The Telepathic Cult of David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981)

*contains spoilers

Suppose there was a war kept in check by a private security firm in your neighbourhood, or was a part of a vigilante neighbourhood watch group. It was a war in your city and as far as you knew – the world. An invisible war. It is a psychic war, or a telepathic war and you don’t really know why you are one of the targets as you suffer symptoms of a psychic illness. Should you survive one of their psychic attacks late one evening … What would you tell the police when you called them? Ha-ha-ha… I see them laugh now as they are also one of these soldiers… and they tell you that you’re crazy. Are you a Scanner, to a degree? Can you survive the voices in the night? The illegal trespassers within your mind in the dark?

The people with this psychic ‘power’ come in the middle of the night and in pairs stand outside your balcony window … Perhaps they only whisper and it is not psychic at all… You can feel and hear their thoughts occasionally as they concentrate with all their might against your security screen door making the metal creak … and then they think their way inside your skull and try and make your head explode in that it seems you feel there is a headache coming on … Then they let go as you try not to think about these in some ways highly developed creatures, as you are new to these ninjas and their boring powers to use a pun about drills in the mind… but ninjas aren’t necessarily good men. They are not the actor Chuck Norris (1940-) from voice driven The Octagon (1980) who in reality does work with children with cancer and doesn’t go out terrorising the mentally ill and other insecure individuals into drilling holes into their heads. Just as I am not necessarily a good man either. There is only a touch of the Scanner about me! And, yes, this is another article which may not be entirely true and accurate as women tell me I’m a phoney as I walk through the supermarket. Or once more in the middle of the night.

Scanners (1981) poster
Director David Cronenberg
Evil ninjas were dominant in The Octagon (1980)
Good intentions? Not a bad ‘movie’…

Personally, I don’t care to see a person’s mind explode, not that we or they can see it when they are asleep in bed … It tends to happen inside the skull. This self-appointed neighbourhood watch outside the balcony window are ‘THEY’ and their wish is to poison others against you in collaboration with yet more others. They have visited me over the years, these people obsessed with overheard onanism or faeces dropping into your toilet bowl in the silence of the night. Let’s call them evil Scanners just like in director David Cronenberg’s movie Scanners (1981).

This movie which predicts the future was a continuation of the theme of his movie Stereo (1969) which was about omnisexual psychic sex … something I have experienced to a degree in terms of waking up and feeling somebody’s invisible hand massaging my genitals – and it was not my own hand. Now I don’t say the psychic world happens to everyone and many people drink the symptoms away through self-medication. Evil Scanners also have the power to cause you to choke on your own vomit in the middle of the night if you have drunk too much. ‘Sucked in’ I heard the voice say at the base of the balcony when I sat bolt upright to avoid that fatal choke. I hope I don’t have the humiliation of hearing voices en masse, like the Scanner Cameron Vale, to the point where you can no longer hear anything else. It has happened to me before but it quickly stopped. I just accept that my mind is being freely read by other well developed and not so disturbed Scanners, even if the thoughts I have are often suddenly dirty or laced with foul language and the sexual thoughts occasionally AC/DC … Such is the world today in this psychic era. People feed off my thoughts like it were energy they are taking while others tap into my dreams.

Scanners II: The New Order (1992) is an okay sequel
One gets to know the sound of voices … the plus sized girl’s voice seemed particularly evil for participating
Mars Attacks (1996) or have they already landed? All I know is their heads explode…

The reason for this transformation? Is it some sort of alien invasion? If so, I accept the invasion has already happened and colonisation complete. Gut bacteria? Or is it pharmaceutical? Has a thinking bacteria fallen to Earth? Or has it been the culmination of poisoning the planet? The chemicals and bacteria mixing and creating a new life form which inhabits the bloodstreams and minds. I know, a long shot that one! … Or is it simply the next step in our evolution?

Scanners is a movie which gives a reason for the small – of is it large – amount of people which are inundated by voices or only have one voice to contend with in their heads. It is also about how those with a strong Scanner power can use it destructively upon people who do not have this power or only have a little bit of it. In the movie, they can go so far as to make a person’s head explode or as little as to cause nausea, a nosebleed, a headache or ringing in the ears.

Stereo (1969) poster
Rabid (1977) poster
The Brood (1979) poster

Scanners is a Canadian production and one of the first movies from Canada to hit number one at the American box office above the local content. Cronenberg had been building up to something as good as Scanners with his previous horrors Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and The Brood (1979). Scanners is probably the best of the four movies although The Brood is another type of masterpiece.

