We Asked a Doctor About the Science of 'Frankenweenie' and His Answers Might Surprise You

We Asked a Doctor About the Science of 'Frankenweenie' and His Answers Might Surprise You

Oct 05, 2012


With Frankenweenie, director Tim Burton revisits his roots -- namely his 1984 short film of the same name, wherein a young boy brings his beloved dog Sparky back from the dead by harnessing the power of mother nature, Frankenstein-style. Everything about the gorgeous black-and-white children's movie feels like an homage to Burton's greatest hits -- the small-town housing developments, topiary designs and meddling townspeople of Edward Scissorhands, the beyond-the-grave love story of The Corpse Bride and the eccentric creature design of Beetlejuice.

Along with the distinguishing factor that Frankenweenie is the first black-and-white stop-motion feature film to be released in IMAX 3D, parents are undoubtedly also preparing themselves for a deluge of questions about the plausibility of raising beloved pets (and even people) from the dead. So we decided to consult an expert to field the tough questions - is reanimation possible outside the realm of a Hollywood special-effects studio?

We spoke to Ronald Stram, M.D., director and founder of Stram Center for Integrative Medicine, a board-certified medical doctor who trained at Mount Sinai Medical School and has an extensive background in emergency medicine, and we admittedly expected him to cry foul regarding the real-life scenario of bringing someone back from the dead. From what he divulges, though, it seems Hollywood isn't all that far off. For starters, we'll need to rewrite the phrase as, "Over my warm dead body."


Movies.com: So there isn't technically a field of study called "reanimation," but I suppose this kind of hits upon the idea of cryogenics - just bringing people back from the dead. Is that a thing?

Ronald Stram, M.D.: Interesting enough, I'm an ER doctor as well… and we treat brain-injury patients or patients that have had a cardiac arrest by using hypothermia. And the benefit is quite extraordinary. Essentially, you lower patient's temperatures… you put them in basically a hypothermic state. And by doing that, you decrease the metabolism. The idea of cryogenics is actually somewhat similar -- that, if you're going to freeze someone, you have to change their blood volume, because otherwise you'd cause damage to the system.

Movies.com: So bringing someone back from the dead could actually be plausible at some point, medically speaking?

Stram: Within the next 25 years I actually think that – I would probably say even less than that – this is something that can be done.

Movies.com: Wow. That freaks us out: dead people coming back to life!

Stram: Yeah – or if you can get someone who has not died yet, that's the whole idea that Michael Jackson and Walt Disney wanted to do – is that, before they're dead, freeze them and then if a cure comes out you're able to thaw them back.

Movies.com: If someone suffering from an illness is kept alive but frozen, wouldn't they still die of the illness? Or would you be slowing their metabolism down so much that they're essentially in a stasis?

Stram: Right – that's the idea. Kind of like a hibernation. You'd slow their metabolic processes down to so slow that essentially they wouldn't really need any nutrients.

Movies.com: With Frankenweenie, there's no freezing involved. Sparky dies, he's buried, and then his owner Victor uses electricity to bring him back. How did Hollywood even get stuck on this whole “zapping hearts back into beating” thing?

Stram: You know, it's not all that far-fetched. The term in the emergency department is, "No one is dead until they're warm and dead." So typically what it is, is when you start getting back their cardiac activity, the start of it is that their cardiac activity is very abnormal – it doesn't pump well. So you would shock them using electricity to get them in a sustained pattern rhythm. So yeah, that concept is Hollywoodized, but certainly that's a concept that could be used. You could use electricity – once you've warmed someone up – to get their body rhythm in the correct state that it would function normally.

Movies.com: So in the movie's case, Sparky is buried for at least 24 hours – is that just way too long, in a real-life scenario, for someone to be dead before they could be brought back?

Stram: There are reports of people that have been frozen or in a very low thermic state for two to three days, and you can then bring them back. Essentially what you do is you rewarm them at a very slow rewarming rate. In other words, you wouldn't have them in a frozen state because it would shock them – because they would still be in that low metabolic frozen state. Especially when you're looking at cryogenics, they're frozen at a temperature that's very low – it’s 150 degrees below freezing. Rewarming them may take a day to two days. You'd want to do it in a way that doesn't cause harm to the body.

Movies.com: "Reanimation” sounds like a zombie movie. Is there an area of study devoted to this subject that's known as something other than cryogenics?

Stram: Well, the area of hypothermia, which I spoke about for resuscitation, is definitely an area of research. It's done with head-injury patients and it's done with cardiac-arrest patients – people that their heart stops. So I would imagine that cryogenics is being researched, certainly for organ procurement. Say you have someone who's in Alaska and they die in a car accident and you'd like to use their heart, but you can't get their heart to, say, Boston in time for it to be viable, the best thing would be to freeze it. So this way you can superfreeze it and not worry about it being destroyed. Cryogenics, the beginning of it is really looking at specific organs first, and then from there whole bodies. It's for the heart transplants, it's for the kidney transplants – because typically you need to keep it on ice and saline and you have really only about six hours to get the organ into the body.

Movies.com: Hollywood actually does seem to focus on some things that are based in reality, they just put them on steroids. Or maybe it's just a self-fulfilling prophecy – Frankenstein is almost 200 years old, after all.

Stram: Hey, if you look at 2001: A Space Odyssey, many of the things that they looked at and considered far-fetched – to be able to have a little chip on your glasses that you can tell, “Turn on the stove, get me my car” – that you can actually do that? Would seem at the time, no way, but it certainly is possible now. The idea of having the nanosciences where you're taking down microchips to almost a cellular level, one can imagine building up a brain that would function that way. So I do think that we are in the future that we thought was unimaginable.

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