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The Horrors of Drug Addiction in Movies

In an age of knee-jerk aversion to remakes of classic horror movies, no one (including myself) expected 2013’s EVIL DEAD to be what it was: Absolutely fantastic. Director Fede Alvarez, along with the film’s writers, cast, and producers, managed to create something that honored the source material (Sam Raimi’s seminal EVIL DEAD Trilogy) while bringing unique elements to the story. While not humorless, Alvarez’s EVIL DEAD had serious undertones that matched the film’s brutal practical FX and relentless terror.

Fede’s biggest innovation to the cabin-in-the-woods subgenre the original EVIL DEAD established was the main character’s drug addiction. As opposed to the standard college-kids-on-vacation set-up, Mia (played by Jane Levy) is being taken to the remote location by her friends and family in order to kick heroin. This modernism became integral in the characters’ motivations for staying in the cabin, even when things start going sideways. Mia’s drug addiction also becomes a trap that keeps her bound to the supernatural spot, as her reactions to the sinister forces she senses (and her subsequent possession) are initially chalked up to symptoms of violent physical withdrawal.

While drug addiction was employed in 2013’s EVIL DEAD primarily as a device to keep the characters bound to the cursed cabin, it can also be seen as an underlying metaphor throughout the film. What’s more, Alvarez’s remake illustrates how almost all films that feature demonic possession can be seen as similar metaphors for the perils of dangerous drug use (whether intentionally or not). 99 times out of 100, films in the possession/exorcism subgenre feature a young woman entering puberty or some similar live-shaping phase of development. Jennifer Carpenter in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, for example, was a freshman in college; Kiernan Shipka in THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER was experiencing a sexual awakening; Odette Annable was struggling with unrealistic societal expectations in THE UNBORN. These are all periods of life when men and women alike are susceptible to the temptations of drug use, either as an escape or an expression of youthful rebellion.

“That’s not my daughter… That’s a monster!”

This could be a line from any number of demonic possession horror movies, or the expression of a real mother or father lamenting destructive behavioral changes in an offspring. When warring hormones and ideologies between parents and young adults collide, the results can be explosive. Add drugs to the mix and things become genuinely horrifying. But even though the drug addiction metaphor can be seen as intrinsic to these films, others take a more direct approach to exploring the devastating consequences of chemical dependencies.

In LOVELY MOLLY, directed by Eduardo Sánchez, the titular main character (played by Gretchen Lodge) is having difficulty adjusting to life as a newlywed. While this puts her in the same emotional danger zone as other young women in the throes of puberty or another trying transitional phase,  this character (like Mia) has a history of drug use that puts her actions into question. Is she really suffering from the influence of menacing outside forces, or is she hiding a relapse? This uncertainty, combined with the negative societal implications of addiction, allows the situation to spiral out of control before those around Molly can offer any substantial relief.

LOVELY MOLLY also explores the link between physical/mental abuse and drug use, adding layers of subtext to this chilling allegory. By intentionally creating links between addiction and demonic possession, the film becomes a powerful social statement.

In INNER DEMONS, released in 2014, director Seth Grossman uses drug addiction as a plot motivator and a metaphor while completely flipping expected tropes. We’re introduced to 16-year-old Carson Morris (played by Lara Vosburgh), a former straight-A student who became an intravenous heroin addict for an extremely unique reason: To keep possessing demons at bay. In addition to presenting the intriguing idea that opioids can sedate paranormal intruders, Grossman adds layers to the implicit parallels of the subgenre, speaking to the practice of self-medication employed by those who can’t afford (or choose not) to receive professional help when dealing with psychological manifestations.

What I appreciate most about the films above is the way drug addiction is both a plot device and a springboard for deeper exploration of concepts like metamorphosis, transition, abuse, and rebellion. This makes them socially relevant in ways that differentiates them from films that simply use drugs as a villain by proxy; films like SHROOMS, TOAD ROAD, and JOHN DIES AT THE END, for example, where drugs are the cause of devastation as opposed to a symptom of larger evils. And while the term “drug horror” can be used as an umbrella that covers the possession subgenre and films that use chemicals as a source of terror, there’s another subset of films worth exploring: Films about drug use that are so harrowing, they convey legitimately devastating dread.

