Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990): A Meditation on Making Peace With Death

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder (1990) – directed by Adrian Lyne and written by Bruce Joel Rubin – is, in my opinion, one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made. It is a multilayered film that draws on many spiritual and religious influences and themes. Rubin, the screenwriter, is also a meditation teacher and has a long-standing interest in spiritual traditions – he hitchhiked through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan en route to the east and then spent time in ashrams in India, a Tibetan monastery in Kathmandu, a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, and a Sikh temple in Singapore. Before this journey, he had a life-changing LSD experience that acted as inspiration for Jacob’s Ladder. He told Jack Beresford at Den of Geek:

I guess the seed formed for most of my writing during an LSD trip in 1965. My roommate at the time was a very good friend of Timothy Leary [an American psychologist and writer known for his strong advocacy of psychedelic drugs] and he gave me a tablet of LSD. He said it was strong and that I should take it whenever I felt it was right. So I kept it in my wallet for about six months.

The day I decided to take it, a man arrived at our apartment. He was bringing a jar of lysergic acid (pure liquid LSD) with him from some laboratories in Switzerland. He asked if he could leave it in our refrigerator before going up to Millbrook, New York, which is where Leary and his guys were all devoting their time to ‘experimentation’.

That night I took the tablet that had been sitting in my wallet and nothing happened. My roommate said, ‘well, we have this pure lysergic acid sitting in the refrigerator, why don’t I get an eyedropper and I’ll give you a drop?’ I said ‘OK’. So he went to give me a drop from the eyedropper and by mistake squeezed thousands of micrograms of LSD down my throat.

What came out of that was a mystical experience so profound, but I could find nothing in Western teaching that talked about it. But I did find teachings in Eastern religions like Tibetan Buddhism. I decided that I needed to go to places like India and Nepal and meet with teachers to get an understanding of what it was that happened because I entered a world so much bigger than the world we know experientially, so much more vast and internal, if you will, that I needed some direction.

This accidental overdose of LSD led to an experience that Rubin describes as lasting between three and four billion years. He said, “I was completely taken apart. Imagine yourself hanging over the edge of a skyscraper, looking at the ground below and at the moment you leap you are frozen in that space and that terror. That’s where I was for a very long time.” This experience radically changed his views on life, death, and spirituality. Further inspiration for Jacob’s Ladder came from a nightmare where Rubin found himself on a near-deserted New York subway train late at night:

I had a dream where I get off the train and end up trapped in a subway station with no exits. I realize the only way out is down through the dark tunnel of the subway into some kind of awful hell. But I have to make that journey, because ultimately it’s the journey to my own liberation.

This idea underlies much of the meaning of Jacob’s Ladder. The opening sequence shows the protagonist Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins) as a US soldier in the Vietnam War who, along with his fellow combatants, enters a state of aggressive, frenzied delirium. We later learn that the US government non-consensually experimented on these soldiers with a psychoactive drug called ‘the ladder’, intended to maximise the aggression of soldiers to make them more effective fighters. However, this backfired when the soldiers began turning on each other, brutally murdering their own men. This was inspired by real-life experiments the US government conducted on soldiers under its secretive MK-ULTRA programme, in which ‘volunteers’ were unwittingly dosed with psychoactive drugs like LSD. The drug 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate (code-named BZ) is referenced at the end of the film. The US Army, in fact, tested this drug on soldiers to discover its effectiveness as an incapacitating agent. The Army concluded it could disable enemy troops.

During the state of homicidal frenzy, we see Jacob stabbed with a bayonet by an unseen assailant. The film then cuts to his life with his partner Jezzie (played by Elizabeth Peña) in New York (so we assume he survived the incident). We later learn he was stabbed by one of his fellow combatants, and in the final scene, we see him in a triage tent, where military doctors declare him dead. We are left with the impression, then, that the life and tribulations that Jacob faces in his life in New York are imaginative and hallucinatory. In New York, before we discover the Army’s experimentation on soldiers with ‘the ladder’, one might imagine that Jacob’s terrifying visions of demons are related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Once the news of the drug experimentation is revealed to Jacob by the mysterious chemist Michael (played by Matt Craven), we are told that these persistent hallucinations are due to the effects of the drug. After all, others in Jacob’s battalion connect with him in New York and report the same hallucinations of creatures. As fellow veteran Paul (played by Pruitt Taylor Vince) confesses to Jacob, “They’ve been following me. They’re coming out of the walls.”

