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:
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?