The Psychic Cult of David Cronenberg’s Stereo

*contains spoilers

When we talk about the early films of Canadian director David Cronenberg (1943-), most of us will immediately think of Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981).

A young David Cronenberg

But his first features were a couple of interesting ones made in the late 1960s and early 1970s entitled Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970). These films run for barely an hour and so are barely feature length in their running time.

Having made a couple of short films, Cronenberg’s film Stereo was made for the sum of a mere $3500. It was shot on 16mm and in black and white. The film also has little synchronised sound and it starts off with narration.

Stereo talks about telepathic dependency or even addiction and about if the telepathy is taken away this can end in disorientation. It all sounds like voices in the head and psychosis. Please realise that this is a speculative article about a speculative film.

Scanners (1981) quad poster

What Cronenberg’s screenplay is talking about confounds me at times as a lot of medical and scientific jargon is deliberately used by the narrator. But it comes down to erotic research where the patients at a certain facility have something implanted in their brains to enhance their telepathic experience. We guess these people already have a certain amount of telepathic ability.

The opening of the film Stereo (1969) is symbolic of man and planet

Sex is shown to be able to be had telepathically… which is more than being able to read a person’s mind or to project thoughts. Two bodies not touching can touch and have sex without the two of them actually touching… Use your imagination, I guess! So, Stereo asks the questions of what can happen in a darkened room… even without the psychic persons touching themselves… which I’m sure many do, if they are not a part of a couple, or an orgy!

Poster art for Stereo and Crimes of the Future

Stereo also asks if there is a dominance in “the telepathic conglomerate” and whether it is a psychic group or just two people. This can possibly vary. Can the psychic dominant take over the psychic who is most vulnerable? Can they enforce thoughts and actions… even sexual ones? Can a gorilla telepathic push around a chimpanzee telepathic since they are not sexually compatible? Well, I guess it all comes down to if you’re cuddly or not on The Planet of the Apes…

Stereo follows the research of a Dr Stringfellow who appears, we think, as the main character dressed in a black cloak who attends to patients as he silently moves around the research facility.

“If there can be no love between researcher and subject – there can be no experimentation,” says the narrator about Category A. Whatever that is. It’s too hard to explain in short order.

The film is presented like a lecture and even the credits at the beginning are like it is some long-lost training film or case history about psychic ability being experimented with.

The doors of perception and possible madness when once opened

“If the personal relationship between researcher and subject deteriorates…”… Well, I guess, it could all drive someone crazy! Again, the dominant telepathic has the upper hand.

The Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry, where Stereo is set, uses the motto Love Conquers All from the Latin. The lecture tells us about how two people with shared telepathy can merge and blend. Thus, some couples are made for each other, or may help one or the other telepathically. And as for further telepathic beings joining in, can it function at all? I guess so, especially if the extra one of them isn’t crazy?… Or a twit? Thus, telepathic intrusion being stronger if the two unknown telepathists are too close – perhaps in an apartment building, where one can pick up ESP from your telepathic neighbours. A crazy neighbour perhaps driving another crazy through intrusion? Whether you know it or not. I don’t know, I’m just reading from this film what could all be gobbledegook! Remember you need an implant at the academy for this to work!… But is telepathy beyond just two people possible? Is there really a conglomerate out there?

A very young Cronenberg directs

There is, also according to Stereo, telepathic avoidance to intrusion or “schizophonetic” partition where the false telepathic self protects the true self… But this is dangerous for some souls as the false self takes over from the true verbal self which tends to suffocate. Sounds like psychosis could result! Or in the case of murderous souls or the like, the false self, will hide away the so-called crimes of the suffocated true self. Or perhaps the false self commits those crimes. There is some genius for the murderer to never admit to his crime and also cover it up psychically. Otherwise, I’m guessing of course, but the theory behind schizophrenia is there, not that every murderer is “schizophonetic” or vice versa. Maybe it all comes down to sexuality?

King Crimson perform 21st Century Schizoid Man

I guess the wounded true self is being protected by the false self so it cannot be open to more psychic hurt. Or is the true self too frightened to reveal itself? Sexuality? Don’t be afraid as love conquers all! And so can a person cure themselves of their neuroses through self-examination and self-therapy? By looking at their sexual history, which may have started as a child, many have found the key to their salvation and reasons behind their sexual actions and reactions throughout their lifetime. They have found peace of mind.

