Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, there’s a great anecdote: Some studio execs attend a screening of The Exorcist, anxious (perhaps understandably) about the film’s prospects. Midway through the screening, an audience member jumps from her seat, runs up the aisle, and throws up in a trashcan at the back of the auditorium. It was then, the story goes, that Warners knew it might have a hit. Prodded by the recent discussion of Dead Alive and its memorable “pudding scene,” I’d ask what moments in movies and TV have caused you genuine physical nausea, whether from anxiety about the characters/situation, cinematic style (looking at you, von Trier), or just sheer oopy-goopiness. —Andrew
I think of myself as having a pretty strong stomach—I’ve never understood people who can’t discuss certain topics over dinner (“Ugh! We’re trying to eat!”) or can’t see vomit in film without wanting to vomit themselves. So generally a director has to try really, really hard to get me queasy. But some of them have definitely tried just that hard. Like Terry Jones with Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life, in the sequence where Jones plays a monstrously obese man who crams himself full of food, then projectile-pukes it everywhere. (Embedded below. I’m not rewatching it, and I don’t recommend it on a full stomach. Or if you’re planning on eating mints anytime soon.) Or Peter Jackson with Meet The Feebles, his sick-and-twisted satire of The Muppet Show. I couldn’t even tell you what scene from that film made me ill; past a certain point, it just felt like the whole thing was dripping, glistening puppets, soaked in slime representing various bodily excretions. I’ve actively worked to erase the whole thing from my memory.
Continuing the common denominator here, there’s a scene in Peter Jackson’s aptly titled Bad Taste that’s pretty rough. I don’t remember much about the movie these days—I haven’t seen it since like my junior year of high school, so almost 20 years—but it involves the eating of vomit. I had to look up the particulars online, and Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics Of Oppositional Taste describes it thusly: “Bad Taste has aliens vomit copious amounts of chunky blue spew, which is then consumed by a sickened human.” That’s a simple summary (and the vomit is green, not blue), but it’s so much grosser than that. A movie’s never made me throw up, but that scene wrecked my stomach for a long while. I still shudder thinking about it—and did again when I found it on YouTube:
I also have a pretty strong stomach. My wife does not. Seeing people vomit makes her want to vomit, and that’s not a joke. We can’t watch Breaking Bad during dinner because of the amount of vomiting done on that show. (If you don’t live with someone with a highly sympathetic gag reflex, you may not have noticed.) That said, I feel like my own gag reflex is bending in her direction. I’ve sat through both Human Centipede movies, but I have no problem confessing that in a couple of scenes, I became very familiar with what was happening in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen. Ditto Antichrist. (If you’ve seen the movie, you know the scene.) And while I once thought it strange that I would ever marry someone who’s never seen Pink Flamingos, a film embraced by my high-school friends that I later shared with my college friends, I now wonder if I could rewatch the whole movie. (Then again, I’ve probably seen it enough for one lifetime anyway.)
Singling out any one scene from Harmony Korine’s Gummo—which is sort of like the Indy 500 of sickening stuff—as being grosser than the others is a challenge. But the part where that kid sits in the bathtub filled with gunky water and eats the gross-looking plate of spaghetti while his mom shampoos his hair turns my stomach just thinking about it. I’m not sure if it’s the juxtaposition that gets me, or if it’s just the thought of eating spaghetti and washing it down with milk that sounds unappealing, but, ugh I don’t think I feel so good.
My aversion to gore is well-documented on this site, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve purposely avoided most of the films on this list, and will continue to do so. So I’m going to go in a different, lamer direction and confess that IMAX frequently sends my head spinning. I have pretty bad motion-sickness, and anything with fast, swooping camera work will often make me dizzy—even an old AMC ad that used to show before previews at my hometown movie theater. The camera flew up and over some random lit-up cityscape, which usually forced me to put my head down momentarily. (And yet I love roller coasters. Bodies are stupid.) But the immersive, overpowering experience of IMAX tends to exacerbate this even more, especially in the case of the “educational” IMAX productions they show at amusement parks and museums, which tend to spend a lot more time soaring over and diving into abysses than blockbuster IMAX adaptations like the Harry Potter movies or The Dark Knight. That said, the nausea-inducing Dubai skyscraper scene in Mission Impossible 4 was awesome enough that I went back to see it in IMAX a second time… just not on a full stomach.
As gross-out moments go, this one’s pretty tame, I admit, but the memory of it has lingered on since 1979, when I first saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Not long after James T. Kirk returns to his beloved U.S.S. Enterprise, which is just barely in the final stages of a complete refitting, an attempt to beam aboard two crew members—including the ship’s new Vulcan science officer, Lt. Commander Sonak—goes awry in a more ghastly manner than could ever have been imagined in the original series. Kirk wrestles the transporter controls away from Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) and enters into a tense, rapid-fire dialogue with the transporter officer at the starbase the crewmen were beaming in from, trying his best to boost the signal and bring them in safely, but then Rand suddenly gasps, “They’re forming…” There’s a horrific shriek, and although the visuals are intentionally non-distinct within the incoming transporter beams, Rand’s comment and the manner in which it’s delivered make it clear that what we’re witnessing is the molecular structure of their bodies being completely shifted and twisted. The grotesqueness of their fate goes on for what seems like an eternity (even though it’s really only a few seconds)… and then they’re gone. The silence is deafening, and when it’s broken by the starbase transporter operator informing Kirk, “Enterprise, what we got back didn’t live long… fortunately,” the mental image that sprang forth almost made me throw up. (It’s also the moment when I definitively understood Dr. McCoy’s perpetually grouchy position on the transporter “scrambling your blasted molecules.”) I wouldn’t care to guess how many times I’ve seen ST:TMP since then, but I can tell you that that scene still makes me queasy every time.
