What happens when you combine mindblowing psychedelics with a sensory deprivation tank? A look at the film ALTERED STATES.
The story revolves around a young scientist named Eddie Jessup, whose interest in his work overshadows everything else, including not only his marriage to but even his own well-being.
I read that the actors experimented with ketamine while making this film. I thought this was strange but awesome of them. Later on I discovered why they did it; ALTERED STATES is based on the life and work of scientist, writer, and ketamine-enthusiast John Lilly.
I did some searching and found an incredibly fascinating interview with John Lily interview on the Erowid archives, originally appearing in Omni magazine, about his life and his work and a bit on the film Altered States.
Learning more about Lily’s personality, life, and work made me appreciate this film even more. He, just like the character in Altered States, was driven nearly to madness, and almost to his death, for his passionate and all-consuming interest in exploring his own mind with drugs. This was no joke to him. I was astonished to learn that Lily once spent 100 days straight on ketamine.
Despite the fact that this makes him sound like a crackpot, he was a real scientist with a number of mainstream accomplishments under his belt. He is credited with inventing the sensory deprivation tank in order to learn if the brain needed external stimuli to “stay awake.” He also devoted much research into inventing a technique for communication between humans and dolphins. (I would very much like to know where this research went; in the interview, nearly 25 years ago, he states that we’re about five years away from breaking the language barrier between humans and dolphins.) He also published many books over the years on his own experiences and scientific research.
I loved ALTERED STATES from the very beginning – the sense deprivation tank, the crazy drug trips, the religious nature of his hallucinations (including burning crosses, visions of hell, and scenes from the Book of Revelations). I also enjoyed spotting the side references to Charles Tart, Timothy Leary, and amanita muscaria. (And being that I was born in 1980, I’m sure I missed quite a few other things key to 60’s and 70’s drug culture.)
The plot moves along pretty quickly and goes something like this:
- After attending a shamanic religious ritual and tripping with a bunch of Indians, Eddie brings back a few grams of the drug for scientific analysis.
- Once he combines this unknown drug with the sensory deprivation tank, the movie really kicks up it’s psychedelic heels and takes you for a crazy ride.
- At this point, these trips in the tank have become much more than just journeys of the mind. The combination of the sensory deprivation tank with this unknown drug allow him to tap into the genetic history contained within every cell of his body. First he regresses into a primal, pre-human ape-like creature. Ultimately, by the end of the film, he regresses back to the very beginning of existence itself, terrified by the overwhelming nothing that he becomes one with, and saved from it only by his love for his wife, Emily.
Some of the imagery is fitting for a horror film and I certainly don’t recommend anyone trip while watching this fun. Ultimately this film is a throwback to a post-60’s scientific culture when scientists were allowed to experiment with mind-altering substances in the lab. If you’ll excuse some of the cheesy dialogue and the under-developed romance between Eddie and Emily, you’ll find a fascinating film about drugs, the brain, and the nature of reality.
Sidenote: I’ve not had the chance to get inside a sensory deprivation tank but would really enjoy doing so. I would love to hear from you if you’ve had a chance to use one. I’d also be curious to know where it is and how you were able to use it. Maybe you’d want to write something about your experience and we can post it on the blog?
In closing check out this short clip from Altered States
showing Eddie tripping about god and the death of his father.