Nightmares, Toads, and Heavenly Gates

The thin line between truth and tricks, conspiracy and spirituality: a roundup of liminal documentaries

At what point did you start to feel that reality was melting down, or at least not at all what it used to be? Many of us marked our point of no return long ago, whether it was Trump’s election, or that “Berenstain Bears” thing, or Alex Jones ranting about DMT elves. But if you are still managing to cling to the idea that the contemporary world is comprehensible, and that historical events remain distinguishable from bizarre and fabulous imaginings, you now have to face the spectacle of the Q Shaman howling to his heathen transdimensional gods in the Senate chambers of our benighted republic.

For those of us who have spent time at transformative festivals, or ayahuasca retreats, or yoga centers, or the occult sections of bookstores, this character and his New Age ideas should be altogether familiar. What has been less common, at least until recently, is to stumble upon this sort of seeker — the kind of guy who believes that "altered states of consciousness is (sic) what life is all about" — within a violent Trumpist mob.

Over the last year, I have had many conversations with peers and podcasters about how and why so many New Age yogis and psychedelicists have gone right, and I don’t want to rehearse those ideas here. (One word: QAnon.) What I want to linger with now is the sheer, frightening weirdness of this eruption of the American id. On January 6, it seemed that some retaining wall of political ontology had collapsed. Alongside the shocking violence, we also witnessed a dark tide of metaphysical mud, pressurized by trance states, paranoia, and online feedback loops, erupt upon the decorous stage-sets of American statecraft.

Ross Douthat, the resident Catholic conservative of the New York Times opinion section, pegged the situation far better than his liberal colleagues. Given Trump’s increasingly desperate inability to bend actual institutions toward his rigged election narrative, the President turned to the “dreamworld” of his base, making himself “a conduit for the dream to enter into reality, making the dreamers believe in the plausibility of direct action, giving us the riot and its dead.” Douthat also compares Trump’s beltway enablers to “those cynical characters in a horror movie who thought they could siphon a little power from an occult dimension, never imagining that the veil would actually be torn.” Republicans are now learning the lesson H.P. Lovecraft warned us about in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: “Doe not call up Any that you can not put downe.”

But our days are now defined by such demonic calls, by torn veils and invasive dreams and sewer valves that refuse to shut. It’s official: reality is stranger, or weirder, than fiction. Which is why it may behoove us to spend a little bit less of our Covid time with prestige TV shows or superhero flicks or sensitive literary fictions, and more with truth-telling texts — especially those slipstream nonfictions that map the logic of the strange liminal zones that now greet us at every turn. I watch a lot of such docs these days, particularly those that walk the thin hallucinogenic line between truth and tricks, history and myth, conspiracy and spirituality. What follows is a recent roundup.

TOAD DANCER

I have mixed feelings about Hamilton Morris, host of the popular Viceland docu-drug series Hamilton's Pharmacopeia, whose third season just debuted. Morris is a smart fella, a nerdy and ballsy gonzo-lite journalist with actual research chops. He was also born with a silver media spoon in his mouth — his dad being the well-known documentarian Errol Morris (see below). But if Hamilton is media-savvy, he can also be Vice-sleazy at times: exploitative, hollow, and self-serving.

I first encountered Hamilton through his 2013 Harper’s true-psychedelic-crime article “Blood Spore,” a fine piece of investigative journalism, with juicy ethnobotanical detail and a nuanced take on magic mushroom culture. I looked forward to more. But Hamilton blew this capital with “Underground LSD Palace,” a Vice doc driven by his craven fan-worship of the repellent or at least profoundly fucked-up Krystle Cole. Acid geeks will recall that Cole played a supporting role in Gordon Todd Skinner’s jealous kidnapping-drug torture of Cole’s teenage ex-boyfriend — the ugliest thread in the legendary LSD Missile Silo saga (which was recently given a decent holes-and-all true-crime treatment by Dennis McDougal in Operation White Rabbit).

