The Stuff of Horror: The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan

If there’s one thing Christian Donlan’s The Unmapped Mind has taught me, it’s that it’s a miracle anything makes sense at all.

Shortly after the birth of his daughter, Christian Donlan began noticing symptoms of what he’d eventually discover to be multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spine. As one can imagine of anything involving the brain, the results can be quite severe. But what one might not be able to imagine is what those results might look like. The brain is body and soul, after all. Our seat of perception and our universe. It’s the whole shebang. So when your immune system decides to take a shot at it, suddenly everything is under attack.

The ultimate invisible privilege we all enjoy is that all of this (our bodies; the world) makes sense. It all just works. We’re not surprised to find that it does. It’s only when we don’t work that the full strangeness of our existence becomes bewildering. “Suddenly I had two hands,” Donlan says, building a picture of a world that is constantly surprising him. Watching a run-of-the-mill TV drama, “Everything that happened was a wonderful shock.”

So that’s one of the things MS can do to you. Suddenly I had two hands- it can turn your own basic geometry into a plot twist. And while there are moments of joy and rediscovery afforded him by his illness, there are moments of fear, of terror, even.

“To misplace your body is the stuff of horror,” Donlan says. He is referring to the remarkable story of a woman who, as a result of medical complications, lost her proprioception- her ability to sense the location of her own body (‘The Disembodied Lady’, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Oliver Sacks.) When I read that phrase, the stuff of horror, it struck me just how regularly Donlan invoked the tropes and imagery of horror films and related media to describe the myriad, often perplexing symptoms of MS.

So I began to take notes. Presented here are some extracts from the book alongside congruent images from a variety of horror films and other media. Congruent to my eye, at least. I’ve elaborated on some of my choices where I thought necessary, but for the most part, I’ve left them unannotated.



My daughter was, at this point, a roving lump- an elbow, a knee, a fist – racing around under the surface of my wife’s belly. 


(Aliens, 1986)

A delivery room is no place for a baby: the submarine instrumentation, the echoing screams, the experts hovering with the resuscitation trolley.


(Alien, 1979)

Luckily, on a sweltering night in late Augusts, it’s a monster who shows up: a sweet, scarlet Godzilla, skin flushed and glossy and distinctly amphibian, eyes bright and black, a fleshy beak for a mouth. Her head is lengthened by the suction that has been applied to pull her out.


(Alien, 1979)

A scrubbed hand delicately holding the tiny brain of a foetus, smooth and cream-coloured like seared scallop. 


Grim hint of a lamb shank, to the top, a  rumpled plateau enlivened by the occasional dark river of vein or artery.


(The Silence Of The Lambs, 1991)

This man was tall and elegant and beaming with the sheer happiness of having met me. His clothes were the casual clothes of a man who struggles when he is not wearing a suit: a dusty shirt tucked into flapping linen trousers, a neckcloth, a wide-brimmed hat in dirty cream. He looked sun-weathered even in March, but pleasantly so, stray pen strokes of black hair fringing his forehead.


(TWIN PEAKS, ‘May The Giant Be With You’, 1990)

Excuse me. A brief interlude from horror motifs. This can’t go unsaid.

At one point in the book, Donlan recounts a series of encounters with a tall man who may or may not exist. Both Donlan’s wife and father have their suspicions that the man might be a hallucination- a rare but not out-of-the-question result of MS. By his father’s reasoning, ‘If a person like you was going to hallucinate somebody [it would be] a posh Englishman who’s very friendly.’

Okay. Donlan’s dad probably knows him a bit better than I do (i.e. not at all), but I have another theory.

To me, the description of ‘The Ghost on The Green’ calls to mind the characters of Agent Dale Cooper and The Giant from Twin Peaks. In fact, in an article about hero archetypes and video games for Eurogamer, Chris talks about his favourite Twin Peaks moment, one in which Dale Cooper, despite his grave injuries, takes a moment to check whether or not a bill he’s received includes gratuity. It will take more than a bullet to make Special Agent Cooper forget his manners. The scene obviously made an impression on Donlan:

Almost thirty years later, and I never pass up the chance to ask if something includes a gratuity. I never pass up the opportunity to give someone a solid thumbs-up, or to talk to people I have just met as if they might be the single thing in my life that has been missing up until now.

There it is- Donlan says his mystery man approaches him “beaming with the sheer happiness of having met me.” Is that not the most Dale Coopery thing you ever heard?

So here’s my hair-brained theory, a theory only a Twin Peaks fan could have while reading the memoir on another: I think Donlan’s mystery man is Dale Cooper, disguised as The Giant. He is a spirit guide, hence the form of The Giant, but his message is Cooper’s:  never pass up the opportunity to give someone a solid thumbs-up, or to talk to people I have just met as if they might be the single thing in my life that has been missing up until now. Even when you’ve been shot in the gut. Even when your immune system is attacking your nervous system. Maybe especially then. Maybe that’s the only way forward.

I had recently read a single line on a Wikipedia page about the blood-brain barrier and run away from all that, sick at the sheer throbbing thought of it, the blood-brain barrier, which I saw a huge wall of thin sheeting, a cheap shower curtain really, bucking and warping as it struggled to hold back warm, salty tides.


(Psycho, 1960)


The trigeminal nerve 


I could not shake off this glimpse of the abyss that had opened up, so gapingly, in a suburb of Croydon.


It prods you towards the realization that your world is mediated on a number of intimate and invisible forces. 


Its strange, spindly architecture calling to her ever since it began to rise out of the sea.


(Bloodborne, 2015)

It was wrong that shiny black insects would find their way into the strangest places.


(The Mummy, 1999)

Cancer spins crazed shapes out of a glossy red colon, out of a blackened lung. 


(Annhilation, 2018)

I know this film came out after The Unmapped Mind, but the phrase was striking.

Also, on a personal note, it was midway through reading the book that I found out my father had been diagnosed with skin cancer. The tumour began in his skin, then snaked down through his muscle towards the bone.

“The doctor said it has a tail,” my mum said, “like a comet”.

He’s doing fine, now.

Her light dandelion fuzz of hair has become something approaching a style – blond and short, a Rosemary’s Baby cut.


(Rosemary’s Baby, 1968)

I know Donlan is just trying to describe a hairstyle, but I don’t think his reference point is entirely arbitrary- Rosemary’s Baby is about a woman losing control of her body. It’s about nefarious forces taking control of life-giving process and twisting it into something else.

Lymphocytes, the roving attack dogs of the immune system, when they mistakenly lunge at the brain and dig into the myelin


(Resident Evil, 1996)



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