Poop jokes are funny. Scenes involving poop being eaten in films are not. I’m looking at you, Pink Flamingos, The Help, and Austin Powers 2.
I have a pretty strong stomach for this stuff. Once I almost lost it during the shit-supper mock wedding in Salo, but managed to hold it together. The only time I remember physically throwing up was while reading a passage of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. The book is awash with all kinds of grisly misogyny (or “dark humour”), but one scene stands out. About midway through the book, Ellis’ Wall Street serial killer jams a Habitrail tube into a woman’s vagina, then forces a starved rat into it. It then proceeds to gnaw its way through her body from the inside. I feel like a goddamn pervert just describing it. And I should, right? But to defend Ellis, American Psycho works because of the disjoint it creates between the character’s laissez-faire attitude toward such monstrous acts of mutilation and that of the reader. Just when we think Ellis has given us all he’s got, and that we’ve become totally acclimatized to his book’s sensational violence, he pushes us over the edge. And in my case, straight to the porcelain.
In its way, this may be as personal a question as what kind of pornography really does it for you. Me, I’ve practically swam through rivers of fake gore, and I can respond with nothing worse than a raised eyebrow to nude sex scenes featuring people who maybe shouldn’t be doing nude sex scenes, which is not to say that I’m not going to punch Carlos Reygadas in the face if I ever get the chance. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a thing about saliva. It doesn’t take much of the stuff to distract me; I love Street Of Crocodiles by the Brothers Quay, for instance, but I always have to look away during that shot in the prologue of an old man hocking a loogie in close-up. But for the saliva-phobic, it’s Ousmane Sembène’s Xala that takes the cake. The protagonist is a middle-aged African businessman who discovers that he’s impotent with his new young bride and decides it must be because someone has put a magical curse on him. At the end, he submits to a humbling ritual meant to break the spell: He stands in the middle of a circle of people while they spit on him. I don’t mean that they go “Ptuui!” in his general direction, either. They freakin’ dig deep and gob on the poor bastard. And since the movie was made in Senegal in 1975, I can’t even try telling myself that it’s CGI spit. I don’t know what the lead actor was paid for his work, but by the final, frozen shot of his face and bare torso thickly coated with other people’s expectorate, I know it wasn’t enough. I sure as hell wasn’t paid enough to look at him.
Given how much Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! drives me to gag and how much I still love it, I must be some sort of pukey masochist. So much on that show is absolutely vomit-inducing, from Tim getting his eyes plucked out by crows to kids eating handfuls of gloppy white mush. Season five hit me particularly hard—the scene in “Puberty” where Tim drinks a milkshake made of Eric’s pubes, lumps of hair and all, had me running to the bathroom simultaneously laughing and fighting back the urge to purge. Even thinking about it, I can feel the chunks starting to rise up in my throat.
I don’t know why, but when a character on a TV show—even if it’s a classic and one of my favorites—does something utterly embarrassing, out of character, or stupid, I have to change the channel. I just get this queasy feeling, realizing that the writers suffered a momentary lapse of reason when they wrote that particular episode, forcing characters I’ve gotten to know and love to exhibit behavior that they would never write for that actor if they were in their right minds. The last example I can remember was when Frasier had a love triangle of sorts, with Frasier’s producer Roz (Peri Gilpin) so distressed over the pairing of Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and prickly finance whiz Julia (Felicity Huffman), she ended the season by making an ultimatum: “It’s her or me!” Never mind that Roz was just Frasier’s producer and friend—yes, they slept together once, but that was settled long before this happened—and making such a weepy demand was completely out of character for such a tough-as-nails personality. When Frasier rightfully stuck with his burgeoning relationship, Roz bolted for a new job. It really felt like late-in-the-run reaching by the writers, and they quickly corrected themselves in the 11th-season première, when Roz reappeared at KACL and pretended nothing had ever happened.
I know this will sound like a joke after all the gore described above. Gore and violence doesn’t bother me if it’s devoid of emotion. I don’t know what that says about me, but it’s typically so fantastic that it just has no effect. Animals showing human emotions however, kills me. And it was watching Bambi as a child that marks the only time I’ve thrown up from “entertainment.” I simply couldn’t stand the fact that Bambi’s loving mother was killed, leaving him alone. I cried so hard that I threw up. I still cannot stand Bambi, or Old Yeller, for that matter. Damn you, Disney!