Brow Beat

How to Disappear Completely

Four stills from various films and tv shows about invisibility. One, from The Invisible Man, shows a man in a tan 1970s suit bathed in red light from an apparatus. One shows Claude Rains as the original Invisible Man, horrifyng the townspeople. One shows a very young Kurt Russel holding up a hand with invisible fingers, and the last is from Universal's new film of The Invisible Man, and it shows a red leather chair with the indentations from an invisible man sitting on it.
The science of invisibility has come a long way! Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by NBC, Disney, and Universal.

There’s a new adaptation of The Invisible Man in theaters, and all over America, moviegoers are catching invisibility fever! (The CDC recommends washing your hands and smartphone to help prevent the spread of invisibility fever.) Leigh Whannell’s extremely loose, surprisingly frightening take on the classic H.G. Wells novella has spurred a new wave of interest in becoming invisible, no matter the cost, consequences, or insult to God. So whether you personally suffer from visibility, know someone who does, or are just trying to follow the water cooler chatter from co-workers weighing the pros and cons of having their visibility treated, here’s a look back at the history of this complicated, controversial medical procedure.

The Invisible Man (1897)

H.G. Wells’ 1897 novella contains a detailed description of the first successful invisibility treatment, and today it serves as a reminder that being the first patient to survive a procedure, although undeniably preferable to being the last patient to die on the table, isn’t really where you want to aim, medically speaking. Unlike most advances in medical science, the Griffin Invisibility Operation was the product of reckless self-experimentation, which makes The Invisible Man an oddity in 19th-century surgical literature, in that it considers the possibility that patients might be capable of feeling pain. Subjected to a literal taste of his own medicine, Griffin even wound up feeling sympathy for nonhuman mammals!

But it was all horrible. I had not expected the suffering. A night of racking anguish, sickness and fainting. I set my teeth, though my skin was presently afire; all my body afire; but I lay there like grim death. I understood now how it was the cat had howled until I chloroformed it. Lucky it was I lived alone and untended in my room. There were times when I sobbed and groaned and talked. But I stuck to it. I became insensible and woke languid in the darkness.

The pain had passed. I thought I was killing myself and I did not care.

Not only was the Griffin Invisibility Operation excruciating, it was unsuitable for the vast majority of patients suffering from visibility. A standard GIO had two stages: a series of injections to alter the pigment of the subject’s blood, followed by prolonged exposure to “two radiating centres of a sort of ethereal vibration.” You can see the problem: Griffin’s great breakthrough was developing a practical method to bleach hemoglobin, but melanin stumped him entirely. If not for the happy accident that Griffin was, himself, “almost an albino … with a pink and white face and red eyes,” he might never have discovered invisibility, might never have terrorized the English countryside, and might never even have gotten himself beaten to death by enraged villagers. Even for the lucky albinos who were good candidates for invisibility procedures, the Griffin Invisibility Operation had downsides: Food took some time to become invisible after being eaten, the subtle differences between “being invisible” and “running around completely nude in inclement weather” took time for patients to appreciate, plus also everyone who underwent the procedure became a full-blown homicidal maniac in a matter of days. But they became invisible homicidal maniacs, which was a great leap forward for medical science.

The Invisible Man (1933)

It took 36 years for scientists to develop an invisibility procedure that worked reliably on nonalbinos—another example of the human cost of a medical system that assumes whiteness by default—and by 1933, the Griffin Invisibility Operation had waned in popularity to the point that it was rare to see an Invisible Man at all. So when Dr. Jack Griffin announced that he had developed a new method that broadened the candidate pool for invisibility procedures to include the full spectrum of human coloration, from albinism all the way to Claude Rains, it astonished the world. Not because the “Dr. Jack Griffin Invisibility Operation” (DJ-GIO) brought invisibility to the masses, but because Dr. Jack Griffin focused all of his attention on pigmentation while making no effort at all to address the homicidal mania. As a result, Griffin became rather a poor advocate for his own ideas, and his efforts to explain his work were frankly unsettling:

But despite Dr. Jack Griffin’s fate, his fearless research paved the way for the explosion of advances in the invisible sciences in the 1940s, and Invisible Men of every color and gender owe him a debt of gratitude.

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Dr. Frank Griffin was the first invisibiologist to make serious progress on the mental health side effects associated with invisibility procedures, although any account of those advances comes with a giant asterisk next to it: While Griffin and Dr. Jack Griffin limited their research to animal testing and self-experimentation, Dr. Frank Griffin experimented on death row inmates. It’s easy to decry that as an ethical lapse in 2020, and even easier to note that Frank Griffin’s test subject rather predictably used his newfound powers of invisibility to escape, but the peculiar technical requirements of Griffin’s experiments—a fast-acting invisibility serum that could be administered in nonsterile environments like a prison cell, one that worked reliably even without access to radiating centers or ethereal vibrations—pushed his research in directions that would pay off handsomely for the Allies during World War II. But the easiest way to see how important Frank Griffin’s research was, however dubious its origins, is to examine footage of a patient whose visibility he treated.

