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Post-war Mad Science and Atomic Anxieties

After the drop of the atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan’s surrender marked the end of World War II. With a death toll estimated at 90.000-166.000 in Hiroshima and 60.000-80.000 in Nagasaki, the destructive power of nuclear weapons still fuelled fears of atomic experiments in the following decades. Especially in the 1950s, “the bomb’s horrific effects were still being absorbed” (Perkowitz 94). However, nuclear technology was, at that time, also considered to yield positive results. Some people believed that “harnessing the atom would lead to a utopia that included air-conditioned jungles, livable paradises transformed from Arctic wastes, revolutionized transport fuel needs, and world peace” (Vieth 56). Such flamboyant optimism was strongly opposed “by the fear of the Frankenstein of nuclear apocalypse if not from war, then from associated cataclysms” (Vieth 56). Vieth’s Frankenstein allegory already implies that this fear reflects a distrust of science which stems from the events that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Japan. A more positive vision included “a faith in the ability of science to make life better on all levels, from mundane advances in the technology of vacuum cleaners and washing machines, to more seemingly profound improvements in . . . medicine” (Booker 2). Both views reveal the imponderables of nuclear power. It may provide comfortable living conditions by technological advancement, but the greater fear lies in the perils of a nuclear holocaust which may erase all life on earth. In other words, science—and particularly nuclear science—in the wrong hands is an unpredictable menace.

During World War II, American physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb. In one of his most famous quotes, Oppenheimer recites a verse of a Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, to describe his emotions at the Trinity test site where he witnessed the first nuclear weapons test in the desert of New Mexico on July 16, 1945: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” (Vieth 57). His quote typifies the mushroom cloud of the exploding atom bomb which has since become an iconic image. Oppenheimer later uttered regrets about his involvement in the development of the atomic bomb in a statement he made in 1956, declaring “we did the work of the devil” (Frayling 196). “Fear of the apocalypse was the underpinning link for the constructed fear of the decade and was an acceptable and viable narrative to hang a film on,” outlines Vieth (Vieth 61). Or, as Perkowitz remarks, “the potential for nuclear weapons, nuclear accidents, and nuclear terrorism to cause widespread devastation opens imaginative though mostly pessimistic story possibilities” (Perkowitz 94). Similar to the horror genre, which spawned characters like Frankenstein or Herbert West, the mad scientist has become a recurring figure in science fiction B-movies of the 1950s. Cynthia Hendershot believes that “the status of [science fiction] as a degraded genre allowed these films a freedom not possessed by more serious realistic dramas of the time” (Hendershot 2). Accordingly, from an abstract point of view, the relationship between mainstream cinema and B-movies seems comparable to that between professional scientists and mad scientists. While mainstream movies and established science are expected to comply with certain standards, B-movies and mad scientists are not. Portraying the anxieties prevalent in that decade, “the non-realistic qualities of [science fiction] film also provided a forum in which fear of nuclear war and other fears could be explored on a metaphorical level, a level which appealed to and revealed postwar fantasy about nuclear holocaust” (Hendershot 2). Rick Worland adds that “after the war, science fiction became the newest and perhaps most apt genre for what pundits dubbed . . . ‘the age of anxiety’” (Worland 77). Considering the evolution of the fictional figure, it can be observed that mad scientists “absorbed new energy from the atomic blast and in the process gave popular culture of the postwar years its particular mythic intensity” (Skal 167). Hence, it is not surprising that popular culture at that time relied on “anxious images of applied science and technology” which resulted in “mad scientist films [that] . . . provided an safe outlet for diffuse fears about the scientific, technological, military juggernaut” (Skal 167).

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, who both had already gained a reputation for their incarnations of Universal Studio’s classic monsters Dracula and Frankenstein in the 1930s, expanded their repertoire to include roles as mad scientists in a considerable number of movies in the following decades. Particularly Lugosi’s portrayals of the mad scientist “often seemed congenitally sadistic, his experiments rarely involving even the initial pretense of humanitarian concern gone wrong” (Skal 170). Lugosi had his last leading part in Bride of the Monster before he died in 1956 during the shooting of Plan 9 from Outer Space, both directed by “schlock filmmaker” Ed Wood (Skal 188). He therein impersonates a mad scientist who has fled his home country—presumably the Soviet Union—in order to pursue his plan to create a race of superhumans in the United States. “One of the main unintended side-effects of secret atomic research—in low-budget 1950s Hollywood movies at least—took the form of giant ants . . . or spiders . . . which threatened Eisenhower’s America and which required the military (a new element in such movies) to destroy them,” as Frayling points out in consideration of movies like Them! or Tarantula (Frayling 198). While mad science is personified by Dr. Vornoff in Ed Wood’s film, the protagonists in Them! and Tarantula have to deal with the ramifications “conjured up by the very atomic radiation that our scientists had originally created in the lab” (Frayling 196). Being the first movie ever to feature irradiated giant insects, Them! is “the product of a world poised on the brink of nuclear annihilation” (Shapiro 47). Jack Arnold’s Tarantula follows the concept of Them!, except in his film a spider, which has grown to a tremendous size due to the injection of a radioactive isotope, escapes the laboratory it was kept in and then becomes a threat to “postwar peace and prosperity” (Skal 185). The conflict between two scientists—one intending to help humankind while the other goes insane—results in several fatal victims.

Although their plots are different, these particular movies are exemplary for their representation of zeitgeist anxieties because they are “combining post-A-bomb (1945) and H-bomb (1951) fears about lingering radiation, the Red menace and a deep paranoia about hygiene in the home” (Frayling 200). As a consequence, mad scientist movies of that time departed from the archetypical Frankenstein concept and “took a backseat to more up-to-date horrors” (Skal 180). Since mad scientists in the 1950s were primarily featured in science fiction, it needs to be clarified how this genre is different from horror movies of previous decades. Most significantly, the “crucial difference between science fiction and horror lies in the scale of the threat,” exemplifies Worland (Worland 196). Following his remark, the “monster’s danger in horror is usually localized and individual, whereas in science fiction the peril swiftly moves from the immediate area to the nation or even the entire world” (Worland 196). For example, in James Whale’s Frankenstein the horror is aroused by a mad scientist whose misled creature terrorises a village. The plot is centred around few protagonists who are directly affected by the experiment gone awry. In comparison to that, larger than life insects in Them! and Tarantula threaten whole desert towns; the irradiated ants in Gordon Douglas’s film even build their nest in the Los Angeles storm drain system, undermining the foundations of the megacity. Whereas the monster in Frankenstein is eventually trapped by a mob of angry townspeople, only the military is capable to deal with the monster bugs in science fiction scenarios of the fifties. Comparing both genres, Sobchak explains the audience’s perception of science fiction monsters: “Since it does not menace one lone individual, it threatens us all and as a result, the individual viewer does not feel singled out as victim” (Sobchack 37). Besides a shift of genres, there is also an alteration noticeable in the figure of the mad scientist. Jack Arnold’s movie exemplifies this change because “the scientist, who would be held morally responsible for the very fact of the giant spider in a horror film, is instead seen as a victim of a horrible accident, as essentially noble in his desire to create a nutrient which will feed the world’s hungry” (Sobchack 36).

Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964. Westport: Greenwood, 2001.

Frayling, Christopher. Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema. London: Reaktion Books, 2005.

Hendershot, Cindy. Paranoia, the Bomb and 1950s Science Fiction Films. Bowling Green: State University Popular Press, 1999.

Perkowitz, Sidney. Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Shapiro, Jerome F. Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film. New York: Routledge, 2002.

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

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

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

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2007.

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