“The Weird World of LSD” And Other Mind-Bending Anti-Acid Propaganda

By on April 13, 2015

By the mid-60s, with the countercultural threat of recreational drug use among teens and twenty-somethings on the rise, schools, medical organizations, and even governmental agencies began to re-think their priorities, and re-sort their meager budgets, in order to create little educational “scare” films.

Some of the best of these films were the ones made about the dangers of ingesting psychedelics, or “mind-benders,” like LSD.

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As fans of Night Flight’s original programming will no doubt remember, we love a good anti-drug propaganda film, and one of our all-time favorites is the 1930s midnight movie Reefer Madness (originally titled Tell Your Children and also released variously as The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth, and Love Madness). What you may or may not know is that it was originally financed by, and made by, a church group and intended to be shown to parents as a morality tale attempting to teach them about the dangers of smoking marijuana.

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Decades later, anti-drug propaganda films were still being made, not to educate the parents, but their kids, and not in churches, but in various types of academic institutes, particularly junior and high schools. Most of these films were short enough in length to be able to be shown during hour-long classes. Their purpose, of course, was to so sufficiently curtail any interest from taking the drug in the first place by overloading the young, impressionable viewer with enough educational information and fearful imagery of what happens when you take drugs that it would “scare” them straight, making them think twice about trying the drugs by showing young people jumping off of cliffs and from the top of tall buildings, or running in front of speeding cars. So, did these propaganda films work? Hell no.  Sometimes, in fact, they had exactly the opposite effect.

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Students watching these films could be heard howling with laughter at the sight with stodgy experts of one type or another explaining how LSD is “like a vitamin for the brain,” and it certainly didn’t help that they often showed the uninitiated or innocent viewer how the world looks to a person under the effects of LSD. Since dropping acid can actually distort and disturb cognition and perception, and in high doses, can produce vivid hallucinations including dancing colors and lights, the filmmakers themselves probably didn’t realize that providing trippy visuals complete with snazzy dissolves, queasy zoom-ins, and nifty freeze-frames actually made it seem that being under the effects of LSD was a lot more interesting than real life. The thing is, it had already been proven by the sixties that taking LSD did not produce a physical addiction to the drug (it can be psychologically addictive, however, depending on the person dropping the acid in the first place).

Dr. Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, had begun developing therapeutic drugs as early as 1938, and later described his first (accidental) acid trip, in the early 40s, this way: “I was seized by a peculiar sensation of vertigo and restlessness. Objects, as well as the shape of my associates in the laboratory, appeared to undergo optical changes. I was unable to concentrate on my work. In a dreamlike state I left for home, where an irresistible urge to lie down came over me. I drew the curtains and immediately fell into a peculiar state similar to drunkenness, characterized by an exaggerated imagination. With my eyes closed, fantastic pictures of extraordinary plasticity and intensive color seemed to surge toward me.” His next acid trip, an intentional and even larger dose than his first, though miniscule by common 60s drug standards, led him to write this: “Space and time became more and more disorganized and I was overcome by fear that I was going out of my mind… Occasionally, I felt as if I were out of my body. I thought I had died. My go seemed suspended somewhere in space, from where I saw my dead body lying on the sofa…”

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We found some of the better examples of these types of educational anti-LSD films, beginning with probably the most bizarre film out there, The Weird World of LSD, from 1967. “LSD has hit the U.S. with the strength of a medieval plague,” a narrator informs us, with extreme gravitas, and we learn LSD is capable of destroying “a city of 300,000 people.” Directed by Robert Ground, about whom nothing seems to be known, and produced by the American Entertainment Association, The Weird World of LSD presents itself as both a cautious documentary-style film and a serious educational propaganda tool, like something you might have seen in a 1950s high school assembly (but how anyone could take a film like this too seriously, even in the 50s, is beyond us).