Griffin and Dr. Jack Griffin both became murderers as a consequence of their invisibility treatments; Dr. Frank Griffin’s patient was already a convicted murderer (albeit unjustly convicted), but all invisibility did was turn him into a boorish dinner party host. That’s real progress!

The Invisible Woman (1940)

It’s a measure of America’s deeply ingrained misogyny that invisibility procedures were available to men on death row before scientists even attempted to treat a female patient for a case of visibility. Even then, it happened by accident: Professor Gibbs assumed only men would ask to be the subjects of his demented experiment; Kitty Carroll, the first Invisible Woman, chose not to specify her gender on her application in an effort to avoid being sexually harassed. We know all of this because Gibbs was the first scientist to film himself performing an invisibility procedure, but it’s one of those films that tells a modern viewer more about professor Gibbs than he perhaps intended to tell us:

Even through the fog of vintage sexism, you can see how much effort professor Gibbs made to make invisibility procedures more welcoming to women: developing a bedside manner that involves answering his patients’ questions instead of ranting about “a new Reign of Terror,” turning lots of giant dials so everyone could see how scientific invisibility is, and of course, hiring Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton as a nurse, so that patients could see a friendly, familiar face when waking up from anesthesia. And speaking of anesthesia, there isn’t any. Professor Gibbs still used the same basic injection-followed-by-ethereal-vibration method that caused Griffin so much pain, but by simply increasing power on the radiating centers until the vibrations reverse polarity in the patient’s axons, he was able to reduce the pain to a harmless tickling sensation, plus liver cancer 10 years later. Kitty Carroll primarily wanted to become invisible in order to play pranks on her boss, so who’s to say the trade-off wasn’t worth it?

Invisible Agent (1942)

Dr. Frank Griffin’s earlier work developing an invisibility procedure that could be used to break murderers out of prison came in handy in 1942, when it was used to smuggle Dr. Frank Griffin Jr. into occupied Germany. The military’s famous Syringe Ready to Invisiblify kits were not only shelf-stable, battlefield-tested, and mom-approved, they made the entire process of being permanently cured of visibility as simple and painless as stripping buck naked while tumbling through the sky toward Nazi Germany without taking off your parachute.

Dr. Frank Griffin Jr.’s invisibility procedure became impractical after the fall of Berlin, because he insisted that parachuting naked into Nazi Germany was an essential part of his method.

The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)

Dr. Peter Drury was, in many ways, an even less ethical invisibiologist than Dr. Frank Griffin. Griffin experimented on a death row inmate, who promptly escaped from prison; Drury experimented on a mental patient who had already escaped. Still, he gets some points for trying to establish a bedside manner, even if it mostly consisted of exclaiming things like, “I have outstripped the immortals of science!” when he thought his patient had passed out:

The scientific advances here may not be obvious, but Drury’s innovations in customer service are still visible on every visit to a high-end barber shop. Without Drury’s brandy-heavy treatment methods, would we ever have had the wonderful experience of being served an excellent Scotch in a room that reeks of Barbicide?

The Invisible Mouse (1947)

Easily the simplest invisibility procedure known to medical science. Like Griffin’s original invisibility procedure, the Jerry Process was developed through a combination of self-experimentation and animal testing. In this case, however, that Venn diagram was a circle:

Despite the fact that the Jerry Process was as simple as taking a bath in invisible ink, it took decades before researchers were able to create a topical solution that was strong enough for a cartoon mouse but pH balanced for a human. Visibility patients who were aware of the simplicity of the Jerry Process were sometimes unwilling to have their condition treated with a Drury Operation, betting that a human Jerry Process was just around the corner. Unfortunately, the result of their hesitation was the collapse of the entire industry, as once-ubiquitous invisibility clinics disappeared overnight and research was derailed for decades.

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972)

When the long-sought-after human Jerry Process was finally discovered in 1972, it was as much of an accident as the mouse version. But while Jerry’s delight at having discovered a topical invisibility spray was somewhat tempered by the presence of a cartoon cat desperately trying to murder him, Dexter Riley’s breakthrough was pure science. It remains one of the most thrilling depictions of the scientific method ever captured on film, and the bold series of experiments Riley constructed to test his hypothesis (Hypothesis: “I am young and I look like Kurt Russell and I will live forever”) was single-handedly responsible for the “fingerless gloves on fingerless scientists” craze of the 1980s.

