He’s got his lab coat on at all times, his hair is a mess, he’s not paying attention to anything or anyone but his work, and he might possibly have murderous tendencies. He is the mad scientist, a character trope that has shown up in fiction so much that he’s become ubiquitous to pop culture overall. So what is a mad scientist, where did this stock character come from, and what are some examples?
The Evil Scientist Villain
A quick Mad Scientist definition
We’ll start with a basic definition of mad scientist characters, one which you can use to describe just about any version of this stock character. Some minor differences will vary, of course, but generally there is a basic outline of what mad scientist characters are (and look like).
MAD SCIENTIST DEFINITION
What is a mad scientist?
A mad scientist is a stock character who is an unkempt, unwieldy, and insane scientist, with dubious morals and hygiene, and generally apathetic towards others. They often conduct scientific experiments that are outside what’s accepted, resulting in abominations, disasters, or just plain weird results. Overwhelmingly white and male (often with a white lab coat), the evil scientist is usually a villainous character, but they can also be portrayed as neutral and/or friends of the hero.
Mad Scientist Archetype:
- White, male, lab coat, and sometimes European
- Only interested in pushing science beyond its limits
- Considered highly unorthodox, with scientific ideas that are dangerous, scary, and a threat to others
Click the image to see the entire collection and you can even print it out for inspiration if you find yourself writing the next great deranged scientist.
Now, let's go back to see the origins of this character — from it's humble beginnings in literature to its heyday in cinema.
FAMOUS MAD SCIENTIST IN FICTION EXAMPLES
The Mad Scientist in literature
Like most stock character types, the mad scientist in literature predates cinema just a tad. The most proto-typical example would be Victor Frankenstien of the Mary Shelly novel Frankenstein (1818). He is self-involved, desperate to push boundaries, and yes, a European white male. Victor managed to create “the Modern Prometheus.” But of course, he’s shocked and disgusted by what he has done and now his creation wants to know why he’s been brought to life.
One of the most notable things about the story of Frankenstein is that it’s about a man who wanted to evade a natural part of our existence — death —and ends up creating an unnatural but intelligent being, and regretting it. In short, Victor is one of the famous mad scientists in fiction because he wanted to do something dangerous with science.
Another classic mad scientist in literature is Dr. Moreau from H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Already a pioneer in the creation of science-fiction, Wells’ character Dr. Moreau is a scientist who exiles himself to an island so he can create human-animal hybrids (via vivisection) in peace.
Aside from helping build up the new burgeoning genre of sci-fi in the 19th century, these two novels perfectly explain why mad scientist characters have endured. While science doesn’t have to be scary, characters like Frankenstein and Moreau show its dark side, and how pushing science to insane limits can result in horrors. This is especially notable when we consider how some people feel about science and how it goes up against their established beliefs.
Mad Scientist Archetype in Film
Mad Scientist examples in cinema
If you’ve watched enough movies, then you’ve seen mad scientist characters at some point. Entering pre-code Hollywood, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (changed from Victor) became a famous cinematic evil scientist with the adaptation Frankenstein (1931).
He’s crazy, wears a lab coat, and even has a hunchback assistant.
But he’s not the only one. Before Henry showed up, there was Rotwang from Fritz Lang’s German Expressionist classic Metropolis (1927). Wild hair, crazy eyes and demeanor, and a diabolical plan. Both he and his laboratory have inspired the evil scientist look and feel for generations.
Most mad scientist characters are relatively unknown because they usually appear in super low budget movies. At the same time, the variety in evil scientists has been limited. A majority of them being white males who, if not lab coats, wear some kind of coat.
There are also mad scientist characters who represent the trope more generally, which means audiences won’t immediately identify them as such. Of course, like Frankenstein and Rotwang, there are exceptions.
Possibly the most notable example in modern times is Dr. Emmett Brown from Back to the Future (1985), one of the best movies of the ‘80s. He steals plutonium from terrorists to create a time machine (made out of a DeLorean), and is also reclusive.
He’s also very notable for not being a villain. Even though he’s still rather crazy and all consumed by his work. Not only that, but he’s the co-protagonist with Marty McFly, otherwise known as a deuteragonist.
For a more straight example — without the lab coat and the crazy hair — is Nathan Bateman from Ex Machina (2014). He lives in total seclusion, is horribly apathetic, and experiments with science and technology in new and scary ways.
The mad scientist character type probably won’t be going anywhere soon. He somehow manages to sneak into all sorts of stories in all sorts of media. However, these days, if he does show up, especially in his original form, it’s probably a parody or not taken seriously. Still, as some movies demonstrate, maybe the character type is evolving to become less easily recognizable.
Best Horror Movies of All-Time
Now that you’ve learned more about evil scientists, take a look at some movies he has appeared in. Our list of the best horror movies is extensive, featuring a large swath of movies for any fan of the genre.