A Halloween Treat: The Radioactive Bogeyman

In the world of horror cinema, bad things come of meddling with the atom. In a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists I made the case for the rich, if not distinguished, history of American and European horror movies since 1950 that use radiation as a central plot device. What follows is a summary of the Bulletin article as well as brief reviews of three radioactive monster movies that did not make the cut.

The horror genre is deeply ambivalent toward scientific discovery. During the 1950s and 1960s, scientists’ experiments regularly resulted in bigger and angrier ‘creatures’: a 100-million- year-old ‘rhedosaurus’ in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953); ants in Them! (1954); an octopus in It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955); crabs in Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957); and locusts in Beginning of the End (1957). Scientists also irradiated themselves – The Hideous Sun Demon (1959), Atom Age Vampire (1960) and Die, Monster, Die! (1965) – and others – The Alligator People (1959), The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) and Die, Monster, Die! again – with equally disastrous, if more localized, results. Or they unleashed fantastic terrors like the primordial ooze in X the Unknown (1956) and the ‘mental vampires’ in Fiend Without A Face (1958). These incredible mutations of the early Cold War most obviously represented international communism and, by the end, the monster was destroyed and normality restored.  

In the post-Vietnam/Watergate era, plots are still largely driven by experiments gone awry but governments, corporations and the military are co-conspirators and the end of the movie is far from the end of the story. Radiation: reanimates dead bodies in Night of the Living Dead (1968), Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974), Fido (2006) and Dance of the Dead (2008); creates psychotic killers in The Being (1983), C.H.U.D. (1984), Nightmare City (1980), Mansquito (2004) and the 2006 re-make of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes; is responsible for bizarre genetic mutation in (Teeth, 2008); and weaponizes living creatures in Piranha (1978), It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) and Spontaneous Combustion (1990).

Three movies not mentioned previously: 

  •       In Creature With The Atom Brain (1955), a mobster and a German scientist bring the dead back to life with ‘atom rays,’ a procedure that gives them superhuman strength and makes them invulnerable to bullets and hand grenades, in order to kill the crime boss’s enemies. The story has a fairly standard conclusion for the era – the scientist is killed by the mob boss and the mob boss is killed by one of his creations – but, atypically for these sorts of movies, not before the two villains unleash a wave of terror attacks, blowing up buses, trains, planes and industrial plants.
  •       In The Atomic Brain (1963), a rich old widow and her companion/gigolo enlist a doctor to transplant her brain into the body of an attractive young woman whereupon the brain cells will be ‘reactivated by atomic fission’ in a basement cyclotron. The doctor reassures his customers that if the police come snooping, he can trigger a nuclear reaction “and in a matter of minutes this house and any evidence it might contain becomes a radioactive hole in the ground.” With its subject matter, imagery (the movie was at times a little raunchy for its day) and open ending, The Atomic Brain shared some DNA with the more extreme ‘exploitation cinema’ that would make New York City’s 42nd Street infamous later that decade and in the two that followed.
  •       In Chernobyl Diaries (2012), six tourists unwisely take a tour of Pripyat, the town under military guard about two miles from Chernobyl, only to discover that the Ukrainian government is hiding a group of mutated and murderous survivors of the disastrous 1986 reactor meltdown. Audiences and most reviewers were not kind to the movie – it has an 18% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – but the harshest criticism came from a representative for the charitable organization Friends of Chernobyl Centers, U.S. who told TMZ: “It is terrible that such a tragic event as Chernobyl is being sensationalized in a Hollywood horror film.” 

While very few of the listed movies are considered classics or even particularly good within the horror genre let alone the broader cinematic oeuvre, they reflect the anxieties of their eras and warn of the timeless dangers of scientific hubris.

The zombie sub-genre, loosely defined, has made a comeback in the 2000s, biology has superseded radiation as the mutagen: the T-Virus in the Resident Evil franchise (2002-2016); the Rage Virus in 28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later (2002/2007); Mad Cow Disease in Zombieland; and an unnamed virus in World War Z (2013). The persistence of myths and half-truths in the wake of the Fukushima accident in 2011 demonstrates that there is still much public confusion about the effects of radiation. This is why the radioactive bogeyman, while unlikely to enjoy a return to the halcyon years of the 1950s, likely has a long half-life.


October 31, 2017
Andrew Newman, PhD
Andrew Newman, PhD

Senior Director for Nuclear Fuel Cycle Activities

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