Talk about outstripping the immortals of science!

The Invisible Man (1975)

If you have any doubt that the Department of Defense is a bloated dinosaur, check out the invisibility procedure they paid the Klae Corp. to develop in the 1970s. This is three years after Dexter Riley developed the “just plunge your hand into the mystery liquid” method at Medfield College, and defense contractors were still out there fucking around with radiating centers and ethereal vibrations like it was the 1890s. It’s no wonder Dr. Daniel Weston wanted to destroy his own research:

The Klae Procedure is the ED-209 of invisibility methods, and everyone involved in its construction should be murdered by RoboCop for wasting taxpayer money.

Son of the Invisible Man (Excerpted in Amazon Women on the Moon, 1987)

Perhaps the saddest story in the history of invisibility, the mysterious Son of the Invisible Man caused an absolute sensation in the scientific world when he announced that he had perfected the invisibility procedure originally devised by his father. In retrospect, there were a number of red flags, most obviously that the Son of the Invisible Man was never too clear on which Invisible Man he was the son of. Griffin? Dr. Jack Griffin? Dr. Frank Griffin? Dr. Frank Griffin, Jr.? Jerry from Tom and Jerry? Whatever the answer, it quickly became obvious that the Son of the Invisible Man had not completely eliminated the procedure’s side effects:

Although his method was ultimately not successful, the Son of the Invisible Man’s experiments weren’t a total wash: His unique insights into the challenges and dangers posed by Invisible Men led to a long and lucrative career as a security consultant, and completing the three-day-long “A Shirt Making a Phone Call Is Actually Not All That Scary, so Don’t Lose Your Cool and Start Blabbing Classified Information” Invisibility Defense training program he developed is still a prerequisite for a federal security clearance.

Hollow Man (2000)

Again: Dexter Riley of Medfield College developed a painless, topical invisibility formula in 1972. Sebastian Caine was clearly a brilliant scientist, but what kind of a person sets himself the goal of making a simple medical procedure into something more painful, more expensive, and more reminiscent of Body Worlds?

Caine would subsequently claim that he was conducting an experiment to see how much money the government would pay for technology that makes everything worse, as though this weren’t the same government that spent months researching the possibility of nuking the moon to impress people.

“How to Disappear Completely” (2000)

The good news is that Radiohead’s procedure for becoming invisible is simple, affordable, and requires no special knowledge or equipment. The bad news is that singing, “I’m not here, this isn’t happening” to yourself over and over again is not so much a procedure for becoming invisible as it is a procedure for disassociating during trauma or severe depression. Technically, it won’t make you invisible, but if you practice it long enough, you can eventually become someone you don’t recognize in the mirror.

The Invisible Man (2020)

Even his harshest critics have to admit that Adrian Griffin’s revolutionary approach to invisibility has changed the visibility game forever. The Griffin Treatment for visibility is just as effective as any of the invasive procedures that preceded it, with almost none of the downsides. Here’s what’s different about the latest invisibility treatment: It’s a suit of clothing. A matrix of cameras and flexible screens stitched into a bodysuit produce the invisibility effect, but the advantage is what it doesn’t produce. The excruciating pain of invisibility serum bleaching your hemoglobin? Gone! Exposing yourself to vaguely defined “ethereal vibrations?” Gone! Running around the English countryside naked in the middle of winter? This thing is literally clothing, so: gone! Creepy nurse that looks like the Wicked Witch of the West chatting you up while you undergo treatment for your visibility? Do creepy nurses routinely watch you get dressed? And that abrupt descent into madness? Well, that could happen at any time, but don’t blame your bullshit on the Griffin invisibility suit. You get out of it what you put into it.

Now that there’s a safe, noninvasive, clinically proven way to treat chronic visibility sufferers, it might be time to ask your doctor if a Griffin Invisibility Suit is right for you. In the worst-case-scenario—your doctor approves immediate invisibility treatment, your insurance only covers the Hollow Man procedure, the surgeon misunderstands—you can take some comfort in the fact that at least there will be fewer visible people running around, even if you, personally, go mad in the most painful way imaginable. And who knows? If we get enough invisibility suits into enough invisible hands, there’s a chance that someone, somewhere, someday will discover one of those positive benefits of invisibility that scientists have been promising us for centuries, usually only moments before those same scientists use their newfound powers of invisibility to go on nude killing sprees across the English countryside. Is it a mistake to trust scientists to consider the ethical implications of new invisibility technologies before they deploy them? You might as well ask if it’s a mistake to assume that scientific progress only moves forward. Maybe it is—but I don’t see it.