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?
Instead of answering a Big Science Question, in honour of this month’s theme of remakes, re-interpretations, and re-invention, I’m taking a look back at some of David Cronenberg’s body of work.
His films are a great fit because, in the tradition of classical works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Jules Verne’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, Cronenberg builds narratives around scientists (with silly names) who would tinker with human biology, build detours into our evolutionary path, and remaking what is means to be human. Of course, Cronenberg doesn’t believe in perfecting human biology. The scientists in his early films, whether hobbyists working in grungy ersatz laboratories, or freshly pressed labcoat-wearing professionals working in shiny clinics named after themselves, are charmed by biological experiments at the bleeding edge…and prone to hubris.
Let’s take a look at the science, scientists, and small legacies of early-ish Cronenberg body horrors.
Shivers opens with a sterile tour of the Starliner Towers before revealing Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), as he breaks into one of the apartments with teenaged Annabelle (Cathy Graham), who he proceeds to kill, slice open with a scalpel and burn with a corrosive fluid before turning his blade toward himself. It’s quickly revealed that his current project, thought to be a parasite that could replace failing organs, was in actuality a highly transmissible and monstrously powerful aphrodisiac that he’d been incubating inside of Annabelle (and had unwittingly released to infect the rest of the building’s tenants).
There is no shortage of parasites in real life that can alter the behaviour of their hosts. The most often talked about are the Ophiocordyceps fungus (often called the “zombie ant” fungus) that takes over carpenter ants’ mandibular muscles and forces them to clamp onto leaves with their jaws in a sort of death grip, and Leucochloridium paradoxum, a type of parasitic flatworm that infects amber snails and hijacks their motor functions and turns their eyestalks into flashy, waving caterpillar-like structures to attract birds that will eat the snails and further spread the infection.
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In humans, Toxoplasma gondii is a much less flashy parasite. It’s actually a very common infection, and a tiny protozoan (thankfully, instead of a giant turd-shaped creature), that humans tend to pick up either through contaminated food or through interactions with infected cat poop. Severe infections are uncommon, and that’s not what’s interesting about this parasite. What’s interesting is that studies have suggested a correlation between Toxoplasma infections in humans and increased risk-taking behaviours, from trends pointing to increased likelihood of being involved in car collisions to just generally being more outgoing or more willing to disregard rules than non-infected people. Car crashes aside, these aren’t necessarily bad side effects, just like how the effects of Dr. Hobbes‘s aphrodisiac parasite aren’t necessarily bad or directly harmful — they just change how people behave relative to social norms.
After a motorcycle accident leaves her in severely injured and covered in burns, Rose (Marilyn Chambers), is rushed to the nearest medical institution: the Keloid Clinic for Plastic Surgery. Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan)— an ironic name for a plastic surgeon; keloids are raised, incredibly visible scars that are often larger than the wounds that produced them — treats her burns and internal injuries with what he describes as morphogenetically neutral grafts (basically science jargon to mean undifferentiated cells, like embryonic tissues that haven’t developed yet into specialized cell types, like skin, liver, or lung cells). The idea is that the tissues will differentiate to match up and mesh seamlessly with whatever tissues they’re being grafted onto, and as Dr. Keloid hopes, without scarring or graft rejection.
The terms that Dr. Keloid uses to describe the procedure aren’t quite right because the terminology didn’t exist yet. Basically, the tissue that he transplants under Rose‘s arm is made up of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, or adult cells — in this case skin cells from Rose‘s thigh — that were reprogrammed to behave like embryonic cells. As Dr. Keloid says while peeling a full-thickness rectangle of Rose‘s thigh flesh away with a dermatome, “if [morphogenetically neutralized thigh tissue] were grafted to a burned cheek, it wouldn’t just be thigh skin, with the colour and texture of thigh skin, it would actually develop as facial tissue.” In real life, the first induced pluripotent stem cell technologies wouldn’t be implemented until almost three decades later, in 2006. When Rabid was filmed, stem cell treatments was only advanced to the stage of transplanting bone marrow to treat immune deficiencies (first done successfully in 1968). The first embryonic stem cells wouldn’t be isolated until 1983. There’s always so much discussion about what the result of Rose‘s surgery represents, but I would love to see more people talk about this nifty piece of predictive science fiction.
It’s implied that Rose’s strange stinger organ develops as abnormal growth of these grafts, as a cancer might develop, as they differentiated to their target tissues…along with an intense craving for blood. The virus transmission that seems to spontaneously develops doesn’t make much sense (and it doesn’t have to), but my pet theory is that Rose‘s grafts picked up an infection somewhere at the Sperling institute where Dr. Keloid had Rose‘s tissues shipped to be transformed into undifferentiated cells for transplantation and so were transferred into Rose during her surgery later.