The debut episode of the new run of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, “Synthetic Toad Venom Machine”, opens on a strange scene: a hirsute Hamilton watching clips of earlier Pharmacopeia episodes and agonizing over errors in nomenclature or identification. With tense violins sawing away, we then see “the worst mistake of all”: the moment when Alfred Salvinelli “lied to me.” In the 2017 episode “The Psychedelic Toad,” Hamilton had tracked down Salvinelli — another peripheral figure in the Silo story — and charged him with being “Albert Most,” the pseudonymous author of the 1983 pamphlet Bufo Alvarius: The Psychedelic Toad of the Sonoran Desert. This was the underground text that first revealed how to extract and consume the 5-MEO-DMT-heavy secretions of Bufo alvarius. Alfred, with a twinkle in his eye, said he was Most.

Salvinelli was not Most, however, and Hamilton’s mock heroic quest to right this supposedly terrible wrong sets up the first half of the episode. After getting a shave and a haircut, Hamilton triumphantly tracks down the real author of the pamphlet, an anti-nuke activist and independent Texan named Ken Nelson, whose original insight or inspiration or leap of faith is never explained. (The answer lies in research first published by a well-known pharmacologist in the 1960s, which Hamilton does not mention.) We are also informed that Hamilton has republished Nelson’s original volume, with a preface by himself, as well as a new recipe for synthetic 5-MEO-DMT.

I am good friends with Alfred, who my pals and I sometimes refer to as “the Bad Shaman.” By bad we mean naughty. (Psychedelic deep divers and Erik Davis obsessives might recall “The Bad Shaman meets the Wayward Doc,” a piece I wrote about Alfred’s longago tangle with John Halpern, a Harvard doctor and Silo Bust snitch.) Alfred is a tricksy fellow, and there isn’t a lot I would put past him — he is the Bad Shaman after all. But one thing Alfred is not is a glory-hound. If Alfred lied, he did it for another reason.

“I took a bullet for the club,” is how Alfred explained it to me on the phone recently. With the unexpected glare of Hamilton’s camera on him — he wasn’t told in advance that the journalist would be accompanied by a crew — it made sense to put Hamilton off the scent by covering for the real author, who had never touched the limelight. This rings true, though it doesn’t explain why some psychedelic insiders had long before pegged Alfred as Most. Had Alfred claimed this before? How long had this story been circulating? The Bad Shaman didn’t say more, didn’t want to talk about Ken Nelson, and affirmed that he had no plans to watch the episode. “I feel sorry for him,” Alfred said of Hamilton. “He might need professional help. Have him call John Halpern.”

Unable or unwilling to present other possible reasons for Alfred’s duplicity, Hamilton unwittingly reveals one of the contradictions of his project: the tension between “gonzo” TV narrative, with its yen for plot points and revelations, and an understanding of the peculiar and sometimes necessary ambiguities of the criminal drug underground. This conflict may even explain Hamilton’s peculiar appearance at the start of the episode: his hippie drag is anxious compensation for the fact that he isn’t a freak, or an outlaw, or even an honorable thief, but a canny outsider to the subterranean worlds he regularly taps for his Vice verité.

Perhaps it makes more sense to see Hamilton as a media provocateur, campaigning for reason and fact in a psychoactive world saturated with woo. Appearing at a World Bufo Alvarius Congress in the second half of the episode, Hamilton tries to convince the mystic toad smokers there gathered to stop bothering the poor creatures, who get nabbed and squeezed during the summer monsoon, when they crawl out of their underground lairs and orgiastically rut. Given the growing popularity of toad venom — a demand his earlier Vice docs helped stimulate — Hamilton argues that there is no sustainable or ethical way to keep harvesting the material from the animals themselves. Instead, he suggests that psychedelic seekers puff synthetic 5-MEO-DMT instead.