Anyway, back to the false self and I further guess the false self can use music within the mind as what Stereo calls this partition from other stronger souls with telepathy. Yes, I know it all sounds totally nuts… especially if you don’t believe in telepathy or Extra Sensory Perception otherwise called ESP.

A woman alone in Stereo

“Thus, among strangers, there would exist only a kind of noise, short wave static,” the narrator tells us about emotional relationships which have been established in conventional sensory ways. And thus, it is possible you and a complete stranger may find a kind of telepathy though eroticism. If that makes sense?

Yes, Stereo is pro-sex and I’m sure there are happy psychic couples out there as well as the “schizophonetic” loners as opposed to lovers. Oh, the psychic shame and embarrassment of the lone telepathic!

“The politics of telepathic experience…,” Stereo continues for the first time with the voice of a female narrator for a short time. This woman appears alone in the film. And she only speaks briefly.

The 1960s Canadian architecture still looks modern today

The architecture of the building where Stereo is filmed is very modern of the type Cronenberg would use in his later films and they would still look almost futuristic today.

Acts of faith or love in a community is the plausible replacement beyond what is the adolescent family unit. That is for those who can let go of their parents or who must. It is the telepathic prototypes, the strongest anyway, who are of the utmost gravity in creating telepathic communes Stereo continues… But telepathic love surely doesn’t compare to real physical contact through voice and touch and love making between people in person. Telepathy will always have to come second to this in terms of a healthy mind… and the real world! The world of the telepathic would be a bit queer, and I mean that in the old sense, otherwise.

Do the Scanners in the movie hear voices or is it ESP? Drugs can relieve symptoms.

Perhaps if I called myself a telepathic outsider with a drug damaged brain, or just a normal person with a bit of extra perception or sensitivity when it comes to noise, I feel I have partitioned myself from any existing couples or commune… Perhaps I don’t want to know or for some reason can’t contact or connect… Yeah, it’s crazy and thus someone like this has to be medicated like the Scanners in Cronenberg’s classic must take a drug to suppress the overwhelming sound of voices… but I am just following Stereo in the spirit it has been made again… with the possibility of ESP. Maybe I have been in contact but have not been fully aware of the possibilities until I viewed Stereo… Perhaps Stereo is a dangerous movie in that sense!

I have a friend who denies psychic ability and yet she acknowledges that she seems to know what people are thinking when she is talking and that is why she constantly interrupts when people begin to talk. Perhaps it is just a ‘feeling’ she gets or what some people would call female intuition.

The Atomic Man aka Timeslip (1955) trailer

There is a British 1950s movie The Atomic Man, otherwise known as Timeslip (1955), where the main character seems to talk in riddles but really he is hearing ten seconds into the future and answering questions not yet spoken.

But there are problems according to Stereo about the purely psychic as it leads to a lack of the intellectual and the emotional… it becomes all consuming… even to the point of the entire universe – I mean pity those not on medication or for who medication has little or no effect. The life of a Scanner or the like in North America can be one of living on the streets or as a rootless vagrant. That is not good. It is best to aim to foster some sort of intellectual life if you can and find emotional attachment to something living whether it is another human or perhaps a pet… If you are lucky enough to find a home or citadel. But this is just a riff on the movie.

Who we think is Stringfellow is some sort of psychic tourist

Stereo speaks of a loss between the psychic and the physical… And I’ll throw in the Australian movie Patrick where a comatose psychic patient uses telepathy to wreak havoc while his physical self is disassociated from real life. Otherwise this loss, if you were psychic, could have you lying in bed all day and passively enjoying your existence as if almost catatonic yourself. So, it’s definitely not necessarily all fun it you are psychic.

Poor Patrick was a bit of a deprived soul

Stereo then goes into sexuality… and the whole sexual spectrum, pointing out that both heterosexual and homosexuality are both perversions and that an expanded form of bisexuality which is termed omnisexuality exists. It’s this which is the norm according to Stereo. There are so many names for a person’s sexuality these days and to name pansexual is one. I guess the meaning of Stereo could be a pun on two-way speakers… and sexuality!

The totally random powers of anime villain King Crimson explained

According to Dr Stringfellow there exists a stunted form of bisexuality one that doesn’t function… and the Academy of Erotic Enquiry suggests using psychic aphrodisiacs to “demolish the walls of psychotic restraint and social inhibition which restrict people to monosexuality”… Well, you know what I mean. Omnisexuality is hardly a subject you can talk about around a BBQ while having a few beers with your buddies. Cue Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), which you could probably talk about with much fervour as it delves into the possibly deviant form of sexuality associated with the twisted metal of car crashes. It is the opposite conversation of what is discussed by the narrator in Stereo. Extreme physical instead of mental or telepathic sex.

