Screams of reason : mad science and modern culture /
David J. Skal.
New York : W.W. Norton, c1998.
368 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
More Details
New York : W.W. Norton, c1998.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 337-358) and index.
A Look Inside
This item was nominated for the following awards:
International Horror Guild Awards, USA, 1999 : Nominated
First Chapter


Laughing Sal and the

Science of Screams

    Outwardly, the gleaming dome at Epcot Center, crowning symbol of the futuristic Disney theme park in Orlando, Florida, presents a quintessentially modern image of high-tech rationality. But inside the dome a different mood dominates. The history of science and technology is presented not in terms of illumination but rather as a curious ascent into murk; the visitor rides up a corkscrewing track past dimly lit tableaux presented less as a science museum than as an old-fashioned spookhouse, populated by crepuscular, rubber-skinned automatons. Leonardo da Vinci in his underlighted workshop resembles a shadowy, glowering ayatollah; other major figures in history of progress and invention emerge similarly as disquieting technozombies, robotic denizens of a futuristic necropolis. As Italo Calvino once noted, "The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts."

    When I was growing up, in the fifties and sixties, near Cleveland, Ohio, there was no Epcot Center. But there was Euclid Beach Park, a venerable amusement center on Lake Erie. In addition to the park's stupendous collection of vintage wooden roller coasters (which I loved, for a time, more than anything in the universe), there was an attraction that never failed to arrest my attention, the Surprise House. Built in 1935 and originally called, as I later learned, the Funscience House, the building presented a hard-edged art deco facade, the kind of design ordinarily associated with long-faded world's fairs. Outside the Surprise House was a mechanical fat woman with a disembodied laugh. She was the come-on to passersby, and her name was Laughing Sal.

    Inside her house the logical lines and planes of the building's exterior were revealed for the jokes they were. Einstein's theories of relativity, so abstruse yet so disturbing in the popular press of the 1930s, here were made cartoonily concrete in distorted chambers where ordinary perceptions of scale could not be trusted. Mirrors stretched and squeezed the human image like taffy. Rooms and stairways were built at crazy angles, rather like the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari . Jets of air lifted women's skirts and elicited screams in an odd demonstration of technological harassment. Gravity was undependable. Illusions and tricks were the specialty of the house. Outside, audible even within, was Laughing Sal, fat and crazy on the inflated promises of modernism, a coarsened counterpart to the female robot in Fritz Lang's Metropolis , pumped up to Hindenburg proportions. Laughing Sal had, in fact, been introduced to Cleveland the same summer that another constructed woman, the ITL[Bride of Frankenstein]ITL, had been unleashed upon the nation's movie screens. Sal, a coarse techno-bumpkin, was what Frankenstein's mate would have looked like had she been played by Marie Dressler instead of Elsa Lanchester. "Ho-ho-ho," she seemed to say, "come see what the modern world has to offer you! Come in, and get it out of your system! There's nothing inside me--ho-ho-ho--and there's nothing inside you. We're all just clockworks and cams! And since there's nothing you can do about it, you might as well laugh! "

    I didn't find Laughing Sal very funny. I turned away when my grandmother first stood me before the Surprise House and introduced me to her. There was something scary and obscene about the bloated mechanical form, the painted clownlike face, the disembodied voice. Laughing Sal was an automated freak show, the traditional circus fat lady gone berserkly android. Likewise, I didn't like another nearby attraction, the Laff in the Dark, a classic ghost train I rode at least a dozen times before I was brave enough to open my eyes. In the world outside, deep in the century of Henry Ford, people drove cars. Here the cars drove you, through the frightening flip side of the automotive dream.

    The old amusement parks and dark rides have gradually been replaced by more sophisticated technological analogs. The humble roller coaster has given way to Walt Disney World's Space Mountain--a kind of Laff in the Dark on atomic steroids--juxtaposing the expansive promises of the space age with a visceral evocation of a screaming abyss.

    The master of ceremonies of this sophisticated scream circus goes by many names: Victor Frankenstein, Henry Jekyll, the doctors Moreau, Phibes, Mirakle, and Strangelove. The mere mention of the words "mad scientist" conjures a vivid array of imagery: incensed villagers rising up with pitchforks and torches, ready to storm the fortress laboratory; inside the lab, whether in a converted medieval castle or on a uncharted jungle island, the scientist amid the bubbling test tubes and crackling electrical equipment. The mad scientist wears many faces. At his most malignant he looks like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Vincent Price; in a less intimidating guise he is the bumbling, buck-toothed Jerry Lewis (or, later, Eddie Murphy) in The Nutty Professor ; at his most ambiguous he looks like Albert Einstein, simultaneously childlike and ancient, his unruly shock of hair hinting at a possibly corresponding disorder within the skull itself, the braincase from which every mushroom cloud has risen and threatens to rise from again. (For sheer iconographic staying power, Einstein's hair has influenced more images of demented doctors than any other visual cue.)

