Kirsten Strayer September 7 2017

The Horror of Science in 21st Century Film


The first filmmakers were inventors and scientists who created new technologies through which we could see the world. So it’s unsurprising, then, that many of those late 19th century filmmakers attempted to capture scientific experiments and discoveries in their work. More surprisingly, however, are the early connections between science and horror. While film technologies were paving the way for new scientific discoveries, emerging filmmakers were learning to imbue scientific images with a sense of dread. Experimentation, innovation, and discovery were often filmed as horrific atrocities, which of course they often were. Early films such as Edison’s Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) proved that film and fatal technological experimentation could easily work together to create dreadful imagery. 

In fiction films, early horror had mad scientists experimenting with ghastly results. Edison, America’s first filmmaker and early advocate of experimenting on film, even produced the first Frankenstein film in 1910. In this ten-minute adaptation of Shelley’s novel, the piece showed fictional science’s effects to be as horrifically gruesome as earlier non-fictional experiments. The mad scientist character was replicated ad infinitum over the next 100 years: James Whale created groundbreaking figurations of Frankenstein’s monster and Mr. Hyde, Robert Weine made Dr. Caligari terrifying, and Earl Kenton turned Dr. Moreau into a surreal villain. In all of these films and many others, scientific exploration had unforeseen and destructive consequences.

"It's alive!" Frankenstein creates his monster.

Similarly, cinema let natural discovery take on a more sinister cast. Jean Painlevé, who understood that the scientific could be intrinsically horrible, imbued many of his fauna films with feelings of dread and horror. In films like The Vampire (1945), he shows that nature is irrevocably cruel, filled with blood-sucking creatures that spread disease and prey on the living.

The cruelty of nature in Painlevé's The Vampire

Today, science and horror continue to overlap through the nightmares of malicious artificial life, rampant viruses, and visions of other scientific progresses gone awry. While the individual mad scientist still exists, contemporary horror often places the madness on the shoulders of scientific progress, or its effects on the world as we know it. Films can no longer take refuge in the idea that science can save us from ourselves; instead, technological progress can augment our worst impulses. Moreover, scientific progress can worsen real-world disasters, from accelerating climate change to creating more dangerous war zone and larger numbers of displaced peoples.

And that confluence between scientific atrocities and humanity’s worst instincts proves to be fertile ground for horror independent cinema. With horror, films have explored the terrifying catastrophes that scientific exploration can bring.  The films in this collection explore a world in which the mad scientist is part of the norm; the inhuman can embody human horror tropes; and ecological disaster is now a real life catastrophe.

The first film, Symbiont (2016), uses horror as the link between science and fictional filmmaking. Produced as part of the Science Symbiosis Film Competition, directors Sydney Clara Brafman and Sally Warring tap into the dual emotions of excitement and trepidation when confronted with the unknown. In the short film’s tightly constructed story line, scientific observation turns horrific when a researcher infects himself with an unknown organism. Although the narrative is not necessarily unusual, the film’s sterile setting and distant camera emphasizes the detached cruelty of scientific experiment gone wrong.

The horror of experimentation (Symbiont)

Similarly, Rob McLellen’s 2013 film Abe positions the lab as the site for unimaginable experimentation, but in this case it’s humanities own creations that are mimicking its desire to dissect and enhance. In Abe, an abandoned robot seeks to find his soul mate through surgery. The film reverses Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments; here, live humans need their free will and humanity removed in order to reach the robot’s version of perfection.

A robot with a razor blade (Abe)

While the lab remains the location of scientific experimentation and possible catastrophe, sites of ecological disaster have become one of the most generative places to explore horror in all its current forms. Without Name (Lorcan Finnegan, 2016), an ecological disaster film that combines contemporary fears of climate change with personal identity crises. When a surveyor attempts to appraise unspoiled land for an unnamed conglomerate, he is terrorized by the nature that he is working to destroy. Without Name imagines the natural world as essentially inhumane, despite attempts to make it tame and cultured. Similarly, Brutal Order creates horror from the real-world exploitation of nature. By filming civilization’s wide spread exploitation of nature at totalizing destruction, Brutal Order emphasizes eco-horror as it plays out in capitalism.

Psychotropic horror (Without Name)

The destruction of world (Brutal Order)

Finally, films such as Zygote (Neill Blomkamp, 2017) combine fears of the laboratory and the vengeful ecological system to create a holistic world of scientific terror. In Zygotes future world, experimentation with asteroid mining leads to nature’s horrific revenge. Nature, in Zygote, is able to use humankind’s rejection of natural conservation and exploitation of class hierarchy as weapons against the inhabitants of a mining facility. Instead of subduing the natural world, humans are instead faced with environmental catastrophe and mutation.

The chimera (Zygote)

About Author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.