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In this edition of our Blog, we are pleased to feature an essay by Eric David, who recently decided to get psychedelic therapy to try to cope with his traumas, depression and addiction brought on by the tragic loss of his young son to cancer.

As a writer about movies who has been widely published, and has an MA in Film Production from USC Film School, we thought who better to take us on a trip through psychedelics in the movies...?
 

TRIPPIN' IN THE MOVIES

by Eric David

Psychedelics have been in use by humans for millennia. The most direct artistic evidence from the Paleolithic Era comes from the Tassili cave paintings in Algeria of Psilocybe mairei mushrooms, dated 7000 to 9000 years ago by archeologists. Given its use today in rituals, it was likely used in shaman-led ceremonies from then until now for spiritual insight and guidance. Indeed, the term “psychedelic” itself, coined in 1956, when translated from the Greek, can mean “soul-manifesting.”

Recently, I found out this meaning myself when I decided to try a psilocybin session to deal with trauma, depression and alcohol use disorder. I went to the Oregon Health Authority website and was referred to a treatment center in Portland, where it’s legal. They performed an intake assessment and, once approved, assigned me to a guide named Tracey. I had a Zoom call with my guide for an hour, where I discussed my previous hallucinogen use (plenty in college!) with her, and then I filled out an intensive questionnaire of my intentions for the journey. I did the trip twice in one week, separated by a few days. 

The centers are sometimes in antiseptic locations, but mine was in a quaint two-story home. I was shown to a private room upstairs with a bed. My guide had me pick a card from a deck of animal spirit guides (I got the Crow and the Spider, each had a description), then she had me write my intention on a card (I wrote LOVE and JOY in a criss-cross pattern), and then had me write what I want to let go of on a black sheet of paper (I wrote DEPRESSION). She curled the black paper into a cylinder shape, placed it on a metal tray and had me light it on fire. It burned down and then the ashes floated up into the air to the ceiling. She lit some Palo Santo wood and used an eagle’s feather to brush it towards me, while reciting a benediction. Then I ingested the tea, put on eye shades, and laid down. I used two different strains of mushroom, since they have different effects. 

The first experience, using the strain “Makilla Gorilla,” had few visual effects, it was all darkness, and involved me dying with my 10-year-old son, Dylan, in his bedroom, literally getting into his head and seeing myself through his eyes, the last thing he ever saw. I wept and cried out once. I was shocked after the trip to see how many tissues I had used. It was cleansing and cathartic. Things that used to make me immeasurably sad (and trigger me to drink) have not since I got home, like seeing ads for kids with cancer on social media.  Even thinking about his death now, I now accept the trauma with a sigh, but not the overwhelm as before. And the next moment, probably caused by some lighter baroque music, I remembered the fond times we had with my sons as kids and I had with my wife when we first fell in love. I fell in love with them all over again and some of my depression lifted. I told my guide how pointless it is to fuel my addictions after seeing what I saw. 

The second experience, using the strain “Colombian Rust Spore,” was as bright as the first one was dark. We used my guide’s playlist, which had more female voices and choirs. First I saw spirals and fractals, and then all was light. Words fail to capture it exactly, but I was in a place that had translucent, white walls that rose up infinitely. At points up the wall were ledges or small balconies where female figures sang of pure love. The walls went up and I went down with that “Hitchcock zoom” effect until I was no longer a self that could be spoken of. I told my guide after that a cloud had been lifted. It was still there, but brightness entered in. I resolved to make changes in my life (meditate, read, write, eat healthily, exercise, get sunlight, spend less time on social media – when I used to drink I did the opposite of all these) that will keep the brightness. I have had no cravings to speak of compared to before.

 

My guide walked me to my hotel, just two blocks away, and gave me an “integration workbook” to fill out. The trips were ultimately ineffable, but I drew a yin-yang picture in my workbook to depict what had happened, because the first was as dark and difficult as the second was light and ebullient. Both were enormously beneficial, and I highly recommend the treatment to anyone with any mental health issues who can travel. It’s only been a few weeks, but my mood is markedly lighter, I don’t weep at things that used to trigger me, I have no cravings of alcohol like I did before. None. The effects wear off for some after about a year, but for others, it’s one-and-done. Fingers crossed I’m one of the latter. I have just started microdosing to see if it makes a difference. The jury is out on that method, because the placebo effect is so strong. But I did notice, as I came down and saw visual distortions, how much the trips were like a movie. I would love to be able to put the two trips into cinematic language.

