Maybe it’s the fact that everyone I knew coming up in film school in the 2010s dropped acid like Ariana Grande drops albums, or maybe the glut of media released in the 2010s has forced filmmakers to dig deeper to find original visuals for their films, but the horror of the latter 2010s has been extra choice as far as psychedelic imagery is concerned. And in a twist of fate that I can’t speculate on, Nicolas Cage has been central in this trend. His recent films Mandy and Color Out of Space are two of the finest “acid horror” films released in the last few years, in a sub-genre that also includes Ari Aster’s Midsommar. Basically, one of our culture’s favorite plot devices for horror these days is having a bunch of people trip on substances and show us that it’s our own minds that are the scariest thing of all. (I bet if you were tripping right now you would think that was super deep.)
Midsommar plays on the oneness with the world people tend to feel on acid trips, and takes that feeling to places that remind us why we wouldn’t want to be like that all the time. The film follows a bunch of classically clueless horror protagonists who end up at a midsummer festival in Sweden where they trip a bunch of shrooms and end up murdering or fucking their way to their freaky deaths. Nicolas Cage’s contributions to “acid horror” include both Mandy, which appears to be a death metal album cover adapted into a movie, and Color Out of Space, which actually was adapted from an H.P. Lovecraft short story. In both of these movies, Cage plays a regular guy who is placed at the mercy of otherworldly forces out to destroy this plane of existence. Mandy leads Cage to an acid dealer whose recent bad batch is the reason a local death cult has burned Cage’s wife at the stake. Color Out of Space follows Cage as the patriarch of a family whose livelihood is raising alpacas on their rural Northeastern farm; the hallucinogen in this case is the essence of Cthulhu, which appears to be seeping into the water supply from a mysterious asteroid. In all these films the protagonists’ minds are opened, and so are portals to hell.
What do these films, and others like them, tell us about where we’re at as a culture? For one thing, psychedelics have clearly gone mainstream in a big way. The stories I’ve heard about people having flashbacks during screenings show that the horror audience is more knowledgeable about these substances than ever before. Second, it could be tied into how the anxieties of our time have more than anything else led us to question reality. The news is fake, everything we thought was certain is just a point of view, and our subconscious fears have pushed both people and countries into situations no one intended. It might just be time for Western culture to do some soul-searching the way college freshmen have for years–by tripping balls. Each of these films explores a major anxiety plaguing our minds right now, whether it’s climate change in Color Out of Space, end-of-life treatment in Midsommar, or the knowledge that some elements of society are just plain evil in Mandy.
At its core, Midsommar is about how we negotiate the relationship between life and death. The twisted expressions of that relationship we see in the compound where the Midsommar festival is held can all be linked to the freaky ways we think about life and death ourselves. Anyone who has ever watched a relative live on attached to tubes rather than being given back to the earth when they’re ready as this Swedish commune does might have some doubts about their own approach to life and death after this movie. Color Out of Space of course freaks us out by reminding us that toxic waste is not only raising the temperature but also giving us all kinds of health issues that we might not even know about until the class-action lawsuit is thrown out in a decades by the crack team of corporate lawyers hired to keep the whole scandal out of the news.
Finally, in Mandy we see further examination of the problem with reality as we know it when we’re taken inside the drug-fueled rituals of The Children of the New Dawn. Cage can barely tell what’s real by the end of that movie, and neither can we. Is the tiger real? Is the fantastical heavy metal imagery real? Who knows? All Cage can do is cling to his own convictions and trust that his love for his wife will lead him in the right direction–and we relate to his struggles because that’s all we can do, too.
Horror films have always been about our subconscious issues, but there hasn’t always been such an invitation from horror films to their audiences to unpack their responses to them. Instead of just being a release valve for all our repressed psychosexual stuff, horror movies use that as the starting point and aim for a conversation around the material after the credits roll. Again, the huge amount of content being released every day in this era has changed the way filmmakers create–they haven’t just had to find cooler visuals; they are now able to place trust in their audience’s intellectual appreciation of their work in a way that wasn’t as possible in the pre-Netflix era. The result is horror becoming more psychological, more intellectual, more introspective, and more psychedelic.