    A prototype outsider, shunted to the sidelines of serious discourse, to the no-man's-land of B movies, pulp novels, and comic books, the mad scientist has served as a lightning rod for otherwise unbearable anxieties about the meaning of scientific thinking and the uses and consequences of modern technology. The mad scientist seems anarchic but often serves to support the status quo; instead of pressing us to confront the serious questions of ethics, power, and the social impact of technological advances, he too often allows us to laugh off notions that science might occasionally be the handmaiden of megalomania, greed, and sadism. And while he is often written off as the product of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, upon closer examination, he reveals himself (mad scientists are almost always men) to be a far more complicated symbol of civilization and its split-level discontents.

    This scary game of paradoxical peekaboo with mad science and mad scientists forms the core of Screams of Reason . It has been frequently asserted that the characteristic alienation and anomie of modern life have their roots in the mind-body schism formalized by philosopher Rene Descartes. The resulting cul-de-sac of split-brain thinking has dug what might be termed a Cartesian well of loneliness, in which the consciousness is held to be separate from, or irrelevant to, the body and the world. In other words, a classic feature of clinical schizophrenia may have become an accepted way to conceptualize reality.

    The controversial psychotherapist R. D. Laing (1927-1989), whom many clinical colleagues considered a species of mad doctor, turned psychiatry topsy-turvy with his heretical theories about the nature of schizophrenia, which he viewed as a retreat from an unbearable false self imposed by society and the family into a true self, unfettered in madness. In a similar vein, psychologist Louis Sass, in his provocative study Madness and Modernism (1992), observes that the schizophrenic, rather than represent a descent into "wild" irrationality--the classical view of insanity--may in fact display a highly exaggerated rationality. Sass notes the striking similarities between schizophrenic symptoms and the excessive self-consciousness of much modern art and literature. His thesis is an impressive one, and while Sass doesn't begin to examine popular culture, it becomes immediately clear that a relationship between madness and hyperintellectualism is also an overwhelming preoccupation of mass media science fiction. Even "serious" science fiction, closely examined, reveals itself to be frequently and deeply hostile to ideas. The s-f writer and critic Barry N. Malzberg makes the point in his book The Engines of the Night (1982): "Science fiction, for all its trappings, its talk of `new horizons' and `new approaches' and `thinking things through from the beginning' and `new literary excitement' is a very conservative form of literature. It is probably more conservative than westerns, mysteries or gothics, let alone that most reactionary of all literatures, pornography. Most of its writers and editors are genuinely troubled by innovative styles or concepts ... they have a deep stake by the time they have achieved any position in the field in not appearing crazy ."

    As an occasional writer of unapologetically "crazy" science fiction myself, I would argue (and cite Malzberg's work itself as evidence) that the genre excels at its thematic and stylistic extremes. Screams of Reason makes no pretense of providing an evenhanded survey of literary science fiction, a vast and unruly realm. The mad scientist was an important preoccupation of the genre during its formative century--Shelley's Frankenstein, Stevenson's Jekyll, and Wells's Moreau remain towering, glowering icons to the present day--but much of modern literary science fiction, with its relentlessly upbeat attitude toward almost anything technological, has looked upon the mad scientist as an antediluvian embarrassment.

    The critic Lionel Trilling once went so far as to declare (quite prematurely, of course) the mad scientist dead. In The Liberal Imagination (1950) Trilling says that the "social position of science requires that it should cease," noting that any exploration of the dark, unconscious side of science and scientists is generally taboo. "But no one who has ever lived observantly among scientists will claim that they are without an unconscious or even that they are free from neurosis," Trilling writes. "How often, indeed, it is apparent that the devotion to science, if it cannot be called a neurotic manifestation, at least can be understood as going very cozily with neurotic elements in the temperament.... "Since science fiction literature has itself remained cozy with the scientific establishment, it has been left to mass media science fiction to keep alive the essential mythology of the mad scientist in all his overreaching, exultant, tragic glory.