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The Weird World of LSD is divided into black & white episodic vignettes of varying lengths, acted out without any dialogue, showing some acid-eaters having no serious side-effects from while high on the drug, enjoying themselves while drugged out of their minds, while others are shown going off the deep end, often with their lives ending in a bloody death scene (it’s a shame this low-budget production couldn’t have afforded glorious 1967-era color!). We see one nerdy young man who hallucinates a cartoon chicken while laying on a couch (“We call this trip To Fly A Giant Bird,” says the narrator, rather oddly). We see teens buying acid and hoping their trip provides them with “a symphony of colors and a sea of sound.” We see two women, both secretaries — one from Maine, who feels abandoned and rejected in this “big city” — looking bored and barely speaking; it turns out that one from Maine drops acid to escape back to her childhood, and back the pets she used to love. We see her playing with kittens, while the narrator tells us that “she pretends to be a cat and rejects the human world.” We meet a woman named Elizabeth Bentley, lounging by a swimming pool, in a mismatching bikini, who goes for a swim before we later see her wandering around in some kind of mannequin warehouse, touching their blank faces while searching for what the narrator says is “an elusive ideal.”

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The madness continues: We see a young salesman named Martin Gelber, who takes acid and wanders down the street, looking into store windows before he tears apart his shirt and collapses in a drug-drenched heap. We see poor old heavy-set Mr. Dunlop, weighing near “350 lbs.,” who takes acid and fantasizes about enjoying a feast of roast turkey and corn on the cob. We see a catfighting couple of gals, Barbie and Geraldine, who are, we’re told, “alter egos of each other,” and they end up rolling around on the carpet, pulling hair and punching each other in the face. We see a woman-on-acid named Daisy Green, out with her fiancé on a nice boating date, eventually sitting in a diner before she ends up performing a clumsy striptease and “sharing her self-love with the world,” then cutting at her clothing with scissors, before she’s taken home to rest.

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She ends up dying, of course (“LSD USER COMMITS SUICIDE!” screams a newspaper headline), while the narrator intones that she was “swallowed up in her own image.”  We’re not done yet: We see a young man, staring at himself in a mirror, seeking the “confirmation of his own masculinity,” who actually sees reflected back to him the vision of a woman becoming a lizard person, and then, finally, the Grim Reaper, before we see him lying on a bloody floor, with a woman, after being bludgeoned by an ax. We see smut aficianado Jerry Walker, watching some wonderful burlesque footage. We see George Puttnam, a sexual sadist, about which little is truly revealed.

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Finally, for the film’s last twenty minutes or so, we see an extended storyline involving two men in a roadside bar, one of whom later ending up in the woods, wading through rivers and climbing trees (“in kinship with the birds”), rolling around in a mud bath, while the other, Larry, now on a date with his girl Joyce. She has decided she wants to drop some acid to see what it’s like, and later they end up at an empty apartment for an extended makeout session, before we all end up back at the bar, and now, mysteriously, Joyce is with the first guy. It ends in bloodshed, of course. The soundtrack to this midnight movie madness is something akin to beatnik-y bongo jazz, which surely shows how out of their depth the filmmakers were out-of-date by a good fifteen years. Apparently some of the location shooting too place in Tampa, Florida, though we think its doubtful that city’s chamber of commerce would have appreciated that factoid being made too public.

The Mind-Benders: LSD and the Hallucinogens, from 1967, is a U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) documentary directed by someone named Lee R. Bobker, and narrated by Michael Tolan.

The Mind-Benders explores the history of hallucinogenic drugs, and specifically the effects and therapeutic uses of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). It combines graphics that suggest a hallucinogenic experience, snippets of interviews with users (who dryly explain their reasons for dropping acid) and doctors, and taped sessions of research with volunteers, the film delves into the destructive as well as possible positive uses of the drug, often talking about the sensations one feels while on acid: bright lights, “lights brighter than the sun,” or everything vibrating, falling apart, and eyes like an electronic microscope, or the patterns and connections the hallucinogenic experience illuminates. Which all sounds like fun if you ask us.

