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The Need to Know: Science and Scientism in Horror Literature

Horror literature offers a glimpse into society's conflicted relationship with science.

A necromancer raises the dead using special knowledge.

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Victor Frankenstein is perhaps the epitome of the mad scientist, recklessly seeking to become the modern Prometheus and appropriate for himself some of the powers that Nature delegated to her God. From his dark laboratory Frankenstein sought to transform dead flesh into a living, man-made creation, life beholden not to God but to man alone. This frightened even the scientist himself who confessed that "often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion" (Shelley 39). In that sentence the reader sees a contradictory attitude toward science and knowledge which permeates horror literature. The pursuit of knowledge is intoxicating, desirable, and ultimately terrifying. Science and knowledge can only bring horror when they step outside their proper place and infringe on areas best left to other agents.

The origins of this mad scientist seem to stretch back far in time, at least to Christopher Marlowe's written version of the Dr. Faustus folk tale. The doctor sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge (and therefore power), but his knowledge leads only to tragedy as he is dragged to Hell and the Chorus exhorts the audience "[o]nly to wonder at unlawful things/Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits/To practice more than heavenly power permits" (Marlowe 56). Even at this early date we can see that the powers of science are perceived as evil, an affront to God and heavenly power. Yet by the 18th century, Goethe was able to reverse the ending of the story and allow Faustus (now Faust) to enter Heaven, though only through the power of irrational Love. Faust's knowledge still condemns him to Hell; only by embracing the irrational can he save his soul.

Noel Carroll proposes that this basic story of the transgressive scientists is one of a handful of basic plots of the horror story. Calling it the "Overreacher Plot," Carroll says the protagonist seeks out forbidden knowledge, releases its power, and must deal with the consequences. The warning is clear: do not go beyond accepted boundaries (Carroll 57). Carroll further says that the other major plotline related to this is the "Discovery Plot" wherein the protagonists discover the existence of something that defies common knowledge and must expend their energy both vanquishing the horror and proving to others that the horror existed: "Such a plot celebrates the existence of things beyond the common knowledge" (Carroll 57).

But perhaps these plots are not entirely opposites. Both are overly concerned with knowledge as a source of horror, and both seem to reflect the same ambivalent attitude toward the power of science that permeates modern thought. It seems that the core issue at stake in the horror story is the issue of science versus scientism. The former is a way of learning through experimentation, theorization, and testing. The latter is a dogmatic acceptance that what is known is all that can be known, and the accepted way of knowing is the only way to know. In a philosophical sense, horror tales seem to face a very post-modern struggle: the battle between positivism (scientism) and pure science. In most cases, scientism fails, though science often wins.

Historian Jacque Barzun recognizes scientism as a major theme in Western Civilization, and he provides the clearest explanation of why it produces a profound disappointment and backlash like the one evident in horror art:

The clue to the fallacy of scientism is this: geometry (in all senses of the word) is an abstraction from experience; it could not live without the work of the human mind on what it encounters in the world. Hence the realm of abstraction, useful and far from unreal, is thin and bare and poorer than the world it is drawn from. It is therefore an idle dream to think of someday getting along without direct dealings with what the abstraction leaves untouched. (Barzun 218).

The ultimate result is a profound disconnect in modern life, a feeling that humanity is disconnected from the world and from the path to true knowledge. This in essence is the origins of Carroll's idea of knowledge as the predominant theme of horror.

Bram Stoker's Dracula is a perfect example of the difference between science and scientism. In the novel, Dr. Seward, the consummate scientist (in both senses), cannot at first believe that vampires or real or that Lucy is subject to their attack. In fact, when his dogmatic acceptance of scientism is questioned by Van Helsing's other ways of knowing, Seward tells his diary: "I am beginning to wonder if my long habit of life amongst the insane is beginning to tell upon my own brain" (Stoker 130). The fact of the matter is that Van Helsing is a consummate man of science, for his titles and degrees confirm that. So how can one rectify this with his belief in the supernatural? One can simply because Van Helsing is pursuing knowledge without the handicap of dogma. He is free to accept vampires because he has tested and confirmed they existed, not because he has refused to accept them for violating some deeply held belief about the workings of the universe.

