Hell Can Wait: Art, Trauma And Other Demons in JACOB'S LADDER

Exploring Adrian Lyne's 1990 nightmarish portrait of PTSD.

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · July 6, 2021, 4:38 PM EDT
jacob's ladder.jpeg
Tim Robbins in JACOB'S LADDER.

“It’s only through embracing death that you get to know life.” 

— Bruce Joel Rubin

Ever since Robert Weine’s silent masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, was first released in 1920, we have witnessed how the psyche manifests onscreen. In broad expressionist strokes, the film perfectly displayed the fragmented mind and is often seen as the first to utilize what is seen as the ‘delusional flashback’. Although not as literal and disturbing as the demonic imagery that closely followed in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922) and F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), Caligari’s allegorical tale on the traumatic effects of war is at the forefront of psychological horror.

Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990) inherits a similar metaphysical narrative and sense of disorientation. It is a film that works on many layers the further you descend. From the impact of PTSD and post-Vietnam commentary to the military experiments and cover-ups; it presents an artistic, meditative, and disorientating plot; shaped and refined by the careful balance of reality and Faustian fantasy.

Dead All Along

I WAS sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.

Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Pit and the Pendulum, from 1842, takes place during the height of the Spanish Inquisition and is a primal example of the effect terror has on the narrator; the anxiety of death, and infinite suffering. No stranger to dreams within dreams, Poe, rather surprisingly, stripped Pit of supernatural elements delivering a more believable (albeit more torturous) atmosphere. It is, in effect, another story where a central character is on the precipice, traumatized and fighting for his life. Screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin’s influences can be linked directly to art and classic literature — the gothic and medieval naturally inherent in the themes of Jacob’s Ladder — where, originally in the script, such inspired words and imagery had remained more explicit. Via religious motifs, Rubin was interested in the universal themes that cross over into different cultures and religions; his love of the afterlife also explored in the unexpected box office smash, Ghost, released the same year.


Of course, it makes complete sense Rubin has been a student and teacher of mediation for over 30 years and, as with any good writer, he projected a myriad of experiences. A bad LSD trip in the late ’60s — his own ‘death and rebirth’ — opened his eyes to a world of the unconscious and the subconscious; an exploration of perception vs. reality through stories he felt had something important to say. The story of Jacob’s Ladder came to him in a dream in which he woke up trapped in a subway with all the exit gates locked. As Rubin documented at the time of production in Jacob’s Chronicle — a written account that accompanies the published screenplay — he goes on to describe his only way out a descent into the tubes, never to see daylight again. When he frantically awoke, he discovered he had the perfect opening of a movie, ‘Jacob’s Ladder was born … this would not be a story of a man going to hell, but of a man already there.’

Although there are references within Islam and Judaism, there is no doubt that the biblical story of the original Patriarch, Jacob, who dreamt of a ladder leading to heaven (book of Genesis, chapter 28, verses 10-19), has been envisioned the most. William Blake’s watercolor, Jacob’s Ladder, (1799-1807) — or Jacob’s Dream as it is sometimes known — is interpreted as a pristine, spiral stairway to heaven; an interpretation he would supplant in his Epitome of James Hervey’s ‘Meditations among the Tombs’ (1820-1825). At the time of his death in 1827, Blake was working on illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy (1824-1827), in which one of his last preliminary sketches shows another spiral stairway almost identical to the one depicted in his original Jacob’s Ladder painting.


Although Rubin has often cited the philosophical relevance of Jacob’s Ladder to the 8th-century writing of the Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead) — a document on the soul’s progress through the dreams and illusions experienced during death — it is the Academy-winning French short film, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962), that was a seminal influence. Therefore, it seemed only natural that Jacob’s Ladder became somewhat of a spiritual extension. Based on the original short story from 1890 by Ambrose Bierce, a civilian during the American Civil War is hung from a bridge…

‘The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream.’


His apparent escape into the river below and journey home to his family is snapped back to the reality of his hanging; the entire story taking place within the final second of his life. Robert Enrico’s short film was so well received, it was bought by the producer of The Twilight Zone, William Froug, and aired as episode 22 of the final season in 1964. It is a remarkable adaptation told with minimal dialogue, stark cinematography, and potent symbolism where soldiers appear framed like reapers; scythes replaced by bayonetted muskets as they stand high in silhouette amongst the craggy outcrops that surround the eponymous bridge. Similarities can also be made to Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls — also released in 1962 — a cult classic that once again deals with a (low budget) limbo state narrative.

Where Owl Creek and other influences built a solid foundation during Rubin’s early stages of writing, it would be the inspired references to surrealism and abstract painters that would become crucial in distinguishing the film’s unique vision and visceral tone.