Certainly, the movie makes the most impact with the shock scenes which occur at the beginning and the ending of the movie. The plotting is simple and yet effective.

Scanners opens in a food court in a shopping centre where a bedraggled young derelict is looking for food scraps. Two women sit staring at him and comment on his appearance.

“I think we’re being picked up,” says one of the women, spitefully. He stares back at them and it is then he uses his psychic power on the woman as one of them collapses to the ground in some sort of seizure. He uses all his concentration on her as if he is trying to kill but is suddenly chased by security men who have dart guns and they knock him out.

We learn his name is Cameron Vale and he awakens in the large loft of some industrial complex where the person in charge is the actor Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009 brief illness) who ushers people in to sit while Cameron lies tied to a bed. They do not speak but their voices can be heard in Cameron’s head more and more. It is beginning to drive him crazy just as the voices have done throughout the years. His only way to respond to these voices is to strike back. McGoohan quickly gives him an injection of a ‘miracle’ drug called Ephemerol.

Rabid (1977) trailer
Patrick McGoohan in Scanners (1981)
Michael Ironside in Scanners (1981)
Ironside drills a hole in his head in Scanners (1981)

“You’re a Scanner but you don’t realise,” McGoohan tells Cameron and the injection that he gives the former derelict seems to erase the voices. These voices and psychic power are the side effect of his telepathic or telekinetic illness … or is it an illness at all? It could be his physical state as opposed to his psychological state which would be simply termed as schizophrenia … the physiognomy of having the physical appearance of being poor and defeated along with the ongoing humiliation and psychology that goes with the territory … add to this a childhood or adolescence where one is a loner and rejected … I could go on as I can relate to all of these things … It is a feeling of being alien although not quite but instead you are perhaps the last fragment of humanity, or the last of your type …  which adds to a person’s alienation … and while you’re on the ground and depressed everyone who thinks they are superior wants a piece of you or to kick you in the guts… Either way they have created a ‘Scanner’, but not necessarily one with the power to inflict pain and sundry ailments. Otherwise labelled mentally ill.

The next scene in the movie was one of the goriest scenes to grace VHS tapes in the 1980s. We are introduced to the evil Scanner played by Michael Ironside (1950-) who goes by the name of Daryll Revok. In disguise, he uses his powers against another Scanner in a university lecture theatre as we are shown how under normal circumstances a ‘scan’ can work without being fatal. The two men concentrate as Ironside proceeds to make his opponent’s head explode.

A derelict Stephen Lack in Scanners (1981)
The iconic scene
A faux advertisement for Ephemerol

This iconic scene was achieved, according to Fangoria, by using a plastic skull with a gelatine exterior packed with “latex scraps, some wax and just bits and bobs and a lot of stringy stuff that we figured would fly through the air a little better as well as some ‘leftover burgers’.”

Previous attempts to explode the head had proved unsuccessful until special effects man Gary Zeller told all the cast and crew to get into their vans and shut their windows and doors. He then proceeded to blast the head off from behind with a shotgun. Cronenberg loved the shot and kept it even though there were threats that it was too gory and would cause the film to get a harsh rating upon its release which would affect box office.

“It’s an incredible shot. Incredibly gruesome but also quite beautiful,” said Cronenberg.

A word on Michael Ironside and as a young man he was a prize-winning writer and to explain the scar on the left-hand side of his face and it was apparently caused while he was under the influence of either drugs or alcohol and he walked through or fell through a plate glass window one evening.

The war in Scanners has the good Scanners being eliminated by a private army headed by Revok. Ironside’s Revok is a particularly malignant character who in his youth drilled a hole into his own forehead to let the voices within his skull escape. He believes that Scanners like himself are a higher order of ‘human being’ in terms of evolution while McGoohan’s character has a strange link with Revok and Cameron Vale in terms of blood. There is also a financial link between McGoohan and Consec which McGoohan works for and a pharmaceutical company Biocarbon Amalgamate which is producing large amounts of the drug Ephemerol which helps untrained Scanners relax without the side effects. It turns out that Ephemerol was given to young mothers while pregnant to help relieve symptoms of morning sickness but instead the children turned out to be Scanners. In reality, there are various reasons otherwise why schizophrenics hear voices but there is not the perfect answer.

