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Brain Fever

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Dr. Ellison: You have a brain cloud.
Joe: Brain cloud?
Dr. Ellison: There's a black fog of tissue running right down the center of your brain. It's very rare. It’ll spread at a regular rate. It’s very destructive.
Joe: And it's incurable?
Dr. Ellison: Yes... It's not painful. Your brain will simply fail, followed abruptly by your body.

A Forgotten Trope. In fiction, Brain Fever is a sudden, acute febrile illness brought on by mental shock or stress. It is often severe and may cause raving delirium or insanity; in some cases it ends in death. Meningitis, encephalitis, and literal inflammations of the brain, as well as heat-related illness (heat exhaustion or, in more severe cases, heat stroke), have also been referred to as "brain fever," and fictional cases of Brain Fever may exhibit the same symptoms.

A popular plot device in the nineteenth century, but also appearing in earlier works, Brain Fever isn't used much anymore because, well, diseases don't work that way. Today, we have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (formerly called Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue or "Operational Exhaustion"note ) instead. It was commonly believed in more-prudish Victorian times that too much sun exposure could cause overheating and subsequent brain fever, and that the preventative measure for this was (when going out into the hot sun) to wear plenty of thick wool and felt clothes to protect yourself from the sun's baleful rays. Needless to say, these heavy clothes only contributed to heat-related illnesses.

Often, particularly in young women, brain fever was treated by having all their hair cut off. This may seem, even by standards of pre-germ theory medicine, to have no point except to add pathos to the patient's suffering, but cutting off long hair was seen as allowing air to more easily circulate about the scalp, lowering the temperature of the brain. Though it might have been so women could more easily move around, since it was standard to have knee to calf length hair.

For a close cousin of this trope still popular especially in Cosmic Horror stories, see Go Mad from the Revelation, and for another closely related trope of the same era, see Victorian Novel Disease, of which this is sometimes considered a subtype.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Engaged to the Unidentified, Kobeni is said to have a weak constitution and get sick easily; and it seems that even something as simple as a shocking revelation can pretty much instantly bring on a severe fever. It's revealed that this happens because Hakuya gave her some of his magic power, and it causes stress to her body.
  • As mentioned below Live Action TV, this trope hasn't fully disappeared in Asia. A few times in Fruits Basket, Tohru stresses herself out or gets upset and gets sick as a result. It usually plays out as the Sohmas putting her to bed and putting a cold compress over her forehead and her getting better after a good night's rest.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Metropolis, Freder collapses with a fever when he thinks Maria has betrayed him.
  • Played straight in Tai Chi Master. This happens to Jet Li's character after he is betrayed by his lifelong friend.
  • In Therese, the title character becomes ill for two weeks after her oldest and favorite sister leaves to become a nun.
  • In Soapdish, Elisabeth's Shue's character, Lori Craven, plays a destitute deaf-mute who is revealed to have Brain Fever during a live telecast of The Sun Also Sets.
  • Joe Versus the Volcano. Joe suffers from a terminal "brain cloud". He's told that, anyway.
  • This non-specific illness strikes Corrigan's child in the 1915 silent film The Italian. And it doesn't appear to be something real like meningitis, because in the movie absolute silence is crucial to the girl's recovery, which would hardly be likely for a real illness, except for heat-induced migraines, since the baby contracted the fever during a heatwave, noting in passing that common febrile seizures were not well know at this time and could easily be confused with another heat-related malady.
  • After Oscar's final confrontation with his father in Closet Monster, Oscar wakes up at his mother's house, having been sweating and unconscious for an unspecified length of time.
  • Towards the end of the 1915 silent film Fanchon the Cricket, Landry is stricken with fever, and the doctor thinks that the only thing that can save him is the presence of Fanchon (Mary Pickford). So, Landry's snobbish father is forced to give up, Fanchon is brought into the Barbeau household, she and Landry are reunited, and Landry is miraculously cured.