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Drawing of YIN & YANG Eric Drew After Taking Mushrooms

Interest in psychedelics rose in the ‘50s as a therapeutic drug to help with a number of mostly mental maladies, including addiction. Even Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was interested in the use of LSD to treat those with alcohol use disorder of his day. He himself was given “belladonna” in the hospital after a binge, a toxin that causes psychedelic trips in some, before he had his vision of God that caused him to swear off booze for good. However, the drugs were soon also used recreationally by the hippies of the ‘60s, causing Nixon to crack down on it with the War on Drugs, as is well-known. 

Psychedelics are well-suited for cinematic treatment because of the kaleidoscopic, spirographic, and sometimes fractal visions people have, even with their eyes covered, from tracers and the walls breathing to full-on hallucinations of travel to past experiences and unknown astral planes and the intense identification with music – of all kinds. Slow-motion, stop-motion and multiple exposures add to the effect, along with costumes, lighting, and music to add to the psychedelic experience in watching a film.

Synesthesia is another hallmark of the psychedelic trip: the senses combine. You can taste sound, numbers have colors, physical sensation can be seen with a sixth sense.

 

The “ego death” of being one with the universe and loss of sense of self  is the trip’s mountaintop. It’s rare that someone's worldview is not changed after taking psychedelics, usually for the better: more empathetic, caring, loving. Lists on IMDb and Wikipedia of psychedelic movies often list movies people might watch while tripping.

 

Here, we’re focusing on movies that involve psychedelics depicted both recreationally and therapeutically. So, let’s take a little trip through the history of each.

RECREATIONAL TRIPS

 

The history of psychedelics in film. coincidentally. follows a same gradual intensity building to a peak and then a gradual coming down. The earliest use of LSD in a major motion picture is, perhaps not surprisingly, the 1959 camp cult horror film directed by William Castle, titled THE TINGLER, starring none other than Vincent Price. The film tells the story of a scientist who discovers a parasite in human beings, called a "tingler", which feeds on fear. The creature earned its name by making the spine of its host "tingle" when the host is frightened. LSD was legal at the time, and depicts the drug amping up the psychotic effects that rarely occur in some users (the “bad trip”). In some theaters, the seats would actually vibrate to simulate the tingle (used later for “Sensurround” in films like EARTHQUAKE).

But this film was just the onset of our trip, which really takes off with THE TRIP, 1967’s seminal film directed by Roger Corman and written by Jack Nicholson. Peter Fonda stars as a young man who experiences his first LSD trip. While the main character begins his trip with a guide, he soon flees and wanders around town, pondering the deep issues of life at the time. The Summer of Love’s hippies made the film a smash hit.

Not all psychedelic films are all rainbows and unicorns, though, as the same year brought the mishmash mess of the Beatles’ MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. Only Beatles completists like myself have seen it, and it’s better left unseen. The music is great, but the artistry stops there. The lesson learned is to make films about psychedelics but not while on psychedelics.

The financial and cultural success of THE TRIP led to the same team bringing the historic EASY RIDER to the screen in 1969, which also featured LSD trips, along with a killer soundtrack. The film, written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern, produced by Fonda, and directed by Hopper, marked the beginning of New Hollywood, as well as the end of the hippie era, highlighting the disillusionment with the American dream. The use of cinematic special effects: multiple exposures, various lenses and bright colors helped to mimic the experience of the hallucinogenic trip. 

Ten years later, 1979’s APOCALYPSE NOW would revisit the Vietnam experience with war, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to the point that the film experience itself was like a trip, more so than previous films, in the capable hands of Francis Ford Coppola. One of the greatest films ever made, hallucinogens are both a way for the soldiers to make it through the hell of battle, while also making it worse as they face a pointless mission. 

The next year brought the most visually arresting treatment of the drugs so far. ALTERED STATES. William Hurt plays a Columbia University psychopathologist who is studying schizophrenia, and begins to think that "our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states." He begins experimenting with sensory deprivation using a flotation tank and taking LSD, DMT, mescaline and ketamine, all based on actual experiments done by a scientist psychonaut pioneer. Unfortunately, instead of forwarding any useful insights as to the potential consciousness-raising benefits of these drugs, the film devolves into a horror movie, as the main character regresses in evolutionary terms to a primal beast, the opposite of therapeutic use!

Oliver Stone dabbled in this space in the ‘90s with THE DOORS (1991) and NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994) which feature the use of LSD and peyote in the former, and psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) in the latter. Jim Morrison uses the drugs to open his mind (famous psychonaut Aldous Huxley wrote a book about the drugs called The Doors of Perception, from which the band took its name). The two killers in the Tarantino-penned NBK, Mickey and Mallory, partake of the mushrooms before their last killing spree, which leads to their capture. Sadly, their use of psychedelics before acts of ultra-violence parrots the tired and wholly inaccurate War on Drugs talking point that LSD makes people want to kill other people, and themselves. Tsk, tsk Oliver Stone - who is usually very progressive in his world views.

