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Is There a Doctor in the House?





As a society, we are obsessed with health.. and doctors. Television is saturated with shows such as Embarrassing Bodies, 24 Hours in A&E, Doctors, Casualty, Holby City, ER, Scrubs.. to name a few. They are an integral part of our entertainment culture, these healers - the ones you go to when you feel bad and who make you feel good again. In some cases, doctors can even act as a friend to the old, lonely or poor.

      Doctors are naturally seen as kind and helpful people, there to fix you when you go wrong, so what makes some films to portray doctors as terrifying threats, there to deceive or hurt you? Are we simply afraid of things that we don’t understand or did Harold Shipman prove that there really is something to fear? - Let’s take a look into the films that present doctors as secretive, manipulative and ultimately malicious...

      A Clockwork Orange is a 1971 Stanley Kubrick film adapted from the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess. The film comes in two parts, the second of which is basically its protagonist vs the British Establishment. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is injected with a test drug to ‘cure’ him of his deviancies. The doctors portrayed in the film are altogether uncaring and horrid to Alex throughout his ordeal, which caused the film to be taken the wrong way by many critics who assumed Kubrick to be sympathising with a reprobate of the worst kind. 

      Moving forward, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) was based on another 1962 novel by Ken Kesey about a psychiatric hospital and its inhumane practices. Nurse Ratched is widely regarded as one of the most infamous tyrants in fiction; Louise Fletcher played her in Milos Forman's film, for which she won an Oscar, but she has since denounced the role as too unsettling to watch. Cuckoo’s Nest is ultimately about the mistreatment of mental patients but it goes some way towards putting the onus on all doctors for not looking after patients as well as they could.

      There is an episode of the TV series The Hammer House of Horror (1980), entitled The Two Faces of Evil, which comes to mind when thinking of doctors who did nothing more than put the fear of God into a protagonist. For those who have seen the episode, you'll know that the doctors themselves aren’t the threat in its plot, though they have the uncanny ability to instill fear and worry into the heroine when her story is not believed and she is eventually told to leave the hospital, despite having just been in a car accident. The strangely uncomfortable way that the doctors and nurses treat her adds to the horror that she is now stuck with a man who is no longer her husband. Their dismissal of her version of events, which leads her to question her own sanity, very much reinforces her terror.

      Silence of the Lambs features arguably the most terrifying doctor of all, Dr Hannibal Lecter. After his first appearance in Manhunter in 1986, Lecter reappeared in 1991 in Silence of the Lambs. The character, born in the 1981 thriller novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, has since gone on to terrify in five films and a TV series; not so much a doctor as an outright cannibal, who preferred to eat his patient's liver with a 'nice Chianti' than find a means of curing it!

      American Mary is a 2012 film about a trainee woman doctor who goes on a revenge spree, torturing the senior doctors who took advantage of her at a party where her drink was spiked. This rape/revenge film doesn’t so much make you afraid of its protagonist but the medical attackers who were meant to be upstanding upholders of the Hippocratic Oath.

      Looking back to Marathon Man, the film features a former Nazi 'doctor', played by Laurence Olivier, who brutally tortures Dustin Hoffman for information by doing unnecessary work on his teeth. The film preys on a fear many of us have - not for doctors, but for the dentist!

      The Human Centipede is a 2010 film directed by Tom Six about a demented surgeon and his obsession with the gastric system. Doctor Heiter, played by Dieter Laser, kidnaps his victims and surgically enjoins them - 'ass to mouth' - to create a human 'centipede' of sorts. But this quite disgusting cult film does more to make one give up horror altogether than it does to make one terrified of doctors. 

       Doctor Frankenstein is an obvious choice, featuring in countless films about his famous monster, and he has been portrayed as both sweet and caring, as well as evil and insane. Mary Shelley’s 1816 novel about the creation of life was partly inspired by the death of her child and her desire to return it to life, but this more humane view of a medical practitioner has often been overlooked in the various film adaptations, which simply make him out to be an arrogant madman who will stop at nothing to encroach upon the life-giving domain of God.

      The Island of Doctor Moreau is a 1996 film, and one of several based on the HG Wells novel about a dastardly doctor who is attempting to create human-animal hybrids. This tale of vivisection, like The Human Centipede and Frankenstein, implies that the knowledge which doctors possess about the workings of human body, which ordinary mortals do not, is somehow mysterious and arcane and able to instil into an ordinary person a fear about what could plausibly be done to a human being by medical personnel with less than altruistic motives.

      There are many more films featuring insane doctors out for blood. The many adaptations of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as Vincent Price's Abominable Doctor Phibes make the cut - not to mention a charming addition from 2015 called Stalked By My Doctor, starring none other than Eric Roberts. The filmic obsession with evil doctors is intriguing to say the least, so what is it that makes us so afraid of the doctor? - Is it because they often desire to give you an injection, or probe your prostate? Or is it simply that a stranger has the power to keep you alive?

      What is certain is that an apple a day wouldn't keep Dr Lecter away!