Geek Speak

Is There a (Mad) Doctor in the House? Medical Horror's Frightening Charms

It’s no secret that I love horror movies, but I have a confession: They don’t really scare me. At least, not usually. My beloved zombie movies fill me with a sense of apocalyptic angst, but almost never fright. As much as I love the gore in so many of these films, it doesn't gross me out or unsettle me. By and large, there’s just not much in the world of horror that moves my scare-o-meter with any reliability. Not much, but not nothing — because medical horror freaks me the fuck out.

Slashers, aliens and good old-fashioned monsters are great fun, but none of them make my stomach do those weird flip-flops and get my pulse racing like doctors and nurses behaving badly. No creepy, cobweb-festooned haunted house could ever freak me out more than the austere sterility of a hospital room, at least when the attending physician is more Dr. Mengele than Dr. Oz (okay, Dr. Oz freaks me out, too, because who knows what that guy might suggest as a treatment). I would rather be chased by an implacable, unstoppable ax murderer through a darkened forest than committed to the care of a physician who thinks the Hippocratic Oath is “just a suggestion.”

Now, I’m not particularly doctor-phobic in real life. I don’t have panic attacks at the idea of going under anesthesia or anything. I’ve spent a few hundred hours of my life in dentist chairs, a good portion of those for drilling, and never so much as broke a sweat. But give me a movie, or story, where those doctors or dentists or nurses decide to go a little sadistic, a little recreational, even a little experimental, and my skin starts to crawl.

I think there are three issues at the heart of this. The first is trust, and the inherent betrayal of trust that all medical horror hinges on. When the serial killer picks up his knife and starts walking toward you, you know it’s about to get ugly. When a doctor does the same…well, he's just doing his job, right? At least right up to that hellish moment when he's not doing his job, and instead he's severing a few tendons or drilling into your gums instead of a cavity. That betrayal of trust is a weird, sanity-warping addition to the basic fear of being cut, stabbed or otherwise mutilated that's inherent to most horror.

The second thing is a doctor's expertise. Medical professionals know as much about the body as it’s possible to know, and something tells me that they can use that knowledge for some pretty dark shit. Knowing where a nerve runs so you know not to trigger it during a procedure means knowing where it runs when you do want to trigger it for maximum punishment. Even a talented amateur killer probably doesn't have the knowledge of how to cause maximum suffering that your basic, kindly old GP can muster if he decides to be a little less kindly and a lot more torturey.

Finally, there’s the question of authority. I mean, when you’re running from an unkillable killer like Michael Myers and you finally come across a cop, or security guard, or even a groundskeeper with a shovel, your worst-case scenario is that they don’t believe you. And sure, that might get you both killed, but when that bad guy shows up with a machete and a whole lot of malice, they change their tune quick, even if it’s already way too late. But when you escape your killer doctor and go running off into the night and finally find a cop, what do you think happens? The cop listens to your story, tells you to calm down, then calls the fucking doctor and has them come pick you up. Doctors are authority figures of the highest order, and when some sweating, wild-eyed loon comes running out of the darkness in a hospital gown with a story of a doctor who’s trying to sew their eyes shut and eat their kidneys, the cops are going to assume the doctor is fine and you are a fucking maniac. What’s worse than being at the mercy of a remorseless killer with a deep knowledge of how to hurt you? Knowing that even if you escape, no one is going to believe you and they’ll probably return you to their “care” at the earliest opportunity.

Unfortunately, medical horror is a sadly underserved niche. I think there’s maybe one truly great film — David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, a nightmare-inducing trip into experimental gynecology and drug abuse — and then the drop-off is real steep. The next tier gets campy, from the dental-slasher nonsense of Dr. Giggles (which you can see next Wednesday, June 29, at the Alamo Drafthouse) to the mad science of The Human Centipede. Hell, it’s so hard to find good medical horror that I still stand by the second season of American Horror Story, which, for all of its many, many flaws, featured not one but two evil doctors doing awful shit to helpless patients. It’s not much, but until someone realizes the rich potential of doctors doing evil, it’s all we’ve got — and I have to find my scares somewhere.

See Dr. Giggles, on 35mm, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 29, at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Tickets are $7, or $8 with a donation to the American Genre Film Archive. For tickets and more info, visit the Alamo Drafthouse Denver website.

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Cory Casciato is a Denver-based writer with a passion for the geeky, from old science fiction movies to brand-new video games.
Contact: Cory Casciato