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Natural phenomena

  • Certain sounds are known to cause specific reactions in humans for evolutionary reasons:
    • Crying babies will cause painful reactions in humans — specifically, the sound will force itself to the forefront of humans' attention, which is useful to alert them that the baby's in danger and they need to step in right away. If the baby's actually in danger, it's a darn useful phenomenon. It's less useful when it's someone else's Screaming Plane Baby, showing that evolution has some catching up to do.
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    • Cats' meows will cause humans to feel empathy. Interestingly, wild cats almost never meow unless they're really young kittens; this suggests that domesticated cats learned to do it (or at least retained the habit from kittenhood) in order to attract humans' attention. They're on to us, everyone.
    • The Nails on a Blackboard sound is believed to be particularly grating because of this phenomenon. Some suggest it's because it sounds similar to a baby in distress; others theorize that it sounds a lot like a predator of humans from prehistory (or a warning sign of that predator among humans), which alerts us to a danger that no longer exists.
    • Yawning is known to be contagious, again possibly for evolutionary reasons. Even reading about yawning can make you yawn. (Sorry about that, by the way.) It even crosses between species — it's been proven to happen between humans and dogs. One researcher embarked on a quest for "the Ultimate Yawn", something so contagious that it would be impossible to resist — his results are fascinating.
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    • The concept of "mass psychological illness" can manifest itself in this way — it's basically when human behavior becomes contagious among really stressed-out populations, so seeing a large group of people doing something causes you to join them. It's not quite the same as evolutionary responses, because there's no real reason for it and it's classified as a disease. It's particularly common among schoolchildren (particularly susceptible to stress), like the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, which caused people to laugh so hard they suffocated and died.
    • Misophonia (literally "hatred of sound") is a condition where this instinct goes very wrong, and ordinary everyday noises can trigger fight-or-flight responses that cause that can cause unexplained, full-blown anger or even violence. It's not known exactly what causes it, but it is particularly prominent in the autism spectrum.
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    • "The Hum" is heard by about 2% of the population, for whom it can be incredibly debilitating. Since most people can't hear it, it was dismissed as a symptom of mass hysteria. Speculation among some hearers that it might be caused by alien spacecraft or secret government projects didn't help. As the Internet allowed more hearers to report their experiences and a few researchers decided to take it seriously, it is now known to be real and has a variety of causes depending on location. If you hear it, you can register with The World Hum Map and Database.
  • The McCollough effect is a distortion of a viewer's ability to perceive tightly grouped horizontal and/or vertical lines, induced by around three minutes of exposure to a pair of innocuous "induction" images. Pursued for fifteen minutes, this induction can screw with a viewer's sight for up to three months.
  • Nuclear technology gone wrong can lead to people looking at critical fissionable material close-up — which can indeed be fatal. All you'll experience is a glimmer of light and a weird buzzing. It's the light itself that kills you, as it contains deadly gamma rays. It's as close to the Medusa phenomenon as you're going to get.
    • The Chernobyl disaster led to the creation of the "Elephant's Foot", a formation of reactor core lava shaped like the foot of an Eldritch Abomination. They sent in a robot to take a picture of it, but the radiation fried its circuits. A heroic Russian scientist volunteered to go down and take pictures himself (they would all be dead soon from the background exposure anyway), and he needed to take the photos using a mirror from an adjoining hallway.
    • The "Tickling the Dragon's Tail" criticality accident claimed the life of Los Alamos scientist Louis Slotin in this way; he saved the lives of seven other scientists by take the core apart himself and reduce it to sub-critical mass. The survivors claimed to have seen a blue flash, but it wasn't recorded in the video footage; it turned out to be the Cherenkov effect causing the flash in the victims' eyeballs.
  • Infrasound, or sound in frequencies below the range of human hearing, is reputed to cause anxiety and fear in those exposed to it, and in at least one case a hallucination. As such, it's speculated to be responsible for the "haunted house" phenomenon, present in the background in some form or another. It's also been proposed as a weapon of psychological warfare (as seen in Robert A. Heinlein's novel Sixth Column), and a few musicians and artists like to use it deliberately to cause discomfort in the audience (many such artists are listed on Drone of Dread). Most infamously, Gaspar Noé's notorious 2002 film Irreversible specifically includes lengthy portions of almost sub-audible 28hz frequencies on the soundtrack for the first half-hour, which the DVD sleeve proudly claims caused 200 walk-outs at the film's Cannes premiere alone.
  • Ultrasound, which is higher in frequency than human hearing, has the same phenomenon, but not as much — at least partly because people lose the ability to hear high frequencies as they get older. People who don't like teenage loiterers have weaponized the phenomenon in the form of an "anti-teenager" weapon, which supposedly caused a Brown Note effect in teenagers but not adults; teens turned it around to make their ringtones ultrasound, so that they could hear them in class without the teacher knowingnote . While ultrasound "weapons" do cause serious discomfort in those who can hear it, they can cause serious damage to even younger kids, and in babies can cause permanent hearing loss. The city of Washington, D.C. installed one at a particular Metro station with an abnormally high number of teenage gang fights.
  • Certain musical intervals are intensely unpleasant to hear, The most infamous of them is the tritone, a.k.a. diabolus in musica, Other dissonant intervals are the minor 2nd and the major 7th. If used sparingly along with mellower intervals, they allow us to write tense, emotional music (they are often encountered in blues, rock and metal, for example). Too much, and the music becomes almost painful to listen.
  • Thioacetone is considered as such a dangerous chemical not because of reactions, and not because it wrecks havoc on your systems. Its so smelly, that you can smell a single drop from hundreds of meters. Breaking Tri-thioacetone once made people nearby fall ill, and finally led to the evacuation of the whole city where the experiment was prformed.

