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Brain in a Jar

October 25, 2010
OCTOBER 25, 2010 9:32AM

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My father forbade me to see horror movies, Twilight Zone, or Outer Limits. When he came home from a screening of “Psycho” he said, “I’ll never let you watch it” then proceeded to describe in gory detail everything from the famous shower scene:


to that rocking chair in the basement:


I saw the movie in Technicolor as he spoke (even though it was actually in black and white.)

My father tried to shelter me from things might give me nightmares. But from the time I was small that fine story-teller loved to tell me horror stories.

He told of how he started out at the Baltimore Sun as a police reporter. He showed me his straight razor – a fearsome thing – then told of how two Black men had resolved a dispute by going in a pitch dark room with razors and fighting it to the death.

He said, “I saw something terrible when I was a boy.  Some kids were fooling around at a gas station. You know the air hose they use to fill tires?  It’s under tremendous pressure. One of them put the hose up their behind.  They turned on the air and he screamed and screamed as it blew his intestines out his stomach and all over the gas station. He died in….” My father really tortured the meaning of this word:  “agony.” As always, he told the story so well that I could see it happening. And it kept happening, uninvited, in my mind, for years.

He kept me from monsters on the movies and TV, but couldn’t stop me from buying horror cards. My friends and I were impossible at sports. Collecting baseball cards would only put our humiliation in our faces. When horror cards arrived in the early 60s you could get the same crummy pink gum, but instead of Mickey Mantle grinning at you, you had Dracula:


The Mummy:


The Golem:


And –what some kid convinced me was me was scariest of all – the Tingler:


That we never saw these movies only made the staged images of their monster stars come alive more vividly in our imaginations, just like Psycho.

It was great fun, riding that edge between fear and excitement. Until one day in fifth grade.

After school my friend Peter  came up with a big smirk, “I gotta show you something.” “What is it?” “You’ll see.” Something about his tone of voice gave me a queasy feeling. He was way braver than me. He tried in vain to get me to sneak into the big construction project up at Wesleyan. “Where are we going.” “YOU”LL SEE!”

We headed to a campus building right across Church Street from the library where my dad’s office was. It had something to do with science, maybe Chemistry.

The door gave me a little shiver – it was framed in marble, the top carved with figures, the whole very much like one of the tombstones up in Indian Hill Cemetary – where we sometimes went to peer into the mausoleums, to see if we could make out a coffin in the gloom.

The hall we entered was gloomy. Our steps echoed from the high ceiling as I glanced at the glass  cases on either side. Some kind of museum…this wasn’t the Chemistry Department, but Biology. Bulky cases from the last century with the veneer flaking from the frames. Inside, to my relief, nothing special. Stuffed birds, a frog.

I whispered, “This is it?”

He laughed, “Oh no.”

We arrived at the center of this maze of aisles, a little round room. There it was, in the center, on a pedestal, taking pride of place in this museum.

A brain in a jar. Not a monkey brain, but a human brain. The jar was a tall cylander. The brain floated in the fluid so that the top was exposed. The spinal column trailed down a good yard.  The fluid was dirty with little morsels of…. brain drifting around. It was way worse than this.  


I pictured someone – a man – alive, walking around with that thing inside of him. Laughing, eating, going to work.  I saw his corpse rotting in its coffin, minus this brain.

That night – or was it later that week, I don’t remember –I had the worst nightmare of my life. I woke in such terror that I burrowed under the bedclothes and shook until dawn. For weeks I was afraid to go to sleep lest it return.  It haunted me for years.

In the dream I was in the bushes next to the playground of our school downtown. I watched a progression of attendants carrying stretchers from the back door and down the steps, across the asphalt to a line of ambulances. As each stretcher was loaded the ambulance left and another took its place.

The bodies on the stretchers were small, those of kids. Their heads were cocooned in spheres of bandages from crown to throat. Somehow I just knew what was going on  inside my school –though I won’t allow myself to picture that. They were performing brain transplants.

Maybe I conflated the sight of that real brain with this horror card:

Or maybe not.


Later in 1968 I was a freshman at Wesleyan. It was a heady time – and not just because we were all potheads and acidheads. We didn’t call ourselves Hippies, but Freaks – because we had never fit into the narrow world of the 50s we’d grown up in. A world where you weren’t a man if you couldn’t throw a ball. Weren’t a man if you didn’t take up a rifle and fight. Where you weren’t a member of society if you didn’t think, dress, feel as others did.

Who had foisted that world on us, taught us its rules we couldn’t obey, insisted we be like this, act like that?  Our parents, of course. But also schools.

I was a curious kid. I drove my father crazy with questions about how everything worked,  even how the electricity came out of the walls. Yet school, the very place I assumed they’d teach you all that stuff, bored me out of my skull.

In third grade I’d found myself fascinated by a plant on the teacher’s desk – a red, exotic thing, which I’d later know as a Chinese Lantern. I screwed up my courage and went up after class. “What is it?” She glared at me, “None of your business!”

None of it was my business, apparently.  Granted, I was a hyper pain in the ass who couldn’t stop squirming behind his desk. What teachr had time for all those questions, when there were dates to memorize, flags to salute, not to speak of personal hygiene –teaching us to never put anything larger than our elbow in our ear.

No blame really. I was just a round peg that they were doing their best to pound in a square hole.