It’s a noble effort, and Hamilton gets a DIY gold star for embedding the general protocols for the synthesis within the documentary itself. But all the ethnobotanists I talked to questioned Hamilton’s central claim — that there is no objective psychoactive distinction between toad venom and synthetic 5-MEO. According to Hamilton, any perceived phenomenological differences are not related to the presence of bufotenin in the venom or any related entourage effects, but can be traced instead to psychological expectations and “spiritual” ideologies that pooh-pooh synthetic chemicals. Readers of High Weirdness know I take this kind of argument very seriously, but it still does not jibe with the wealth of phenomenological reports. OG toad smokers Wade Davis and Andy Weil certainly reported a difference, and I am hesitant to call bullshit on those dudes.

But it doesn’t matter: I’m with Hamilton on this one. Mystic toad smokers should acknowledge that, as far as we know, smoking toad is already a thoroughly modern practice, with no known indigenous roots (whatever the toad shamans claim). When this novel practice was restricted to tiny pockets of ethnobotanical freaks, squeezing off a little divine toad sweat was probably no worse for the general animal karma than harvesting honey. But with today’s global demand, it makes sense to turn to synthetic 5-MEO, which is remarkable and already has a long history of therapeutic use. Let’s leave the toads to their liminal lives between the sloppy surface and the cool underground.

MORE MORRIS

Perhaps inspired by his son, Morris pere has been waxing psychedelic of late. His last TV outing was the great Wormwood (2017), a docudrama miniseries that unpacked the ambiguous demise of CIA employee Frank Olson in 1953. Originally cast as an accidental fall, Olson’s death was eventually dubbed a suicide by the Agency, which blamed the LSD that some MKUltra colleagues slipped him unawares. (Those impish spooks!) In Errol Morris’ telling, though, LSD is yet another mask, a diversion from an even darker Cold War drama. There are no conclusions, though, and in the end, you realize the documentary is really about Olson’s son Eric, whose obsessive, life-long quest to understand his father’s death provides Wormwood’s narrative arc, and also its pathos: a bleak void opened up by the Sisphyian if not quixotic task of researching the crimes of intelligence agencies.

Errol’s most intense work stares long and hard at a single outsized individual, like Robert McNamara or Steve Bannon. His latest feature film, My Psychedelic Love Story (2020), focuses on Joanna Harcourt-Smith, the jet-set glamor babe who fell in love with Timothy Leary during the latter’s exile in Europe in the early 70s following his escape from a California correctional facility. Harcourt-Smith is a more elusive target for Errol, at once warm, traumatized, unapologetic, untrustworthy, and exuberant. She is the star of the show but you are not sure what show it is.

Harcourt-Smith stuck by Leary after his recapture and second prison run, a period that ended when Leary, with Harcourt-Smith’s urging, turned DEA informant. Since the 70s, there has been speculation that Harcourt-Smith was a CIA plant, maneuvered into position to entrap Leary or, later, to get him to turn rat. (Deeper conspiracists, with some evidence but little nuance, peg Leary as an asset all along.) Once again, we find ourselves in the treacherous vesica piscis that emerges from the Venn diagram of LSD and intelligence agencies.

The pathos of My Psychedelic Love Story, which remains mostly undeveloped, is that Harcourt-Smith might have been used without knowing it. Given her admitted naivete at the time, as well as her insecurity, mysterious elite connections, cocaine use and overall hot messiness, this is pretty plausible. Indeed, the doc opens with her sincere question “Was I manipulated?” The paranoid path begins with this query, but as with Wormwood, here there is no resolution.

The 70s was Leary’s own High Weirdness period, a time of Tarot readings and sex magick, arms dealers and militant chic, acid and cocaine, solitary confinement and extraterrestrial signals. Errol does a good enough job of capturing the unsettling ambience of Leary’s European sojourn, with acid blotter and Thoth deck images suturing the tale (though much of the actual blotter art shown is actually from the turn of the 80s). Though a lot of the freak fun is left out — nothing about Ash Ra Tempel or Seven Up — there are some yummy Easter eggs. Crowley earns his due, and fans will note a few photographs of the mischievous Brian Berritt, who co-wrote Confessions of a Hope Fiend (1973) with Leary and whose rare The Road of Excess (1998) provides the most rollicking account of the period.

