Try as we do to convince the public at large that dentists and dentistry are not the stuff of pulse-racing nightmares, the entertainment industry continues to churn out films, songs, music videos, and literature portraying us as sociopaths and demonizing our profession.
One of the most recent, and most popular, examples can be found in a music video released this past August by the group, 5 Seconds of Summer, titled “Teeth.” The video features four patients—seated together in a foreboding dental torture chamber—experiencing what appears to be an anesthesia-induced hallucination.
The lyrics to “Teeth” have no obvious association with dentistry, other than the refrain, “You talk so pretty, but your heart got teeth.”
After watching the music video, Trey Alston, a staff writer at MTV News, posted this question: “Is it too late to push back your next [dental] appointment?”
In fewer than 90 days, the “Teeth” music video has been viewed more than 25 million times.
Game. Set. Match.
He’d Rather Be in Philly
Let’s be honest, not very many trick-or-treaters go door-to-door dressed as dentists. Thankfully. But the mythology persists in popular culture, and its origin reaches back at least to the 1930s, when W.C. Fields, in the short film, The Dentist, treats a patient without anesthesia and ends up wrestling with her as he attempts to use plyers to extract a tooth. Less than two years later, Alfred Hitchcock, in his The Man Who Knew Too Much, featured a macabre dentist’s office and a villain played by none other than Peter Lorre.
Which are the ten scariest dentists in pop culture? Who’s to say? Any such list is relative, dependent on each audience member’s fear factor. Is their dread triggered by drills, medical masks, extractions, or depraved practitioners with hatchets and chainsaws?
Our vote for the scariest dentist in modern popular culture goes to 2003’s Finding Nemo, from Pixar Animation.
Sure, it’s a Disney flick and, sure, it’s child’s fare. That’s what makes it so frightening to its core audience of youngsters, who can relive the “horror” the rest of their lives—just like when a hunter kills Bambi’s mother halfway through the film.
As one reviewer describes it, the dentist’s office where Nemo and the Tank Gang reside is, “the Horrifying Place…effectively the gilded dungeon from which little Nemo must escape.”
Poor little Porcupine Pufferfish. He witnesses a callously administered root canal, and tries everything to break out before the film’s fiendish dentist hands Nemo over to his niece, Darla. (Darla has a history of accidentally killing fish in her care, including a goldfish named Chuckles.)
Alice Cooper, D.D.S.
Who else merits mention in our rogue’s gallery of frightening dentists? Here, in no particular order, are nine additional inductees:
- Step to the podium, Alice Cooper, “Father of Shock Rock,” whose stage and video props include venomous snakes, buckets of blood, guillotines, and electric chairs.
In “Unfinished Sweet,” the raspy Cooper croons a post-Halloween anthem—with the accompaniment of a dentist’s drill—about a sadistic dentist who is “aching to get me.”
Which ones can stay , which one gotta go
He looks in my mouth and then he starts to gloat
He says me teeth are O.K.
But my gums got to go.
- Dr. Tim Whately, portrayed by actor Bryan Cranston, who leaves Kramer a drooling, slurred-speech mess after dosing him with Novocaine in “The Jimmy,” a sixth-season episode of the NBC hit comedy Seinfeld.
When Jerry visits Dr. Whately, he discovers a stack of Penthouse magazines in the waiting room. Once in the dental chair, Jerry observes that the regular hygienist has been replaced.
Dr. Whately tells Jerry, just before putting him to sleep, that he rotates hygienists with Dr. Sussman because “we find it fun to swap now and then.”
When Jerry awakens, still groggy, he eyes Dr. Whately and his stand-in hygienist zipping up their clothing. “Is this guy a dentist or Caligula?” Jerry later asks Elaine.
“Looking back at the scene through the lens of Cranston’s subsequent role as a mild-mannered-man-gone-wrong in Breaking Bad, “The Jimmy” feels even creepier,” writes one reviewer.
Britain’s Got Scary Dentists
- There’s something strange in the neighborhood, and it’s not ghostbusters. In Demon Dentist, by British children’s book author David Walliams, the tooth fairy has begun to deliver live spiders, dead slugs, and other truly icky things under the pillows of the town’s children.
The Guardian newspaper issued a CREEPY ALERT!—yes, all caps—for this tale of Alfie, a 12-year-old, who along with his friend, Gabz, take it upon themselves to investigate the strange tooth fairy “gifts.” The boys zero in on Miss Root, a local dentist.
Although Alfie hates going to the dentist, he decides the best way to get to the bottom of the mystery is to make an appointment. “He realizes he is in big trouble when she straps him into the dentist’s chair and starts pulling out all of his teeth!” The Guardian writes.
If this were a movie, it likely would merit our number one spot on this list. But as a children’s book, its reach can’t compare to that of Nemo and Disney.
Incidentally, if the name of author David Walliams, rings a bell, you might know him as one of the four judges on Britain’s Got Talent, seated alongside Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon, and Mr. Fright, himself, Simon Cowell.
