For this installment I'd like to begin breaking down Altered States's twilight language-laden plot line but before doing so a bit more background in the film is needed to put it into perspective. As many fans are undoubtedly aware, Altered States (both the novel Chayefsky originally wrote as well as the film) was chiefly inspired by the peculiar experiments of psychonaut John C. Lilly. Lilly is chiefly remembered in this day and age for his incredible work with dolphins (which inspired another film, Day of the Dolphins), but he was also one of the first scientists to seriously investigate sensory deprivation and, eventually, entheogens. Such research inevitably brought him to the attention of the US intelligence community, which pursued a vast array of fringe sciences at the onset of the Cold War, a prospect Lilly would try to disassociate himself from professionally time and again.
"In 1954 Lilly began trying to isolate the operations of the brain, free of outside stimulation, through sensory deprivation. He worked in an office next to Dr. Maitland Baldwin, who the following year agreed to perform terminal sensory deprivation experiments for ARTICHOKE's Morse Allen but who never told Lilly he was working in the field. While Baldwin experimented with his sensory-deprivation 'box,' Lilly invented a special 'tank.' Subjects floated in a tank of body-temperature water, wearing a face mask that provided are but cut off sight and sound. Inevitably, intelligence officials swooped down on Lily again, interested in the use of his tank as an interrogation tool. Could involuntary subjects be placed in the tank and broken down to the point where their belief systems or personalities could be altered?
"It was central to Lilly's ethic that he himself be the first subject of any experiment, and, in the case of the consciousness-exploring tank work, he and one colleague were the only ones. Lilly realized that the intelligence agencies were not interested in sensory deprivation because of its positive benefits, and he finally concluded that it was impossible for him to work at the National Institute of Health without compromising his principles. He quit in 1958.
"Contrary to most people's intuitive expectations, Lilly found sensory deprivation to be a profoundly integrating experience for himself personally. He considered himself to be a scientist who subjectively explored the far wanderings of the brain. In a series of private experiments, he pushed himself into the complete unknown by injecting pure Sandoz LSD into his thigh before climbing into the sensory-deprivation tank. When the counterculture sprang up, Lilly became something of a cult figure, with his unique approach to scientific inquiry --though he was considered more of an outcast by many in the professional research community.
"For most of the outside world, Lilly became famous with the release of the popular film, The Day of the Dolphin, which the filmmaker acknowledge was based on Lilly's work with dolphins after he left NIH. Actor George C. Scott portrayed a scientist who, like Lilly, loved dolphins, did pioneering experiments on their intelligence, and tried to find ways to communicate with them. In the movie, Scott became dismayed when the government pounced on his breakthrough in talking to dolphins and turned it immediately to the service of war. In real life, Lilly was similarly dismayed when Navy and CIA scientist trained dolphins for special warfare in the waters of Vietnam."
(The Search for the "Manchurian Candidate", John Marks, pgs. 152-153)
By the 1970s Lilly had also become involved with the peculiar crowd that had gathered around the notorious medical and parapsychological researcher (and some time US intelligence asset) Andrija Puharich, groundbreaking physicist Jack Sarfatti, and legendary stage magician Uri Geller (among others). While this group, which included virtually every major psychonaut from the counterculture as well as a host of other rogue scientists and artists, has rarely been addressed in mainstream histories they would have a shocking degree of influence on popular culture for decades to come. Apparently one of the chief bonds many members of this clique shared was a belief that they had been contacted by some type of nonhuman intelligence.
"In the 1970s, however, when Sarfatti was still developing the theories that would later make him famous in the world of physics, he was hanging out with Puharich, Uri Geller, and other notables in the hothouse atmosphere of radical thinking about science, communication, information, and psychic phenomena. Sarfatti claims to have introduced Geller to Jacques Vallee --the French UFO researcher of Passport to Magonia fame --and both to Steven Spielberg. Spielberg would later produce Close Encounters of the Third Kind, using Vallee as a technical adviser... This same nexus of Puharich and Sarfatti is said to have influenced Gene Roddenberry in his development of the Star Trek television series. And behind all of this is the hugely influential figure of Ira Einhorn, usually referred to as 'the Unicorn' after the translation of his surname into English.
