The idea that entertainment media can have a real-world effect on people has been long established. When this is associated with severe psychological distress, it is referred to as cinematic neurosis. This is essentially having post traumatic distress disorder as a result of something one has seen in a movie or on TV. But mass panic can present itself in a variety of other ways too. Famously, the first ever film screening (which was held in France in 1895) featured a short titled, The Arrival of the Train. It was simple footage of a train pulling into the station, but in witnessing this close up the audience is reported to have panicked, believing the train was actually coming straight at them. Since film was a new medium at the time, this is used as evidence of how powerful the effect of moving images can be. Much later, in 1938, there was the oft-cited radio presentation of The War of the Worlds, which was mistaken by many as a real news broadcast. While the pervasive belief is that listeners thought aliens were attacking Earth, there was actually a good number of people who feared the U.S. was being invaded by another country, having missed the bit about aliens. Thus, the concept of entertainment having tangible effects on our psyches is a powerful one. Here are 15 movies that upset, alerted, caused panic, and made some people go absolutely crazy.
15. King Kong
During the first screening of 1933’s King Kong, one particular scene caused a mass disturbance. The spider pit sequence depicted the characters being attacked by a variety of creepy, slimy, creatures – including giant spiders. Reportedly, a large number of audience members screamed, left the cinema, and even fainted. Obviously, this is not the kind of reaction a big Hollywood studio production would have intended to elicit in the middle of the Great Depression, so it’s no surprise the sequence was cut out, and never seen again. The official reason given for the change was that the scene interrupted the story. There are no surviving copies of the sequence left, as it was common practice to burn cut reels at the time. However, the sequence was described in a novelization of the film, and reconstructed for Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.
14. Cannibal Holocaust
This 1980 Italian gore-fest, set in the Amazon, is easily one of the most controversial films of all time. It features excessive cannibalism, rape, torture, and slaughter – the latter applying to both humans and animals. The biggest issue of all is the realism with which these horrors were depicted. In fact, director Ruggero Deodato was actually arrested on murder charges because this was so widely believed to be a snuff film! The charges were dropped once he proved the actors had not been brutally killed; however, he could not provide the same evidence for the animals. Despite initially denying that animals had been harmed during the making of the film, it turned out that many were. As a result, the film was widely banned due to cruelty to animals – although some of that other stuff might have factored in, as well.
13. Guinea Pig 2: Flower Of Flesh And Bone
In yet another case of gore-gone-too-far, this 1980s Japanese picture stirred major controversy when actor Charlie Sheen turned a copy of it over to the FBI, concerned that it was a legitimate snuff film. The film used remarkable sleight-of-hand style special effects in the depiction of a woman being disemboweled and dying. It came under investigation and the filmmaker has since released a behind-the-scenes look at how the special effects were created. Other films in the Guinea Pig series are just as stomach-turning, but the source of panic about this one in particular came about because it’s the one Charlie Sheen encountered, to his great dismay. The films fall into the categories of Extreme Horror and J-Splatter, both of which are known to be a part of Asia cinema culture that is not exactly for the faint of heart – or stomach.
12. The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) remains one of the only horror films to be worthy of academy award nominations, including a slew of wins for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. Its R-rating made these wins further anomalies, but not everyone was impressed. Many activists within the LGBTQ community angrily protested the portrayal of Buffalo Bill. In the film, this villain is a stereotypically flamboyant wannabe transsexual. For many gay male critics in particular, Buffalo Bill was a perfect example of the many poor and homophobic representations of gay/trans men in the media. On the contrary though, there were also many feminists who applauded the representation of the female hero, Clarice. Thus, the film remains a point of contention for many activists. Aside from the gender controversy, the film has also been criticized for being too violent.
