“A guy was running from the cops and had a sheet [of LSD] in his pocket,” goes one variation of a popular urban legend. “He knew he was gonna get busted and didn't know what to do with the stuff, so he did the whole sheet. Now he thinks he's a glass of orange juice and his biggest fear is that someone will drink him.”
Sound familiar? This LSD urban legend is well-known and widespread, and it's cited to have been around since the 1960s, perpetuating fear and becoming oral lore to future generations. Another version of this myth claims a man went permanently insane, and failed to tap out of the OJ mindset. "Because of this, he could never bend over, slept upright and did not make any sudden movements."
Everyone seems to know this guy, or someone like him. You may have heard a variation of this story from a friend who did acid, or a friend of a friend, or a D.A.R.E. counselor trying to spook you from trying it. It's a common tale that may have filled you with fear and curiosity at a young age. But is it all just made up? And if so, why do so many versions of this story exist? We talked to several experts, users, and friends of users and surprisingly, there's more truth to this myth than just hearsay.
“My cousin’s best friend in high school was selling LSD, so he had a pocket full,” an anonymous woman told Complex. “He ended up getting wet in the sprinklers and having the LSD soak into his leg. The kid ended up walking from Cupertino to Santa Cruz barefoot before he was picked up and transferred to an inpatient psych unit. He stayed there for a hewhile because he thought he was a pitcher of OJ.”
"One of my coworkers was doing acid with his friend," said Jazmyn, 19. "I guess the kid did so much acid and had such an intense trip, he got stuck in the hallucination of being a glass of orange juice. He doesn't like people touching him because he's afraid he will spill, and he thinks if he spills, he'll die. It's been, like, five years since this happened, but... to this day, he still thinks he's orange juice."
Some people have closer connections to this infamous orange juice phenomenon.
For Safia, 40, it was a high school classmate. “He insisted he was an orange,” she said. “And if anyone touched him, he would turn into orange juice and die. It sounds funny, but at the time, it was pretty scary; he was absolutely convinced and the poor guy was terrified.” It took a stay in the psychiatric unit for him to get over the delusion, she added.
Linda, 65, actually visited an acquaintance in a psych ward after he took a bad trip in the '60s. “At one point in his freak-out, he thought he was an orange and was afraid someone would peel him,” she said. “He mostly talked about it as he shuffled back and forth on thorazine.”
Elise, 16, told Complex her perpetually tripping neighbor still thinks he’s a glass of orange juice. “He lays on his side and put his hands over his head so—and I quote him—so he won't let his orange juice drip out!” she said. “He also always has to walk perfectly upright so he won't spill or tip over, as he says, and he's always talking about how he can never trip because if he does, his glass will break.”
Nico, 25, experienced something similar herself when on acid. “I was just convinced that all people were oranges with an outer layer that you had to peel to reach or eat them,” she said.
So then what is it about orange juice or oranges that's so specific to an acid trip?
None of the 17 psychedelics researchers we contacted could verify that being orange juice is a common hallucination or that this belief has any neurological basis. Still, a couple theories emerged as to why it seems that way to us.
Chris Rice, author of On Culture: Small Minds, Big Business, and the Psychedelic Solution, told Complex that LSD can make you feel like you're one with everything around you, which can lead to the perception that you're something other than human. Or, as Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America author Jesse Jarnow poetically put it, it makes you feel like "part of the eternal cosmic-liquid flow of all matter which, I suppose, includes orange juice."
According to Erika Dyck, Ph.D., History of Medicine professor at the University of Saskatchewan and author of Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus, people incorporate stimuli from their immediate surroundings into their hallucinations. One case she’s encountered in her research involved a man who believed he was a sandwich while someone ate one in front of him.
People on LSD would have a lot of opportunities to incorporate orange juice into their hallucinations, given that drinking orange juice to enhance trips has been a custom since the '60s, according to Anna Ermakova, Ph.D., the Beckley Foundation’s Science Officer.
Several users confirmed this. “I'd make sure to stock up on some before I began tripping,” said Jeannine, 45. “It was held that Vitamin C enhanced the trip,” Brian, 44, echoed. An anonymous 36-year-old woman similarly recalled, "It was sort of common knowledge around my social circle in Northern California circa 1994 that eating oranges did something positive to the acid-eating experience." Rice said vitamin C is theorized to facilitate the serotonin release induced by LSD, though Ermakova said there isn't research backing this up.
Lending support to the theory that orange juice hallucinations can stem from the presence of actual orange juice, Elise, the girl who lives next door to a man who thinks he’s orange juice, told us that her neighbor drinks a glass every day at 3:01 p.m. Going off Dr. Dyck's theory that immediate surroundings provide stimuli, becoming orange juice, a common acid enhancer, makes a lot of sense.
Another possibility is that the orange juice tale is a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to Ermakova, LSD makes people more impressionable. A study in Psychopharmacology found that people were more easily influenced by suggestions like "you can make your hand and arm feel heavy" after taking LSD than after taking a placebo. So, LSD users might imagine themselves to be orange juice "because they read about it somewhere and it turned up in their consciousness while they were tripping,” Ermakova said.
Stephen Siff, Ph.D., author of Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience, agreed, speculating that the hallucination could occur “because everyone has heard this story, and most people aren't that creative, even on LSD.”
If all these stories are any indication, orange juice hallucinations aren't a complete myth. Still, it’s possible their commonality is exaggerated because they make for a memorable story.
“It's a powerful image, and that might have been why it's stuck in people’s minds,” said Robin Carhart-Harris, Ph.D., a Research Fellow at the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. “Probably because it's so disturbing.”
The disturbing factor may have in fact helped the story propagate. In the '60s, writes Jay Stevens in Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, “halting the spread of LSD had become part of the national agenda; thus it was necessary for the press to sensationalize the subject.” It started during the Lyndon Johnson administration but picked up during Richard Nixon's war on drugs, he told Complex. The government would hold news conferences, and then the media would spread frightening claims about the drug. "Whenever a new substance arrives from the underground, they often come with a similar sort of misinformation," he said, "to mitigate its popularity."
All sorts of stories about genetic damage, birth defects, attempts to fly, and other risks of LSD appeared in the tabloids, Stevens said. There was even a story spreading around the tabloids in the '60s about a girl who gave birth to a frog while on LSD. "Crazy drug stories had been a staple in these 'news outlets' since the heyday of Reefer Madness and the marijuana killer sex fiend stories of the fifties," he said. And among those was the famous orange juice man. A 1966 Los Angeles Times article cited in his book discusses "a heavy user who is convinced he is an orange." It reads, "He won’t allow anyone to touch him for fear he will turn into orange juice."
Even to this day, “orange juice man” is used as a cautionary tale. When Bryan, 18, first tried acid, he said his friend told him to go easy on it or he might end up thinking he’s orange juice.
Whether he has any basis in reality or is just an irresistible character, the guy on acid who believed he was orange juice doesn’t seem to be leaving our cultural imagination any time soon. He has far too many former classmates, acquaintances, neighbors, and friends of friends to be forgotten.
27 May 2016
Image: Creative Commons
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