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Mind Over Pop Culture: Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder is one of the most psychological movies I’ve watched for this blog, touching on a number of issues that have come up over and over again. It’s also one of the scariest and most genuinely upsetting movies I’ve watched in a long time.

Made in 1990, Jacob’s Ladder is about a man named Jacob Singer, played by Tim Robbins. The movie opens with his unit being attacked in Vietnam, with many of fellow soldiers experiencing odd symptoms. The scene then switches to Jacob waking up on a train in New York City, going to work as a mailman. He begins to have hallucinations about his time in the war and sees his girlfriend change into a monster. His mental health deteriorates further as he tries to work out what happened in Vietnam. His fellow soldiers admit that they are also suffering hallucinations, leading him to learn that they were drugged during the war, causing them to be violent and unstable. He seeks the help of a trusted doctor, a chiropractor named Louis, who helps his back pain and eases his conscience, discussing angels, heaven and hell. He is uncertain about when in time he is, and where he is, eventually having visions of his ex-wife and deceased son, who died before the war. He finally accepts his fate, learning that he died in the war, and goes with his son. The movie ends with a warning that soldiers during Vietnam were drugged with a chemical called BZ.

This movie touches on so many issues about mental health. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), memory, spirituality, Near Death Experiences and the effects of drugs on the brain are all mentioned. PTSD is one of the most prevalent. Throughout the movie, Jacob has many symptoms of PTSD, which was renamed that in mid-1970s. Jacob’s symptoms, which include difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts, lack of memory or vivid flashbacks of the event and hyper-vigilance, are shown at various points in the movie. He often has trouble sleeping, experiences flashbacks randomly to the day of his unit’s attack and is hyper-vigilant throughout the movie. The few times we see his other unit members, they have similar symptoms. This awareness of the illness, which has been identified throughout history, was extremely high after the Vietnam War, with advocacy groups working to educate the public about it. Groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War were vocal about the illness in part to help ensure veterans got the help they needed. Jacob’s Ladder is a wonderful depiction of the impact PTSD can have on a person’s life. (To learn more about PTSD, go to: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/post-traumatic-stress-diso...)

The movie also deals with the tricky nature of memory, too. In addition to the PTSD related flashbacks, Jacob’s memories of the event are different each time, as are his fellow soldiers’ recollections. His memories of his life are also a jumble. Memories are fragile already, without adding two traumatic events to it. Studies have shown that PTSD interferes with memory creation (and possibly that poor memory can pre-dispose people to getting PTSD), which this movie highlights as part of making the viewer understand Jacob’s confused point of view. All of the memories of his life weave into each other, and he begins to lose track of where he is in his own life. (Read more about memories here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memory)

But then, the movie throws a curveball. Without undermining the power of the PTSD depiction, the concept of purgatory and spirituality comes into play. Jacob is trying to deal with the death of his son, his fellow soldiers, and possibly himself. The need to forgive, to accept God’s love or even just to believe in something becomes very important. Louis the Chiropractor is seen as an angel, there to help combat the demons Jacob sees everywhere. At one point, he is even shown with glowing wings, providing Jacob with healing and wisdom when he needs it. The movie’s title is a reference to a Biblical story about Jacob dreaming of a literal ladder to God. The term has come to mean the place where heaven and hell meet, which is a good description of Jacob’s state of mind at least. Without being preachy, the movie highlights the human need for spirituality, and its importance in one’s health. Studies have shown that people are hardwired to believe in something bigger than themselves, whether they actively want to believe or not. It’s been shown that people with healthy spirituality are generally healthier. (Learn more about spirituality and mental health: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/take-care-your-spirit)

However, with the last twist, the movie takes on one more mental health topic: Near Death Experiences. (Yes, I know. They are controversial, to say the least). The movie shows Jacob dead in Vietnam, lying in a triage tent. There is the possibility that the whole movie, with its confusing timeline, odd characters and jumbled plotlines, happens in Jacob’s head between the time of his stabbing and the time of his death. All of the pieces are just fleeting glimpses of memories activated by the death of his brain. Meanings drawn are incidental. Near Death Experiences have been proven to happen, and neuroscientists now believe they are just snippets of the brain function shutting down as opposed to a spiritual happening. Many people who have them report they are positive events, though, and many report being happier after having them, as Jacob is, dying with a smile on his face. (Learn more about the science of Near Death Experiences: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=peace-of-mind-near-death)

The final shot of the movie is a note that American soldiers were drugged by the government during Vietnam with a drug called BZ. 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, or BZ, is a chemical weapon created by the US government after WWII that causes heart issues, hallucinations, elevated temperature and irrational fear. All of those symptoms are shown during the attack at the beginning of the movie. Even the delivery method, aerosol cans with white smoke, is accurate to the chemical. The government has denied using the weapon at all, and destroyed any trace of it in 1989, but some believe it was used during Vietnam on American soldiers. The government has dosed soldiers without their consent before, most notably in the MKUltra project during the 1950s, when a few men were dosed with LSD on a military base without their knowledge. The government denied the allegations, but documents were eventually brought to light proving the incident. As a result, some people believe that many more chemical experiments were conducted that are still being denied. Jacob’s Ladder uses this as a possible answer to the incidents in the movie, perhaps directly connected to the twist of his death. It manages to do this in concert with the other facts of the movie, culminating in the movie’s message of how poorly troops are treated when they return from war. (Read about MKUltra here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_MKUltra)

This movie packs so much into it that trying to come up with a synopsis was complicated, but the movie isn’t hard to follow. It has a lot of things to say, and it says them all while still being watchable and interesting. It’s a really good movie, though it is scary and unsettling. I definitely enjoyed watching it, and after writing this, I want to watch it again. I recommend you do the same. 

Next week, we’ll stay with disturbing movies and look at We Need to Talk About Kevin, and the birth of a psychopath. Have you seen Jacob’s Ladder? What do you think?

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