Of course, My Psychedelic Love Story is Harcourt-Smith’s, not Leary’s. But I was still disappointed that Errol, like everyone else, did not treat Leary as the intellectual and writer he was. More to the point, the documentary ignored the crucial cognitive shift that Leary underwent during his period of exile and subsequent incarceration: the turn away from the “custard mush” of hippie neo-Vedanta mysticism and towards the more libertarian aspirations he soon dubbed S.M.I.(2)L.E. (Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension). Though the Starseed Information Office is mentioned, there is no discussion of the very peculiar prison texts that Harcourt-Smith helped Leary publish there — Starseed and Neurologic (both 1973, and released by the Thelemite outfit Level Press), as well as Terra II…A Way Out (1974). As I discuss in High Weirdness, these texts suggest that Leary was in contact with the sort of galactic intelligence that was also beaming signals to Robert Anton Wilson at the time (whose entry in Leary’s address book — RAW lived at 2035 Channing Way, Berkeley, it seems — pops onscreen for a few moments).

Though the starseed remains unsprouted here, there is one strange cosmic riff that Leary unleashes in one of the conversations that a psychologist taped at Vacaville and subsequently passed to Harcourt-Smith:

I don’t consider myself a human being. I feel that the planet is a prison and that the law of gravity is a particular law that is imprisoning me. I’m trying to make my escape. So when you ask me what do I think about this prison. I have to say that I not only feel that America society is a prison, but that the planet itself is an unnecessary and unnatural and illegal form of confinement.

Being Leary, he followed up this bleak assessment with a little leprechaun laugh.

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LEVEL ABOVE

Leary’s bid for posthuman transcendence really struck me when I heard it. Only a week before, I had scarfed down Heaven’s Gate: the Cult of Cults, a four-part HBO Max docuseries that tells the story of the notorious spiritual group that, in March 1997, committed mass suicide in the hopes of catching a ride on the spaceship they believed was hidden in the tail of comet Hale-Bopp. The group was making their extraterrestrial escape, leaving behind our prison planet and the human forms they no longer identified with. With their Star Trek “Away Team” badges and their enthusiastic farewell videos, Heaven’s Gate had transformed Leary’s S.M.I.(2)L.E. into a rictus grin.

This may sound wack, but Heaven’s Gate holds a special place in my heart. When the news broke that March, I was nearly done writing Techgnosis. The group provided a striking confirmation of my thesis, having practiced a blend of SciFi escapism, Manichaean asceticism, and Internet proselytizing that fit my theme to a techgnostic T. I closed the chapter “The Alien Call” with a discussion of the group’s ideology and love of science fiction, as well as the media storm surrounding the suicides. I like to think I offered up one of the first cultural studies-style accounts of Heaven’s Gate, which, in characteristic style, I refused to pathologize.

The thing I didn’t mention in Techgnosis is that the the Away Team lived and died less than two miles from the house I inhabited during high school, and that my folks still call home. When I got a copy of the Chronicle that March morning, and saw the aerial shot of the group’s rented Rancho Santa Fe mansion (or, really, manse), I felt an uncanny flash of recognition. Over the following days, as I binged on the news reports and taped all the video farewells I could find, the weirdness intensified, as if I had become wrapped up in an emerging story sprung from the the one I was already writing.

Needless to say, I made quick work of HBO’s four hour-long episodes. Though the documentary won’t win any awards for formal innovation, it provides an informed, balanced, freaky, and sometimes even sympathetic portrayal of the group. The story is told chronologically, illustrated with rare video sequences and some goofy animations. The breadth of the interviews is particularly satisfying, as we meet followers, apostates, relatives, and academics, most of whom, including the scholars, are unusually self-interrogating about their perspectives and experiences.

