Cover art created using Canva Magic (prompt: Spooky Halloween scene with psychedelics flair)

Psychedelics have been commonly associated with peace, love, and harmony. Many people report having profound spiritual experiences, enhanced creativity, and increased empathy as a result of ingesting psychedelics. Historically, psychedelics have been associated with the peace-loving, anti-war hippy culture of the 1960s. In recent times, psychedelics continue to be associated with these vibes, but they are earning the reputation today of being medicines for the mind that can help people recover from depression, anxiety, addictions, and other psychiatric conditions. In this regard, psychedelics possess a fairly positive and peaceful reputation.

The truth is, however, that psychedelics are not guaranteed to produce enlightening experiences or enlightened people. You may be familiar with the idea of a “bad trip” but you might not know as much about what we might call “bad trippers.” These are the people who have used, and made others use, psychedelics for nefarious purposes. This really throws a wrench in the idyllic visions of peace-loving hippies dropping acid while listening to Marvin Gay or while frolicking in a field. But it all comes back to the key principles of set and setting (i.e. one’s mindset and setting prior to and during a psychedelic experience are crucial to the character and outcome of the experience).

If you go into a psychedelic experience with positive intentions in a supportive setting, you’re more likely to come out of the experience with an improved perspective. But if you go into a psychedelic experience as a fascist contemplating how you can seize power and get what you want in life, you’ll probably come out of the experience with an enlarged ego and an even more maniacal perspective. Don’t just take my word for it. There’s plenty of theory, research, and history that goes to show that psychedelics are not always as bright and happy as popular culture likes to portray them (see appendix at the end). There’s a dark side to psychedelics that is rarely talked about among psychedelic enthusiasts.

Charles Manson and the Family [1], [2]

Perhaps the most infamous example of psychedelic-fueled violence is the case of Charles Manson and his followers, known as the “The Family” or the “Manson Family.” Charles Manson was a manipulative cult leader who taught his followers that they were reincarnated early Christians and he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Manson is known for using LSD and other drugs to manipulate people into becoming loyal followers and adherents to his maniacal and wicked agenda. Manson prepared his “family” for a race war that he called “Helter Skelter” – inspired by a deranged interpretation of The Beatles song by the same name. 

In 1969, Manson ordered some of his followers to carry out a series of brutal murders in Los Angeles, targeting both celebrities and wealthy individuals. The most notorious victims were actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant at the time, and her friends. The killers wrote messages on the walls with the victims’ blood, such as “PIG” and “Helter Skelter”. Manson hoped that these murders would spark a violent uprising among African Americans, who he believed would eventually turn to him for leadership. His delusional and racist plan failed and he and his followers were arrested and convicted. Manson and his “Family” are prime examples of how psychedelics can be used by people with horrible plans and intentions and not necessarily cause any positive change. If anything, psychedelics perpetuated Manson’s twisted vision.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne and “The Family” [3][4][5][6]

On the other side of the world, another cult leader was also using LSD in aberrant ways. Anne Hamilton-Byrne, leader of the Australian New Age group also known as “The Family.” Like Manson, AHB claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. In the late 60s and early 70s, she amassed around 500 adult followers and adopted nearly 30 children through various deceitful means. AHB subjected these children to daily doses of sedatives and administered massive doses of LSD to them during disturbing, multi-day initiation ceremonies to reinforce their devotion to her. These traumatizing experiences and abusive treatment had lasting negative effects on these children as well as the adult members of the cult who underwent similar abusive treatment, leading a number of the followers to attempt suicide and take their own lives. 

AHB heavily relied on administering LSD both in recruitment and maintenance of her cult. Psychiatrist Howard Whitaker, a disciple of the cult, facilitated this by taking control of a private psychiatric hospital, where patients were unwittingly recruited and exposed to LSD. For adult followers, Hamilton-Byrne personally provided LSD and guided them through trips, ensuring initiates acceptance of her divine status. This extensive harmful use of LSD exemplifies the depths of manipulation and exploitation within the cult.

Aum Shinrikyo and LSD [7]

Aum Shinrikyo, or simply “Aum,” now known as Aleph, is a Japanese doomsday cult known for its apocalyptic beliefs, domestic acts of terrorism, and the deadly Tokyo subway nerve gas attack in 1995. The cult was founded in 1987 by Shoko Asahara (born Chizuo Matsumoto). Asahara, in classic psychedelic cult style, claimed to be the “Christ” and the “Lamb of God,” among other grandiose religious claims. With his manioulative personality, he attracted people to join by promising enlightenment, offering nontraditional religious views that blended Christian and Buddhist ideas, and by convincing Aum followers that they’d be survivors of end times. A book about the cult that came out the year after the Tokyo subway attacks – The Cult at the End of The World – claims that the group’s initiation ceremonies often involved LSD and electroconvulsive techniques among other intense and dangerous initiate experiences. 

In a coordinated domestic terrorist attack on March 20, 1995, the group released a nerve gas across five trains in the Tokyo subway system killing 13 commuters, seriously injuring 54, and affecting hundreds of other people. Estimates claim as many as 6,000 people were injured. In the years before this attack, the group orchestrated numerous murders and assassinations, killing dissidents, critics, and others they considered enemies of their cause. Most of these murders were only uncovered or linked to them after the Tokyo subway attack.

