Mad Science Hall of Shame: Dr. Caligari


Bad neuroscience! Image courtesy Videology Blog

No, I don't mean the titular character from the legendary 1920 film, but rather his decedent from the 1989 midnight movie "Dr. Caligari."

Like her ancestor, Dr. Caligari headed up a sureal insane asylum and experimented freely on her patients. But this was the late 1980s, so her work took on a far more hedonistic (and neon) air. Typically dressed in hot pink or bright yellow, she vamped around like a dominatrix, pausing only to swap brain fluids between patients. For instance she attempted to cure one patient's nymphomania by swapping her brain fluid with that of a cannibalistic murderer.

Let's just say her results are inconclusive.

While Caligari's ultimate goal was to inject her own brain with fluids from her brilliant ancestor's preserved mind, one of the inmates beat her to the punch. Mrs. Van Houten (the nymphomaniac-turned-cannibal mentioned above) injected the elder Caligari's brain drippings into her own skull and gave the mad doctor a syringe full of nypho juice instead.

The Real Science: Brain cell/tissue transplant is very much on the docket for legitimate neuroscience. Earlier this year, researchers transplanted a specific type of manufactured human brain cell into a mouse brain -- where it continued to grow and develop neural connections. And as this excellent NOVA article explains, this sort of procedure could prove immensely important in the treatment of brain injuries. Would it change who you are? Even just a little bit? Well, I'll leave you to read "Do brain tissue transplants alter personal identity? Inadequacies of some "standard" arguments," published in a 1996 issue of Journal of Medical Ethics. In short, it all comes down to how you define "personality."

The Lesson: If you're a mad scientist, the inmates will ALWAYS overrun your asylum. At least once. Either chase that mad science dream of yours or run a large-scale psychiatric facility. Don't try to juggle both.

Further Study: I'll leave 366 Weird Movies to give you a proper review of the picture. Then decide if it's the sort of thing you need to see for yourself.

In keeping with "Top 10 Mad Science Fails," the Mad Science Hall of Shame is a continuing exploration of inept, unhinged scientific research in fiction.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.