Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience

Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience

by Stephen Siff

Paperback(1st Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, January 24

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252080760
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 05/15/2015
Series: History of Communication Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Stephen Siff is assistant professor of journalism at Miami University, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt

Acid Hype

American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience

By Stephen Siff


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09723-2


Early Restrictions on Drug Speech, 1900–1956

In 1968, when the public interest in and media attention to psychedelic drugs seemed to be reaching a crescendo, the LSD researcher and addiction expert Sidney Cohen reflected that the lavish descriptions of psychedelic drug trips and breathless testimonials proliferating in contemporary media were not genuinely new. Cohen noted that in 1822, the Englishman Thomas De Quincey, enthralled by a preparation of opium, wrote in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, "[H]appiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail." In the classic poem "Kubla Khan," Samuel Taylor Coleridge described fantastic visions brought on by opium. Other Victorian writers, including Edgar Allan Poe and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "spoke of the extract of Oriental poppy capsule in terms singularly similar to the eulogies of today's LSD advocates," Cohen observed.

Even the sensations of mystical insight and cosmic understanding attributed to LSD were earlier associated with other drugs, particularly nitrous oxide—laughing gas—which had a long history of recreational use. William James, a founding father of American psychology, wrote about achieving mystical experiences through laughing gas in a number of places, including an 1874 review in the Atlantic Monthly (1880 circulation 12,000). In his 1902 masterwork The Varieties of Religious Experience, James concluded that laughing gas offered insights of genuine "metaphysical significance" that were appropriate for serious philosophical consideration, although one was under no obligation to accept the drug-inspired insights of anyone else. A contemporary of James scoffed, "Truly the new beatitude is a hard saying: 'Blessed are the intoxicated, for to them the kingdom of spirits is revealed.'"

An even closer analog to LSD was mescaline, the psychoactive component of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus, long used by American Indians in religious observances and first isolated from peyote buttons in 1896 by the German chemist Arthur Heffter. The British psychologist and intellectual Havelock Ellis introduced mescaline to others, including the poet W. B. Yeats, and wrote about his experiences with the drug in the British periodical Contemporary Review in 1898 and Popular Science Monthly (1901 circulation 10,000) in 1902. Ellis described how a potion derived from three cactus buttons produced brilliant, kaleidoscopic visions and a fresh appreciation for the beauty of simple objects. He added that an acquaintance reported obtaining "objective knowledge" of his own personality by way of mescaline use. "Mescal intoxication may be described as chiefly a saturnalia of the specific senses, and, above all, an orgy of vision. It reveals an optical fairyland, where all the senses now and again join the play, but the mind itself remains a self-possessed spectator," Ellis summarized in the Contemporary Review article. "It may at least be claimed that for a healthy person to be once or twice admitted to the rites of mescal is not only an unforgettable delight but an educational influence of no mean value"

By 1950, these drug experiences described vividly in turn-of-the-century magazines had disappeared from public memory. The leading drug-control historian David F. Musto in 1973 identified a persistent cycle in the history of American drug use, in which successive generations forgot the harm caused by a drug and repeated the excess of the past. At midcentury, Americans' knowledge was at a low point. With the decline in drug use since the century's start, fewer Americans had firsthand experience taking recreational drugs and hence were less familiar with both risks and rewards.

Extra-media and ideological influences on the mass media worked to compound Americans' naiveté. Beginning shortly after the turn of the century, censors attacked cinematic depictions of drugs for fear that any representation might serve as an enticement. Industry codes governing film, and later television, forbade any portrayal of drugs. Although the obscenity laws, industry codes, and government activism intended to keep practical or potentially alluring information away from the public did not focus directly on news media, journalists were influenced by the social ideology that labeled the material inappropriate. Sympathetic portraits of drug addicts persisted for a few years after the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, which criminalized possession of opium-based drugs and cocaine. However, by the mid-1920s journalists had largely adopted the apocalyptic language of antinarcotic crusaders. As the news media turned its attention to narcotics, it was frequently to sensationalize their dangers to play on readers' worst fears.

History of Censorship of Drug information

The genesis of laws used to censor information about drugs was the post-Civil War crusade against obscenity led by U.S. Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The 1873 federal Comstock Law forbade publishing or mailing information, instructions, "or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception or for causing unlawful abortion," as well as "obscene, lewd or lascivious" materials. Forty years later, Comstock boasted that he had "convicted persons enough to fill a passenger train of sixty-one coaches, sixty coaches containing sixty passengers each and the sixty-first almost full. I have destroyed 160 tons of obscene literature"

Progressive crusaders and government officials who enforced censorship at the local level did not fear simply that people who viewed obscene material would mimic the behavior portrayed. Rather, they believed that the act of viewing itself was harmful, leading to juvenile delinquency and social decline. Comstock-era attacks on obscenity drew on an understanding articulated in the 1868 British court ruling in Regina v. Hicklin. Under that decision, obscenity was defined as that which could be harmful to women, children, or the mentally deficient. "The tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall," the ruling read. Using this definition, courts found ample grounds to ban printed information about birth control and abortion, as well as racy books. Among the hundreds prosecuted under the Comstock Law was Edward Bliss Foote, inventor of the rubber diaphragm, and Margaret Sanger, founder of the modern birth-control movement, who fled indictment in 1915 for sending birth-control information through the mail.