"For a while, Einhorn served as Sarfatti's literary agent (as he did with Puharich to get Beyond Telepathy reprinted). Einhorn was active in New Age pursuits, a kind of P. T. Barnum of hippiedom, making connections and networking, bringing together people he felt should be brought together to create a kind of explosion of new thinking that cut across traditional disciplinary lines. So you had filmmakers talking this physicist, psychics talking to soldiers, and spies talking everybody. Seminars were held, books and papers published. People like science-fiction author Philip K. Dick (who was discovered by Hollywood in the 1990s, unfortunately after his death) and Robert Anton Wilson could be found in kaffeklatsch with Timothy Leary, John Lilly, Saul Paul Sirag, and assorted G-men. There was a sense among these people that an event of momentous importance to the planet was imminent, and that they were in the forefront of whatever it was going to be.
"Many of them had already had paranormal contacts of some sort (a list that includes Sarfatti, Wilson, Dick, Geller, Puharich, and many, many others) and were certain that these contacts signaled the beginning of a more overt presence by these beings. These were people with government grants and contracts at the highest levels of the US military... And not only the US military. The Soviets were also involved, if only the peripherally. And much of this was going on relatively un-noticed by the American people at large. Although they had seen Uri Geller bend spoons on national television, and had read the stories and novels by Dick and Robert Anton Wilson, for instance, they had no idea that all this activity was being produced by a loosely-organized group of intellectuals operating half-in, half-out of the mainstream... And half-in, half-out of the US government."
(Sinister Forces Book III, Peter Levenda, pgs. 245-246)
|Puharich (top) with the Pope and Sarfatti (bottom)|
"In his book on the Israeli psychic Uri Geller, Dr. Andrija Puharich, a neurologist of some professional reputation which he is presumably not eager to destroy by going out on a limb, asserts that both he and Geller have frequently received communications from extraterrestrials...
"Dr. John Lilly, internationally known psychoanalyst, neuro-anatomist, cyberneticist, mathematician and delphinologist, gently hints that he has also received such communications. Academia, relieved that Dr. Lilly is only hinting and not saying it outright, happily ignores the potential breakthrough."
(Cosmic Trigger Volume I, Robert Anton Wilson, pg. 79)This is probably more interesting in the context of the film Network rather than Altered States as the disembodied voice that speak to Howard Beale is so central to the plot line of that film. Was this encounter, which echoes some of the metaphysical trappings of the day (as noted in part two of this series), based upon the claims made by some individuals affiliated with the Puharich group?
It's certainly a compelling possibility but I've been unable to determine when exactly Chayefsky began delving into this type of high weirdness. He likely began working on the original novel version of Altered States sometime around 1976, a point when this loose confederation of intellectuals was still very much in contact with one another. I've been unable to find anything indicating that Chayefsky had any association with anyone in this network other than Lilly (though Steven Spielberg was reportedly approached to direct Altered States at one point, an allegation I've been unable to confirm) though it's interesting to note that director Ken Russell went on to direct a TV movie in 1996 called Mindbender that was based on the life of Uri Geller and reportedly depicted the efforts of an American scientist (likely based upon Puharich) to bring the famed Israeli psychic over to the United States. Unfortunately, there is very little information available on this film on the net and I've been unable to track a copy down.
Altered States certainly incorporated more than a few theories that this network had explored, however, and there are several parts of the film that seem to have been inspired partly upon real-life experiences of several of the above-mentioned figures. This will of course be addressed in much greater depth later on as we come to such points. Those curious about the Puharich group are advised to check out my article on The Nine as well as an excellent resent piece Christopher Knowles has written on said group and topic. Two installments (which can be found here and here) in my series concerning the US Intelligence community's involvement with the UFO crowd also address the Puharich network at length.
But anyway, let us start in on the film. Altered States opens just as Jessup has begun to experiment with a university isolation tank with the assistance of his good friend, Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban). The opening sequence depicts Jessup suspended in such a tank while voiceover narration (Arthur) recounts his discovery of the device and his initial venture into it in April of 1967. From there the film moves into its opening credit sequence, which features the much celebrated "sliding" opening titles.
