"You ever heard of a transorbital lobotomy? They sap the patient with electric shock, then go through the eye with an ice pick, pull out some nerve fibres. Makes the patients much more obedient. Tractable. It's barbaric. Unconscionable."
"Welcome to Bedlam House
. Before we get started, I'll plunge this icepick into your eye socket
." One moment you'll see a character, chirpy, energetic, and arguing with the nurses. The next day, they're quiet and compliant, drooling, emotionless -- in short, Empty Shells
. What took place? A Lobotomy.
Lobotomy is a rare medical operation that cuts into part of a person's brain in order to treat mental illness.
Lobotomies and similar drastic brain alterations are still used as last-ditch treatment for intractable epilepsy, but that's about it. In Real Life, even when doctors where performing thousands a year, there was little evidence that it did anything therapeutic. The most often performed procedure rarely helped; it simply destroyed random brain matter.
This trope includes all instances of messing with human brain and removing brain matter and it refers to any sort of brain-tampering effect that diminishes intellect or willpower. Once seen as a perfectly humane thing to do, now treated in fiction as the standard example of medical science gone horribly wrong. Lobotomy in fiction is almost never presented as an actual therapy
, but rather as a threat held over people or a means of rendering an inconvenient subject compliant and unable to threaten the one who performs it. Very rarely it appears as genuine attempt to treat the patient.
Electroshock convulsive therapy has similar bad reputation, though more undeservedly and is often portrayed as Electric Torture
Contrast with Laser-Guided Amnesia
which is a relatively mild thing in fictionland you can do to inconvenient witnesses. See also Brainwashed
, Brainwashed and Crazy
, and Mind Rape
or Deadly Doctor
are likely to perform it, and Psycho Psychologist
is another deadly figure who may suggest this procedure.
Realizing that a character underwent a Lobotomy might very often come off as a spoiler trope
- In one comic, Lobo had his brain transplanted into a robocop expy. Once he got back to his body, he repaid the people who used him by returning the favour... using a rusty butter knife.
- Braniac cuts Aquaman's brain in Justice. Don't worry, he gets better.
- Superman: Justice Lords' version of Superman would "lobotomise" villains as his standard way of solving problems, using x-ray and heat vision for instant effect. Real Superman pretended to use this method once, when an amoral anti-hero pushed him too far.
- Judge Dredd: Happens frequently in the 2000AD/Judge Dread comics.
- In the Apocalypse War arc, the captive Chief Judge was given brain surgery that removed any desire to resist interrogation.
- Mean Machine Angel was lobotomized, only it didn't help.
- In Mega City One, racking up ten misdemeanour convictions gets you a mandatory lobotomy.
- Dread himself was given brain surgery to remove his sense of guilt over the tragic fate of an innocent young girl.
- Calvin and Hobbes:
- When Susie tells Calvin she enjoys going to school to learn, Calvin looks thoughtfully at her before declaring: "Your bangs do a good job of covering up the lobotomy scars."
- After Hobbes cuts Calvin's hair and messes up, he tries to cover it up by tying a cloth around his head. While Hobbes thinks he looks like Lawrence of Arabia, Calvin thinks he looks more like a Lobotomy Patient.
- Planet of the Apes: The original movie with with Charlton Heston has one of the human crew-members lobotomized by the apes.
- In Sucker Punch, Babydoll is sent to a corrupt asylum and is scheduled to be lobotomized, which is what motivates her to make an escape plan. At the end she gives up her chance at freedom to let another girl escape, and ends up getting lobotomized.
- In Grave Encounters, the doctor at the Abandoned Hospital was known for unethical practices, especially lobotomies. He eventually gives one to the only surviving main character at the end of the movie.
- The practice of frontal lobotomy is discussed by the workers in Session 9, in what turns out to be Chekhov's Lecture.
- Shutter Island: During the course of US Marshall Teddy Daniels' investigation into the titular mental institution, the procedure is mentioned as one method used to "cure" violent inmates that have proven otherwise unable to be helped. After a few PlotTwists and meetings with Andrew Leitus and Rachael it is held as a threat against Daniels in his attempts to escape the island. Finally, after The Reveal, The whole plot is revealed as an elaborate set-up to give Daniels, who is actually Leitus committed to the asylum after killing his wife because she murdered their children in her own insanity, once last chance to cure himself. He experiences My God, What Have I Done? and chooses to maintain the fantasy, knowing that it will mean death or worse, and undergo the procedure.
- In the movie Repo Man, one lunatic character laments on how great he felt after getting a lobotomy himself. Of course, he also talks about how radiation is harmless.
- The movie From Hell shows the man also known as Jack the Ripper demonstrating how to perform a lobotomy to a group of medical students.
- Muppets from Space: It nearly happens to Gonzo. The man attempting to perform the lobotomy is a classic Mad Scientist.
