Audience members in the front row of a new Broadway production of 1984 shrank back in terror, fearing that the bloody saliva hanging from the corners of Tom Sturridge’s mouth might sling forth at any moment. In the latest stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, the torture scenes have been so brutal that they’ve recently left audience members ill. The Hollywood Reporter, which describes the scenes as “political torture porn,” reports that audience members attending previews of the play have been fainting and vomiting in the theatre. The reaction, though extreme, is neither unwarranted nor unprecedented.
In the play, Julia (played by Olivia Wilde) and Winston Smith (Sturridge) grapple onstage, striking one another with believable blows, and in one of the show’s final scenes, O’Brien (Reed Birney) orders his masked troops to cut off Winston’s fingertips and yank out his teeth. Needless to say, there’s a ton of fake blood onstage that constantly threatens to land on audience members, as well.
As Inverse previously reported on similarly gross audience reactions to the cannibal film Raw, people with phobias related to blood — including injections and injuries — first experience a brief spike in heart rate and blood pressure when they encounter blood. Then, the heart rate and blood pressure suddenly crash. This immediate drop is what leads to dizziness, fainting, and nausea.
This reaction, which is unique to people with hemophobia — people who fear blood — is due to what’s medically known as the “vasovagal response.” In this autonomic reaction, the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (the division associated with conserving energy and slowing down human functions), overreacts to a strong stimulus (the blood), causing a rapid shift into the “rest and digest” state. This causes the heart rate to suddenly drop and the production of stomach juices to ramp up, increasing the chances of vomiting.
Many people who attended the Broadway previews in New York and Thursday’s premiere of the play — myself included — weren’t prepared for the graphic depictions of violence, despite notes in the playbill that warned of loud noises and depictions of torture. Sitting in the second row, I worried that I was about to get covered in blood as Sturridge spewed a mouthful of it after his character got his teeth ripped out. The person sitting next to me covered his drink. Everybody around us looked on in horror. According to THR, that reaction was mild.
Previous adaptations of the story have focused less on torture porn and more on themes of state-sponsored surveillance, propaganda, and suppression of rational thought under the shadowy government of Big Brother. But this version, which directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan refuse to tone down, is meant to draw strong parallels between the 1949 novel and today.
Sugar and caffeine can help if you faint at the sight of blood, so if you go see 1984 at New York’s Hudson Theatre, grab a soda. And make sure it has a lid.