Accidentally (or not) discovered

  • In the late 1940s, jet engines were the absolute cutting-edge of aircraft propulsion, but they had some pretty major drawbacks: Their top speed was far in excess of a conventional propeller engine but their acceleration was poor, meaning they needed a lot more runway to take off and could barely operate off an aircraft carrier. In an attempt to design something that could offer the best of both worlds, Republic Aircraft designed the XF-84H, was a turboprop version of the existing F-84F Thunderstreak whose propellers spun so fast that they generated sonic booms. It showed a certain amount of potential, but the engine was not only excruciatingly loud but put out subsonic and ultrasonic vibrations that were linked to headaches, nausea and even acute bowel discomfort suffered by the ground crews.
  • Police in the U.S. have sought to develop a weapon which they referred to as a "sonic cannon" as a riot-control device. It's designed to emit a long and powerful directional sonic burst at the exact resonance frequency of cranial fluid. Supposedly, after 10 seconds of exposure, it can knock a whole crowd of people unconscious by mimicking the effects of a severe concussion without the accompanying impact trauma (assuming, you know, that they don't get any from hitting the floor after losing consciousness). Here's its debut at the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh.
  • The Church of Scientology thought they had one, a loud organ tritone, which they tested against an Anonymous protest at "Gold Base", the Church's headquarters/armed compound in Hemet, California. It didn't work; protesters humorously dubbed it the "Gold Note", then recorded it and used it against the Scientologists at a later protest. But then they found a better "Brown Note": a recording of L. Ron Hubbard reciting the infamous Xenu story, which Scientologists say will make you sick and die if you hear it before you're "spiritually ready" (i.e. before you've paid enough to reach OT3). Playing the recording was actually quite successful in dispersing lower-level Scientologists, if not for the exact reasons the trope contemplates.
  • Some locations, known as "gravity hills", have a reputation for having strange angles which distort the background and make everything look like it's made of Alien Geometries. It's basically an illusion created largely by obstructing the horizon (thereby removing visual references for discerning the actual local inclination), making things going downhill look like they're going uphill. Places like the Oregon Vortex and Santa Cruz Mystery Spot became tourist attractions for their weirdness, and if you're not ready for it, it can actually cause brief disorientation and nausea.
  • The glass harmonica developed a reputation in the 18th century for causing both its players and listeners to go insane or die, including a report of a baby who died in its mother's arms during a show in Germany. The modern theory is that the instrument was covered in lead-based paint, and that's what was making people sick.
  • In a 1999 lecture (recounted in more detail in Last Chance To See), Douglas Adams described how the blind dolphins in the Yangtze River were suffering from human industry adding weird sounds to the river and messing with their echolocation. He and his camera crew went to Shanghai to try to record the river, and (after a frenzied search across the city for condoms), they dipped a microphone into the river to catch a sample. Adams attempted to emulate the sound for the benefit of the audience:
    Adams: PPPPFFFFFFPPPPFFFFFFTTTT. The Yangtze River, ladies and gentlemen.
  • An early security flaw in Google's "Glass" goggles (since patched) would cause them to immediately process any QR code it looked at. Hackers discovered they could easily plant QR codes in the wild that would cause unwitting users to immediately process the code and connect them to a malicious website or connect to an insecure wireless network that could spy on them.
  • There are a couple of real-world examples of books or artworks which pose a hazard to viewers because of their physical properties:
    • The notorious limited editions of Fahrenheit 451 and Firestarter which were bound in asbestos as publicity stunts, before the hazards of the material were fully appreciated. It is now recommended that they be stored in plastic bags and handled as little as possible.
    • The original lab notebooks of Marie Curie are so radioactively contaminated that anybody wishing to handle them must wear protective clothing.
    • Ai Weiwei's "Sunflower Seeds", an installation consisting of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds spread across a gallery floor. Original plans to allow visitors to walk on the seeds were abandoned after warnings from occupational health experts that it could lead to gallery employees inhaling dangerous quantities of ceramic dust.