The best moment though is at 22 minutes — a pretty remarkable monologue by a government scientist who thinks “rebellion is a healthy thing” but thinks that taking LSD is “not like swallowing goldfish”-- and it’s part of an honest, genuine statement in which he admits that “adults have screwed a lot of things up.”

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The most negative drug films, of course, were produced by agencies of the U.S. government, because prior to trying to frighten people about hallucinogens, they were aggressively investigating how drugs could be used for military purposes like interrogation and conducting some of the most irresponsible drug experiments that have ever been done, and they probably knew what the LSD user could expect to experience. Details of those experiments, which inadvertently accelerated the mass use of LSD in the 1960’s, also feature prominently in these documentaries.

Three years after this film was made, by the way, the US government made it illegal to manufacture, buy, possess, process or distribute these substances without a DEA license.

Meanwhile, studies of a variety of hallucinogens are still ongoing in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, end-of-life anxiety, cluster headaches and drug addiction at UCLA, NYU and Johns Hopkins University.

Our friend Marc Campbell over at Dangerous Minds once said this about LSD-25: “LSD-25 is a goofier than average drug scare flick produced in 1967 for the San Mateo Union High School District in San Mateo, California. The entire film is narrated by a tab of LSD – a device that Bunuel would have admired. This one has it all: over-the-top freakouts, groovy fashions, a Satanic mass, trippy visuals and little known factoids like LSD makes kids ‘paint themselves green.’ It also features an obscure Jonathan King tune called ‘Round Round.’ Strap yourself in and ‘join the mind expanding world where colors and sounds and smells and tastes and people all take on new dimensions and qualities.'” We don’t think we can top that description, so we’re not going to try.

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Next up we have another anti-drug educational film, Focus On LSD/Psychedelics, dating a bit later, from 1970 (some sources say ’71), and directed by Noel Nosseck, and narrated by singer Tommy Roe.

“If LSD won’t kill my chromosomes,” says one blonde girl, “the pollution in the air and water will, so what’s the difference?”

We’re sure a lot of high school students were able to catch a few Z’s during the classroom screening of this one.

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LSD: Insight or Insanity? (1967) What makes LSD: Insight or Insanity ? (again, from 1967, directed by Max Miller) different than the most of the others here was the narration from actor Sal Mineo, who after appearing in movies like Rebel Without A Cause, had such a dip in his career that he ended doing industrial educational film narration. In fact, we even have to be reminded of this fact, near the end of the closing credits, when the screen shows this title: “Except for the physicians, all participants are actors.” No kidding! We begin with a bunch of groovy teenagers, doing whatever hairstyle or game of chicken they need to do to be cool. When that includes the kick of LSD, you better get ready for “the end of your life kick; a kick in the head.”

For our last example, we thought we’d include Curious Alice, the National Institute of Mental Health’s short film from 1971, portrays an animated fantasy based upon the characters in Alice in Wonderland. The film shows Alice as she tours a strange land where everyone had chosen to use drugs, forcing her to ponder whether drugs were the right choice for her. The “Mad Hatter” character represents LSD, the “Dormouse” represents sleeping pills, and the “King of Hearts” represents heroin. Ultimately, Alice concludes that drug abuse is senseless.

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The short film was probably made due to the runaway success of a novel from the same time, 1971, called Go Ask Alice, a first-person diary account (written by Beatrice Sparks) about an anonymous teenage girl, who, after being dosed with LSD, describes her colorful and rapid descent into the nightmare of drug addiction, leading to her eventual overdose after she got too far In with the Far-Out Crowd.

The novel’s title itself was taken from a line in the 1967 Grace Slick-penned Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” (“go ask Alice/when she’s ten feet tall”), which is itself a reference to a scene in Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland where Alice eats one side of a mushroom that makes her grow large.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.