The Brood (1979)
In The Brood, which Carrie Rickey of Criterion refers to as the third in a trilogy of “bioterrors” (to which I answer: only three?), introduces us to Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), father of psychoplasmic therapy, which uses one-on-one roleplay to help patients process emotional symptoms as physical. His patients, Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) is under his long-term care, where she is encouraged to produce her repressed anger as murderous children who grow in egg sac-like structures outside of her body.
Psychoplasmic therapy, of course, is an invented treatment. That said, stress and anxiety, not to mention other mental and mood disorders, can really mess with body processes in unexpected ways. It can cause chronic muscle pain and headaches. It can cause acid reflux and the dreaded stomach ulcer. It can cause hair loss and can even make your teeth loosen in their sockets. Cronenberg just kicks this idea up by about one hundred notches, where trauma can manifest as boils and cancers, and rage can birth parthogenetic anger babies from your flesh.
Always on the look out for something sensational that will push the boundaries for what’s acceptable for his skeevy TV station, Max Renn (James Woods) stumbles upon a pirated signal for “Videodrome” a sadomasochistic torture show. As he begins to dig up the truth behind the show, his efforts turn up very real violence, conspiracies, and hallucinatory grotesqueries.
The scientist behind Videodrome (the TV experience) is Dr. Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), who isolated a broadcast signal that induces brain tumours that in turn produce hallucinations — his idea of infecting the world with a biological enhancement to engage with what he imagined was a higher form of reality. While the story is overtly a commentary on how society engages with violent or sexually graphic media, the science echoes the myth-turned-fear that televisions, radio transmissions, and more recently, cell phones can cause brain cancers — a fear that definitely existed in the 1970s and 80s, and probably for as long as humans have been aware of the potentially damaging effects of certain forms of radiation.
Our media devices all work thanks to their ability to take signals transmitted across distances through waves of electromagnetic radiation, and to transform those waves into outputs, like patterns of light to produce images on a screen or mechanical vibrations to produce sound from a speaker. When it comes to waves of radiation, the kind of that we need to worry about are high-frequency (and therefore high-energy) waves, also known as ionizing radiation. These are the waves that are capable of damaging molecules, including DNA molecules, and cause cancers — X-Rays, Ultraviolet (UV) rays, and gamma rays. The waves responsible for our cell phones functions, and for the broadcast of Videodrome that Max Renn discovers, are low-frequency non-ioniziong waves. They’re too weak to do anything more than maybe warm your skin up a little. They definitely aren’t penetrating into your skull to produce tumours. A slew of studies looking into the long-term effects of cell phone use (as cell phones have become a huge part of everyday life in many parts of the world), support their safety.
The Fly (1986)
Finally, we have The Fly, which serves up the reinvention double-whammy of both being a film about a man who chases after an idealized version of himself (and of his girlfriend) after its potential has been dangled in front of him, and of being a film that is itself a remake and a very different take on The Fly (1958), directed by Kurt Neumann. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a brilliant albeit awkward scientist whose ambitions, unlike the other scientists’ in this list, don’t begin with the idea of transforming the human body. His is an elaborate physics pet project — teleportation pods assembled in his warehouse apartment. Even his misguided idea to test the telepods by himself isn’t fueled by any drive to push humanity further — he’s just drunk, jealous, and feeling reckless after he convinces himself that his girlfriend (Geena Davis) is off rekindling a romance with her ex (spoiler: she isn’t).
It’s only after her [mostly] successfully teleports that he becomes obsessed with Better Living Through Teleportation, since at first he enjoys a high metabolism, ramped up sex drive, and effortless physical prowess after his trip from pod to pod. The language that Seth uses to describe the experience is familiar to anyone who’s looked into a Master Cleanse, been intrigued by videos of “ionic detox foot baths” or shopped around on the Goop website (just typing these things makes me afraid for the targeted browser ads that will inevitably be in my future). He refers to teleportation in terms of purification — that his body is performing at its peak because the teleportation process dismantled him to his base molecules and reassembled him in the most efficient way possible while eliminating the unnecessary the rest. Of course, like with most things that purport to “purify” your body, Seth‘s theory is a load of garbage. And when he comes down from his “detox” high, he comes down hard. At least a Master Cleanse crash doesn’t come with your flesh sloughing off your body to reveal housefly parts.
All of these films were actually first time watches for me, and it was really fun to marathon them and see the common ideas that thread through them all (namely the human of trying to force your will onto the natural order of things). Despite knowing about his science background, it was wild to see some of the concepts that Cronenberg was working into his storytelling, way ahead of its time. Although I’m not exactly stoked to see the science applied in such gruesome ways in real life anytime soon.
Are you a Cronenberg fan or do you prefer your horror science to be less squishy? Share your thoughts with us over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Want horror delivered right to your inbox? Check out the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.