Enforcers of Comstockery turned their sights on recreational drug use in the moving pictures, a new medium whose very intimacy challenged Victorian norms of propriety. "Picture galleries of hell," William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal called moving-picture arcades in 1899, charging that they showed schoolchildren obscene, indecent, and immoral pictures "too vulgar to be described," but almost certainly including short films of women dancing or in tights. Opium smoking was included in motion pictures of this vintage by W. K. Laurie Dickson, George Méliès, the Lumière brothers, and others.

Depictions of urban low life, nightlife, and crime offended the official watchdogs of early films, which in New York included police, agents of Comstock's Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the mayor's office, which licensed theaters.

A popular genre along these lines was the "slumming" comedy, which typically followed tourists on a night on the town, including a visit to a Chinese opium den. In 1909, after protests caused New York Mayor George McClelland to temporarily shutter all 550 of the city's theaters, a censorship board was created in New York at the request of the city's film exhibitors. Named the National Board of Censorship, the board quickly gained support and financing from a trade group representing the ten largest film manufacturers. By 1914, the National Board of Censorship claimed to be reviewing 95 percent of U.S. films, and its weekly bulletin was mailed to city officials and civic groups around the country. Almost 20 percent of the films it reviewed were rejected for depicting sexuality, prostitution, drug use, or violent crime.

Other municipalities and states soon established censorship boards with more strident standards, often targeting images of drug use. Instructive details of the "use of opium and other habit-forming drugs" were prohibited in Maryland. Ohio prohibited "scenes which show the use of narcotics and other unnatural practices dangerous to social morality as attractive." In Massachusetts the law read, "[P]ictures and parts of pictures dealing with the drug habit: e.g., the use of opium, morphine, cocaine, etc. will be disapproved." In 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court established that films were not protected under the First Amendment but were rather "business pure and simple," and hence subject to state regulation just as any other business. By 1923, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, Maryland, New York, Virginia, and Massachusetts had formed state censorship boards, as had dozens of local jurisdictions.

Disapproval by state and local censorship boards did not prevent the production of a few hundred silent films about illegal drugs, addiction, and the drug trade, nearly all of which are now lost. Most followed the trajectory of an upper-or middle-class character who becomes hooked on drugs and subsequently loses his job, family, and self-respect. While many of these films depicted a sympathetic drug user's descent into addiction and degeneracy, the antidrug message was often undercut by glamorous stops along the way. Notable drug films included D. W. Griffith's For His Son (1914), the story of a father who grows rich off a cocaine-laced soft drink called Dopokoke, but whose son becomes hopelessly addicted to the Coca-Cola-inspired product. In the notoriously bizarre 1916 The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, drugs are used to justify the madcap behavior of detective Coke Ennyday, played by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The character lives up to his name by injecting himself with hypodermic needles worn in a sash around his chest, inhaling clouds of cocaine, and eating opium by the fistful. The detective's office clock divides the day between "dope," "drinks," "sleep," and "eats."

Films like these, along with a series of scandals in the early 1920s, seemed to expose Hollywood as a hotbed of sin. There were rumors of cocaine use following the death of the actress Olive Thomas, wife of Jack Pickford, in Paris in 1920. The following year, the comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was accused of raping starlet Virginia Rappe during a party at a San Francisco hotel, leading to her death. Arbuckle was eventually acquitted of rape and manslaughter, but the episode soured attitudes toward Hollywood. While the second of Arbuckle's three jury trials was still under way, Paramount Studios director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in Los Angeles. Newspaper reports on the latter murder and subsequent investigation alleged that Taylor was killed by drug dealers associated with his friend and rumored lover, the silent-screen bad girl Mabel Normand, who had a long-standing affinity for cocaine. Public disgust with Hollywood contributed to declining box-office sales and the introduction of nearly one hundred new censorship bills in thirty-seven states.

To forestall greater regulation, studio executives tapped Will H. Hays, the U.S. postmaster general and former campaign manager for President Warren G. Harding, to head up a new trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, responsible for creating a set of standards for the movies its members would distribute. Shortly after accepting the post, Hays requested that distributors cancel all bookings and showings of Arbuckle's films. In 1921, the association instituted the "morality clause," subjecting actors to dismissal for behavior that was offensive to public decency, and studio executives circulated a blacklist of more than one hundred drug users and addicts who were warned to sober up or lose their jobs. A statement the same year condemned "stories that make gambling and drunkenness attractive or scenes that show the use of narcotics and other unnatural practices dangerous to social morality." Depictions of drug use were forbidden regardless of in-plot consequences. In 1927, the Association of Motion Picture Producers and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America issued a resolution discouraging the use of the word "drugs," even in connection with smuggling. It read, "naturally, the methods of distributing illegal drugs, and of peddling dope may never be shown since this is an art of the 'traffic' in drugs" Guidelines issued from the Hays office, however, did little to head off the production of troublesome films; the number of cuts demanded by local censors reached a new high in 1929.