Angels, Demons… and Deformities

I wanted my photographs to be as powerful as the last thing a person sees or remembers before death. — Joel-Peter Witkin

For almost ten years Jacob’s Ladder had remained in ‘development hell’, garnering somewhat of a cult status as one of the top unproduced screenplays in Hollywood; everyone from Sidney Lumet to Ridley Scott fired up to direct. When Adrian Lyne discovered the project it was clear from the offset that he was the director who finally had the guts and imagination to bring it to the screen.


Lyne’s approach to Jacob’s ladder was all about the ‘authenticity of image’ and creating a fresh perspective on what defines the demonic. A key decision was made early on to avoid explicitly showing any practical effects that had defined the ’80s up to that point and, although Owl Creek was also a major influence on Lyne as a filmmaker, he set out to tone down any medieval imagery Rubin had latched onto; such as Bosch’s (un)earthly delights, echoes of Dante’s Inferno and Blake’s poetic vision. This evolution in the preproduction process was an attempt to hide as much as possible with brief, disturbing flashes rather than fall into the trap of recreating cloven-hoofed devils.

For Lyne, ‘Hell had been tamed by familiarity and he sought for a more contemporary slant that hinted at the things that truly disturb us from the real world and ‘burn itself into the audience’s consciousness.’ Onscreen, the more familiar and traditional references are only seen briefly while our title character, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), thumbs through Dante’s second part of The Divine Comedy (1308-1320), Purgatorio; illustrated by Gustave Dore’s engravings. It is no coincidence that Rubin’s original title for the film was lifted directly as ‘Dante’s Inferno’; every word of the original text a poetic reminder, ‘There is no greater sorrow then to recall our times of joy in wretchedness.’ Books are not only there to help Jacob make some sense of his life (and death) but also help guide the audience.


At the time, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) was the perfect precursor to Jacob’s Ladder; art director, Brian Morris, the crucial link in shaping the production. Despite Lyne’s reluctance to tap into more literal works, there is no doubt that Hieronymus Bosch’s influence had remained under the surface; Jeffrey L. Kimball’s cinematography sharing a similar color palette to Christ in Limbo (1575); the rich reds lit by flame as the dead are funneled into a disturbingly playful hell where devils play with a deck of cards one moment, while just over the wall corpses are flayed and dismembered. This dystopian surrealism can also be seen in the work of the late Polish artist, Zdzisław Beksiński — a true inheritor of Bosch’s medieval tradition — as Guillermo del Toro once stated, “… a forewarning about the fragility of the flesh — whatever pleasures we know are doomed to perish — thus, his paintings manage to evoke at once the process of decay and the ongoing struggle for life.” del Toro’s own Jacob’s Ladder, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a perfect companion piece that certainly showcases a touch of Bosch and Beksiński in its presentation of dark fantasy and the horrific realities of war.

Although Lyne was not a fan of the biblical and medieval imagery, what he set out to induce on every frame also remains the perfect balance of fantasy and reality. There is a dread and deep sense of unease as commuters ominously stare back at Jacob. He catches the glimpse of a phallic tail from under a homeless man’s coat; a bone-like growth protrudes from a Nurse’s scalp and, in a central scene, a soulful party descends into a hedonistic nightmare; hinted at by the skinned cow head left in the fridge. Jacob’s lover, Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), dances. Strobe lights flash against leather wings and lashing teeth; the dance devolving into a grotesque assault as a lethal appendage coils and writhes between Jezzie’s legs and, without warning, suddenly impales her through the mouth.


Biblical names and references are laid thick and thin. Jacob quips he has sold his soul while ‘Jezebel’ is the literal temptress — loving one moment, volatile the next — her shark eyes waking Jacob from his distractions as he slips away from her. During an earlier scene, Jezzie throws his photographs into the incinerator; an act alluded to by Jacob’s chiropractor; Louis (Danny Aiello) — framed by a halo of light — referring to the philosophy of the 14th-century mystic, Meister Eckhart, “You know what he said? He said: the only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life; your memories, your attachments. They burn ‘em all away. But they’re not punishing you, he said, they’re freeing your soul.” There are other burning echoes from the offset when Jacob wakes on the New York subway reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942); a study on the meaning of life in which the central (detached) character, Meursault, states in the translation, “It is better to burn than to disappear.”

Burning fire then ice. Much like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, Jezzie plunges Jacob into a cold bath. He screams out in pain before he is tormented further by the life he once had before the war with his family. He awakes in bed next to his wife — a cold breeze from the window having triggered his nightmare — his dead son, Gabe (Macaulay Culkin), now awake in the middle of the night. The many layers — or the many circles of hell — not only present a spiritual journey but also some semblance of a once happy life fractured by personal tragedy. It becomes apparent that Jacob was already grieving from the loss of his son and, as the story progresses, it is brought into question whether the ‘things’ he is witnessing are induced by his exposure to a chemical weapon — a drug known as ‘The Ladder’ — and whether he has survived the war at all.