Probably just coincidence

A good work of art is designed to move the audience, and sometimes they can move the audience in unconventional ways:

  • Fast-moving images on TV, such as the Shaky Cam or poorly done 3D effects, can cause headaches and motion sickness — and depending on what it's footage of, it can also make people oddly susceptible to whatever threat the footage seems to present:
    • The Blair Witch Project made prolific use of the Shaky Cam, which caused many moviegoers to suffer from headaches and motion sickness, which may have been fodder for Paranoia Fuel and heightened the film's creepy nature.
    • Avatar caused several people to walk out of the film suffering from motion sickness after watching it in 3D, which is normal. What's not normal is for the film's blue tint to cause depression and suicidal thoughts, and one man apparently died from over-excitement.
    • The BBC revamped its nationwide weather forecast to a 3D map that moved and changed focus quickly, causing viewers to complain of nausea and disorientation. It also meant that when people saw the blue rain map superimposed on the country, it looked startlingly like a tsunami, and people started ringing up the BBC asking if they were all about to die.
  • When The Beach Boys were recording their album Smile, one of the songs was a rather creepy instrumental called "Fire" or "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"note . To get the atmosphere in the studio right, the band wore toy fireman's helmets and lit a firepot to emit smoke. That night, a building down the street caught fire and burned to the ground, and the rest of the summer was punctuated by a Heat Wave that caused an unusual number of fires to break out in Los Angeles. Brian Wilson, believing that There Are No Coincidences, was so freaked out that he buried the tracks in a vault, went into seclusion for decades, and refused to finish the album until 2004. Listen to it here.
  • The Rite of Spring has this reputation; its debut in 1913 caused a near-riot in the audience, for reasons that even now remain unclear. It's theorized that for its fairly restrained day, the experience might just have been too unsettling and evocative for the unprepared audience to handle.
  • A 1991 news article reported that a woman suffered epileptic seizures upon hearing the voice of Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart. This was so funny and weird that an episode of Seinfeld had Kramer suffer from the phenomenon.
  • The Pokémon episode "Electric Soldier Porygon" is notorious for an effect in which repetitive red and blue flashes triggered epileptic seizures in viewers, with 685 children being taken to hospitals complaining for blurred vision, headaches, dizziness, and nausea; a few even had seizures, blindness, convulsions, and loss of consciousness. The episode was pulled from circulation, video game started adding safety warnings not to watch the TV too closely and in dim light, and the strobe effect now legally cannot be used. But this only was an issue for people prone to seizures; many of the hospital cases were traced more to hysterical media coverage (which also played the offending clip for everyone to get exposed to). The coverage was so famous that it was parodied in several places:
    • The episode of The Simpsons where the family travels to Japan had them catch a show called Battling Seizure Robots, with the expected result.
    • In Drawn Together, Ling-Ling (a parody of Pikachu) proudly exclaims his motivation for participating in the show thus:
      Ling-Ling: I come to destroy all! And give children seizure!
    • The South Park episode "Chinpokomon", which spoofs the Pokémon fad, has the boys watch an episode of Chinpokomon, only for Kenny to suffer a seizure.
  • Some people have died of laughteri.e., they watch something so funny that they suffer a fatal heart attack.
    • In 1975, a British man died of a heart attack watching the "Ecky Thump" episode of The Goodies. His widow wrote to the producers to thank them for making her husband's final moments so happy.
