Welcome to Science of the Scare! Every month I will dissect a Big Science Question from a horror movie and talk through it in (mostly) easy-to-digest terms.
Science and horror have a wild, entangled history and have left us with loads of questions to ponder. Deep, important questions like: just how many ways could we have a zombie pandemic? Is genetic engineering always a slippery slope to monstrosity? This month’s Big Science Question:
Why are we still using lightning to bring [fictional] monsters to life?
The scene from Frankenstein (1931) is beyond iconic; it’s world-shaping. A tank of electric eels provides the current that Victor Frankenstein needs to suffuse his stitched-together creation with life. Nearly 100 years have passed and the scene hasn’t changed all that much for Frankenstein and his monster, except that the eels are usually scrapped for a lightning storm or a Tesla coil.
It’s funny, though, because Mary Shelley never mentions electricity directly in her novel (rather, she alludes to a “spark” that gives life to the monster). It doesn’t come up explicitly until 1831, when she wrote an introduction that cited that she was partially inspired by experiments conducted by Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather), Luigi Galvani, and others. According to Shelley’s introduction, it was rumoured that Darwin “preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.” Funnily, Darwin never infused life into pasta — he worked with vorticella, a hardy waterborne protozoan that seemed to die when removed from its watery and “revive” when returned to it.
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But the idea of a noodle coming to life, combined with galvanism, a popular science at the time that demonstrated that dead tissue can seemingly jump and twitch with life if you add a little electricity to it, is compelling inspiration for reanimating a man assembled from parts of corpses. Unsurprisingly, some of those experiments were conducted with the dead bodies of criminals. Students still recreate experiments with galvanism in biology labs (or at least I did as recently as the late 00s), administering jolts of electricity to frogs’ legs and measuring how the current makes the dead muscles contract and hop.
From personal experience (with frogs’ legs, not with a May (2002)-like build-a-friend project, I swear), the “reanimation” effects of shocking dead tissue has diminishing returns. The tissue will respond less as its “freshness” wears off. I think we all know that it’s impractical, if not impossible to create life from corpses with electricity, but it’s the most persistent shorthand in sci fi and horror: monsters and brides have been brought to life in cycles from the Universal monster era to BBC’s Penny Dreadful, Jason Voorhees (C. J. Graham)’s corpse is revived in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) thanks to two lightning bolts and a chain-link fence; even as recently as 2018 has Nazi puppet maker André Toulon (Udo Kier) created a personal mausoleum blinged-out with lightning-rods to bring his flesh back from death with some lightning strikes in Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. What’s more, even previously non-living material could be made not only animate but sentient with a little electricity: Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) soul-transfer spell culminates with a lightning strike that seals the deal in Child’s Play (1988); and 90s kids’ series Klutter! (1995) created a monster out of a pile of junk and dirty clothes with a classic socks-plus-carpet static shock.
I have a few ideas as to why we still like to bring our movie monsters to life with a little zap. For one, the idea aligns with some ongoing theories for abiogenesis. Abiogenesis, or the origin of biological life from something nonbiological, is still a contentious topic. After all, life had to come from something, and when we break down ourselves to our components, we get clearly lifeless chemicals and raw compounds. We haven’t quite landed on the step in-between that organizes everything into something alive. There was a time when the term “primordial soup” was popular, suggesting that some puddles of necessary chemicals were met with an event that produced those first living cell organelles that would eventually evolve into single-cell organisms, and then the complex creatures that currently walk our planet. It’s been suggested by some scientists that that key event might have been electrical, such as lightning striking a pool or volcanic clouds that conveniently held the right combination of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen to brew amino acids (the building blocks of proteins and integral to life for earthly creatures).
This theory is tied to the famous 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, in which the scientist mimicked an atmosphere of volcanic gasses and introduced an electric discharge that produced promising organic molecules. In 2011, marine chemist Jeffrey Bada and his team re-analyzed the product of this experiment (as well as a similar 1958 experiment that added carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide into the atmospheric mix) with current technologies and confirmed that biologically important compounds formed. It’s not the only theory for the origin of life out there, but lightning is still a contender after all this time.
“[…] life had to come from something […] It’s been suggested by some scientists that that key event might have been electrical “
Otherwise, we humans have a lot of reasons to associate electricity with life. Our hearts contain their own private circuitry that keeps them beating rhythmically, and we use jolts of electricity to defibrillate our hearts and restore rhythm —restore life—when the circuitry gets out of whack. Our brains and nervous systems are conduits for electrical and chemical impulses that generate not only our muscle movement (hi again, frogs’ legs!), but our very consciousness. Turn towards reproduction, and some IVF technologies, such as nuclear transfer (which involves taking the nucleus from one egg into a healthier donor egg that has had its nucleus, and genetic information, removed), use a little pulse of electricity to help incorporate the new nucleus and to trigger cell division. So, in this respect, the scale may be different, but newer genetically-modified movie monsters like Dren (Delphine Chanéac) from Splice (2009) or Sil (Natasha Henstridge) from Species (1995) might have had a little electrical helping hand to bring them to life.
The technologies have certainly changed since scientists were zapping dead flesh back in the 18th and 19th centuries, but sparks and lightning strikes still have a place in the creation stories of movie monsters, just as much as they still exist (sure, transformed into controllable tools) in laboratories.