When the film picks up again Jessup is emerging from the isolation tank and already buzzing on about the possibilities. As he and Arthur depart from the facility he discusses the lack of quality research into altered states, dismissing the bulk of it as "radical hip stuff." He then goes on to name drop three researchers who impressed him: Tart, Ornstein and Deikman.
These are most likely references to Charles Tart, Robert Ornstein and Arthur Deikman. All three men are either psychiatrists or psychologists who delved into both altered states of consciousness as well as alternative religions. Tart studied the works of Gurdjieff as well as Buddhism and Eastern techniques of mediation. Ornstein heavily incorporated the Sufism of Idries Shah into his counterculture-era work. Deikman also studied under Shah as well trying out the zen mediation of Suzuki Roshi. Both Tart and Deikman also become involved in the Human Potential Movement, Tart with the Institute of Noetic Science and Monroe Institute (he also seemingly had some type of involvement in SRI's legendary remote viewing experiments, a topic I wrote much more on here) while Deikman studied at Esalen during the 1960s. While I've been unable to confirm if Tart, Ornstein or Deikman were involved in the Puharich network it would hardly be beyond the realm of possibility, Tart being an especially likely associate of said network. But I digress --Back to the film.
|Tart (top), Ornstein (middle) and Deikman (bottom)|
Things really get going when the action moves to a party at the Rosenberg residence amongst academics. The festivities are in full 1960s glory (the Summer of Love was just beginning to unfold in April of 1967, after all) with the Doors' "Light My Fire" (a most appropriate selection considering the Doors took their name from Huxley's The Doors of Perception , one of the first serious works on entheogens) playing in the background while Arthur and several other academics discuss Jessup and his flakiness amongst puffs off a joint. One particular individual involved in the rotation is Emily (Blair Brown), the woman Jessup will ultimately marry, who listens in with stoned fascination.
|Emily with party favorite|
The doorbell rings and Mrs. Rosenberg opens it as Emily looks on. This leads to the film's first striking use of hallways, in this case framing Jessup, from the point of view of Emily, against a backdrop of white from which his distorted figure emerges. It gives the effect of Jessup stepping in from another world. Conversely Emily looks, from Jessup's point of view, like an almost angelic figure against the backdrop of a stain windowpane featuring a peculiar design I cannot quite make out.
Director Ken Russell continues to use hallways, doorways and other entranceways as a visual cues throughout the film for when significant moments are upon us. This is a most apt visual for such things symbolically represent the threshold between the known and unknown.
"Gateways symbolize the scene of passing from one state to another, from one world to another, from the known to the unknown, from light to darkness. Doors open upon the mysterious, but they have a dynamic psychological quality for they not only indicate a threshold but invite us to cross it. It is an invitation to a voyage into the unknown.
"The passage to which they invite us is more often than not, in the symbolic sense of the term, a passage from the ream of the profane to that of the sacred."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 422)And indeed, the relationship between Emily and Jessup takes them to the edge of the sacred and the profane with the line frequently being blurred between the two.
The relationship that will develop from this first meeting between Emily and Edward Jessup is crucial to the film's broader story arc on multiple levels. Initially it is a surreal, dreamlike encounter in which both characters develop an immediate rapport for one another as the movie drifts out of the fog. By the early evening they've already departed back to her apartment where they engage in what is nearly transcendental sex for Edward upon the sofa. Jessup tells her of religious imagery that enters into his mind as the act reached its conclusion and goes on to recount the visions he had as a child of angels, saints, and so forth. He then confesses to her that the visions stopped after his father's death from a protracted struggle with cancer when Edward was 16, an event he has not divulged to anyone for many years.
Jessup's discovery of the isolation tank and his chance encounter with Emily start him upon a journey that will not be completed until several years later and which will bring all those around him to the very extremes of human consciousness. Thus, the quasi-mystical trappings of Jessup's first meeting with Emily are most justified and are even reminiscent of one of the most curious occult episodes of the 20th century: Jack Parsons' first encounter with Marjorie Cameron.
