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Literature / That Hideous Strength

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The third novel in The Space Trilogy by C. S. Lewis.

That Hideous Strength is a genre shift. (It's subtitled "A Modern Fairy-Tale For Grown-Ups" for a reason). In the quiet college town of Edgestow, Jane Studdock finds herself haunted by strange dreams of a decapitated man and an undead mystic. Meanwhile, her husband Mark is strong-armed into joining the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, a joint political-(quasi)scientific organization that is surreptitiously taking complete control of the town. The NICE is particularly interested in Bragdon Wood, where Merlin is rumored to be buried — not dead, just resting. With great reluctance, Jane falls in with the oddly inactive resistance led by Elwin Ransom — the only opposition to the NICE's (literally) diabolical plans.

If you get the feeling that this one is a hackjob copy of 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, you actually have it backwards. This book came first: and right about the time of the atomic bomb. George Orwell actually wrote a snazzy review (titled "The Scientists Take Over") and sang the book's praises, with the caveat that he thought it was weakened by the book's supernatural premise, since of course good will beat evil if angels are involved. The book is also riddled with Christian allegory, although less overtly so than Perelandra was. Slightly. Perhaps it may be most generously summed up in the words of Lewis's friend and fellow Anglican apologist, Dorothy L. Sayers: "less good but still full of good stuff." On the other hand, another friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, dubbed it "That Hideous Book".


Has a radio-play that can be found here.

This book provides examples of:

  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The National Institute of Coordinated Experiments definitely qualifies, with Lord Feverstone talking about "liquidation of the backwards races" being part of their overall plans, taking control of the newspapers, and having a rather reich-ish and brutal institutional police. Their head director, Horace Jewels, is good at giving speeches, but rather incompetent overall—sound familiar?. They even have some literally diabolical Mad Science going on, giving them the rare feat of having shades of Stupid Jetpack Hitler and Ghostapo at the same time!
  • Agent Scully: MacPhee, a die-hard atheist scientist, remains implacably skeptical throughout all the supernatural events of That Hideous Strength, even though he's on the side of the supernaturalists. If anything, he represents the value and virtue of rational thought.
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  • The Alleged Boss: Jules is nominally the director of N.I.C.E., but actually a pompous windbag, entirely clueless about what really goes on there, and only needed for the PR. Wither and Frost are actually in charge.
  • Ambiguously Gay: "Fairy" Hardcastle. She's definitely butch, but her lesbianism is implied rather than stated outright. Comes across like a more discreet version of the the Girls Behind Bars butch jailer stereotype.
  • Animal Testing: One of the many activities that goes on at N.I.C.E., usually involving vivisection. Nobody seems to really know why they're doing it, because the lower ranks are unaware of the disturbing, transhumanist goals of the upper echelon. They experiment on animals to make way for experimenting on people.
  • Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence: Ransom at the end of the book, at least thematically. He will never die, but will instead be transported bodily to Perelandra, where he will live in paradise until the time comes for him to return. It's also implied that this happened to Enoch, Moses and Elijah... and King Arthur.
  • Author Appeal: Based on some of his private letters, Lewis might be suspected of this in the case of Miss Hardcastle.
  • Author Tract: That Hideous Strength is a fictionalized version of Lewis' The Abolition Of Man, arguing against Philosophical Naturalism masquerading as Scientific Progress.
  • Babies Ever After: What else should happen when Venus gets involved?
    • When the escaped animals that were used for vivisection rendezvous at St. Anne's and proceed to do ... what animals inevitably do when presented with the opportunity
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: Several different examples, in various ways.
    • For a very long time, there was apparently a decree from God that the planetary angels were not to act within the Moon's orbit. Much of the Enemy's plan in That Hideous Strength revolved around the idea that mankind was cut off from direct celestial aid. Unfortunately for the Enemy, when he arranged for humans to leave the moon's orbit and interfere with Malacandra and Perelandra, the planetary angels were freed to interfere with Thulucandra in its turn.
    • Ransom mentions that one advantage of fighting devils is that they hate their mortal minions as much as they do their foes, and happily "break their tools" when the mortals are of no further use to them.
