Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 1

Film, horror, Humanities

By Christy Tidwell

October means cooler temperatures, cozy sweaters, falling leaves – and scary movies. Horror might not be where you turn for your STS-related entertainment, but the genre frequently addresses science, technology, and humanity’s relationship to both. In Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge and the Development of the Horror Genre, Jason Colavito writes that “horror cannot survive without the anxieties created by the changing role of human knowledge and science in our society” (4). These anxieties are also a big part of what we study in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), and they can shape the kinds of technologies we embrace or reject, both as individuals and as a culture.

In the spirit of Halloween, then, this is the first post in a series where I will recommend horror movies that address STEM topics, broadly defined. Each week until Halloween, I’ll suggest one classic and one contemporary horror movie that provide opportunities both to think more deeply about the relationships we as humans have with science/technology and also to have a little fun.

Classic Movie #1: Frankenstein

For the first weekend in October, what better place to begin than with Frankenstein? James Whale’s 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel establishes conventions that many later horror movies use, from the lumbering monster to the mad scientist to the torch-wielding villagers. Frankenstein is also an important story for considering humanity’s use of science. How far should humans go in their pursuit of knowledge and in their attempts to control nature? Frankenstein indicates that there are – and should be – limits to human experimentation, and it represents not only the monstrous results of such experiments but also the scientist who goes too far.

The creation scene from Frankenstein: “It’s alive!”

If you haven’t seen Frankenstein because you don’t think you like old movies, now is a good time to check it out! For viewers raised on more recent horror, it will likely not be particularly scary, but it’s still a great movie. As a related bonus recommendation, Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974) – in addition to being hilarious – shows how familiar these tropes from Frankenstein later become.

The creation scene from Young Frankenstein (starring Gene Wilder) clearly builds on the 1931 film’s “It’s alive!” moment.

Contemporary Movie #1: Saint Maud

First released in 2019 but only available in the US in 2021, Saint Maud (dir. Rose Glass) is a compelling and sometimes shocking look at caregiving and mental health. Like Frankenstein, it raises questions about the role of faith in everyday life; where Frankenstein focuses on whether humans should play God, however, Saint Maud pays attention to the more ordinary work of medical caretakers and the emotional and spiritual toll it can take. The movie highlights the thin lines between helping and converting, body and soul, and faith and madness, and it demands attention to “the trauma of caretaking work and the easy neglect of those who do it,” as Laura Kremmel writes in her Horror Homeroom piece “Saint Maud: Who Cares for the Carers?” (I highly recommend reading her entire essay, but note that it includes spoilers, so you should watch the movie first!)

We often think of STEM fields and careers as high-tech, intellectual, or tough, but Saint Maud instead focuses on the important and relatively mundane work of medical care. It’s intimate instead, and this intimacy requires a different kind of strength.

Official trailer for Saint Maud

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