An Emetophobe at the Cinema: Balancing a Fear of Vomiting with a Love for Movies
Trigger warning for emetophobes – I do use the v-word, p-word, the s-word and describe triggering scenes in life and movies. Frankly, I would not read this article, and I wrote it. I realize that emetophobia is different from person to person and I’m just talking about my experience.
I am a cinephile and an emetophobe. Unless you have emetophobia or a similarly comparable phobia, it may be tough to comprehend how at odds these two obsessions are. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably a cinephile yourself, with an insatiable appetite for stories expressed through film - captured moments of time woven together in motion and light to evoke thought, emotion and empathy. Emetophobia is the irrational fear of vomit and vomiting, which you will not find me waxing poetic about. I understand most people are squicked out by vomit - though there is a link on Wikipedia for ‘emetophilia’ that I will forgo clicking on, thank you very much - but for my fellow emetophobes and I, it’s much more than that casual squick. There is a piece of my consciousness that is worrying all the time – worried about seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, thinking about it, and, most of all, doing it – and that sense of dread affects how I think, feel, and act on a full time basis. Both Greek suffixes, philia and phobia, describe a compulsion that is part of your psyche that cannot be ignored but one is for an implacable attraction and the other is for insurmountable aversion. The cinema is often a place where people go to escape, to allow the filmmakers’ reality to temporarily override the worries and cares of the viewer’s present, but for me every film has a menacing and pervasive subplot – are any of these characters going to puke and will I have to see it and lose my goddamn mind.
Many emetophobes can track the genesis of their fear to some kind of traumatic event – to a prolonged illness, having a family member with an illness, or an embarrassing public instance - but for me it is something of a mystery. I went through the primary age of tummy bugs rather a-traumatically, and then around second grade I had a nightmare. I dreamt of a movie trailer that featured two pre-adolescent boys who defeated bullies by vomiting and even now the thought evokes waves of creeping anxiety up my chest. I have a distinct memory of the two boys proclaiming (and excuse the poor writing but I was 7 and asleep) “We don’t fight, we THROW UP” and they were wearing metal buckets over their heads and sheets of vomit were pouring down from the buckets and filling the room so that they had to wade through it – why would my brain conjure such a repulsive scene except to break my brain well into my adulthood? After that night, I could not watch my mom pour soup without feeling repulsed, and a full-blown emetophobe was born.
My cinephilia, at that time, was relegated to children’s films - primarily Disney animated features. My parents were the type to take the MPAA ratings literally – we were allowed to watch only G and PG films through the age of 12, then PG-13 movies when we were 13, and I’m pretty sure I’m still not allowed to watch rated R movies. Like many, I had a fascination with the Disney princesses, and I would weave them into my imaginative play singing endlessly and combing my hair with a fork/dinglehopper, but even the princess movies were not safe for the blossoming emetophobe. Early in The Little Mermaid, the handsome Prince Eric’s ship is caught in a storm and his steward, a grey haired spindly tightwad named Grimsby, turns this terrible shade of grey-green and leaned over the side of the boat. That scene sent a wash of tingly fear over my whole body. It didn’t stop me from watching The Little Mermaid again and again, but I would close my eyes and plug my ears at that moment. Other films came along that were much worse which made me wary of watching new movies – The Sandlot (1993), Apollo 13 (1995), A League of their Own (1992), Operation Dumbo Drop (1995). I began getting twitchy in the theater or watching movies at sleepovers with my friends. Movies became over-all less fun. I mean, how can I enjoy watching dinosaurs eat a grown man off the port-a-potty in Jurassic Park if I’m worried that Lex and/or Tim are going to get scared and toss their Jell-O? I wanted the stories, I wanted the cultural celebration and participation in movies, but I did not want to be consumed with dread of this thing that was occupying my brain, so over the years I’ve developed coping mechanisms that allow my phobia and my philia to occupy the same space.