If Po, the panda in the KUNG FU PANDA franchise, orders one of everything from any restaurant menu, the lead of the next film does the same with drugs. Hunter S. Thompson, the famous “gonzo” journalist, previously portrayed poorly by Bill Murray in 1980’s WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM, is given better treatment in 1998’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, written and directed by Terry Gilliam and starring one of Thompson’s best friends, Johnny Depp as the drug-addled writer. Based on Thompson’s book of the same name (which is far better than the film, because of Thompson’s mighty power with words), Gilliam shows a deft hand at depicting the effects of the drugs on the characters. While some saw the film as a glorification of drug use, it must be remembered that Thompson ended his own life with a gunshot to the head in 2005.

 

Depp oversaw Thompson’s funeral, which was as gonzo as his life had been. 

Since then, which was perhaps the pinnacle of recreational hallucinogens in film, there have been a handful of others which have the drugs as a plot device, but not so much a central part of the story. Examples of note include THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (mescaline, 2001), MANDY (LSD, 2018), ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (LSD, 2019), and most recently, THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT (LSD, 2022).

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Nick Cage on a long and very strange trip in MANDY

Of course, all these are feature films, fiction based sometimes on real stories, sometimes entirely concocted. The hallucinogens only rarely offer any benefit to the users and often result in negative consequences or bad trips. Some of the films are cautionary tales and others simply use the drug to use the tricks of the camera for trippy effects. But in reality, more and more of these drugs are being used for therapeutic purposes, and the treatment of such an approach in movies is usually from the realm of documentaries.

 

THERAPEUTIC JOURNEYS

 

While many people’s first – and only – experience with psychedelics is in a recreational setting, some of them (and some newcomers) use these drugs in a therapeutic setting. Recently, the stranglehold that the War on Drugs had on psychedelics has loosened, and scientific studies have been done on the beneficial effects of these drugs for mental health. As reputable a place as Johns Hopkins has an entire center dedicated to the study of psychedelics to help with addiction, treatment-resistant depression and anxiety, PTSD, and other mental maladies. Until recently, the highly respected Dr. Roland Griffiths led the center. They even created a Spotify playlist of music to use during therapeutic sessions, with an article published alongside to describe how they came to select their songs. 

These therapy sessions, while still illegal on the federal level in the United States, have been legalized in some states, with Oregon being the first (2020) to legalize psilocybin therapy. Colorado and Utah have recently passed decriminalization statutes. Other cities have individually done so as well, like Oakland and Washington D.C. There is a tracker at https://psychedelicalpha.com/data/psychedelic-laws to see where these drugs have been decriminalized. In 2021 the National Institute on Drug Abuse awarded a U01 grant to study psilocybin for tobacco addiction, the first grant from the US government in over a half century to directly study therapeutics of a psychedelic.

Nearly everyone by now knows how big a proponent of DMT trips Joe Rogan is, but in 2010, when he was still a nobody, he was narrator of a documentary called DMT: THE SPIRIT MOLECULE. When Netflix picked it up in 2018, it was one of their most-streamed documentaries, and it has led to an increase in interest in the drug, or in combination with other plants, such as ayahuasca. The film is based on a book by the same name by Dr. Rick Strassman, who compares the experiences of a DMT session with the strikingly similar visions of those with near-death and mystical experiences. While a trip on DMT when directly injected can take as few as 15 minutes, the participants report feeling like they were on a journey that lasted thousands of years long. Many have found a deeper connection to the universe after such experiences.

 

One theory is that DMT, which is in nearly every living organism, is excreted by the brain when near death or after intense meditation, by the pineal gland as a protective mechanism. Amazingly, in the 17th century, René Descartes posited that the pineal gland was the seat of the soul.

Perhaps the most thorough and maybe the best documentary on most psychedelics is the series HAMILTON’S PHARMACOPEIA (2016-2018, 2021), written, directed, and produced by Hamilton Morris, a journalist and scientific researcher exploring the history, chemistry, and social meaning of psychoactive substances around the world. It chronicles Morris' travels and first-hand experiences, as well as interviews with scientists, shamans and fringe culture folks. It’s the most comprehensive look at these drugs across 20 excellent episodes.

The drug MDMA (also known in party circles as Ecstasy or Molly) has proven useful in the treatment of PTSD. Although an independent advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration rejected the use of MDMA-assisted therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder in early June 2024, the drug still shows promise. The 2017 documentary TRIP OF COMPASSION shows the healing power of the drug for veterans in Israel, which restores their will to live. The 2018 film FROM SHOCK TO AWE follows two military veterans who have severe PTSD. Instead of MDMA, the two take ayahuasca in four grueling sessions, and come back healed and learning that all life is precious.