While I'm sure many of you are aware of this episode here is a brief run down for the uninitiated: Parsons was a brilliant rocket scientist and co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1940s. He was also an occult adept involved in Aleister Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis and regularly corresponded with the Great Beast. Sometime around 1945 he also became involved with L. Ron Hubbard (yes, the future founder of the Church of Scientology), a relationship he would live to regret. But before their falling out Parsons and Hubbard performed a bizarre, Crowley-derived ritual known as the Babalon Working.
"Parsons began his magical operation. Known as the Babalon Working, its aim was to attract the Southern Californian equivalent of the Great Whore of Babalon. His main weapon was the OTO VII Degree rite, usually practiced alone. But in this case, Parsons asked Hubbard to assist as scryer, rather in the manner of Dee and Kelley. With Prokofiev's Violin Concerto hammering in the background, Parsons worked himself into a magical state, while Hubbard described what was taking place on the astral plane, going through a repertoire of talismans, amulets, sigils and signs, and rituals like the Invocation of the Bornless One, and the Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.
"Not much happened. A windstorm kicked up. A table lamp mysteriously smashed in the night. A strange phantom figure attacked L. Ron. There were raps and a weird metallic, insect-like voice. Then she appeared.
"When the two magicians returned from a mysterious interlude in the Mojave Desert... Marjorie Cameron had descended on Parsons' bohemian household. His Scarlet Woman was willing -- impatient even -- to throw herself into the magical and sexual workings Parsons had in mind. She had fiery red hair, slant green eyes, was talented and intelligent; but it was her obstinate and perverse character that convinced Parsons his had magic worked. He wrote to his magical father telling him so. Crowley replied that he was particularly interested in what he had to say about his 'elemental'..."
(Turn Off Your Mind, Gary Lachman, pgs. 227-228)
I know linking the first encounter between Jessup and Emily to the Parsons/Cameron episode is a bit of a stretch but its at least possible Chayefsky was aware of this bizarre incident. Certainly several individuals involved with the above-mentioned Puharich/Geller network were aware of it (Robert Anton Wilson briefly describes it in his 1977 work Cosmic Trigger Volume I: Final Secrets of the Illuminati, for instance) while Cameron herself had become a very minor counterculture icon after her involvement with Parsons and later film work (including an appearance in legendary occult director Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome).
Beyond this, the circumstances of both meetings are somewhat similar. Parsons first encountered Cameron after performing a transcendental magical working while Jessup meets Emily at a party after his first experience in an isolation tank and his decision to begin experimenting with it. And Emily is certainly a visual Scarlet Woman, with fiery red hair of her own (though her eyes do not appear to be green in this film). Indeed, red hair in and of itself is symbolically loaded on several levels, but especially because of its association with the mythological Scarlet Woman. I've been unable to determine whether or not the Emily character was described as having red hair in the novel but it certainly seems like a deliberate choice in the film version.
Sex between Jessup and Emily at times takes on aspects of a religious encounter, at least for Jessup (Emily describes it as "being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God"), which is certainly in keeping with the ritualistic sexual acts Parsons embarked upon with Cameron.
Finally, the encounter with Emily (as well as the isolation tank) seems to awaken Jessup's slumbering spirituality. His first sexual encounter with Emily stirs memories of his religious visions as a child as well as a confession of their connection to his father's death. And shortly after his relationship with Emily begins Jessup has one of what will be several highly allegorical hallucinations in an isolation tank. But not only is this particular hallucination laden with religious symbolism, but it also seems to allude to both Jessup's past and future.
|the beginning of the hallucination|
It begins with what are presumably images of Jessup's father and his death from cancer. Jessup is seen dropping a Bible, then a piece of cloth with the face of Jesus on it falls from the face of Jessup's father and bursts into flames. A flaming cross then appears before the chest of Jessup's father as he sits upon his hospital bed.
From there Jessup himself is depicted with the head of a seven-eyed lamb, crucified upon a cross. The lamb has of course long been associated with Christ himself in Christian symbolism while the seven-eyed lamb head Jessup adopts during this hallucination is taken directly from the Book of Revelations. In general, the number seven is highly significant in Christian mythology, but especially concerning the highly allegorical Book of Revelations.
