Science is Scary (Steampunk isn't)


No one is questioning steampunk's aesthetic flare. Nice bike! (nullalux, Creative Commons license)

I'm a tireless fan of the terrifying and the grotesque, a fact my mother attributes to she and my dad making too big a deal out of Halloween each year (best mom ever?). With this, naturally, comes a deep love for the month of October and -- of course -- haunted houses. Growing up in Tennessee, it was the unsettling church-themed "Scare Mare," which we all dubbed "Prayer Mare," due to the mandatory sermon at the end. These days, I make sure to check out Atlanta's Netherworld every year.

Netherworld, for those who've never been, is regularly named one of the top haunted houses in the United States. They go to great lengths every year to keep the attraction fresh with new monsters, props and overarching storylines. So when I read an article last week on i09 about a steampunk-themed haunted house, I was instantly interested.

Further examination of the accompanying photos revealed that the Pittsburgh attraction is really going for more of a BDSM "Nazi fetish chicks in gasmasks" type thing -- something I'm led to believe is more gothpunk than anything. I mentioned this enigma to fellow bloggers Tracy and Jonathan, the latter of whom brought up an important point: Steampunk isn't scary.

I'm sure there are those out there that can cite a half dozen different terrifying tales that somehow fall under the steampunk banner. Sure, steampunk Mickey is horrifying. Heck, for that matter, yours truly even has a published steampunk horror tale. It can be done, but by and large it's a subgenre based more in retro scientific optimism than the dystopian visions you tend to find in cyberpunk.

Let's back up for a second. Cyberpunk, for those unfamiliar with the term, is all about fictional worlds in which advanced technology and computerized information has wound its way around the life of even the marginalized and the impoverished. We're talking "Neuromancer," "Blade Runner" here. Steampunk essentially accomplishes the same, except with fantastic, Victorian-era pipe dreams of where steam technology might lead. Think alternative histories based on Jules Verne and H.G. Wells*, flying machines and gears, gears, gears!

Steampunk isn't scary because the movement captures a 19th century vision of science as the great deliverer. Look at most cyberpunk and you see instead a technology that reduces the human experience even as it raises it to dizzying heights. I think Richard K. Morgan's novel "Altered Carbon" paints a perfect vision of this, a world where consciousness digitization technology has rendered man both immortal and (perhaps) completely soulless .

But at the heart of it all is this thing called science, and to really grasp both its positive and terrifying aspects, you have to view it in the framework of cognitive closure. This is the philosophic idea that humans can only hope to understand certain things about the universe and simply lack the intelligence to strive beyond them. Face it, mammal, you're only going to live X number of years and you can only hope to grasp Y number of things. The exception to this, of course, is the steady accumulation and preservation of scientific data over the course of human history (this also ties into the concept of the semantic apocalypse).

So here is modern science, a thing with a heart made of libraries and databases, its tentacles stretching out into the observable universe via the operating system of scientific method and the hardware of technology. And we meager humans serve this hungry god in a kind of symbiosis, aiding its cause in return for such gifts as vaccines, iPhones and nuclear weapons.

What am I proposing for a science-themed haunted house? On one hand, there's the classic "mad scientist" area, and from Herophilus's fourth century B.C. vivisections to the WWII's Unit 731, history is rife with examples of science broken free from the shackles of ethical responsibility.

But another possibility comes to mind too, a kind of badsciencepunk if you will. What might the future have been like had some of our more bizarre or disastrous hypothesizes proved true? What if, using the "powder of sympathy," sailing vessels had come to navigate the seas using wounded dogs and salted torture implements a hemisphere away? What if the human soul could not only be scientifically measured, but captured and contained? What if another world awaited us in the hollow earth, water poured through the artificial canals of Mars and the secret to long life was nothing more than grafting ape testicles into your body ? What kind of nightmare world would this be, where science's more gangrenous appendages claw recklessly in the dark?

So kudos to science for steering us away from such a haunted house world. For now, we continue to use science as lens through which to view both encouraging and abysmal visions of what the future may hold for us. Will it be "Star Trek" or will it be "The Road?"

* I will contend that a "Time Machine" haunted house full of rampaging Morlocks would be fantastic.

Run from steam-powered chainsaws at HowStuffWorks.com: How Haunted Houses Work How Human Experimentation Works How the Scientific Method Works How Steampunk Works What the heck is noetic science? Leechpunk Technology Never Quite Took Off


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.