In 2021, THE PSYCHEDELIC DRUG TRIAL looked at psychedelic drugs combined with psychological support to tackle major depressive disorder (MDD). MDD hits 350 million people worldwide and accounts for more ‘years lost’ than any other mental illness. The team compares the effects of the antidepressant Lexapro with psilocybin treatment, including the necessary intention setting, the treatment itself and the integration after. The film tries to depict what the participants experienced and shows the power of psilocybin to alter the brain, shifting it away from MDD, suicidal ideation and anhedonia. The scientists behind the study published their findings in the prestigious The New England Journal of Medicine.

Michael Pollan may be the most famous popularizer of therapeutic psychedelics with the publication of his bestselling book How to Change Your Mind. There is a corresponding four-episode documentary series, also called HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND (2022), on Netflix which features Pollan, who looks closely at the therapeutic uses of LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and mescaline. While not an addict, Pollan undergoes a trip on each as an immersive journalist to describe his experiences. In the book, he cites numerous studies and anecdotes that show the power of these chemicals to help alleviate, if not eliminate, addiction, as well as depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental illnesses.

 

2020’s DOSED (dosedmovie.com) is a documentary film that shows the direct influence of a guided psychedelic experience to help break the cycle of addiction. A young woman who is addicted to heroin undergoes psilocybin therapy which works a little, then an ibogaine session, which lasts at least a year as of the end of the documentary. There is a second documentary on their site titled DOSED: THE TRIP OF A LIFETIME (2023) that concerns an older woman who has been given a fatal diagnosis and uses psilocybin to help deal with end-of-life issues. Renowned addiction expert, speaker and author Dr. Gabor Maté appears in both films.
 

RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs

MICRODOSING

As we leave the heavy trips of the above movies, there is one more type of psychedelic treatment that has gotten some “buzz,” which is microdosing. Psychedelic microdosing involves consuming sub-threshold (about 1/10th of the full) doses of drugs like LSD and psilocybin, where no trippy effects are felt. But practitioners find the minimal doses address anxiety, depression, and addiction. It has become trendy, and so may fade in popularity. But those who report positive benefits of trying this approach say they have an elevated mood, improved focus, more productivity, and greater creativity.

Surprisingly few studies have been done on the technique, since it’s impossible to run a blind study on macro-dosing psychedelics – those who get the placebo know they aren’t tripping – but with microdoses, this would not be an issue. More studies will probably be done, given the popularity of the idea. James Fadiman is the foremost scientist promoting the use of microdosing, mostly on YouTube and in his book The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide. And surprisingly few movies or shows deal with microdosing.

 

TAKE YOUR PILLS (2018) presents microdosing LSD as an alternative to the (over) prescription of Adderall and Ritalin for those diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. Directed by award-winning documentarian Alison Klayman (AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY), and executive produced by Maria Shriver and Christina Schwarzenegger, the feature length documentary focuses on the history, the facts, and the pervasiveness of these drugs. 

Two short documentaries discuss both macro-dosing and microdosing’s effects: HAVE A NICE TRIP (2021) and THE WORLD ON DRUGS (2022). The latter features some big names from the psychedelic world working today, including Paul Stamets, Gabor Maté, and Dennis J. McKenna. The “Stamets Stack” is a well-known microdose combination of psilocybin with Lion’s Mane mushrooms, which are non-psychedelic, but proven beneficial to brain function, and niacin, also important for brain health. 

Finally, NINE PERFECT STRANGERS (2021) is a series by veteran writer David E. Kelly depicting a boutique health-and-wellness resort, run by Nicole Kidman, that promises healing and transformation using microdosed psilocybin. But the series does not represent the “sub-perceptual” aspect of microdosing well (it wouldn’t be very dramatic that way). So we only mention it in passing, really.

WELCOME BACK

 

Thank you for taking this long, strange trip down the long and winding road of psychedelics in movies. While Hollywood, and even world cinema, have only shown the tip of the iceberg with regard to psychedelics and their impact on mental health and consciousness, we can say confidently that, as the culture opens up to the potential these plants and drugs have, we will see ever greater treatments of psychedelics in films. Perhaps the Great American Psychedelic Movie is in the works in the mind of a strong screenwriter somewhere. Hopefully, this little trip we’ve taken will open your own eyes and minds to other ways of dealing with addiction, dealing with mental health issues, or even dealing with life itself.
 

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Eric David lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Jana, and his adult son, Chandler. He is a trained facilitator in the SMART method of recovery. He is working on a memoir about the son they lost to brain cancer, Dylan, titled Remember Just to Love. He would appreciate it if you would donate to the charity that helped him and his family the most during the six years they were dealing with Dylan’s cancer, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation at curethekids.org – thank you!

The RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs Workbook
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