Before we begin this blog post, let me take you back to the mystical year of 2005. The hit TV show American Idol is topping Fox's reality TV charts and announces Carrie Underwood as the winner of their 4th season. The North American version of The Office is released on NBC and receives abysmal viewership (seriously, look it up). If you turned on the radio, there was a good chance you would have heard two of the biggest singles of the year: "Hollaback Girl" by Gwen Stefani or "Since U Been Gone" by Kelly Clarkson. Later in the year, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and caused unprecedented destruction to New Orleans. All of these things have since been etched into our collective memories (there's still a good chance that if you listen to the radio for more than twenty minutes, you'll still hear "Since U Been Gone").
One thing that might have slipped out of our collective unconscious in the last seventeen years (yep, it has been seventeen years since 2005) is that 2005 is the same year that Criss Angel: Mindfreak was beamed onto our televisions. For those of you who never had the chance to familiarize yourself with Mindfreak, it was a TV show that followed an illusionist (which is entirely different from a magician, trust me) named Criss Angel as he went around Los Angeles and Las Vegas, preparing for and conducting his illusions (Mindfreaks as he calls them) in front of unsuspecting strangers. To give you an example, in one such Mindfreak, Criss makes Shaquille O’Neal appear to lift off the ground, levitate over his house, and return to him.
Naturally, everyone looking at Criss' Mindfreaks looks stunned and stupefied as they watch him seemingly bend the rules of reality to his will. It is with this astonishment and wonder in mind that compelled me to create this blog post. My goal with this post is to share with you some of the books and movies that I have seen that have made me feel, for lack of a better word, absolutely Mindfreaked. Each book or movie will be accompanied by the highly scientific scale I created referred to as the Mindfreak Factor, which summarizes how I felt after I finished reading/watching each entry.
2001:A Space Odyssey (1968)
Mindfreak Factor: Freaked Beyond
The first time I saw this movie was in a film history class I took my senior year of high school. It was a slacker class for students who wanted an easy A and a chance to watch movies/take a nap; it also introduced me to many movies that I enjoyed that I had never seen before. One such movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What initially drew my attention about this movie is how spectacular the special effects look for a film that came out in 1968. While some parts of it feel a little dated, the special effects still rival some modern-day films. I have seen this movie countless times and the sets, directing, and cinematography continues to dazzle me. But, without giving too much away, it was the last twenty minutes of this movie that elevated it from an impressive Sci-fi feat to a psychedelic Mindfreak. It's so psychedelic that there's a rumor that "Atom Heart Mother" by Pink Floyd syncs up the ending sequence like the album Dark Side of the Moon does with The Wizard of Oz. This movie made me feel like I just saw Criss Angel walk through a wall.
Sea of Tranquility (2022)
Mindfreak Factor: Moderately Freaked
Let me preface this entry by saying that Rob from HDL’s North Branch did a great review of this in his "May Five" blog post, so if you haven't gotten the chance to check it out, I recommend it. With that out of the way, let’s begin. Sea of Tranquility is Emily St. John Mandel’s new sci-fi book that takes place between 1912 and 2212. Three hundred years might seem like a considerable amount of time (and it is), but Mandel breaks these three hundred years into easy-to-digest pieces by introducing four separately (but interconnected) protagonists. Without giving anything away, there is a common thread that Mandel weaves that links all of the characters together in a Mindfreak-like way.
Mindfreak Factor: Overwhelmingly Freaked
Full disclosure, this was a movie I had never heard of before Googling “surreal movies” while looking for inspiration for this blog post. That being said, I am completely shocked that I never even heard of this movie because it was right up my alley. Brazil is satirical without being cringey and, albeit dark, is wickedly funny. Perhaps the best way to describe this movie is if you showed an alien the movies 1984, The Third Man, and Metropolis and asked them to recreate all three of them as a single movie from memory. To that end, the sets, props, and characters make the entire film feel like it was a documentary from the future, shot in an alternate dimension and then received in 1985 by the creators of Monty Python. If you're like me and haven't heard of this movie, check it out, as I don’t think you will be disappointed.
