Fancy a little death ray-assisted world domination?
Crave a basement full of conjoined tourists and mutant henchmen?
Before you leap willy-nilly into the field of mad science, bear in mind very few practitioners ever hang up the lab coat with their dignity still intact.
That's because mad science is a tough field. The hours are long, the hazards are many and what little grant money there is tends to come from ruthless terrorist cells and, occasionally, Richard Branson. Plus, success only introduces new risks. Armies of atomic supermen tend to muster government hostility, and even a single journal publication can attract unwanted attention from the superhero community.
So before you strap on your crazy goggles and inject mutagen between your toes, consider these examples of mad science failure. Sure, all 10 ascended to maddening heights of scientific glory, but at what cost?
Most mad scientists slave away their entire lives in pursuit of godlike powers. Victor Frankenstein managed to attain them in his mid-20s. Doesn't that piss you off?
Between 1792 and 1796, Victor created a unified theory of modem biochemistry and medieval alchemy. He unraveled the secrets of life itself and imbued not one but TWO patchwork corpses with the spark of consciousness. Then, at age 26, he abandoned his career just as quickly as he'd picked it up, scrapping all his notes without so much as a single publication.
To be perfectly accurate, Victor abandoned mad science on two separate occasions -- and the first was a bit of a mess. The moment his scrap-built "creature" gasped its first breath, Victor developed the worst case of cold feet in the history of mad science. Oh sure, he was perfectly fine with all the grave robbing and corpse stitching, but the instant it all came to monstrous life? Forget about it.
So Victor ran away, at least until his lonely creation tracked him down and demanded a female companion. Not surprisingly, that ended in disaster as well. Several murders later, the relationship between deadbeat maker and brooding monster deteriorated into a deadly pursuit across Arctic wastes.
The lesson: Victor simply wasn't mad enough. He achieved too much too fast and simply couldn't cope with the sort of horror that more experienced mads cope with every day. Do you think H.P. Lovecraft's Herbert West worries about the blasphemies in his cellar? No way. Monstrosity comes with the job, so get used to it.
Further study: Read Mary Shelley's immortal classic and explore HowStuffWorks' own "How Frankenstein's Monster Works."
Not every mad scientist dies screaming in the clutches of his own vengeful creation. Some, like professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, live well past the ripe old age of 160 and right into obscurity.
Yep, Farnsworth continues to cheat death at every turn and even manages to save the world and/or universe from time to time. On two separate occasions, he actually prevented intergalactic destruction with doomsday devices of his own design (arguably using them wrong in the process).
Yet despite his vast arsenal of destruction and decades of research experience, Farnsworth has made the mistake of growing old. Now he dawdles away amid Smelloscopes, Fing-Longers and countless other useless inventions. He is not feared by the public and, even worse, he is frequently unclothed.
The lesson: Be audacious, would-be mads! If you're too careful, you'll dodge not only fates worse than death and the clutches of justice, but also the very personal glory and world domination you sought to begin with. Go out with a bang, not a whimper!
Further study: You'll find Farnsworth in every episode of the animated series "Futurama."
Teleportation pioneer Seth Brundle serves as a timeless example of how mad science simply doesn't mix well with romantic drama and hard drinking. By 1986, Brundle was well on the road to scientific glory. Thanks to funding from Bartok Science Industries, he successfully developed and tested the world's first teleportation system -- only it didn't work on living cargo.
Seriously, there were inside-out baboons everywhere.
Given enough time, we think Brundle would have worked out the nasty kinks in his telepod programming, but that's when beautiful journalist Veronica Quaife entered his life. At first the passion inspired him, leading to new research breakthroughs in organic teleportation. Then a little misunderstanding over Quaife's ex-lover fueled an all-night pity party of booze, programming and accidental gene-splicing.
I think you know how things ended up.
The lesson: Nothing beats a deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool. We'd all love to annihilate and reconstitute our bodies, but mads, don't do it because some romantic interest made you feel funny. Take your time, refine your research and, if you must drink and experiment, use a baboon.
Further study: So long as your tolerance for bodily horror runs high, dive into David Cronenberg's "The Fly."
Physiologist Dr. Moreau kicked off his mad science career in classic style. Not content to merely dissect dead animals and sew them back together anymore, he fell head over heels in love with live experimental surgery.
Granted, vivisection was quite in keeping with the morals of Herophilus, the fourth century B.C. father of anatomy, but it proved too radical for modern medical research. So Moreau did what any determined mad scientist would have done: He packed up his lab equipment and set up shop on a secluded island.
We all know isolation begets weirdness. Your housemate goes out of town for a weekend and by Saturday afternoon, you're eating pizza naked during a "Gilmore Girls" viewing binge.
However, when mad scientists go weird, they go all out.
Back on his tropical island, it wasn't long before Moreau took to prancing about in mime makeup and a muumuu. He declared himself god-king of all his twisted human/animal hybrids, and as if this weren't weird enough, he also went ahead and made a miniature version of himself -- which he ALSO dressed like a clown pope.
Because that's what you do, right?
