Some films will drain your tear-ducts; others will leave your body convulsed with laughter. But the rarest – perhaps even the highest – physical response to a work of cinema is vomit.
In 1979, Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini put forward the idea of Stendhal Syndrome, the theory that feelings of physical weakness, dizziness or nausea could be brought on by exposure to great art. For her research, Magherini made notes on more than a hundred tourists who had been left woozy by the sheer magnificence of Florence.
Also in 1979, another Italian – director Lucio Fulci – released his cult B-movie Zombie Flesh Eaters. Perhaps, if we feel queasy when Fulci’s zombies begin chomping on a corpse, we are experiencing a similar kind of aesthetic rapture.
Perhaps, but probably not. According to neurologist Peter Tai, one response to frightening stimuli is “vasovagal syncope”, in which the heart rate slows and blood pressure drops. It effects the parasympathetic nervous system, which “also has some controls on the stomach," Tai told Canada’s Globe and Mail. In other words, this would explain the nausea as a side-effect of your body’s desperate attempts to slow down your heartbeat.
Whatever the reason – awe, fear or disgust – these are 12 films that have left audiences running for the washrooms:
1. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
The film that began it all. Less than two minutes into Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s surrealist short – a major influence on Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon – we watch a woman’s eye being cut open with a razor, in extreme close-up. As the vitrious fluid oozes out, it’s hard not to look away. The film has its fair share of disturbing images (including a man watching ants crawl out of a festering hole in his hand) but it’s best remembered for that eyeball. With one cut, Buñuel sliced open the boundaries of what was acceptable on film. Tellingly, the hand holding the razor is his own.
2. The Last House on the Left (1972)
“When I walked out after 50 minutes,” wrote a New York Times critic in 1972, “one girl had just been dismembered with a machete.” The same reviewer labelled the film “sickening” and “repulsive”, but Wes Craven’s low-budget tale of rape and revenge has far more than momentary shock value.
It’s not just revolting, but morally unsettling. Thanks to the unflinching it-could-happen-here realism of the second half – in which a gang of murderous thugs worm their way into an ordinary middle-class home – audience are made to feel queasy about their own role as voyeurs, and quite literally sick with guilt. In the words of the film’s poster “To avoid fainting, keep repeating: it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie…”
3. Pink Flamingos (1972)
John Waters’s midnight movie has it all: castration, coprophilia and two characters who have sex while crushing a live chicken between them – all painted in the director’s signature gaudy technicolour. As a smart gimmick, a few cinemas offered audiences free "Pink Phlegmingo" vomit-bags.
For added sensory overkill, in 2009 the Sydney Underground Film Festival screened Pink Flamingos in nauseating “Odorama”, complete with scratch’n’sniff cards.
4. The Exorcist (1973)
After four decades, William Friedkin’s classic still has the power to shock; its most notorious scene involves the sight of a young girl, posessed by a demon, violently masturbating with a crucifix.
Young Regan’s demonic projectile vomiting has been known to provoke more of the same from viewers; from the first American press-screenings onwards, there were reports of walk-outs, faintings and even a few people throwing up in the cinema. When it finally opened in Britain, the St John Ambulance was called to provide stretchers and medical support outside cinemas, in case any punters fainted – or worse.
5. Salò /The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
It's hard to think of a movie with a less edifying premise. In brief: a small group of children are kidnapped in Fascist Italy and abused by Nazis, with scenes including anal rape, suicide, tongue extraction, scalping, eye gouging, genital mutilation, incest, murder, and coprophagia. John Waters (see above) is a big fan. "Salò is a beautiful film," he has said. "It uses obscenity in an intelligent way... and it's about the pornography of power." Tragically, director Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered shortly after the film's release.
6. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Sometimes, the barely-glimpsed is even more sickening than the explicit. In the most famous scene of Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature, Michael Madsen’s psychopathic Mr Blonde ties a police officer to a chair and slices off his ear (to the strains of upbeat Seventies hit Stuck in the Middle with You). At the crucial moment, the camera swerves away to an empty wall, as if even even the director was too sickened to watch. It was too much for the late king of horror Wes Craven, who reportedly ran out of the cinema during this scene.
7. Irréversible (2002)
It wasn’t just the violence and explicit sex scenes which left Irréversible’s viewers squirming, nor the woozy camera-effects, but a clever trick with the film’s soundtrack. The first half-hour of Gaspar Noé’s experimental film is set in a nightclub called Rectm, and uses an inaudible, low frequency throbbing sound to make the audience feel unwell. Just as ultrasound frequencies can cause nausea and dizziness, deep infrasound frequencies can cause panic and anxiety. Although it’s still a point of debate among academics, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence for vomiting caused by infrasound.
8. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson's bruising account of the Messiah's last few days worked hard to capture the visceral pain of the crucifixion. At a screening in Wichita, one woman reportedly died of a heart-attack during the film, while others had to be escorted out of the theatre. Awarding the film four stars out of four, Roger Ebert wrote: "This is the most violent film I have ever seen."
9. Van Diemen's Land (2009)
This little-known Australian historical drama follows a group of escaped convicts lost in the Tasmanian outback. Starving to death, they turn on each other and resort to cannibalism. It's a serious account of true historical events (based on an incident in 1822).
Director Jonathan Auf Der Heide was hoping for a serious reception. Instead, he had audience-members gagging in their seats. "The vomiting thing was a real surprise to me – we had two people vomit in New Zealand, and a couple of people have fainted during the first killing scene," he told a local paper. "But it's nowhere near as intense as a lot of the cinema that's out there... it is approached as authentically as possible."
10. Antichrist (2009)
Four people fainted during Antichrist's first screening at Cannes Film Festival in 2009. Telegraph film critic Sukhdev Sandhu labelled the film "torture porn", while the British media questioned whether it should have been granted an 18 classification without cuts. On February 3, 2014, the film was banned in France following protests by a Catholic group named Promouvoir.
Lars von Trier's film depicts the anguished reaction of a couple to the death of their son, who falls from a window while they are having sex. As events escalate, the wife attacks her therapist husband with a block of wood before drilling a hole in his leg. She later removes her own clitoris with a pair of rusty scissors and is finally strangled by her husband who sets fire to her body. It's not exactly a fun slice of family-friendly viewing.
11. Suspiria (2018)
Director Luca Guadagnino made millions look at a peach in a whole new way with his Best Picture-nominee Call Me My Your Name, but his next effort, a remake of 1977 horror Suspiria, was considerably more unsettling. Starring Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, a dancer who unwittingly gets sucked into the most ill-fated dance company known to man, Suspiria's level of gore is so mind-bogglingly stomach-churning that Venice Film Festival organisers had a medic on the door of the press screening.
12. The House that Jack Built (2018)
Lars von Trier (yes, him again) had viewers fleeing the cinema in droves when his latest film premiered at Cannes. Described by Telegraph critic Robbie Collin as "two and a half hours of self-reflexive torture porn", the film follows a pretentious serial killer called Jack (Matt Dillon) as he slashes and disembowels strangers on a whim. One scene involves him jeeringly desecrating a child's dead body.
Did the director mind the mixed reactions to his movie? Not at all. “That is fine with me,” von Trier said, when asked about the walk-outs. “It is important that a film divides. I am disappointed that it was only 100 people that vomited. I would have liked 200 people to vomit.”