Woman with glasses screaming

LSD: Insight or Insanity?, 1968

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Erika Dyck, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. Today, Dr. Dyck shares some insights on a recently digitized film in the Library’s collection highlighted in our Medical Movies on the Web project.

For Rebels, it’s a Kick…

It’s the late 1960s. Teenagers, a hip voice clues us in, are always looking for kicks, and today’s teens express themselves with cool fashions, groovy hairstyles, and kooky pranks. Not so long ago, our narrator played the character of “Plato,” a troubled teenager, in the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause. In that film, Plato idolizes the reckless machismo of young Jim Stark (played by James Dean). In an epic display of bravado, Jim and another boy play a game of “chickie run” in which they drive their cars in parallel directly toward a cliff. Jim leaps from his vehicle at the last moment, while his opponent crashes over the cliff and dies, the automobile exploding on impact.

Now, little more than a decade later, Sal Mineo (unidentified until the end credit) carries forward the moral of the story in LSD: Insight or Insanity, a 27-minute-long anti-drug propaganda short from Bailey Films, an educational movie and filmstrip company located in Hollywood. The movie warns teens against rebellion, mistrust of authority, thrill-seeking drugs, and misguided attempts to prove themselves.

LSD: Insight or Insanity? (Revised), (Bailey Films, 1968) Director & producer: Max Miller Runtime: 27 mins.

Lest the audience miss the connection to Rebel Without a Cause, one of the film’s early scenes features another game of chicken. Two automobiles hurtle head-on towards each other. Girls shriek, boys gape, and the cars screech and collide in what sounds like a catastrophic tangle of metal and young lives. With that, this brief piece of anti-drug propaganda takes on LSD use, teen culture, and the origins, effects, and dangers of the psychedelic drug.  Addressed to a mixed audience of teens, parents, and teachers, it attempts to dispel the seductive attraction of LSD through a variety of rhetorical gambits: hyperbolic metaphor (LSD use is like chickie run); knowing empathy (adolescents thirst for self-expression); cinematic recreations of euphoric pleasures and psychotic distortions; and reports and warnings of medical and governmental authorities (most emphatically, the risk of birth defects to future generations).

In a series of brief vignettes, we see LSD’s allure and impact. Guys seduce young women with the promise of a shared “trip” that will generate a feeling of oneness that cannot be understood under sober conditions. A young man passionately recalls how LSD allowed him to see the world in its vastness, in a three-dimensional space, in a way that appeased his ego and comforted his soul. The film footage toys with viewers, introducing them to the perceived joys of the drug before walloping them with the horrors. A girl burns her hand on a gas flame that appears to her as a lovely flower. A dancing boy leaps off a cliff, believing he can fly.

…Until it Isn’t

Then, a shift in tone. A set of scientific and medical experts parades across the screen, their words intended to crush such fantasies under the weight of clinical reality. Physiologists, psychiatrists, pharmacologists, a biologist, and drug regulators appear in white coats and suit jackets, sporting trim haircuts and offering articulate, if at times technical, statements about the harsher side of LSD consumption. Together these sober judges underscore the damage LSD causes to one’s health in acute and long-lasting ways, including altering chromosomes and triggering lifelong mental health problems.

People who take the drug are literally endangering their lives, they warn. It distorts perception and alters one’s capacity to assess risk, leading to suicides and violent behavior. Teens are shown walking into the path of an oncoming car, attempting to “merge their beings with large, fast automobiles.” A young woman overdoses, screaming and writhing on a gurney…Read More

To read the full essay, including a history of research on the drug, public perceptions, and political response, and to see the film go to NLM’s Medical Movies on the Web, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM’s collection.

Dr. Dyck’s chief interests are in the history of psychiatry, mental health, deinstitutionalization and eugenics. She is the author of Psychedelic Psychiatry, an examination of the history of LSD experimentation within the context of broader trends in the changing orientation of psychiatry in the post-World War II period. Her second book, Facing Eugenics, examines the experiences of patients and families as they confronted eugenics in 20th century Alberta. 

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