Wreckage, hell, and madness: American drug films and the image of the user, 1923-1937  Wilson, Christopher Ryan. University of Missouri – Kansas City, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2015. 1591091.

Abstract (summary)

This paper is an exploration of the discursive, cultural transformations images of drug use and drug users have taken though some of America’s early film history. By exploring and unpacking the imagery and other expressive qualities of films centering on the topic of drug use, this paper attempts to examine important cultural discussions Americans have had regarding drug users though the 1920s and 1930s. It can be found that drug users have historically been portrayed in film as the archetypal “other”, designated as such through characteristics of class, ethnicity or sexuality. In this way, exploring representations of drugs and drug users through fictional media allows for a deeper understanding of America’s ever-developing relationship with narcotics users as well as with various marginalized groups.

Focusing on an examination of change over time (the 1920s to the 1930s), this paper analyzes several films from each decade in order to develop an understanding of how different generations of Americans assign cultural value to those associated with drug use. Social changes are the driving force in these representations and they are nearly always prescribed by a sense of fear or alienation toward a specific ethnic or minority group.