Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture

David J. Skal, Author
David J. Skal, Author W. W. Norton & Company $29.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-393-04582-6
Reviewed on: 06/29/1998
Release date: 07/01/1998
Paperback - 978-0-393-31786-2
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Art imitates life, which imitates art in this witty and knowing exploration of ""mad science"" and modern culture. The demonic scientist of pulp novels, B movies, and comic books is extraordinarily popular, says Skal (Hollywood Gothic; The Monster Show), because he ""serve[s] as a lightning rod for otherwise unbearable anxieties about the meaning of scientific thinking and the uses and consequences of modern technology."" Skal ranges from Victor Frankenstein to Dr. Moreau, from Dr. Jekyll to Dr. Frank N. Furter of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in his entertaining analysis. The author is equally at home with Hollywood trivia and with postmodern cultural analysis--which identifies a gay subtext in horror films and finds the evocation of an ""all-male reproductive paradigm"" in the Bride of Frankenstein monster's deep forehead scar (a symbolic vulva!). Skal shows how cultural anxieties about race, gender and class roles, technological changes, economic depression and threats of war found their way into horror classics. Of particular interest are Skal's views on UFO sightings--which he finds always correlate with periods of intense social unrest--and ""mad medicine"" as seen in such works as Coma and Silence of the Lambs (he sees Hannibal Lecter as ""an inevitable... iconic representation"" of the perceived greed of big medicine in the HMO era). Skal even associates the recent spate of blockbuster invasion fantasies with fear of AIDS. Though Skal's analysis sometimes lacks sufficient depth, it is always fresh, hip and lively. The book is illustrated with 100 well-chosen photos and period illustrations. (Aug.)
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