Mad Scientist: Cackling Goofball, or Deadly Menace?

Mad scientist - Stock Image - T875/1054 - Science Photo ...

The popular image of the mad scientist is one of a frizzy haired, generally harmless older man messing around in a lab. Such mad scientists seem and are typically portrayed as relatively inoffensive. Doctor Doofensmirtz from Phineas and Ferb* is one example of this common perception of the mad scientist, with Back to the Future’s* Doc Brown being another. But these comedic presentations should not obscure the aspiring author’s understanding of the danger posed by men who “rush in where angels fear to tread.”

Contrary to the innocuous, fluff-brained image of the mad scientist, the archetype is not a humorous or harmless creature. He is, rather, the picture of modern man’s arrogance. Where the alchemist or evil wizard of old stood as a warning against “the knowledge that puffeth up,” the mad scientist has taken his place in the modern era. A well-executed and decidedly evil mad scientist is not a cackling maniac who rubs his hands together shouting “It’s alive!” in the middle of a midnight thunderstorm. He is something altogether more intimidating and horrifying.

Dr. Frankenstein, the creator of the eponymous Frankenstein monster, is the forerunner of this archetype. He seeks to use human knowledge to conquer death, a power only the Creator possesses. Using parts from a variety of corpses as well as the latest technology, he resurrects these dead specimens’ physical remains to new life – only to find he has created a monster the likes of which mankind has never seen before.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein* ends with the note that scientific endeavor should continue despite Dr. Frankenstein’s sin. While not necessarily a wrong conclusion – scientific knowledge has benefited many over the centuries – it does tend to obscure the point of what her protagonist has done. Frankenstein broke every prohibition in the natural world to become a pseudo-Prometheus, and not only did he fail miserably, he unleashed a terror upon unwary innocents he could not destroy.

Once, Western writers understood that this was the basis upon which the archetype was built. Whether the evil mad scientist is simply a sociopath incapable of feeling normal human emotions that would at least slow him down or a man convinced of his own godhood matters little. The fact remains that he is not working for the benefit of mankind or in an effort to prove there is a better way forward for humanity. The evil mad scientist’s goals are (a) to get what he wants, (b) to satisfy his curiosity, (c) to prove his intelligence, (d) to prove that he is not a failure or to maintain his rank, or (e) just to see what happens.

Writers in the Land of the Rising Sun today have a much better grasp on this villainous archetype. Part of that might be due to Unit 731, also known as the Kamo Detachment or Ishii Unit, the biological and chemical Imperial Japanese unit that performed human experimentation during World War II. Members of this unit vivisected and killed Chinese citizens as well as American POWs, a fact many in the West have forgotten, but which the Japanese and the Chinese still remember.

The West has a history of this type of experimentation as well. It is ongoing even now, if one is willing to admit it. But Westerners are, at present, better at avoiding these terrible facts. It is easy enough to distract oneself when one seeks not to see the monster in the mirror.

Evil mad scientists may be able to engage in this same type of avoidance behavior, or they may openly embrace their inner demon. An example would be Professor Hojo from the Final Fantasy VII series. This scene from the Remake illustrates the point quite well. It has to be one of the best orchestrated characterizations of an evil mad scientist that I have seen to date:

Hojo is a monster who cloaks his depravity with the claim that he “only wants to satisfy [his] scientific curiosity.” The man regularly tortures and mutates humans into beasts against their will; he experimented upon his own wife and son, and he has no compunctions about destroying the planet to prove a theory. In the above scene, he is also quite happy to regale Aerith with all the gory details of preserving “every cell” of her deceased mother’s body.

Aerith’s deceased mother never stopped fighting him. She escaped Shinra headquarters while she was dying to get her daughter away from the beast that used them for his own personal satisfaction. Ifalna died in the gutter of a train station begging a total stranger to protect her daughter, and she was never given a proper burial, never allowed to rest in peace. She was, rather, dissected and kept jars, to be ogled and essentially raped in death by the tormentor who could not gain what he desired from her in life. It is a diabolic mindset and attitude that cannot be comprehended by those who aren’t possessed as sheer madness.

Speaking of demonic, this author would be remiss if she did not mention Shou Tucker. Introduced more fully in Fullmetal Alchemist*, the updated anime series Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood*, Shou Tucker is a character that conveys the lengths to which a man of science will go to prove – to himself if not to others – that he is not a failure. In the universe of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, alchemy is nothing more than science lifted to a near-magical art.

Tucker is a state alchemist in the service of the country of Amestris. Known as “dogs of the military” for their actions in the recent Ishvalan campaign, Shou Tucker has only had his license for two years, meaning that he has not been in the state’s pay for very long and has never seen combat. Every two years a state alchemist’s license must be renewed, so state alchemists are required to prove that their studies have borne fruit of some kind.