    As a precocious midwestern grade schooler I was attracted to science fiction stories and films specifically because of their surreality, their nuttiness, their cracked-mirror reflections of a frightening cold war decade when everything seemed on the verge of explosion and extinction. I didn't make a meaningful distinction between science fiction and horror; after all, weren't they always shelved next to each other at the library and the bookstore? The uncanny, otherworldly images of Ray Bradbury, Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe all merged together for me in a single escapist continuum.

    My first clear memory of watching a motion picture of any genre was at the age of six in late 1958, when Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was first broadcast on Cleveland television. As on cable television today, the films were shown repeatedly throughout the week of their premieres; I encountered the momentous doubleheader monster bill one Saturday afternoon on our hefty Magnavox console.

    Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man , despite its absurd plot, still contains a cartoonish distillation of the classic Apollonian-Dionysian struggle, acted out by a pair of superhuman beings, one a monster of science, one a monster of superstition. High art it ain't, but it's a clear example of how pop culture manages to deliver mighty themes to vast audiences of ordinary people indifferent to the higher realms of literature, music and art. In the blue-collar suburb I grew up in, people who didn't have much use for Don Giovanni responded to Dracula , and Frankenstein proved a serviceable substitute for Faust . For me, the archetypal passion of the mad scientist provided a useful construct on which to hang my own emerging creative aspirations, my adolescent emotional turmoil, and my precocious intellectual curiosity, which frequently left me feeling alienated and misunderstood.

    In the backyard and basement I conducted my own experiments in monster making, building my creations not with dead tissue but with tissue paper, painstakingly applied to the faces and hands of willing or perhaps simply bored neighborhood children, who might emerge from my subterranean workshop as desiccated mummies, fantastic space aliens, brides of Frankenstein, or simply spectacularly blistered and maimed. Using well-thumbed copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland as my guides, with Charmin, Elmer's glue, and gooey red tempera paint as my primary tools, I brought forth countless monstrosities, applying neck bolts, third-degree burns, dangling eyeballs, and wavering antennae to the faces of wide-eyed innocents. Often I recorded the fruits of my toil on eight-millimeter movie film, or sometimes I just sent my compliant creations staggering through the wooded field that separated our neighborhood from the next, the better to startle and annoy an unsuspecting populace.

    Needless to say, a lot of people thought I was nuts. Certainly I identified with mad scientists and monsters. Why not? In the overheated cold war days of the early 1960s, an age of duck-and-cover drills and the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation, why not get on the good side of the guys who controlled the bombs and radiation and superhuman creations that nothing could kill? (In retrospect, those Hiroshima-style burn makeups I applied to my friends seem especially unsettling.) It's no wonder that a certain stripe of hard-core sci-fi fan often displays all the signs associated with the classic mad scientist: a profound social alienation counterbalanced by a grandiose power fantasy; the dream of "scientific mastery" barely covering a sense of vulnerability and inadequacy; the fear of being "out of control" or crazy. My personal annihilation anxieties during the Cuban missile crisis may have been particularly acute, but a fantasy identification with overreaching science can appeal to a much wider range of quieter desperations.

    In a pointed essay called "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction," Thomas M. Disch notes the perennial popularity of s-f for blue-collar audiences. Tracing the social origins of the genre, Disch observes that the "pulp magazines that arose at the turn of the century, had, as a matter of survival, to cater to the needs of the newly literate working classes. SF is rife with fantasies of powerless individuals, of ambiguous antecedents, rising to positions of commanding importance. Often they become world saviors. The appeal of such fantasies is doubtless greater to one whose prevailing sense of himself is of being undervalued and meanly employed; who believes his essential worth is hidden under the bushel of a life that somehow hasn't worked out as planned; whose most rooted conviction is that he is capable of more , though as to the nature of this unrealized potential he may not be too precise."

    The crazed villains of pulp s-f are paradoxically driven by the same dreams and frustrations as the fictional heroes and their real-life readers. Like Dracula, another penny dreadful power icon for the powerless, the mad scientist is a working-class hero, something to be.

    Other aspects of mad science transcend class issues and go straight for the metaphysical jugular. The problem of infusing dead matter with life, a central concern of mad scientists everywhere, is also a pointed allegory of the modern world's difficulties in reconciling the seeming contradictions of matter and mind, science and superstition. In the mechanistic modern universe, consciousness is taboo, an embarrassing wild card inexplicable in Newtonian terms, even though it should be self-evident that the universe reveals itself only through the medium of consciousness. We know that we are not dead, that we possess subjectivity and volition, but respectable, reductionistic science tends to tell us otherwise.

