The curious tale of psychedelic Alice
Stories & Ideas

Thu 29 Mar 2018

The curious tale of psychedelic Alice

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Take a trip through the cinematic Wonderlands of the sixties and seventies

‘You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.’

Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in 'The Matrix' (1999)

The reason why a socially awkward, conservative Anglican Deacon and Oxford mathematician became a leading pop cultural icon in the swinging sixties is one of the most curious stories surrounding Alice in Wonderland. Carroll may have had little in common with the radical ‘turn on, tune in, drop out, make your own religion’ battle cry of former Harvard professor Timothy Leary – the self-professed sixties guru who advocated the use of LSD as a means for self-development – yet the two are inextricably linked by their connection to the drug. There has been much speculation surrounding Carroll’s personal use of hallucinogens while writing his wild stories. Expanding the consciousness through mind-altering substances wasn’t out of keeping with Carroll’s generation: think Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) or Jean Lorrain’s Nightmares of an Ether Drinker (1895). But, despite much searching and digging through Carroll scholarship, no definitive proof has ever been found. All that is left is just that: speculation.

The reason for the hippies’ obsession with Carroll can be more easily linked to the popularity of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’, which inspired much pop culture in that period. As Scott F Parker states,

"Many of us also associate drugs, especially hallucinogenic drugs, with Alice. Indeed, Alice’s journey can be read as an allegory for an intense drug experience. Rephrasing the plot only slightly, Alice gets lost and tries to find her way back to normal reality. Within the story are specific allusions: the caterpillar smokes a hookah, Alice drinks mysterious liquids and eats mushrooms, Alice’s interpretations of time and space are altered, and the impossible is everyday. The association with Alice is so established that alice is now a slang term for LSD."[1]

Regardless of whether or not Carroll would have advocated the use of drugs, the impact of Alice in Wonderland on sixties' culture is undeniable. From Jonathan Miller’s trippy hippie 1966 television adaptation for the BBC to the influence of the book on John Lennon’s lyrics for ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’[2] (the initials LSD being a less than veiled reference to the drug itself), alongside inspired artwork from the likes of John Wesley’s Falling Alice (1963), the gouache paintings Salvador Dali did for a book published by Maecenas Press–Random House in 1969 and Ralph Steadman’s 1972 drawings, Alice was reinvented as a sixties and early seventies pop cultural icon.

Salvador Dali, Down the Rabbit Hole, 1969
Salvador Dali, 'Down the Rabbit Hole', 1969

But where the story becomes curiouser and curiouser is its connection to two anti-drug films: Alice in Acidland (John Donne, 1969) and Curious Alice (1971). The underlying narrative in both films becomes the perfect metaphor for the dangers of experimentation with sex and drugs. This said, Alice in Acidland’s status as an anti-drug film is a dubious one. If you take into account the director Donn Greer’s (credited as John Donne) other films – with titles like The Bride and the Beasts (1969) and Bad, Bad, Gang! (1972) – it becomes clear, even before viewing, that the film falls into the category of late sixties sexploitation and exploitation films which traded in sensational themes and used a moralising voiceover to justify what is essentially an hour of softcore sex. In Alice in Acidland, Greer narrates the nightmare of his own Alice as she falls into a rabbit hole of pool parties – smoking weed, dropping acid and engaging in lesbian sex before losing her mind forever. Alice, played by Sheri Jackson,[3] sets out on her journey of sexual liberation, disregarding the danger signs and talk of a former friend’s suicide while on LSD.

While the overall success of the film is debatable, Greer did manage to ride the coat-tails of a number of subgenres popular in low budget cinema at the time, namely hippie films like Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967) and exploitation films masquerading as anti-drug statements such as Hallucination Generation (Edward Mann, 1966). In this way, it shares an affiliation with other unashamedly gleeful shlock like The Acid Eaters (Byron Mabe, 1968) and José Mojica Marins’s Awakening of the Beast (1970). Alice in Acidland is no less lurid, given that ninety-nine per cent of the running time is made up of naked couples making out and plenty of close-ups of women’s breasts. The psychedelic element doesn’t really kick in until the last seven minutes, where Greer doles out a trippy montage of naked women dancing around under various lighting effects, before ending on a close-up of Alice in a straitjacket and the declaration that this is ‘no fairytale, she has become a mental vegetable’.

Of far less seedy origins is Curious Alice (1971), a film made by the National Institute of Mental Health to apparently warn eight to ten-year-olds about the perils of drugs. The film was distributed to school children across America with a useful colouring book and comprehension test that gave kids the opportunity to answer multiple choice questions like, ‘The Cheshire Cat was (a) scary, (b) Alice’s friend, (c) took drugs too, (d) gave Alice bad advice’. Also included were a crossword, which offered children further opportunity to test their newly acquired knowledge of heroin, LSD and speed, and class games to show off their skills. Regardless of the intent, the alluring cut-and-paste montage animation – which wouldn’t look out of place in an early Walerian Borowczyk film – is likely to have proven exciting to children at the time. In fact, many people who grew up remembering the film have since gone on to form a cult following around the curious picture. According to The National Archives Unwritten Record Blog:

"In the 1972 publication Drug Abuse Films, the National Coordinating Council on Drug Education (NCCDE) criticized Curious Alice for being confusing and potentially counterproductive to drug abuse education. [...] The review panel classified Curious Alice as ‘restricted’, writing that young viewers ‘may be intrigued by the fantasy world of drugs’ and that it should only be presented with a ‘very skilled facilitator’ in order to ‘probe for the drug attitudes’ of an elementary school class.”[4]

In the brief running time, Alice’s resolve is tested first by her parent’s booze and drug cabinets as she falls down the proverbial rabbit hole, and then later by her encounters with a strung-out bunch of drug-addled Wonderland creatures. The film has the March Hare pumped full of amphetamines, the Mad Hatter quaffing sugar cubes laced with acid, the Dormouse comatose on barbiturates and the Caterpillar puffing down on a weed-filled pipe.

In retrospect, it is easy to see why Carroll’s original text became so relevant to sixties’ drug culture, especially when Alice is so exquisitely rendered as Curious Alice, or as sexually liberated as Acidland’s leading lady. Alice was changed forever and her psychedelic alter ego was born. But, as she said in the book, ‘It's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then’. If she wasn’t before, then the sixties certainly saw to it that she was.

This is an essay from the Wonderland exhibition catalogue, published by Thames & Hudson. Buy it here.


[1] S F Parker, ‘How Deep Does The Rabbit Hole Go?: Drugs and Dreams, Perception and Reality’, in W Irwin & RB Davis (eds.), Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, 2010, p. 138.

[2] K Womack and T Davis, Reading the Beatles: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, and the Fab Four, SUNY Press, New York, 2012, p. 17.

[3] An actress who starred in a respectable amount of grindhouse sleaze, including a minor role in Lee Frost’s Naziploitation forerunner Love Camp 7 (1969) as well as Suburban Pagans (William Rotsler, 1968) and The Sadistic Hypnotist (Greg Corarito, 1969).

[4] ‘The Curious Case of Curious Alice’, Unwritten Record,