Everyone at one stage or another has been told by someone not to get into narcotics. The effort behind that dissuasion can vary depending on who it is. It could be a hard no or a vaguer, ‘Be careful, won’t you?’. It might be a principal, a parent or a peer. Or it might be the government or a major media outlet. In the interests of the health and wellbeing of youth, there are always teaching materials circulating. They might aim at fostering a healthy understanding of their effects. Or these materials could be equating any and all drugs with the devil, approaching teenagers like sheep being herded through fad after destructive fad with no brains of their own.
Drug Stories: Narcotic Nightmares and Hallucinogenic Hellrides is a collection of these anti-drug materials compiled by the American Genre Film Association and Something Weird, a small batch of some of the more innovative videos from the 60s and 70s to be shown to American kids to keep them sensible. No amount of misinformation is too much, but that isn’t to say we can’t learn from them. They are even quite entertaining in a slightly morbid sense.
The high school anti-drug ad, LSD-25, is actually very engaging. The narrator has a smooth Humphrey Bogart voice. The whole production is even slightly seductive. It’s meant to be. In it a dose of LSD narrates its passage through the human body, proclaims its silent and invisible deception, as if it is a particularly devious cat burglar designed purely to rob people of their sanity. Later this sly rogue compares itself to a game of Russian Roulette, and as the message concludes we join a group of children sitting in a circle in the dark, passing around a revolver loaded with only one bullet. However you want to portray the lure of drugs, this is purely an exercise in peddling paranoia.
One video features a primary school-aged child grilling a faceless dealer about the consequences of each of the specific pills he peddles to a schoolyard of curious onlookers. In another, an outcast primary student is lured in by the promise of popularity before seeking the guidance of a reformed user. Perhaps the most memorable comes last, a half-hour address to a bevy of startled high school students to this collection by a woman known as Florrie Fisher.
Blunt and antagonistic – ‘The hell with statistics!’ – this impassioned reformed addict reels off her experiences of everything from the gutter to prostitution to jail to psychiatric clinics, providing a grim but jargon-heavy picture of what can go wrong. It’s confronting, there’s a lot of hyperbole and some breathtaking generalisations, but it’s rarely lacking detail of what sounds like a remarkable life.
Occasionally she even parses her pleas with some bizarre tangents: ‘I was thrown from a horse and I had a laminectomy and I ended up in the San Francisco General Hospital. I was operated on by the same doctor who operated on the late Jayne Mansfield’s son Zoltan when he was mauled by the lion’. Okay then. Amy Sedaris’s character Jerri Blank from late-nineties comedy Strangers with Candy was based on her.
Presented without introduction or commentary, these stories are a showcase of how to use fear to subvert and curb the impulses of those crazy, irrational, unpredictable entities we call teenagers. God help you if you happen to ingest even a microbe of LSD. After witnessing a young man yelp like a stricken animal and scream for help – ‘God, no! Get me out of this terrible place!’ – our sentient LSD host calmly narrates his mischief: ‘I’ve even been known to carry a passenger inside the pulsing redness of his own beating heart … and leave him there.’ The blaring trumpets of panic sound and presumably classrooms of young children are left terrified of the hellish, predatory world they’ve been born into.
These productions are often as puzzling as they are entertaining, owing to the distance of retrospection, and it’s a window into 70s schooling many won’t be familiar with. But do yourself a favour: measure this viewing with some mature discussion. You’ll need it.
Drug Stories: Narcotic Nightmares and Hallucinogenic Hellrides screens as part of Paracinema Fest which runs from 29th October to 5th December at Lido, Classic and Cameo cinemas.