Horror writers looking for a unique concept around which to spin their next yarn need look no further than a recent headline from the Keystone State, “Pennsylvania Burglary Suspect Admits Using Stolen Brain to Get High”. By now readers have likely encountered the story of 26 year old Joshua Long, initially arrested for a series of burglaries, who was subsequently charged with misdemeanor abuse of a corpse—specifically, use of a human brain and its preservative fluid to enhance the potency of the marijuana he was smoking.
It was Mr. Long’s aunt who discovered the brain. She was cleaning out an abandoned trailer where her nephew and sister had lived with a friend, all of them connected in some way to the burglaries. The brain was stuffed in a WalMart shopping bag and hidden under the porch of the trailer. The aunt promptly called the local police department. The discovery of the stolen brain terrified the next door neighbors. "It just scares me to death," the neighbor remarked. "I didn't think they were that kind of people, but nowadays, you never know."
When his aunt asked Mr. Long about the brain—“Why are you keeping somebody’s brain under the porch?”—he explained that he was using the embalming fluid it was soaking in to create “wet marijuana”, a more intensely hallucinogenic but potentially hazardous version of ordinary weed. Wet marijuana is cannabis that has been adulterated, typically with formaldehyde or phencyclidine, (PCP), though other substances are sometimes introduced as well. It is unclear whether a tincture of brain soaked in embalming fluid would magnify the effects of the other ingredients.
The practice of “enhancing” marijuana with other substances, some of them toxic, goes back to the 1970s. Your humble blogger remembers—barely—encountering this type of modified pot on a few occasions in his misspent youth. Originally, PCP was the primary adulterant, and this substance was once given the slang name of “embalming fluid”.
A little later on, and owing to their low level of education and technical expertise, manufacturers of wet marijuana mistakenly began using real embalming fluid in the process, an ingredient a bit easier to obtain. Adulterating marijuana with a combination of formaldehyde and PCP is a tradition that has continued to the present day. Currently, it appears that wet marijuana is emerging again as an adolescent thrill.
Production standards are somewhat lax, so effects can be unpredictable. Besides experiencing intense hallucinations, paranoia, psychosis, violent impulses and disorientation, users of wet marijuana may incur lung injuries, organ failure, severe respiratory arrest and death—though the embalming fluid may afford some degree of physical preservation to the victims.
The young Pennsylvanian and his friend had affectionately named the stolen brain “Freddy”. (Older readers may be reminded of another stolen brain, the misnamed “Abbie Normal” seen early on in Mel Brooks’ hysterical 1974 film Young Frankenstein.) Mr. Long was apprehended by police and is currently in prison; his friend and a female relative are still at large, on the run for about a month now. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania State Police are still trying to locate the rightful owner of the cerebral material, asking members of the community if anyone is missing a human specimen brain. It is probably not easy to replace these, and most insurance policies unfortunately do not cover this loss.
Many see marijuana in any of its forms as a “gateway drug”, one that leads to more intensive substance abuse and experimentation with other, more strongly addictive recreational substances. This seems to be the case with some individuals who are already predisposed to addictive behaviors, but does not occur across the board. Yet the use of adulterated cannabis to achieve a more intense and dangerous high suggests that recreational substance use has become more problematic—if not addictive, at least much more hazardous.
However, when joints are dipped into the embalming fluid surrounding a disembodied brain and then smoked, some sort of gateway has clearly been opened wide, leading to a bizarre archetypal atavism, a throwback to primordial beliefs and superstitions about death, the supernatural, and powers beyond comprehension.
Cannibalism comes to mind—is it lunchtime already?—though the two young men accused of “abuse of a corpse” only engaged in what was essentially a symbolic ritual: here, smoking replaced eating. Nevertheless, both were consuming a minuscule amount of the substance of the brain when they smoked their wet marijuana. With or without the presence of the brain, the involvement of the embalming fluid itself, given its use in human burial practice, is highly suggestive.
Insofar as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, (i.e. individual development reiterates the evolution of the species), were these two young men inadvertently cycling through an ancient habit of humankind? Aeons ago cannibalism was practiced almost universally by the human species, and it still occurs sporadically in isolated parts of the world. Cannibalism. Cannabis. Hmmm. Cannabisism? Gateway drug indeed.
Is this the sort of decadent, devolved behavior that H.P. Lovecraft was writing about in his early classic “The Picture in the House” (1919)?
…and in their isolation, morbid self-repression, and struggle for life with relentless Nature, there came to them dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage. By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folk were not beautiful in their sins. Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed…
As the neighbor in the next trailer over said, "I didn't think they were that kind of people, but nowadays, you never know."