We can go off this Wikipedia definition easily enough:
“Psychedelic art uses highly distorted, surreal visuals, bright colors and full spectrums and animation (including cartoons) to evoke, convey, or enhance the psychedelic experience.”
I did not grow up in the ‘60s and missed out on the psychedelic counter-culture experience firsthand (sadly enough). A counter-culture revolution that left a slew of really good music and movies which I love, along with a type of artistic aesthetic.
The psychedelic experience and its art form is similar to a sci-fi experience, in which the participants are provided outer world experiences. Getting there through either magic or science.
In the Disney 1951 classic, Alice in Wonderland, there is the consummation of a physiological altering formula. A trope used throughout many Disney movies, involving physical or mental transformations brought on by ‘magical potions.’ This can also be seen in other early movies such as Dr. Jeckyll and Mr Hide, first filmed in 1931, and The Invisible Man in 1933. Coincidently in 1938, psychedelics were accidentally discovered by a Swiss chemist in the lab.
In the iconic psychedelia movies of the ‘60s, The Trip and Easy Rider, there is the consumption of the psychedelic sacrament, and then predictably there is an ensuing trip-out, sending the viewer on a kaleidoscopic experience. Followed by a montage of strange, out of sequence events where the main character, the one taking the trip, is confronted with extraordinary, horrific, and fantastical events taking place in his own mind. This ‘far out’ visual journey is a meta experience caught on camera, where the viewer is meant to feel like they are on acid without actually partaking in the experiment.
Acid was looked upon as a key to the subconscious, a way to allow people to explore without ever leaving the surface of the planet, or even a single room. A type of exploration, discovering alternate realities within their own minds, much like an alternate dimension stepped into by a technologically advanced time traveler or scientist, unleashing cosmic powers.
Similarly, Ray Millan in The Man with X-ray Eyes (1963) is a scientist that is driven mad because of his creation that allows him to see what no one else possibly could, turning him into a conduit between earth and the universe.
The 60’s not only ushered in the psychedelic revolution, but it was also the time when great advancements were being made in science and technology. Missions to the moon were being planned, and the fear of atomic destruction grew steadily worse, as the bombs got bigger and the word ‘nuclear’ became more popular. Around the same time, a researcher turned counter culture guru, turned enemy of the state, Timothy Leary led experiments with LSD, and at the same time, the Mary Pranksters were having their Electric Acid Kool-Aid tests.
1960’s psychedelic culture permeated the scene, and film makers were attempting to give their viewers an experience that they could not get otherwise. Reminiscent of the electric shocks rigged under the seats of 1950’s movie theatres. The B-monster and horror matinees, set to go off at a specific scene in the film, or movies filmed in some kind of Color-o-Rama, or Sound-O- Rama, or shall I even say, Psych-O-Rama, allowing the viewer to viscerally experience the trip as if actually there. Think 3D without the residual effects of jumping out a window, or experiencing a debilitating psychosis.
Could a movie be filmed that would allow its viewer to experience the acid trip, or the journey in space to another reality? The drug culture was its audience, the psychedelic elements of traveling to dimensions and visiting with those inhabiting the occultish and mystical worlds. Images coming alive after emerging from the minds of the writers of pulp fiction and the comic books of the early 1900’s, with roots going much further back into fairytales and mythologies.
In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story is fairly conventional until towards the end where then there is perhaps one of the longest and strangest psychedelic scenes on film. The astronaut enters the star gate around Jupiter, experiencing a heavy stream of strange shapes and colors for what seems like an endless scene. Leaving the viewer very aware that they are watching something that is not in the familiar context of most movies. We are experiencing visions of unfamiliar planet surfaces. With the astronaut’s eye occasionally staring out at us, only to arrive in a sparsely furnished neo-French menagerie where he spends the rest of his life, trapped there until dying in his bed. When a monolith appears to confront his last minutes, he reaches out, only to be reborn as a giant star child.
Stanislaw Lem wrote Solaris in 1961, the movie was made by Andre Tarkovsky in 1972. The most incredible part of the story is the consciousness in space, which is the very planet itself. While an astronaut describes the hallucinations that he experienced while orbiting the living sea planet beneath him. The astronaut reported to his superiors seeing a giant baby walking across the water. The planet trying to communicate by materializing the memories of those on a space station, making their hallucinations of love and lost ones live again, resulting in madness, and ultimately tragedy, while the movie ends on a hallucinatory note.
Ray Bradbury wrote The Illustrated Man in 1951, and the movie would follow in 1969. The main character played by Rod Steiger, a man tattooed all over his body, each tattoo a portal to a different reality. Much like The Trip in 1967, the main character is transported to alternate dimensions, times, and universes. A movie that perhaps would not be as profound if made in the 1950’s, taking almost another twenty years to be made by the more experimental film makers and seen by the more liberal viewers of the psychedelic age.
Whether or not the original authors intended their works to be psychedelic is hard to say, probably not, but the movies acquired the style of film making at the time psychedelia and the counter culture of the 60’s saturated popular culture. Sci-fi lends itself to the idea of psychedelia; altering of time, a strangeness and otherworldliness, a surrealist quality, dealing with issues of time and space. Chemicals and technology. One is science, the other is magic which could be interchangeable at times as both are obscure knowledge known to only those that practice it. 60’s psychedelia turned into the Stoner Culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the music changing and evolving. The psychedelic cinema waning, turning into the hard realism of Horror. Sci-Fi also changed, and Star Wars came. The style seemed to go underground, remaining as part of youth culture, and remaining rebellious, original, and unique with animated movies like Fantastic Planet (1973), Wizards (1977), and Heavy Metal (1981).
Rudolfo A. Serna was born under the nuclear shadow of Los Alamos National Laboratories and raised in the orchards, mountains, and fields of northern New Mexico. Occupations have included carpenter, landscaper, wildland firefighter, creative writing coordinator, and adjunct professor. With a penchant for ‘70s horror B-movies, psychedelic doom metal, permaculture, and nature worship, he lives with his wife and daughter in Albuquerque, NM, writing dark fantasy sci-fi. A regular contributor to Brick Moon Fiction, his stories can also be seen in Bewildering Stories, Aphotic Realm, and Augur Magazine. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico, and serves as the digital steward of the Mutantroot Art Collective. His novel, Snow Over Utopia, is out with Apex Publications.
Sam joined the Coolthulhu Crew in December 2018. She reviews science fiction and horror for the site and is our resident Canadian.