11. The Passion of the Christ
Ah yes, The Passion of the Christ, otherwise known as the movie that made the world hate Mel Gibson. The fact that the 2004 film was designed to be a visceral demonstration of Christ’s crucifixion made it inherently problematic, because a lot of people are opposed to the idea of sensationalizing violence within a religious context. Throw in some anti-Semitism, and you have yourself a cocktail for mass outrage. To make matters worse, Gibson packaged his film as the only authentic portrayal of the crucifixion, claiming it is entirely true to events as written in the New Testament. And yet, a lot of what was depicted came under easy and heated debate. In addition to anti-Semitism, it thus came under fire for misleading representations of faith and religion, and for excessive violence. Gibson has since blamed his own hateful words against Jewish people on a mixture of hurt over the film’s criticisms, and his own battle with alcoholism.
People don’t really believe in ghosts, and curses, and the likes, right? Yes. Yes, they do. Many people do, in fact. So when a popular 1980s ghost movie swept the nation, followed by a few unfortunate incidents, it was enough to cause mass panic (if you are not a believer, you might even call it a mass delusion). The uproar followed a series of deaths of cast members of the first and second films. Dominique Dunne (Dana) was murdered by her boyfriend soon after the film was released. Julian Back (Henry) died of stomach cancer in 1985. In 1987, Will Sampson (Taylor) died of kidney failure. Most shocking was twelve-year-old Heather O’Rourke, who died in 1988 of cardiac arrest. But it wasn’t over, a couple decades later there were two more deaths. That the set used real human skeletons as props, hasn’t helped the case. But whether or not there is a real curse, anecdotally, it’s caused a lot of people anxiety and discomfort.
9. The Birth Of A Nation
This 1915 film is at once hailed as a cinematic masterpiece, and the most racist film of all time. While filmmakers and film scholars went crazy for its beautiful and intrepid use of large-scale production magic, it also caused viewers to go absolutely insane, effectively ramping up outward racism a thousand degrees. In fact, the film is disturbingly credited for re-igniting the KKK movement. And this was no accident, Griffith was a strong believer in the notion of racial inferiority and was preoccupied by the fear that black people were destroying the moral integrity of America. Blacks were portrayed as violent thieves and rapists, and the heroes of the film were the KKK. It’s seriously disturbing. The NAACP tried to get the film banned, but were only able to get the most offensive sequences cut. The question of free speech came into play, as well. Meanwhile, the number of lynchings spiked.
8. The Last House On The Left
Wes Craven’s 1972 horror, The Last House on the Left, had a very lasting impression on audiences. In response to viewers becoming physically unwell due to the film’s shock-style violence, a promo poster printed the tagline “To avoid fainting, keep repeating: it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie…”. The film is a rape-revenge narrative, and those are always pretty contentious. To have an impact, violence is usually necessary, and realism tends to be key too. However, these are exactly the things that makes audiences very uncomfortable, and very angry. One critic stormed out of a viewing after 50 minutes, and labelled it “sickening” and “repulsive.” Not surprisingly, the modern remake did actually tone it down.
7. Faces of Death
For thirty years, it was generally accepted that Faces of Death was a documentary that compiled footage of suicides, deaths, and autopsies. While some gathered this was a fake-out, not everyone was convinced. Die-hard believers would turn out to be mostly wrong, though. It has since been verified that the film used a lot of editing magic to combine real footage with special effects and make-up, to trick the viewer. Ultimately, a lot of what we see in the film, is fake. Still, in its heyday, kids saw the film as a sort of rite-of-passage into horror fandom. Get through it, get major (horror) street cred. It caused such mass panic among parents and adults that media outlets and politicians took to blaming the film for contemporary teen delinquency. It’s arguably the first of the now prominent found-footage genre, stylistically imitated by The Blair Witch Project, and rebooted by Paranormal Activity.
