Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 5

Film, horror

By Christy Tidwell

This weekend is Halloween! To celebrate, I have two final movie recommendations to share. One is an all-time favorite of mine and probably no surprise to those who know me. The other is one of the scarier recent movies I’ve seen. Their premises are quite different, but both have science and technology at their core.

Classic Movie #5: Jurassic Park

Of course it’s Jurassic Park! Jurassic Park (1993, directed by Steven Spielberg) is an adventure movie featuring dinosaurs, a horror movie with terrifying monster attacks, and a science fiction movie that asks, “What if we could bring a creature back from extinction?” Jurassic Park is such a well-known part of US popular culture that it is a common reference point in discussions of scientific overreach and a familiar critique of the role of money in scientific research. “Spared no expense,” John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) repeats throughout – but the project still fails.

Jurassic Park is a reworking of Frankenstein with dinosaurs, and it is one of the best movies out there for raising important questions about scientific ethics while also being extraordinarily entertaining. If you haven’t seen it, now is the time! If you have already seen it, well, it’s always a good time to watch Jurassic Park again.

Official trailer for Jurassic Park (1993)

Contemporary Movie #5: Host

As Laura Kremmel noted in her recent post “High-Tech Spirits and Ghost Tours,” Host (2020, dir. Rob Savage) has been named as the scariest horror movie. It’s short (only 57 minutes!) and fun, but it definitely gets your heart pounding in that short running time. Host spends less time raising big issues about science than Jurassic Park and focuses more on scaring the audience, but the way it achieves its scares is worth noting from an STS perspective. Those scares are only possible through the technology of Zoom, and the audience’s ability to be scared by spirits via technology is a) definitely not new (as Laura Kremmel points out) and b) perhaps an indication of how mysterious the inner workings of these technologies are to most of us.

Official trailer for Host (2020)

Collected Movie Lists

This is the final entry in the series of STS-related horror movies for this season, so I’ll end by combining all the movies recommended and linking to the earlier posts.

Classic movies:

  1. Frankenstein (1931)
  2. Godzilla (1954)
  3. Phase IV (1974)
  4. The Fly (1986)
  5. Jurassic Park (1993)

Contemporary movies:

  1. Saint Maud (2019)
  2. Crawl (2019)
  3. In the Earth (2020)
  4. Annihilation (2018)
  5. Host (2020)

Happy Halloween, and happy viewing!

Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 4

Film, horror

By Christy Tidwell

There’s just a week and a half left before Halloween, but there’s still time for more spooky movies! This week’s classic and contemporary movie recommendations prominently feature scientists and scientific research, highlighting the risks of scientific experimentation and exploration (especially when done outside the bounds of formal research contexts) as well as the limits of scientific knowledge.

Classic Movie #4: The Fly

David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly is a classic of body horror. Its central premise is that a human (Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum) merges with a fly and becomes a horrifying human-fly mutant: Brundlefly. This transformation emphasizes bodily mutation through both the intimate horror of things like losing fingernails (as gruesomely shown in the bathroom scene) and the ultimate form of Brundlefly, so dramatically changed that it no longer has a recognizably human face.

The Fly is also another horror film about mad science (following in the footsteps of Frankenstein, recommended during Week 1). It’s not just that a human merges with a fly, after all, but that a scientist conducts experiments on himself that go very wrong. The film dramatizes what can happen when scientists abandon the norms and regulations of scientific practice. If you can’t get funding through traditional means, how far are you willing to go for your research? Are you willing to experiment on yourself? Although historically there have been quite a few scientists willing to do this, The Fly serves as a cautionary tale indicating that this will not always work out. Some renegade scientists might get to be Humphry Davy (who experimented with nitrous oxide and discovered its use as an anesthetic – without killing himself!), but others are Seth Brundle/Brundlefly.

Poster for The Fly (1986)

Contemporary Movie #4: Annihilation

Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018, an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name) also follows a scientist, a biologist (Natalie Portman). She is on an expedition with an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and a linguist (all women) into a mysterious environmental disaster zone known as the Shimmer. The Shimmer doesn’t follow the familiar rules of nature and ever stranger things happen to and around the group of explorers. Without giving too much away (since the movie is still relatively recent), I can say that Annihilation centers both scientific exploration and environmental issues, which connects it nicely to the STS degree.

Where The Fly endorses traditional science by showing the awful consequences of going outside its boundaries, Annihilation takes a different approach, illustrating the limits of scientific knowledge. The team of women in Annihilation are overwhelmed by the world within the Shimmer, ultimately unable to study it objectively and changed by it instead. In both films, scientists are unable to remain completely separate from what they study.

Trailer for Annihilation (2018)

For more recommendations, check out earlier entries in this series: Week 1, Week 2, and Week 3!

Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 3

Environment, Film, horror

By Christy Tidwell

This week’s recommendations stick with the emphasis on ecohorror introduced last week. Instead of presenting monsters like Godzilla or crocodiles, though, these two films find both wonder and horror in exploring the agency of the nonhuman world. How do other species communicate? How do they act upon us and shape our actions?

Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 2

Environment, Film, horror, Humanities

By Christy Tidwell

Horror movies are often defined by their monsters. Sometimes these monsters are terrifying beasts that give us nightmares (like Guillermo del Toro’s Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth or Pennywise from Stephen King’s It), sometimes they’re kind of silly (like the rampaging rabbits in Night of the Lepus), and sometimes they’re surprisingly sympathetic (like Frankenstein’s Creature).

In any case, monsters demonstrate something about both the world we live in and what we fear. In the 1950s, people feared nuclear war; now, we fear climate change. The two horror movies I’m recommending for this week directly address those fears, presenting viewers with monsters that embody the harm of nuclear warfare/testing in one case and that are the direct result of climate change’s superstorms and unpredictable weather patterns in the other.

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.