- In Total Recall (1990), Quaid is told by one of his co-workers it is what nearly happened to a friend of his when he went to Rekall. Later in the movie, Quaid is told that he is hallucinating the adventure in his brain and that if he doesn't exit it, he will be lobotomised. It's left ambiguous as to whether the man who told Quaid was lying or whether Quaid was indeed lobotomised. [[note]]It's more about how laymen misuse the term "lobotomy" to refer to any sort of brain-tampering effect that diminishes intellect or willpower. Lobotomy is actually a specific clinical procedure -- the surgical severing of a particular cluster of nerve fibers -- so having one's mind damaged by Rekall's non-surgical memory-modification technology wouldn't qualify as one.[[/note]]
- The Lobotomist (PBS film) traces the career of Walter Freeman from 'savior' of mentally ill people to being seen as a perpetrator of a brutal mistake.
- Actress Frances Farmer gets lobotomized in the biopic Frances, although it's generally agreed that this never happened to the real Frances Farmer.
- A man who managed to escape the Cube in Cube Zero (the prequel movie to Cube) was recaptured by the people running the Cube project and given a lobotomy, and put back in the Cube.
- In the movie Brain Dead (1990) (not to be confused with Braindead from 1992), a neurosurgeon is hired by a corporation to perform highly unethical brain surgery on an ex-employee. In the end it's suggested that the movie is the fragmented memories of the neurosurgeon himself who has been reduced to a dissected brain kept alive in a lab.
- At the end of The Shadow, film and novelization, the villain is lobotomized in such a way that all he has lost is his psychic powers.
Live Action TV
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: The patient who was an angry lunatic before undergoes the procedure, and he becomes an empty shell after his lobotomy. His eyes are described as being like burnt-out lightbulbs.
- John D. McDonald's Travis McGee novel Nightmare in Pink. McGee is falsely committed to a corrupt mental hospital where the villains plan to lobotomize him to eliminate him as a threat.
- A rather distressing-detailed scene in the first book of Mercedes Lackey's Obsidian Trilogy has a wizard preform a magically-generated version of lobotomy on a young girl, because it's against the law for a woman to use magic.
- In Hannibal, it is a side effect of cutting open Krendler's head and serving him his own brain to eat.
- At the end of The Etched City, Raule lobotomizes the head of a crime syndicate.
- In Sylvia Plath's 1963 novel The Bell Jar, Valerie gets one of these. Valerie is a friend of Estherís in the private mental hospital. She is friendly and relaxed.
- Memoir My Lobotomy by Howard Dully: The author is a troubled youth as a 12-year-old boy in 1960, in and out of trouble at school and home. When his stepmother looks for a solution, Dr. Freeman, one of the popularizers of the technique, suggests a lobotomy, and it occurs. The book discusses how many patients were killed or injured by the technique and implies that the author would have been diagnosed with ADD.
- There is a book series by Nancy Holder called Possessions about a girls' boardings school haunted by victims of any insane asylum where lobotomies were practised.
- In Norbert Wiener's short story "The Brain", a gangster costs a doctor his family with his driving (they do not die... not immediately). Some time later, the gangster's mooks summon the doctor to perform urgent surgery on the gangster, who got hit in the head (allegedly in a car crash). During the next robbery, the gangster and all his gang are killed due to a complete lack of planning.
- Golden Compass: General Oblation Board do a soul-ectomy which has the same effect as the lobotomy trope.
- Doc Savage: In early stories, criminals captured by Doc received "a delicate brain operation" to cure their criminal tendencies. The criminals returned to society fully productive and unaware of their criminal past.
- The novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn features a pair of Conjoined Twins, Iphy and Elly. Eventually their brother Arty has Elly lobotomized.
- The Prisoner:
- Used for mind games. Number 6 is made to believe he's been lobotomized in the episode "A Change of Mind".
- In "Dance of the Dead", Number 6's former colleague Dutton ends up lobotomized for real.
- In The X-Files episode "Unruhe", Jerry Schmauz was a serial lobotomist. He believed he was helping his victims who were troubled women. He claimed he saw their inner demons -- and indeed, they were captured by photography.
- Barney Miller:
- There was a recurring character who had had a lobotomy.
- "The Desk" was an episode involving a lobotomized criminal and an Amish mugging victim.
- Arnold Ripner threatens to sue a lobotomist free of charge should he try to operate again on a patient who was rendered mentally incompetent by his amygdalectomy.
- River in Firefly had parts of her brain removed, removing her ability to suppress her emotions. She was a genius child and abused by the controlling Alliance, who experimented on children like her. The programme was a bit shady and it was not clear why they did it. In Serenity, it was revealed they wanted to turn them into Super Soldiers.
- An episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent had the villain drilling a hole in random women's heads and pouring in boiling water. Most of them die. Interestingly while most of the team consider him a horrific monster, he's shown as more pathetic than scary or evil. Goren tries very hard to get him life in prison rather than the death penalty.
