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Film / Altered States

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Eddie Jessup: Memory is energy! It doesn't disappear - it's still in there. There's a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses. There has to be; and I'm telling you it's in the goddamned limbic system.
Mason Parrish: You're a whacko!
Eddie Jessup: What's whacko about it, Mason? I'm a man in search of his True Self. How archetypically American can you get? We're all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God we've got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life.

Emily Jessup: He doesn't love me. He never loved me. I was never real to him. Nothing in the human experience is real to him.

Warning: This Synopsis is spoiler-heavy.

Altered States is a 1980 film (which some have called a vicarious LSD Experience) directed by Ken Russell (who took up the project of adapting Paddy Chayefsky's novel for the screen after the first director quit due to creative differences with Chayefsky).

The film takes places over several years, following the life of Eddie Jessup (William Hurt), a brilliant research scientist who believes that altered states of consciousness are as real as every day reality, and investigates the religious experience in schizophrenics. He and his friend and fellow scientist Arthur, played by Bob Balaban, experiment with altered states of consciousness using isolation tank studies. Jessup marries a Hot Scientist note , Emily, played by Blair Brown. They have two daughters together, but the marriage is strained by her groundedness and his wild, out-there intellectual passions.


During a marital separation, she travels to Africa to study baboons while he goes to Mexico and participates in a mushroom ceremony with a tribe of natives called the Hinchi Indians. On the mushroom drug, Eddie experiences a kind of jumbled psychological regression to the first soul- that spark of consciousness which he believes gave rise to all creation, from the Big Bang to the origin of life on Earth. He takes the drug back to the United States for testing, where he intensifies the effects of the mushroom chemicals with sensory deprivation. He emerges from one test mentally regressed, unable to speak except for primitive grunts and clicks. An X-ray reveals Simian characteristics. Jessup is convinced that he de-differentiated his genetic structure, that the altered state of his more primitive consciousness physically manifested.


Ignoring the warnings of all concerned parties, he tries it again... and emerges as a fur-covered, vicious ape-man, presumably a manifestation of the primitive hominid consciousness he contacts inside the isolation tank. He breaks out of the basement of the medical school where the isolation tank is kept, attacks a security guard, and chases a pack of wild dogs to the local zoo, where he kills and eats a raw sheep. When his humanity returns, he convinces his concerned friends to monitor one last isolation tank trip.

During the study, something happens, and the primordial consciousness of Jessup's obsession nearly destroys the laboratory. Inside the tank, Jessup regresses in a mass of primordial matter. He is only brought back to reality/modernity/whatever by his love for Emily, with whom he is last seen in bed with... both of them switching back and forth between their cognitive selves and masses of sexually ecstatic, fiery, oozy, lumpy, swirling blobs of proto-matter, while their friends argue about the validity of Jessup's experience, the scientific ramifications, and how to cover up their own foolishness.

