Ever since Henry Frankenstein first screamed “It’s alive!” horror fans have been enthralled by mad scientists, leading to the crazed geniuses popping up in nearly every form of media. And whether they’re downing bubbling concoctions, constructing killer robots, or making half-pony/half-monkey monsters to please us, we can’t help but be drawn to these cackling maniacs.
So, let’s go to the lab and see what’s on the slab from some of horror’s best madmen. The following represent characters that would make even Dr. Herbert look harmless by comparison.
If we use Herbert West as a baseline among mad scientists, we must remember that at his core West wanted to help humanity – “I gave him life” – displaying a bit more morality than most on our list. Qyburn of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones has no such aspirations.
With his experiments conducted on the living to learn the secrets of the dead, Qyburn oversteps the bounds of the maesters of Oldtown, men who believe a good bleeding can get you right as rain. Ultimately, with the help of Queen Cersei, Qyburn gets to cosplay as a clockpunk Frankenstein, crafting Ser Robert Strong from the zombified remains of The Mountain. Power, both magical and political, are Qyburn’s aims, with nothing redeeming to be found. That’s true mad scientist territory.
Swamp Thing’s archenemy has a resume that would make any mad scientist jealous – a quest for immortality, reanimation of the dead, body possession, the merging of science and magic, creation of a dragonfly robot, and a trip to Hell – put him high in the running for worst of the worst.
To top it all off, Arcane is so evil that even Hell saw fit to promote him. Originally sent to the netherworld as punishment for his sins, Arcane was able to worm his way into being named a demon, casting off any shackles previously holding him back and giving him free reign to terrorize the living in a whole new way. Still, gotta respect the grind.
While not the primary focus of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, Dr. Peters stands out among the major mad scientists of cinema. Believing man to be a threat to the environmental stability of the planet, and luckily having a host of deadly pathogens at his fingertips, Peters decides to become Johnny Viruseed, spreading a humanity-obliterating plague from Philly to Bangkok and back.
In a post-COVID world, Peters’s evil hijinks take on a whole new dimension, giving him chief resident status in our collective of mad scientists.
Dr. Nick Cavanaugh
Boxing Helena’s obsessive weirdo Nick Cavanaugh might not be the most famous mad scientist out there, but he’s among the nuttiest. Following a brief fling years ago, Cavanaugh becomes completely transfixed on the alluring Helena, a woman who wants absolutely nothing to do with him.
After a convenient car accident, Cavanaugh realizes he can keep Helena in his home as long as some pesky limbs aren’t in the picture. Out comes the surgical saw and – presto – torso time! The good doctor does score some points for originality.
Professor Mortimer Gangreen
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ Mortimer Gangreen just wants one simple thing – to rule the world backed by an army of killer tomatoes. Is that so much to ask?
Gangreen’s prominent crimes include kidnapping, mass murder via tomato, brainwashing of the population, turning tomatoes into replica humans, taking a tomato woman as his paramour, and staging a second French Revolution to overthrow the country by tomato power, since, you know, nobody ever says Italy.
The Weyland-Yutani Corporation
Notable for being possibly the most evil corporation in film–and that’s saying something–Weyland-Yutani, of the Alien franchise boasts a dedicated science division that almost certainly has a big banner reading “First, do harm.”
Hellbent on acquiring xenomorphs, eggs, alien queens, and human-alien hybrids by any means necessary, and all for the goal of corporate profits and weaponization, Weyland-Yutani earns an honorary spot among our mad scientists. It’s madness on a galactic scale, albeit an affliction properly cross-referenced with quarterly balance sheets.
They don’t come much madder than Dr. Moreau, especially when played by noted and pantsless thespian Marlon Brando. In the original Wells work, Moreau is already quite insane, morphing animals into humanoid monstrosities which ultimately overthrow him.
In the 1996 film, however, this madness is elaborated on as Brando’s Moreau cakes himself in white makeup, wears an ice bucket on his head, and is followed around by a Mini Me. Say what you want about that 1996 film–and there is plenty you can–but Brando didn’t hold back on the crazy.
Dr. Matthew Logan
Day of the Dead’s mad scientist is arguably more sympathetic than some, in that his goal is to find a way for humanity to survive and thrive alongside the living dead. Unfortunately, this goal is expressed through trying to domesticate zombies, serving up human flesh, and giving the undead firearms training. Maybe not the best double blind study to give a whirl, doc.
Still, he’s got his reasons, and they aren’t just “I want animal monsters” or “I love tomatoes,” so he’s got a leg up on a few of his contemporaries.
Dr. Cushing Catheter
Something of a dark horse, but Gremlins 2’s Dr. Cushing Catheter earns a spot for not just breadth of approach, but willingness. Dabbling in varied sciences like disease research, genetic splicing, cloning, and animal experimentation isn’t enough for the good doctor–once the gremlins show up he’s ready to go. He’s fascinated by the new opportunities.
He tries to bargain with the brain gremlin, telling him, “I can get you diseases. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” It’s only after the bat gremlin is created that he has second thoughts – “We can’t let them get away! All they’d have to do is eat three or four children and there’d be the most appalling publicity!” With an outlook like that, he might just be getting some calls from Weyland-Yutani.
Bitten by mutant pterodactyls, turning him into a humanoid pterodactyl and “energy vampire,” geneticist Karl Lykos assumes the name of Sauron and eventually devises a plan to… turn people into dinosaurs. Well, it can’t be lasers and death rays for all of them.
As now immortalized in panels from Spider-Man and the X-Men #2, Sauron’s not too keen on mapping the human genome, curing diseases, or making the world a better place… unless you count more dinosaurs roaming around as better. And we all know how well that worked out for John Hammond.
Dr. Josef Heiter
What can be said about The Human Centipede and its doctor that hasn’t already been said? The crazed surgeon is the epitome of madness for madness’ sake, with his linked victims serving no greater purpose than satisfying his own warped enjoyment.
Still, the twisted conga line Heiter crafts has surely made its mark on modern horror, delivering up what only the best mad scientists can–a concept and image you simply can’t shake.
Watchmen’s mad scientist is both villain and hero, depending on your point of view. He’s also either stark raving mad or shrewdly sane, again depending on how you view his actions. What are those actions? Determined that humanity was on the razor’s edge, Veidt did what any “smartest man in the world” would do – he engineered a fake space alien squid monster to scare the planet straight. Surprisingly, he wasn’t the first mad scientist with this angle.
Perhaps Veidt’s finest moment, though, comes when he upends the mad scientist trope and avoids the perils of monologuing, stating he wasn’t a “Republic serial villain” and wouldn’t be caught dead relaying a plan that wasn’t already finished. He did it 35-minutes ago, after all.
Dr. Egon Spengler
Whoa, whoa, what? To quote Peter Venkman, “Have we all gone mad?!” Nope, just Egon. Though beloved by fans around the world, Egon Spengler has all the hallmarks of a mad scientist who’s out of his gourd.
Not only does he believe in ghosts despite a scientific consensus, he once wanted to drill a hole in his own head, he’s been known to run cruel psychological tests on children, he’s ready to make nerve gas at a moment’s notice, and in the cartoon, he kept a human brain on hand in his lab. Beyond that, according to the novelization, as a child he built a bomb that blew out all the windows in a three-block radius around his house. Most troubling, however, is that Dr. Spengler is so dedicated to his craft he even went so far as to engage in some questionable activities with his mood slime.
All that is more than enough to make him either a certified genius or an authentic wacko. But probably both.