By Kat Shook
Prologue Fiction: A Hypothetical You Scenario (1884 – )
Nightfall nears as the sun slips behind the ocean and waves goodbye to the day. You still have a few military chores before retreating into darkness yourself, but you are hindered by a severe, unrelenting pain in your right leg—a sharp, burning, electrical discomfort that reaches your toes. Living with this pain through the night seems impossible. So, you walk to the post doctor. Upon arrival, you are admitted to surgery. It is as though they had been waiting for you. In the room the lights are dim, bordering nonexistent, but still brighter than anything you could conjure. Bedded, the nurse holds a sponge just below your chin and tells you to take in a few deep breaths. The doctor does not speak but offers two outstretched arms. He holds what appears to be a sticky tentacle hose-like object and a grooved saw. Here, lack of visibility feels a blessing. Before lowering his instruments, the doctor utters a decree of nonsense, “A progressive cure, preferential nerve fusion, exhibit A to exhibit B, and headway via sea—I present, squid ambulation!” At the end of his curious proclamation, you work your mouth toward an intuitive, persevering command. Something within is telling you to jump, to run, to scream— “STOP!” But you can’t.
Too bad Elizabeth Blackwell wasn’t on duty that night.
Overlooking errors in historical accuracy for this setup, the scalpel point is that medicine holds indefinite aptitude toward terror and weirdness in both real-life experiences and horror film interactions.
Part I: Foundations of Medical Nightmares as Conveyed in Film
For the purposes of establishing roots in this entry, I am specifically addressing the late 18th century and well into the 19th century to show the influence of gothic literature in the horror genre as an influential component of early medical horror films.
Medical horror films and the horror movie genre in general have subterranean foundations in gothic literature. Gothic content as well as German Expressionism supplied the inspiration and mode of expression for many of the horror films of the silent era. Those first fictional film doctors suckled and fell from the teats of goth greats such as Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Praise be to Horace Walpole and his novel, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1765) for the creation of this genre. “It’s alive!”
Before modern diagnostic tools allowed for the detection of even the slightest vital signs, accuracy was problematic in a practical diagnosis of death. Needless to say, premature interment existed as a legitimate fear. There are documented cases and anecdotal evidence of such misfortunes (see Octavia Smith Hatcher). Of course, those premature burials lent themselves to the fears that encompassed anything pertaining to the reanimation of corpses and the possibility of a spontaneous posthumous reappearance. And from those fears some incredible stories were born.
In Mary Shelley’s introduction to Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, she wrote, “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” Galvanism, coined by late 18th-century physicist and chemist, Alessandro Volta, in reference to the works of Luigi Galvani.
Galvani concluded that biological organisms generate electrical current and showed that biological muscle tissue would contract when an electrical current was applied. Implications being that electricity exists within all animal creatures as a critical component of life, which meant that the reintroduction of such an electrical current could reanimate a previously living now non-living entity. “Animal electricity” was a vital force that gave life to organic matter.1 Later, Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini would conduct animal and cadaver experiments using this research and would publicly perform the electro-stimulation technique on corpse limbs. Science, when hasn’t it been a horror show?
Part II: A Doctor of All – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Directed by Robert Wiene)
According to the film’s narrative progression, Dr. Caligari was all the above and then some—medic, mesmerist, and murderer by way of somnambulist.
Using dismissive tricks to simplify diagnosis is a clear abuse of power which requires a certain amount of psychological manipulation. And some present-day doctors do that. It is a clever way of placing the responsibility of resolve back on the patient. Are these doctors about control or wellness? For Caligari, it was clearly about control. At least, if we are to believe Francis, who is the narrator of this story. Of course, we learn that Francis’ perspective of Dr. Caligari is unreliable because his reality is distorted by a burden of illness and guilt.