Louis goes on to summarize Eckhart, “If you’re frightened of dyin’, and then you’re holdin’ on… you’ll see devils tearin’ your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freein’ you from the earth.” We all have our own angels and demons. For Rubin, Jacob’s journey was never about one man’s struggle, but everyman’s. These moments Jacob shares with his guardian angel are an epiphany for us all as we fight and resist as much as our protagonist. Jacob cannot believe that heaven and hell are the same place, struggling to make peace with anything around him; his entire world filled with hallucinations; unable to decipher what is real and what isn’t. Louis’ reflection is a brief comfort and respite from Jacob’s madness; the demons of grief, trauma, and pain ready to silence the poor man forever. When he is taken to hospital and literally descends into the inferno it becomes the ultimate test of his soul.

Jacob’s situation, at long last, begins to dawn on him as he descends deeper and deeper into the bowels of the hospital. We are focused on the spinning gurney wheels as the sterility is soon replaced by the neglect and decay of a derelict building where he catches a glimpse of his son’s abandoned bike; another painful reminder. Shards of glass, broken tiles, and now broken people — in mind, body, and spirit — await him. Jacob has now entered the asylum...


Lyne’s insane masterstroke was, rather than depict creatures with devilish horns, bat wings, and pitchforks, he rather controversially, looked at the birth defect caused by the thalidomide drug. Discussions soon lead to the work of Joel-Peter Witkin; his disturbing photography of death, corpses, and physical deformity becoming as much a crucial inspiration as H.R. Giger’s biomechanical paintings were on Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Indeed, Giger’s fingerprints were all over early production, but Lyne’s intended result was for things to appear on screen that the audience was unable to dismiss or hide from. As Rubin went on to chronicle, ‘He wanted demons that approached you from the inside, that emerged from your own consciousness.’ This became a strange fascination and perverse interaction between the (seemingly) able-bodied and, what appear to be deformed human beings.

In the search for similar inspiration, Francis Bacon’s paintings became ‘an undismissible force’, Rubin stating, ‘They haunted all of us … His suggestion of the demonic was, for Adrian, a stunning corollary to his own visual sensibilities.’ As one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, Bacon’s themes were all about the capacity for self-destruction; his connotations of violence based on his turbulent childhood in Dublin where he would hear a British regiment practice their maneuvers; coming of age amidst the early campaigns of the Irish nationalist movement. It seemed fitting that an artist directly impacted by violence and trauma — in much the same way the Dada artists and German expressionists’ influenced early horror films — would inspire such imagery.


The first twisted example of Bacon’s worth exploring is Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (1961). Based on a photographic study from 1887, Infantile paralysis child, walking on hands and feet, by Edward Muybridge — acquitted murderer and pioneering forefather of the motion picture — Bacon takes what appears to be the comfortable and carefree attitude of the child documented in Muybridge’s original and composes him as a solitary figure. It is made all the more disturbing by the removal of his face by Bacon’s trademark smudge and smear, surrounding the child in deathly black and velvet green. All that remains is a redundant frame that bleeds off the canvas in some hope of escape and only emphasizes the cruelty at play. On one level we are forced to question the intent of the image via the source of a murdering photographer studying a naked and malformed child, repainted by an unhinged artist. On another it taps into wider issues at play with obvious parallels to the effects of Agent Orange, which was part of the U.S. military’s herbicidal warfare program. The tactical use of the chemical exposed 4 million Vietnamese citizens, with three-quarters suffering immediate, and long-term effects on children developing multiple health problems and deformities at birth. U.S veterans were reassured it would have no effect on them but, after their service, evidence of birth defects in children was brought to question along with higher risks of cancer later in life.

Jacob’s flashbacks and hallucinations are rationalized in the film’s final footnote on another weaponized agent, BZ; part of the research of psychoactive, psychedelic, and dissociative drugs that could also be used to incapacitate the enemy. Talk of an LSD artillery shell was also apparently developed but never used. Due to denial from The Pentagon, these stories are often dismissed as nothing but a conspiracy theory, a similar conspiracy Jacob and his comrades seek answers to. When the truth of The Ladder drug is exposed, it not only provides a controversial statement but is also a pivotal device in cementing him in the present while also adding another layer of ambiguity to the reality of his situation. Is he alive, dead, in limbo, still experiencing the effects of the drug… or all of the aforementioned? Now he enters the pit, Jacob’s own inquisition begins…


