Today, the intense cannibal horror movie Raw hits theaters. Variety praised Raw’s graphic scenes of “lacerated extremities, bite marks and gaping wounds” but advised viewers they’d need “strong stomachs” to make it through the experience. Apparently, some didn’t heed that warning: The film has been grabbing headlines ever since it played at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, where it caused audience members to faint during a screening.
Over the years, different films — and some musical acts — have elicited similarly strong physical reactions that have ranged from vomiting to uncontrollable crying. But what, exactly, causes those extreme responses? To find out, I spoke to two different psychologists, giving them six classic instances of audience freak-outs so that they could explain why our bodies sometimes react so violently and unexpectedly to what we’re watching.
The Incident: In 1964, the Beatles were beginning to take over the planet. They already had multiple number-one hits in the U.K. and U.S., and their celebrated appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show solidified their superstardom. During this time, it was a common occurrence to see teen girls lose their minds at just a glimpse of the Fab Four, often crying and shrieking uncontrollably.
The Physiological Explanation: “Shrieking and crying are normal responses to intense emotion for some people,” says Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, and author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook. Antony also believes that what he calls “emotional contagion” helps explain these mass weep-a-thons as well. “We tend to experience more intense emotions when people around us are expressing those emotions,” he says. “That’s why we laugh more at funny movies when watching them with others. Learning may also play a role. If we’ve seen other people scream in a similar context — such as on a roller coaster or at a concert — we might be more likely to scream when we’re in the situation.”
This notion of cultural peer pressure is echoed by psychologist Aida Vazin, who notes that our worship of celebrities has deep societal roots. “If one looks across all cultures around the globe,” she says, “there’s always a belief system in a higher power — from tribal witchcraft to sacrificial ceremonies to the gods to Abrahamic religions. This has now translated over to the idolization of modern-day idols — aka celebrities. The females, therefore, will project their passion, faith and beliefs onto the idol at hand. When done so in a group setting, each person feeds off of the energy of the whole, and it’s experienced as a ritual or ceremonial event.”
The Incident: At the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, a horror movie called Frozen inspired several freak-outs. One night, according to filmmaker Adam Green, “two people vomited during the second screening (one of whom came back into the theater to finish the movie, which I thought was pretty cool).”
The Physiological Explanation: Vazin theorizes that audience members can sometimes relate too closely to something terrible they see in a movie — like up-close scenes of bones being broken in Frozen — and literalize it. “Psychologically, the mind is under the impression that such things are happening, and when there’s a lack of a break from such a high/intense level of stimuli, this will provoke the viewer to have a physical response,” she says. “The body will undergo a high level of fear or repulsion, which may cause the viewer to vomit in order to release the repulsive stimuli.”
Oh, and as for why someone would go back into the theater after puking, Vazin explains, “After there’s a sense of relief from vomiting, then the viewer may feel settled enough emotionally and physically to continue to watch the rest of the movie and enjoy it.”
The Incident: In 2004, a Kansas sales manager named Peggy Scott watched Mel Gibson’s hyper-violent The Passion of the Christ in the theater, suffering a fatal heart attack during the film’s bloody, brutal crucifixion scene.
The Physiological Explanation: It’s best not to rush to the conclusion that Gibson’s film killed Scott, warns Antony. “This sounds like a classic case of ‘correlation doesn’t always equal causation,’” he says. “We all die doing something, but that doesn’t mean that the something caused us to die. In very rare cases, someone with an undiagnosed heart condition may be vulnerable to experiencing heart attacks under conditions that strain the heart — exercise, intense emotions — but there’s no way to know if that was the case here.” This helps explain why amusement parks often put up signs warning people with heart problems to avoid roller coasters and other intense rides.
The Incident: Two years after Frozen traumatized Sundance crowds, another horror film, V/H/S, did its own damage at the festival. According to The Christian Post, “One man stumbled out of the film, collapsed and suffered a seizure during a midnight screening. … Paramedics were called to the scene to treat the distraught moviegoer.”
The Physiological Explanation: Rapid flashing lights can cause seizures, but Vazin speculates that other factors may have felled this viewer. “The body is in a highly agitated state due to the release of stress hormones being emotionally triggered by the images in the scene,” she says. “[That] — coupled with fast-paced images and rapid, changing colors and scenes — may trigger a seizure, especially to someone that may have the propensity for seizures.”
Laughing So Hard You Cry
The Incident: Indie actor-filmmaker Tommy Wiseau thought he had made a darkly dramatic character piece with 2003’s The Room. But instead, it became a camp classic, as audiences mocked its so-bad-it’s-good inanity. Wiseau should’ve seen it coming: As Room actor Robyn Paris told Entertainment Weekly, during the film’s L.A. premiere, “Everyone in the theater was crying with laughter.”
The Physiological Explanation: “People often think of crying as a response to negative emotions, like sadness,” Antony explains, “but it’s also a common reaction in other emotional states: happiness, excitement, anger. In fact, people may be more likely to cry when they win an Oscar than when they lose one.”
Vazin points out that it’s also possible that the escalation from laughing to crying may be a result of our body needing to find a more intense way to express a strong reaction — especially if, say, they were trapped at a movie premiere and had to watch all of The Room. “Someone that’s emotionally triggered will have the need to release,” she says. “This release may start with laughing, but this may not be enough, so a stronger release would be crying. In some cases, this still isn’t enough — therefore, vomiting becomes triggered.”
The Incident: Finally, back to Raw. The fainting episode at the Toronto Film Festival was serious enough that “an ambulance had to be called to the scene as the film became too much for a couple patrons,” Raw’s publicist said at the time.
The Physiological Explanation: Raw, which shows scenes of characters biting down on their human victims to feast, is the perfect film to induce fainting. As Antony points out, “Fainting is a common response to stimuli involving blood, open wounds, injections, surgery and injury. Most of us experience a small drop in blood pressure in response to these sorts of stimuli, but for some people the drop is extreme — enough to trigger fainting. About two-thirds of people with blood phobias and half of people with needle phobias report a history of fainting in the situation.”
Or maybe fainting is just the body’s way of bailing out of a scary movie. “It can be psychologically related to the need for escapism,” suggests Vazin. “If the viewer isn’t able to get away from the fear-invoking stimuli and cannot physically and emotionally process it, then the viewer may just check out by means of fainting in order to remove oneself from the triggering event.”