As a 70s buff, I particularly appreciated the care paid to the group’s early days, when Marshall Applewhite — he of the turtle head, svengali eyeballs, and galactic Sunday School smarm — started gathering acolytes with his partner Bonnie Nettles, a nurse and hardcore New Ager who provided most of the cosmic fire. Known initially as “the Two,” and later as Ti and Do, the duo preached physical rapture into an alien spacetime mediated by UFOs. Though their relationship was Platonic — Applewhite was gay — they were a team, and after Nettles’ surprise death in 1985, Applewhite drifted towards a more nihilistic and apocalyptic theology.

The “cult of cults” tag, which derives from Applewhite himself, rings true: there is something quintessential about Heaven’s Gate, a strange purity not unrelated to the earnest and androgynous asceticism they practiced, rather than the secret and often abusive schtupping that characterizes so many wayward sects. Because of the schtupping, “cult leaders” like Rajneesh or Father Yod or David Koresh or Keith Raniere are often hard to distinguish from hucksters or predators, which makes it easy for documentarians, journalists, and viewers to lead with cynicism.

But Applewhite was without question a sincere, if probably insane, devotee of his own cosmology, while also recognizing that Heaven’s Gate was a social experiment as much as anything. He didn’t want mind-slaves, and certainly not sex-slaves: he wanted similarly devoted practitioners who were capable of “leveling up” (even, in a few cases, of castrating themselves). Of course there was coercion. Thought and behavior were tightly managed, and members were given monk haircuts and new names, and pressured to cut off their families. But they were also free to come and go, and a few did both. Applewhite’s hold was deeper than mere coercion, and this makes the tale weirder and more unsettling than the more familiar tale of the cynical manipulator and his victimized dupes. In interviews with surviving followers, you can sense, like a warp in emotional space-time, the still-strong tug of the transcendence Applewhite offered: an escape from gender, from anomie, from our dystopian scifi reality — even, perhaps, from the law of gravity.

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RODNEY ON THE GLITCH

I just got word that Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary, A Glitch in the Matrix, will be debuting at Sundance at the end of this month. The film dives deep into simulation theory: the tantalizing notion, argued by pop transhumanists and some contemporary philosophers, that reality is a computer program, an artificial gamespace or Matrix that occasionally reveals, through glitches or other anomalies, its very status as an artifact. Here is a brief trailer:

Ascher structures his docs around extended conversations, and this one features folks like Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and cartoonist Chris Ware. The film’s producer, Tim Kirk, told Rodney about my work, and so I too got to play a talking head — or should I say, a brain-in-a-vat. Ascher and I had some great chats, and apparently my ideas about PKD, the glitch, and the techgnostic conundrum helped structure the doc, whose general release is slated for February 5th. I’ll probably buy a ticket for one of the Sundance showings.

This gave me time to catch up on Ascher’s other feature films, which have been on my list for years, and are probably familiar to many readers. Room 237, which came out in the apocalyptic year of 2012, explores the wild theories that buffs have woven out of (or projected into) Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining. Everyone interviewed believes that the film conceals some deep and hidden messages, but the messages they discover are all over the map: the Holocaust, the tragedy of the American Indian, subliminal advertising, Apollo 11.

Rather than profile the buffs themselves, as Errol Morris might have done, Ascher keeps our eyes focused on the film’s enigmatic sequences, which are leavened with often wonderful clips from Westerns, other Kubrick films, Westerns, silent horror films, advertisements, and newsreels. Ascher’s brilliant editing draws the viewer into the mimetic delirium of excessive interpretation, as our attention gets directed and redirected towards all manner of evidence: marginal details, graphic matches, odd props, visual patterns, floor plans, facial gestures, sweaters, colors. The whole “lattice of coincidence” expands, though without the plate of shrimp. One guy even tries to support his argument with the ultimate example of pareidolia: a face in the clouds. (I couldn’t see it, and I am pretty susceptible to this shit.)

