Atomic Pulse

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
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
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
(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
(1968), Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Fido (2006) and Dance of the Dead (2008); creates
psychotic killers in The Being (1983),
C.H.U.D. (1984), Nightmare City
Mansquito (2004) and the 2006 re-make of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes; is responsible for bizarre genetic mutation in
; and weaponizes living creatures in Piranha (1978), It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) and Spontaneous Combustion (1990).

Three movies not mentioned

  •       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
/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.


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