Monday, January 12, 2004

I've been reading Arthur Lennig's The Immortal Count, his revised biography of Bela Lugosi (University Press of Kentucky, 2003). Besides the book's many virtues, it also gives me that rare pleasure you get when you know the author and you find yourself hearing the prose in his voice as you read. Arthur is a good friend of my brother's, and my brother still has daily email arguments with him which he duly forwards to me.

One of the minor things you come away from this book with is a sense of how common the motif of the "mad doctor" or "mad scientist" is in American popular culture of the mid-twentieth century; nearly all of Lugosi's non-Dracula roles were one of these. Though born in the literature of the nineteenth century (Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jekyll), the mad scientist never became a commonplace figure until twentieth-century popular cinema.

Cinema has always regarded science and scientists with deep suspcion. Today, when the mad scientist is no longer taken seriously as a dramatic figure, we have instead the incompetent scientist. In any movie made today featuring a scientific breakthrough as a plot point, it can be predicted with absolute certainty that something will go Horribly Wrong, as in Jurassic Park et al.

As to why that is, I am not sure. Horror movies have been called "conservative" by a number of critics, but that's not strong enough: I would go all the way to "reactionary." Horror movies tell us: Have sex, and Jason will gut you like a fish. And, like the medieval Church with Galileo, horror movies view scientists with a suspicious, prejudiced eye.

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