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Reality Check: Could MST3K’s mad scientists take over the world with cheesy movies?

Or is it just a show, and we should really just relax?

The point of the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) is to riff bad, cheesy movies few people would otherwise care about, and the backstory that series creator Joel Hogson gave it was certainly not intended to be taken seriously, by anyone. Let’s do so anyway.

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The premise of the MST3K mythos is that a team of mad scientists (conveniently referred to as The Mads) are forcing their test subjects to watch terrible movies, so they can determine which ones would drive the rest of humanity insane. They would then use this information to, somehow, take over the world! How plausible is this, from the perspective of the psychological sciences?


“We’ll send him cheesy movies,
The worst we can find (la-la-la).
He’ll have to sit and watch them all,
And we’ll monitor his mind (la-la-la).”

Music can be used for torture, at least

For several months from the end of 1989 to the early part of 1990, the U.S. army blared hard rock and heavy metal music at Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, all day and all night, while he was holed up in the Vatican’s embassy in Panama City. Noriega eventually surrendered, largely due to the psychological trauma he experienced from the relentless auditory assault. In 2010, the army liked to blast various pieces of music at the front lines in Afghanistan, aimed at tormenting the enemy, including Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady,” and “I Love You” from Barney the Dinosaur.

It didn’t work so well in February 1993, when the FBI laid siege to a Texas compound that housed David Koresh and his cult members, the Branch Davidians. For 51 days, the FBI played loud pop music, including Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” along with the sounds of Tibetan chanting, jet planes taking off, and screaming rabbits. There’s no evidence the music hastened their surrender and, in fact, it was the cult’s failure to do so that precipitated the disastrous raid.

In 2003, government psychologists claimed that such techniques had no lasting negative effects. However, many of those on the receiving end disagreed. Former Guantanamo detainees said that, after many hours of deafeningly loud musical clips — often just a single phrase from a song — prisoners were pounding their heads against walls, screaming for it to stop.

Forcing subjects to watch movies might not work as The Mads expect

In the film A Clockwork Orange (1971), an offender named Alex, portrayed by Malcolm McDowell, is forced to watch violent films and images without his consent, in hopes of inducing negative feelings about violence. In reality, the opposite is more likely to happen. Frequent exposure to violent images seems to cause habituation and loss of the normal empathetic response.

After 15 years of compiled data on the effects of children viewing violent TV images, a 1982 report by the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that:

  • Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others (loss of empathetic response).
  • Children may become more fearful of the world around them (learned expectation of violent behavior in others).
  • Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others (modeling and copying).

A 2008 study at Columbia found that the subjects – students who had volunteered for the study – lost normal inhibitions against the desire to act violently or aggressively after viewing a large number of depictions of acts of violence. Perhaps some types of malicious conspirators could make use of a rowdy and vicious population, but that does not seem to be what The Mads, themselves, have in mind. And besides, despite our national infatuation with violent video games and movies, FBI statistics indicate that overall violence has been decreasing for the last several decades.

It’s fair to speculate that being forced to watch especially bad movies against one’s will for extended periods of time could induce negative emotional reactions, leading to feelings of depression, demoralization, irritability, and anger. It’s doubtful, however, that true psychosis could be induced in anyone simply through such repeated viewing, unless the subject already had some form of dormant psychotic illness, or had a genetic vulnerability to becoming psychotic under emotional stress.

Although, if victims become depressed and withdrawn after being forced to watch cheesy movies, they might become more compliant or less likely to resist whatever plans The Mads have in mind. Still, those plans were meant to be farcical, so you had to guess that taking over the world is not as easy as finding the right kind of terrible film. Maybe that’s … reassuring?

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.


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