Fictionalized drugs in movies and their real life equivalents. Image 1.

Michael Altman

Author, film context

Fictionalized drugs in movies and their real life equivalents. Image 2.

Peter Yeh

Author, real world analogue

For as long as a drug culture has existed, it has been filled with lies, hearsay, placebos, scaremongering, and fantasy. News organizations are constantly reporting on the latest designer drugs and varieties of "bath salts." Mimicking reality, fictionalized drugs have frequently appeared throughout the canons of film, television and literature. They emerge from fictional drug cultures, are mandated by oppressive governments or invented by enlightenment seekers, saying something about culture at large and, sometimes, its relationship with a real drug du jour. Across the psychoactives of the 60s, the rise of the pharmaceutical industry in the 80s, the smattering of rave culture in the 90s, and the performance enhancement trends of today, here are some of our favorite fictional drugs and their real life analogues.


Brave New World, Huxley (1931)

Aldous Huxley's classic novel Brave New World establishes a trope that appears frequently in culture. The drug “Soma” is intended as an antidepressant but when taken in high enough quantities causes hallucinations. If too much is ingested, it can cause an overdose and kill the user. The psychadelic trip brought on by the drug is referred to as a “vacation.” It is distributed for a variety of purposes, from religious services to crowd control. Soma ranges from an innocent medicine to a means of mass oppression, depending on the dosage and context. Huxley's treatment of Soma predicts the way drugs such as LSD would be dealt with in our culture.


Real world analogue:

Ketamine is being used experimentally as an antidepressant. At greater doses, hallucinogenic effects appear. At extremely high doses, users fall into a state of severe dissociation, or detachment from their bodies while experiencing strong visual and auditory hallucinations which aren’t remembered well. At even higher doses, it’s fatal.

Milk Plus

A Clockwork Orange, Burgess (1962)

Anthony Burgess's 1962 book A Clockwork Orange and its film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick established many popular dystopian tropes. Alex and his droogs take “Milk Plus,” milk laced with drugs, bringing on their untraviolent behavior which serves as the story's inciting incident. Alex is then submitted to an experimental government program which uses psychological conditioning in an attempt to rehabilitate him. Burgess makes use of a paranoid cultural archetype of the time: morally bankrupt urban youth who are high on drugs. The generational upheaval of the 1960's gives this archetype even more power in Kubrick's film. The government, standing for the previous generation, is willing to go to equally disturbing lengths to preserve the status quo.


Real world analogue:

Alcohol intoxication reduces inhibitions, and aggression seems to be inherent to some people. A stimulant like cocaine or amphetamine can also up aggression. Together they can make a fatal concoction. There’s lots of variants of Milk Plus on the drug market, with thinly veiled names explaining what drugs were added.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson (1971)

In a classic passage early in his first landmark novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson draws on his extensive empirical knowledge of the recreational substances of the day. The narrator, Raoul Duke, inventories his extensive drug collection. One item stands out, even among its dangerous counterparts: “Adrenachrome.” Duke claims the substance can only be extracted from a human adrenal gland, making it very rare. While there is a real chemical called adrenachrome, this is not the way it is created, and in the DVD commentary Terry Gilliam mentions that it was something Thompson had invented. The book as a whole serves as a critique of the idealism of the late 60s failing and turning into the “Me” decade. ("No more of the speed that fueled that 60's. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary's trip. He crashed around America selling 'consciousness expansion' without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously...") A few years removed from treating everyone like your brother or sister, people are willing to steal each others' organs to go on a novel drug binge.


Real world analogue:

The effects in the film are fantastic, and are a great piece of satire. The actual adrenochrome is a product of oxidation of adrenaline, and in the 1960s was theorized to cause psychosis and schizophrenia. However that hypothesis has long been discredited. There are some crazy people that decided to order some stuff from a lab, snorted, smoked, and ate it, and discovered nothing but the placebo effect.