None of the theories touch on spirituality, but I think the best way to understand this kind of interpretations is through the scholarly concept of esoteric hermeneutics. Imagine a Kabbalist using numerology to interpret the language of the Pentateuch, or a modern mystagogue decoding the surreal glyphs of some 16th-century alchemical seal. This kind of reading involves two movements. The first move is to presume that a secret has already been hidden in the text or the image by its creator, a godlike genius or divine spirit with total control over the tools of expression. This assumption in turn motivates an excessive mode of interpretation that unlocks various patterns, allusions, numerical connections, and other, often arcane correspondences. What results is an intoxicating combination of analysis and imagination, one that is absolutely central to the history of esotericism and religious allegory.

Today most of us encounter esoteric hermeneutics not as part of the study of magic or alchemy, but within conspiracy theory. Not so much the deeply researched histories of, say, the JFK assassination or Manson’s mind control connections, but more the hypermediated, Internet-driven pop conspiracism that makes its hay by decoding the symbolic messages or clues hidden within media artifacts. Consider those YouTube videos that deconstruct the moon landing photos, or identify the Illuminati “twilight language” hidden in Katy Perry videos, or decipher the allusions to Q lore in Trump’s gaffes.

Great cinema, especially from directors as icily controlled as Kubrick, often contains subtle and even mischievous symbolic play that, from a certain angle, can be thought of as subliminal mindfuckery. But Room 237 goes deeper into conspiracy lore when, late in the doc, it presents the provocative theory that The Shining is Kubrick’s encoded mea culpa for having faked the Apollo 11 moon landing. To be honest, I found this one of the most convincing theories, at least in terms resolving some of the engimatic evidence presented. But that may only indicate that by that point in my viewing, pareidolia had kicked in and Ascher had successfully reprogrammed my attention filter. Soon I also noticed the word “Monarch” emblazoned on a ski poster in the background of one shot, a poster discussed by a buff for a separate reason. Immediately my brain dropped Project Monarch?!!! on me. And so the rabbit danced…

Ascher’s The Nightmare (2015) is probably the first “horror documentary” I have seen. While the film plays with standard horror-movie conventions in its recreations of people’s nightmares, the phenomenon at the heart of the film is perfectly real, and legitimately terrifying: sleep paralysis. Most of us have had dreams where we are being chased and can’t move. But some of us are afflicted with recurring, even nightly bouts of such paralysis, which are often accompanied by malevolent beings who keep showing up in very similar ways — years-long encounters that sound essentially indistinguishable from demonic infestation or UFO abductions.

My wife Jennifer watched The Nightmare with me, since she is interested in all things dream, and has known a number of people who suffer from what some traditions call “the old hag.” She confirmed the depressing tenacity of the phenomenon once it kicks in, as well as the fact that, as some of Ascher’s interviews suggest, the syndrome can be infectious. (Caveat observator.) This brought to mind an Expanding Mind interview I did years ago with Lovecraft author and magician Donald Tyson (an interview that, like many of my earliest shows, was lost in a server crash). In our conversation, Tyson explained that he got into left-hand ceremonial magic because, like Lovecraft himself, he was afflicted from childhood on with horrible and demonic nightmares. The only way out for him was through.

Ascher mostly sticks to narrating the phenomenon until he gets to the end, when some subjects report on how it has effected their beliefs. We learn that one sufferer, at wit’s end, desperately called on Jesus’ name, even though she was not a believer at the time. It worked, and she subsequently became a Christian, and now councils other sufferers on dream exorcism. Other sufferers connect their experiences to visits from family ghosts, or to parallel universes. If these ideas had been presented early on, they would be easy for most folks to dismiss. But by the end of the film, the magickal realism of their experiences is so oppressive and palpable that, from their perspective, all ontological bets are off. Whatever gets you through the night.

In a preview of A Glitch in the Matrix I read, the writer noted that while he loved Room 237 and The Nightmare, he was not as enthusiastic about Ascher’s new film because consensus reality has become so much more fragile in the last five or six years (or five or six days). I hear you, buddy. There is so much glitch that it’s hard to hold on to the tattered matrix we still have. As the divine Bowie sang half a century ago this year:

Look out my window, what do I see?

A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me

All the nightmares came today

And it looks as though they’re here to stay.

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