Horror is perhaps the single most visceral genre in cinema. Everything in a horror film is designed to stimulate the senses, provoking fear and revulsion in its audience. Those are magnificently powerful physiological responses, and when a horror film goes too far it can actually physically hurt its own audience. You won’t get that from SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. Let’s take a look at some boundary-pushing horror films so extreme that theater owners had to literally call in the paramedics. With these five titles, repeating “it’s only a movie…” just makes them that much stronger.
Ah yes, the reason we’re all here today… Julia Ducournau’s French cannibal flick RAW was the inspiration for this entire article. During its Midnight Madness premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, RAW’s unflinching exploration of flesh, torrents of blood, and lacerated limbs overwhelmed several audience members who fainted, resulting in a call to the paramedics. Really, what better promo could a horror movie ask for? In case you’re morbidly curious, and willing to foot the hospital bills, U.S. horror fans can check out RAW when it hits limited theaters on March 10th.
SAW III (2006)
Although the first film was slightly tamer, the SAW franchise has always been known for its over-the-top Grand Guignol gore effects. Apparently this was too much for UK audiences in 2006 because paramedic switchboards lit up the night SAW III debuted. Multiple people got so sick during the screenings (which depicted, among many other things, an extended scene of brain surgery using a skull saw), they ran full tilt out of the theater, and one woman was actually hospitalized. One cinema in Stevenage required three separate ambulances in the same night to tend to ill customers. The situation got so bad, the ambulance trust had to release a statement warning audiences that “if they start to feel sick they should leave.” It’s a good thing these folks ducked out of the franchise early, because the opening autopsy scene of SAW IV might have actually killed someone.
PROMETHEUS was a highly divisive film, but there’s one thing everyone can agree on about the ALIEN prequel- the scene where [SPOILERS] Noomi Rapace gets in a surgical pod to remove an alien fetus from her own body via an emergency C-section is stomach-wrenching. This grotesque sight got it own traditional set of faintings, but in one Australian theater a teenage boy was hospitalized after suffering from a seizure induced by that particular scene. We’re just lucky nobody’s chest exploded.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
No film in this entire article could have existed without the phenomenon that was THE EXORCIST. Whatever your Achilles heel is, this film will find it and rip it to shreds. Religious fans balked at the Satanic imagery, parents and children were terrified by the gruesome obscenities inflicted upon Linda Blair, and squeamish individuals were treated to a lovingly detailed depiction of a multitude of invasive medical procedures. It’s no wonder audiences were fainting in droves, keeping paramedics busy for months on end. One man even sued Warner Bros. because he passed out and broke his jaw in the process! Modern audiences may have a calmer reaction to the film these days, but there’s no denying the tremendous, visceral power of THE EXORCIST.
Here’s another case of a festival screening gone terribly wrong. When Chad Archibald’s BITE, about a woman mutating after a mysterious insect bite, was screened at Fantastic Fest in 2015, it made serious waves. It can all be summed up by this post from the festival’s co-director: “I leave the BITE premiere for all of ten minutes and the following text lights up my phone: ‘2 people fainted. One girl is puking and another hit his head on the stairs.’” You might not want to pick up one of those promotional barf bags for your collection, because I’m pretty sure they all got used that night.