  • The Baroness: "Fairy" Hardcastle, head of N.I.C.E. security. It's strongly implied that she's a literal sadist who gets aroused by torturing female prisoners.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Mr Bultitude, the bear of Logres, gets captured by two Belbury henchmen and kills Wither in the finale.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: The eldila, peaceful aliens who live in the vacuum of space, have covertly infiltrated Earth to undo the corruption caused the Bent One. There's even a rumor the master of the eldila, Maleldil the Young, has personally intervened in the matter.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Merlin, although ultimately on the side of good, doesn't really fit within the modern framework of good and evil. One of the better examples of Deliberate Values Dissonance.
    • This is actually a plot point in the story; one of the reasons that the protagonists wish to locate Merlin is because he lived in a time when practicing magic was acceptable. This allows them the luxury of having magic abilities on their side despite the such things normally being forbidden in the modern era as witchcraft. Merlin is basically an ethical loophole.
  • The Bluebeard: How a newspaper refers to François Alcasan, who murdered his wife.
  • Bond One-Liner: Merlin gets one after unleashing the curse of Babel: Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis.Lat. 
  • Boomerang Bigot: Miss Hardcastle is said to have once been a fascist. The fascists were virulently homophobic even for their time, and were very gung-ho about traditional gender roles. It's possible that Miss Hardcastle simply didn't realize she was a lesbian then, but Lewis never addresses the point either way. Also possible she doesn't really believe in any ideology and joins any group she thinks likely to gain power.
  • Buffy Speak: MacPhee accuses women in general of talking this way and somehow still understanding each other.
  • Cast from Hit Points: A variation: it's implied that using Atlantean magic had a subtle negative effect on the user's health, though it wasn't specific what that was. The characters didn't seem to know exactly what it was, themselves, though they can sense that Merlin has been somehow withered: his quietness is "like the quiet of a gutted building".
  • Chic And Awe: Implied in Jane Studdock's pending reunion with Mark at the very end.
    • More accurately describes her first meeting with the Director (Ransom)
  • Cigar Chomper: Miss Hardcastle is usually seen chewing an unlit cigar. It's rare for her actually to light one, and when she does it's a very bad sign.
  • Cigarette Burns: Miss Hardcastle uses them to torture Jane.
  • Closer to Earth: Mark is entirely taken with the Progressive Element and goes in with them almost immediately. Jane has a bad feeling about them.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: The tramp that Belbury picked up thinking he was Merlin survives the story through a mixture off Refuge in Audacity and being so weird that his oddity is mistaken for mysticism. He rarely speaks to his handlers, and when left alone with Mark conspiratorially rambles about toasted cheese, thinking it's some kind of spy code, while helping himself to the free food while it lasts.
  • Cold Sleep, Cold Future: Merlin's experience of the modern world, which has replaced many of the close personal connections he is familiar with with machines that serve similar functions, the nations of the earth are internally and externally divided, and the magic of his time is almost impossible to perform anymore.
  • Curse of Babel: The undoing of NICE, extending even to their ability to write, thanks to the intervention of Viritrilbia through Merlin.
  • Death World: In Professor Frost's telling, the Moon mountains so sharp that you could impale a man on them and undiluted heat so intense a human body would instantly disintegrate into moondust. It was not always so; there was a race that "cleansed itself" and lives beneath its surface, and Frost hopes to follow their example.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Merlin is appalled by his wakers' hospitality, even though he acknowledges that their technological advancements are very comfortable, because they replace servants who would honor him with devices that just sit there. In this and several other ways, he comes off as barbaric, both to the reader and to other characters. In this and countless other ways, his mindset is very different from that of the 20th century characters. Justified, of course, in that Merlin is a superficially-Romanized Celt from hundreds of years prior.
    • Also Justified in that that's the entire reason Merlin is there in the first place. The holy angels needed a magician to act through in order to deal with Belbury, but magic has been strictly forbidden for centuries. So God set aside Merlin, who had practiced magic back when it was still permissible, to be a vessel for his servants.