- Author Shel Silverstein is perhaps best known for The Giving Tree (1964)—about a lifelong relationship between a boy and a tree—which has sold more than five million copies.
Less well-known is that he was also a songwriter—The Boy Named Sue and The Cover of the Rolling Stone, among others.
Even more obscure is his poem, "Dentist Dan," included in Silverstein’s 1996 poetry collection, Falling Up.
While kids who read the very short poem might think, “Wow, I wish I had a dentist like that,” parents and dentists are likely to recognize the villainous nature of this practitioner. Instead of dispensing treatments, Dentist Dan plies his young patients with sweets.
The poem is written in the voice of one of his young patients, whose speech is apparently impaired by cavities and missing teeth.
Nentis Nan, he’s my man,
I go do im each chanz I gan.
He sicks me down an creans my teed
Wid mabel syrub, tick an’ sweed,
An ten he filks my cavakies
Wid choclut cangy—I tink he’s
The graygest nentis in the lan.
Le’s hear free jeers for Nentis Nan.
Le’s go to Nentis Nan dooday!
People Will Pay You to be Inhumane
Needless to say, when most people think of Halloween-worthy, crazed dentists, they are likely to include one or more of these five well-known psychos on their list:
- Dr. Orin Scrivello of Little Shop of Horrors was played by Steve Martin in the 1996 film.
(In the 1959 film version, Jack Nicholson played the part of Wilbur Force, one of the patients. The dentist in the original version was named Dr. Phoebus Farb, played by actor John Herman Shaner.)
Orin : [singing] When I was younger, just a bad little kid/My mama noticed funny things I did/Like shooting puppies with a BB gun/I'd poison guppies, and when I was done/I'd find a pussycat and bash in its head/That's when my mama said...
"My boy, I think someday/You'll find a way/To make your natural tendencies pay/You'll be a dentist!/You have a talent for causing things pain/Son, be a dentist/People will pay you to be inhumane/Your temperament's wrong for the priesthood/And teaching would suit you still less/Son, be a dentist/You'll be a success!"
- Sir Laurence Oliver immortalized sadistic dentistry into the popular culture with his Marathon Man portrayal of Christian Szell, a Nazi war criminal, who uses dental tools to torture Thomas Babington “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman). “Is it safe?” Szell repeatedly asks, as he drills into one of Babe’s healthy teeth. Olivier earned an Oscar nomination for his role as well as the eternal enmity of dentists worldwide.
- Frightening in his aloofness to his son, dentist Wilbur Wonka never did understand Willy’s passion for candy in the 2005 Tim Burton film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka and Christopher Lee (best known for his early film role as Count Dracula) as his father.
Reunited with his son after many years, Dr. Wonka exams Willie’s mouth and observes, “All these years and you haven’t flossed.” Talk about cold daggers.
- If sheer incompetence frightens you, then Dr. Leo Spaceman of NBC’s off-the-wall comedy, 30 Rock, is your doctor. As fictional television executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) notes, Dr. Spaceman “is a physician with an excellent reputation as a doctor and a respectable reputation as a dentist.”
A graduate of the Ho Chi Minh School of Medicine, Dr. Spaceman, played by veteran comedy actor Chris Parnell, is known for his specious beliefs, including that medicine is not a science.
Now Jenna, medically speaking, for your height, your weight puts you in what we call the "disgusting range." Fortunately, there are solutions. For example, crystal meth has been shown to be very effective. How important is tooth-retention to you?
- We’ve covered dentists who unnerve kids, adult patients, their own offspring, and even fellow doctors. But let’s not forget those dentists who prey on their employees. Exhibit #1: Julia Harris, D.D.S., the pansexual nymphomaniac who terrorizes her sweet, awkward, and loyal dental assistant, Dale Arbus, who is engaged to Stacy and plans to save himself for marriage.
Dr. Harris is relentless, making unwelcome sexual advances to poor Dale in Horrible Bosses, and eventually raping him in Horrible Bosses 2, when he’s unconscious.
Dr. Julia Harris: I bet you're no shrimp in the c*ck department, huh Dale?
Dale Arbus: Okay, Julia. Come on!
Dr. Julia Harris: What?
Dale Arbus: I'm not comfortable talking about that.
Dr. Julia Harris: Oh, Dale! Come on! You know that I like to fool around! [she takes the hand of the patient and places it on her breast]
Dale Arbus: Oops! [to the patient]
Dr. Julia Harris: Mr. Anderton! Not in the office! This is bad! [hitting the patient’s hand]
Dr. Julia Harris: Bad! Bad! Bad!
Dale Arbus: Probably shouldn't hit the patients.
When it comes right down to it, the dentists featured in this article probably don’t rise to the terror levels of Freddie Kruger, Michael Myers, Chucky, Jason Voorhees, Norman Bates, or Hannibal Lecter.
But, no doubt, they do succeed at perpetuating the myth that dentists are wicked, evil, scary, inhumane, and no fun at all.