David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) trailer

And so, we have reached the point in the movie where the experimentation begins and the aphrodisiacs have been taken and there is a threesome between two guys and a girl… But it ends with the so-called telepathic self-encapsulation among a psychic community of more than four. I guess someone missed out as there are ramifications according to Stereo!

“…two of the five subjects committed suicide” in their residences “another pierced his skull with an electric drill. An act of considerable symbolic significance”.

Michael Ironside in Cronenberg’s Scanners drilled a hole in his head

Perhaps acting out threesomes, or physical omnisexuality if it is possible is frowned upon by the larger psychic community. Perhaps omnisexuality should remain a psychic pastime and not acted out physically? Or it may open the psychic self to humiliation or perhaps the all-consuming want for psychic and sexual needs which cannot be fulfilled? Does such humiliation lead to suicide?

Anyway, the drill mentioned in Stereo certainly is a prelude to Michael Ironside’s character in Scanners who drills a hole in his head. The symbol is phallic as it enters the mind.

Near the end of Stereo, we hear the woman’s voice for the second time talk about erotic signals from form and structure. This can even come down to movement. Thus, shape and motion can be erotic. No surprises there. Pornography remains popular!

Is telepathy one way or two way? Does it exist at all? Stereo says it’s possible.

Stereo suggests what was also suggested earlier, that erotic thoughts between telepathists can cause sexual response without seeing anything. Thus, it is omnisexual and the form of the male and female can no longer apply… Perhaps omnisexual telepathic sex is like having sex with a ghost? Someone is there but not in the room! Remember this is all the study of the Academy of Erotic Enquiry as presented in the movie Stereo. And the telepathy was all caused by implants causing enhanced ESP!!

Is physical bisexuality forbidden by the psychic community? Or is a threesome a step too far?

“Telepathic dependency functions reciprocally between telepathists and non-paranormals,” says the narrator meaning many may not be aware their minds are being read. Or they may be damaged minds which forget there is a psychic ability in the community, or who block it naturally. Or don’t have it at all…

Mel Gibson gets ESP and learns What Women Want (2000) trailer

Stereo sums up that there must be tolerance as ESP can be an overwhelming and exhausting experience, something which can lead to “pain and hallucination” which can lead to madness and violence. The inexperienced telepathist cannot cope…

It is probably not surprising that our suspected Dr Stringfellow walks off in his black cloak leading us to the blackness of the end credits.

Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: “…the effect is, it’s pi*#ing me off!”

Stereo is an experience despite its small budget. The ideas are potent and raise the film to an instant classic upon a first viewing – for some. Others may find that it’s all gibberish. Whether it stands up to a second viewing… oh, well, it’s only an hour long. And Dr Stringfellow appears to be on medication during the film, whether it’s to block the noise in his head I don’t know… Perhaps he leaves the building after a bisexual tryst to go home to a family, or maybe he lives alone and has omnivorous sex in his dreams… Or maybe he just listens to the stereo? That Stereo is about living with psychic noise within the mind as well as without is probably not surprising and it also asks are those voices in your head necessarily yours?

Someone is medicated in Stereo… or is it an aphrodisiac?

Cronenberg’s follow-up movie to Stereo is the far more disturbing, if that is possible, Crimes of the Future. Cronenberg’s second ‘feature’ is again just over an hour as it follows Adrian Tripod, who is the President of the House of Skin.

Crimes of the Future is another ‘silent’ film but this one with its voiceover narration is in colour.

Ronald Mlodzik is weird as Adrian Tripod in the just as strange world of Crimes of the Future

It has the same actor, Ronald Mlodzik (no info), who played the supposed Dr Stringfellow, as Tripod as it poses the horrific question of what men would do should all the women on the planet die out. Would society function? Would it degenerate into anarchy? Or would it only degenerate sexually into perversion?

Crimes of the Future poster art

Apart from some of the men lolling about painting each other’s toe nails red like women used to do… there exists a secretion called Rouge’s Foam which leaks from the nipples. It originally happened in a patient called Rouge. People usually die from it, if they suffer from the condition and they must be cremated because of the virulence of the secretion.