Called “the Sewing-Life Alchemist,” Tucker’s efforts have been focused on making a chimera that can understand and speak the human language. This is a difficult thing to accomplish, as bio-alchemy is a tricky endeavor that often ends in frustration and disappointment. Human experimentation with alchemy, as well as human transmutation, are also forbidden, preventing a majority of bio-alchemists from pursuing research that might offer more hopeful results.

Having attempted human transmutation to restore their deceased mother to life, the heroes of the series – Edward “Ed” and Alphonse “Al” Elric – know the latter law cannot be violated: the dead remain dead. And those who try bring them back pay a price for the attempt. Ed lost his left leg for transgressing the law, while Al lost his entire body. The younger Elric is now a soul tied to a suit of armor, a feat that cost his older brother his right arm. And so, despite their young age, they know these laws better than most.

During their time studying in Shou Tucker’s library, the brothers become friends with Nina Tucker, the Sewing-Life Alchemist’s five-year-old daughter. Her pet dog, Alexander, also befriends the brothers and the four grow close enough that Nina reveals her mother left the family after arguing with her father a great deal. This happened two years previous – the same time Tucker earned his state alchemist license and created a chimera that could understand human speech.

Not only could it comprehend human language, the chimera the Sewing-Life Alchemist created could speak. But it only repeated one statement, over and over again: “I want to die.” Shou Tucker’s prize creation starved itself to death two years previous.

By now, I think you are beginning to see the connection. Ed and Al, however, failed to make that same correlation until it was too late for Nina. Desperate not to lose his state alchemist license and be known as a failure once again, Shou Tucker repeats his previous experiment. But where he used his wife for the prior transmutation, this time he used his daughter and her pet dog.

Alexander and Nina Tucker

Enraged, Ed nearly beats Tucker to death, but the Sewing-Life Alchemist shows no fear. In fact, he is thrilled to have found a kindred spirit in the young Fullmetal Alchemist. After all, Ed runs the risk of traveling down the same road he did. He performed human transmutation – essentially defying God and the law of reality – just to get his mother back. How different, really, is Edward Elric from Shou Tucker?

As Anthony Marchetta has said many times, most recently in the last forty to thirty minutes of the livestream here, Shou Tucker serves the role of foil to Ed. Tucker is the picture of science untrammeled by morality and ethics; whatever he chooses to do is validated by the results of his work, nothing more or less. The ends justify the means, and if he has to sacrifice his wife and daughter to get what he wants, then that is what he will do. He will shed a tear over the loss of his license before he weeps over his daughter in a dog’s body staring glassily at the outer world, unable to repeat more than a few words, up to and including “Daddy.”

My last anime-related example has not appeared onscreen yet. If you are following the 86 – Eighty-Six anime series and have not read the light novels* by Asato Asato, be aware that the next few paragraphs will contain SPOILERS!

In the fifth 86 novel, Death, Be Not Proud, the protagonists travel to the Kingdom of Roa Gracia to exchange information and help the country defeat the mechanical Legion drones terrorizing their world. This requires them to ally with the one of the princes for the kingdom: Viktor “Vika” Idinarohk. Vika is commonly known by the titles “King of Corpses” and “The Serpent of Shackles and Decay.” He is the heir to the Amethystus royal family’s special ability, which is extremely high intelligence and creativity.

Great technological leaps have come from the Kingdom of Roa Gracia’s Espers, as these highly intelligent people are known. But each Amethystus’ intelligence comes at the price of their sense of right and wrong, as well as their emotions. They are, as Sherlock* put it, “high-functioning sociopaths” who have very little affection for or understanding of other people.

The way Vika earned his macabre monikers is two-fold. One, as a five-year-old boy he removed his dead mother’s brain in an attempt to resuscitate her. He had an overpowering desire to meet the mother who never held him, whose voice he had never heard. So he desecrated her body and tried to put any remnants of her spirit that still lingered after death in a computer. Just so he could talk to her.

This passage describes Vika’s expression after he tells the hero his story: “…Fanatical delusion, completely absent of all restraint. He would defile a person’s remains, seal their memories and personality in a machine, and in so doing, transcend death… His eyes were absent of all guilt or dread at the prospect of having committed such a taboo. There was no distinction between good and evil. Nothing but the utter coldheartedness…which saw satisfying his desire as the one and only absolute.” Even the hero of the story, Shinei “Shin” Nouzen, who can hear the cries of the ghosts the Legion have assimilated into their ranks, finds Vika absolutely terrifying in this moment.

What about the second reason for Vika’s dark names? In order to resist the Legion, which reproduces at a rate humans cannot match and which confiscates the neural networks of human soldiers in “head hunts,” the under-powered Kingdom needed more troops. So Vika made them more troops by designing Artificial Fairies known as Sirins. The Sirins carry the brain engrams of fallen Kingdom soldiers who volunteered to donate their brains to the project if they fell in battle and could not be saved.