Needless to say, the good doctor never published his final study, and monsters ate him.
The lesson: Look, a grotesquely swollen ego is only natural for a mad scientist. But by all means, please resist the urge to set yourself up as a living god amongst your mutated creations. Also, keep the costuming to a minimum.
Further study: For maximum effect, read "The Island of Doctor Moreau" by H.G. Wells. Failing that, enjoy the cheesy goodness of the 1996 film adaptation starring Marlon Brando.
Dr. Kurt Leopold had a dream -- a dream to conquer the universe and, also, to turn himself into a giant catfish. Don't judge! In the mad scientific world, these constitute solid research goals.
A consummate biochemist and methodical planner, Leopold was well-suited to achieve his deranged objective. From the crushing solitude of his North Florida laboratory, he planned to release a highly mutagenic chemical called Zaat into the ocean, enabling all sea life to rise up and decimate the surface world. Who would lead this watery legion? Why a fully mutated Leopold, of course!
From there, the plan bloated somewhat. First, Leopold tacked on a side project to create a mutant companion from a kidnapped beach babe. Next, a few calculated revenge murders entered the picture, further clogging an already backed-up research pipeline.
In the end, Leopold successfully introduced Zaat into the ocean -- but only barely. All that kidnapping and murder attracted the attention of local law enforcement, and his premature transformation into a walking catfish proved something of a disadvantage in ducking the fuzz.
Leopold finally stumbled into the ocean, wounded by police gunfire and without a true she-monster to call his bride.
The lesson: Look mads, learn from Leopold's example and don't overcomplicate your plans for domination. Seeking revenge on your friends? Great, that's totally legit for mad scientific research, but it really needs to be a separate study. Don't just heap it in with your main scheme to mutate all sea life and conquer the universe. In addition, if you must turn yourself into a giant catfish, make sure you get the timing right.
Further study: The 1971 cult film "Zaat" is well worth your time if you enjoy oddly haunting B-movies of decades past. You may also know the film as "The Blood Waters of Dr. Z," as it was featured on "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
'Grandpa' Sam Dracula certainly had all the tools to make his name in the mad sciences. Sure, he was a tad sloppy in the laboratory, but that doesn't always spell disaster for a truly inspired researcher. No, Grandpa's biggest failure was his use of mad science as a parenting tool.
As we all know, Grandpa doted on his grandson. And since mad science was pretty much all he knew, his devotion to young Eddie Munster soon hijacked most of his scientific endeavors. To help Eddie grow, he devised an enlarging machine. To help Eddie play the trumpet better, he concocted a talent potion. When Eddie longed for a younger brother, he built a robot.
Needless to say, these schemes never actually achieve the desired results, and rumors circulate that the resulting traumas contributed to Eddie's mishaps as an adult. And yet Marilyn turned out great. Go figure!
The lesson: Mad science is a wonderful weapon for world domination and hideous revenge, but it's rarely a good parenting tool. It didn't work for Walter Bishop ("Fringe"), it didn't work for professor Membrane ("Invader Zim") and it probably won't work for you.
Further study: All 70 original episodes of "The Munsters"
At some point, visitors from the Transylvanian Galaxy had a clear scientific mission on planet Earth. Along with his alien cohorts, Magenta and Riff Raff, the good Dr. Frank-N-Furter surely intended to cure disease, prolong human life or aid us in our exploration of the stars.
But sadly we'll never know, because at some point Frank-N-Furter switched gears and devoted the entire endeavor to the pursuit of orgiastic excess. Specifically, he used two planets' worth of science to create a perfect humanoid sex buddy named Rocky Horror.
The mission ultimately ended in disaster (and a lavish musical number or two) when Riff Raff and Magenta blasted Frank-N-Furter with an antimatter weapon and returned the castle/starship to their home planet.
The lesson: You'd don't need to abstain from sex to succeed in the mad sciences, but overindulgence is a road to disaster. At best, sex serves as a moderate distraction, but at worst triggers a full-blown descent into space-age hedonism. Just consider Doctor Durand Durand ("Barbarella"): Despite inventing the deadly Positronic Ray, he's remembered best for his orgasm-inducing Excessive Machine. So think of your reputation!
Further study: If your nearest apocryphal library is missing a copy of "The Denton Affair," then rent "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" instead.
Sure, mad science is a worthy calling, but it helps to have other things in your life. Dr. Victor Fries ("Batman") had his cryogenically frozen wife, Dr. Anton Phibes ("The Abominable Dr. Phibes") had the pipe organ and professor Herman von Klempt had ... well, nothing.
Motivated by scientific zeal and an intense desire to conquer the world, von Klempt made crucial contributions to several top-secret projects during World War II, including the Nazi space program and various German doomsday schemes. When a rocket mishap incinerated his body, he labored on with grim determination. When his closest colleague Karl Ruprecht Kroenen perished, he moved to South America to continue his studies in solitude.