The true merits of Dr. Caligari exist in its powerful design and twisted visual acuity. While Dr. Caligari provides commentary on authoritarianism in Germany with strong cerebral features that address the duality of man, it also flexes its medical horror muscles through its structural design. The architectural constructs in this film become vital characters in the story’s arc. These unnatural and unnerving shapes reflect the perspective of the narrator and give clues to the nature of his mind, and the skewed lines and leaning layout create a disorienting setting to further those modes of commentary. To express depth in the storytelling and to allow for symbolic elevation, frame story or frame narrative (a story within a story) is employed. It’s the same style of narrative that was used in some of those early gothic horror novels.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was essentially the result of the German government banning foreign movies in 1916. To fill that gap, domestic pictures were in high demand.4 After World War I, globally, restrictions placed on German imports by international film industries were lifted, which equated to broader screenings and attention for Dr. Caligari. Critic Roger Ebert referred to Dr. Caligari as “the first true horror film.”2 And I would expand on that opinion by calling it a strong frontrunner in establishing the medical horror genre. Abstract and surreal were the name of Dr. Caligari’s game. Too, influence is visible here regarding tone, texture, and overall aesthetic in later films. Even today, those surreal elements presented in Dr. Caligari are applied. Immediately, all of Guy Maddin’s gems come to mind. Pertaining specifically to the influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in storytelling, I think of Session 9. More broadly, the appearance, impact, and utilization of German Expressionism is visible throughout the existence of the horror film genre.
Part III: Victor Frankenstein – Strange Iterations and Interpretations of Dr. F
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” – from Mary Shelley’s introduction to Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
The question was posed—could “the recently deceased” be revived using electrical current? Again, physicist Giovanni Aldini answered by attempting fragmentary corpse revivification through tissue movement, inspiring Mary Shelley to explore the horror of the experiments of her time.
A quick IMDb search will reveal over one hundred Frankenstein titles. The ambitious young scientist and his creation bask in notoriety. Scarce are those who are unfamiliar with some version of this tale.
The first film appearance of Frankenstein came to us in raw 1910 silent form and was quickly followed by a now lost film, Life without Soul in 1915. From Universal Studios in 1931, we received the most notable version starring Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster; it was Universal paired with Karloff’s performance that gave to us the iconic image of the monster we all know and love today.
After several follow-ups from Universal, the story of Frankenstein and his creation blossomed into something even more surreal. Paul Morrissey graduated Frankenstein to a bareboned frankness and Italian gothic-ness that was a genuine attestation to 1970s gore. In Morrissey’s version, Flesh for Frankenstein (1974), “Baron Frankenstein[’s] grotesque experiments function as a barely concealed excuse for his own necrophilia. […] He [is] obsessed with creating not one but two monsters – a male and a female – so he can mate them and breed a Serbian master race.”3 Supplimental to the plot, “Flesh for Frankenstein delights in shattering taboos with pointed irreverence. Morrissey piles on gratuitous sex and gore with rapturous abandon, and the film is notable for its visceral use of 3D photography (with every opportunity taken to have entrails burst from the screen).”3
Often in these films, while Frankenstein’s obsessive nature entices us to watch, it is the monster (the creature or creation) that emerges as more endearing and captivating than his/her doctor/creator.
Could the same be said for God and human?
EXCEPT, in one dynamic instance is this belief true.
Two if you count Young Frankenstein, which I do.
Dr. Frank-N-Furter buzzes electric with plenty of energy and pizzazz. Hypersexualized and hyper sexy, Frank, “a sweet transvestite from transexual Transylvania” renewed the energy around the Frankenstein story which garnered a huge cult following for the good doctor. Besides The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1974), Frankenstein’s story climaxed in films such as Reanimator (1985), based on the Lovecraft parody “Herbert West–Reanimator,” and the humorous, uninhibited female manifestation, Frankenhooker (1990).
For two centuries now, Frankenstein’s story has evolved to address fears that reflect the time, because Mary Shelley’s story presented a timeless fear—death with a gruesome tenacity for life.
Through Frankenstein’s experiment, humanity confronts their own mortality and the horror that comes from trying to defraud death. Death is not elective, though we may wish it to be. Death is balance in life. It is the inevitable tradeoff. It is rest. Frankenstein serves as a warning for us to never seek the answer to—Who are we when we cease to be, and is it possible for us to be eternally? Shelley, as well as these expressions of the Frankenstein story, remind us that we are not gods.
