Hostage-taking meets science in The OA’s Hap, who pulls off multiple kidnappings with unctuous ease with the help of the drug scopolamine. In doing so, the Netflix baddie isn’t just paying homage to South American criminals that purportedly use the drug to put victims under zombie-like control; he’s also employing one of history’s most legendary — and hotly contested — truth serums.
It’s likely that the compound’s rumored lie-curbing abilities led to its current reputation as a mind-controlling drug. In recent years, rumors about scopolamine have sparked many urban myths, prompting many in Colombia and Ecuador to believe that breathing it in — similar to the way kidnappers use ether-soaked handkerchiefs to knock victims out in movies — eliminates a person’s sense of free will, making them easily manipulatable, as if they were hypnotized or controlled by an Imperius curse. As people betray their own secrets without intending to, so too do they act against their will — or so the theory goes.
Despite numerous anecdotes about the dangers of so-called “devil’s breath,” the science behind its mechanisms remains inconclusive.
In reality, scopolamine is a compound derived from plants of the often-poisonous nightshade family — specifically, those of the genus Scopolia. In 1947 its medical benefits, which included treating motion sickness and nausea, were first documented; today it’s listed as one of the WHO’s “essential medicines.” When used medically, scopolamine does, indeed, have some pretty nasty side effects, which include sleepiness, blurry vision, dilated pupils, and excessively dry mouth.
Perhaps because of its ability to knock people out, Scopolia was used in combination with morphine in German experiments on inducing Dämmerschlaf, or “twilight sleep”, in women trying to avoid the pain of childbirth in the 1800s. In the 1920s, Dr. Robert House, a small-town American obstetrician, investigating the actions of scopolamine alone, noted that people in “twilight sleep” seemed to always tell the truth and thought it could be applied to forensic law. He arranged to treat two felons in a Dallas jail with scopolamine, who claimed they were innocent even when it was widely believed they were guilty.
“Under the influence of the drug, there is no imagination,” House proclaimed in his early reports on the drug. “They cannot create a lie because they have no power to think or reason.”
It was not long before journalists got a hold of this idea and blew it out of proportion, despite the fact that House’s actual observations were inconsistent and minor (one academic review described him as “not particularly intellectual, grammatical, or scientifically astute.”) Still, he was dubbed the “father of truth serum,” and over the next decade the concept of truth serum became acknowledged as fact, even though evidence for its usefulness remains dubious.
The lack of any conclusive proof for scopolamine’s usefulness as a truth serum — or a zombification drug — has, of course, not stopped people from trying to stretch its actual documented effects. It’s rumored that the Nazis used it as an interrogation strategy during the war, that witches used it in medieval times, and now, in The OA, that it makes an excellent hostage-taking method. To make sense of the myths surrounding scopolamine, perhaps it’s best to consult the people who most wish it were as effective as it’s rumored to be: the CIA. On its website, the agency points out that even if it did do what Dr. House purported it would, “the fantastically, almost painfully, dry ‘desert’ mouth brought on by the drug is hardly conducive to free talking, even in a tractable subject.”