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Going Dark

August 12, 2014 | by


Detail from Vittorio Reggianini’s A Shocking Announcement

I have been trying for some time now to write this post, but it’s been very hard for me. Not emotionally, I mean—physically. My hands go funny, my vision blurs, my legs get weak, and I start to feel sick. In short, I get woozy. Allow me to explain.

Not that I really can explain; if I do, I’ll pass out. Just this morning, I started to read a review of a film that mentioned the protagonist’s “suicide attempt” and “bandaged wrists” and I felt shaky and had to immediately close the paper and, what is more, put it down the garbage chute so it couldn’t torment me. At least with books, you have some control over these things; to date I have fainted in The Virgin Suicides, Swing Kids, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sunset Boulevard. With The Three Faces of Eve, Harold and Maude, and Little Miss Sunshine, I managed to get out in time. I also got woozy once in a college history class; we were discussing the death of Seneca.

It sounds funny, until you see it in action. It is never fun to see reason give way to blind panic, nor to have a friend pass out at your feet. Sometimes, before they understand, people will tease me, exploit my weakness—as a result, I usually try not to mention it. (Also, if I talk or think about it, I will get faint.) Like someone with an allergy, I am ever vigilant, but the vigilance has become second nature. I tend to avoid anything that I know for a fact contains a suicide, just in case they do it that way. If I sense one might be coming, I will page ahead or ask a sympathetic friend for a warning. Sometimes, I have to reread or re-watch something because I realize after the fact that my tension and apprehension ruined the experience for me.

I can’t tell you when this started, or why it’s so very specific. There’s the time I spent in the ER waiting room seated across from a girl with bandaged arms, my eyes desperately glued to the television screen on the wall; she must have been okay, but to this day I can’t watch Charles in Charge (not that I’m so wild to). If you want to get mystical about it, there are the generations of family suicide to contend with. I can’t talk to a shrink or a hypnotist about it; I’d faint. Writing this alone has taken me four tries, and a large, sugary iced tea; I’m doing it as a sort of aversion therapy.

Do other people have these sorts of neuroses and aversions? Do they impact your quality of life—and, especially, your ability to enjoy books and movies? I’d love to know how to better cope. For now, I’m going to have to lie down—I’m feeling distinctly faint.



  1. Helen | August 12, 2014 at 5:18 pm


    I have this exact, specific phobia, and I have never met anyone else who has it too!

    I fainted while in high school biology simply because the topic came up – the first time I realised I was even phobic of that in particular. I fainted once while reading on a train (though it was a more generalised response to triggers – I’ve found being in motion REALLY makes a spell more likely. I’ve had panic attacks in the cinema.

    What can help is closing my eyes and recited calming words to myself and used visualisations of grassy meadows to help calm myself(I also use the sea, waves coming gently in and out on a calm cold day). Knowing if my general physical health is good will dictate whether I am up to watching a film I know has that scene in it, or whether, should it come up, if I’ll feel bad most of the day or only for a little while.

    Oddly enough, my writing can be gruesome in ways that avoid tackling my phobia. There was a line in Kristeva’s Power of Horror that said something like phobia is like an abscess we cover up – but it draws us to it.

    Thank you for writing this, and I hope that none of this has been triggering for you.

  2. G. Tahir | August 12, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    From the top of my head: the needle stabbed into Uma Thurman’s heart in “Pulp Fiction”; the scene in the second Matrix film where one character “lifts” a bullet out of the body of another character; the more brutal scenes from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest; the opening pages of William Burroughs “Cities of the Red Night” (opium abuse); the torture scene from 1984; a fellow freshman in high school deciding to give a talk-about-anything presentation on the subject of “self-harm”; countless others. These have all either made me faint or brought me very close (the sudden coldness, the dark spots, the realization that you no longer know how you usually breathe).

    The fact that it is not specific is what makes it so dangerous, because it can hit at any time (I once ran out of a college auditorium filled with over 500 people shortly after the professor had finished showing a five minute movie on STD’s in the Middle Ages, feeling that I would either faint or throw up on the person sitting in front of me, only to have the teacher call out and make me stop at the door and say that I was being incredibly irrespectful just running out like that – this being the most traumatic experience so far) and still makes me anxious every time the lights go out in the theatre or in a movie theater.

    I’m afraid my way of coping is just plain avoidance: I haven’t watched a Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction (which I only got halfway through, obviously); I stopped reading the Burroughs novel after my second go at making it further than the fifth page or so, I’ve never read anything by him since. Oh, come to think of it: the scene in the film version of On The Road where Kerouac visits Burroughs brought me close, though I was fine reading the novel.

  3. Raulla Mitchell | August 12, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    I understand fainting when watching “Harold and Maude”. How can one not faint, or at least feel that sinking feeling like one is on the verge of fainting and losing control?

    I’ve felt faint, but in a beautiful way, when reading e.e.cummings poem “may i feel said he” with paintings by Marc Chagall, I think it was a blend of art and text that made me feel like swooning, because I felt the same way reading “Daphnis and Chloe” with plates by Marc Chagall.

