For this recurring segment of Beyond Elysium, I will step away from the nepharites and have a Kult-inspired look at other horror media. Welcome to The Kult Take.
Hello and welcome! This time on The Kult Take, we are delving into the madness of Jacob’s Ladder. This one’s been brought up many times in discussions about Kult-like films, and finally watching it after years of putting it off makes me understand why. It feels almost deliberately Kultish at times, until you remember that the film was released in 1990, a year before Kult first hit toy store shelves in Sweden and caused all sorts of ruckus.
Jacob’s Ladder blew me away. It’s a movie which defies a singular interpretation, and deliberately so. It is a movie which contradicts itself and hints at all sorts of possible truths. If you disagree with my understanding of the film, I encourage you to comment with your own thoughts.
The Text, The Ladder and Purgatory
Before I tackle my Kult Take of this film, I need to discuss how the film presents itself as Kult-like on the surface. Jacob’s hallucinations of demons, antagonistic government agents, the hospital scene, and all the mentions of purgatory and hell makes for a beautiful tapestry of Kulty elements. These similarities, however, may only be skin deep.
Jacob is fighting in the Vietnam War, where he is tricked by the government into ingesting a chemical weapon called the Ladder. This causes him, along with the rest of his unit, to go into a mindless murder frenzy. Once Jacob is wounded he begins to hallucinate. He dreams of a future after the war, where he lives a meager life trying to make do with a girlfriend that doesn’t seem quite right for him. Demons haunt his waking hours and he dreams of his old family and dead son. Jacob’s relief comes only from his chiropractor, who helps with his back pain and gives him life advice.
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.”
This quote summarizes the film. Jacob is experiencing purgatory, in his dying moments holding on to and eventually freeing himself from the worries, fears and anxieties which plagued him in life. Even the Ladder itself may only be a figment of Jacob’s own fears, and not real at all. At the start of the film, one of the other G.I.’s complains about the ‘weed’ they smoke. Jacob can hear this, so it may be in his mind in those final moments. At the end of the film, Jacob dies in a Vietnam triage tent, while in purgatory he finally meets his son who guides him to heaven.
This is a very quick run-through of the film as I understand it. There are Kulty elements in this story, but how well would a Kult Take based on this series of events hold up?
Jacob is stuck in a personal purgatory. It is almost trivially easy to relate this to Kult. Being near death and in a hellish warzone brought Jacob close to Inferno where a purgatory was constructed for him. Assuming the Ladder is real, it must be some horror drug concocted by a servant of a higher being specifically to bring Jacob and his unit to hell. If we accept that Jacob is in a purgatory, we must ask the question: Who created it?
I have no good answer to this. Initially, I was going to suggest the chiropractor, Louis Denardo, but his actions in the film don’t particularly remind me of a nepharite intent on tormenting Jacob. He acts antagonistically towards the hospital staff in the most nightmarish scene of the film, which admittedly could all be a ruse to finally convince Jacob to shed his life and accept death. That could work, but I am more inclined to say that if there is a creator of this purgatory, we do not see them.
Several more questions pop into my mind: Why is this purgatory so ridiculously big? Are his veteran friends from Vietnam actually there, or are they replications? Who are all the people? If this truly is a purgatory as depicted in Kult, there seems to be a small army of purgatides and other horrors inhabiting this realm. Why does Jacob meet a peaceful end in his purgatory? There are details to this read that do not make sense to me, and so, I discarded it.
Jacob Is Not Dead
The film pushes the idea that Jacob is dead on us at several points. The palm reading, the flashbacks of him getting ‘rescued’ which eventually end with death, and the hospital scene where the staff explicitly tells him that he’s dead. It’s lies, I tell you, lies!
Jacob survives the effects of the Ladder, and returns home after the war. He is changed, though. War, and the lingering influence of the Ladder, has cursed him. The war trauma that he experienced births a madness in him, and that madness weakens the barrier between him and the Truth. He tries to live an unassuming life, but when he starts hallucinating about demons coming after him, Jacob breaks down in classic Kult fashion. Nothing feels safe anymore, and he begins to question his experiences in Vietnam.