Lyne, the director, portrayed the ‘demons’ in the film in a non-religious, non-conventional sense: we see them as human-like but misshapen and disfigured, and we get brief glimpses and flashes of them, so their appearance is ambiguous. All of this helps to make the monsters in the film especially creepy and disturbing. Jacob’s Ladder represents other religious themes, also in a modern, non-traditional way. The film’s title refers to the Biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder, found in Genesis 28:12, in which the Biblical patriarch Jacob dreams of a ladder on Earth, the top of which reaches to Heaven. Angels are seen ascending and descending the ladder. The film draws on the theme of this ladder, this link or realm between Heaven and Earth, casting it as a kind of purgatory for Jacob in the film. His soul is on the ladder, struggling, not having made it yet to Heaven.

The alternative title for the film was Dante’s Inferno, referencing the 14th-century epic poem Inferno by Dante Alighieri, which describes Dante’s journey through Hell, guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. Hell is depicted as nine concentric circles of torment situated within the Earth. Jacob in the film likewise finds himself in hellish spaces, with a particularly Dante-esque sequence occurring in a hospital setting, where he is carted on a stretcher through horrifying rooms that increase in their gruesomeness (this iconic scene, as well as others, would serve as inspiration for the Silent Hill games). Rubin perceived the film as a modern interpretation of Bardo Thodol, or Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate Stage, better known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This Tibetan Buddhist text describes – and is intended to guide one through – the experiences one has after death, in the bardo (the intermediate state between death and the next rebirth).

Rubin interwove this Tibetan Buddhist concept with the idea of an after-death experience that offers an individual the chance to achieve peace and closure with the life they are leaving behind. This is essentially what Jacob’s Ladder is about: Jacob’s spiritual struggle – his attempt to die peacefully. His life in New York has religious overtones, given that his partner’s name Jezzie is short for Jezebel, the name of a Phoenician royal in the Bible whose identity and name have come to signify a power-hungry, deceptive, violent, and promiscuous woman. Jezzie in the film takes on these traits. Jacob grapples with this archetype as well as demonic characters who pursue and persecute him. He is haunted too by images and scenes of his previous life, including his former wife and his son Gabe (played by Macauley Culkin). We see Jacob troubled by the death of his son. Rubin summarised his vision for the film as follows:

It’s the idea of what happens inside the mind of a man as he dies. Working out all the things they never addressed when they were alive. It is a confusing, complicated state of consciousness. Time is subjective, so that years could be experienced in a matter of milliseconds. Rather than running away from the problem, it’s about embracing it. For Jacob, that moment comes with his son. He learns that it’s only though the biggest losses and the greatest pain and the most broken heart, that you discover your way to liberation.

Confusion in the viewer is created with ingenuity. Anita Ashiq writes in a piece for the Pamphlet:

Throughout the film, Jacob’s apparent paranoid-schizophrenia worsens. First, he dreams of combat in Vietnam. Before long, he starts seeing hellish creatures, appearing in cars and trains or in the middle of the crowd. Increasingly often, he finds himself living his pre-Vietnam life. While avoiding murder attempts clearly directed at him, he becomes more and more absorbed into a nightmarish limbo, where demons play with memories taken from different stages of his life. He never knows which temporal layer he is in, and neither do we

The scholar Anna Powell argues that the film purposefully confounds the watcher by overlapping three temporal dimensions (past, present, and future). Just like Jacob, we cannot tell which dimension is hallucinatory in nature, and which is real. His bad trip – or hallucinations – represent the purgatory he finds himself in. But he eventually finds the path to liberation. Louis, his chiropractor in New York (played by Danny Aiello), quotes the 14th-century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart:

Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: “The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you”, he said. “They’re freeing your soul. So, if you’re frightened of dying and … you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”

Under this view, the agony of dying lies in this resistance to let go of one’s life. Being unable to let go and make peace with one’s life before its cessation, we exist in Hell (or a hellish state of purgatory), where we are tortured by demons. But by making our peace with death, those demons transform into angels. One does not have to view this in necessarily supernatural terms: we can see these visions of good and evil entities as representations of the individual’s psyche and the attitude they take towards dying and death. At the end of the film, Jacob returns to his family home, where he finds Gabe, who takes him by the hand and leads him up the staircase into a bright light. In the triage tent, a doctor notes that Jacob put up a fight to stay alive, but looked peaceful in death.

This film acts as a unique and compelling meditation on dying and death, and how we come to terms with these existentially and spiritually challenging realities that we all have to face. While the film is a psychological horror, which confounds and disturbs us through its narrative and imagery, we nonetheless reach a state of resolution, which is Jacob’s resolution – the ability to pass away peacefully. The film should serve as a lesson, therefore, on the importance of adopting a wise attitude towards dying and death, allowing us to transfigure horror into liberation.

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