This movie contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Agent Mulder: Eddie Jessup, who is ironically a lapsed Catholic/agnostic-atheist who saw visions of God as a child, and stopped after his father died. Nonetheless he is open to many other fantastic possibilities that border on supernatural (Genetic Memory, altered states of consciousness, etc...)
  • Agent Scully: Two of them, actually. Emily Jessup and Mason Parrish, played by Charles Haid.
  • Body Horror:
    • In one scene, Eddie finds his flesh warping and swelling into painful configurations while in bed and trying not to wake his partner... and while not on any of the drugs he usually takes.
    • In a later experiment, Eddie emerges from the tank unable to speak, and x-rays reveal that the organs in his throat have temporarily devolved - a precursor to his later transformation into an early hominid.
    • Taken to the logical conclusion when Eddie finds himself devolving into a hideously disfigured blob of primordial matter - and spreads it to Emily.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Arguably Ken Russell's insistence on adding a layer of Catholic religious allegory to the hallucinatory quest for the first soul is one of the reasons Paddy Chayefsky took his name off the film without even having seen it in its entirety.
  • The Cutie: Subverted by Blair Brown as Emily, who as a PhD in physical anthropology (she seems to be largely a primatologist or a behaviorist) and mother of two small daughters still dresses like a teenager in The '60s. Hoewever, she's a genius, and her relationship with Eddie Jessup is as much intellectual as it is sexual. She also spends a good deal of time in Africa... studying baboons, which is not the most glorious fieldwork.
  • Dumb Is Good: Averted, even directly assaulted. The movie is a love ode to the self-made nobility of its intellectual characters.
  • Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory:invoked Probably a major part of the movie's appeal.
  • Evilutionary Biologist: Averted. The Theory of Evolution is given its proper respect in this film.
  • Evolving Trope: The movie must be particularly praised for its portrayal of scientists, who are for once neither evil nor completely misguided. Though Eddie Jessup proves irresponsible, making himself the test subject of an unknown drug, he has friends from within the scientific community who try to reel him in and behave appropriately with regard to scientific and personal integrity.
  • Genetic Memory: Treated as Serious Business.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Well calling him a "hero" is a bit much but Eddie still wants Emily in the end.
  • Higher Understanding Through Drugs: Experimenting with drugs and sensory deprivation tanks can lead to de-and-evolution.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Averted and subverted. Most of the characters lack belief in God because in their various fields they've come to value reason, evidence and discovery over faith and revelation. The interplay of Emily's and Mason's straight atheism and Eddie's more open-minded paradigm in which altered states are as real or as unreal as what we call "reality" (though Eddie is also either an atheist or an agnostic, maybe both) is a major theme. Eddie also suffers from spiritual baggage from a childhood trauma, but his openness to other fantastic concepts like genetic memory and a universal unconsciousness makes him an Agent Mulder, and thus a further subversion of the Hollywood Atheist.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Blair Brown as Emily. Her nude scenes are quite prominent and the film ends with her naked in a hallway held by an equally undressed William Hurt.
  • Non Sequitur Environment: One of the earliest signs that something is wrong with Eddie Jessup's hallucinogen experiments occurs when he not only begins to experience evolutionary Body Horror while apparently sober, but opens the bathroom door to find himself staring into Hell.
  • Our Time Travel Is Different: Eddie uses drugs and sensory deprivation to propel himself backward through his genetic memory, psychologically and physically regressing into a primitive hominid and later a primordial blob of proto-consciousness.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: The special effects of the hallucinatory sequences have been used for Album covers, parodied in The Simpsons and South Park, and the sliding title effect was copied by James Cameron for The Terminator.
    • On top of the general Mushroom Samba Popcultural Osmosis South Park has used, it also explicitly re-used the film's ending with Cartman in "Tsst".
    • Or Charlie on Lost when Locke commences a vision quest: "I'm going to stand out here in case you devolve into a monkey."
    • J. J. Abrams must be a fan of this movie: the pilot of Fringe is loaded with homages to Altered States in the form of Dr. Walter Bishop's shady history as a mad scientist. Even their last names are similar. Elements of Bishop's character may have been inspired by Jessop. Moreover, Blair Brown, who portrayed Emily Jessop in Altered States, has a recurring role on the show as Nina Sharp.
    • The music video of a-ha's "Take On Me" followed the scene where Eddie Jessup is slamming himself against the wall to break out of his manifested altered state and return to normal reality, only in the video the guy was trying to slam himself out of a sketched self into reality. Both were motivated by the Power of Love.
    • The film Beyond the Black Rainbow takes clear aesthetic inspiration from Altered States, but with a much more skeptical take on its themes, where a similar experiment is shown to have been the main antagonist's Start of Darkness.
  • Raging Stiffie: In the novel, Eddie experiences an erection "as big as a house" when he sees Emily. He'd gone without sex for months prior to that.
  • The '70s: Very effectively done without the usual tricks. Respected research scientists dress like hippies and smoke dope in their off hours, and the mavericks among them seem to be struggling with outgrowing the Drug Culture's wild promise of psychedelic salvation. We don't see any disco fashion, though Emily's flower girl wardrobe is particularly telling. The Seventies atmosphere is well done with a kinetic vibe, without feeling forced.
  • Shout-Out: Heavy biblical imagery from Genesis and Revelations abounds in the hallucinatory sequences. At one point Adam and Eve are rendered as Indian cave art, pictured with a giant mushroom with a serpent coiled around it- an obvious reference to the "Tree of Knowledge." William Hurt spends time flying around on a flaming crucifix wearing a mutant, 7-eyed, four-horned goat's head.
  • Surreal Horror: To sum it up; guy combines psychedelic drugs with sensory deprivation, and ends up turning into some weird creature from the beginning of the universe.
  • Teen Genius: Eddie and Emily were both implied to be these; they received their PhD's at 25 and 24, respectively.
  • Terminal Transformation: Eddie's evolutionary drug experiments cause him to dramatically transform and regress into a blob of primordial matter - and from there, a single-celled organism. By the time Emily is able to reach him, he's on the verge of ceasing to exist altogether, though she's able to guide him back to reality before it's too late.
  • Truth in Television: Trust me on this one: your college professors do get high and/or uproariously drunk, argue about evolution and metaphysics. A student-teacher affair is treated relatively casually.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: Paddy Chayefsky conceived it as a modern take on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The similarity of the name Eddie Jessup to Edward Hyde/Henry Jekyll was not a coincidence.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real:
    Emily: Defy it, Eddie. You made it real. You can make it unreal. If you love me... If you love me, Eddie, DEFY IT!