Thus in Dracula is science and progress and the Victorian ideal triumphant even as the traditional scientific establishment is powerless to protect against the vampire threat. Only by embracing knowledge in its purest sense are the scientific advances like typewriters, steam-engines, and telegraphs transformed into tools to fight against evil.

But this struggle is not without cost. Susan Navarette argues that death and self-negation are the ultimate result of knowledge in Victorian horror fiction, just as pure impersonal objectivity is the stated goal of pure science (112). In this, she echoes Buddhist teachings, which hold that perfect atonement (at-one-ment) brings perfect knowledge and thus the immolation of the self into the bliss that is Nirvana. So in Dracula, all of the triumphant characters who defeat the vampire also lose something of themselves in the process. They have gained knowledge, but as the final "Note" makes clear, Harker's new son has melded the men together so that their identities cease to be distinct (as though they ever were): "His bundle of names links all our little band of men together" (Stoker 365).

Similarly, Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde produces the same result. The ultimate result of the scientist Jekyll's quest is his own self-negation. He takes the potion in order to free himself from Victorian restraints, but having ventured outside the bounds of acceptable science, like Faustus before him, he is destroyed. Thus he conforms to Carroll's Overreacher Plot while also confirming Navarette's science-as-negation theory. In the end, Jekyll gives himself over to the demon Hyde, his "true hour of death," and Hyde, too, takes it upon himself to destroy the results of positivism gone awry (Stevenson 103).

Yet even in this Victorian matrix we can see the seeds of the science-scientism struggle to come. Jekyll cloaks his actions in the language of science, justifying his actions purely in terms of the positivist and of scientific theory. He represents not the true pursuit of knowledge so much as the attempt of the believer in scientism to push the boundaries of science into those areas where it has no right to be. The human mind, it seems to argue, is no place for science to probe its instruments and potions. In Jekyll's theory that there are multiple areas in the human mind, we see the origins of modern theories that hold that the human mind as creator of the laws of science can never successfully employ them to explore itself. Jekyll confesses that he does not know how many parts man truly is; in this he presages the post-modernists who hold that knowledge is personal and fragmentary, that their is no one knowledge but many, and that science is but one method among many.

Later, H. P. Lovecraft would carry these themes still further, pushing science beyond space and time and making knowledge not just a path to self-negation but the ultimate source of horror itself. In such stories as "Call of Cthulhu," Lovecraft posits a universe of pure science, where the rule of materialism prevails, and their is no place for supernatural saviors or ultimate good. In his stories, the seeker after forbidden knowledge inevitably goes mad from the revelation. As he ghost-wrote for William Lumley in "The Diary of Alonzo Typer":

Truly there are terrible and primal arcana of Earth which had better be left unknown and unevoked; dread secrets which have nothing to do with man, and which man may learn only in exchange for peace and sanity; cryptic truths which make the knower evermore an alien among his kind, and cause him to walk the earth alone (Lovecraft Horror 88).

But there is a corollary to this sad view of the world, one which demands that the seeker look for this knowledge at any price. From "The Whisperer in Darkness":

To shake off the maddening and wearying limitations of time and space and natural lawto be linked with the vast outsideto come close to the nighted and abysmal secrets of the infinite and ultimatesurely such a thing was worth the risk of one's life, soul, and sanity (Lovecraft Bloodcurdling 162)!

It is a Nietzschean logic at work. Quite simply, if the universe is godless and material, then there is no ultimate purpose to being, no comforting figure in the sky. The horror of this revelation can be mitigated, however, by seeking out a pure knowledge of the universe even at the expense of the self. Like the Victorian immolation-by-science, Lovecraft's protagonists are compelled to seek out this knowledge even though it must inevitably result in the destruction of one's sense of self. The narrators of "Haunter of the Dark" or "Shadow Over Innsmouth" have no choice but to seek their inevitable destruction, just as Oedipus must; for the pursuit of this knowledge is the only structure and purpose that can animate a life lived in a material universe abandoned by the fictional gods that once populated humanities dreams. To attain perfect knowledge is to rebuke the dark dogma of scientism that believes that all that is known is all that can be known, and it is to make for oneself the epiphany that the heavens deny and death mocks.