  • Demonic Possession:
    • The Head of the Institute is a literal severed head, animated by a dark eldil rather than its original occupant. There are also signs that it affects Frost, who experiences it as periods of doing things without knowing why; and there's one scene where Mark comes into Wither's office and finds that Wither's body is occupied by something quite unlike his normal personality.
    • Inverted with Merlin, who becomes the vessel for five oyeresu — angelic possession. Even though he knows that channelling their power will destroy him.
  • Distracted by My Own Sexy: Flirted with, particularly when the ladies of Logres are dressing up. Also Averted in an interesting way in the dress-up scene. The dressing room contains no mirrors, and none of the women can see why the dress they're wearing is so incredibly beautiful on them, though they can all see it on each other - which illustrates the point (on humility - think of others, not of yourself). Jane Studdock for example thinks her dress is too fussy, though blue is her color. But the others like it on her so she wears it - and promptly forgets all about it in the interest of choosing dresses for the others.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Hilariously, Dick Devine/Lord Feverstone. He runs over a chicken, and declares all the animals (and pedestrians) he misses "damned lucky".
    • Less hilarious considering that its implied that he was being possessed.
  • Dystopia Justifies the Means: The N.I.C.E.'s eventual aim is Transhumanism, with mankind replaced with a new and "superior" form of life.
  • Evil Reactionary: The NICE tended to refer to the ideologies opposing them as "reaction", implying that they viewed them as evil reactionaries; this was all part of how they portrayed themselves as progressive scientists, wanting to reform society. Of course, the NICE wasn't actually a group of scientists at all.
  • Exit, Pursued by a Bear: The one chapter from the perspective of the villainous Wither ends with him facing Mr. Bultitude, an actual bear, as he stands on his hindlegs and growls. Wither isn't seen again.
  • For Science!: Filostrato, one of the N.I.C.E.'s more (relatively) idealistic members, had this as his motivation for keeping Alcasan alive.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Coordinated Experiments).
  • God's Hands Are Tied: The angels and demons stay under cover partly to avoid escalating their conflict into a premature Armageddon, but also because of the Seventh Law: God won't send down extraterrestrial eldila to the inside of the moon's orbit until armageddon...though there are loopholes in this law. Yet another reason why the planetary powers don't intervene directly is because they're so powerful, their untempered power would destroy Earth outright.
  • Good Is Old-Fashioned: According to the N.I.C.E., whose goal is to advance evil and diabolism under the guise of "scientific progress."
  • Good People Have Good Sex: "Venus at St. Annes'", the last chapter of That Hideous Strength. The goddess of love's influence over humans and animals gets them in a mating-mood, and this is treated as good and proper for the animals and for the married humans.
  • Hard on Soft Science: "There are no sciences like sociology," says Hingest. And the "scientific" programs of the N.I.C.E. are depicted throughout as just a front for totalitarian scientism. Then again, the protagonist is a Cunning Linguist.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Aged vocabulary throughout the novels aside, Ransom describing the transition of the human body from earthly pleasures to heavenly pleasures (during the events of Perelandra) as 'Transsexual' in particular is even more awkward now then it was back then.
  • He Knows Too Much: This is why Hingest is murdered after he resigns from the N.I.C.E.
  • Hysterical Woman: A woman begins to laugh uncontrollably in fear and nervousness in response to Horace Jules' speech while he's under the influence of the Curse of Babel. She stops when Wither forces him to sit and clears his throat...only to begin again when Wither is under the same Curse of Babel, at which point she's joined by another woman!
  • Hypocritical Humor: The officially modernist and egalitarian Jane is surprised and repelled to find that the only physician among the folk of Logres is a woman, Dr. Grace Ironwood, and that these folk make no class distinctions: Dr. and Mrs. Dimble regard themselves as on the same level, and members on the same terms, as Ivy Maggs, Jane's former charlady. Worse, they regard the charlady and her convict husband as on a par with Jane and Mark! (And at that, they are probably being generous, in their own minds. Mr. Maggs just stole a little money from the laundry where he worked before he met Ivy and went straight. Mark is involved in an infernal conspiracy to take over the world, and Logres isn't yet sure if he's a dupe or a traitor.)
  • The Insomniac: Wither has almost lost the ability to sleep; he takes a sleep aid when the need arises, but it rarely does, since he's more or less permanently in a trance.
