Whence All the Puking on Screen?

My phobia keeps me from drinking heavily. It makes visiting hospitals a sphere of the inferno. Even watching a movie at home is fraught, although my husband usually manages to warn me or clamp his hand over my eyes.

It all started early in grade school, when three kids threw up on me in rapid succession. The first was clear and slimy, the second yellow-orange chunks, the third a stream of brown that coated my little plaid bookbag and meant no one would sit next to me on the bus. It turns out there is a name for the psychological scarring that resulted, as there is now for everything that scares us: emetophobia. And it predisposes me to note a trend you may have missed: People are throwing up a lot more often for our entertainment.

Credit: Dawn Endico via Flickr

To make sure hypersensitivity has not skewed my observations, I check the trend with a venerable scholarly source: the Straight Dope site, wherein Peanuthead complains that he is watching a lot more movies, and “in about 70 percent of them there is a scene where someone throws up … What the hell is going on? Is this some kind of inside joke by directors?” Anne Bilson, film critic at The Guardian, bemoaned the increase back in 2010, writing, “Vomit has become such a recurring motif in today’s cinema that it has almost ceased to make an impact, unless it comes with a gimmick, like the turbo-powered, Pepto-Bismol-coloured puke in Gentlemen Broncos, or someone being sick on a squirrel in Hot Tub Time Machine.” In a 2014 article for The New York Times, Neil Genzlinger called the “graphic and gooey” vomiting “a TV trend that deserves to die.” In 2015, Mashable took an informal count and identified vomit scenes in almost one-third of that year’s wide releases. And in 2017, New York Magazine’s Jen Chaney asked innocently, “Why Is Everyone Projectile Vomiting on TV?”

Clearly, I am not alone. Chaney tried to put a gloss on it, writing that “vomit speaks to a common denominator in so much of TV right now… a commitment to showing humans in all their ragged, jarring reality.” That sounds rather high-flown for what I, in my wounded state, consider a cheap and lazy, reaction-hungry shortcut to illustrate drunkenness, embarrassment, shock, stress, pregnancy, bulimia, illness, or satanic possession.

Yes, throwing up signals a loss of control. Yes, David Lynch used it to great effect in his early animated short, “Six Figures Getting Sick,” showing the audience how their stomachs filled with a bright red fluid that rose until they regurgitated in sequence, a siren as soundtrack, the loop repeating six times. Lynch likes people to express what is normally repressed.

The symbolism works, even I can concede that. Prissiness keeps all that human mess out of sight, pretending purity. Anthropologist Mary Douglas explained the disgust we feel when body fluids shoot out of the body willy-nilly as a violation of order; the body is meant to contain these fluids.

Maybe what I really fear is chaos itself. Permeable boundaries. The marginalization of sitting alone on the bus because I am soaked in what is taboo. All I know is that when I see people throwing up with abandon on screen, I feel assailed. Granted, others feel that way about sex or profanity, which leave me quite cheerful. But surely regurgitation causes a little recoil even in normal people? In Laughing Screaming, William Paul, founding director of film and media studies at Washington University in St. Louis, recalls how bitterly the cinema staff complained when they found vomit splashed all over restrooms after screenings of The Exorcist. Is it a measure of progress that we have learned to groan, chuckle, and keep our own gorge from rising in sympathy?

I have another suspicion: Perhaps we see more vomiting because filmmakers now have the technological ability to make it both more spectacular and more convincing. I email Michael Fink, who chairs film and television production at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, to ask.

“I have to decline your invitation to ‘dive into’ the exciting world of cinematic vomit,” he replies. I can visualize the wince. “A great deal of it is done as it always has been done, with practical special effects rigged on set and shot at angles that make it look real. And yes, visual effects are better now with sophisticated fluid dynamics software and very much better lighting tools. That’s about all I have for you on this subject.”

Yet the details so delight people. Entertainment Weekly describes, with relish, the various in-the-cheek tube-and-plunger systems and special nozzles; the blends of real food (oatmeal, fake blood, Boston baked beans, and pea soup for The Witches of Eastwick; soup and beer in the classic scene from Team America); the dangers of using real food in a rented plane where undetected ooze might later turn rancid; the biodegradable, flavorless fake vomit made by Blair Adhesives, a California-based company that specializes in mud, blood, and slime.

We should all buy shares.

Cliff Froehlich, executive director of Cinema St. Louis, gives me a crucial insight into the upsurge when he remarks that “younger folk, particularly males, find vomit funny. And the primary audience to which films are pitched is young males.” I did not know this. It explains many things.

Granted, Froehlich says, throwing up is not always fratboy funny. Often, it is “the marker to say a woman is pregnant. If a young woman throws up and is not pregnant, it’s almost a plot reversal. Or an indicator of serious illness.” Horror films also mesh with gross effects, and horror is on the upswing, he adds.

So are police procedurals, I say, and if real-life cops threw up at crime scenes and autopsies with the same frequency, they would never last. Apparently what kept people of my delicate sensibilities safe in generations past was the Motion Picture Production Code, in force between 1930 and 1968. “You couldn’t even show a toilet,” Froehlich says. “They were really careful about anything that might disturb.”

So careful, they did not even need to spell out the proscription; it was obvious to anyone of common decency. Vomit probably came under “vulgarity”: “Treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil subjects, should be subject always to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.”

A feeling I never expected to feel—a nostalgia for censorship—sweeps over me. Today, the IMDb hosts a list of emotophobia trigger movies, as do several other sites, and a kindly husband even created a thorough database, Is There Barfing, inspired by his emetophobe wife. He rates episodes by multiple criteria, including sudden, onscreen, audible, gross, overdone, messy, disgusting, prolonged, and projectile. Read that list of adjectives and tell me why this is fun.

Alas, I hold out no hope for a return to delicacy. We have shaken off all restraints. Gleeful, filmmakers push for stronger and stronger reactions—and then need stronger and stronger stimulus to get them. Without the protection of yesterday’s paternalism, whatever scares us will find us. And in an entertainment world desperate for reaction, the worst is probably yet to come.