    The mad scientist, on the other hand, is a restless synthesizer, scuttling around his laboratory, stitching together our central schisms, digging into graves while pulling down the energy of the sky. In addition to bringing dead things to life, the mad scientist reconciles evolved consciousness with lower life-forms, another perennial preoccupation of the crazed clinicians in literature and popular culture.

    Collective reveries about mad science often interact with the real world in forms beyond escape and entertainment. Take, for example, the case of a New Mexico doctor, Jean B. Rosenbaum, who, while a freshman medical student, witnessed the untimely death of a woman from heart disease. Rosenbaum wrote in 1967:

I despaired at the loss of life in such a young person and was irritated at the useless procedures applied in the effort to restore her heartbeat. After brooding over her death for several weeks I decided to take an active approach--to consider the possibility of more effective ways to reactivate the stilled heart.

No sooner had the problem presented itself than Frankenstein came to mind. I had not thought of the film for many years, having been rather frightened as well as excited by it as a child. Nonetheless, there was the scene before me: the grotesque and lifeless monster high on a platform in that creepy old castle; vivid ominous lightning crackling; threatening thunder rumbling; awesome devices gathering energy and spitting electrical bolts. At last the energy made its potent way to the monster. Electricity stimulated his body and he came to life. Absurd as this drama may be to the sophisticated audiences of today, I was fascinated.

    Just as Rosenbaum was about to let go of the memory, an inspiration flashed: Frankenstein showed how a stopped human heart could be forced to beat again. The result was Rosenbaum's invention of the first cardiac pacemaker in 1951.

    Other concrete manifestations of mad science are far less salutory. The twenty-five-billion-dollar boondoggle of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars, was driven by the fantastic premise of a nuclear X-ray laser, which did not exist in fact and existed only very shakily in theory. The main proponent of this dubious death ray was Dr. Edward Teller, popularly known as the father of the H-bomb. Teller detested the mad scientist colorations attending his reputation and, according to some observers, saw the peacemaking potential of a nuclear umbrella in space as a way to salvage his good name, which was on shaky ground in the age of the growing antinuclear movement, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. But the public and its legislative representatives, conditioned by decades of science fiction imagery and increasingly compelling special effects technology, were willing to accept the premise. Why not? We had already seen it a thousand times before.

    Our relationship to science and technology is complex and increasingly embattled. A puritanical suspicion of the intellect is still deeply ingrained in the American character; ideas, like sex (not to mention ideas about sex), are still regarded in many quarters as a slippery slope to hell. Science and technology bashing has been increasingly the subject of popular books, with authors taking both the offense and the defense. Although our cultural and economic futures are highly dependent on scientific training and technological innovation, we maintain a maddening Jekyll and Hyde hypocrisy in the basic areas of educational funding, teachers' salaries, etc. Specialized knowledge, scientific and otherwise, is routinely stifled and belittled, sometimes--as even scientists will occasionally admit--with a certain amount of justification.

    In a 1993 essay Princeton University scientist Freeman J. Dyson candidly discusses the popular backlash against science, which he predicts will become increasingly bitter as long as economic inequities persist. While refusing to blame science alone for the fraying of the social and economic fabric, Dyson holds that scientists are "more responsible than most of us are willing to admit."

We are responsible for the heavy preponderance of toys for the rich over necessities for the poor in the output of our laboratories. We have allowed government and university laboratories to become a welfare program for the middle class while the technical products of our discoveries take away jobs from the poor. We have helped to bring about a widening split between the technically-competent and computer-owning rich and the computerless and technically illiterate poor.... I recently listened to a distinguished academic computer scientist who told us joyfully how electronic data bases piped into homes through fiber-optic cables are about to put newspapers out of business. He did not care what this triumph of technological progress would do to the poor citizen who cannot afford fiber optics and would still like to read a newspaper.

    It has become something of an argumentative cliche (and a winning one, as the steamrollering progress of the genetic engineering industry demonstrates) for scientists to insist on a clear line of demarcation between pure science and its technological applications. This strikes me as a bit disingenuous and immediately calls to mind the old Tom Lehrer song: "Once the rockets go up / Who cares where they come down? / That's not my department / Says Wernher von Braun." Few, if any, modern scientists work in a technological vaccuum; even "pure research" in educational settings is funded by somebody, and that somebody is likely to be industry or the military. I will therefore avoid clumsy constructions like "mad science and/or technology" (the term "mad technologist," after all, has never exactly taken hold). Despite a regrettable tendency for many science professionals to affect the attitudes of a privileged, priestly caste, scientists inhabit the same society as the rest of us and are motivated by the same range of drives, ambitions, and weaknesses as other people. Our prevalent, hyperbolic images of the madly overreaching scientist may be a half-conscious balloon-popping response to the perception--correct or not--that too much of modern life is controlled by arrogant and irresponsible science-related structures and systems.

