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Dr. Herbert West: Scientist, Madman, Hero?

There’s a moment about midway through Re-Animator – the greatest horror comedy ever made – where, threatened by the insidious Dr. Hill, medical student Herbert West takes matters into his own hands. While Hill busies himself with a microscope, hoping to observe the biochemical reaction of West’s proprietary re-animating serum, West grabs a shovel, knocks him to the ground, and then, placing the blade on Hill’s throat to deliver the coup de grâce, utters what must’ve been the single most devastating insult he could muster: “Plagiarist!”

Herbert West is, above all, a man of science. He is also, to put it lightly, socially awkward and arrogant. Upon his earlier introduction to Dr. Hill, one of his professors, during a tour of his new medical school, West immediately impugns Hill’s work to his face, all while his attention wanders anywhere but Hill, curious and eager to familiarize himself with the home of his new studies. Brushing aside the insult as well as he can, Hill isn’t so collected later on when West makes a point of passive-aggressively interrupting him during a lecture by repeatedly snapping his pencil in half, when Hill is discussing the inability of the brain stem to survive beyond six-to-twelve minutes after biological death. After Hill dismisses the class, West angrily chides him for teaching his fellow students “drivel.”

Nor is West any more gracious with his fellow students, cajoling prize pupil (and roommate) Dan Cain into assisting him with his (admittedly quite dangerous) research, and into currying West some favor with the medical school’s dean, Dr. Halsey – who also happens to be the father of Cain’s girlfriend, Megan. It…goes poorly for Cain, to say the least, but West is undeterred; upon learning of their dismissal from the school, he simply bulldozes straight ahead with another plan. Nothing will stop him from his research: not Cain’s trepidation, not Dr. Hill’s hostility, not Megan’s furious pleas with Cain, nothing.

West’s arrogance may get him into trouble, but it’s inextricable from his genius, because one thing is plainly evident: Herbert West is clearly the most daring, visionary scientist in the history of medicine. Consider the prodigious brilliance necessary to – without even the completion of a medical degree – design, on your own time and with your own resources, a serum which can bring sentient creatures back to life. Each step of the way, his instincts about his own formula and its effects in varying dosages and on varying creatures (and body parts) proves his hypotheses correct. And West, in the proud tradition of such daredevils as Jonas Salk, John Paul Stapp, and Albert Hoffman, is willing even to subject himself to his own dangerous experiments, regularly dosing himself with his re-animating agent in order to skip out on sleeping and keep his mental acuity razor-sharp.

To be sure, West’s experiments often end messily, but considering the level of excessive interference, institutional stonewalling and structural factors against which West has to contend, we should, rather than condemning his lackadaisical attitude towards laboratory safety and (occasionally) scientific rigorousness, applaud his panache and determination to advance the cause of bringing the dead back to life – the holy grail towards which all humankind has been drawn for millennia. In the face of a such a discovery, it is a coward who would not take further action in the face of a tiny thing like expulsion. Nor can he be blamed too harshly for his role in Dr. Hill’s death; given his plan to steal credit for West’s work, of which he had no knowledge, involvement, or understanding, Hill could very easily have jeopardized the most important discovery in the history of science. Vendetta aside, West couldn’t stand back and let such a man stand in the path of progress. Nor is his desire a selfish one; do recall West’s anger at having his fellow medical students be taught information he knows and has proven is incorrect. His loyalty lies not with power or money or fame, but only with the pursuit of knowledge.

The case of the Halseys is perhaps more unfortunate, but responsibility for their unfortunate demise can also credibly be lain at the feet of Dr. Hill, whose hypnosis of Dean Halsey is the first step he takes towards ruining West and his work; and it’s likewise his abduction of poor Megan which places her in harm’s way to begin with. West himself, for his part, heroically allows Megan and Dan to escape while drawing the subjects of his experiments towards himself and not them; it’s only their own inattentiveness while escaping that ultimately gets Megan killed. We should not, however, shed too many tears for these unfortunate souls (nor for Dan and Megan’s unfortunate cat); their deaths helped to pave the way towards immortality.

As for West himself, his experiments ultimately cost him his own life as well, but, dedicated researcher that he is, while being strangled by a tentacular mess of human intestines, West makes sure to hurl his collected research at the feet of Cain, ensuring that his work should not die alongside him. It is this last point, perhaps, which so poetically captures the ennobling spirit of West’s work: he died, so that one day we all might live forever.

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