These engrams are recycled; no matter how many Sirins are destroyed, more bodies can be made and the neural patterns downloaded into the new figures. Although this device helps the kingdom hold the line against the Legion, many people are distinctly uncomfortable with the Sirins, despite their necessity. Thus, Vika is known as “The King of Corpses” because, once again, he desecrates the dead to achieve some end.

Viktor “Vika” Idinarohk

But unlike Hojo and Tucker, Vika has people who restrain his behavior. His older brother and his father love him, and he has affection for them, so he will behave himself to please them and keep them happy. That being said, his older brother sends a list of things Vika is specifically not allowed to do (it is literally titled Things One Must Never Allow Vika to Do) with the commander of Shin’s unit. A fair bit of his behavior tends toward the comical from this point on, though there are hints of the monster he is and could be peeking through the façade from time to time.

Of the Western writers currently working today, Dean Koontz is the only one I can name who matches these Oriental authors’ skills. His scientists in 77 Shadow Street*, By the Light of the Moon*, Sole Survivor*, Brother Odd*, his own Frankenstein* series, and False Memory* are as coldly single-minded as any of these characters. Although they put on the façade of humanity they have, in truth, left if far behind. Each one seeks to gain power over reality by transmuting human beings into tools for their own ends.

In other words, they want to be God.

These are not the “mad scientists” of Back to the Future, Phineas and Ferb, etc. Those scientists fall less under the “mad” category and more in the “eccentric” inventors. Such scientists seek to understand the world better so that they may improve the lives of their fellow men. They do not desire the control or the domination of others, nor are they interested in supplanting God.

For example, there is a wealth of difference, between Hank Pym and Arnim Zola. Despite the former’s repeated mental breakdowns and his mistreatment of his wife, his goal has always been the advancement of science for the betterment of mankind. Zola, on the other hand, seeks to eradicate his own humanity entirely. The results more than speak for themselves; Pym may be a jerk whose interest in ants and shrinking is bizarre, but at least he does not have his consciousness uploaded into a robot with a television screen in its chest.

Arnim Zola | Ultimate Spider-Man Animated Series Wiki ...

Arnim Zola (Avengers Assemble)

Zola’s appearance makes him seem comedic to modern audiences but it is, in fact, a sign of his depravity. Pym’s flaws are visible, and he usually rubs people the wrong way. Still, despite this, the Avengers know which one deserves their respect and trust and which one must be fought with all their strength.

Present day writers need to remember this difference. They need to see past the white lab coat and the polite smiles to the monster hiding behind the glasses. Knowledge, as the saying goes, is power. Power corrupts when the one who holds it ceases to hold himself accountable to objective standards outside his own will. It behooves authors to present this fact to the audience in a memorable way.

The next time you have a mad scientist cackling over his experiments, stop and ask yourself if he should be portrayed humorously. Current events indicate this is not realistic. There may be a more effective way to demonstrate his wickedness to the reader than the default standard we have come to expect. And besides, who wants to be predictable? 😉

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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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4 thoughts on “Mad Scientist: Cackling Goofball, or Deadly Menace?

  1. It is amazing what people will swallow if you coat it with the magic words “Science says…”
    And if you call any of it into question you’re called a troglodyte and beaten over the head as being anti-science and stupid for questioning Authority.

    Almost makes me nostalgic for the 60’s when the Authority WAS to be questioned, sigh….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dr. Doofenshmirtz would protest being called a mad scientist. It’s *evil* scientist: he’s not angry.

    But seriously, good piece. And you’re exactly right: the mad scientist is quite literally just the evil sorcerer of the past in a modern garb, the man whose knowledge breeds arrogance sufficient to separate him from humanity and to (knowingly or not) make pact with the devil: “I will sell my soul – commit any atrocity – for the knowledge and power you can give me”.

    “The serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor were twins. One was sickly and died, the other strong and thrived, but they were twins, born at the same hour and of the same impulse.”
    -C.S. Lewis, ‘The Abolition of Man’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Or ogre, or witch, or devil. . . .

      The fairy tale hero who falls into the power of an evil magical person is often helped by the Mad Scientist’s Beautiful Daughter in her original form.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. There’s an interestingly Amoral Biologist in Zelazny’s ….And Call Me Conrad / This Immortal: he’s a friend of the hero….but he euthanized the last dog on Earth in order to have a specimen in good condition for his collection, he *wanted* to do weird experiments on his in-utero kids (until his wife put her foot down), his wife is COMPLETELY fed up with his bug collection, and at the time of the novel, he’s alllll over this strain of deadly parasite things which the authorities plan to use to exterminate the invasive species of alien spiderbats. From the hero’s perspective, he’s harmless. From someone else’s….maybe not so much.

    Liked by 1 person

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