Remember the cartoon movie The Secret of NIMH? At the urging of my mentor, I watched the movie for the first time since I was probably nine. There were a few things I remembered as soon as they popped on the screen again. The charming Justin, the ridiculous crow, and the sassy mouse kid. Oddly enough though, what I didn’t remember was all the bizzare elements, like how creepy the scenes with the Great Owl and Nicodemus were—I mean for a kid. I also think I missed a very important message in the movie. My mentor then gave me the name John B. Calhoun and told me to find out the secret of NIMH. If I was successful. Then he and I would begin a story together.
I’m a late bloomer. I can admit that. So maybe the secret is not going to be as earth-shaking for you as it was for me. In fact, my research suggests that the subversive messages of the movie were already well-known and debated in the 60s and 70s. So perhaps this blog is the equivalent of finding out about the Roswell crash just now in 2019 and hopping on the internet to share the fascinating find lol But, I will persist…
For starters, NIMH stands for the National Institute of Mental health. The acronym is only explained once in the movie, but I never noticed the connection or even questioned the letters previously. In the movie, the mental health institute is where rats are kept and experimented on until their eventual escape—the escape being orchestrated by Mrs Brisby's late husband Jonathan. You see, the institute's experiments on the rats gave them super intelligence. Now these newly freed species of genius rodents are planning to how to move forward with their lives having escaped the cruel NIMH. Currently, they are unable to stay in the rosebush they’ve commandeered—and set up a secret society within by stealing electricity from the nearby farm. It is important to not that most of the rats known that stealing is wrong, another reason they must push forward to a new home. When trying to explain it to Mrs. Brisby, Nicodemus the rat wizard says something to the effect of “We are too intelligent to remain among the rats any longer.”
Many themes of awareness and responsibility, nature and science are examined in the film. And I’m shocked no adults have brought up this movie to me before now. Looking at in with grown-up eyes, I see so many important topics to discuss, but I will limit it to just one today. Despite the various messages, I think one part of the 'secret' is that we are the rats. And the experiments of NIMH are all around us. Not just in today’s world, but all throughout history. Just as a rat revolves in an exercise wheel without escape, so too does history circle around, subjecting us to the same fate over and over. Who pulls the strings of our grand experiment though? Does NIMH represent the government? Aliens? God? Or perhaps there is no God, and this is just the natural path of how organisms evolve and then devolve. Yes, species do devolve given enough time...and enough knowledge. We’ve seen species go extinct, but I don't think we’ve ever known a species to advance to the point of super intelligence and self-awareness, a point where they become so aware that they see the experiment around them…well, no species until us.
John B. Calhoun was an ethologist and behavioral researcher who studied population density and its effects on behavior. Between the late 40s and early 60s he set up experiments through to study rats and mice. Previous experiments had yielded interesting and disastrous results and led to his most famous study at NIHM: Universe 25. He wasn’t trying to create a super intelligent race of rodents with Universe 25; he was trying to see what would happen to mice if they lived in paradise. A utopia as it were. I won’t bore you with the specifics, if you’re a science buff, you can easily find out the parameters of his various experiments with a quick google search. In short, the mice were given a garden of Eden, free from predators and disease. There was unlimited food and water, temperature control, etc. Everything a mouse could want.
As a result, there was no ‘want’, no desire, just a sort of being-ness you could say. You would think that the mice would strive in such an environment. With the struggles of life having been eliminated and every need met, an organism should reach peak happiness, receive longevity and strength. In reality though, this mouse heaven turned to hell rather quickly, and within two years the entire population was dead.
Calhoun estimated that Universe 25 could house around 3,800 mice. There were multiple levels to the enclosure, divided into "main squares" and then subdivided into levels, with ramps going up to "rodent condos.” Even though there was unlimited food, in various accounts I read , it reported that the food in some areas was better quality than in others. The better food was harder to get at, and many mice stopped making the journey when they could stay where they were and gorge themselves. Other factors led to mice staying in certain zones of the enclosure despite having the ability to roam freely.
