The Lumière brothers were said to have caused quite a stir when their 50-second short film, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, premiered in Paris in 1896. Unaccustomed to the sensory experience of moving footage, audiences experienced a jolt of panic when an oncoming train seemed to be speeding directly toward them.
Over the years, the story has morphed into people fleeing from the theater entirely, though that’s not likely. Since the Lumières, however, many filmmakers have been successful in driving moviegoers out of their seats. The latest addition: Robert Zemeckis, whose film The Walk is quickly becoming notorious for its dizzying depiction of wire-walker Philippe Petit’s journey between the Twin Towers in 1974. The perspective of Petit more than 1300 feet in the air is reportedly too much for some to take. Here are seven other films that couldn’t keep audiences in the dark for long.
1. THE EXORCIST (1973)
Lines wrapped around the block for the film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel about a young woman possessed by a demon. They quickly realized it was the cinematic equivalent of a hot pepper: something to be endured rather than enjoyed. News footage like the compilation above portrayed stricken filmgoers who had fled screening rooms out of sheer terror; one fainted in the lobby. “I just found it really horrible and had to come out,” one says. “I couldn’t take it anymore.” By the time the film premiered in London, ambulances were parked outside.
2. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1998)
Launching the found-footage genre with an economical story about filmmakers threatened by an unseen force, The Blair Witch Project was a sizable box office hit and remains one of the most profitable films ever ($22,000 budget, $240 million gross). But the documentary-style format, with actors jogging or falling over with a camera in hand, prompted waves of people getting motion sickness in aisles, lobbies, and bathrooms. The Associated Press reported Atlanta-area theaters were on puke patrol for most of opening weekend. “Someone threw up in the men’s restroom, the women’s restroom, and in the hallway,” said a theater manager. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, another theater manager made announcements before screenings to please vomit outside of the screening room.
By the time Cloverfield's (2008) handheld photography was churning stomachs a decade later, theaters wisely posted signs warning of a "roller coaster" effect. Instead of barf bags, theaters handed out refunds.
3. 127 HOURS (2010)
From the get-what-you-pay-for department: Audiences that streamed in for director Danny Boyle’s account of hiker Aron Ralston, who got himself wedged in a cave and had to amputate his own arm with a pocketknife, found themselves bearing witness to James Franco wedged in a cave and amputating his own arm with a pocketknife. Many, many people fainted; some vomited; one person fainted, was hauled away in an ambulance, and returned to the theater to declare the film “excellent.”
4. RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)
It’s not necessarily shocking that the unflinching violence of a Quentin Tarantino movie would prompt audience evacuations: 1994’s Pulp Fiction lost patrons when Uma Thurman got a shot of adrenaline in her heart. But Reservoir Dogs is notable for the people it pulled from their seats. When Michael Madsen’s character began an unsolicited ear amputation of a hostage during an industry screening, the late Wes Craven (creator of The Last House on the Left and A Nightmare on Elm Street) fled the theater.
5. FREAKS (1932)
Tod Browning’s infamous portrayal of a circus sideshow with revenge in mind was a harrowing experience for filmgoers. Not strictly a horror film, its large cast of “actual” circus performers with a myriad of deformities was unsettling. Freaks suffered mass walkouts upon release, viewers unnerved by missing limbs; MGM insisted on editing the film after a woman claimed she was so aggrieved during a screening that she suffered a miscarriage.
6. IRREVERSIBLE (2002)
Panned for its depiction of a brutal assault, this revenge film from director Gaspar Noé prompted viewers to head for the exits—but not necessarily because of what was shown onscreen. Noé admitted to using a 27 hertz frequency of bass that can’t be picked up by the human ear during the movie’s first 30 minutes. Known as infrasound, it's been known to induce panic and anxiety in a manner similar to vibrations created by earthquakes. Paranormal Activity (2007) used a similar technique.
7. THE LION KING (1994)
In the proud Disney tradition of maiming parents came The Lion King, where tiny Simba learns to fend for himself after his father is trampled during a stampede. The animated tragedy proved so intense for younger viewers—Disney’s key demographic—that they had to be temporarily relocated to the lobby until they calmed down.