The 1930s were a volatile time, internationally. The world was moving inexorably toward the deadliest conflict in history, one foreshadowed by conflicts like the Spanish Civil War and the Italian occupation and annexation of Ethiopia. Germany, Japan, and Italy were tightening an alliance against the Soviet Union.
The world had been in a severe economic depression since about 1929, and this depression was partially to blame for a lot of the political upheaval that was taking place on just about every continent.
But all of this pales in comparison to what a certain group of Americans feared around 1936. Forget high unemployment and economic downturn; never mind German troops marching into the Rhineland. What scared the hell out of these people was something far worse, far more sinister and pressing.
The film Reefer Madness laid it all out for parents (obviously the White, middle-class parents) of America.
Over its typically melodramatic 1930’s opening soundtrack of swirling violins and somber horns, its foreword cautioned:
The motion picture you are about to watch may startle you.
Why? Because of its unsettlingly accurate depictions of the effects of “marihuana.”
It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly-increasing numbers.
After calling marihuana “a violent narcotic,” “an unspeakable scourge,” and “The Real Public Enemy Number One,” the filmmakers inform the viewer of what happens to people when they smoke the stuff.
Its first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter…
If you’re ever around a bunch of kids and they suddenly start laughing violently and uncontrollably, they’re probably high. On pot. Next:
Then some dangerous hallucinations – space expands, time slows down, almost stands still…fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances…
What, exactly, are these fixed ideas and monstrous extravagances? Whatever they are, they are followed by:
…emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions…
This sounds bad enough, but it’s nothing in comparison to the end result: “acts of shocking violence” and “incurable insanity.”
And then, of course, they proceed to illustrate the corrupting effect of reefer on clean-cut young Americans.
They end up in attendance at parties where there are exuberant piano-playing and out-of-control dancing, which lead to lasciviousness and people dropping onto beds or being taken against their will on sofas. Or, worse yet, killed.
The stress of these events and their aftermath lead to an even more obsessive demand for “reefers” and, eventually, to sheer madness.
It was all part of a campaign to keep America’s children safe from a ubiquitous, noxious, soul-destroying weed. But whose campaign it was remains mysterious. Often you will read that it was financed originally by some kind of “church group,” whatever that means – but sometimes it is suggested that it was produced by the U.S. government, or, specifically, the U.S. Army.
It fell into the hands of people whose main affection was for American dollars. They laced it with some suggestive scenes, gave it its famous title, and made cult film history.
It’s been making people laugh – sometimes suddenly, perhaps uncontrollably – ever since.