At a recent check-up, I was discussing my insomnia with my doctor. “You should try doing something relaxing before bed,” she counseled.
“Does watching YouTube videos of people draining purulent cysts count?” I inquired.
Her response was equal parts disgust and astonishment: “You are the third person this week to tell me you watch those things!”
Our name is Legion, for we are many.
As anybody who spends even a minute online knows, gross-out videos are a thing, the dark underbelly of YouTube that counterbalances all those adorable kitten vids. The undisputed queen of the genre, dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee, boasts more than 1 million subscribers to her YouTube channel, Dr. Pimple Popper. Her vids of excising cysts, popping boils, squeezing blackheads and burning off people’s unsightly growths regularly rack up views in the tens of millions. She’s creating quite a little empire built on pus.
Probably the most renowned – dare I say revered? – video is the classic “Operation Kill George,” which takes the viewer on a magic journey of discovery, from horror to triumph, from the profane to the sublime. More prosaically, it shows about a gallon of yellow-green goo being squeezed out of some kid’s back. To date, the video has racked up nearly 22 million views.
By contrast, my own most popular video, an homage to Bruce Boxleitner’s performance as Bob Beldon in “Cedar Cove,” has garnered a paltry 1,184 views. But then, Bruce does not extrude any bodily fluids in my vid.
Also legendary is the saga of an older, shirtless gentleman named Marco at what appears to be a backyard family picnic. A woman – his daughter, perhaps; half the fun of these videos is creating a backstory for them – spends the better part of 10 minutes essentially milking the old guy’s ginormous back cyst. A crowd of children stands nearby, offering breathless commentary like a Greek chorus while the cameraman dramatically gags and retches in the background. A note of poignancy is introduced as the camera pans to a wooden cut-out of Bambi leaning against the back fence.
The popping video world is a fiercely competitive one, and its loyal viewers are discriminating and vocal critics. In the voluminous comment sections of these videos, I have seen zit pops dissected frame-by-frame like the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, with fierce arguments about whether the cyst sac was fully removed or left behind to rise again.
Armchair poppers offer advice and pass judgment on everything from the lighting to the quality of the camera work to the audio (usually people screaming, cursing and vomiting). They wax lyrical on the breathtaking drama unfolding before their eyes: “Just when you think it’s done, the evil maw spews more gunk!”
The experienced popper watcher will know the lingo, can discuss with confidence the difference between sebaceous cyst, pilar cyst, pilonidal cyst, boil, furuncle, carbuncle, dilated pore of Winer, or a plain, old zit (We call them comedones, yo). Outrage is expressed at the absence of sanitary conditions (“Where are the gloves? Can you say GANGRENE?”) but it’s all for show; everyone knows that the drunken-frat-boy-with-a-pocketknife-on-the-tailgate-of-a-pickup-truck popping video is the very BEST kind, as it’s sure to be messy. (Sandra Lee often disappoints by excising an entire cyst intact, demonstrating that her skill as a physician is not matched by cinematography acumen; we’re here for the money shot: the eruption of goo.)
So what, exactly, is the appeal of these horror films*? Daniel Kelly, author of Yuck: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust (note to self; check Amazon for Kindle version), postulates that although modern humans have insulated ourselves from the sources of disgust that our primitive ancestors encountered frequently – e.g., rotting corpses, piles of excrement – we are still programmed to respond to them. Why so many of us respond with delight is not clear.
Another researcher, Nina Strohminger (author of The Hedonics of Disgust; who knew there was a whole branch of scholarship devoted to this?), suggests that “negative sensations are interesting, particularly when you’re in a context where they can’t hurt you. You’re probably not going to step in dog shit just for the experience, but maybe you’d click on a link to watch someone else doing it.”
Um. No. Actually, I wouldn’t.
The most persuasive, and simultaneously appalling, explanation comes from our old friend Dr. Pimple Popper herself, Sandra Lee. She notes that her viewers have reported experiencing an “autonomous meridian sensory response,” described as a “pleasurable tingling sensation experienced by some in response to certain sights, sounds, and smells — or put more bluntly, an ‘orgasm of the brain.'”
Wow. I knew I was a lonely spinster, but I didn’t realize I was THAT lonely.
Dr. Lee says a lot of her viewers find the experience of watching her videos relaxing, and often enjoy them before bed to help them get to sleep.
Ha! You see, I AM normal. Perfectly, entirely normal and not at all ghoulish or depraved. I’ve got a doctor’s note to prove it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch “Herman the Cyst Won’t Be Missed” for the 100th time. (The lighting is terrible, but the spew is CHOICE.)
Read an article on this phenomenon here.