Altered States

1980 film by Ken Russell

Altered States is a 1980 American science fiction-horror film about a psycho-physiologist who experiments with drugs and a sensory-deprivation tank and has visions he believes are genetic memories. It is based on John C. Lilly's sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks under the influence of psychoactive drugs like ketamine and LSD.

Directed by Ken Russell. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his novel.
When he heard his cry for help it wasn't human.taglines

Eddie Jessup

  • So the end was terrible, even for the good people like my father. So the purpose of all our suffering was just more suffering.
  • For God's sake, Arthur, is that how you imagine me? A respected and admired figure? A devoted father? A loving husband? Well, I've also published nearly two papers a year for the last seven years and not a fundamental piece of work in the lot. I sit around the living rooms of other young married faculty members talking infantile masturbation: "Who's sucking up to the head of the department?" "Whose tenure is hanging by a thread?"
  • It's just possible I'm not mad, you know! I'm asking you to make a small quantum jump with me, to accept one deviant concept. That our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking state. And that reality can be externalized.
  • This is an all-bets-are-off sort of thing. We may be opening a black box that may scrap our whole picture of space-time. We might even have a link to another universe.

Emily Jessup

  • Of all the God damn men in this world, why do I have to love this one? I can't get him out of me. Do you know how many men I tried to fall in love with this past year? But it won't work. No matter who I'm in bed with I have to imagine it's him or nothing happens. No matter who I'm eating with or walking with there's always this pain because it isn't him. I'm possessed by him.
  • Sex is a mystical experience for you. You carry on like a flagellant which can be very nice, but l sometimes wonder if it's me that's being made love to. I feel like I'm being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.
  • You are a Faust-freak, Eddie! You'd sell your soul to find the great truth. Well, human life doesn't have great truths. We're born in doubt. We spend our lives persuading ourselves we're alive. And one way we do that is we love each other.
  • He doesn't love me. He never loved me. I was never real to him. Nothing in the human experience is real to him.
  • He's a truth lover. Reality to Eddie is only that which is changeless, immutably constant. What happened to Eddie tonight, that was Eddie's idea of love. That was consummation. He finally - got it off with God. He finally embraced the absolute, was finally ravished by truth and it goddamn near destroyed him.
  • Defy it, Eddie. You made it real. You can make it unreal. If you love me... If you love me, Eddie, DEFY IT!


Eddie Jessup: [Discussing his father's death, and its impact on his thinking] I haven't told anyone this in ten years. I'm telling you now because I think you have a right to know what kind of a nut you might be getting mixed up with here.
Emily: Arthur was right. You are a fascinating bastard. [kisses him]

Mason Parrish: He is off the wall.
Arthur Rosenberg: [on the microphone] Are you okay?
Eddie Jessup: [on the microphone] Get this stuff. It's new. It's deafening. The noise is deafening. [shivering] Can you hear me above this noise? Oh, my God. The most unbelievable thing I've seen. I'm watching the birth agony of a mountain.
Mason Parrish: Oh, my God.
Arthur Rosenberg: [on the microphone] Are you okay?
Eddie Jessup: [on the microphone] I'm fine. Really, I'm fine.
Arthur Rosenberg: [on the microphone] Do you want me to bring you down now?
Mason Parrish: What happens now?
Arthur Rosenberg: He's blacked-out. His blackouts can get pretty freaky. Sometimes they last as long as four hours. When he comes out, he's chipper as a bird but doesn't remember a thing.
Mason Parrish: Just how dangerous is this stuff he brought back from Mexico?
Arthur Rosenberg: I didn't say dangerous, I said it was weird. Hangs around too long. And what's really screwy is it heads straight for the brain.
Mason Parrish: Well, I don't believe this. You guys are shooting up an untested drug that stacks up in the brain, works in the nucleus of the cell, and don't call that dangerous?
Arthur Rosenberg: For the record, we don't actually shoot up.
Mason Parrish: Heh, heh, heh.
Arthur Rosenberg: Eddie drinks a 10...
Mason Parrish: Well, It's gonna stop right now. You guys are supposed to be scientists, not two kids in the dorm, freaking out on Mexican mushrooms.
Arthur Rosenberg: Well, why do you think I called you for? Let's see you stop him.

