Some of the scariest stories we know of are that way not because they have the best monsters or the biggest surprises—no, the stories that truly keep us up at night are the ones that actually happened!
You don’t have to look far these days to find a horror film that’s been inspired by true events, but today I’d like to bring a different class of movies to mind: ones that were inspired by real SCIENCE! Over the years there have been hundreds of morally dubious intellectuals who performed unethically, and at times insane experiments in the pursuit of knowledge. From the atrocities at Unit 731, to the racist tests of Dr. Marion Sims, and even the disembodied dog heads of Dr. Brukhoneko, science is not always a nice subject.
So, if you find yourself in the mood both to scare yourself and to learn a little something, check out these chilling films based on real-life scientific experiments.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
This 2015 thriller flew somewhat under the radar. But for those who saw it, The Stanford Prison Experiment portrayed a psychological study gone wrong in which college students were split into prisoner and guard groups, then locked in a basement in a simulated prison environment for two weeks. Things quickly turn dark as the student guards become abusive, along with the overseeing professor himself, as they immerse themselves in their assigned roles. When some of the students begin to suffer psychological meltdowns, the professor is brought back to reality and abruptly stops the entire experiment after only six days. It’s a wild ride of a movie that shows the darkest parts of humanity that can live in all of us, but what makes it really crazy… is that it’s all true!
Professor Philip Zimbardo conceived this experiment in 1971 in an attempt to study the psychological effects of perceived power, what he got was more questions than answers, and left several students with permanent trauma. If you have ever taken an intro psychology class, you probably talked about this experiment and how the questionable ethics it utilized would lead the entire field to establish guidelines for studies involving human subjects. So at least something good came out of this truly unsettling experiment.
This 2012 film is another underappreciated gem. It’s about a fast food restaurant manager who receives a call from a police officer who says he is at another employee’s home searching it for stolen valuables and needs her to detain the employee and see if the stolen goods are with her. What follows is a nightmarish descent into madness as the officer pushes the manager to carry out increasingly unlawful and intrusive procedures on the other employee, only for her to eventually discover that the whole thing was a prank from a complete stranger, who just wanted to see how far she would go.
While the story draws a lot from the strip search phone call scam of the 90s, many of its darkest psychological moments (as well as the idea for the scam itself) come straight from the files of what is known as “The Milgram Experiment” which was a study on the obedience to authority figures conducted by Stanley Milgram. In his experiment, participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment in which they had to administer electric shocks to a "learner" whom they could hear but not see. These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real.
Terrifyingly, Milgram found that a very high proportion of men would fully obey the instructions, albeit reluctantly, even after the apparent “death” of the learner they were electrocuting. This work made a huge impact on the field and has applicability from the corporate world to the Holocaust, but ultimately the study’s validity was called into question and nowadays the whole setup is deemed as highly immoral for the extreme psychological stress it put the subjects through.
Finally, we come to the one that started it all. The mother of all modern science fiction AND horror: Frankenstein.
Most of you are probably familiar with at least the modern idea of Frankenstein: a mad scientist obsessed with death pieces together dead bodies to create a “better” one which he brings to life with the power of electricity. The details change depending on which retelling you see, but the main idea is the same. It’s a revolutionary and enduring story that has firmly embedded itself into the popular mythology, all of which is made more impressive by the fact that it was conceived by a nineteen-year-old girl in the early 1800s as part of a scary story contest.
Truly Mary Shelly was ahead of her time to create such a gothic and chilling piece of literature. But what makes the story even scarier is that quite a lot of it in fact is based in truth.
As it turns out, young Shelly had plenty of real-life inspiration for her tale; up to four different scientists of the era all contributed to the character of Shelley's own mad scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Let’s focus on the two most disturbing…
First is Giovanni Aldini, nephew to the slightly more famous Luigi Galvani who discovered bioelectricity and for whom the field of galvanism is named. Aldini saw his uncle’s simple experiments on frog legs and took them to a truly unsettling level. After making a name for himself using electricity to reanimate human limbs, he conducted a famous experiment in 1803 where he hooked up a freshly executed criminal to a giant battery in front of a large audience. The body thrashed and convulsed making it look, as one newspaper reported, “as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”
It was a truly nightmare-inducing sight to be sure. And although Aldini's experiment was treated more like a public spectacle than legitimate science by other researchers, his display still remained a famous event for years after, and was certainly influential in Shelly’s writing.
The other scientist worth mentioning here, and perhaps the most influential on Shelley’s psyche was Johann Konrad Dippel. Dippel was an 18th-century alchemist who did experiments at the real Castle Frankenstein. Like most alchemists, he was interested in finding the Elixir of Life – the magical formula by which immortality would be granted, and it was well-known at the time that his quest for such an elixir led him to perform many dark and wicked experiments.
It is said that Dippel stole bodies from the castle burial grounds and did many dissections attempting to ascertain the secrets of life. He also tried to reanimate the bodies with various potions and spells but was ultimately unsuccessful… which is probably a good thing. In any case, though his experiments were in vain, his deranged, morally bankrupt, the mad-scientist spirit lives on in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and has become a cultural touchstone the world over.