The greatest mad scientists dabble in forces that... wait for it... man (or woman) was not meant to meddle with. And many of them live to regret it. Here are 20 mad scientists whose journeys ended in remorse and despair.
Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley)
Pretty much the moment that Frankenstein creates his monster, he has a change of heart. And he spends the rest of the book wracked with guilt and horror. While he's on his trip across the Artic, he tells Captain Walton,
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.
He also busts out with this great quote at another point:
All my speculations and hopes are as nothing, and like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell. My imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense; by the union of these qualities I conceived the idea and executed the creation of a man. Even now I cannot recollect without passion my reveries while the work was incomplete. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk! Oh! My friend, if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognize me in this state of degradation. Despondency rarely visited my heart; a high destiny seemed to bear me on, until I fell, never, never again to rise.
Jack Griffin aka The Invisible Man (The Invisible Man, Universal Studios, 1933)
In the original H.G. Wells version, Griffin is not a nice person before he turns himself invisible. And after he turns himself invisible, he's a sociopath. But the Universal Studios film gives Griffin a first name, a love interest and a change of heart. Before he dies he says, "I meddled in things that man must leave alone." Which is sort of the quintessential mad science remorse line.
Dr. Robert Matheson (The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen)
In The Great God Pan, Dr. Matheson experiments on a woman in Wales, to enable her to see the true nature of the god Pan. Unfortunately, he succeeds a little too well, and her mind is broken. (Although it turns out he actually did manage to reach Pan, which causes no end of panic.) Matheson values knowledge over human life, but by the end of the book, he writes about his his "horror and great loathing of soul," and admits: "It was an ill work I did that night when you were present; I broke open the door of the house of life, without knowing or caring what might pass forth or enter in. I recollect your telling me at the time, sharply enough, and rightly too, in one sense, that I had ruined the reason of a human being by a foolish experiment, based on an absurd theory."
The Narrator (Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft)
If you ever get a transfer to Miskatonic University, watch who your roommates are. The narrator of Reanimator gets stuck with Herbert West, who... well, the title says it all. And his roommate, the narrator, helps out every step of the way. This seminal zombie tale features West and his roomie reanimating the dead, but unfortunately as West perfects his serum it revives the dead as less intelligent, more super-violent versions of themselves. The narrator, who's a participant in all of these horrific acts, eventually has a crisis of conscience, but won't leave West for fear of falling victim to the zombie horror.
Qwi Xux (Star Wars: Jedi Search by Kevin J. Anderson)
The Empire tortures Qwi Xux and forces her to create fantastical inventions for them — but they also lie to her, telling her that the Death Star will only be used for mining operations. ("Behold the power of our fully operational mining platform" doesn't have quite the same ring.) Anyway, when she finds out what the Death Star is really for, it nearly drives her crazy. She eventually rebels and joins the New Republic (the government, not the magazine) and starts a multi-planet journey of self-discovery and healing.
Miles Dyson (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
Like Qwi Xux, Miles Dyson doesn't mean to cause mass destruction and suffering — but that doesn't make him feel any less bad when he discovers that his work at Cyberdyne Systems will cause the extinction of humanity. After discovering that his new microprocessor leads to both Skynet and the Terminators, Dyson is willing to blow up his research. So willing that he stays behind to trigger the explosion. (Don't worry, he winds up in the town of Eureka.)
Dr. Otto Octavius aka Doctor Octopus (Spiderman 2)
Kindly, poetry-quoting science professors can't be all bad — even when their robotic arms drive them insane and they start trashing the city. Doc Ock robs banks, threatens the city of New York, and tries to kill Spiderman. But in the end, he drowns himself and his diabolic experiment.
Topher Brink (Dollhouse)
Ah, Topher. It's hard to believe he started out as some people's least favorite character on this show, given the way he eventually became the best thing about Joss Whedon's (maybe) last television series. He was a snarky, self-justifying ubergeek who helped perfect the technology for erasing people's brains and reprogramming them to be whoever you want. And he finally helped create the tech that allowed for the mass erasure of billions of people — which drove him crazy with remorse, hiding in his cubicle fort. And in the final episode, he creates a technology to reverse Rossum's mind-wipes, and sacrifices himself to save the world's personalities.
Norman Osborn aka The Green Goblin (Ultimate Spiderman)
The regular Norman Osborn has never shown much remorse for creating the Green Goblin and ruining his son's life, among many other misdeeds. But the Ultimate version does have a change of heart — after Osborn, acting as the Green Goblin, accidentally kills his son Harry. When Norman realizes what he has done, he asks a SHIELD agent to kill him.
Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum (Bioshock/Bioshock 2)
After discovering the sea slug stem cells that create the mutagen ADAM, Dr. Tennebaum creates the Little Sisters: kidnapped girls with implanted sea slugs that produce ADAM (and harvest it from dead bodies). By the time Jack shows up at the start of the game, Tennebaum hates herself for what she has done, and is working to make the Little Sisters human once again.
Mordin Solus (Mass Effect 2)
Mordin Solus is deeply conflicted about his mad science. He created the genopahge that causes sterility among the ultra-violent alien race, the Krogans. Though he believes it the genophage is in the best interest of the galaxy, he still feels guilty. He continues to check on the Krogans to make sure the genophage effects have not gotten worse, and condemns himself to doctoring on an out-of-the-way space station. However, he still says he would create the genophage again, so he's sort of an edge case here.
The Scientist (9)
In this animated film about rag dolls in a post-apocalyptic world, we learn that that the scientist actually created the rag dolls because of his remorse after he realized that the government would use his deadly robotic creations for destruction, rather than to help people. He gives his own soul to animate the rag dolls, to try and make up for the destruction his machines have caused.
Chris Knight and Mitch Taylor (Real Genius)
These two mega-geniuses help perfect a space-based laser system that can incinerate a person on the ground. But when they realize they've created an insidious weapon, and the Defense Dept. plans to use it, they freak out and realize they have to stop it. This they achieve, by using the laser to pop enough popcorn to destroy the popcorn-hating Professor Hathaway's house, wrecking the laser in the process. Righteous, dude!
Tim Marcoh (Fullmetal Alchemist)
Marcoh, formerly known as the Crystal Alchemist, sacrifices Ishbalan prisoners of war to create the Philosopher's Stone. He feels terrible about it, and after he's captured by the homunculi, he tries to goad Scar into killing him — but Scar just disfigures his face instead. In the end, he agrees to fix Mustang's eyesight in exchange for getting to help save the remaining Ishbalans, and going with them as their doctor.
Walter Bishop (Fringe)
Not only is he holding his own against Neil Patrick Harris in our mad scientist smackdown, but Walter is also the poster child for remorse. After Walter crossed universes to save his son Peter, he kind of, um... broke a universe. Oops. Walter felt so bad about it, he asked his friend William Bell to remove pieces of his brain that contained the information on how to jump between universes and store them for safe-keeping. Walter also feels kind of bad about all the sadistic experiments on children and his other horrific inventions, too.
Doc Brown (Back To The Future)
He invents possibly the coolest time machine ever, in a DeLorean, but after all of the chaos his invention causes — almost-incest, altered timelines, and the Reign of Biff — he decides that creating a time machine was a terrible mistake, and says his invention has caused "nothing but suffering." But of course, by the end of the third movie, he seems to have changed his mind yet again, since he creates a locomotive armed with its own flux capacitor, and roars back into the time vortex.
Marisa Coulter (His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman)
Mrs. Coulter invents a method of controlling the "Dust" that attaches to people — unfortunately, this requires severing children from their Daemons, or basically their souls. When Mrs. Coulter realizes her daughter Lyra is in danger, she dedicates herself to protecting Lyra.
Dr. Arik Soong (Star Trek: Enterprise)
A brilliant geneticist, he believes that the human race shouldn't have abandoned genetic engineering after the Eugenics Wars (with Khan Noonien Singh) and that genetically enhanced humans could be a force for good. (And of course, Dr. Bashir basically proves him right years later in Deep Space Nine.) He creates a new generation of Augments, and then watches in horror as they become immoral killers who regard human life as lesser and disposable. He helps the Enterprise destroy them, and then vows in prison to abandon genetic engineering for the study of artificial life — which will eventually lead to his descendant creating Mr. Data.
Dr. Tenma (Astro Boy)
In the underrated 2009 film, Dr. Tenma turns against his creation, Astro Boy — but later has a second change of heart. Dr. Tenma creates Astro Boy as a robot duplicate of his dead son. But when he realizes that the robot copy can never replace the flesh-and-blood boy, he rejects the kid. (In the original Tezuka manga, Tenma rejects the boy when he realizes the boy can never grow up, and sells him to the circus.) In the movie, Dr. Tenma finally embraces his robot son after Astro Boy sacrifices himself to save everyone from an evil giant robot — and Dr. Tenma manages to bring Astro Boy back to life.
Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Iron Man)
Tony creates the ultimate high-tech weapons systems, while cultivating a rockstar persona. But after he sees first-hand the way his weapons are misused and the damage they cause, he vows to destroy them, using his new high-tech suit of armor. (And then that, of course, also gets misused and gets into the wrong hands. It never ends, which is sort of the key problem for mad scientists trying to use mad science to undo the effects of their earlier mad science achievements.)
Additional reporting by Katharine Trendacosta, Chelsea Lo Pinto, Madelynn Martiniere, Michael Ann Dobbs, and Carlea Holl-Jensen.