  • In with the In Crowd: Mark Studdock's motive for joining the NICE.
  • Ironic Name: The N.I.C.E. is not very nice at all.
  • King in the Mountain: Merlin, resting under Bragdon Wood in That Hideous Strength. Additionally, Enoch, Moses, Elijah, King Arthur, and, at the end of the last book, Ransom himself are living eternal lives on Perelandra, awaiting the final salvation of the silent planet.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Subverted. Feverstone tries to cash out during the Belbury disaster, then finds he's folded 'em half a dozen hands too late.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: "Fairy" Hardcastle's inner circle minions are explicitly described as the sort of "fluffy, simpering" hyper-feminine stereotype. Like Miss Hardcastle, their lesbianism is implied rather than stated outright.
  • Listing the Forms of Degenerates: Done in-universe in a pro-NICE editorial in order to poison the well against anyone who tries to warn about the organization's tyrannical tendencies:
If you hear anyone talking about the liberties of England, by which he means the liberties of the obscurantists, the Mrs. Grundies, the Bishops, and the capitalists, watch that man. He's the enemy.
  • Literal Metaphor: When Mark's superiors at N.I.C.E. mention "the Head", he assumes they're just talking about the person in charge. He finds out later that it's an actual decapitated human head, and the ringleaders are taking orders from it.
  • Losing Your Head: One of the experiments at N.I.C.E. involves attempting to keep a severed human head alive indefinitely.
  • Loss of Identity: The human leaders of N.I.C.E. have all experienced tremendous trauma to their personalities and, in the worst cases, their basic free will, as a direct result of their long-term voluntary exposure to the powers of the dark eldila.
  • MacGuffin Super Person: The entire reason N.I.C.E. wants Bragdon Wood is to find Merlin, who they know is entombed there. They want him for his magical knowledge, but this particular Mac Guffin Person turns out to have will of his own and, upon waking, goes to join the heroes. Jane is sought after by both sides for her Dreaming of Things to Come and Dream Spying abilities.
  • Mars-and-Venus Gender Contrast: That Hideous Strength is largely about the unhappy couple of the Studdocks and how they come to accept the roles of their sexes despite modern hang-ups about there being any roles at all.
  • Medicate the Medium: Discussed when Jane is first told that she has Psychic Powers by doctor Grace Ironwood: Jane replies that she doesn't believe in that kind of thing, and that she thinks her dreams belie a troubled subconscious. Along those lines of thought, she suggests she should go to a plain old psychiatrist, but Dr. Ironwood warns her that the psychiatrist might give her strong medications with severe side effects, and that those meds wouldn't get rid of her dreams in any case.
  • Melancholy Moon: Before Mark learns the terrible secret of the N.I.C.E., the Moon seems larger in the sky then he's ever seen it before. Its presence is fitting, since N.I.C.E. hopes to cleanse the Earth of flesh until its as pure as the planet's distant neighbor.
  • My Brain Is Big: The Head of N.I.C.E. MacPhee speculates that they deliberately eased off the skullcap and applied stimulants, though he is doubtful of whether it would actually work. He's right, for a change: the Head's powers come not from its expanded brain matter but from its possession by a dark eldil.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Horace Jules, the nominal director of N.I.C.E., is a venomous caricature of H.G. Wells.
  • No Sex Allowed: A variation: the N.I.C.E. wanted to use artificial means of reproduction, and indeed, artificial means of anything that nature would normally provide. They had a civilization on the moon as a role model that used demon-possessed sex-golems for sexual pleasure instead of actually sleeping with each other, though it's implied that their own perversions rather than their government were what were actually forbidding sex.
  • Not What I Signed on For: Bill "The Blizzard" Hingest, an accomplished chemist, joined the N.I.C.E. because he believed it was actually about science, and resigned as soon as he found out it was really about social engineering and transhumanism.
  • Oh, Crap!: Wither gets one when he realises he's forgotten Jules is arriving for the inaugural dinner. It's an unwelcome complication in itself, but what worries him more is the thought that his memory is beginning to fail.