  • Invoked in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Huck is sneaking bread and butter out of the house by hiding it under his hat. When the (melting) butter starts to run down his face in front of Aunt Sally, she starts screaming that he has brain fever, and it's causing his brains to leak out.
  • In A Little Princess, Sara's father dies of brain fever after going bankrupt.
  • In Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Links, a man collapses with a fever, which Hercule Poirot attributes to a shock on top of ongoing mental strain.
  • Later Christie novels reflect the fact that Science Marches On. For instance, in The Big Four Hastings suggests that an insensible man is suffering from brain fever, to which a doctor character responds: "No such thing as brain fever. An invention of novelists."
  • Victor Frankenstein from Frankenstein had at least three bouts that lasted months, one of which was brought on by seeing his own monster, and the others from seeing its victims.
  • The character Phillip Ammon suffers from Brain Fever after Elnora disappears from the swamp in A Girl of the Limberlost.
  • Appears in several Sherlock Holmes stories, including "The Copper Beeches," in which a girl's father pesters her about her inheritance until she gets brain-fever; and "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty," in which a man is ill for nine weeks after a treaty is stolen from under his nose. There's also "The Crooked Man", where the dead man's wife is rendered insensible for testimony by the same effect. note 
  • Dracula has Jonathan Harker suffer from brain fever when Mina finally found him after he somehow escaped the vampire's clutches.
  • Discussed in Lady Audley's Secret, where she periodically suffers from brain fever, but this is because she "suffers" from madness.
  • Wuthering Heights:
    • Cathy (the first one) becomes very ill with brain fever, caused by a confrontation between herself, Edgar, and Heathcliff, during the first two months of her pregnancy. She never entirely regains her health, and dies two hours after the baby is born.
    • Weirdly, she also suffers from this the first time Heathcliff disappears (though sitting out in the rain for hours could have had something to do with it—at least given the medical understanding of the day), but, when being nursed at Thrushcross Grange, she recovers. But she infects Mr. and Mrs. Linton with it and they both die.
  • In Maurice, Maurice came "nearer to brain fever than he supposed" due to being worried about the state of his relationship with Clive while they were separated and... being too sentimental in their love letters. They meet up, decide to only write facts in said letters, and he recovers.
  • In the Conan the Barbarian story "A Witch Shall Be Born", Valerius acts feverishly, babbling, thrashing, and giving Ivga a hard time quieting him. While he was wounded, it explicitly says that his mental torment was worse.
  • In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov suffers a fever that becomes much worse after he goes through with his plan to commit murder, and Pulcheria Alexandrovna develops brain fever after her son is sent to Siberia.
  • In La dame aux camellias, Armand is already ill from grief after Marguerite's death, and develops a full-blown brain fever after seeing her body exhumed. In his case, the doctor declares it a fortunate occurrence: the physical illness will drive out the strong emotion, and prevent Armand from going mad with grief. Most adaptations (e.g. La Traviata and the classic 1936 film) cut this part of the story.
  • Foundation Series's Foundation's Fear: Brain fever is the name of a childhood illness. Because Hari never got sick from it, he is immune to R. Daneel's telepathic powers. Daneel could not predict that Hari would have the tiktoks murder Lamurk's minions.
  • In The Turn of the Screw, Flora becomes seriously ill and delirious after her governess accuses her of conspiring with ghosts.
  • In Dandelion Wine this happens to the main character Doug towards the end of the book after he has suffered multiple disappointments during the summer.
  • In Eragon, the first book in the Inheritance Cycle, the title character and his mentor, Brom enter the city of Teirm under the aliases of Evan and Neal. Brom plays the role of the slightly senile uncle and Eragon comments to a guard that he had a bit too much sun and now has a touch of the brain fever. After they are safely inside the city, Brom comments "A touch of brain fever?" and Eragon replies that he couldn't let him have all the fun.
  • Although H. P. Lovecraft was more known to have characters Go Mad from the Revelation, this trope also cropped up occasionally in his work, such as the young artist's suffering in The Call of Cthulhu (although this, like many of Lovecraft's usages of Brain Fever, is ambiguous in that it might be the result of trauma, or possible a physical effect of the Great Old One's mental influence.)
  • In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lanyon dies of brain fever after witnessing Hyde transform back into Jekyll.
  • In The Story of Valentine and His Brother, Valentine becomes so upset when he thinks his relationship with Violet Pringle is over that he is delirious with fever for over a week.
  • Temeraire: When the 19th-century protagonist nearly drowns and wakes up without his most recent eight years worth of memories, the physician attributes his amnesia to a brain fever. That is to say, they have no idea what's wrong or how to fix it.
  • In Madame Bovary the protagonist falls ill with brain fever after her lover, Rodolph, cancels his plan to run away with her.
  • In Les Misérables, Marius's father Colonel Pontmercy dies of brain fever. Fans of the popular musical adaptation wouldn't know this, though, as Colonel Pontmercy is Adapted Out.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Believe it or not, this is not a Forgotten Trope in east Asia, where many a Korean Drama or Taiwanese Series has the hero/heroine collapsing due to stress, overwork, or convenience, and ends up being cared for by their significant other, often with comfort food and a cold compress across the eyes.
    • Boys Before Flowers: This happens several times with Jeun Di, especially when she worked multiple jobs.
    • Can You Hear My Heart?: Dong Joo frequently would collapse with a fever as a consequence of his fall when he was eight years old. Luckily, Woo Ri was there to nurse him.
    • Devil Beside You: Qi Yue gets to do the cold compress thing on Ahmon's brow.
    • Japanese drama version of Boys over Flowers: This happens twice between Tsukushi and Tsukasa, once in an elevator and once in a blizzard.
    • Mars (2004): It gave Qi Luo an excuse to take care of Chen Ling all night long.
    • Personal Taste: Park Gae In gets fevers when she is on her period, leading Jeon Jin Ho to procure painkillers and rub her tummy all night long.
    • Shining Inheritance: Go Eun Song helps an hurt old lady on the street; once her fever is down, it turns out the woman is the CEO of a giant food conglomerate.
    • You Are Beautiful: Hwang Tae Young took care of Go Mi Nam when she developed a fever after getting wet.
  • In "Qpid" on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the Enterprise and Picard's flame, Vash, are placed in a Robin Hood simulation. Vash is Maid Marian and is being ministered by a nurse, who says that she must have a brain sickness for sure. She offers to get some nice fresh leeches to drain the fever, which horrifies Vash.
  • In Hannibal, Will Graham's slow slide into insanity is marked by feverish hallucinations, among other symptoms. He is revealed to be suffering a rare kind of encephalitis.


