Welcome back to Horrorhead, where we explore the intersection of horror and science fiction. I talk a lot here about "science horror," which I usually mean as the opposite of supernatural horror. Science horror is basically the dark side of science fiction, whereas supernatural horror can be anything from reality TV bunk like Ghosthunters to really excellent spirit flicks like The Ring or dark fantasies by Stephen King. What makes science horror scary is science itself, and the mad doctors who steer it into the crawly places full of reanimated bodies and reality-warping physics. But some kinds of science are more terrifying than others. That's why I've delineated four branches of science most likely to show up in the next science horror movie in your queue.
The earliest horrifying science was clearly biology, and anatomy more specifically. In the West, a fierce battle raged for centuries between the Christian church and anatomists who wanted to dissect cadavers to learn more about human physiology. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many anatomists were hounded into giving up the knife because it was defilement of a dead body. This wasn't an issue in the East: Muslim anatomists had mapped and explained the circulatory system over 1000 years ago.
Still, you can already see a horror tradition in early Western anatomy drawings — this is a famous plate by Juan Valverde de Amusco from 1559. This was in fact a medical drawing, but it has a sense of grisly fun. It looks as if the guy holding the knife has skinned himself, and is holding his skin like a jacket or cape. The horrifying image of a guy without skin comes up again and again in science horror, most recently in a plot arc from Sarah Connor Chronicles where a Terminator who has lost his flesh goes looking for a doctor who can build him some new tissue. Once he's got the tissue, he has to steal somebody else's skin to wear over it.
Anatomists are also ignite the horrorshow at the heart of science horror's most famous tale: Frankenstein. In fact, the mad doctor in that book has to go out and steal body parts from cemeteries because there are regulations (inspired by the Church) against doing experiments on dead bodies. Since Frankenstein, however, there have been countless science horror movies about anatomy, starting with 1930s Peter Lorre flick Mad Love, where a mad doctor grafts the hand of a murderer onto a pianist who has lost his digits in an accident. Pretty much every movie you've ever seen where people inherit murderous body parts (think The Hand) is inspired by the terror of anatomists.
The study of the nervous system, and specifically the brain, leads in only two directions: mind-controlled zombies, and close-up pictures of giant, bleeding brains full of electrodes. 1950s and 60s movies like Donovan's Brain and The Brain that Wouldn't Die are both about the scariness of brain transplants (later parodied in Steve Martin's The Man with Two Brains).
But in the contemporary world, brain transplants are less shocking than the idea that your brain could be turned into a fancy computer. That's the basic idea in the Matrix trilogy, and we see how that would work in rather gory detail in a short called "The Second Renaissance" from the movie Animatrix (this is a collection of animated shorts set in the Matrix universe). In this clip, which gives us the backstory on the final war between the machines and the humans, you can see how the machines move from destroying humans to controlling them at the neurological level. They poke and prod the people's brains until they figure out which blips and boops make them laugh, cry, and see visions that later become the nonconsensual hallucination known as the Matrix. This is a really intense scene, and it's worth picking up Animatrix to check out the whole thing.
Other tales about using neuroscience to control people's brains are legion: tales from Re-Animator to Robocop contain glimpses of how horrifying it would be if scientists could hack our neurology as easily as they can knit our bones.
Psychologists may be creepy sometimes, but even more creepy are psychiatrists — the people who can prescribe drugs that might turn an entire planet into a bunch of listless zombies ala the flick Serenity. In that movie, as in many movies where psychiatry goes evil, futuristic Prozac-pushers have seeded the atmosphere with drugs to make people happy and serene. Of course, it all goes terribly wrong: most of the population becomes so serene that they lose the will to live; and a minority of them go apeshit, turning into the cannibalistic Reavers who kill and rape and eat everything in their paths.
Similar kinds of psychiatric nightmares can be found in movies as cheesy as Equilibrium (where everyone is forced to take a drug cleverly called "Prozium"), and in literature like Brave New World (where unhappy people take the drug Soma to "go on vacation"). And don't forget that the ultimate evil that the bad guy Scarecrow is going to unleash on Gotham in Batman Begins is a psychiatric drug that gives everybody hallucinations. The point is, nobody likes a mad psychiatrist with pharmaceuticals to get too close to the water supply.
Though nearly all the shocking sciences on film involve the body, there is one branch of science that never fails to give people the willies. As the recent lawsuit brought by a couple of black-hole-fearing dudes against the Hadron Supercollider makes clear, people are always scared that messing around with the laws of physics could do something really, deeply bad . . . like stop the core of the Earth from rotating as it did in the weirdly compelling yet awful flick The Core.
There are hints that mad physics may be behind the sudden universe-altering events occurring in Quiet Earth, an amazing post-apocalyptic film where the fabric of reality keeps shifting under our heroes' feet. And one of the things that makes Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan such a formidable and scary dude is that he controls reality at a quantum level. (In the film, he'll be a CGI effect.)
With CGI effects getting better and better, you can expect more quantum physics horror coming your way. I can't wait for a movie about a tiny black hole zooming through the Earth. Or a wormhole dumping weirdness all over the solar system.