    I’m not sure if I’m fainting or flying with Chagall, but it sort of feels the same way – wonderful. Very different sort of fainting from that felt when watching “Harold and Maude”. At several points, I felt on the verge of fainting, and finally when Harold rushes to Maude who has chosen to end her life, there it is.

    One sort of fainting is beauty and life and the other is its opposite. Fascinating question Sadie.

  4. Sadie Stein | August 12, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    @Helen Thank you!! I have never encountered a fellow sufferer – and I’ll employ these tips! We’ll also have to walk out of a movie sometime – or just faint.

    @G. T. I feel your pain! Avoidance is my fallback, too.

    @Raulla An altogether more sublime varietal!

  5. cm | August 12, 2014 at 7:54 pm


    Your reaction to Chagall sounds like Stendhal Syndrome.

  6. J. | August 13, 2014 at 12:03 am

    Any description of childbirth, surgery where things burst or leak out of the human body. I haven’t read A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet because a nice reviewer tipped me off about a really graphic childbirth scene.

  7. Lucy | August 13, 2014 at 7:54 am

    Eyes do it for me. So obviously A Clockwork Orange and King Lear are impossible. An eye in worrying close-up spoils any film or book. Following exposure or to stave off tormenting thoughts, it seems to help to stick fingers in ears while repeating la la la.

  8. Jerry | August 13, 2014 at 8:43 am

    I once read Bell Jar without a break (break for another book) and that’s it, I had drowned too deep before I could even realize that it had affected me. I’m not sure how to get out of it but like you’ve said, I always watch or read something light to come out of the thoughts or create my own alternate endings (without discussing with anyone cause your opinion is yours).

  9. Eddie Jeffrey | August 13, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Sort of related: I had to quit reading The Hot Zone because I began to feel physically ill. My whole body squirmed on the point of spasm as I got deeper and deeper into the book. Even when I wasn’t actually reading it, I felt like I was getting sick. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and stopped reading altogether. After about a week, I felt better again.

  10. Patrick Lamson-Hall | August 13, 2014 at 11:27 am

    If you’re seeking a term for the phenomenon, I’d suggest “literary syncope,” or perhaps “synesthetic syncope.” This (for whatever reason) reminds me of the classical music riots of the 19th and 20th century. One notable riot, following a performance of La Muette de Portici, is credited with sparking the Belgian Revolution of 1830. A riot in response to a piece of music and fainting in response to a piece of writing seem related.

  11. Deborah | November 25, 2014 at 7:24 am

    Jerry, Oh my goodness. I am only looking at this post because I was just reading The Bell Jar and at feeling queezy throughout at some of the descriptions of suicide but particularly the blood part. And then at the part where is uncontrollably loosing blood after loosing her virginity. Black dot appeared infront of my eyes and next thing I new I was sitting up sweating like feeling like I myself had shock therapy. It was very scary indeed.

    Before now I had only fainted once from the sight of blood when I cut my finger. Whoever I think it runs in my family because my brother has numerous times. However before now watching gruesome scenes have not fazed me. I think maybe the descriptions are worse because it leaves more to the imagination! I immediately needed to seek wider knowledge to make sure I wasn’t crazy! I am very happy (not of course for your grievances but) to know that I am not alone.

  12. Deborah | November 25, 2014 at 7:26 am

    Sorry for all the grammar errors. I was still quite distressed as it had only just occurred.

  13. Shelly | February 6, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    *thank you* I have never before read of anyone sharing my affliction. I was told by the Red Cross to stop coming to their drives as I would faint every time I donated. I have to tell phlebotomists to talk to me about anything other than what they are doing so as to avoid fainting. I can not watch any media involving someone shooting up. I can’t even safely tolerate mention of the words blood and vein. (whew, that was a close one)
    However, I have zero aversion to getting a shot and have over a dozen tattoos. There is no sense to be made of the vagaries of the mind!

  14. SM | March 17, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Glad to know I’m not alone. I don’t like the sight of blood but I’m normally okay when I cut my finger or something. I guess it’s more the blood flow rather than the actual presence of it. I nearly fainted on the subway this morning while reading a graphic scene in a book and I have to admit, it’s not the first time that that’s happened. Movies don’t usually affect me that much, I guess my imagination is far more wild than what they can depict on the screen…

  15. Jonathan Chin | April 11, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    I fainted today, in a pedestrian crossing – I caused quite the traffic jam. I was reading ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ by Haruki Murakami, and I was not expecting the sudden torture/skinning alive scene that presented itself about a quarter of the novel in. It was the first time I’ve ever experienced fainting from a novel, however, I’ve always been very sensitive to movies (I can’t watch anything remotely gore/horror without terrible consequences). I completely understand how you feel, I’m not sure I can provide any advice on how to desensitise onseself, but I generally just avoid things that trigger me in this way. Anyhow, It’s nice to know I’m not alone on this one.

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