6. Basic Instinct
Nowadays when people think of the 1992 film Basic Instinct, we probably jump right to the infamous Sharon Stone flash (sans underwear). But the film was actually the centre of major controversy, and angry protests from the LGBTQ community in San Francisco where it was being filmed. Because the female leads were a bisexual female murder suspect and a lesbian killer, it was quickly labeled as both anti-woman and anti-gay. Hordes of protesters arrived on set with signs and whistles, making a valiant effort to disrupt filming. Tensions between activists and filmmakers heated, and a restraining order was issued against the protestors; 25 of whom were arrested in one week for violating it. Seeing as they weren’t backing down, the writer finally met with them and was impressed by their insights. He re-wrote several scenes as a result. When his changes were denied by the director, he left the project. Eventually, compromise was met, and the writer returned.
5. Hail Mary
Depictions of religious doctrine in modern cinema always have the potential to upset someone, but the 1985 Jean-Luc Godard film Hail Mary managed to irk even the Pope. In a modern retelling of the Mary and Joseph story, that arguably sought to celebrate the miracle of pregnancy itself, the breaking point for most was the nudity. Towards the end of the film, Mary is shown naked, experiencing her now pregnant body. The film was called blasphemous and was heavily protested by picketers. The Pope denounced the film, and one angry protestor even threw a pie in the Godard’s face at the Cannes film festival. The filmmaker wanted to explore modern spirituality through the story, but apparently there’s no room for full-frontal there.
During a showing of Giant, the final James Dean film (which was released after his sudden death), one oft-cited girl stood up and wailed “Come back, Jimmy, I love you! We’re waiting for you!” It may sound crazy, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The death of James Dean created what has been referred to in academic and pop culture circles alike as the Cult of James Dean. The death has been both doubted and denied, with an influx of letters addressed to the late star flooding Warner Brothers Studios around the release of Giant. Theories of his survival ranged from him being in hiding because of disfigurement to him being shut up in an asylum. Within this cult, the car itself has become a sacred object, shrouded in its own legend. Responding to rumours that the studio was encouraging the hysterical riots, one publicist said, “I thought Dean was a legend, but I was wrong… He’s a religion.”
Freaks (1932) was a very bold move, that ended up ruining the director’s career. It is a film about carnival folk who are unloved and mistreated, and who therefore live by their own code. The controversy was over the use of actors that were real circus performers, with real deformities. Sadly, this had a traumatizing effect on the public. The most infamous report is of a woman who was so shocked during a test screen that she had a miscarriage, and even threatened to sue. Much of the film’s violence was thereafter cut, leaving only a 64-minute running time, which still proved enough to cause mass outrage. The film was pulled, and only found its place with a cult audience in the 1960s. The director, Tod Browning, who was basically the James Cameron of his time, was never able to recover his career.
Ghostwatch was a 1992 Halloween special presented by the BBC. It aired at 9:25 pm, just late enough to be subject to less censorship, but still early enough for families to watch together. The premise was that of a mockumentary about the most haunted house in the world. It featured prominent journalists and news anchors, and scripted guest callers who would call in to describe their own spooky experiences with the house. But when it finished, the BBC was flooded by some very unscripted and unhappy callers. In a phenomenon much like the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, people had been entirely fooled by the realism of Ghostwatch. Many callers were genuinely terrified for the safety of the presenters, and the BBC received widespread backlash. Parents complained that the program had severe psychological effects on their families, including one couple who blamed the program for pushing their 18-year-old son to suicide. The producers apologized, and it was banned for ten years.
1. The Exorcist
We’ve all heard The Exorcist referred to as the scariest movie of all time, and whether or not we agree, there are some documented facts that lend credence to the argument. In fact, this film is the subject of the first documented evidence of cinematic neurosis – the idea that a movie could have a tangible psychological effect on people and even cause mass hysteria. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease published four case reports of people who appeared to have developed “acute traumatic neurosis” after watching the film. These people reported no psychological issues beforehand, and afterwards visited doctors complaining that they were unable to sleep, were constantly terrified, and one man even became convinced his daughter was possessed. Add all of this to the crude language, violence, and the use of the crucifix, and the film becomes one big controversy that had everyone in an uproar.
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