To quiet critics and preclude the possibility of federal censorship, the Hays office adopted a detailed Motion Picture Production Code in 1930. Its attitude toward drug use was blunt: "Illegal drug traffic must never be presented. Because of its evil consequences, the drug traffic should never be presented in any form. The existence of the trade should not be brought to the attention of audiences" Four years later, the Production Code Administration was empowered to enforce the code by pre-screening movies. The major Hollywood studios, which owned most urban first-run theaters, vowed not to distribute or show unapproved films, and many independent theater owners followed suit. For nearly two decades, not a single major Hollywood film dealing with drug use was distributed to the public.

Newspaper Antidrug Crusades

Print media had more latitude in depiction of drug use, but it also responded to the governmental and cultural disapproval of narcotics. Although middleclass and medical narcotics addicts had been subjects of sympathy before narcotics prohibition, the devious, criminal drug addict became a staple of reporting on narcotics after their prohibition. Newspaper and magazine articles about drugs reflected the sensitivities of motion-picture censorship by avoiding descriptions or instructive information about drug use, while often adopting the most heated rhetoric of antidrug campaigners and government officials. The historian Susan L. Speaker observed that the drug problem was described as an "evil," a "menace," an "infection," or in similar terms in two-thirds of the fifty-four articles she examined for a history of 1920s and 1930s drug-reform rhetoric. Nearly three-quarters of the articles offered numbers exaggerating the scope of the drug problem.

Overheated antidrug rhetoric perhaps reached its zenith in the roughly two dozen Hearst newspapers, which frequently ran the same articles and editorials and by the 1920s accounted for approximately 10 percent of daily and 20 percent of Sunday newspapers sold across the country. During the 1920s, Hearst newspapers built on the interest in Hollywood drug scandals with a series of crusades against illicit drugs that redirected some of the anxieties and rhetoric that undergirded alcohol prohibition. Arbuckle's first trial was under way in San Francisco when the San Francisco Examiner launched its 1921 salvo with the headline, "Drug Evil Invades Cities, Towns as Ruthless Ring Coolly Recruits Victims," by the celebrity reporter Annie Laurie:

There are more than one million drug addicts in the United States today. Ten years ago, there were less than half a million.

Twenty years ago, the "dope" habit was contained to the underworld—today it is reaching, creeping closer to the very doorsteps of the plain, everyday home—and it has already trailed its slimy length into the very heart of what we call society.

For the next several weeks, editorials, editorial cartoons, and feature stories pressed the case: "The Twentieth Century pestilence that stalks at noonday commands your attention," one editorial proclaimed. "The diligent dealer in deadly drugs is at your door!" Contributions from Laurie (a.k.a. Winifred Black) included first-person accounts of visits to "Paradise Alley," "Evil Town," and San Francisco's "Street of the Living Dead," where addicts congregated. "So how many today—how many tomorrow? How far does it reach ... and into what unsuspected homes does it throw its dreadful shadow this very hour?" Laurie asked. Another editorial offered the shocking—and exaggerated—figure of two million drug addicts from coast to coast, about one in every fifty-five Americans.

The death of the silent film star Wally Reid from morphine addiction in 1923 coincided with a revival of Hearst's antidrug crusade. In an article on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner, Laurie asked: "Is there a dope problem in the United States of America? And does that problem deeply and vitally concern you and your home and your children, and every young and easily influenced boy and girl in this country, from Maine to California and from Seattle to Galveston?" The answer, she concluded, was clearly yes. "The narcotic traffic has almost trebled in volume in America in the past two years," Laurie reported. "We use in the United States forty times more narcotic drugs per capita than any other white nation" Editorial cartoons supporting the 1923 crusade showed the "dope evil" as the cloaked figure Death. Even more dramatic was the promotion, published in newspapers from coast to coast, for a related article in the February 1923 edition of Hearst's International Magazine (1923 circulation 443,000) that showed dope as a monstrous hyena, with the body of a woman in its jaws (figure 1).


Excerpted from Acid Hype by Stephen Siff. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, xi,
Introduction: Midcentury Media's Trip with LSD, 1,
1. Early Restrictions on Drug Speech, 1900–1956, 17,
2. Introducing LSD, 1953–1956, 42,
3. Creating a Psychedelic Past, 1954–1960, 68,
4. Research at the Intersection of Media and Medicine, 1957–1962, 89,
5. Luce, Leary, and LSD, 1963–1965, 115,
6. Moral Panic and Media Hype, 1966–1968, 145,
Postscript: Psychedelic Media, 181,
Notes, 191,
Index, 227,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago