Motif of harmful sensation

From Academic Kids

The motif of harmful sensation involves harm befalling a person directly from the mere fact of their experiencing a sensation; it appears in both traditional and authored stories.

This is an idea with close affinities to the sight that harms is the gaze that harms, and the evil eye: the harm is thought to be caused by, respectively, seeing something or being seen by it. (A parallel topic is the contrast between metaphysical or vitalist conceptions that treat vision as an active function of the eye, and the scientific conception of the eye as passively receiving light that is present even when vision does not occur.)

While this motif is largely imaginary, a real-world parallel is epileptic seizures triggered by strobe lights. Light flashing at a specific frequency can "pump" EEG rhythms at the same frequency and induce an epileptic seizure in people who already have epilepsy. Real examples of this happening have included flashing screens in video games and anime.

More recently, some nonlethal weapons have used sounds to induce paralysis or extreme discomfort.


Mythology and legend

In classical mythology, anyone directly viewing Medusa would be turned to stone, but Perseus avoided this fate by viewing her in a mirror in order to guide his sword attack. In both the Odyssey and the tale of the Argonauts, the singing of the sirens drew to them, heedless of harm, any mariner who heard it; the stories describe countermeasures such as being physically restrained, plugging one's ears, and listening to even more beautiful music. Narcissus was so paralyzed at the mere sight of his beautiful reflection that he could not look away, and eventually starved.

The basilisk, dating back to classical Greek myths, has a rich tradition, sometimes including a harmful breath; fatal gazes are generally attributed both to basilisks, and to the cockatrices that may be derived from variations on basilisk tales or a female counterpart to the original basilisk. It was once believed that when the mandrake was pulled from the ground, it emitted a shriek so horrible that anyone who heard it was deafened, driven mad, or even killed. One version of the legend of the Rhine siren Lorelei says that the man who sees her loses sight of reason, while he who listens is condemned to wander with her for ever.

Legend has it that anyone who reads the whole of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights will become mad.

Belief in the harmful sensation is still developing in urban legends. In a modern twist on the old motif in mid-2004, stories became widespread in Lagos, Nigeria that answering phone calls made from a certain number would result in instant death.[1] (

In fiction

19th century

In Stendhal's 1817 Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio is outlined the so-called Stendhal syndrome.

Mark Twain's 1876 short story A Literary Nightmare concerns a notice seen on a railway car that, once heard, obsesses the hearer, who cannot forget about it until he or she repeats it to someone else.

An 1895 collection of stories by Robert W. Chambers about a fictional play (the book and the play within it are both entitled The King in Yellow) described the play cursing each of its viewers and driving many of them mad.

Early 20th century

H. P. Lovecraft, in the early 20th century, wrote in his Cthulhu Mythos stories and novels about a fictional book of magic, The Necronomicon, reading which was dangerous to both health and sanity, and of creatures, the Great Old Ones, the presence of which would drive people insane. The Mythos eventually incorporated references to The King in Yellow (see also '19th Century' above).

Clark Ashton Smith, a correspondent of Lovecraft's, wrote a story, Ubbo-Sathla (, about an age-old scrying stone that offered the protagonist addictive visions of deeper and deeper epochs of time, at the price of merging his consciousness with the previous viewer's, whose consciousness regressed to merge with ever earlier conciousnesses, each regressing in its turn, of those who had also peered into the stone through "aeons of anterior sensation" becoming increasingly primitive and devolved until nothing was left but some primordial "thing that crawled in the ooze" and "fought and ravened blindly...." After repeated viewings, helpless to resist or escape, the obsessed protagonist ceased to exist in his own time.

In 1929, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story, "The Zahir", about objects which, when seen, destroy the viewers with obsession until the point where they cannot think of anything else. The Zahir of the story was a twenty-centavo coin.


In the 1956 novel The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester, the protagonist protects himself from telepaths by learning a song so catchy that anyone who hears it will have it stuck in their head for three days.

On the syndicated television series, Science Fiction Theater, in the May 19, 1956 episode entitled "The Flicker" police detectives attempted to prove that a man had been driven to murder by the hypnotic effect of a movie flickering on the screen.

In the 1957 Arthur C. Clarke short story "The Ultimate Melody" (collected in Tales from the White Hart), a continuous computer-generated "perfect song" has the unintended consequence of completely ensnaring all listeners who fall into earshot.

Fritz Leiber's 1958 short story "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee" suggested the appearance of a rhythm and corresponding splatter painting that have contagious effects on anyone that hears them, until they have infected the entire population of the world, greatly reducing their capacity to do anything but imitate the rhythm and the forms of the painting.


J. G. Ballard's 1964 short story "The Reptile Enclosure" describes a near-future in which the launch of telecommunications satellites triggers "innate releasing mechanisms" that cause people to commit mass suicide by walking into the sea.

In Michael Crichton's 1968 novel The Andromeda Strain and its movie adaptation, an important plot point revolves around a scientist's epilepsy being triggered by a blinking red alarm light, triggering an absence seizure.

In 1969, Monty Python performed a joke-warfare sketch in which a writer produces a joke so funny that he, and anyone else who reads or hears it, dies laughing, while anyone who sees a few words requires a period of convalescence. The joke is eventually translated from English into German, one word at a time, by military authorities, and monolingual English-speakers read it by rote to the German troops they face on the battlefield, killing so many of them as to quickly end the war.

The central device of Piers Anthony's 1969 novel Macroscope is an instrument capable of viewing anywhere in the Galaxy, and which could be used for eavesdropping upon the communications of advanced civilizations. The effects of massively advanced technology in the hands of immature species were so bad that advanced civilizations permanently jammed the macroscope's "channel" with a video signal that destroyed the mind of any sufficiently intelligent viewer (those not intelligent enough to be vulnerable would be unable to use the technologies discoverable by the macroscope).