Part IV: Other Pioneers in Fictional (Film) Medicine and Medical Research
Negligence would abound at a failure to mention that other infamous doctor of gothic horror—Dr. Jekyll. Dr. Jekyll gives us Hyde, the beast of us. He allows us to review human nature with concision—a succinct line drawn between what is good about us and what is bad in order to learn that these things must harmonize together.
Dr. Serrain The Hands of Orlac (1924)
The Hands of Orlac (1924) is an adaptations of Maurice Renard’s novel Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) and the second Robert Wiene film in this entry. The Hands of Orlac was remade several times, including the 1935 version, Mad Love, which stars Peter Lorre as Dr. Gogol. In these films, we find out what happens when an obsessive doctor (Dr. Serra and Dr. Gogol respectively) performs hand replacement surgery. It is a fun and unique concept, which is later complemented in Body Parts (1991) and loosely by Guy Maddin in his fake hand replacement surgery which takes place in Cowards Bend the Knee (2003).
“The Mad Doctor” also referred to as Dr. XXX (1933)
“The Mad Doctor” is an early Mickey Mouse horror homage to uniting body parts to create new life. Dr. XXX wants to attach Pluto’s head to the body of a hen. Unfortunately, Disney does not allow us to see that fully playout. However, we do get to see Pluto’s shadow get cut in half.
Dr. Crespi in The Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935)
Assembled from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Premature Burial,” we are granted The Crime of Doctor Crespi. Dr. Stephen Ross makes an enemy out of Dr. Andre Crespi when he marries Crespi’s girlfriend. From there, Crespi commits a crime of passion using a sedative which mimics death. This film has a whack scientist, an induced death-like slumber, and being buried alive.
Most of these “doctors” and students of medicine revel in madness that mimics brilliance paired with an outsized ego. Their scientific approach is enlivened with wild notions and a reclusive immersion into their ideologies and theories. Armed with delusions of grandeur, their obsessions in morbid curiosities about the human body are able to thrive.
The reanimation of corpses, creation of life, body experimentations, and asylum reveries, mark these surgical and medical milestones in film. Experiencing these films for the first time or in a long overdue revisit makes a body think about what it means to have parts that allow you to experience anything in the first place. Those early mad doctors opened that creaky surgical door and established a clear path toward a torrential downpour of gore and provocation. Continuing to examine medical horror films in this series, I anticipate the following—a plunge into the most absurd surgical concepts and disconcerting body horror, an exploration of innovative medical devices and preposterous surgical tools, a look at extraordinary diseases and rapid-fire contagions in film, and a projection of what the future holds for medical horror based on both early and contemporary medical horror cinema.
- Brancho, B. J. (2018, March 6). Galvani and the spark of life. Lateral Magazine. http://www.lateralmag.com/articles/issue-25/galvani-and-the-spark-of-life
- Ebert, R. (2009, June 3). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari movie review (1920) | Roger Ebert. © Copyright 2021. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari-1920
- Gallant, C. (2017, November 2). 10 great Italian gothic horror films. British Film Institute. https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/10-great-italian-gothic-horror-films
- What is German Expressionism? A beginner’s guide. (n.d.). Movements In Film. https://www.movementsinfilm.com/german-expressionism
Kat Shook is a wily writer from the enchanted hills of West Virginia. She has written for as long as she can remember—which is evidenced by the whirlwind trail of scattered and abandoned letters she has left behind. Many moons and gaffes ago, she received a degree in this stuff (B.A. in English/Literature from Concord University in Athens, WV). She has penned several stumbling lines of poetry, a trickle of short stories (non-fiction, horror, erotic, and bizarro), and a few provocative articles on politics and music. Also, she was the editor for My Shrinking Fat Belly: A Surrogate’s Side by Jana Jarrett.
Kat lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which thwarts her mind on occasion. Fortunately, therapy provides her with the tools she needs to stay balanced. Kat is also a social justice warrior who rails against poverty through activism. She volunteers as a mentor for children in her community and is a longtime advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights. She has been married to her darling wife, Elizabeth, for four years now. They live and thrive together by the Shenandoah River with their pups, Cassette and BMO, as well as their elderly cat, Autumn.
Visit Kat @ www.katshook.com.