with ambitions to create a new human race with the help of nuclear power. To top it all off, a giant octopus assuages its appetite for human flesh in the mad scientist’s garden pond. Even though Lenning considers the protagonist’s portrayal in Bride of the Monster “a rather flat distillation of all of Lugosi’s mad-scientist roles,” the film exhibits the genre’s essentials, albeit its poor directing (Lenning 412). The plot is about Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) who wants to transform his forced test objects into his own soldiers equipped with superhuman powers by exposing them to radioactivity. Ultimately, the purpose of his atomically altered army is to take over the world. Vornoff’s experiment has already proven to be successful on his mute assistant Lobo (Tor Johnson), whose physical strength is a result of irradiation. In order to conduct his experiments on the involuntary victims, Lobo is used by Vornoff to capture people who wander around the marshes nearby the mansion. On several occasions, Vornoff slaps his servant in the face or hits him with a lash to bend him to his will. His ruthlessness is not only demonstrated in his evil plans, but becomes even more apparent in his brutal intemperance. A giant octopus, which lives in an adjacent lake, is also claimed by Vornoff to be a result of his research. Referring to the octopus simply as “the monster,” he keeps it as his watchdog and occasionally feeds it unwanted visitors.

Seeking for missing people who are considered victims of Vornoff’s creature, two police detectives explore the swamp where they believe to find evidence, as one of them comments on an upcoming storm: “Maybe all these atom bomb explosions distorted the atmosphere” (Wood, 28:38). Climatic changes caused by radioactivity do not seem to bother them any further, since his colleague is more concerned about the wild animals living in the swamp which he calls “a monument of death” (Wood 28:15). The detective’s lukewarm note on the effects of nuclear tests adumbrates the ignorance of the nonscientific public which was common in this particular decade. “Avoidance of considering the specter of nuclear destruction seemed to permeate the fifties,” elucidates Vieth with reference to various surveys which revealed “that the norm was a lack of concern underpinned by ignorance and apathy about such issues as fallout” (Vieth 60).

In order to find out more about the alleged monster in the swamp, Professor Wladimir Strowski is commissioned by the police to investigate the issue. Strowski calls himself “an authority on this subject of prehistoric monsters” (Wood 21:22). It is later revealed, however, that Strowski is actually sent by a foreign government to take Vornoff back to his home country which he fled in 1948. Strowski’s nationality is not explicitly mentioned, but his name and accent imply his Soviet ancestry. Even though they are suspicious, the police do not scrutinise his real identity. This scene hints to the audience’s fear “about communist invaders and Soviet infiltrators” because it suggests that if the authorities are incapable to detect a foreign spy, a forthcoming invasion cannot be stopped either (Packer 100). Yet, communism was not the only threat to public safety and order in the 1950s. Discussing the reputation of scientists and intellectuals in that period, Vieth argues that the “cultural and social climate, the milieu, of the early ’50s was anti-intellectual to the extend that during the fifties, the term anti-intellectualism had become part of the national language” (Vieth 63). Richard Hofstadter explains how the image of scientists was used in order to humiliate scientific expertise in his study Anti-intellectualism in American Life:

The citizen cannot cease to need or to be at the mercy of experts, but he can achieve a kind of revenge by ridiculing the wild-eyed professor, the irresponsible brain truster, or the mad scientist, and by applauding the politicians as they pursue the subversive teacher, the suspect scientist, or the allegedly treacherous foreign-policy adviser. (Hofstadter 37)

During the McCarthy era, the harassment of alleged subversives reached a peak in which science also has become a target of discrimination. “Senator Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of academics and specialists in his anticommunist crusade caused many Americans to regard intellectuals as risks to national security,” resumes Chapman (Chapman 27). What could therefore have been more dangerous than a mad scientist from the other side of the Iron Curtain, representing two evils in one person? In this respect, Dr. Eric Vornoff can be considered McCarthy’s worst nightmare. When Strowski meets Vornoff in his mansion, the expatriate explains the reasons of his unwillingness to return to his home country:

20 years ago, I was banned from my homeland, parted from my wife and son, never to see them again. Why? Because I suggested to use the atom elements for producing superbeings. Beings of unthinkable strength and size. I was declared a madman, a charlatan, outlawed in the world of science which previously honoured me as a genius. Now, here in this forsaken jungle hell I have proven that I am all right! (Wood 39:47)

His sentimental monologue outlines the basic pattern of the mad scientist stereotype. Living in seclusion and expelled from social life, the unappreciated scientist now seeks for revenge which includes tampering with the act of creation. In the context of 1950s anxiety, this means nuclear experiments on humans. Vornoff’s experiments, however, do not seem to have any scientific value because he appears to be driven by his bitterness and sadism only. In order to “show the world that [he] can be its master,” Vornoff intends to “perfect his own race of people, a race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world” (Wood 41:49). When he announces his plans are part of his personal revenge, Strowski asks him: “Are you mad, Vornoff?” (Wood 42:39). “One is always considered mad if one discovers something that others cannot grasp,” replies Vornoff, substantiating his superior knowledge. Without further discussion, Strowski is fed to the giant octopus, another “product of [Vornoff’s] genius” (Wood 44:07).

When a newspaper reporter investigates the disappearance of several locals on her own account, she becomes a captive of the mad scientist who intends to maker her “a women of super strength and beauty—the bride of the atom” (Wood 54:13).16 Yet, instead of assisting his tormentor, Lobo releases the reporter and then ties Vornoff to the nuclear-powered apparatus. Vornoff is eventually turned into an atomic monster himself in a painful procedure. During the struggle between Vornoff and Lobo, the laboratory is set on fire. Vornoff escapes, but he is faced outside by the police who try to shoot him. The last scene of the movie includes footage of an actual atomic explosion, suggesting that Vornoff has caused it when he got struck by a lightning. Witnessing the mushroom cloud from close distance, the police chief comments: “He tampered in God’s domain” (Wood 67:58). These final words conclude the film and summarise “the script’s judgemental coda” which implies that irresponsible nuclear experiments result in fatal disaster (Skal 188). According to the logic of the movie, those who are not involved in the matter survive, even though they are only few steps away from the explosion, whereas Vornoff receives a just punishment for his hubris.

Works Cited

Bride of the Monster. Dir. Edward Davies Wood, Jr. Perfs. Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, and Loretta King. 1955. DVD. Winkler Film, 2006.

Chapman, Roger (Ed.). Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices. New York: Sharpe, 2010.

Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf, 1963.

Lenning, Arthur. The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2003.

Packer, Sharon. Movies and the Modern Psyche. Westport: Praeger, 2007.

Skal, David J. Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture. New York: Norton, 1998.

Vieth, Errol. Screening Science: Contexts, Texts, and Science in Fifties Science Fiction Film. London: The Scarecrow Press, 2001.

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