Sometimes a cinematic adventure dishes out more than we can handle. Too gross. Too creepy. Too sad…or just bad. From crazy camera work to low-frequency sound waves, there are plenty of triggers that send audiences heading to the exits.
The Walk (2015)
Even seasoned film critics and industry insiders felt the dizzying effects of French daredevil Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walking a tightrope between Manhattan’s Twin Towers, more than 1,300 feet above the pavement. “I had to look away a couple of times because of the sensation of the height,” said Denise Widman, board director of the Boston Jewish Film festival, to the New York Post. “I felt a little bit queasy. I felt nervous. It was a tingling sensation and some anxiety.” Others reportedly left the theater to vomit, and many reported symptoms of vertigo.
The 3D biopic recreates the notorious 1974 stunt in ways that past mediums, including a memoir and a documentary, could not. All previous footage of Petit’s heartstopping stroll between the skyscrapers, which he completed eight times over 45 minutes without a safety net or harness, was captured from the ground or the buildings. “The thing that neither the book nor the documentary could do was actually put the audience up on the wire with Philippe,” Director Robert Zemeckis told Vanity Fair. “We did. And that is what movies are all about.” That and, apparently, barfing.
Director Tod Browning’s pre-code horror film about a circus proved so shocking that its original copies were pulled from theaters and destroyed, along with Browning’s career. In the movie, a gorgeous trapeze artist plans to marry and then murder the leader of the side-show performers to gain his inheritance. The plot pits the “normal” members of the circus against the “freaks.” Browning cast real circus folk with abnormalities to play the side-show performers.
Viewers were supposed to learn that one’s looks do not equate to one’s morality, but moviegoers didn’t see it that way. “It is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget,” said a contemporary review in Variety. The Hollywood Reporter called it “an outrageous onslaught upon the feelings, the senses, the brains and the stomachs of an audience.” Mass walkouts ensued. The UK banned the film, and one woman threatened to sue MGM, claiming the movie made her miscarry, according to the book Horror Movie Freak.
It’s hard to comprehend that level of loathing among today’s audiences. American Horror Story: Freak Show on FX stars characters just like Browning’s, and it was nominated for 19 Emmys and took home five in 2015.
127 Hours (2010)
In 2003, outdoorsman Aron Ralston was trapped in a slot canyon in Utah, his right arm pinned by a boulder, for 127 hours. To escape, he sawed off his arm with a dull pocketknife. True story. In 2010, Director Danny Boyle released a movie about it, starring James Franco as Ralston, but when viewers arrived at that pivotal scene, many couldn’t hack it. Movieline.com compiled reports of fainting, vomiting, and seizures at film festivals and screenings across the country.
“It’s meant to be an intense, personal, immersive experience. This isn’t a horror film,” Franco told Vulture. “…you’re spending the entire movie with one guy. You, as the audience, are going through it with Aron. When you watch the footage of him talking into that video camera to his family, you feel like he’s talking directly to you. And when he cuts off his arm, maybe it feels like it’s happening to you.”
Despite the suffering of moviegoers, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor.
Don’t be ashamed if this controversial French film makes you want to curl up in the fetal position. Critic Roger Ebert gave the movie three stars but called it “so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.” He was right. Viewers walked out at even the most highfalutin film festivals, but it wasn’t just the brutality that overwhelmed audiences. There was also a scientific explanation for their abhorrence. Director Gaspar Noé added low-frequency background noise to the soundtrack of his revenge thriller. Though such extreme bass waves are inaudible to humans, infrasound “has been demonstrated to induce anxiety, extreme sorrow, heart palpitations and shivering,” the BBC reported in 2013. “Naturally-occurring infrasound has been associated with areas of ‘supernatural activity’ as well as being produced prior to natural disasters such as storms and earthquakes.”
“Our response to certain kinds of noise is something so profound in us that we can’t switch it off,” science writer Philip Ball told the BBC. “Film composers know that and use it to shortcut the logical part of our brain and get straight to the emotional centres.”
The Paranormal Activity franchise and other horror movies have allegedly used this tactic as well, so the next time you’re watching a movie between your fingers, don’t fault your courage. Blame the fear frequency.
Tree of Life (2011)
Film scholars called this movie a masterpiece, while the man on the street asked for his money back. Terrence Malick’s experimental drama explores the creation of the world, the meaning of life, the polarizing tug between science and religion, and the complexities of a family’s bond as experienced by a middle-aged man’s childhood memories of 1950s Texas. That’s a long sentence about an ambitious film. Go ahead, let it digest. Perhaps it was too much for the average date night, because folks left the movie in droves. They weren’t scared or grossed out. They just didn’t like it.
Disputes about refunds arose, and theaters scrambled to make clear their policies. The Avon Theater in Connecticut posted a sign urging customers to “read up on the film before choosing to see it” because it was not issuing refunds, reported The New York Times. Other cinemas agreed to reimbursements for those who left within 30 minutes.
If this found-footage horror film makes you lose your lunch, fear not, you’re not alone. Because so many people got sick during screenings, some cinemas began posting warning signs, and WebMD wrote an article about it: “While motion sickness is usually caused by plane, boat, or car movement, bumpy camerawork could definitely do it, too,” said Dr. Michael W. Smith. In the movie, six Manhattan millennials are attending a party when a gigantic monster attacks the city. Their experience is documented on a personal video camera later recovered by the U.S. Department of Defense. The footage was so jerky that much popcorn was regurgitated in cinema seats, bathrooms, and the expanse of flooring between the seats and the bathrooms.
According to WebMD, “Motion sickness occurs when the brain receives conflicting messages from the inner ear, the eyes, and other parts of the body. While watching Cloverfield, viewers were sitting still in their seats, so there inner ear was telling their body there were motionless. But the bumpy camera movements—and their eyes—misled them into thinking they were moving erratically.” Similar side effects occurred during screenings of The Blair Witch Project in 1998.
Fortunately, Cloverfield’s first quasi-spinoff, the 2016 hit 10 Cloverfield Lane, dispensed with the nausea-inducing camera work, opting for good old-fashioned cinematography instead.