In 1977 Jerzy Skolimowski directed the horror film The Shout (based on a short story by Robert Graves) which told the story of a man who had learned (from a witch doctor) to produce a "terror shout" as he called it, that would kill anyone who heard it unprotected.

Robert McCloskey published Centerburg Tales in 1977, a collection of children's stories as a sequel to Homer Price. One of the short stories deals with a catchy juke box song that a person is compelled to sing forever, infecting other people along the way.


Christopher Cherniak's short story The Riddle of the Universe and Its Solution (appearing in The Mind's I) tells of a research project in computer science which includes content that makes anyone who views it become permanently catatonic. Only after the deadly files have had their tragic effect on a team who fetches them remotely — hoping to avoid what they believe is a normal contagious disease — is their true dangerous nature realised. Efforts to use apes to discover which part of the files has this effect fail — the deadly effect is limited to humans. There is occasionally an incubation period, in which an exposed subject is apparently unaffected; the last thing said by them, some time later, before slipping irrevocably into a coma, is "Aha!"

From 1981 to 1993, in Sam Raimi's popular trilogy of movies Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness, the Naturan Demantos or Necronomicon Ex Mortis appears as an evil book of magic; in the first Evil Dead, a recording of an academic reading from the book caused all of the character Ash's later troubles.

The 1983 film Videodrome, which stars James Woods, focuses on a series of television programs that take control of Woods' body, deforming it and bending it to an evil will that ultimately forces him to commit suicide.

In the 1985 novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami, the main character of Hard-boiled Wonderland discovers that an unanticipated malfunction of a chip in his head, set off by hearing a specific series of musical tones, will end his life as he knows it.

The first episode of the 1987 TV series Max Headroom is about blipverts, television commercials which are compressed into a few seconds. Sometimes, people who watch blipverts explode.

A number of stories by David Langford are set in a future containing images, colloquially called "basilisks", which crash the human mind by triggering thoughts that the mind is physically or logically incapable of thinking. The first of these stories was "BLIT" ( (Interzone, 1988); others include "What Happened at Cambridge IV" (Digital Dreams, 1990); "comp.basilisk FAQ" ( (Nature, 1999), and the Hugo-winning "Different Kinds of Darkness" (F&SF, 2000).


In the fifth season (1992) Star Trek:The Next Generation episode "I, Borg", the Enterprise crew capture a young Borg, dubbed "Hugh", and consider exploiting him to attack the Borg collective. The plan involves implanting him with a "virus": the plans for a geometric shape that cannot exist. When Hugh returns to the collective, he will be reassimilated and the impossible shape will obsess and destroy the entire race.

In 1992 Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash described one of the lost ancient Sumerian texts as having had the power to reprogram the reader's brain by exploiting a backdoor in language processing; as well as a digital image resembling black-and-white "snow" that can cripple the minds of computer programmers who deeply understand binary code.

In 1994 Ian McDonald's novel Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone posited "fracters", computer-generated images that variously induce religious awe, terror, ecstasy, obedience, and death.

In the 1995 film In the Mouth of Madness the works of the (fictional) horror writer Sutter Cane break through into the reality of those who read them.

In the 1995 novelette TAP (, by Greg Egan, religious and cultural groups think that a poet has been killed by a word in an all-encompassing thought-language.

Infinite Jest, a 1996 novel by David Foster Wallace, revolves around a film so entertaining that anyone who sees it is put into a stupor, from which they can never recover.

The theme also appears in the 1997 children's book Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone. The magical Mirror of Erised traps viewers by showing them their hearts' deepest desires. Total captivation is not immediate, but the sights are highly addictive, leading people to return ever more frequently and to eventually waste away.

The 1998 Japanese film Ringu depicts a video cassette which, when watched, will cause the viewer to die horribly exactly one week later. A Hollywood remake, The Ring, was released in 2002. The greatly derided horror film fear dot com (2002) used a similar idea: an evil web site that kills those who view it after 48 hours have passed.

Curse of the body spirits (, a 1998 story in Russian by Leonid Kaganov, centers around a report of a military project to create a deadly message.

In the 1998 movie Pi, the protagonist's tutor dies from a stroke induced by studying the secrets of the number pi.

In the 1999 book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Ron informs Harry that "Some of the books the Ministry [of Magic]'s confiscated... burned your eyes out. And everyone who read Sonnets of a Sorceror spoke in limericks for the rest of their lives." He goes on to mention "...a book you could never stop reading! You just had to walk around with your nose in it trying to do everything one-handed."


The 2000 fantasy novel Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville, concerns a flock of winged monsters whose wings have a hypnotic effect on those who see them.

The 2001 manga and subsequent OVA Read or Die involves a plot to recover a lost Beethoven symphony that induces compulsive and violent suicide in all listeners.

In 2002, Chuck Palahniuk's horror-satire novel Lullaby describes a "culling song", which causes the death of people who hear it (or even have it thought in their direction). In 2003, Palahniuk published the novel Diary, in which Stendhal syndrome plays a major role.

The 2002 video game Xenosaga, the Song of Nephilim could drive androids insane, and also summon beings known as the Gnosis into the universe.

The darkly humorous Flash animation "Banana Phone" is centered around the motif of harmful sensation. The "Banana Phone" clip ( (Caution: contains violence and profanity)

Ted Chiang's short story "Understand" is about a man who becomes more and more intelligent, and is ultimately destroyed by the things he sees.


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