  • Older Than They Look: Ransom is extremely youthful in appearance despite pushing 50 and sporting a long, luxurious beard. Yet he also gives off an aura of wisdom befitting one much older. The former is from visiting Perelandra, the last truly paradisal world, and the latter is from his experiences making him truly humble — that is, having no illusions about his true nature as a creature of Maleldil.
  • Otherworldly and Sexually Ambiguous: The Oyeresu have genders, but do not have sexes in the biological sense. A quote about the Oyarsa of Jupiter and the Oyarsa of Saturn:
    "The three gods who had already met in the Blue Room were less unlike humanity than the two whom they still awaited. In [Mercury] and Venus and [Mars] were represented those two of the Seven Genders which bear a certain analogy to the biological sexes and can therefore be in some measure understood by men. It would not be so with those who were now preparing to descend. These also doubtless had their genders, but we have no clue to them."
  • Out of Focus: Ransom. After his adventures in the first two books, he graduates from The Hero to the Big Good, and the story focuses on two new characters, Jane and Mark Studdock.
  • Opposed Mentors: An evil example where the two chief villains disagree on the most efficient way to dehumanize their initiate/captive.
  • Peace & Love, Incorporated: The N.I.C.E. pretends to be an organization to help with vaccines and generally making society more efficien, but they're actually sinister.
  • Police State: The college town, as ruled over by The N.I.C.E., qualifies: numerous police were everywhere, protecting constructions workers who were shooing people out of their own homes and tearing everything down.
  • Polly Wants a Microphone: Discussed by Merlin when testing Ransom's credentials.
    "A [jack]daw that lives in a hermit's cell has learned to chatter book Latin before now. ... A daw may also have Greek on its bill."
  • Possessing a Dead Body: The higher standing members of the N.I.C.E. communicate with higher-dimensional lifeforms by specially preparing severed human heads for the "macrobes" (as their scientists call them) to possess and speak with. What the N.I.C.E. is too blind to realize is that these macrobes are literally demons from Hell.
  • Possession Burnout: When Merlin acts as the vessel for the oyeresu, he does it knowing that it will destroy him — the human body just can't take that level of angelic power.
  • Psycho Lesbian: Again, Miss "Fairy" Hardcastle, who takes particular joy in torturing female prisoners.
  • Sarcastic Devotee: MacPhee, the only member of Ransom's True Companions who doesn't share his Christian faith.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Professor Frost was doing this way before Gendo Ikari made it cool. Even in a book, it's still scary.
  • Scale of Scientific Sins: The N.I.C.E. is mostly about transhumanism, cheating death and usurping God.
  • Sci Fi LGBT: A villainous example, "Fairy" Hardcastle is a Butch Lesbian stereotype with a sadistic streak.
  • Science Is Good: The only eminent scientist at N.I.C.E., the chemist William Hingest, is also the only member to cut out the flattery and politics and say what he thinks. His pursuit of the truth also allows him to see that N.I.C.E has no interest in anyone's good and he quits before the Institute can indoctrinate him.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: A downplayed example: Ivy Maggs couldn't handle the discussions about opening a decapitated man's head (that was being kept alive artificially) and experimenting with the My Brain Is Big trope, so she declared she'd had enough and left the room. She didn't abandon the good guys; she just walked away from that conversation.
  • Secret Police: The N.I.C.E. have their own police force. They managed to seize control of a college town with only a handful of people realizing it.
  • Seemingly Profound Fool: The tramp. He gets mistaken for Merlin by the N.I.C.E. and is either too simple or too smart to correct their mistake.
  • Self-Disposing Villain: N.I.C.E.'s secret masters hold them in just as much contempt as they do all other human beings. Once Merlin has unleashed the might of the oyeresu upon their based and ruined their plans for good, they, as Ransom aptly puts it, "break their tools," driving the humans under their close control to destroy one another, and then themselves for their own twisted amusement.
  • Self-Duplication: Wither always seems to be wandering around just the right places on campus to make everyone nervous. It's apparently a dark power he gained from his secret masters. Mark eventually punches one to find it's an insubstantial phantom that disappears when he touches it.