    • In 1989, a Danish audiologist died from watching A Fish Called Wanda. The film made him laugh so hard that his heart lethally beat upwards up 500 beats a minute. Proof that Monty Python really did know a lethal joke all along, then.
  • The Frank Sinatra song "My Way" has this reputation in the Philippines, with an urban legend suggesting it's responsible for 70% of karaoke bar fights, some of them fatal. The real problem is that it's such an extraordinarily popular song that people are tired of it, so impatient patrons will attack someone who not only has the gall to sing it, but sucks at it as well. That said, there's a legend of a guy (named Frank) who sang "My Way" at a karaoke bar in Singapore and was supposedly so nervous he dropped dead of a heart attack immediately afterward — on the same date as Sinatra's death.
  • The infamous "Blaster Beam" musical instrument, most notably employed in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and by Japanese musician Kitaro, is reputed to cause female audience members a... climactic degree of stimulation. It's probably coincidence or placebo, and it's definitely only a thing in live performances (so a copy of Star Trek won't help you there).
  • Certain fields of science and math are said to be so weird and amazing that people who study them too closely go insane.
    • Statistical mechanics is infamous for the number of famous suicides among the scientific founders. One text book has this as the opening paragraph:
      Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the same work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics. Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously.
    • Several of the founders of modern metamathematics — George Cantor and Kurt Gödel being the two most notable — suffered from serious mental problems. Cantor's studies of orders of infinity straight-up led to him being institutionalized in his later years. Makes sense, given how the field includes such gems as "there are as many rational fractions as there are counting numbers, but there are more numbers between 0 and 1 than there are rational fractions." This lead to the idea of the "Black Theorem", a mathematical result that, once proven, drives the prover insane. There's even a BBC documentary.
    • The simple fact that 0.999... = 1 is a mild, yet common Brown Note among mathematics newbies, just from the mind-blowing simplicity — and counterintuitiveness — of the phenomenon.
    • The book Murderous Maths by British author Kjartan Poskitt had a rather... intimidating prospect near the end, once it had taught the reader all the basics of mathematics. It came in the form of a very complicated, yet reasonable formula which straight-up proved that any number is equal to zero. Cue collapse of time-space continuum. At least, until you realize that the proof asks you at one point to essentially Divide by Zero — meaning the whole proof is one final joke to test the reader.
  • The short story "Guts", part of the Haunted anthology by Chuck Palahniuk, has this reputation. Over 60 people are said to have fainted during readings of the book, a phenomenon Palahniuk himself discusses here. Interestingly, Palahniuk thinks "Guts" is far from the scariest story in the book.
  • The Sorrows of Young Werther has a reputation of inducing suicidal thoughts in its readers. Its protagonist indeed eventually commits suicide out of unrequited love, so there were a number of copycat suicides, but just because the character resonated a little too well among lovesick young men. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had to add a brief warning to later editions: "Be a man, and do not follow me!"
  • The Indian classical pieces of music known as "raga" are said to produce strange effects when played in certain conditions. A story tells of the 16th century musician Tansen who, singing before the skeptical emperor Akbar, set himself (and the surrounding palace) in fire by merely singing the raga "Deepak". His daughter came to the rescue by singing the rain raga "Megh Malhar" to extinguish the flames. One researcher noted that the musicians still avoid performing the "Deepak".