Mason Parrish: I want someone to look at those x-rays who can read them.
Eddie Jessup: I'd rather not have everyone in the Brigham in on this. It's bad enough we've got this nosy X-ray technician.
Mason Parrish: Are you all right?
Eddie Jessup: I'm fine, Mason. I tried to indicate this was just a transient thing.
Mason Parrish: Transient ischemic attack, that's what it was. [Addressing Arthur] He's got his voice back.
Eddie Jessup: It wasn't an ischemic attack! It wasn't a seizure. You saw the X-rays, Mason. There was clearly something anterior to the larynx that looked like a laryngeal sack. That's strictly simian! I obviously regressed! To some quasi-simian creature.
Mason Parrish: I'm gonna show these to someone who can read them right, 'cause you're reading them wrong, that's all there is to it. Because no one is gonna tell me you de-differentiated your goddamn genetic structure for four goddamn hours and then reconstituted! I'm a professor of endocrinology at the Harvard Medical School. I'm an attending physician at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital! I'm a contributing editor to the American Journal of Endocrinology and a I am a fellow and vice-president of the Eastern Association of Endocrinologists and president of the Journal Club! And I'm not going to listen to any more of your Kabbalistic, quantum, friggin' dumb limbo mumbo jumbo! I'm gonna show these to a radiologist!

Eddie Jessup: Memory is energy! It doesn't disappear - it's still in there. There's a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses. There has to be; and I'm telling you it's in the goddamned limbic system.
Mason Parrish: You're a wacko!
Eddie Jessup: What's whacko about it, Mason? I'm a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get? Everybody's looking for their true selves. We're all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God we've got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life.
Mason Parrish: You're a wacko.
Eddie Jessup: Well, I think that that true self, that original self, that first self, is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing, tangible and incarnate, and I'm going to find the fucker.

Mason Parrish: [examining an X-ray taken of Eddie shortly after a "tank trip"] It looks to me like the architecture is slightly abnormal.
Dr. Wissenschaft: Somewhat? This guy's a fucking gorilla!

Emily: Well, you can't get any tidier than that, can you? We're gonna be together in Boston and l think we should get married.
Eddie Jessup: You know, of course, I'm supposed to be at least a little bit nuts.
Emily: A little bit? You're an unmitigated madman! You don't have to tell me how weird you are. I know how weird you are. I'm the girl in your bed the past two months.
Eddie Jessup: Am I really that weird in bed?
Emily: Sometimes.
Eddie Jessup: Shall I try to change?
Emily: No, I kind of like it.

Eddie Jessup: Emily's quite content to go on with this life. She insists she's in love with me — whatever that is. What she means is she prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves. But I'm not afraid of that solitary pain. In fact, if I don't strip myself of all this clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual, I shall go out of my fucking mind. Does that answer your question, Arthur?
Arthur Rosenberg: What question was that?
Eddie Jessup: You asked me why I was getting divorced.
Arthur Rosenberg: Oh, listen, it's your life. I'm sorry I even asked.

Eddie Jessup: What dignifies the Yogic practices is that the belief system itself is not truly religious. There is no Buddhist God per se. It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth.
Emily Jessup: What the hell is not religious about that? You've simply replaced God with the Original Self.
Eddie Jessup: Yes, but we've localized it. Now I know where the Self is. It's in our own minds. It's a form of human energy. Our atoms are six billion years old. We've got six billion years of memory in our minds. Memory is energy! It doesn't disappear — it's still in there. There's a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses. There has to be; and I'm telling you it's in the goddamned limbic system.
Mason Parrish: You're a whacko!
Eddie Jessup: What's whacko about it, Mason? I'm a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get? Everybody's looking for their true selves. We're all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God, we've got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life....Well, I think that that true self, that original self, that first self is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing, tangible and incarnate. And I'm going to find the fucker.

Eddie Jessup: You saved me. You redeemed me from the pit. I was in it, Emily. I was in that ultimate moment of terror that is the beginning of life. It is nothing. Simple, hideous nothing. The final truth of all things is that there is no final Truth. Truth is what's transitory. It's human life that is real. I don't want to frighten you, Emily, but what I'm trying to tell you is that moment of terror is a real and living horror, living and growing within me now, and the only thing that keeps it from devouring me is you.
Emily Jessup: Why don't you just come back to us?
Eddie Jessup: It's too late. I don't think I can get it out of me anymore. I can't live with it. The pain is too great.

Eddie Jessup: I can't live with it Emily, the pain is unbearable.
Emily Jessup: We all live with it. That unbearable terror is what makes us such singular creatures. We hide from it, we succumb to it, mostly we defy it! We build fragile little structures to keep it out. We love, we raise families, we work, we make friends. We write poems...

