'127 Hours': Why Do People Faint at Movies?

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If you’re nervous about blood or claustrophobic, or if you commonly cover your eyes during a movie, then 127 Hours will feel at least twice that long to you. The film is among this year’s top Oscar contenders, featuring a performance from James Franco that’s revelatory, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Franco plays Aron Ralston, the hiker who in 2003 was trapped for four days under a boulder and had to amputate his own arm with a dull knife to survive. At early showings of the film, between 13 and 16 people fainted, two reportedly became lightheaded, and three had seizures, according to a survey on Movieline. This isn’t the kind of thing that happens very often, even with all the installments of gory or terror-inducing films like Saw and Paranormal Activity. “There’s very little that comes as a surprise to the average moviegoer,” says Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research at the National Association of Theater Owners.

So why are people have such strong reactions to 127 Hours? The stark realism may actually work against it. According to Dr. Martin A. Samuels, chairman of neurology at Boston’s Brigham and Women's Hospital, sometimes your body can’t tell the difference between being in danger and watching a fictional traumatic event, which can trigger a strong physical response: “With a strong enough fright, your blood pressure can go up, and that triggers a reflex that can cause your heart to slow down,” Samuels says. That can lead to dizziness or fainting. And if you faint at the movies, you may well have passed out before, such as when you’ve donated blood. In a parallel response to an extremely stressful situation, such as a natural disaster, an adrenalinelike chemical typically is released into vital organs. “The chemical is a very powerful, potent chemical,” Samuels says. “If too much of it is released too quickly it is possible to cause the heart to go into an abnormal rhythm, and that can cause you to die.”

In the past, the jittery camera work in The Blair Witch Project and Babel has made some audience members throw up. One woman had a fatal heart attack in 2003 during the crucifixion scene of The Passion of the Christ. And last year, viewers reportedly had strong reactions to a graphic scene in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist that involved mutilation.

Film enthusiasts say Hollywood’s not to blame for viewers’ health woes, pointing out that the marketing for most of these films is upfront about their difficult-to-watch subject material. And of course the MPAA rates films based on potentially offensive or upsetting content.

For the squeamish, here’s word of advice: See Megamind this weekend instead.

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