Horror Movies That Made Audiences Physically Sick

There is perhaps no greater honor a horror filmmaker can receive than to hear that their film made audiences physically ill. The genre of horror, after all, seeks to engage with the audience's fear and anxiety, allowing audiences to explore their darker emotional spaces while in the safety of a movie theater. The most successful movies have the capacity to leave a viewer feeling wary and uncertain about the world around them, and, in the below cases, leave them feeling physically sick. Throughout horror history, multiple films have garnered — often unsubstantiated — legends about how they caused audiences to faint, to vomit, to riot, to go insane, or to die from fright. 

Often filmmakers will lean into these legends, and some might even playfully invent so-terrifying-you'll-die urban legends to come pre-packed with an unopened film. Other filmmakers are taken to court over their terrifying movies. Some movies have been outright banned because of their alleged illness-inducing powers. No matter the circumstances, a story about how a film is so scary that it will make you vomit stand to my ear as a glowing recommendation.

Freaks (1932)

After the success of "Dracula" in 1931, director Tod Browning was granted leeway to pursue a passion project he had longed dreamed about. Browning was always enamored of carnivals and traveling circuses and, at age 16, ran away from home to work in one. Yes, people did indeed run away and join the circus. For several years, he worked as a barker, a contortionist, and a even performed a live burial act wherein he billed himself as The Living Hypnotic Corpse. Wanting to pay honor to circus workers in film — in particular, the sideshow performers — Browning made the feature film "Freaks" in 1932, which starred a cast of real circus employees who were featured in the institution's notorious "freak shows." Stories go that MGM employees were unnerved by non-able-bodied actors visiting the studio lot that some of them, notably Daisy and Violet Hilton, had to rest inside tents, out of the public eye. It was this sort of unfair prejudice that Browning was seeking to combat by making "Freaks."

The controversy continued into the film's release, and audiences were unready for a mainstream melodrama about the lives of circus sideshow performers. The main story of "Freaks" involves the wealthy German lord Hans (Harry Earles) who is seduced by, and marries, the circus' trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who intends to poison him and take his substantial inheritance. This is understandingly upsetting for Hans' first wife Frieda (Daisy Earles), and Cleopatra's plan soon leaks its way out to the rest of the circus performers who, late in the film — in a scene that was mandated by the studio — attack Cleopatra with knives. The final scene reveals that Cleopatra has been transformed into a bizarre chicken woman and is now on display as part of the circus sideshow she dared to disrespect. 

Anyone who has seen "The Elephant Man" likely knows circus sideshow's exaggerations as to how a "freak" received their unusual proportions — in "The Elephant Man," John Merrick's mother was terrified by elephants while pregnant — and the movie "Freaks" received an equally exaggerated legend about how the film was so terrifying, and the people in it so unusual, that a young mother watching the movie miscarried her pregnancy. I was unable to find evidence of this, but the legend persists.

Macabre (1958)

"Macabre" was director William Castle's 40th feature film, but really, it was his first. Castle, perhaps the greatest American showman since P.T. Barnum, began branching out into horror movies in the late 1950s after a long career of studio-mandated westerns and other genre cheapies. By that point in his career, Castle — always interested in gore and horror — understood that in order to sell a movie to a young, hungry audience, one must have an angle. A gimmick, if you will. 

Castle, tapping into a very general paranoia about extreme horror films killing their audience members, openly proclaimed in the advertising for "Macabre" that there was a very real possibility you may die of fright. If true, this would have been a headache from an insurance standpoint, so Castle acted accordingly. Upon arrival at the theater, audience members were handed a certificate for a life insurance policy, backed by Lloyd's of London, that would award the viewer $1,000 (close to $9,700 in 2022) should they die of fright in the theater. Additionally, Castle hired "nurses" to be on standby in theater lobbies to check on the health of anyone who might be close to death due to "Macabre's" intense scenes. 

"Macabre," by the way, is merely a fun potboiler that features a kidnapped child, and someone being sealed inside a coffin alive. While possessed of an EC Comics-like wickedness, there is nothing so horrifying as to scare you to death. Nonetheless — and one can posit that this was to attract the attention of the pretty actresses hired to play the nurses — there are a few stories of young men "fainting" in the theater because "Macabre" was just that scary. Regardless, the gimmick was a hit, "Macabre" made millions, and Castle made several of the best horror movies of all time with even more elaborate gimmicks in the future. 