Substance D

A Scanner Darkly, Dick (1977) / Linklater (2006)

Philip K. Dick's semi-autobiographical novel features a house of drug users who are hooked on “Substance D,” a psychoactive. It draws from Dick's own experience living in a house of drug users in the early 1970s. Dick's protagonist is an undercover drug agent whose real identity must remain secret, even from other police officers. His drug use and eventual dependency interfere with his work and render him ineffectual. Later in the book, he takes on treatment of addicts. Richard Linklater's film version of A Scanner Darkly makes use of rotoscoping, an animation technique playing on uncanny realism and shifting reality, mimicking the effects of the drug.


Real world analogue:

“Substance D” is based on Philip K. Dick’s own experiences, but it's not too specific. It causes “cross-chatter” where two sides of the brain talk independently, but seem to have different subjective effects. The sensation of bugs crawling, formication, and addictive powers points to a stimulant-like substance like an amphetamine or cocaine. Most stimulants cause the formication sensation and psychosis in overdose, which is something that can happen if you get hooked and need more and more.


Scanners, Cronenberg (1981)

In Scanners, the drug was marketed to pregnant women to treat morning sickness. In reality, it was part of an insane corporate pharmaceutical conspiracy to create a new breed of telekinetic superhumans and dominate the planet. Cronenberg engages with the fear of medicinal side effects, as Ephemerol seems to be based on the real drug Thalidomide, which was later found to cause birth severe defects.


Real world analogue:

Obviously there’s nothing that causes telekinesis, but Thalidomide was initially used as a sedative/hypnotic, something that reduces anxiety and causes sleep. Then it was marketed as an antiemetic to cure nausea and used to treat morning sickness like ephemerol. It caused horrible birth defects, with nearly 50% of infants dying in the womb. The catastrophe of thalidomide caused greater regulation of pharmaceuticals.


Children of Men, James (1992) / Cuaron (2006)

In a particularly bleak future setting of Children of Men, mankind as a whole has become infertile and is therefore doomed. For the elderly, who are a burden on the state, or those who do not wish to live out a fairly pointless existence in a quickly collapsing world, an assisted suicide drug called “Quietus” is provided. In P.D. James original novel, Quietus seems to represent mass drownings facilitated by the government. However, in Cuaron's adaptation, Quietus is a suicide kit distributed by the government and ingested as a liquid. It is frequently advertised on television in the film. The update reflects society's ever-changing vision of the future. By failing to reveal the cause of the mass infertility, James and Cuaron engage with fears about the sustainability of mankind on Earth. Without explicitly blaming global warming, diminished resources, or overpopulation, the utter hopelessness of the scenario serves to motivate societal reforms before it is too late.


Real world analogue:

The quiet medicinal sleep offered in the movies is most like the use of secobarbital in assisted suicide and euthanasia of animals. Secobarbital is a barbiturate that was used to treat seizures, help people get to sleep, and to knock people out for surgery. Overdoses meant sleep, and then death, by all accounts, a peaceful and quiet way to go. 


Judge Dredd, Cannon/Travis (1995, 2012)

Slo-Mo is a highly addictive narcotic introduced in the science fiction action flick Judge Dredd. The drug is known for slowing down the experience of time to 1% of its normal speed. It is used recreationally, and accounts for some of the most visually stunning sequences in the film. In the case you happen to be doing something less fun than sloshing in a bathtub when you take a hit (like being skinned alive and pushed of the top of projects' highrise by Ma-Ma Clan goons), you will also suffer a dramatic enhancement of that experience. In Dredd, the drug is illegal but possession and use results in up to two years in the iso-cubes, a solitary confinement cell.


Real world analogue:

There are plenty of drugs that offer a sense of time dilation. Nearly all psychedelics do that to a certain degree:  LSD, 2C-B, mescaline. However, psychedelics aren’t known to be addictive.


