This week’s question comes from editor Sean O’Neal:
Has a work of pop culture ever made you feel physically ill?
I first caught Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan on cable when I was around 5 years old, at a time when my brain was both hyperactively imaginative and soft and squishy impressionable. Those of you who have seen the film already know where I’m going with this: In its most gruesome scene, Khan sends a ceti eel—a little creature that’s part slug, part hermit crab, a literal earworm—to burrow inside the ear canals of Chekov and some quickly forgotten non-Kirk captain, a painful procedure that sees both men screaming and clutching their heads as it tunnels its way inside. I was already highly susceptible to psychosomatic illness (still am, frankly), and it was mere hours before I woke up with a middle-of-the-night earache, convinced that the sound of my own throbbing pulse was actually a bug’s crunching footsteps as it crawled around inside. I still have a lingering phobia about stuff going inside my ear, and it’s all because of a shirtless Ricardo Montalban.
In fairness, I would not have achieved such a visceral reaction without the help of our old friend alcohol, but the effect was so strong, it lingers to this day. I drank a truly dangerous amount of alcohol on my 21st birthday, an amount I have not come close to by degrees before or since. After being repeatedly ill, my friend—bless him and the inadvertent hell he built—attempted to make my bedroom comfortable for me to pass out in by playing some soothing music. Being the proto-hippie Dungeons & Dragons-playing pothead I was, an Enya album was handiest. He hit play, and the otherwise pitch-black room was flooded with the acid-green glare from my stereo display. I lay too sick to move, my eyes sizzling from the stereo light as “Orinoco Flow” dug its dopey Renfaire claws into my tortured brain. What should have been palliative music, as gentle as the most crushed of velvets, pierced my skull like a whispery, lilting knife. These days I’m much more careful about moderating both my alcohol and my nu-Celt world music intake.
I’m a tiny bit hard of hearing—nothing terrible, I just ask people to repeat themselves sometimes—thanks to my stubborn refusal to wear earplugs at concerts throughout my teens and 20s. I cringe thinking back about my dumb teenage self standing directly in front of stacks of amps at dozens of shows, but if there were one where I could go back and forcibly jam plugs into my cooler-than-thou ears, it would be the time I saw Sunn O))) play with Boris at the Wexler Center in Columbus, Ohio. After blaring classical music for what seemed like forever, the band opened the show by walking onto stage in hooded robes amid a cloud of fog, placing their guitars in front of their amps, and walking back off again as the feedback swelled. That was manageable, but after a few minutes, the band started laying down a rumbling bass note so loud and low that it made the audience physically ill. As the set—which lasted for more than an hour—wore on, people began stumbling out of the crowd and sitting down against the back wall of the venue, heads in hands, or making their way outside. I made it about three-quarters of the way through before I got light-headed and had to step outside for air. The entire show is available for streaming on Bandcamp; turn it up so loud the floor shakes, lay down with a space heater on one side of your head and a fog machine on the other, and you’ll begin to approximate the gut-churning sensation I paid money to experience—and still brag about from time to time, to be honest. It wasn’t quite the brown note, but it sure was queasy.
Headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive are dazzlingly powerful devices, fulfilling our decades-long dream of virtual reality for those with the money and space to afford them. They are also guaranteed nausea generators, particularly in their wily early days, as developers were still figuring out what did and didn’t make users immediately want to vomit as minute head movements failed to produce appropriate audio-visual feedback. I have almost puked many times while wearing VR headsets, but never worse than the time I was strapped into a Virtuix Omni, a concave treadmill in which the player is strapped via metal harness and forced to slide their feet in a grotesque simulation of walking. Everything about your body—your height, the way you walk, the visuals you’re fed, everything—feels unearthly, as if separated from flesh you had long inhabited. It put me in a cold sweat, heaving uncomfortably as video game army men yelled instructions at me while I tried my damnedest not to puke on the convention floor. Virtual reality may well be the future, but shit like the Omni is not.
Years ago, in a, um, hazy college dorm room, I watched Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou for the first time. It wasn’t long before I found myself almost unable to watch the damn thing, thanks to the infamous eyeball-slicing moment. I’m not sure I would have been able to make much sense of the movie anyway, but after watching razor meet cornea, I felt really light-headed. Maybe it’s because I’ve had so much trouble with my eyes over the years that I’m so damn protective of them, but watching the world’s worst ophthalmologist just cut into what is supposed to be a woman’s eye gave me a splitting headache soon after. I know it’s not the oddest or grossest thing in the short film, but it is what inspired the strongest physical reaction I’ve ever had to something in a movie.