    Tabletop Games 

  • While the term "brain fever" isn't used, the opera Lucia Di Lammermoor treats the heroine's madness in much the same way, as she dies offstage within hours of losing her mind. Some productions avert this, though, and have her stab herself at the end of the Mad Scene to make her death more explicable.
  • In Jules Massanet's opera Cendrillon (Cinderella), after Cinderella is forced to leave the ball at midnight, and then believes her stepmother's lie that Prince Charming made insulting remarks about her after she left, she runs into the forest to die, and is found lying in a feverish delirium that lasts for months afterwards. When she finally recovers, she thinks the ball and the prince were all just a part of her delusions... that is, until she learns about the search for The Girl Who Fits This Slipper.

    Video Games 
  • Subverted in Tales of the Abyss, when Luke's mother falls ill after his sudden disappearance. Tear feels terrible, since she was the cause of Luke's vanishing, but Luke tells her that his mother has always been sickly — the stress of his disappearance might have made her worse, but it certainly wasn't the only cause of her illness.

    Visual Novels 

    Western Animation 
  • In a Pinky and the Brain short, the duo went to live with a group of Amish farmers for some reason, and at one point Brain explains Pinky's antics as the results of "the Brain Fever".
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko spirals into an illness immediately after he frees Appa at the pinnacle last few episodes of the 2nd season, the explanation being that his inner turmoil had caused his body to react in a sickly fashion. Word of God states that the truly amazing longevity of Bumi, Guru Pathik and Avatar Kyoshi can be attributed to "balanced chi". If balanced chi can create health and long life, then perhaps unbalanced chi can create illness. It is a fact that depression and anxiety can cause one's immune system to weaken significantly, thus making one very susceptible to a wide range of health problems. When Iroh said that Zuko's illness was an emotional illness, he very well may have been correct. (If Zuko hadn't been so stressed-out and angry all the time, his infection most likely would not have manifested itself so severely.)
  • On Daria, the title character is in the hospital for an embarrassing rash, and Jane, trying to make up an excuse for her whereabouts, tells Brittany that she has brain fever. ("It's a thing that brains get," but usually goes away after you read a bestseller.) Ironically the rash turns out to be stress-related, so it sort of fits this trope itself.

    Real Life 
  • Just like being cold, stress and mental shock can't literally make you sick, but they make getting sick much easier.
  • Some drugs, including cocaine, can induce hyperthermia when overdosed. In the 19th century, administering cocaine to patients suffering from emotional stress might actually have induced the febrile state which this trope blames on mental causes alone. When Robert Louis Stevenson had a serious chest infection that was causing him to haemorrhage from his lungs, his doctors injected a vegetable alkaloid which probably saved his life, but caused him terrifying fever dreams that eventually inspired The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (At least, that was his story. He also used cocaine a lot too, mostly as a painkiller for his various aliments.)
  • You'll find "brain fever" mentioned in most 19th-century medical textbooks, so it wasn't "invented by novelists" as Christie's character says above. Conan Doyle used it frequently, and he was a doctor in Real Life. Any use before 1930 or so is more likely to be a case left behind by Science Marching On rather than outright ignorance on the part of the author.
  • A historical register from 1889 lists "brain fever" as the cause of Mary Ingalls's blindness. Her sister Laura Ingalls Wilder labeled her illness as scarlet fever in her book series, but as "some sort of spinal sickness" in her personal writing, and modern doctors tend to think it was most likely meningoencephalitis. At any rate, unlike fictional brain fevers, it wasn't caused by emotion.
  • Shock could also be a reasonable explanation for some of the fictional reports, combined with PTSD and a stress-weakened immune system, along with, as mentioned above, meningitis and encephalitis.
  • Delirium or hallucinations may be considered a sort of brain fever. Dehydration, lack of sleep, and overexertion can cause such effects. It could be a case of getting cause and effect the wrong way round—high temperatures caused by an infection not directly related to the brain can cause delirium or mental disturbance, especially in children.
  • While not a fever, an overload of stress can cause other psychosomatic side-effects such as body pains or fatigue.
  • Considering how anathema the mere mention of suicide had been at the time, mentally-ill people who actually died by their own hand might sometimes be reported as having expired from this trope, to protect the family reputation.