The Exorcist (1973)

Often called the scariest film of all time, and — until 2017 with the release of "It: Chapter One" — the highest-grossing horror film in history, William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" has no shortage of legends. Not only are the film's "curses" part of public record — and were even covered in the debut episode of Shudder's "Cursed Films" documentary series — but audience reaction to "The Exorcist" was intense and dramatic. Stories persist to this day that certain moments in "The Exorcist" cause audience members to faint. 

The most notorious scene — and the one that has the legends attached to it — involves the 12-year-old Regan McNeill (Linda Blair) doing something horrible with a crucifix. This is a scene that was also featured in the William Peter Blatty novel on which the film was based. Without getting explicit, the film's special gore effect was achieved by Blair stabbing a crucifix into a sponge that was soaked with fake blood. It was this scene that allegedly inspired the legendary fits of unconsciousness. Add to that scene any number of horrifying images — vomit, heads turning backward, eerie voices, levitation — and you have a pretty damned scary movie, my friend.

Irreversible (2002)

Notoriously walked out on at Cannes, and often considered one of the most disturbing feature films ever made, Gaspar Noé's "Irreversible" sought out to make audiences sick. With a message of "Time Destroys Everything," and told in reverse scene order, "Irreversible" is one of the most aggressive, and perhaps one of the more pessimistic movies ever made. It also contains a notorious sexual assault scene wherein Monica Bellucci (who directed the scene herself) is attacked in an underground passage. The scene is an unbroken, nine-minute shot. It's difficult to watch. 

Not content to merely shock audiences with an extended scene of extreme sexual violence, Noé also used an experimental sound technique during the film's early scenes, employing ultra low-frequency bass notes that had previously been developed as a non-lethal weapon intended for use on the battlefields of World War II. Certain low sounds have been known to induce nausea, and Noé wanted his audience to feel that nausea. Add to that a severe beating in a club, loud music, and flashing strobe effects, and you have a vomiting audience just waiting to happen. Mercifully, the film's violence is relegated to its first half, and the falling action lets audiences recover. 

Nonetheless, the horror of the opening scenes lingered with audiences, and left many feeling physically ill, leading some to flee the theater, struck by fits of queasiness. If the goal of the film, however, was to leave people feeling ill, then "Irreversible" was a rousing success.

Taxidermia (2006)

Hungarian filmmaker György Pálfi's 2006 film "Taxidermia" is a difficult one to stomach. Presented in vignettes, the film follows several generations of men as they face the darkest appetites of their bodies. This involves trauma to sensitive areas, violating a pig corpse, a great deal of overeating, and a climax wherein a character uses an elaborate machine to remove their own internal organs. Partly a meditation on the nature of our relationships to our physical forms, and partly a grand guignol horror oddity, no one will leave "Taxidermia" without several disturbing images burned into their brains. 

There are plenty of dark and gross moments to choose from, so it's difficult to say which moment in particular inspired the most vomiting, but vomit audience members did. Anecdotally, as someone who worked in a movie theater where "Taxidermia" played in 2006, audiences had to step out during the competitive eating scenes, wherein two of the main characters hastily shove large quantities of gelatinous meatlike substances into their mouths. The film also experienced walkouts during the final self-taxidermy scenes, as there are numerous closeups of actual, pulsating organs. It is unclear how Pálfi achieved these effects. 

I have heard more dry heaves during "Taxidermia" than in any other movie, unless you count my own for the latest "Space Jam" film.

Antichrist (2009)

Lars Von Trier's 2009 film "Antichrist" is the first part of what has come to be called the Depression Trilogy, which also includes 2011's "Melancholia," and 2013's "Nymphomaniac." All three films delve into the intimate details of the depressed mind, exploring the unusual connections our brains manifest when soaked in sadness and mourning. Sex and death become interlinked. The natural world become dank and forbidding. And our relationships to others become hateful and suspect. The invading force of depression often lies, convincing you that you have no self worth. Lars Von Trier struggled with severe, suicidal depression for many years, and he was uncompromising when he put his own emotional state on camera in "Antichrist," using actress Charlotte Gainsbourg as his mouthpiece, and Willem Dafoe as the obnoxious male who insists on analyzing away something that is too overwhelming to be analyze. 