  • Shout-Out: Númenor gets mentioned several times, based apparently on some discussions that Lewis had with Tolkien (Lewis apparently never saw a manuscript, since he invariably spells it "Numinor").
  • Social Climber: Mark started doing this while still in school, abandoning his genuine but tragically unpopular friend to be In with the In Crowd, unaware that the In Crowd are basically working for Satan.
  • Something Completely Different: That Hideous Strength has no space travel and is about saving the world instead.
  • Squishy Wizard: Merlin considers himself to be this; when told that he wasn't to use magic the same way that he did a millennium and a half ago, his assumption was that there would be a fight using spears and swords, and admitted that he wouldn't be good at that kind of fighting.
  • Take That!: Horace Jules, the deluded and easily manipulated Director of N.I.C.E serves as one to H. G. Wells. While C. S. Lewis was a fan of Wells' science fiction, he felt Wells "hocked his talent for a pot of message" and disliked his later books which were basically one Author Tract after another.
  • Time Abyss: Ransom's company start to feel planets crumbling and galaxies spiraling into the dust when they feel the presence of the Oyarsa of Saturn, Lurga. He's so ancient that even the other gods and angels feel young compared to him.
  • Top God: Jupiter-Oyarsa is the most divine and powerful of the eldila by a country mile. The narrator calls him the King of Kings and admits that he understands why men made an idol of him and called him the true God. Despite this, Jupiter-Oyarsa is not pleased to have men kneel and worship him, for Jupiter himself is a servant to Maleldil the Young, a being far greater than the world-shattering eldila and the idols made of them.
  • Torture for Fun and Information: "Fairy" Hardcastle openly admits she gets off on torturing people (especially women), and questions how anyone could succeed in the Secret Police if they didn't get a kick out of it.
  • To Win Without Fighting: St. Anne's plans to win not by force, but relying on the eldila. While MacPhee wants to use human might to defeat the N.I.C.E., Ransom and the others know that isn't an option. They succeeded, with Merlin and the Oyeresu disrupting the Institute's plans.
  • Touched by Vorlons: Ransom appears to be divinely young as a result of his journey to the eternal paradise of Venus. On the evil side of things - Frost and Wither both have something really weird and unnatural about them. That bilocation thing, for instance...
  • Transhuman Aliens: We learn that the Moon became as desolate as it is because the Lunarians tried to destroy their bodies and become pure minds. There never was a greater disaster. Now they're locked in a great civil war with the other, "dark side" of the moon, attempting to exterminate the last holdouts of biological life.
  • Transhumans in Space: N.I.C.E. hopes to bring the vision of the first book's villain to life by creating an interplanetary empire. Unlike him, they have also set their sight on eliminating the flaws of organic matter and hope to replace humanity with a select few minds that have been stripped of their flesh, allowing them to eventually create a totally hygienic and controlled universe.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Bucking" is used as a stand-in for...
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Says the N.I.C.E.
  • Values Dissonance: An in-universe example with Merlin, in that he has fifth-century morals and expectations, exasperating the modern-day protagonists. For instance, upon hearing that a husband of one of the ladies is in prison for a theft (one he'd actually committed), Merlin seemed to have ideas about riding off to attack the county jail to free him. Merlin even suggests overthrowing the king of the U.K., at one point!
  • Villainous Breakdown: Inverted - Frost and Wither have lost so much of their humanity that they don't have emotions left to react to the total collapse of their plans, and instead lapse into something close to a demon-controlled fugue state.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: Ransom got one on his heel in Perelandra during his fight with the Un-Man. It stays with him throughout That Hideous Strength and gives him constant pain, since it can only be healed on the world where it was inflicted and he cannot return there until his task is done
  • Write What You Know: It's why part of the action is set at a college. In the Preface, Lewis admits:
    "[T]he outer rim of that devilry had to be shown touching the life of some ordinary and respectable profession. I selected my own profession, not, of course, because I think fellows of colleges more likely to be thus corrupted than anyone else, but because my own is the only profession is the only one I know well enough to write about."
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: The Director very deliberately invokes this trope and even discusses it with a main character, fully expecting the demons to kill their Mad Scientist minions as soon as they're no longer useful. He's exactly right, too.


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