Quotes about Altered States

  • This one has everything: sex, violence, comedy, thrills, tenderness. It's an anthology and apotheosis of American pop movies: Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Nutty Professor, 2001, Alien, Love Story. It opens at fever pitch and then starts soaring—into genetic fantasy, into a precognitive dream of delirium and delight. Madness is its subject and substance, style and spirit. The film changes tone, even form, with its hero's every new mood and mutation. It expands and contracts with his mind until both almost crack. It keeps threatening to go bonkers, then makes good on its threat, and still remains as lucid as an aerialist on a high wire. It moves with the loping energy of a crafty psychopath, or of film makers gripped with the potential of blowing the moviegoer's mind out through his eyes and ears. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Altered States.
  • Altered States is one hell of a movie — literally. It hurls its characters headlong back through billions of years to the moment of creation and finds nothing there except an anguished scream of "No!" as the life force protests its moment of birth. And then, through the power of the human ego to insist on its own will even in the face of the implacable indifference of the universe, it turns "No!" into "Yes!" and ends with the basic scene in all drama, the man and the woman falling into each other's arms.
    But hold on just a second here: I'm beginning to sound like the movie's characters, a band of overwrought pseudo-intellectuals who talk like a cross between Werner Erhard, Freud, and Tarzan. Some of the movie's best dialogue passages are deliberately staged with everybody talking at once: It doesn't matter what they're saying, only that they're incredibly serious about it. I can tell myself intellectually that this movie is a fiendishly constructed visual and verbal roller coaster, a movie deliberately intended to overwhelm its audiences with sensual excess. I know all that, and yet I was overwhelmed, I was caught up in its headlong energy.
  • The movie is based on a Paddy Chayefsky novel, which was, in turn, inspired by the experiments of Dr. John Lilly, the man who placed his human subjects in total immersion tanks — floating them in total darkness so that their minds, cut off from all external reality, could play along the frontiers of sanity. In Altered States, William Hurt plays a Harvard scientist named Jessup who takes such an experiment one step further, by ingesting a drug made from the sacred hallucinatory mushrooms of a primitive tribe. The strange thing about these mushrooms, Hurt observes in an easily missed line of dialogue in the movie, is that they give everyone who takes them the same hallucinatory vision. Perhaps it is our cellular memory of creation: There is chaos, and then a ball of light, and then the light turns into a crack, and the crack opens onto Nothing, and that is all there was and all there will be, except for life, which has its only existence in the mind.
    Got that? It hardly matters. It is a breathtaking concept, but Altered States hardly slows down for it. This is the damnedest movie to categorize. Just when it begins to sound like a 1960s psychedelic fantasy, a head trip — it turns into a farce.
    • Roger Ebert, in a review of Altered States (1 January 1980)
  • During the professor's last experiment, when he is disappearing into a violent whirlpool of light and screams on the laboratory floor, it is his wife who wades into the celestial mists, gets up to her knees in eternity, reaches in, and pulls him out. And this is despite the fact that he has filed for divorce. The last scene is a killer, with the professor turning into the protoplasm of life itself, and his wife turning into a glowing shell of rock-like flesh, with her inner fires glowing through the crevices (the effect is something like an overheated Spiderman). They're going through the unspeakable hell of reliving the First Moment, and yet as the professor, as Man, bangs on the walls and crawls toward her, and she reaches out, and the universe rocks, the Man within him bursts out of the ape-protoplasm, and the Woman within her explodes back into flesh, and they collapse into each other's arms, and all the scene really needs at that point is for him to ask, "Was it as good for you as it was for me?"
    Altered States is a superbly silly movie, a magnificent entertainment, and a clever and brilliant machine for making us feel awe, fear, and humor. That is enough. It's pure movie and very little meaning. Did I like it? Yeah, I guess I did, but I wouldn't advise trying to think about it very deeply.
    • Roger Ebert, in a review of Altered States (1 January 1980)
  • The scene in which the scientist becomes cosmic energy and his wife grabs him and brings him back to human form is straight out of my Dyadic Cyclone (1976) … As for the scientist's regression into an ape-like being, the late Dr. Craig Enright, who started me on K (ketamine) while taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, suddenly "became" a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, "Where the hell were you?" He said, "I became a pre-hominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away." The manuscript of The Scientist (1978) was in the hands of Bantam, the publishers. The head of Bantam called and said, "Paddy Chayefsky would like to read your manuscript. Will you give him your permission?" I said, "Only if he calls me and asks permission." He didn't call. But he probably read the manuscript.
  • If it is not wholly visionary at every juncture, it is at least dependably — even exhilaratingly — bizarre. Its strangeness, which borders cheerfully on the ridiculous, is its most enjoyable feature.
    The movie itself has many of the qualities of its chief character, who is obsessive, exciting, scary, wildly energetic, and a very odd bird indeed. Actually his leanings are more to the ape-like than the birdlike, and to call them leanings is to put it very mildly. … The movie, part joke and part nightmare, is the story of a man who experiments with hallucinogenic substances, searching for what he calls his unborn soul and longing to re-experience the birth of man. In the course of this adventure, he turns into an ape and scares the daylights out of everyone around him. Really, that's all you need to know. … The film is in fine shape as long as it revels in its own craziness, making no claims on the viewer's reason. But when it asks you to believe that what you're watching may really be happening, and to wonder what it means, it is asking far too much. By the time it begins straining for an ending both happy and hysterical, it has lost all of its mystery, and most of its magic.


  • When he heard his cry for help it wasn't human.
  • In the basement of a university medical school Dr. Jessup floats naked in total darkness. The most terrifying experiment in the history of science is out of control... and the subject is himself.


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