As an owner of a sensitive nose and as a father of a 1-year-old who’s now eating solid foods… well, you get the drift. Strangely (though perhaps not surprisingly), fatherhood has made watching one of my guiltiest pleasures a real slog. I love Hoarders on A&E, the reality series showing the lives of hoarders and how therapists try to change their behavior (incidentally, it’s a great show to watch while cleaning your house). The shock value of the show—and what naturally attracts viewers—is the “before” footage, where homes overflow with clutter, mold, neglected animals, and waste of all varieties. The most graphic episodes show human fecal matter, and the program doesn’t shy away from displaying the horrifying conditions. Watching the show has made me understand that hoarding is a mental illness, and I have a newfound empathy for sufferers. Still, though, as someone who gags at a baby’s diaper from 20 feet away, watching segments like the one embedded here have become utterly impossible. I’m dumbfounded as to why this can air on basic cable.
I really, really loved Elton John as a youngster, so much so that I begged my mother to take me to see Tommy when I was way too young for it. In fact, I still think I’m not ready. The Who’s beyond-surreal rock opera featured Tina Turner’s Acid Queen, Keith Moon’s malicious Uncle Ernie, and all sorts of horror before Roger Daltrey’s deaf, mute, and blind Tommy eventually takes on Elton John’s Pinball Wizard. The absolute worst sequence, though, is when Ann-Margret, playing Tommy’s mother, is watching TV, and then everything she watches pours right out of the set. One particularly horrendous item floods through the screen: baked beans, resulting in my previous unheard-of level of nausea and a lifelong aversion to baked beans. I begged to leave, but my mother was a completist who didn’t believe in walking out on movies, so we stayed. Maybe she thought seeing Tommy all the way through would help, but it didn’t; I remained queasy to the end. I’m fairly certain that movie traumatized me for life and definitely gave me bad dreams for an extended period. Only upside is that I was the coolest kid in grammar school for a while because no one else’s parents would take them to see it.
The first time I ever saw David Lynch’s Eraserhead was in my college library. It was a small, semi-private DVD viewing booth, which wasn’t soundproof, thereby necessitating the massive ’70s-era headphones I donned for the duration of the film unspooling only a foot or two away from my eyes and filling most of my field of vision. As it turned out, that maybe wasn’t the best way for someone sensitive to unusual sound frequencies to watch the film. As anyone who’s seen it can attest, the movie is plenty unsettling to begin with, and has probably provoked nausea or feelings of dizziness in more than a few unsuspecting audience members. But for me, the intensity of the sound design was overpowering. The low-level industrial humming, the distorted scratches and thrums, the croak of the creature as it wheezes and spits fluid from its mouth—it was all too much. I felt like I had to stick with it until the end, and by the time it was over, I was experiencing some strange combination of vertigo, nausea, and massive unease. There may be more emotionally powerful movies out there, but none have induced quite such a singular physical repulsion in me.
I can’t remember the last time I threw up. Probably during a bout of the flu some years ago. But I’ll tell you this: Back in 2015, I was at a screening of the Russian-made action movie Hardcore Henry (then still titled Hardcore) at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was in the Scotiabank Theatre, which is the main venue for press and industry screenings at TIFF—a really strange place, made to resemble a purple spaceship on the inside, with a huge Klingon Bird-Of-Prey hanging over the three-story escalator that leads you into the theater. Anyway, if you’ve never seen Hardcore Henry, here’s the gimmick: It’s shot in a sort of shooter game first-person, using GoPros mounted to a stuntman’s head. This was all based on a dumb but pretty nifty music video that the director made for his band that became a viral hit. But the thing is that 1) cameras aren’t anything like eyes, because we have these things called brains that ensure that the whole world doesn’t appear to tilt and roll every time we move our heads; 2) the wide-angle lenses of GoPros distort space; and 3) what works on a small screen doesn’t necessarily work on a big one. I had a professional responsibility to try to ignore my extreme nausea and sit through the whole thing, but everyone to the left and right of me bailed due to motion sickness. By the end, I was alone in my row. It’s not a good movie, but on a TV or computer screen, it’s actually watchable.