Let’s not forget MK-Ultra [8]

MK-Ultra was a covert CIA program that involved various experiments, including the use of drugs like LSD, to explore mind control and behavior modification techniques during the Cold War era. Collaborating with numerous universities and institutions, through this program, the CIA set up unethical experiments in locations around the US and abroad. Many, but not all of these studies, which attempted to establish techniques of psychological manipulation and mind control, employed LSD in their (typically abusive) methods. MK-Ultra stands as a troubling chapter in the history of government-sponsored experimentation and covert operations involving psychedelics. It’s yet another example of how psychedelic use is not always pleasant.

Conclusion

Psychedelics are powerful substances that can alter one’s perception, cognition, and emotion. They can induce profound spiritual experiences that can have lasting effects on one’s worldview and behavior. However, psychedelics are not a silver bullet, they have also been used for nefarious purposes. As we have seen, some historical cases of psychedelic use are downright terrifying and disturbing, and I’ve only touched on a few of the most widely known cases that happen to all involved LSD. There are other bad-actor cases of psychedelic use that involved other psychedelics (I do not intend to demonize LSD), other groups, as well as more other time periods (including the present).

I want to make it abundantly clear that I condemn all the cases of psychedelic use covered in this article. They are all reprehensible. 

Though this only presents the negative side of Psychedelic history, I do not intend to present a negative perspective on them or to assert that they are bad or shouldn’t be used. Besides trying to spook you, because hey, it’s Halloween time and all, I intend to demonstrate that psychedelics are not inherently good or bad. They simply amplify the beliefs and intentions of the user, for better or for worse. Thus the “psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers” adage popularized by Stanislav Grof (read the appendix for more). 

I hope that you enjoyed this spooky blog post about the dark side of psychedelics. I hope that you learned something new and got a little scared!

After writing this, I’m left wondering, What sort of trippy potions was Voldemort taking and giving to his death eaters? 

Happy Halloween! ????

Appendix (some academic background on these topics)

One of the pioneers in the field of psychedelic therapy and psychedelic research, Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof (who is still alive at 92), popularized the phrase “non-specific amplifier” to describe how psychedelics affect the human mind. This concept highlights the idea that these substances do not have a specific therapeutic target but, instead, magnify and make more apparent the contents of one’s mind. This amplification can lead to profound insights, emotional releases, and therapeutic benefits when used in controlled and supportive settings. However, it also means that outcomes of psychedelic experiences can vary greatly depending on what the contents of the mind are. This suggests that the stereotypes about psychedelics – their positive associations with peace, love, and progress – are just that, stereotypes, which are more likely to do with the cultural container that psychedelics were first popularized within, i.e. the counter-culture.* Grof’s conception of psychedelics suggests that if psychedelics had been used by say Reagan-era Republicans 2 decades later than the counterculture movement (funny enough there’s probably some overlap in people who switched “political camps” during that period) they might have much different popular culture associations.

A 2018 publication [9], which was an adjunct to an open-label psilocybin-assisted treatment-resistant depression therapy experiment, found that natured relatedness increased and authoritarianism decreased 1-week after psilocybin-assisted therapy and this persisted for nature relatedness 7-12 months later. Though these results were “statistically significant” compared to age-matched non-treated healthy control subjects, there were only seven patients who’d been administered psilocybin and the surveys used were brief (a 5-item survey to measure authoritarianism and a 6-item survey for nature relatedness). A survey study from 2017 [10], found that lifetime psychedelic use (i.e. number of psychedelic drug experiences) and intensity of ego dissolution experienced during a participant’s “most intense” psychedelic experience both positively predicted liberal political views, trait openness, and nature relatedness, and negatively predicted authoritarian political views. An article from 2021 in Frontiers in Psychology [11] claims that these two studies “constitute the only peer-reviewed evidence for the psychedelic experience predicting more liberal and less authoritarian values.” This extensive article, titled “Right-Wing Psychedelia: Case Studies in Cultural Plasticity and Political Pluripotency” debunks what one might call the liberal myth of psychedelics quite thoroughly. If you want to take a deep dive, I encourage you to check it out (the article is open-access). You may also like to check out this Psymposia piece [12]. 

As an additional note regarding the scientific debate about the shall we say worldview effects of psychedelics, in October 2020, Eddie Jacobs (@eddietalksdrugs on X), published an article in Scientific American “What if a Pill Can Change Your Politics or Religious Beliefs?” [13]. Herein he cited a number of different psychedelic research studies which included the 2018 publication I mentioned above and other psychedelic studies that “report increased prosociality and aesthetic appreciation, plus robust shifts in personality, values and attitudes to life, even leading some atheists to find God.” I’ve hyperlinked the same studies in that quote that are hyperlinked in the article for your ease of access. Jacobs’ article led to a response article published just less than a month later, also in Scientific American, written by renowned psychedelic researchers  Matthew W. Johnson and David B. Yaden titled “There’s No Good Evidence That Psychedelics Can Change Your Politics or Religion” [14]. There’s a lot I could get into about this debate, but I’ll leave it up to those who are most interested to dig further into it. 

If you happen to do some digging as a result of this blog post and feel inspired to write about what you’ve learned for a future blog post, please reach out!

You can email me at lhjohnson1999 [at] gmail.com.

About The Author

Luke Johnson by Waterfall at Lost Valley River Hike in Arkansas

Luke Johnson

Luke is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a BA in Neuroscience. He is currently applying to medical schools and is primarily interested in psychiatry, lifestyle medicine, and primary care.  He currently works as the Operations Director for the Cognitive Immunology Research Collaborative (CIRCE) spending most of his time working on CIRCE’s Mental Immunity Project.
Luke’s Twitter | Luke’s Instagram

More IPN Blogs