It’s not just the script of the new Twilight film that is making people queasy. One Utah man is claiming that the strobe-light-filled birthing scene near the end of the movie prompted his seizure. Of course, this isn’t the first time a pop culture phenomenon has caused people to convulse. Wang Chung anyone? Or what about the Great Pot Noodle Incident of 1993, where an advertisement for the snack caused seizures in at least three people? Or the time Pokémon sent 618 children to the hospital? Yes, pop culture has been making its audience ill for decades, but movies more so than most, and not just with insipid plots and unnecessary reboots. Projectile vomiting scenes in both The Exorcist and Stand by Me caused audiences to flee their seats in a hurry. (Hopefully they were sitting near the theater’s exit.)
Sometimes the cause of queasiness is more a result of a technical choice than a storytelling one: Woody Allen’s jittery hand-held camera in Husbands and Wives thoroughly nauseated audiences. That technique, much-loved by directors for its imitation documentary feel, has been blamed for making moviegoers feel ill from The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield to The Fighter. Don’t worry movie fans, as Allen said in Sleeper, at least after death you’re not nauseous.
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Australian horror film Van Diemen’s Land caused fainting and vomiting among its audiences. I can’t help but wonder, though, why someone with a sensitive stomach would choose to see a film about the notorious cannibal convict Alexander Pearce. The director, Jonathan Auf Der Heide, said he was surprised people had reacted so strongly as he had tried to avoid the blood-spattered gore of your average slasher flick. Guess there’s just something about cannibalism that turns people’s stomachs.
Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours tells the true story of hiker Aron Ralston who saved himself from certain death after getting trapped in a canyon for five days by cutting off his own arm with whatever instruments he had handy (pliers, specifically). The gruesome tale was well known and yet paramedics were called to both the U.S. and U.K. premieres to tend to audience members who took sick, fainted, or had seizures watching someone, you know, cut off his own arm. What movie did you think you were going to, people?
When it comes to unfavorable audience reactions, though, few movies can compare to Avatar, which caused depression and suicidal thoughts in audience members and death for one man, who had a stroke that was likely caused by over-excitement from watching the 3-D blockbuster epic. Similarly, a woman died of a heart attack while watching the emotionally-tense crucifixion scene in The Passion of the Christ.
What lessons can be learned from these films? When you are picking movies this holiday season get full physicals, check plot lines in advance, and pack the Dramamine. Now, who wants to go see The Muppets?
(Editor’s note: I used to work as an usher and ticket seller at the New York City rep house Film Forum. During the opening run of Takashi Miike’s horror film Audition, several people suffered fainting spells or had to leave the theater during an amputation scene near the end. Another usher told me that someone suffered a seizure during his shift, though I didn’t witness it myself. Anyone who has seen this movie knows exactly the part I’m talking about. —Gilbert Cruz)