The Devil in Mr. Nelson: Cryonics and Nightmare Comedies
Cryonic suspension, or “cryonics,” is the strange practice of freezing human corpses in hopes that scientists will at some future point achieve a level of medical technology so advanced that it will be possible to repair virtually any damage sustained by the human body, cure disease, halt and initiate a reversal of the aging process, and yes, rejuvenate and “reanimate” the “deanimated,” those who lay in cryonic suspension. The ethos of cryonics is summed up nicely by a quirky expression, coined in the tumultuous American 1960s, which has since become something of a hallowed commonplace among latter day cryonics advocates: “Freeze-Wait-Reanimate.”
As one might expect, cryonic suspension’s history is punctuated by episodes of controversy, misunderstanding, and accusations of fraud and pseudoscientific quackery – not to mention catastrophic disaster. Freezing People is Easy, an upcoming film by Zach Helm (Stranger than Fiction) and Academy Award winning director Errol Morris (The Fog of War), will to this end chronicle the plight of Robert F. “Bob” Nelson, a TV repairman, science-fiction enthusiast, and co-founder and former president of the long-since defunct Cryonics Society of California (CSC). The film will draw from Nelson’s 1968 memoir, We Froze the First Man, and “Mistakes Were Made,” the overwhelmingly popular “cryonics” episode of Ira Glass’s radio show, This American Life (1).
Freezing People is Easy (spoiler alert!) will offer an account of how Bob Nelson’s enthusiastic though remarkably amateurish toilings in cryonics during the 1960s and 70s conspired in producing the most disastrous and damaging event in the history of the practice – the abandonment, thawing, and decomposition of nine cryonic suspension “patients” interned in the CSC’s underground crypt at the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California; what is infamously known in cryonics circles as the “Chatsworth Scandal.”
The macabre nature of the incident can’t be underscored too heavily. Bodies, and tens of thousands of dollars, went missing. In cryo-suspension capsules designed for one, Nelson had crammed two, three, even four “patients,” leaving scant room for liquid nitrogen. Questions were evaded. Visitations were denied. Relatives were kept in the dark. Rumors of something amiss at Chatsworth circulated among cryonics activists from coast to coast. When Valley News reporter David Walker finally ventured to the by-then abandoned CSC facility on the morning of Friday, June 10, 1979, he was overcome by the site: “the stench near the crypt is disarming, strips away all defenses, spins the stomach into a thousand dizzying somersaults (2).” Freezing people is easy; maintaining them in a frozen state over the long term, however, as Nelson found out the hard way, is another matter entirely.
What transpired at Chatsworth under Bob Nelson’s watch was so bizarre, so revolting, so tragic, it seems appropriate that Helm and Morris have opted to engage the scandal through stylistic conventions approximating those of the cinematic genre deployed to such masterful effect by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove – nightmare comedy (3). Boasting a first-rate cast that includes Paul Rudd (as Nelson), Owen Wilson (as mortician Joseph Klockgether, Nelson’s collaborator), the one-and-only Kristen Wiig (as Nelson’s wife), and the legendary Christopher Walken (as Robert C.W. “Bob” Ettinger, so-called “father” of the cryonics movement), Freezing People is Easy will very likely make for a good laugh. I suspect, however, that Helm and Morris’s decision to portray Nelson as a naïve but otherwise good and loveable character who simply gets in way over his head will evoke howls of protest the from the contemporary cryonics fraternity, sizable factions of which regard Nelson as a con-man who perpetrated unspeakable evil at Chatsworth and beyond, forever trapping cryonics in the dreaded realm of “pseudoscience.”
Bob Nelson’s culpability in the events at Chatsworth will remain open to debate; Helm and Morris have simply made the most recent move. I am concerned, however, that their cinematic rehabilitation of Nelson, even though satirical, may incite discourses that end up concealing far more than they reveal about cryonics, Chatsworth, and Bob Nelson himself (4). This is not to say that the villainous Nelson of cryonics lore is somehow closer to the truth; that Morris and Helm’s portrayal is “biased.” No. The challenge is not to pinpoint Bob Nelson as a saint or the devil incarnate, but to recognize as dubious any attempt to “explain” a complex sociohistorical event like Chatsworth by attributing its horrific outcome to Nelson’s flawed moral character. While such a yarn is loaded with the sort of cinematic possibilities that tend to resonate so powerfully with the twin American cults of hyper-individualism and personal responsibility, it is also sociologically and historically anemic.
My concerns, of course, may prove to be unfounded. Like the nightmare comedy Dr. Strangelove before it, Freezing People is Easy may very well have the effect of inciting serious discourse about some of the most disturbing and destructive elements of postwar American culture: the denial of death, the denigration of the elderly, youthful hedonism, and a quasireligious faith in the destructive and regenerative power of modern technoscience. In the likelihood of such an outcome, we may then come to realize that we are not so very far removed from the world that gave rise to Bob Nelson’s strange ambitions in the first place.
Grant Shoffstall is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology and the Program in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is completing his dissertation, Biomedicalization, Cybernetics, and the ‘Prospect’ of Immortality: Towards an Historical Sociology of Cryonic Suspension, 1958-1979. He has no intention of being placed in cryonic suspension upon deanimating.
This essay was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of the University of Illinois’ Department of Sociology Newsletter.
1. Robert F. Nelson with Sandra Stanley, We Froze the First Man (New York: Dell, 1968). For a link to “Mistakes Were Made” and a take on Freezing People is Easy by a respected cryonics veteran, see Mike Darwin, “Freezing People is Easy,” Chronosphere: A Revolution in Time.
2. David Walker. “Valley Cryonic Crypt Desecrated, Untended.” The Valley News (June 10, 1979):11.
3. The comparison of cryonics to Dr. Strangelove is owed to Jill Lepore, Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), Ch. 10.
4. The present remarks are significantly indebted to John R. Hall, Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987), Introduction and Ch. 12.