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Turn On, Tune In, Drop Dead

The scariest thing that any of us will ever face in life is our own mind, the one thing that truly has the capacity to make (as they say) a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. Horror is an exploration of the shadowy recesses of human thought – as is a friendly little molecule known as LSD-25.

Considering that psychedelia is a genre so well-suited to horror – so invested in the questioning of reality, the examination of the pulsing muscle beneath the mundane skin – it’s a little surprising that there aren’t more examples of this cross-pollination. Perhaps it is the (justified) fear of a “bad trip” following you out of the movie and into life, like Freddy Krueger hitching a ride into your dreams. Perhaps it’s just that psychedelic adventures, in my experience, tend to lead one to live a more centered, less fearful life. At any rate, it’s a subgenre of horror that has, thus far, been underutilized – and now that we are in the mellow throes of a new psychedelic golden age, there’s no better time than right now to look at psychedelic horror: its past, present, and future.

Let’s start with the initial modern boom in psychedelics in the popular imagination, beginning in the 1960s. Psychedelics can be a powerful tool for individual self-empowerment and often lead to deep questions and reflection on the nature of reality, human potential, and social relations. And while psychoactive substances were far from unknown to Native Americans and First Nations peoples, and some hallucinogens were used in folk religion and folk magick in the Old World, LSD’s popularity beginning in the early 1960s represented a significant advance in the technology of recreational mind-blowing. All that is to say: Acid scared the living shit out of more conservative Americans. Some of them thought that LSD was a literal tool of Satan to ensnare the youth and drive them into demonic possession – in fact, some still cling to this fanciful notion today.

One persistent theme in horror (albeit not necessarily the most interesting or authentic one) is normalcy: threats to it, its disruption, and the vigorous defense of the status quo. This was certainly a theme in much of the early literature and films regarding psychedelics put out by The Man. Take, as a representative example, 1969’s Case Study: LSD, an anti-acid short put out by the groovy cats at the Lockheed Corporation. Or 1968’s Curious Alice (one of my personal favorites), an anti-LSD reconfiguration of Alice in Wonderland intended to warn youngsters away from a chemical journey down the rabbit-hole. Or 1967’s dryer, more “educational” LSD-25. While all of these propaganda shorts are intended as “educational,” make no mistake: they are horror movies, in which acid is not merely a tool for expanding consciousness and exploring one’s inner landscape, but a magic key that unlocks a Pandora’s box full of monsters and unimaginable terrors. The structure of these films are completely predictable: they are cautionary tales, stories of boundaries exceeded and the terrible consequences thereof. Scary stories, in other words, meant to reinforce moral norms.

Anti-drug moralism is a frequently-visited topic in horror. In fact, in 1996’s Scream, one of the famous “rules for surviving a horror movie” (rule #2) is to stay sober. Sometimes, this rule is given a blackly humorous twist, my personal favorite being 2006’s The Tripper, a goofy David Arquette romp about a hippie music festival in the Redwoods menaced by an axe-murderer who wears a Ronald Reagan mask and leaves jelly beans scattered over the bodies of his victims. Sometimes the tone is downright dour, as in the 2007 clunker Shrooms, which rendered drugs, murder, and Ireland (three fairly lively topics) simultaneously boring and depressing. Most often, however, LSD and other psychedelics are an ancillary point: a set-up for a hallucinatory gag that almost always ends with a dead goofball.

Two horror films deserve particular attention for their treatment of LSD: 2013’s Toad Road and 2018’s Mandy. Toad Road is an experimental indie horror film, conceived and filmed over the course of more than four years, starting around the start of the housing crash. It is set in and concerns a real local legend about York County, Pennsylvania, whose rotting barns, shabby apartments, and brooding woods provide the backdrop for a predominantly-verité series of scenes in which a pack of bored, nihilistic teens drink, beat each other up, fall into love and jealousy, and drop copious amounts of our old friend LDS-25. Whereas Shrooms is an exercise in soggy boredom, the ugly, manic energy of the kids featured in Toad Road infuses the whole affair with undeniable life, and the overdose death of the film’s female star shortly after its premiere give her “performance” a hard-to-take-your-eyes-away quality. If you’re looking for an acid horror movie that is a real, genuine bummer, it’s hard to do better.

Not so with Mandy, the latest offering (along with Mom and Dad, which deserves and will get its own standalone post) to cement my deep, heartfelt love of Nicolas Cage. It’s easy to lapse into snide irony when talking about Cage – after all, he wants to be buried pretty much like a pharaoh, among his many other quirks. But I think he’s a terrific actor when he wants to be, and Mandy, a revenge-horror-fantasy slice of surrealism, features some vintage Cage Rage. It’s also one of the most visually interesting films I’ve seen recently; colors swirl and shift, shadows breathe, faces meld and merge and the forests of California’s Shadow Mountains are transformed into a breathtaking and otherworldly vista. If you enjoy the film as an experience that you let wash over you, unconcerned with the details so much as the impressionistic picture painted, it is extraordinary and unique, and I highly recommend it. If you are familiar with director Panos Cosmatos’ 2010 debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, you will be prepared for the vertiginous murk and hyperpsychedelia of Mandy: if not, brace yourself.

What might the future of horror psychedelia or psychedelic horror hold? I’m particularly interested in what Cosmatos will contribute to horror. He’s on my short list (along with Jordan Peele and Ari Aster) of horror auteurs whose work I am watching and anticipate with great relish. Also, I’m afraid I have to part ways with my fellow Madness Heart contributor Reed Alexander and hope that Rob Zombie does not, in fact, lay off the brown acid, but rather leans into it even harder: I consider the climactic hallucination / Satanic vision sequence (spoilers and nsfw) in Lords of Salem to be one of the more interesting things I’ve seen in recent years, theologically speaking.

Whatever new experiments in terror and inner space the confluence of LSD and horror fiction bring, they will be illuminating. This is a surreal time to be alive – a little chemical enhancement to further weird things up may, in the end, be just what the doctor ordered.

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