Moving through the asylum of his crazed mind, high above him from caged surroundings, a thalidomide male ‘walking on all fours’ stairs down at him. As a baby is breastfed, others writhe in their straight jackets as the gurney pushes on past the blood and body parts. This is his deathbed; his battlefield — “Brother against brother. You tore each other to pieces.” — while another infamous image; the unforgettable demonic headshake vibrates and resonates. Based on Witkin’s photograph, Man with No Legs (1976), the original image depicts the predominant upper half of a man in bondage on a metal pedestal, his face nothing more than a dark blur. With Jacob’s experiences playing out on a subconscious level, they are not only an unsettling vision but also a reminder of the convulsions witnessed during the opening scene as The Ladder drug takes effect on the soldiers. The closer he is to the truth the more he is tortured.

These intangible concepts had no symbolic value to Rubin, but when presented to him on camera it became abundantly clear that Lyne was creating his version of death; a fear of the unknown that Jacob must confront. This was a revelatory moment that helped ground the visual style and define the importance of a powerful symbolic presence. Labeled ‘Vibroman’ during production and developed by special effects designer, Gordon J. Smith, the in-camera technique was simple yet highly effective. Smith applied grotesque prosthetics to the actors and then had them vigorously shake their heads as the camera ran at four frames per second; the disturbing result not only animating Witkin’s photography but also capturing the movement in Bacon’s portraits, perfectly.


Further inspiration behind the headshake and other distorted features that appear to Jacob throughout the film, can be seen directly in Bacon’s Portrait of Michel Leris (1976) and Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1979-1980). These examples showcase the artist’s ability to capture pain and torment in every brushstroke; one of the self-portraits brought to vivid life when Jacob catches a glimpse of a face peering back at him from inside a car that almost runs him down. Bacon’s sadomasochistic tendencies bled onto the canvas — a distortion of paint as flesh; man as meat — something monstrous permanently captured on canvas inspiring a celluloid nightmare.

Despite the horrific journey that Jacob finds himself on, in the end, he finally finds peace. His guardian angels are there to remind him of his anguish; his angelic son, Gabriel, representing his emotional pain as he wrestles with losing him; while Jacob’s chiropractor, Louis, is a reminder of his physical pain. They are both saviors — two people from his life who have already passed over — and, in those final heartbreaking moments, Jacob finally ascends with his son.


Jacob’s Legacy

Adrian Lyne’s psychological masterpiece has remained so lucid that it is often overlooked. This is detriment to his intelligence as a filmmaker; continuing to imprint on other works despite the danger of becoming pale imitators. Perhaps the most striking, and certainly the most immersive example, is the original video game of Silent Hill (1999) that lifts and builds upon the art direction and production design; the closest we have come to the hellish limbo and afterlife Jacob Singer finds himself in. After hours of gameplay trudging through the fog-drenched environment and decayed buildings that reveal familiar faceless entities, everything is revealed to be the dying hallucination of our playable hero, Harry, from the wreckage of a car crash.


1999 also saw a couple of inspired film releases; M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense retaining a similar trick to commercial success and the remake of House On Haunted Hill which lifting the demonic headshake and surgical implements, verbatim. Brad Anderson matched the tone with his films Session 9 (2001) and The Machinist (2004), while Darren Aronofsky’s Academy Award-winning Black Swan (2010), Martin Scorsese’ Shutter Island (2010), and John Maybury’s The Jacket (2005) are all solid examples that also play around with nightmarish, suffocating visuals and the inevitable rug pull.

More recently, Daniel Isn’t Real (2019) took an interesting turn. While also mashing Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) and David Fincher’s Fightclub (1999), director Adam Egypt Mortimer cited Jacob’s Ladder as a major influence on his film while in conversation with Bloody Disgusting, “Adrian Lyne achieves the feeling of depersonalization that trauma creates while at the same time letting Robbins’ performance bring kinetic energy, life, and humor into the world so that there is always a contrast of feelings and a sense that we are never wallowing. Also, rad fucking demons, come on let’s be honest.” Aside from the obvious descent into madness and demonic imagery, it is no coincidence that the main protagonist is played by Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s son, Miles Robbins. Mortimer’s film explores trauma through the resurrection of a childhood imaginary friend as another fight for the soul ensues; dressed in the hot pinks and retro aesthetic you would expect from a SpectreVision production.


But, the legacy of Jacob’s Ladder isn’t only about the potent and powerful images onscreen. It is a transcendent experience that interprets important universal themes in a contemporary setting. The film’s metaphysical nature and depth turn Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole into a hellhole as war — rather than remaining an external battle on the field — becomes an internal and traumatic fight. It is at once a macabre mediation of death; the boundaries between dream and memory; and the beautiful realization of life and all that we hold dear.