South Park, “Timmy 2000” (2000)

Mid public debate over Ritalin, the town of South Park encounters an epidemic of ADHD and all of the children are prescribed the drug. This comes with some strange side effects, like sudden, acute appreciation of Phil Collins and hallucinations of large, Christina Aguilera-headed beetles. Eventually Chef confronts the prescription-happy doctors, and they inform him of an experimental antidote: Ritalout. While engaging in typically ludicrous satire, the episode does demonstrate a widespread belief at the time: that doctors were overdiagnosing ADHD in children who were experiencing normal behavioral issues.


Real world analogue:

Ritalin typically doesn’t cause hallucinations at therapeutic doses, but in overdoses can cause stimulant psychosis, which includes hallucinations, delusions, thought disorder, aggression, and physical symptoms that can eventually be fatal. Opioids like heroin or oxycodone, can be countered by an opioid derivative, naloxone, which rapidly blocks the receptors they bind to, reversing their effects. Sadly, there’s no easy antidote like Ritalout for stimulant psychosis, it’s supportive care to ensure that your body can take the stress while your liver and kidneys do the detox.


Side Effects, Soderbergh (2013)

In Soderbergh's film Side Effects, Emily Taylor's suicidal depression is treated with an experimental drug called Ablixa. As promotion for the film, a website was created advertising Ablixa as if it were a real medicine. Ablixa helps Emily, but its seemingly harmless side effects, including sleepwalking, have dire consequences. Like Scanners, this film plays on the fears that come with the pharmaceutical age. Eventually, Emily begins to use the paranoid public perception of the drug to her advantage.


Real world analogue:

The sleepwalking is actually a common side effect of Z-drugs like Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, which were initially marketed as safer than benzodiazepines like Valium, or Xanax. They may not affect sleep structure as much as benzos, but the sleepwalking, talking, and other actions they cause can lead to “dire consequences”, like being a US congressmen and driving your car into a wall.

Formula 51

Formula 51, Ronny Yu (2001)

Ronny Yu's Formula 51 is a delightfully insane spoof of 90s rave culture in the United Kingdom. Samuel L. Jackson plays Elmo McElroy, a kilt-wearing chemist who claims to have created a new, powerful party drug, “POS 51.” He meets with underworld figures in Liverpool hoping to sell the formula, but becomes the target of multiple groups who want to steal the formula for financial gain. The market for new drugs is ravenous and McElroy's expertise in chemistry allows him a god-like status in the culture. Finally, it is revealed that POS 51 is simply a placebo, culminating in a critique of the suggestible nature of those involved in rave culture.


Real world analogue:

The ingredients for synthesizing MDMA are heavily controlled and difficult to get. That’s part of what drives the synthetic designer drug industry, to find an alternative that doesn’t use the controlled chemicals. Plenty of bizarre new MDMA-likes have appeared on the market, with new and possibly dangerous side effects. But the rapid experimentation has also meant a few duds also was sold to an unlucky few who believed they might be getting the next Molly. And anything is a placebo, if you believe hard enough. If you print out these words, and chew the paper, they will be like the greatest Molly you’ve ever had maaaaaaan.


Arrested Development, “Best Man for the Gob” (2004)

This pharmaceutical (not FDA Approved) boosted camaraderie among people while lowering sex drive. The ridiculous commercial, which lists a myriad of side effects, parodies the many drug ads on television at the time. In trying to bring his family together to perform the “Teamocil” jingle, Tobias ends up driving them farther apart. In the context of a witty comedy, Teamocil provides a tragic irony in further alienating the members of the Fünke family.


Real world analogue:

Though MDMA is being used in experimental therapy for PTSD, it is generally well known for boosting camaraderie and making people more friendly. But the sex drive is usually raised too. 


Cloud Atlas, Mitchell (2004)

David Mitchell's epic novel spans many ages, cultures and genres. In a future Korea ruled by an oppressive government, “fabricants” have replaced much of the workforce and are fed a chemical called “soap” for sustenance. This substance is also abused by regular people as a type of recreational drug. This construct mimics the idea that substances can be beneficial or medicinal to some while serving as consciousness expanding or recreational substances to others.