Scanners (1981) trailer
Stephen Lack as an artist
Arty Scanners (1981) poster

Here are a few paragraphs from Cronenberg in Fangoria in 1981 about the production: “It was physically exhausting. Very hard, very long hours. It was also very demanding because we had so very little pre-production. It was my biggest budget, my longest shoot. It turned out to be about nine weeks, but I only had about two weeks for all the pre-preproduction, which is ridiculous. And I had only written one first draft script which took me three weeks to write. That means a lot of things weren’t together.”

The script for Scanners was cobbled together using other scripts by Cronenberg entitled The Sensitives and Telepathy 2000.

The actor Stephen Lack who played Cameron Vale and went on the become a painter said: “He handed me the script and I sort of thought I understood it…. The film itself was kind of ground-breaking but I didn’t realise it at the time.”

As for the other two stars of the movie, Jennifer O’Neill (1948-) had to have a script which didn’t mention the violence and gore as Cronenberg said it would have led to her quitting the production.

And McGoohan, according to Cronenberg: “McGoohan was a brilliant actor. The voice, the charisma, the presence… The face. Phenomenal. But he was so angry, his self-hatred came out as anger against everybody…. We parted on the film not on very good terms.”

The word mind-blowing about that opening scene in Scanners also relates to other movies with one ‘money shot’ scene such as Alien (1979) as the alien explodes from John Hurt’s (1940-2017 pancreatic cancer) chest and the same year’s Dawn of the Dead (1979) with a helicopter beheading scene. Italian gore movies of the era are also full of them as fans already know.

Japanese Scanners (1981) poster
A young Jennifer O’Neill
Jennifer O’Neill was in Fulci’s The Psychic (1981)
They Live (1988) poster

The end of Scanners is the classic face-off between Revok and Cameron Vale where each uses their minds to project their telepathic powers to destroy each other in vein-pulsating and bloody fashion.

“We’re gonna do this the Scanner way, I’m gonna suck your brain dry,” says Revok through clenched teeth as Cameron Vale looks like a goner…

The possibility that the future of the world is at stake is kind of hinted at in this showdown. Revok is creating a new army of Scannners by mass producing Ephemerol and giving it to pregnant women. It’s the ultimate in pharmaceutical addiction and plunder by private security forces. There is even a scene where an unborn baby Scanner ‘scans’ Jennifer O’Neill in a waiting room. But who will prevail at the end of Scanners is kind of left in the air … Some think the survivor at the end is Cameron, or is it Revok in disguise? I heard someone laugh when they said it was Revok who won. Ha ha ha laughed the police about me hearing voices in the dark…

If there is a war out there between strong ‘evil’ Scanners who pick on the ‘loser’ Scanners who don’t follow the path of greed and male domination such as Daryll Revok due to their disability… Then, sadly, the ‘good’ Scanners who are generally latent in their possible use of telepathic evil are doomed to be wiped off the face of the Earth. It’s a tough world. Hope the next one treats us more wisely and the Revoks are dealt their karma.

“I wish I were Jason Statham!” sings Daryll Revok
Scanners (1981) lobby card
A typical dominant Scanner lifts 100s of kilos to get in the mood and then spits venom
As for who won the Scanner war? Morally?

And I question again what of these Scanners? Are they aliens? Humans controlled by their gut baceria?They are a chemical creation and yet they are alien to what is or was commonly known as a human being. If they ever existed on this planet at all. We live in a society where Scanners dominate business and society and I would go further to say the media and government. It is kind of like John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) in that no one can recognise those with Scanner power as they walk down the street since it is all in the mind. They work together and they can be insidious. It has been going on and off for years with the same ringleaders in my neighbourhood … The so-called neighbourhood watch, is morally bankrupted in both mind and soul as the self-appointed leader would call out “Cuckoo” in the middle of the night as part of a boy’s night out… Funny to look back on now that there is no doubt. It all seems so clear now… And yet I am possibly insane…

I could go on like Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49 alcoholism) in this dimly-lit article in my dimly-lit room as I can say they visited again and drove their car past as another familiar female voice yelled out her victory cry… They think they are related to me but they are not… They are not heroes. They are not scions of society. They call me a loser but it is them who are the losers…  How would they like it if someone did the same to them outside of their window every night? …. Those Daryll Revok’s and the bad blood of their scorned partners of the world might learn that they are little more than just the sound of spit coming from my mouth … They are “Tuh”!! So, let this another imagining of an article go to peacefully to sleep and dream of a better place…

Now, on a brighter note, if only I had Charlton Heston’s fire-power in The Omega Man (1971)! That Mathias was so up himself…

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