    This book is not a critique of science per se, although I am disturbed by scientism, or science transmuted into a self-congratulatory, quasi-religious belief system from its more proper role as a systematic means of understanding the physical world. Some of the recent claims made about the nature of artificial intelligence and virtual reality and cyborgs strike me as almost mad, truly crackpot and delusional. (I deal with them at some length in my last chapter, "Vile Bodies.") But my primary interest here is not the machinations of science itself but the fascinating life and times of its dark doppelganger, the mad scientist, in all his overreaching glory. Screams of Reason itself may be a slightly crazed experiment, but what better way to explore our multilevel cultural waltz with the maniac in the lab coat: where he's been leading us, what he's trying to tell us, and why he never really goes away.

Copyright © 1998 David J. Skal. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1998-07-20:
Art imitates life, which imitates art in this witty and knowing exploration of "mad science" and modern culture. The demonic scientist of pulp novels, B movies, and comic books is extraordinarily popular, says Skal (Hollywood Gothic; The Monster Show), because he "serve[s] as a lightning rod for otherwise unbearable anxieties about the meaning of scientific thinking and the uses and consequences of modern technology." Skal ranges from Victor Frankenstein to Dr. Moreau, from Dr. Jekyll to Dr. Frank N. Furter of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in his entertaining analysis. The author is equally at home with Hollywood trivia and with postmodern cultural analysis‘which identifies a gay subtext in horror films and finds the evocation of an "all-male reproductive paradigm" in the Bride of Frankenstein monster's deep forehead scar (a symbolic vulva!). Skal shows how cultural anxieties about race, gender and class roles, technological changes, economic depression and threats of war found their way into horror classics. Of particular interest are Skal's views on UFO sightings‘which he finds always correlate with periods of intense social unrest‘and "mad medicine" as seen in such works as Coma and Silence of the Lambs (he sees Hannibal Lecter as "an inevitable... iconic representation" of the perceived greed of big medicine in the HMO era). Skal even associates the recent spate of blockbuster invasion fantasies with fear of AIDS. Though Skal's analysis sometimes lacks sufficient depth, it is always fresh, hip and lively. The book is illustrated with 100 well-chosen photos and period illustrations. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 1999-01:
Skal continues to uphold his high standard of brilliant writing (and making scholarship accessible and interesting) on the themes imbedded in horror and science fiction genres. Building on his previous works, The Monster Show (CH, Nov'93) and Hollywood Gothic (CH, Feb'91), he now tampers with the cultural ideas encircling the image of the mad scientist, wild maniacs who would play god in their starched white lab coats. He adds sufficient electricity to spark the latent controversies within scientific and medical experimentation by digging up and reviving old bodies of fascinating historical novels. In exploring mass media's obsession with the relationship between insanity and the hyperintellectual and rational worldviews of scientism, Skal performs a useful, fascinating lobotomy on mad scientist literature. Weaving the history of science and technology (e.g., Mary Shelley's invention of Frankenstein) with the flamboyant portrayals of crazy scientists, Skal spins a compelling narrative of the hubris of Faustian deals, and Rappaccinian gardens. Excavating the cultural history of classic horror, he gathers gothic caricatures, pulp magazine covers, and film stills that Dorian Gray would have enjoyed. Highly recommended for all students. T. Lindvall; Regent University
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, June 1998
Publishers Weekly, July 1998
New York Times Book Review, September 1998
Choice, January 1999
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Laughing Sal and the Science of Screamsp. 15
Frankenstein's Gatep. 31
Miracles for the Massesp. 88
Snap, Crackle, Screamp. 112
A-Bombs B Pictures, and C Cupsp. 166
Alien Chicp. 195
The Doctor Will Eat You Nowp. 230
Vile Bodies, or Farewell to the Fleshp. 271
Conclusion: Entertaining the Apocalypsep. 305
A Hollywood Hit Parade of Mad Scientists, Demented Doctors, and Assorted Evil Geniusesp. 319
Acknowledgmentsp. 335
Notesp. 337
Indexp. 359
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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