What can be seen and what can’t: Catherine Belling on “X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” [Video]

Roger Corman’s visionary 1963 sci-fi classic X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes follows a scientist (Ray Milland) who develops eyedrops that allows him to see beyond the spectrum of visible light, penetrating mysteries of the human body and the deepest reaches of the cosmos. What starts out as a hospital drama about medical ethics takes more than one turn towards the lurid and the hallucinatory—asking profound questions about the limits of vision along the way.

On February 10, 2023 The Block hosted a screening of the film with an in-depth introduction and post-film discussion with  Catherine Belling, Associate Professor of Medical Education at Northwestern, whose research explores the ways that horror films reflect widely-held fears and uncertainties about our bodies and about the medical profession.

The event was resented in conjunction with the exhibition The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto, and as part of the series Science on Screen: Inner and Outer Space exploring explores representations of the inner workings of the human body and the celestial mechanics of the cosmos throughout the history of cinema. Science on Screen is supported by the Sloan Foundation and the Coolidge Corner Cinema’s Science on Screen program

Watch the Conversation

But of course the pulse involves not only seeing, not only just looking at an image, it also passes time. A pulse is something that goes across time. It’s not just one single snapshot. And I think there’s something interesting there, in terms of what can be seen and what can’t.

So that the first effort to observe the unobservable insights, which until then, you know, you couldn’t. You couldn’t get access to a heart, a human heart unless you opened up the body. And in the process of doing that invariably the heart would stop, you would destroy the thing that you were trying to observe. And this was the first time that the heartbeat could be observed while it was still alive and while it was still in the body. And so it’s this very strange effort and making visible something which is otherwise only audible….

And I think that’s worth thinking about, in terms of how we imagine what has now become something that’s quite common and familiar. That the implications of seeing or observing the unobservable are ethically complex and existentially complex. And that’s something that the film really does reach towards.

Catherine Belling, Associate Professor of Medical Education, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

About the Speaker

Catherine Belling is Associate Professor of Medical Education and core faculty of the graduate program in Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Her first book, A Condition of Doubt: The Meanings of Hypochondria (Oxford University Press, 2012), won the 2013 Kendrick Book Prize (Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts). She chaired the Modern Language Association division on Medical Humanities & Health Studies, served on the Board of Directors of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, and was editor-in-chief of the journal Literature and Medicine (2013 – 2018). She has published in the Journal of Medical Humanities; Literature and Medicine; the UK Journal of Literature and Science; Narrative; Perspectives in Biology and Medicine; the Journal of Clinical Ethics; and Academic Medicine, among others. Her current work explores horror—both the feeling and the genre—in medicine.

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