Real world analogue:

These genetically engineered fabricants are effectively living machinery, and soap is their fuel. The regular people abusing this industrial fuel has an analogue in huffing, or the intentional inhalation of volatile gases or vapors from things such as nail polish, gasoline, and glue. Many of these simply deplete oxygen causing delirium from asphyxiation. All of these substances have legitimate industrial uses but can be abused, often by the most marginalized members of society. In Australia, the problem was so bad that the government subsidizes a special form of gasoline with low levels of toxic inhalants called Opal.


Limitless, Burger (2011)

Both Limitless and Lucy feature drugs that acts to enhance the mental abilities of its user. In Limitless, Eddie uses the drug to overcome writer's block, amass a fortune in the stock market, and then derail into addiction and time-skidding blackouts. This mimics the current widespread abuse of drugs like Adderall and Vyvanse while also depicting the cycle of dependency and withdrawal. After the success of this film, many drugs have been marketed as providing similar effects in real life.


Real world analogue:

The drugs that improve intelligence and cognition are called nootropics. Nootropics cover stimulants from caffeine, amphetamines like Adderall, eugeroics like Provigil, and the exotic racetams.


Lucy, Besson (2014)

As for Lucy, the protagonist is forced into service as a drug mule by an underworld organization. When the bag forcefully sewn into her body ruptures during a beating, she is subjected to a high dose of “CPH4.” This drug allows for high brain function, allegedly able to unlock the full power of the human brain (a known myth). Lucy experiences heightened mental and physical powers, eventually gaining telepathic abilities. Already mutated beyond a recognizable human form, Lucy ingests the largest dosage yet, and is able to transcend her human form. 


Real world analogue:

There’s nothing that gives you god-like powers, but overdoses of amphetamines will convince you of that, just before the police shoot you.


Looper, Johnson (2012)

In the dystopia of Looper, Joe is a hitman whose victims are sent to him from the future. This provides him a relatively stable life and he is well compensated in gold bars. However, his contract dictates that he will one day kill himself in the line of duty, or “close his loop.” In light of this fairly hopeless scenario, Joe and his cohorts live empty, apathetic lives where they abuse a drug called “dropper.” It is ingested through the eyes in the form of drops, and appears to have psychoactive properties. Joe often takes it in a social setting at a nightclub. Joe illustrates a type of character flaw that easily translates from his society to ours; his only concerns are stockpiling gold and getting high.


Real world analogue:

There’s a lot of talk in movies about drugs taken via the eye due to a misconception of the term “eyeballing”. What that really means is to use your eyes to measure a dose, often a haphazard one, because the visual difference between 10mg and 20mg is very small. Cocaine is technically used in eyedrops for anesthesia, but you don’t get high from it.

HFS & Wifi

21 JUMP STreet and 22 Jump Street, Miller, Lord (2012, 2014)

The Jump St. films each introduce a new designer drug, “HFS” and “Wifi.” Police officers are sent undercover to a high school and then a college to find out about these new drugs and take down the dealers who are distributing them, as possible commentary on contemporary drug culture and the rise of MDMA and experimental chemicals. The protagonists must literally infiltrate groups of kids to have any chance of understanding this particular drug culture. Although exaggerated, the depiction of the generational gap echoes many earlier works.


Real world analogue:

The illegality of drugs and harsh treatment by the law results in a plethora of names, some created solely for the purposes of mocking authority. Mephedrone, an exotic designer drug that has effects similar to MDMA and cocaine, was given the name “meow-meow” by the tabloids, despite the fact that no one actually called it that except for people intentionally trying to make a fool out of the news. In 1997, the surreal British news parody, Brass Eye, tricked politicians and  famous TV presenters to speak out against “cake” an entirely fictional drug.