So in 1968 I believed I knew the meaning of that long ago nightmare. Teachers had done their best to perform a brain transplant on me, to replace my bright-eyed curiosity about the world with the blank stare of a kid who just repeats what he’s told and otherwise shuts up.

A nice story. But to paraphrase Freud – sometimes a brain in a jar is just a brain in a jar. Which is to say, plenty horrible.  Maybe that brain was just my first realization that someday this brain will be just a lump of rotting flesh. And where will I be?


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Perfect, just perfect. I love this.
A kid with a vivid imagination and a brain in a jar . . . perfect ingredients for nightmares . . . I think I see the first interpretation of the dream more clearly, though . . . the zombie kids . . . glad you escaped that particular fate, LM.
I feel your fear. Great story. I landed ina foster home in 1958. Through Netflix 50 years later I was able to track down the actual episode of Leave It To Beaver that aired that same Tuesday evening. I’m sure we watched the episode; we always watched the Beave. Ward was shown to be troubled and disappointed the the little guy had not down well on the baseball diamond, however, and in a begrudging way, he did offer some encouraging words as he learned that Theodore had taken up the clarinet. June was proud of him anyway – we’ll miss her.
Oh, yuck! Why did I ever read this? I hate horror stories.
The spooky thing now is that I was putting the finishing touches on this post right before I read about the open call. I misread it as “really scary stories,” and wondered how scary mine was. Well, it sure scared the hell out of me back then. But is it real? Yep.

I love this story!

But Mel Brooks made the phrase “brain in a jar” sidesplitting funny for me forever.

From Young Frankenstein:
“What was the name on the jar?”


“Abby what?”

“Abby Normal.”

What about Brain Salad Surgery?? That’s a scary thought.

Good story. Like the scene out of James Whale’s Frankenstein … ha!
It’s funny with the old movies …sometimes the ones that scared you the most once upon a time, are the ones you laugh at the most now.

This is a truly scary, creepy story! I think that your father’s descriptions were probably worse that if you had seen what he was describing! I think we all have an awareness of (potential) horror, but the fascination is still there! R
Wonderfully done. Your treatment of dream as the metaphor of your (well, our) young life could not be better.

NE Wesleyan?

I often wonder what zombies think of brains in formaldehyde…maybe like green olives?

Your story brings me back to the age of 4 when I was being babysat by my aunt. She ordered pizza with olives. I won’t ever forget the yucky smell. Anyway, after putting me to bed, she was watching this vampire movie with her boyfriend. I was always a “out-of-bed sneaker”, finding different spots to hide and watch TV. I will never forget watching this scene where this vampire shredded this woman apart as she slept. I remember crawling back in to my bed and hiding under the covers. I told my dad about it a few days later and I showed him the face the vampire made. To this day, he still comes up behind me making that face and hissing. He used to do when I was little. Forever haunting me of scary movies!!
aaaah, I grew up in DC with the Smithsonian natural history museum free and open every day (a great place to go when I skipped school) with lots of creepy things in jars in a small room on the second floor. My father loved taking us there and making up scary stories about what all those things were and how they got there. The result: I’m an easy scare, and a gullible one, too.
Great story – with a moral. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Very well told. Relate to this a little too much…though never saw a brain in a jar in real life…just a baby.

One of the times I quit smoking, before I really quit smoking, was while working as a night watchman at a medical research building. One of the rooms I had to check several times throughout the night was off a lab. It was lined with shelves containing jars filled with cancerous lungs. Yes, lighting up was hard to do for a while after that.

And your dad’s airhose story reminded me of my dad telling us kids how somebody fooling around with a powerful vacuum cleaner sucked the intestines out of a friend. I’ve never looked at a vacuum cleaner quite the same way since.

Oh dear saints preserve us! The TINGLER! Oh damn…

Now I am going to need a night light!

Nice story and great writing, but you have my curiosity up. Who was the Tingler and why is he so worse than the others ? Badder than the Mummy?
I was trying to decide if this was a sideways reference to the recent news story where a group of high school students on a trip to the local morgue discovered the brain of their recently deceased classmate floating in a labeled jar. My question was: What were they doing on a class trip to a morgue? What, don’t they have a natural history museum, or a rendering plant? You know, something wholesome. R.
My Daddy was a science teacher. I hated the week when the cat cadavers came in for his class to disect. He always found a way for me to be in the classroom when the boxes were there. Never saw a cat cadaver, but the boxes were almost worse! Perfect Halloween story.
When I was a kid, I saw these photos of John Merrick (sp?) the “elephant man.” Who knows why they bothered me so much, but they did. I had nightmares about them constantly. Always, my dreams were in black and white, too, like the movie. To this day, I kind of squirm at the thought. And a long, long time has passed.
I love this history of family and horror. rated
It would have given me nightmares too. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over a general squeamishness that I seem to have been born with. A human brain!?!
The choice of the word “morsel” was choice.
Abby Normal – young frankenstein!
I dont let my kids watch this kind of videos or any horror videos. because it will create a big impact to their lives. it will only bring great fear to them. since they are kids and they rely on us. we must protect them.
hinesmaynard CompleteDietInfo Health Expert
Ah, shiver me timbers, you send tingles down my spine and itching powder in my ears.
“…and a cigar is just a cigar…” Methinks you should be writing horror. I can see myself all wide-eyed in the dark with a novel that has your name on it!

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