The population flourished and lived in harmony for quite some time. The original two “Adams” and two “Eves” grew to a population of about 2,200 in peace. After this growth was reached though, and despite having plenty of room left for expansion, the population began to deteriorate. Several factors led to mice nesting in close quarters, not seeking out the less crowded rooms, and as the mice choose to bunch up in the limited spaces, a “behavioral sink”—as Calhoun called it—set in. In the crowed quarters vicious attacks took place between the mice. Things like forced sex, mothers abandoning babies, and occurrences of cannibalism.
When the results were published, many people began making the link between humans and the rodents, commenting on how urban areas and overcrowding led to crime and the cesspool of moral decay that was in cities. Like the mice, we have an amazingly large world to spread out in, and there was once a golden age, where people flourished and built magnificent monuments of stone, beautiful pyramids encoded the geometry of the universe, and we lived in harmony with nature. Now at 7.5 billion people on the planet though, many of us have devolved. We viciously attack each other, we abandon our families, we kill ourselves with pleasure despite an abundance in the world that this species has never seen before. From food to information, we are blessed with everything at our fingertips…and yet something is still wrong.
“I shall largely speak of mice, but my thoughts are on man, on healing, on life and its evolution.”
That is the opening line to Calhoun’s paper “Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population”. He went on to write that there are two kinds of death that can take place in a species: physical and spiritual. While he removed the physical threats in Universe 25, Calhoun had made a world that was spiritually unhealthy. As a result, the rodents experienced a spiritual decay and that manifested into the physical deterioration and death of the mice.
Although I plan to look further into his life, I got the sense that the horrifying experiment came with a silver lining for Calhoun. It spurred him on a mission to find and discuss cures for the possible fate that could befall mankind. Unfortunately, us humans apparently aren’t much interested in cures, I guess. And beyond the scary implications for mankind with the knowledge of Universe 25, people stopped following Calhoun and his search for ways to preserve humanity.
That should be a clear sign that we are in a period of behavioral sink, the decline of humans. The Kali Yuga as yogic tradition would call it. The era when the majority of us stop searching for ways of improving.
It should be noted however, that there was a segment of the mouse population that did not devolve. Calhoun called this small percentage the “beautiful ones”. They were mice who had managed to get away from the masses. They lived in very small groups and did not engage with the other mice. They had no need to fight for dominance, no desire for sex; instead they spent their days grooming, eating, and sleeping. They were considered the picture of health since they did not have the scars/illnesses that marred other mice in the experiment. Eventually this small population would die of old age without procreating.
Now I’m sure I could be accused of oversimplifying the experiments or overgeneralizing the results. Probably true. Is our world really full of devil rats and beautiful ones? Well, maybe it's not that cut and dry. Clearly there are differences in humans and mice, and the results can not be extrapolated to our species perfectly, but perhaps, there is something of merit here. At the very least there is plenty still to explore. I have no desire to explore through experimentation on people or rodents though. I will choose to explore through storytelling instead.
Coming back to the Secret of NIMH, there's more layers of meaning than just the societal implications of Universe 25. Calhoun's experiments don’t account for all the weird stuff in the movie. Like the planetary magick symbol in the floor of the rat's meeting hall; a secretive meeting with rat leaders deciding the fate of their society. And what about Nicodemus’s scrying mirror and telepathic ability? The glowing eyes of the owl and the magick talisman that saves the day. I see religious/mythical parallels in the cartoon as well as occult symbolism and ideas. It makes me think of wicked conspiracies and consider who might be behind the grand experiment of our own universe. Who is peering down on us like the rats NIMH?
This is the kind of crazy stuff I loved talking to my mentor about. And now that I accepted his challenge, I’m very happy to announce that I get to explore these ideas with a writer I love working with! Don’t miss out on S.C. Mendes’s and my first collaborative book The Lockdown! Here's a sneak peek at the first draft of the cover and you can learn more about Mendes's here.
There is not a school shooting in the book. I promise. But it will be chilling and like The Secret of NIMH, there will definitely be more than meets the eye. I also promise it will be the first of many disturbing manuscripts we work on together!