Yet eventually, loneliness and despair caught up with Herman von Klempt. He found himself in quite a state: reduced to a head in a jar, feeding on pilfered spinal fluid from native women and surrounded only by cybernetic gorilla parts and failed plans for world domination. Confronted with the emptiness of his un-life, the once coldly logical von Klempt abandoned his plans to rule the world and set out instead to destroy it.
The lesson: You're a mad scientist. No one expects you to have a balanced life and a nuclear family (unless it's a literal nuclear family). Still, facts are facts: Very few world domination attempts succeed, and cheating death takes a real toll on the body and mind. So keep yourself grounded. At least take up golf or something.
Further study: Explore the beautiful, pulptastic world of Mike Mignola's "Hellboy" comics.
Victorian surgeon Dr. Jacob Freudstein wanted what everyone wants: to live forever on a steady diet of human blood and pilfered body parts. Unfortunately, his research contained disastrous errors, in time reducing the once brilliant physician to a ghastly state of living putrefaction.
Visit the doctor's house by the cemetery today, and you'll find quite a horror show in the basement laboratory. Some 180 years after the end of his natural life, Freudstein's body exists in a state of living necrosis. Maggots writhe through his flesh. His eyes and mouth have atrophied and even his once gifted mind is just a lump of putrid jelly. Reduced to squatting in a basement, Freudstein now butchers innocent victims in order to continue his ghoulish mockery of life.
The lesson: Mad scientists, think long and hard about your research objectives and for goodness' sake submit your papers for peer review before you experiment on yourself. Nobody likes to see their work torn apart in a scientific journal, but no one wants worms for blood either.
Further study: If your taste in cinema runs red with Italian horror, then you'll find Dr. Freudstein in Lucio Fulci's 1981 film "The House by the Cemetery."
When it comes to mad science fails, Dr. Anton Arcane is the absolute worst.
Expelled from medical school on a host of ghastly charges, Arcane continued his depraved experiments in the trenches of World War I, where he served as the worst army medic of all time. Unsurprisingly, he also befriended Adolf Hitler.
Two world wars and countless sadistic experiments later, Arcane was living the life. He'd achieved near-immortality, created a loyal army of monstrous Un-Men and plotted global mischief from his castle laboratory -- and that's when he first crossed Swamp Thing.
Yes, for all his depraved genius, Arcane couldn't resist the lure of super villainy. Oh, and a normal superhero wasn't enough either. No, Arcane had to mess with an actual Earth elemental. All his twisted endeavors soon took a backseat to his feud with Swamp Thing. The deranged grudge resulted not only in the end of Arcane's natural life, but it also robbed him of his unnatural, reanimated life on two separate occasions.
Ever since meeting Swamp Thing, Arcane has spent the remainder of his mad science career in and out of Hell. Yes, actual Hell. Here, the once-brilliant scientist endures eternal torment and occasional low-level employment.
The lesson: Again, think long and hard about your immortality schemes, and never tangle with a superhero. An arch nemesis can provide quite an ego boost, but petty quests for revenge suck up valuable research time.
Further study: Immerse yourself in DC Comics' horror-laden "Swamp Thing" series, especially Alan Moore's psychedelic run on the series. Failing that, you have two feature films and two TV series at your disposal.
'L.A. Confidential' is a neo-noir crime movie that follows police officers in Los Angeles. Test your knowledge of the movie with this quiz at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: Top 10 Mad Science Fails
When I was a child, I really wanted to be a mad scientist. I longed for the lab coats, the test tubes and of course the hideous monsters. Luckily, I grew out of that phase because as this article illustrates, mad science is a lonely, nightmarish and doom-ridden profession.
They make great villains and even better tragic heroes, but mad scientists are also a fascinating product of our modern age, embodying humanity's distrust and concern over the advance of modern science. Will we press too far? Will we lose our moral compass or employ science in the pursuit of immoral ends? As we advance through the ages and achieve unprecedented wonders, no doubt the mad scientist trope will continue to haunt the corners of our minds.
I love all the mads on this list and, despite the fun we have with each one, I also love the books and films they call home. My many thanks to all the wonderful authors, artists, directors and actors who gave them unnatural life.
- How Human Experimentation Works
- 5 Sickest Teleporter Accidents Ever
- How Frankenstein's Monster Works
- How well do you know Frankenstein's monster?
- Quiz: Know Your Frankenstein Actors
- How do the Ig Nobel Prizes work?
- 10 Scientists Who Were Their Own Guinea Pigs
- 10 Oddball Questions Scientists Have Genuinely Tried to Answer
- "The Fly." Brooksfilms. 1986.
- "Futurama." 20th Century Fox. 2012.
- "The House by the Cemetery." Fulvia Film. 1981
- "The Island of Dr. Moreau." New Line Cinema. 1996.
- Mignola, Mike. "Hellboy: Conqueror Worm." Dark Horse. March 8, 2002.
- Moore, Alan. "Swamp Thing Vol. 2: Love and Death." Vertigo. April 1, 1995
- "The Munsters." CBS. 1966.
- "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." 20th Century Fox. 1975.
- Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus." Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones. 1818.
- "Zaat." Clark Distributors. 1971.