Mindfreak Factor: Freaked to Confusion
House is a movie I heard a lot about but never actually saw until recently. This 1977 Japanese comedy horror takes the concept of the traditional haunted house movie and injects it with bizarre transitions, off-the-wall stop-motion sequences, and (intentionally) cartoonish special effects, creating an absolute Mindfreak of a movie. While House is technically a horror movie that revolves around the concept of if the shark from Jaws was a house instead, the movie lacks the seriousness of typical horror movies. This irreverence plays to the movie's benefit but can also make the movie feel disjointed and jarring sometimes. The feel of disjointedness is mainly the case when the movie cycles between comedy and horror at breakneck speeds. On the whole, though, if you go into the movie knowing it's not going to be an earnest horror movie, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how much you'll enjoy it.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
Mindfreak Factor: Colossal Freak
Like Brazil, this movie felt like it came from another dimension. This movie takes place on another planet where humans are treated as playthings by blue, ninety-foot-tall aliens. That is until the humans decide they don't want to be playthings anymore, creating the conflict that drives the film. While this makes for a compelling story, what I enjoyed most about this film is how inventive and creative everything about this film is. Outside of the humans (which aren’t even called humans, mind you), there isn't a single recognizable feature, be it plant or animal, recognizable on the planets in which this movie takes place. I was initially going to try to explain what these creatures are like, but I think it's easier to show you one. Plenty of other things are just as jarring, making this movie a complete Mindfreak.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)
Mindfreak Factor: Institutional Freakage
Unlike some of the other entries in this list, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a little more subdued, with the Mindfreak-iness only coming to the surface on rare occasions. When it does come to the surface, it’s through the form of stream-of-consciousness monologues provided by a narrator who may or may not be reliable (not a spoiler as it’s apparent early on). Along with making for some interesting reading, I think these portions do a great job of asking the question at the core of this book: who gets to decide what sanity is?
One thing that elevated the Mindfreak Factor of this book was the knowledge that the book’s author, Ken Kesey, was a test subject in MK-Ultra. For those of you unfamiliar with the sometimes dark and lurid history of the Central Intelligence Agency, MK-Ultra was a series of tests conducted by the CIA from 1953-1973 that involved the use of various illegal substances (typically psychedelics), psychological torture, and shock therapy to find ways to interrogate Soviet spies better. MK-Ultra is not just some conspiracy theory I heard about on the History Channel; this is 100% true and has come from the CIA directly. One does not have to read far into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to find examples of each technique used during MK-Ultra used on the characters of this book. Knowing this, I couldn't help but wonder how much of this book was inspired by Kesey’s time being an MK-Ultra test subject, making this book quite the Mindfreak.
Mindfreak Factor: Inspired by True Mindfreaks
Slaughterhouse-Five is a story about a man (Billy Pilgrim) out of time. Billy isn’t out of time in the sense that he is running out of time, but instead, he seems to jump forward and backward in time for some unknown reason. As a result of these jumps, the reader witnesses events in Billy’s past and future as he experiences them. This might sound confusing, but it makes sense given that Billy does not experience time in the same linear way that (hopefully) we all experience it. In this way, the book works a little like the movie Pulp Fiction, where the story bounces around and goes back and forth. Through all this, the ideas of fatalism and determinism are examined as the reader is left to determine what actions result from Billy's previous experiences and what actions could not be avoided due to Billy's destiny. Part auto-biographical war story and part science fiction, this book is entirely a Mindfreak.
Mindfreak Factor: Philosophical Mindfreak
Stalker is a Soviet movie that follows an unnamed character as he guides two other men, a writer aptly named Writer and a professor aptly named Professor, into a mysterious and forbidden territory known as the Zone. As explained early in the film, the Zone is an area where a mysterious meteor crash-landed. Since the impact of this meteor, the area has been restricted to civilians. Legend has it that the meteor caused a room within the Zone the ability to grant the innermost wish of those who cross the threshold. The main character’s role (as well as the role of other similar guides, referred to as Stalkers) is to lead Writer and Professor to this room so that they may make their wishes.
While some entries on this list are Mindfreaks because of the surreal art styles and narratives, I consider Stalker to be a Mindfreak because of the philosophical nature of the work. Whereas Brazil and Forbidden Planet are Mindfreaks because of how dazzling and imaginative they are, Stalker is a Mindfreak because of how deliberately paced and complex it is. While these other movies prompt us to look outward at the surreal worlds they have created, Stalker encourages us to look inward and introspect on what value the viewer puts on the arts, science, belief, and faith. This call to introspection makes this movie a complete Philosophical Mindfreak.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
Mindfreak Factor: Transcendental Mindfreak
The last movie I want to talk about is an indie science fiction horror movie from Canada called Beyond the Black Rainbow. The film revolves around a girl named Elena, who is held captive deep in an underground research facility called the Arboria Institute and studied due to her telekinetic abilities (which is really all I can say without giving away spoilers). Highly atmospheric and at times off-kilter, this movie takes the New Age spiritual and psychedelic utopian ideals of the 1960s and inverts them, creating something completely different than the Age of Aquarius. Stylistically and story-wise, this movie might remind the viewer of Stranger Things as it takes place in the 1980s and is filmed with cameras from the same time; that being said, this movie actually pre-dates Stranger Things by six years. Colorful, intriguing, and at times strange, this movie deserves to be called a Transcendental Mindfreak.