But of course, the Neitzschean philosophy presented in Lovecraft could never become the philosophy of the masses because its demands for the abandonment of self to the blind forces of the universe is a price that few are willing to pay. Instead, the tension between science and scientism came to be caricatured as a battle between believers and non-believers. As Allen Grove maintains, horror stories evolved a narrative structure that relied on a battle between skeptics and believers: "The narrative energy and terror of these stories depends upon the tension between the skeptical, rational character and those forces that defy his reason. Ghost stories often appear self-conscious of their own skeptical audiences as they dramatize the empiricist's conversion to a 'believer'"(Grove).

In fact, Grove indirectly confirms that the battle is not really between faith and doubt but between science (as a method of learning) and scientism. He confirms that the skeptical character is almost always one who believes that a concession to the supernatural is tantamount to a renunciation of positivism (Grove). This is exactly the problem of scientism, and it is a problem that Richard Matheson begins to deal with in his 1971 novel Hell House. In that book, the scientist character seems to follow the path of science, but is in fact on the path of scientism. His world-view is entirely material, accepting psychic powers and even ghosts as logical extensions of known phenomena. He denies that consciousness exists after death, and he believes in the absolute power of Science to save the world. He also is full of the self-satisfied conceit of the positivist: "Perhaps [he thought] someday the Reversor would occupy a place of honor in the Smithsonian Institution. He smiled sardonically" (Matheson 238). The irony of the book's battle between science and scientism is that the positivist's Reversor does its job even while the materialist theories that underpin it are presumably proved wrong by subsequent events.

And so the battle between science as a way to know and scientism as a dogmatic belief system becomes lost in a straw man argument about the conflict between science and faith. Books like The Exorcist seem at first to be a battle between faith and doubt, but they are in fact about another battle. In The Exorcist, Damien Karras seems to be torn between science and faith, and we are to believe, as the author William Peter Blatty does, that faith somehow triumphs over science when the dying Karras stares at "nothing in this world" (Blatty 374). But on closer examination, we can see that the battle was between the pure materialist believers in scientism who denied that demons could exist and thus treated Reagan's problem with cruel and incorrect medicines and those who followed the path of true, unencumbered knowledge. Karras represents a true science that followed evidence where it led and came to a conclusion based upon reasoning, tests, and proof. If that science happened to lead to supernatural conclusion, so be it: it could not be discounted prima facie as impossible. Like his Victorian predecessors (in both senses) Karras too suffers self-immolation and the loss of his individual spirit before the objective reality of pure knowledge. The lesson is clear: the price of understanding is the loss of self, but it is also a boon that must be sought in order to know even if it is but for a moment. It is as close to an epiphany that the modern world can offer.

But while pure inquiry among endless possibilities may be the ideal of science, as science ascended to world dominance over the years, it inevitably crystallized into scientism. Satisfied with its ability to kill off the monsters of classic horror, science instead became the monster lurking behind the scenes of horror. It is the all-powerful monster that destroys lives and souls. In works like Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park or innumerable science-fiction horror stories, it is the workings of science itself that form the horror of the story. Like Victor Frankenstein back in 1818, scientists who clone animals, make artificial life, and genetically alter lifeforms often look back and say, "often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation" (Shelley 39). Science is a way to know and will always be, but the scientism that it yielded will not stay; and when it has passed on, so too will the stories of men (and a few women) who abuse knowledge and unleash what Lovecraft's prose-poem to the mad-scientist Nyarlathotep and his technological wonders deemed "midnights of rotting creation" (Lovecraft Dreams 54).



Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500-Present.

Harper Collins. New York: 2000.

Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. HarperPaperbacks. New York: 1994.

Carroll, Noel. "The Nature of Horror." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 46:1. Autumn 1987: 51-59.

Grove, Allen W. "Rontgen's Ghosts: Photography, X-Rays, and the Victorian Imagination." Literature and Medicine. 16:2. 1997. accessed through Project Muse, http://muse.jhu.edu/ on Nov. 24, 2002. n. pag.

Lovecraft, H.P. Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. Del Rey. New York: 1982.

-------------. The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death. Del Rey. New York: 1995.

-------------. The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions. Carroll & Graf. New York: 1997.

Marlowe, Christopher. Dr. Faustus. Dover. New York: 1994.

Matheson, Richard. Hell House. Tor. New York: 1999.

Navarette, Susan J. The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siecle Culture of Decadence. University of Kentucky Press. Lexington: 1998.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Bantam. New York: 1991.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Bantam: Toronto: 1981.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Aerie. New York: 1988.

2003 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.