The Most Annoying Mad Scientist Cliche is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fault

‘Frankenstein’ brought it to the movies, but Mary Shelley’s not to blame.

Dr Frankenstein
Universal Pictures

There are many, many, many mad movie scientists out there, and the granddaddy of them all is easily the one and only Dr. Frankenstein. While Mary Shelley deserves a great deal of credit for influencing the development of horror and sci-fi as we know it today with her seminal 1818 novel, the tritest and most tired version of the mad scientist really isn’t her fault. James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein film, and nearly all of its many successors, do tread this worn-out path, but the stereotype on display doesn’t source back to Shelley. It dates back to Nathaniel Hawthorne

Shelley’s problematic experimenter is undoubtedly a megalomaniac who tosses ethics out the window in his obsessive quest for greatness, but his fatal flaw isn’t his god complex. The original Frankenstein Monster, who is grotesque to behold but graceful and ultimately quite eloquent, only becomes truly monstrous as his hurt over his abandonment and lack of guidance calcify into a murderous rage. Should Frankenstein have made the creature to begin with? No, probably not. But the crux of the issue, the fundamental moral of the story, points to Frankenstein’s cowardice and failure to take responsibility for his creations. 

Whale’s Frankenstein, for its many strengths, does not preserve this nuance, nor do the overwhelming majority of the numerous mad scientist tales that have followed in its footsteps. Instead, they take their cues from a pattern codified by Hawthorne. The 19th-century author is best remembered for The Scarlet Letter, a morality tale exploring shame and the dangers of hypocrisy, but one of Hawthorne’s less-acknowledged but hugely pervasive legacies comes in the form of his favorite mad-scientist stock figure.

In the book Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists, Taylor Stoehr summarizes the pattern spread across such tales as “Rappacini’s Daughter,” “The Birth-Mark,” and “Ethan Brand” thusly: 

“An isolated man whose mentality and special pursuits tear him away from the warmth of (usually female) society until he hardens into a frozen or petrified monster… Hawthorne repeatedly plays upon a contrast between the human warmth of domesticity and the self-defeating coldness and abstraction of egotistical endeavor… In Hawthorne’s work clinical detachment … is always a symptom of moral disease.”

The thing is, “clinical detachment” is a fundamental part of doing good science. The whole idea behind the scientific method is using empirical evidence to shape understanding. You can’t get too attached to your hypotheses, because the point is that if another explanation fits the data better, your previous hypothesis should be tossed out like yesterday’s trash, no matter how fond of it you were. The whole idea of scientific practice is to constantly challenge your own ideas and scrap them if they fail to rise to the occasion. 

Clinical detachment isn’t about being cold and unfeeling, it’s about trying to limit how much your own biases and preconceived notions influence your work. It is a major component of being a responsible scientist. Stories that follow Hawthorne’s trend of problematizing this detachment as cold and immoral aren’t just annoyingly repetitive but fundamentally misguided. They are inherently incapable of presenting meaningful commentary on the nature of scientific practice because they have woefully inaccurate conceptions of how it works. 

Hawthorne’s scientist figure is the archetype that defines the most prominent kind of evil experimenter on screen. It’s this pattern that Whale’s Frankenstein follows, with its stumbling monster accidentally built with a criminal brain, and Edward Van Sloan breaking the fourth wall in an introduction to warn us that the titular scientist’s unforgivable sin is being “a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God.” 

While more recent creatives have broadened their horizons to include women scientists as well, the pattern remains remarkably and mind-numbingly unchanged. Although there’s a significant chance of Hawthorne’s formula coming into play any time a scientist character shows up on-screen, when that scientist happens to be someone messing with the “stuff of life,” a Hawthorne-style megalomaniac is practically an inevitability. 

Whale’s Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) shouts, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” directly after delivering his iconic “IT’S ALIVE!” line. The majority of mad scientists that have followed in his footsteps, particularly the most cliche ones, echo his sentiments. Perhaps the most recent iteration is the villain of the sci-fi Netflix series Biohackers, the icy, amoral sociopath and self-described “god” Dr. Tanja Lorenz (Jessica Schwarz), who is unsurprisingly a geneticist specializing in synthetic biology. Encountering a fictional on-screen geneticist who doesn’t follow Hawthorne’s pattern is like finding a unicorn at the end of a double rainbow. 

There’s the old adage about people fearing what they don’t understand, and that’s really what Hawthorne’s mad scientist represents, as opposed to any insight relevant to the practice of science. That Shelley’s original Dr. Frankenstein displays far more insightful commentary on the dangers of irresponsible science is hardly surprising when one looks at the differences between her and Hawthorne. 

While Shelley clearly had concerns about the field still known as “natural philosophy,” she was well versed in its progress, having interacted with many of its leading thinkers. Hawthorne, meanwhile, did not interact with any active scientists or follow specific advancement. He simply made his moral judgments from afar with little to no exposure to or understanding of scientific practice.

It’s still the same today. The stories that approach scientific horror with nuance in ways actually relevant to the realities of science are those that come from creatives who have at least some basic familiarity with the subject matter. That’s why a filmmaker like David Cronenberg, who studied science at university before switching to English literature, does scientific body horror so well.  

Maybe someday more filmmakers will start trying to develop some basic understanding of the fields of study they’re depicting on screen. But until then, the predominant and basically meaningless pattern popularized by Nathaniel Hawthorne will undoubtedly continue to reign supreme, just with updated, inaccurately used keywords.

Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.