Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
According to Wikipedia’s article concerning the event, “the scientific revolution began with the publication of two works that changed the course of science in 1543 and continued through the late 17th century: Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and Andreas Vesalius’ On the Fabric of the Human Body (“Scientific Revolution”).
Before then, and even as late as the early twentieth century, the supernatural realm often served as the basis for horror stories, novels, and films. Gradually, the principles of science replaced the tenets of theology and the mad scientist replaced the mystic in such fiction. Whereas, before the scientific revolution, what occurred among the heavenly powers, both fallen and steadfast, determined human affairs, afterward, as Shakespeare argues, “he fault” began to lie more “in ourselves” than in “the stars.”
Nature, rather than the supernatural realm, became, more and more, the stage for human affairs and the human being him- or herself, rather than God or demons, increasingly became the actor upon this stage. In horror, ghosts, werewolves, witches, and vampires became less frequent villains (and less respected ones) than mad scientists, just as technology replaced magic. Where creatures such as zombies persisted, scientific, rather than mystical, explanations were offered by authors and filmmakers to explain their origin. Perhaps they were nothing more than human beings who had had the misfortune to have been infected by a bizarre virus or were victims of unscrupulous “witch doctors” who employed a mixture of “tetrodotoxin, a powerful hallucinogen called Datura, and cultural forces and beliefs” to convince uneducated and illiterate men and women that they had been resurrected from the dead and now owed their allegiance to the witch doctors who had performed this miraculous feat (“The Serpent and the Rainbow (book),” Wikipedia). In short, the change from mysticism to science fiction, or from faith to knowledge, as the primary basis for horror fiction is not accidental; it stems from the change in Western culture’s Weltanschauung.
In the past, humans were in danger of losing their souls and becoming demonic parodies of their true selves (images of God), damned forever to hell. With the general acceptance among scientists of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, human beings might fall victim, instead, to the animal nature within, which they had suppressed, more or less successfully, over the millennia since the first human beings emerged from their original, primordial ape-like ancestors. Since the industrial revolution, people have feared their affinity, as so-called ghosts in the machine (of the human body), to automatons, with cyborgs and robots replacing feral creatures as symbolic expressions of human degeneration. In the information, or computer, age, men and women fear that even their very personalities may be replaced by software encoded with artificial intelligence.
The theological has given way to the evolutionary, which has given way to the mechanical, which has given way to the digital or cybernetic. At each point, men and women have become both less and less fleshly and human and more and more incorporeal and inhuman, alienated, literally and figuratively, from both themselves and their world. Such stories (plays, novels, television series, or films) as Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604), H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), the televisions series The Six Million Dollar Man (1970s), and Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed (1973), upon which Donald Cammell’s film adaptation of the same title (1977) is based.
Although utopian fiction sometimes projects a paradisiacal future civilization based upon the scientific pursuit of knowledge and the technological inventions that often results from such a pursuit, horror fiction that is based upon science (or, more often, science fiction) has frequently opposed such an optimistic vision, showing that science, as an invention and enterprise of human origin, is, at best, a morally neutral activity, its beneficial or destructive effects being determined by the scientists (and, more often, the corporations or government agencies that underwrite the scientists’ work).
Horror writers generally take a dim view of human nature, considering it to be corrupted or corruptible, limited, fallible, and, perhaps, even innately evil. Edgar Allan Poe sums up the general view of horror writers as much today as he did in the nineteenth century: “I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. an is now only more active---not more happy--or more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.” Often, horror stories tend to be cautionary tales in which the object to be feared is not the mythical box of Pandora but the manipulation of nature, human and otherwise, for individual scientist’s own gain or as a means to the government’s end, which is usually, world domination or the control of nature itself, as H. G. Wells warned: “Man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him.”
In horror, science has given birth, as it were, to such terrors as aliens; cloned dinosaurs, psychotic cyborgs; disease and pestilence; gigantic plants, insects, and animals; human-animal hybrids; renegade robots; mad scientists; serial killers; super-soldiers; and a host of other menaces representative of the dangers of runaway technology or the application of science without concern for morality; the lust for political, military, or financial power at any cost; and just plain old human hubris. We can’t blame God or nature; as Shakespeare taught us, “The fault. . . lies not in our stars but in ourselves.” The attempt to avoid blame for our own cruelty, stupidity, greed, and callous indifference to anyone but ourselves that was evident in evolutionists’ insistence that we are to expect some such behavior as natural and normal, since, after all, imperfect and fallible human beings are evolving from lower life forms may be logically sound, should one accept the basic primitive that human beings are evolving in such a fashion, but horror writers don’t let their characters off the hook as easily as that, insisting, instead, that a price--and often a brutal one and a collective one--be paid in blood and guts and fear.
Horror fiction is one of the few remaining genres that seeks to hold humanity accountable for its actions toward one another and toward nature itself. Perhaps human behavior is determined, rather than elective, but, even if it is, a price must be paid for immoral or amoral behavior. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense to punish people for the dastardly deeds that they cannot help doing (if their behavior is determined rather than free), the price must be paid, horror fiction declares. Heads must roll.
Otherwise, if heads do not roll, and everyone is permitted to do whatever he or she likes, without regard to whether an action might be considered by others, and even by a vast majority of others, to be wrong and harmful, or even disastrous, the effect will be much as would follow from a theory of morality (or amorality) such as that which Ted Bundy held and articulated, a monstrous, but perhaps irrefutable, notion of what constitutes the good in a universe devoid of evil.
Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself–what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself–that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring–the strength of character–to throw off its shackles. . . . I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me–after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.(On January 24, 1989, Ted Bundy’s own head “rolled,” which is to say, he was electrocuted--for the murder of 12year-old Kimberly Leach.)