Straight-up Urban Legends

  • The "Wyoming Incident" refers to a supposed TV signal hijacking that took place in 2006. It featured ominous music, disembodied heads, and eerie, sometimes oddly inspiring text appearing on the screen. The footage was said to be "cursed" and to cause vomiting and hallucinations in its viewers. The broadcast was slowly leaked piecemeal online by members of "the Happy Cube", supposedly an occultist forum, which invited users to join a text-based "game" to discover the truth behind the hijacking. The whole thing turned out to be a prank started on Something Awful, which went completely off the rails and turned out to be so unnerving that even when they came clean, many people refused to believe it. Viewers really were watching the video for hours on end and developed a strange set of religious beliefs regarding it. Prank or not, some people think it really is cursed and won't touch it.
  • Pokémon Red and Blue were subject to an Urban Legend of Zelda that the original version of the Lavender Town music had such prominent ultrasound frequencies that it caused suicidal tendencies, hallucinations, and all sorts of other things. It was a regular feature in Creepypasta about the game. While the original Japanese Green version did have uncomfortably high tones which were removed for later releases, they only caused minor discomfort, not suicidal thoughts.
  • "Mereana Mordegard Glesgorv" was a video that briefly went viral on GameFAQs in 2008; it would supposedly cause you to go insane, tear your own eyes out, and commit suicide. Then people discovered that the creepy guy in the video was a tech support worker from Florida, and the hype mostly died down.
  • The song "Gloomy Sunday", sung originally by Hungarian musician Rezső Seress in 1933 but later translated into several languages, has a reputation for causing people who hear it to turn suicidal, fueled by the song's depressing-sounding music and Seress's own suicide in 1968. It became known in popular culture as the "Hungarian suicide song", was blamed for a number of suicides, and was subject to an Urban Legend saying it was banned by "the authorities". One performance in Paris parodied the phenomenon when all the members of the orchestra interrupted the performance to fake committing suicide.
  • Polybius is an arcade game that doesn't exist but supposedly had Brown Note qualities. The legend says that players would become addicted to it and suffer stress, insomnia, nightmares, and suicidal tendencies — and also that shady men in black would frequently visit locations that hosted the game. Some believe that the rumors originated from an early defective version of a Tempest arcade game that caused problems with epilepsy and motion sickness.
  • Recordings of binaural beats are said to create a powerful brainwave stimulation which simulates the effects of recreational drugs. They became popular among teenagers looking to get high, who paid high amounts of money for "doses" on the Internet (when you can make them for free with audio editing freeware, but whatever).
  • The total absence of sound is reputed to be able to drive you crazy. While it's true that a specially constructed "anechoic chamber" can reduce ambient noise to -9 decibelsnote , which is quiet enough that you can hear your organs working. The urban legend is that no one has been able to remain inside such a chamber for 45 minutes, but you get used to it.
  • When locomotives were first becoming popular, there was a myth that something so fast would be destructive to witness, curdling milk, blighting fields, and driving people to madness. The panic was prevalent enough that there were plans to build walls around train tracks so no one would ever have the misfortune of witnessing something so awful. Needless to say, this wasn't true.
  • The script for the never-made film Atuk is said to have caused the deaths of six celebrities who have read it: John Belushi, Sam Kinison, John Candy, Michael O'Donoghue, Chris Farley, and Phil Hartman.


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