Many emetophobes find themselves in the same conundrum of to watch or not to watch and they turn to the oracle of all answers, the internet. IMDb has lists of emetophobia trigger movies, as does reddit, and forums such as emetophobia.org. The lists, however, are hard to navigate, hardly expansive enough, and never up to date. A fairly dependable database is kids-in-mind.com. It’s a site that is created for adults who want a detailed account of what’s going on in a flick before sharing it with their kids. You’d think it would just be kids movies, but they watch everything and always include if there is a vomit scene under the ‘Violence/Gore’ category. My greatest issue with that site is that it can get way too detailed at times, which can be anxiety inducing and turn me off of a movie. Case in point, here’s how they describe the vomit scene in Logan Lucky: “A man in a prison drinks contaminated water from a tap and vomits a substantial amount of chunky orange material onto a floor twice.” You read that description and it’s tantamount to watching the scene. I did watch Logan Lucky, but I left for a full five minutes after when the pitcher was tipped and I find the sight of Daniel Craig with bleached blonde hair utterly unnerving. While researching this article, I actually found a website started by the husband of an emetophobe, phobiasatthemovies.com. It is a subscription service that screens movies on a weekly basis for many common phobias – blood, teeth, needles, puppets, vomit, clowns, spiders, and snakes. For a $3 monthly fee, you get access to this database that will not only tell you if a trigger occurs and the context, but an approximate time stamp so you can quietly excuse yourself. To me, that seems to reasonable price to pay for peace of mind.
I don’t find myself having to rely too much on online resources anymore when it comes to avoiding vomit scenes in movies. I’m part of a beautiful film community whose members are all well aware of ‘my deal.’ I am at the theater all of the time, I’m a member of two film clubs, I’ve surrounded myself with super cool like minded people and for the life of me, I cannot shut up about my phobia. I wish I could, but it’s on my mind and I want people to be sensitive to it. Plus, I want them to realize that when I run out of the theater during Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 while Rocket, Groot, and Yondu are jumping through hyperspace its not about them. So long story short, when my friends see vomit in a movie, for better or worse, they think of me. I had so many people warned me about Baby Groot’s motion sickness that I managed to watch that movie with Baby Groot’s cuteness untarnished. Sorry, Daniel Craig. Make another James Bond, and I think about it.
There are some situations where I can’t have a film prescreened for me and I just have to risk it. I go to advanced screenings, film festivals, get access to the occasional screener, and if I want to find out if Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies is vomit free, I’m just going to have to see for myself. It’s SUPER not, by the way. When Mr. Chekov is blasted in the face with the chemical, close your eyes and plug your ears for a minute or so and every time he is on the screen until he’s gone full zombie. I like that dude way more when he’s disemboweling skiers, let me tell you. Twenty-plus years of having this phobia, I’ve developed a sixth sense of when to close my eyes, plug my ears, and go to my happy place (Sixth Sense, also not vomit-free). A lot of being a cinephile is seeing it first, seeing the most, and the camaraderie of being in the theater having a shared experience. I have to weigh my fear against my desire to participate fully in this community I love. I know ultimately, my emetophobia is an extension of an anxiety disorder and I have to gauge if a film is worth testing myself and stretching my boundaries, and a lot of the time it is. I also give myself permission to leave if there is a situation that is too much for me. Sorry, eighties gross-out, cult-classic Brain Damage. I really tried.
The only real treatment for emetophobia is exposure therapy and I’m just plain not down for that. Firstly, it’s scary, and secondly it can re-traumatize the patient. Emetophobia has effected my life in ways other than bursting into tears during Super Bad or running in terror out of Lakeview Terrace, and the habit of worrying has worn a deep groove in my brain that I may not every fully get over. There are a lot of anxieties that tend to get mixed up in emetophobia – social anxiety particularly where there will children or alcohol, traveling on planes or boats, and a lot of food paranoia. But there are a lot of things I now do and enjoy that I used to be scared of – sushi, the occasional cocktail, airplanes, and Melissa McCarthy – and I got there by experiencing those things in a kind of positive exposure therapy. So what if I’ll never comfortably watch a movie about groups of girls in competition – thanks a lot Drop Dead Gorgeous, Bring It On, and Pitch Perfect – I don’t want my emetophobia to define me. My cinephilia is based on a real desire to experience art, see beauty and ugliness, experience the full spectrum of imagination, and empathize with the entirety of human experience. Let my love define me, not my fear.