When it comes to mainstream media’s depiction of ayahuasca, expect it to be about as accurate as the popular film industry’s ubiquitous depiction of action heroes narrowly escaping death in impossible situation after impossible situation. In other words, it’s not remotely realistic or accurate. Of course we can’t expect the film industry to authentically depict reality all of the time, or even some of the time. Their intent, after all, is to entertain… and entertaining usually means providing a fantastical, comedic, or horrific escape from mundane reality as we know it.
Still, you would think that an accurate depiction of an ayahuasca experience would be enough of a leap from the mundane as it is. Ayahuasca is an intense, rich, transformative world, and one that mainstream media apparently knows nothing about. A few films and t.v. shows have at least managed to capture some basic truths about the psycho-shamanic adventure that is an ayahuasca trip, while others have portrayed it with deplorable inaccuracy; like the episode in X-files where the writers think ayahuasca makes you have power over stray cats. Look, I’ve seen some crazy things on the medicine– so I’m not saying it’s not possible. But manipulating the wills of wild hungry felines is hardly the core intent of an ayahuasca ceremony.
In reality, you’re much more likely to develop a better understanding of an ayahuasca ceremony by watching one of the many documentaries that have been made about the sacred amazonian tea (Stepping Into the Fire, Drinking the Jungle, Ayahuasca). Other more realistic breakdowns about the true nature of ayahuasca are available on the web. Mainstream media on the other hand, has a comedically skewed perception of what ayahuasca is like.
It is fascinating to see how the subject of ayahuasca has made it’s way into Hollywood of all places. Ayahuasca is making a cameo appearance in more and more films, an indication of a growing popularity and awareness of the plant medicine. In addition to mentions, references and depictions of ayahuasca ceremonies showing up more frequently in films and t.v., more and more Hollywood actors (i.e. Lindsay Lohan and Chelsea Handler) are also speaking openly about their experiences with the brew.
Comedic Depictions of Ayahuasca Provide Humor, Not Accuracy
Despite being widely inaccurate, depictions of ayahuasca ceremonies in comedic films and television provide some lightness and comic relief both for those who are experienced with the plant, and even for those who are new to the concept. For example, in a hilarious scene from Wanderlust, a character played by Jennifer Aniston starts to notice the hallucinogenic effects of a mysterious tea she is given by members of a commune her and her partner accidentally fall into when she says, “Why is that grass crying? It’s really loud.” Another member then informs her that “ayahuasca tea has hallucinogenic properties.”
The scene depicts a comedic spin on a psychedelic experience which in reality would be more akin to the nature of a strong acid trip, rather than an ayahuasca experience. Nevertheless, it’s an amusing scene which later leads to Aniston’s character having profound and revelatory realizations, and outcome which is usually associated with ayahuasca.
In a scene from the comedic film While We Were Young starring Ben Stiller, a distinctively cocky shaman carrying a hand drum tells the character playing Stiller’s girlfriend, “I can take the medicine and hem a boat. I mean, I ran a half marathon on the medicine one time.” and later in the conversation flirtatiously tells her “I feel like you were born a thousand years ago.” In the scene, the group is depicted as wearing all-white, a practice which actually is not uncommon in the neo-shamanic scene. It’s also not uncommon to interface with ill-experienced Americans providing “the medicine” to communities using their iPhone playlist as opposed to the traditional leaf fans and icaros used by indigenous or traditionally trained shamans.
The film does a good job on riffing off some of the moderns hilarities of neo-shamanism– however the scene of the ceremony itself does little in the way of providing a tangible sense of the experience. The characters are walking around, sitting, and chatting as if they’ve just taken a severe bong rip. In reality, most people in an ayahuasca ceremony spend the long hours practically glued to the floor, or to their bucket–not casually conversing about their Egyptian hallucinations.
Dramatic Depictions of Ayahuasca: A Slightly More Realistic View
Dramatic films and television do a slightly better job at portraying the complexity of the visionary experience with ayahuasca. The film Blueberry, (also called Renegade), for example, has become a cult classic amongst psychedelic enthusiasts. Though the film did not receive great reviews from film critics, it has secured itself a home as one of the top films showing the inner realms of an ayahuasca trip.
In multiple vivid scenes, enhanced with intricate digital artwork, the main character experiences a deep ayahuasca journey, led by a native shaman he has befriended. In one journey, he returns to a traumatic event portrayed earlier in the film, and has an experience of reconciliation and what appears to be forgiveness. While the journey itself definitely is one of the closest visual depictions of a DMT dimension, the narrative of the film strays elaborately from historical truth.
The film depicts a Shipibo tribe in the context of a western film, where the tribe lives, strangely enough, in the desert. So while the film provides some vividly stunning scenes with some insight into the actual nature of an ayahuasca experience, don’t rely on it in any sense for a historical framework for the medicine and it’s cultural contexts. Shipibo shamans do not live in the desert– they live in the thick, damp, forested environment of the Amazon.
The film fails at proper context, but achieves its aim of being more of an allegorical reference to ayahuasca and shipibo shamanism. As an interesting metaphor, members of the country western town in the film try finding the hidden city believing it contains gold. In an interesting plot twist, it turns out that the “gold” is actually ayahuasca. (Yup, we agree.)
Another more realistic and slightly more relatable depiction of ayahuasca is portrayed in the popular TV show Weeds. In the scene, Mary Louise Parker’s character Nancy Botwin takes ayahuasca in an intimate group setting. Before her experience, she is laying on her friend’s lap who tells her, “Ayahuasca’s a rocket ship. Like 30 years of psychotherapy in one night.” The scene shows some of the physical and emotional experiences that someone might go through. The main character is shown purging (very a-typical of the medicine), sweating, and clearly having an emotionally intense experience.
Films That Are Believed to Be Inspired by Ayahuasca
Not all depictions of ayahuasca in popular media are as overt as the ones mentioned above. There are many more examples of scenes which suggest an influence from ayahuasca, and viewers speculate a number of films have been inspired by it. Even this scene from The Simpsons seems highly reminiscent of an ayahuasca experience, wherein Homer has an “epiphany” as a result of a shamanic visionary experience.
Many people believe that the movie Avatar was inspired by ayahuasca, and there are numerous aspects of the film which closely correlate with the medicine. Even the name of their sacred tree “Eywa” sounds strikingly similar to “Aya”, which of course, also comes from a tree vine. A deleted scene from Avatar depicts a shamanic initiation that only differs from an ayahuasca ceremony in the sense that the character eats a worm, instead of drinking a tea. The setting, experience, and the initiatory passage all seem highly relevant to an indigenous ayahuasca experience.
If we are to believe that “Eywa” is actually “Aya”, then Avatar says something about the medicine that touches on the deeper revelatory power of the medicine on a planetary, and global level. The lessons taught in the film show us how we can better connect to nature, respect indigenous communities, and feel at one with the spirit realm. Lessons which ayahuasca are known to provide.
With the rapid expansion of the indigenous ceremonial medicine in the West, it’s no surprise that ayahuasca is reaching the mainstream media, and it’s both fascinating and a bit concerning to see how it’s showing up in films and television. Whether ayahuasca is actually being depicted accurately or well is still up for debate — but at least the awareness of it is getting out there. Everything from entire films based around the experiences, to cartoons which comedically reference it, ayahuasca is influencing culture and making it’s way into the collective imagination of the population at large.
By Jennifer Sisoian