While no one would call TRAINSPOTTING a horror movie, there’s one scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a terrifying genre offering [Above]. When Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) finds himself in the feverish grip of detoxification, he’s confined to his bed like a prisoner, where he suffers both physical agony and grotesque hallucinations. Set to a relentlessly throbbing techno beat, Renton thrashes and screams as though filled with angry demons being forcibly evicted. It culminates in a ghastly manifestation: A dead baby defying gravity, crawling across the ceiling, spinning its head backwards like Regan (Linda Blair) in THE EXORCIST before attacking. When I saw TRAINSPOTTING in a theater back in 1996, people actually screamed when the ghoulish infant dropped. Director Danny Boyle created a visual collage that matched the intensity of the moment, skillfully conveying the horror of withdrawal, even to those who have never experienced it first-hand.

Drug use permeates every aspect of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs psychedelic manifesto NAKED LUNCH. IMDB classifies the film as a drama, but in Cronenberg’s twisted fingers, it becomes a truly unnerving descent into madness that most horror fans will find intoxicating. Bill (played by Peter Weller) is an exterminator who becomes addicted to the chemicals he uses on insects. After accidentally killing his wife attempting to shoot an apple off her head, he escapes to foreign city where exotic drug-users are plentiful. Bill is soon unable to differentiate between nightmarish visions and harsh realities (as is the audience). Unable to achieve clarity, we move from one uncomfortably dangerous state of existence into another.

NAKED LUNCH highlights a particular aspect of addition which is the tendency to purposely obscure past events in order to maintain a false reality. Like Carson from INNER DEMONS, drugs keep Bill’s internal demons away. In his case though, drugs turn every waking moment into a nightmare without relief. It’s a debilitating, horrifying state of existence many chronic drugs users (like the late Burroughs, himself) can relate to.

The ultimate cinematic representation of the horrors of drug addiction is one that transcends the arbitrary barriers of genre classification. While technically considered a drama, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (based on the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr.) has more jump-scares than a haunted house movie, more gore than your average genre offering, enough suspense to make you sick,  and human transformations that put portrayals of zombie resurrection to shame.

With REQUIEM, director Darren Aronofsky delivers a film of excruciating intensity that builds to dizzying levels, creating a pervasive sense of dread that sticks with viewers long after the end credits. It’s an impactful, horrifying experience that succeeds through the brutal portrayal of hardcore drug use. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM communicates the experience in such a palpable manner, even someone who has never been high will feel physical devastation. How many horror movies do that?

In addition to shocking audiences, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM challenges preconceived notions about drug addicts, what they look like, and how people find themselves trapped in addiction’s powerful grip. We follow 4 characters as they descend into Hell. Tyrone C. Love (played by Marlon Wayans) has the charm and charisma to succeed at anything he sets his mind to, but ends up in a literal prison that serves as a concrete parallel to the bonds of addiction. Marion Silver (played by Jennifer Connelly) is a gifted artist and model who trades priceless virtue for heroin, culminating in an approximation of sexual assault that speaks to the shattering repercussions of addiction. Harry Goldfarb (played by Jared Leto) is the kind of good looking Caucasian society throws open its doors for, but the clinical amputation of his abscess-rotted arm is a more potent mutilation than any cinematic chainsaw attack.

Sara Goldfarb (played by Ellen Burstyn) is the most tragic and disturbing character portrayed in REQUIEM FOR A DEAM. She seems an unlikely candidate for drug addiction as a post-menopausal woman who never walked on the wild side. Her experience speaks to a specific epidemic: The over-prescription of powerful pharmaceuticals. It’s a scourge that’s more prevalent today that it was in 2000 when the film was released. Her devolution from TV-loving mom-on-the-block to a walking dead shell of her former self is perhaps the most powerful portrayal of the horrors of addiction ever committed to film.

With opioid and amphetamine addiction increasing nationwide, chances are drugs and the devastation they often bring will likely become common explorations, not just in horror movies, but in the entirety of cinema.

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