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The True History behind The Secret of NIMH

by Greyley Sabin about a month ago in review

The research of John Calhoun

The 1982 animated film The Secret of NIMH tells a complex story, which weaves together a dark web of experiments, violence, fabricated plot, and drama. Following field mouse Mrs. Brisby, we are shown harrowing depictions of villainous figures she must face and are introduced to the rats of NIMH. What grounds this story in reality are the experiments done on the rats in the National Institute of Mental Health, which exists in both the film and the real world. The research was conducted by Dr. John Calhoun, and is partially shown in The Secret of NIMH. The twisted history of these findings composed into an animated movie marketed toward children make for a tangled web of plot, philosophy, and history all compressed into an interesting amalgamation.

The history starts with John Calhoun, a science and rodent enthusiast, who after building several self-deemed rat utopias, was employed by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The first rat enclosure was a quarter acre pen, which is roughly 105’x105’. This enclosure was called “the garden of Eden.” Calhoun calculated that it should be able to house 5000 rats. Instead, the population never exceeded 200, and was most frequently around 150. The experiments at NIMH to come were intended to figure out why when there was so much space, the population remained so low, but also so crowded. From 1956 until 1986, Calhoun continued to build rat enclosures, to observe how rat behavior and population would be affected by a lack of predators and provision of everything needed to survive, like food and shelter. The space was the only thing containing the rats, and as the population of rats grew, the more the rat pens became societies described as “hell” by one of Calhoun’s assistants.

The rapidly growing population of the rats caused permanent behavioral changes in the over-crowded rodents. They became physically and sexually aggressive, some forming groups and ostracizing other rodents. Mothers neglected their pups and at times even attacked them. They began eating the dead, and the reclusive mice and rats were unable to breed which brought the population back down. Once the population fell back down to a tolerable level in the pen, the behavioral changes did not cease, the aggressive behaviors continued, and the animals were no longer able to live together. These observations and findings were published in Calhoun’s paper Population Density and Social Pathology in 1962, and appeared to show a bleak prediction to the future of humanity based on population density. The paper was regarded as a major psychological find, but was later criticized for how Calhoun so obviously blurred the lines between rodent and human. These blurred lines led to immense interest from the public, spurring many discussions and pieces of media, eventually including The Secret of NIMH. Though the findings were easy to see as viciously morose, Calhoun did not see them this way, setting up several more experiments to try and create happy rodent cities believing personally that population growth was not inherently bad. The behavior shift of the rodents in their rat societies was labeled by Calhoun as the “behavioral sink.

The experiments by Calhoun spurred many apocalyptic books and films about the overcrowding of humankind leading to its demise. The research did a lot to foster such creative outpourings, specifically in the way Calhoun labelled the rodents in his separate rat universes, which were labelled by cage. For example, antisocial rats were labelled “social dropouts”, and groups of rodents were called “social drinkers and barflies.” The behavioral sink showed patterns of rats becoming socially and physically dependent on each other before resorting to violence, and the concept of the behavioral sink is what permeated itself into pop culture jargon. The behavioral sink became a term to mark concentrated areas of moral and physical squalor.

Keeping the immensely negative findings and portrayals of these experiments in mind, there were also several discoveries that were extremely interesting and positive. In early outdoor rat societies, Calhoun observed that the social outcast groups of predominantly homosexual rats developed creative behaviors. These behaviors mainly manifested in the way they dug out their burrows, packing dirt into large balls to move it out of the way and roll it out later. None of the socially dominant rats did this. These findings only fueled Calhoun’s desire to align rat behavior with human behavior, specifically his own feelings.

The book, Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH, published in 1971, becomes one of the only examples carrying a positive message from the findings of John Calhoun. It was written by Robert O’brien after he visited the laboratory at NIMH. The book was eventually translated into The Secret of NIMH. Calhoun remembers O’brien visiting the lab, and believed that Mrs Frisby’s name was based off a blue Frisbee used as a door marker in the lab. Calhoun even wrote in the margins of his copy of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH all the parallels between the story and the real experiments.3 The book and then the movie were dismissed by scientists as being just for kids, entire fabrications based off of a much larger picture. But the gorgeous story and animation give a new life to the research, and show it through a much different lens than would be anticipated. While Calhoun’s experiment showed harrowing depictions of what humans could become, The Secret of NIMH tells the story through the rodents. The story of Mrs. Frisby was translated into the movie The Secret of NIMH in 1982, which largely portrays the same story, with only a few deviations from the original.

The story told in the Secret of NIMH has a complex plot, but is centered around the mouse Mrs. Brisby (whose name is changed in the film adaptation to avoid a lawsuit from Frisbee). The opening scene sets a mysterious and fantastical tone for the film, showing the hands of Nicodemus the rat writing in his journal about the death of Jonathan Brisby, who has been killed by farmer Fitzgibbon’s cat, Dragon. We then cut to Mrs. Brisby, who is travelling to visit a mouse named Mr. Ages. She is reaching out to him because one of her children Timothy is ill, and Mr. Ages is able to give her medicine. Mr. Ages tells Mrs. Brisby that Timothy has pneumonia, and that if he doesn’t stay inside for three weeks, he will die. This poses as a problem, because the animals on the farm know that moving day is coming soon, when the farmer runs the plow and they all need to get out of the way to avoid death. Mrs. Brisby knows that for Timmy to live, she will need to come up with some sort of solution, or her whole family will be killed by the plow. The next day it appears that plow day is coming early, and Mrs. Brisby has a near death experience stopping the plow, by climbing aboard and ripping off a valve. Having postponed moving day, Mrs. Brisby goes with her crow friend Jeremy to visit the Great Owl. The Great Owl is portrayed as an all knowing elder of the forest, but he is really intimidating, because owls eat mice. His tree hole is scattered with cobwebs and bones. Mrs. Brisby pushes through because she knows she needs advice to keep her family alive. The owl almost immediately dismisses her, until she gives her name. It is revealed that somehow the owl had a connection to Brisby’s late husband Jonathan. The owl tells Mrs. Brisby that help can be found from the rats of NIMH, who live in the rosebush by the farmhouse. She is told specifically to ask for Nicodemus, and then is sent on her way.

This brings us into the interlocking plot of the story of the rats of NIMH. When Mrs. Brisby gets to the rosebush, it is immediately seen that the rats have a lot more innovative of a life than the other animals on the farm. Through a hidden gate, Mrs. Brisby finds a utopia and several different gorgeous scenes, with electric light and beautiful plants and displays. The further in she goes a large rat appears in front of her, who we later learn is Brutus, the guard of the inside. Brutus viciously starts attacking Mrs. Brisby with a large spear. He is frightening and seemingly relentless until she stumbles off the path and into Mr. Ages. Mr. Ages leads Mrs. Brisby to Nicodemus, and on the way, we are introduced to Justin, a kind rat who knew Jonathan. Justin and Mr. Ages bring Mrs. Brisby to Nicodemus, who shows Mrs. Brisby the journal entry detailing the death of Jonathan, who died trying to drug the farmers cat, Dragon. Nicodemus also gives Mrs. Brisby a large red amulet, and details the plans of the rats and the plan to move the Brisby household out of danger. Nicodemus then goes into the story of what the rats and mice endured when they were held captive at NIMH, the National Institute of Mental Health.

Nicodemus’s glowing eyes portray him as now being partially blind, which we know from Dr. Calhoun was a characteristic of one of the rats in one of the rat utopias. NIMH in the movie is portrayed only as a villain. The mice and rats are shown in cages being treated horribly, and getting graphic shots that change the way their minds work, referencing Calhoun attempting to create a smarter breed of rodent. After several months of treatment, the rats of NIMH realize they can read, and form an escape plan. It is shown when the rats and mice escape, they need to go through an air duct, and all of the mice but two are too light to stop from being blown away and killed by the spinning turbine. The two mice that live are Jonathan Brisby and Mr. Ages. For the rats to escape, they need to get through a grate, and only Jonathan is small enough to get through and let out all the rats, which is why the rats hold him so dear. As Mrs. Brisby leaves the rosebush to prepare her family to move, we are introduced to another evil, the rat Jenner and his sidekick Sullivan. Jenner wants the rats to stay on the farm, and doesn’t have an issue with stealing electricity from the farmer. In order to become the leader of the rats and stay on the farm, Jenner hatches a plot to use the moving of the Brisby house as a cover to murder Nicodemus.

When the day comes to move the Brisby house, the children all stay inside while the rats hoist up the house with ropes. Mrs. Brisby has been busy drugging the farmer’s cat Dragon, so when the house is moved the rats can start their journey to find a new home. While inside the farmers house, Mrs. Brisby hears a phone call between Mrs. Fitzgibbons and NIMH. Mrs. Fitzgibbons expresses the trouble that they have with rats on the farm, specifically knowing that they all live in the rosebush. NIMH agrees to come to the farm and poison the rats. Mrs. Brisby goes to warn the rats and help move her house and comes to find Nicodemus being killed. Jenner has gone off the rails, slitting the throat of his counterpart Sullivan. Sullivan, regretting his betrayal of Nicodemus, uses his last breath to throw a knife at Jenner, killing him. The Brisby house sinks fully into the mud. The power of Mrs. Brisby’s love for her children powers the amulet given to her by Nicodemus, and she is able to pull her house from the mud. We then cut to see the Brisby family in a new home, and know the rats have moved somewhere new. Timmy is alive and well, and all seems to be resolved.