The central character to this story in my opinion, and my favorite character, is Louis Denardo. Jacob’s chiropractor is a fixed point of safety in his life. The film sets up Jacob’s back pain and Louis’ privileged ability to help him with it. He also saves Jacob from the hospital where he ends up after being attacked by government agents, further cementing his role as a savior figure. The truth is that Louis is a lictor still loyal to Chesed, one of the few remaining. His master may have been destroyed, but Louis believes in his principle and mission.
Louis gives Jacob comfort in his life, attempting to mend this broken man’s suffering. We know why: the safe human does not look beyond their horizons. Jacob is only a danger so long as he remains paranoid and afraid. Jacob used to have another person to help him with these problems, Dr. Carlson from the veterans’ outpatient program, but since his death only Louis remains.
As the events of the movie unfold and Jacob is kidnapped by servants of Hareb-Serap (more on this later), Louis comes to the realization that Jacob is too far gone. He saves Jacob from Inferno, vehemently opposed to the beings there and what they may have in store for his subject. This is where the Meister Eckhart quote comes in.
If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see demons tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the demons are really angels, freeing you from the earth.
It is exactly what Jacob needs to hear, and it allows Louis to give him a calm, sensible death. His essence will find its way to some oubliette to forget and be forgotten. It is a much preferable end to a tormented soul than it falling into the hands of some razide’s horrible schemes. Louis, wielding Time & Space magic as necessary, not only kills Louis but erases from his being all the events which unfolded after Vietnam. Had he died in that triage tent, Jacob and many others around him would be better off, so Louis allows this to happen.
Agent Orange, napalm, MKUltra. The Vietnam War was hell. Or, for the purposes of Hareb-Serap’s servants within the army, close enough. Michael Newman, the chemist who explains the Ladder to Jacob near the end of the film, was recruited by the army. The reseach team, headed by one of Hareb-Serap’s razides, is put to work on developing a drug which will allow the Vietnamese jungles to be pulled down into Inferno. The Ladder will cause such indiscriminate and barbaric bloodshed that the Raven of the Battlefield might manifest in physical form. Whether this goal succeeds is left to your imagination. We only know is that Jacob’s unit were the test dummies, and that the impact of this violent, supernatural drug would stick with them forever.
The war ends in 1975, and by then Jacob has been sent home. His old life is inaccessible to him, and his new life leaves much to be desired. He, like many other veterans of the conflict, suffers from mental problems. The Ladder has permanently weakened the Illusion around Jacob, as madness often does, and he experiences visions of monstrous beings in everyday life. Seeing through the Illusion can and will alert higher beings, and so Hareb-Serap’s servants eventually discover Jacob’s situation. They are in no position to allow Jacob’s madness to continue unchecked, Hareb-Serap has a generally weak hold on the United States. Instead, once it is clear that Jacob is honing in on the truth, the goal becomes to kill or permanently silence him.
We see this first when Jacob and his friends contact a lawyer about the army mistreating them. The paperwork shows they were never in Vietnam, and Jacob’s friends back out from the fight likely following threats similar to Jacob’s. Instead of killing Jacob outright, men from the government attack him and leave him severely hurt to be taken to a hospital. This entire sequence, from the car ride to the hospital, feels entirely orchestrated from start to finish. It is not by chance that Jacob ends up at the hospital. By placing him there, the forces of Inferno can keep Jacob from exposing the truth of the Ladder and perhaps even continue their research on him.
The Ladder is the root of Jacob’s problems. It caused him to experience horrible and inhuman things in Vietnam, it broke him until he began to see through the Illusion, and it made him a target of the army who had planned for him to die along with the rest of his unit.
This was a very fun film to write a Kult Take for, and it is a very fun film to watch and interpret in general. Christian mythology is really exciting when done right, which in my mind, Jacob’s Ladder does. I consciously have skipped over large parts of the movie in the interest of post length. Do you find this view of Jacob’s Ladder interesting? Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve said?
Since my introduction claims that I will step away from the nepharites when writing The Kult Take, the next one will be something quite different. Friend Request and Jacob’s Ladder are both movies which I found intensely tied to the higher powers of the Kult mythos. I want to delve into some of the weirder corners of what Kult can offer. Stay tuned!