"By Sumerian times seven (with some of its multiples) had become a sacred number and it was certainly the darling child of Biblical numerology. Since it corresponded to the number of the planets, it always characterized perfection... if not the godhead itself. The week comprises seven days in memory of the length of Creation... If the Passover feast of unleavened bread lasted seven days..., this was undoubtedly because the Exodus itself is regarded as a new creation and one which brought salvation.
"Zechariah... speaks of the seven eyes of God. Then there are the groups of seven in the Book of Revelation. The seven lamps which are the seven spirits of God signify the spirit of God in its fullness...; the seven letters to the seven churches signify the Church as a whole; and there are the seven trumpets, cups and so on. All these herald the final accomplishment of God's will in the world.
"This is why seven is also the devil's number, since Satan, 'the ape of God,' always strives to imitate God -- hence the beast with seven heads... However, the visionary of Patmos more usually kept half seven, three and a half, for the powers of evil, thereby showing that the designs of the Evil One were doomed to failure...
"Seven is the key to St. John's Gospel -- seven weeks, seven miracles, seven references to Christ as 'I am.' Seven recurs forty times in the Book of Revelation in groups of seven: Seals, trumpets, cups, visions and so on. The book is composed in series of seven. The number also denotes the fullness of a period of time, such as Creation in Genesis; the ending of a period of time, and era or a phase; the plenitude of the graces given to the church by the Holy Spirit."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 862)
|the seven-eyed lamb (top) and Jessup with its head( bottom), crucified|
Seven is also the number of years that will pass before Jessup will begin his experiments concerning consciousness again after his marriage to Emily and tenure at Harvard consumes nearly a decade of his life. At the time of this hallucination Emily has not yet asked Jessup to marry her, though the visions allude to this as well as Jessup's eventual ventures into Mexico in search of the First Self (the entrance shape of the cave in which Jessup participates in a shamanistic entheogen ritual with a native tribe is first shown in this hallucination and will continue to appear to Jessup throughout the movie).
|the cave, the entrance of which first appears in he first depicted hallucination of Jessup's|
Jessup also witnesses an actual seven-eyed lamb have it's throat slit with a sacrificial knife, its blood spilling upon what appears to be some type of holy book depicting the lambed-head Jessup upon his cross and a seven-eyed lamb head above it. I interrupt this as Jessup's sacrifice of his old self in search of the First Soul. Later on he witnesses a red dot that a shaman later describes as the first step "into the void." From there the above-mentioned cave image appears. Finally Jessup witnesses himself sans the lamb head violently engaged in coitus (rape?) with Emily, who lays spread-eagle upon what appears to be an altar. I suppose this is a reflection upon both the ritual and suffering their marriage bring.
This hallucination is clearly still on Jessup's mind when he encounters Emily shortly thereafter. Jessup is in the midst of his research concerning schizophrenics. Emily has just been accepted onto the faculty of Harvard, a post Jessup to will soon hold. She asks him for marriage, a proposition Jessup tries half-heartedly to talk her out of. He drifts into some ramblings about the possibilities that schizophrenia is simply an attempt to transform the self (some such as Peter Levenda have argued that forms of insanity such as schizophrenia are the result of failed attempts at a shamanistic transformation not unlike the one Jessup is beginning to go through) before accepting Emily's proposal, perhaps due to a subconscious realization that she is the only thing that will ultimately spare him from the fate of his subjects.
After Jessup accepts Emily's marriage proposal the film flashes forward seven years, when Arthur and his family have once again encountered Jessup and Emily in San Francisco. It is soon revealed that Jessup has asked Emily for a divorce. When Arthur asks him about this Jessup bemoans the politics of academia, his lack of legitimate research and ultimately sums up his relationship to Emily as thus:
"Emily's quite content to go on with this life. She insists she's in love with me - whatever that is. What she means is she prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves. But I'm not afraid of that solitary pain. In fact, if I don't strip myself of all this clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual, I shall go out of my fucking mind."In other words, the journey that he began seven years ago will not leave him be until he has finished it. With out realizing it, Jessup has already signed up for the second leg of this journey: a trip to Mexico to observer an ancient shamanistic vision quest performed by the fictional Hinchi tribe. In the fifth installment in this series I shall pick with Jessup's Mexican expedition. Stay tuned.