"Antichrist" is about a wife and a husband who recently lost their young child to an unfortunate accident while they were having sex in the shower. The sadness and mourning following the event leads to a retreat to a remote cabin in the woods — as scary as anything from an "Evil Dead" movie — to heal. They do not heal. Indeed, madness begins to infect them both, and the film climaxes with Gainsbourg attacking Dafoe, inflicting some horrid genital trauma, and screwing a lodestone through his leg. There is a also a closeup of ... a particular act ... look, it's a disturbing film. 

Another piece of anecdotal evidence: At least one person I watched this film with left the theater to take a few deep breaths in the bathroom. Another did indeed vomit a bit, although they had been drinking a bit. It will take a strong constitution to see "Antichrist," but the film will reward you with an accurate portrait of what it feels like to be depressed. 

Raw (2016)

When it debuted at TIFF, Julia Ducournau's "Raw" inspired calls to the paramedics. Reports from the venue said that several audience members had passed out during the screening. Given the film's cannibalistic subject matter, it's easy to see why. "Raw," true to its title, features a lot of chewing on uncooked meats and, in several notable sequences, human meat that's still alive. There are bite marks, lacerated legs, and a scene where a human finger, uh, cannot be retrieved. Additionally, there is a scene in "Raw" where a real horse is actually anaesthetized on camera which only added to the fleshy authenticity of the film. Don't worry. The horse was okay. 

Ducournau, with "Raw" and her latest film "Titane," appears to have an emerging thesis in her body of work about our human flesh chassis and our slavery to it. We are our bodies, and our appetites rule us. That the cannibalism in "Raw" was presented so frankly may have a lot to do with the reaction it got at TIFF. This was no wicked game or exploitation movie. This was a movie that was confronting audiences about their very pumping humors, and it's to Ducourneau's credit that she was so effectively able to, uh, get under everyone's skin.

Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made (2018)

While the above films made people sick, the 2018 Canadian mockumentary "Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made" is the only one that claims it will kill you right in the title. Perhaps taking inspiration from John Carpenter's films "In the Mouth of Madness" and his "Masters of Horror" episode "Cigarette Burns" — both of which featured fictional films that caused viewers to go mad — "Antrum" is a movie about a fictional movie that has a 100% fatality rate among its viewers. Staged in BBC documentary style, it involves a lot of convincing period detail, as it unfolds the style of a mad European filmmaker in the 1970s whose film was infected with a curse. Think "The Ring" via "Cannibal Holocaust."

ANTRUM IS NOT SAFE, a disclaimer at the head of the film declares. 

As far as I have been able to discern, no viewers of "Antrum" have actually died after watching it. Any claim, however, that a film is so scary it might kill me is certainly going to attract my attention. After all, what better way for a cinephile to go out than to be killed by a film. Let's make some popcorn and watch the film that will scare us to death. 

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Daniel Myrick's Eduardo Sánchez's 1999 film wasn't a mere hit, it was a phenomenon. Made on a budget of only about $500,000, the film went on to gross almost $250 million. It was one of the most talked-about movies of the year. 

One of the reasons "The Blair Witch Project" seems to have hypnotized so many people was one of the cleverest marketing campaigns the world had ever seen. Using the internet — a novel notion at the time — the makers of "The Blair Witch Project" constructed an elaborate outside narrative about how the events of the film were very real, and that the actors in it did indeed meet a grisly demise. There were additional fake documents and additional "found footage" film made to back up the "authenticity" of the movie. 

Some audience members were a little baffled when the actors — very much alive — would appear on talk shows to promote the film.

The authenticity of "The Blair Witch Project" already gripped some audiences, but the real reason some people admitted to outright nausea was the film's constant use of hand-held camera footage. The movie was actually filmed by the actors in it, and it was intentionally made to look like an amateur production. This meant no tripods, no Steadicams, and a lot of people leaving the camera running when they took off at a dead sprint. According to a report in the Washington Post, the swirling visuals were too much for some, and many reported having to rush to the bathroom to barf.

Saw III (2006)

The "Saw" movies are, for an entire generation, synonymous with Halloween. When the first "Saw" became a massive success in 2004, a sequel was rushed into production, which was ready to be seen in theaters the following October. A new "Saw" film came out every October thereafter for five years. With each sequel, the confusing continuity of the "Saw" movies would become that much more elaborate, but the gore would be ratcheted up to vomitorium levels. 

Darren Lynn Bousman's "Saw III" featured a scene wherein a victim was left at the bottom of an empty vat, while fetid pig corpses were automatically fed into a meat-mulching machine above. If the film's protagonist (Angus MacFadyen) couldn't stop the pig corpses from coming through the chute, then the victim would drown in off-green, liquefied pig entrails. And that's only one disgusting scene in a film full of them. 