It could almost sound like the AIDS virus. But, anyway, it used to happen in post-pubertal females which decimated their population. But men are now getting it, especially those who paint their toenails…

A dead person who painted his nails red

Meanwhile at the Institute of Neo-Venereal Disease, Tripod’s colleague has withdrawn after contracting a venereal disease from one of his patients. His disease is a form of creative cancer as he kind of worships tumours which are cut from his body…

But Tripod can’t be sure of all this having spent so much time in isolation.

Tripod has a seemingly perverse way of performing podiatry

At another institute, this one to do with podiatry, it follows the philosophy of Anton Rouge, the original sufferer of the malady. Tripod studies feet there. It is there that he sees a patient with his nails painted red. This patient gets bashed and possibly killed. Tripod feels another patient’s feet and his nails aren’t painted. Tripod presses the feet to his forehead which the man rebuffs as he prefers to taste the blood of the murdered patient with painted nails.

Tarantino has a foot fetish

It seems men turn to perversions of more ways than one en masse in a world without women. They are just as bad in a world with women!

Aloof to the “incessant exercises and competitions” Tripod acts as some sort of carrier of socks and panties. He’s probably better off working out and going to the football! The characters speak but are not heard as instead there is a variety of noises which sometimes appear to be of water animals or mammals as the men get within each other’s proximity. I guess it’s got something to do with the study of feet and flippers which are observed at the podiatry institute.

Did Anton Rouge die alone as he disappeared after getting the malady? Or was it all a cover-up?

Yes, more than a fetish than Adrian Tripod

Tripod is studying stereoscopic cards which could be some sort of pornography which are given to him by the man in red toe nails. He finds them inviting and of a perverse sexual nature. Tripod tells himself that at least he has his hard-won equilibrium but it may become a “morbid status”. So, he chooses to ignore those with stereoscopic cards.

For a world without women this is both the same intellectual and uncivilised world but it is one where both of these aspects have come closer together. The heterosexual still bashes the homosexuals who paint their nails red. It also seems to be a boring world, one without emotion or feelings – they don’t seem to have Netflix – as Tripod has his world with his patients with mutant toes.

Tripod tastes the foam

The world still seems to talk in different languages and idioms and Tripod is invited to meet with a group of outlawed heterosexual paedophiles who prey on young girls since there is no women.

Tripod goes to a room full of what are called aquarium spheres which offer perverse multidimensional images. There’s then talk of a new species of man… of a new way of reproduction. Anyway, Tripod gets around in this strange world and ends up at a gynaecological research project.

A scene which didn’t appear in the version of Crimes of the Future I viewed

Crimes of the Future is as perverse as Cronenberg can get within the realms of good taste. That’s if your taste is for Cronenberg. Others, of course, beware.

There is an assassination of sorts at the research centre and female children are stolen by the paedophiles. Adrian Tripod secures accommodation at the place where Antoine Rouge saw out his last days in exile. There he meets someone with a growth coming out of one nostril which could be a new sensory organ.

One of the kidnapped children is taken to a hotel room where one of the captors leaves in a violent huff… Adrian Tripod turns up… Will he rape the child? He senses the presence of Antoine Rouge as he shares his own foam with the child. As Tripod touches the foam and ingests it, a blue coloured tear falls from his eye…

Stereo’s omnisexual sex you wouldn’t want to have in The Entity (1985) trailer

Is this crime of Tripod his final humiliation? This follower of Rouge? Did Rouge do the same in this world without women? Is it death visiting? Certainly, by implication, it is Cronenberg’s first horrific ending. Does the purely intellectual without emotion lead itself into such perversion, or is it the world itself? There is no psychic ability among these people as in Stereo. There is no mention of Tripod being influenced by nothing but himself and the many choices he is offered. I guess he chooses what he thinks is the purest option. Anyway, all I know is the ending leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s disturbing.

Both Stereo and Crimes of the Future are both cerebral experiences. They are intellectual exercises which will baffle some while they may engage others thoroughly. Cronenberg describes them both as “dreamlike fantasy”. Or in other words they could all be mental masturbation.

The Pointer Sisters sing Slow Hand

If there is such a thing as telepathic omnisexual experiences as proposed in Stereo, I hope your lover has a slow hand and an easy touch as the Pointer Sisters sang and you don’t get treated like poor Barbara Hershey (1948-) was in The Entity (1983)!!

A more horrific take on the psychic experience can be found in Andrew Getty’s The Evil Within PRESS HERE

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