- President Cyclops, in the TV version of Whoops Apocalypse, declares: "If anyone tries to lobotomize me, they'll get a piece of my mind." This doesn't prevent the Soviets planting a lie detector in his brain.
- Fringe: Walter Bishop tries to self-lobotomize because he believes his visions of Peter mean that he's losing his mind.
- Rosemary Kennedy was a sad case of Truth in Television. It was used in The Kennedys miniseries, in which Joe Sr. has a stroke later, which is seen by his wife as God's revenge for what Joe did to their daughter.
- Dr Arden from American Horror Story Asylum gives one to a patient who recognized him as a Nazi war criminal.
- Monday Mornings has a rare positive portrayal from a 2013 Medical Drama, but treated extremely seriously. Dr. Ridgeway, a brilliant neurosurgeon, sees no other way than a radical treatment for one of her patients -- removing several brain cells. It's risky and her colleagues point out both to Ridgeway and the patient's family that it's still brain matter removal, albeit delicate and precise. They actually use the word "lobotomy", and it gets mentioned than one patient who underwent similar procedure in Europe turned into a violent criminal.
- Occurs in the infamously So Bad, It's Good Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Spock's Brain", in which aliens, to put it simply, steal Spock's brain, and the episode revolves around the Enterprise crew getting it back and reattaching it.
- The Space: Above and Beyond episode "Stay with the Dead", Nathan is threatened with a Sci-Fi version of a lobotomy (stated to be electroshock therapy but depicted as some form of neurosurgery) because he insists his squadron mates are alive when everyone else has written them off. They are, and he manages to convince his CO before doctors carry out the procedure.
- Sylar tampered with brains of many people in Heroes. Charlie Andrews, sort of Bridget Bailey, Brian Davies, Sue Landers, Joe Macon, Dale Smither, Ted Spague, Tom Miller, Jesse Murphy, Candice Willmer, Zane Taylor, James Walker, Trevor Zaitlan, Bob Bishop, Isaac Mendez, possibly David, and a random man and woman that work at The Company. Plus, with every person he kills, he gains a power. What's really evil is that he doesn't actually need to kill his victims to take their power. He just likes doing it. Justified as he didn't realise he could take it without killing for almost all of his victims. By the end, he has at least sixteen powers taken from the dead.
- Wallace Bishop of Dino Attack RPG is an unusual example, considering that he actually performed a lobotomy on himself after escaping Napoleon XIV Mental Institution, rather than letting one of the doctors in the institution perform the lobotomy on him. Being a former scientist, he knew exactly how to do the procedure. His goal was to remove the areas of his brain containing the memories of his family, which were making it much harder for him to cope with being institutionalized. He succeeded to such a degree that another scientist, Frank Einstein, was even able to extract the memories from the removed pieces of brain, but in doing so he left himself little more than a shadow of a man.
- Players of Magic: The Gathering can use Lobotomy spell as sorcery. Link to a Lobotomy card.
- Warhammer40000: The most prominent example of this trope are servitors, lobotomised cyborg slaves. World Eaters (an entire army of Berserkers) have lobotomies so as to ensure they no longer feel fear. Unfortunately, those with the skill to perform this operation are increasingly rare, so a great many of them fail. Then again, given what most Chaos units, especially Khornate, ESPECIALLY World Eaters are like...
- Paranoia supplement Acute Paranoia, section "Sanity Tests". When a Troubleshooter fails a Sanity Test ordered by The Computer, the game master rolls on the Handy-Dandy Sanity Tests Results Table. One of the entries in the table is "Corrective Surgery". Blue-level officers from HPD & Mind Control take the unlucky clone away and remove parts of his brain. When he returns he will have a large bandage on his head, will have lost all of his skills and have had most of his attributes halved.
- In Tennessee Williams's 1958 play, Suddenly, Last Summer, the protagonist is threatened with a lobotomy to stop her from telling the truth about her cousin Sebastian.
- Dr. Irie, from Higurashi: When They Cry studies practices of this subject. Portrayed somewhat sympathetically, as he really be helping people. The people who pay him are much more shady, though.
- Questionable Content: On Faye's first visit to her therapist, the therapist jokingly suggests lobotomy.
- The Simpsons:
- In one Halloween episode, Ned Flanders is the overlord and he has all people have part of their brain removed.
- Justice League brings this up in "A Better World", when Justice Lord Superman manages to lobotomize Doomsday using only his heat vision. When the others decide to check out a mental hospital in the Justice Lords universe, it's revealed that he has done it to many other villains like The Joker, Poison Ivy and the Mr. Scarface. It's how we know he's not a good guy.
- In Real Life, Rosemary Kennedy, sister of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, was subjected to one at the age of 23 in 1941. This has been used as the basis for Conspiracy Theories.
- Tennessee Williams' sister Rose is a famous real life case. It went badly, obviously upset Williams very deeply, and it influenced a lot of his writing. The Glass Menagerie is entirely based on this and the characters on his family.