The literature written about the Secret of NIMH is very scarce, which is odd considering it performed well and was directed by Don Bluth. The documentation of the real experiments on the rats of NIMH however is very plentiful, seeing as it is years and years of tedious research. It seems that Mrs. Frisby and the rats of NIMH as well as The Secret of NIMH are dismissed by many as nothing more than a children’s fable. This is what is interesting, however, about the connections between these stories and the history of NIMH. The book was based off of direct observation of Calhoun’s lab. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH tells the story of what could have been if Calhoun had been more successful in creating a more intelligent species of rodent, which in some sense he did accomplish, however not to the point of human intelligence and dramatic escape.

A lot of the literature circulating The Secret of NIMH was written by Robert Conly (penname Robert O’brien)’s family. After Conly’s death, his wife and daughter wrapped up one of his manuscripts. When a fan wrote a sequel to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and sent it to the family seeking approval, daughter Jane Leslie Conly decided she would rather write her own, and published two sequels to the original novel. Another of Conly’s daughters contributed to a collection of essays on children’s philosophy. This essay is titled Intelligence and Utopia in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Sarah O’brien Conly. The essay goes into the way that Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, shows that with intelligence comes the possibility for a utopic life. This is shown both in the rat’s rosebush, which has many utopic scenes and pieces as well as the end of the story where both the rats and the Frisby family find themselves in a new and utopic place due to the intelligence they have gained from NIMH and the journey.

All of the complexities between the history of John Calhoun’s research and the many plot points in the story of Mrs. Brisby are translated visually in the animation itself.

figure 1

This image depicts one of the first major antagonists to Mrs. Brisby, Brutus. The gorgeous and detailed backgrounds we’ve so far seen in the rosebush disappear in this moment, and it’s replaced with sharp blurry red shapes, that morph into thorns and give a violent emotion to the scene. Brutus himself is quite large, towering over Mrs. Brisby. Brutus holds a large arrow with several prongs that he uses as a spear, attempting to hit Mrs. Brisby. In the still she is flying out of the way of the weapon, about to fall an unknown distance into the nothingness of the rosebush. An important detail is that we never see Brutus’s pupils. Characters like Nicodemus and the Great Owl are also devoid of pupils, but their eyes glow to show magic and wisdom. Brutus does not have glowing eyes, so his lack of pupils makes him look soulless and cold. It should also be noted that the complexity of Brutus’s clothes is much higher than the red coat of Mrs. Brisby. This is a subtle nod to the intelligence of the rats that live in the rosebush, their intelligence gives them access to clothes and weapons. We soon find out that Brutus is all bark and no bite, and his job is to keep intruders from going too far in the rosebush, and it marks another trial that Mrs. Brisby gets through due to her bravery.

figure 2

This image shows another trial of Mrs. Brisby. This still depicts Mrs. Brisby’s encounter with the Great Owl. There are cobwebs littering the floor, the walls, and attached to the owl’s body itself. Mrs. Brisby is standing in the light of the skylight, on a small pedestal. The pedestal she stands on looks like it could have several purposes, but an owl being a major predator for a field mouse, it looks as though she is standing on an altar to be sacrificed or eaten, or to plead a case before a morose judgement is made. The Owl himself appears to be a very old creature, the cobwebs on his back seemingly permanently attached. His white eyebrows and beard along with his glowing eyes and bumpy appendages liken him extremely to the other elder wise character, the rat Nicodemus. The Owl’s glowing eyes fit in with the way the film uses glowing to show wisdom and power. The background in this scene is ominous, but it is not red and fast moving like the suspenseful scene with Brutus in the rosebush, it is blue and slow moving. This leads to an overall feeling of calm, although Mrs. Brisby is afraid, the Owl chooses to be a friend rather than a predator.

figure 3- NIMH portrayed in The Secret of NIMH

figure 4- one of John Calhoun’s rat universes

While these images show different layouts, they also give the same feeling. Figure 3 is the films adaptation of the labs at NIMH. We see that the cages all have a water dispenser and a latch, as well as grates over the top half of the cage. They are also all labelled by group, which connotes that there is more than one rat in each cage. This would nod to Figure 4, the photo of the real lab of John Calhoun, where they are studying the effect of population density on rodent behavior. The scenes showing the rats in the National Institute of Mental Health are what obviously connect the movie to a real event and a real timeline.

The research of John Calhoun sought out to create rat utopias, and while he ended up creating more of the opposite, The Secret of NIMH portrays the Utopia he hoped to create. While The Secret of NIMH is often dismissed as a children’s story, it is the most closely based off of the actual situation of the rats and concept of the utopia Calhoun hoped to create. The story of Mrs. Brisby and her bravery through countless trials and hardships carries a rich and twisted history that only gets more interesting the more you see.

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Greyley Sabin
Greyley Sabin
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