This is also the "Saw" movie to feature a man with a large metal hoop pierced up through his chin and out of his mouth. He is invited by mastermind Jigsaw to yank off his own jaw in order to escape.

According to a 2006 report from the BBC, some people passed out and had to be attended to by medics. The reason was simple enough: "Saw III" was simply too much to bear. 

The poor souls couldn't possibly know about the horrors of the six additional "Saw" films that were to follow. They would hate them. Or love them, if they happen to like movies so intense they pass out.

127 Hours (2010)

Danny Boyle's 2010 film "127 Hours" isn't a horror movie, but there are a lot of painful things to look at. The film tells the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), an outdoorsman and adventurer who, in 2003, went on a Utah rock climb by himself, only to tumble into a ravine. He landed in a standing position, but a boulder fell immediately after, pinning his arm against the ravine wall. Ralston had no way of contacting anyone, only so much water, and no way to break the rock. 

After the titular span of time, Ralston — using only a small, dull folding knife — resolved to cut through his own arm. Yes, the actual cutting is dramatized, including the effort that Ralson had to break his own bone first, as well as the shrieking sting of the moment he had to slice through his own nerve. Ralston is still alive to this day. His right arm, it seems, might still be pinned against a wall somewhere in Utah.

In 2010, Movieline put out a timeline of audience reactions to Boyle's film, detailing a litany of fainting and illness. There were nine recorded instances of extreme sickness brought on by "127 Hours," although one of them might have been a coincidence. At the Los Angeles premiere, an audience member had a seizure in the theater and had to be taken to the hospital. The victim, it was later learned, had suffered an attack brought on by "a diabetic condition." Her seizure didn't take place during any particularly shocking moments in the movie.

The Walk (2015)

Robert Zemeckis' 2015 biopic "The Walk" told the true story of Philippe Petit, a French acrobat and wire-walker who took it upon himself to play a whimsical-yet-dangerous public stunt. 

When the World Trade Center buildings were nearly completed with their construction in 1974 but weren't yet open to the public, Petit and a small team of helpers snuck up to the very tops of both towers, used a bow and arrow to shoot a wire from one tower to the next, and created the world's tallest tightrope. Petit walked the wire 1,776 feet above the ground. The details of the "heist" were detailed in an Academy Award-winning documentary film called "Man on Wire."

While there were plenty of interviews and police photos of Petit on the wire, no one thought to bring a camera at the time. Zemeckis sought to rectify that using state-of-the-art VFX technology, IMAX screens, and deep, deep focus 3-D to recreate Petit's experience in "The Walk." For those who saw the film in theaters, the effect was astonishing.

CBS News reported in 2015 that many viewers suffered from severe vertigo, and there were rumors of vomit, fainting, and extreme dizziness. Zemeckis effectively captured on film the illusion of looking straight down 110 stories, leaving any acrophobes in the audience terrified. 

Sadly for viewers at home — or perhaps, fortunately, depending on your constitution — the experiences cannot be recreated on home video. With both "The Walk" and Petit's actual stunt, it was an experience that needed to be seen to be believed

Terrifier 2 (2022)

Currently making modest box office numbers, Damian Leone's killer clown movie "Terrifier 2" is so bloody and extreme that, according to USA Today, ambulances are being called to the few theaters where it is playing. It's rare for a film with such a limited release to cause such an uproar.

"Terrifier 2" follows the continued adventures of Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton), a ghoulish serial killer who doesn't speak and looks a lot like Lon Chaney's character from the 1924 film "He Who Gets Slapped." Art spends the movie stalking and killing people for no other reason than he seems to enjoy witnessing people suffer. There is a scene in "Terrifier 2" wherein a woman is splashed in the face with acid, her bloody, screaming skull left exposed. Additionally, Art decapitates someone, shoots someone, and stabs someone. Art also begins eating one of his victims(!!!). The film climaxes with a twisted birth scene that should perhaps be left undescribed.

Extreme gore is a relative rarity in the '10s and '20s, with some of the bigger horror successes of recent years (the "Conjuring" movies, for instance) being rated PG-13. Had "Terrifier 2" come out during the heyday of "Saw" and other torture-based movies, perhaps audiences would have accepted the film's violence. In 2022, not so much. The film's executive producer Steve Barton had to issue a warning about the film's content.

If that isn't an endorsement...