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Reading this post will destroy your soul
October 4, 2011 10:57 AM   Subscribe

The Motif of Harmful Sensation (or as TV Tropes calls it, the Brown Note) is a recurring idea in literature: physical or mental damage that a person suffers merely by experiencing what should normally be a benign sensation. The phenomenon appears in both traditional and modern stories.

Previously.

Other canonical examples:
Infinite Jest, in which the title film is so entertaining that the viewer can no longer think about anything else.

Polybius, the legendary arcade game that caused insanity. Dramatized here.(NSFW and terrifying)

Videodrome, in which videotapes of snuff films cause hallucinations and horrifying transformations. Awesome/Cheesy 80s trailer.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, in which a perfume maker finds the perfect scent and tries to recreate it, with violent results. Also a film and a Nirvana song.
posted by modernserf (87 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ah, fond memories of the Borland Turbo C++ manual. (There was a note in the docs for the speaker control function that said 7 Hz was the resonant frequency of a chicken's skull and that you could kill chickens with 7 Hz tones).
posted by GuyZero at 11:00 AM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: so entertaining that the viewer can no longer think about anything else
posted by lalochezia at 11:00 AM on October 4, 2011 [11 favorites]


This is also the plot-driver of about 8 or 9 episodes of Fringe.
posted by Artw at 11:02 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Man, I was so collecting examples of this when they deleted the wikipedia entry. This is one of my favorite fictional tropes. Cool post.
posted by penduluum at 11:02 AM on October 4, 2011


Wasn't there a Zork (or some other Infocom) game that featured a couch which was so comfortable that it killed you because your character sat in it until they died?
posted by griphus at 11:02 AM on October 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


That Perfume reference is a bit of a major spoiler, no?
posted by randomination at 11:02 AM on October 4, 2011


Calling all electronics/audio savvy MeFites. Let's say I want to build a feraliminal lycanthropizer. How?
posted by Artw at 11:03 AM on October 4, 2011


I was always fond of Monty Python's take on the subject.
posted by Dmenet at 11:05 AM on October 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


This reminds me of Diarmuid's Last Jest, which was from an April Fool's article in Dragon Magazine. It's not quite the same thing, as the purported bad effects only happen to D&D characters, not D&D players, but it's still a fun read.
posted by Malor at 11:09 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Related: The Zahir by Borges.
posted by murphy slaw at 11:09 AM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


And Ringu, of course.
posted by empath at 11:15 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


@randomination I think the title "story of a murderer" implies violence. Note I didn't say to whom.
posted by modernserf at 11:19 AM on October 4, 2011


Oh man, I sure did love the novel Perfume. Although The King In Yellow is still my favorite example of this.

Surprised that Zalgo isn't mentioned in the Wikipedia link; that always kind of struck me as the subtext of it, that if one speaks of him, then i̶͇͔͓̗͍̭ͬͦ͊̑̅ͅẗ͍ͪ̽ͦ͆͗ ̈͛͋͒ẉ̣͎̫͗̈́̂ͤ̎̿o̧͇͇̲̖̔̿ͬͧu̙͍̫ͪ̀l̖d̖̹͓̯̘ͨͨ b̶̫͛ͯr̗̆͘i̡ͣ̃̾̓ň̷̪͍ͭͮġ̗̗͉̹̬͐ͣ͠ ̠̱̰̯̻́h͓͇̍ͨ͗̀̚i̝̥͈̍̊̐m͔̦̝͓̙̔͐͘
posted by Greg Nog at 11:24 AM on October 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


Great post. I had asked about this two years ago and am glad to see new examples that weren't listed there, including Polybius.
posted by allen.spaulding at 11:24 AM on October 4, 2011


From the Wikipedia page for the composer Alexander Scriabin:

For some time before his death he had planned a multi-media work to be performed in the Himalayas Mountains, that would cause a so-called "armageddon", "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world".[10] Scriabin left only sketches for this piece, Mysterium, although a preliminary part, named L'acte préalable ("Preparatory Action") was eventually made into a performable version by Alexander Nemtin.

And:

Scriabin considered his last music to be fragments of an immense piece to be called Mysterium. This seven-day-long megawork would be performed at the foothills of the Himalayas in India, after which the world would dissolve in bliss. Bells suspended from clouds would summon spectators. Sunrises would be preludes and sunsets codas. Flames would erupt in shafts of light and sheets of fire. Perfumes appropriate to the music would change and pervade the air. At the time of his death, Scriabin left 72 orchestral-size pages of sketches for a preliminary work Prefatory Action, intended to "prepare" the world for the apocalyptic ultimate masterpiece.
posted by stonepharisee at 11:25 AM on October 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


Everything Lovecraft ever wrote.
posted by gurple at 11:28 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


physical or mental damage that a person suffers merely by experiencing what should normally be a benign sensation

I get this from reality TV.
posted by quin at 11:28 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


FNORD
posted by Artw at 11:30 AM on October 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


What about the Screen Gems logo?
posted by Brodiggitty at 11:31 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Let's say I want to build a feraliminal lycanthropizer.

Rather than what amounts to a tone generator, based on that name, it should be something a lot more akin to a machine that converts people into uncontrollable werewolves,

In my house we call that The Device.

It's not to be used outside of house-parties and body disposal.
posted by quin at 11:34 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Or the WGBH logo.

*shudder* Make the bad sound stop!
posted by zombieflanders at 11:36 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


How did Artw post a blank comment?
posted by gurple at 11:36 AM on October 4, 2011 [19 favorites]


Reading that wikipedia entry might be the thing that led me to read The King in Yellow, actually, which I cannot recommend highly enough. In case anybody here hasn't read it.

I was struck reading it by how eerily modern it seemed, much more so than Lovecraft. It felt like a present-day writer affecting the voice of someone writing at the turn of the century, which made reading it even more unsettling and powerful. It's not often that you read books a hundred years after they're written and realize that they're probably a lot better now than they were then; I can think of about three. It's one of those books that hit me so hard, I can remember where I was sitting the first time I opened it.
posted by penduluum at 11:38 AM on October 4, 2011 [15 favorites]


At a scifi convention I went to years ago, I was randomly thumbing through old books on a dealer table and picked up a 1st edition of The King In Yellow signed by the publisher. It had a price of several thousand dollars. I was surprised he just had it sitting on the shelf for anybody to pick up.
posted by empath at 11:43 AM on October 4, 2011


It's a fine book, but the play is REALLY cool.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:45 AM on October 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


You should hear Eric Zann's opera based on the play!
posted by Artw at 11:45 AM on October 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Z̟͚͈̼̒͑ͮ̆̂ͨ̚͞͡Ḁ̪̐͑̕L̸̙̞̫͎̽ͥ͒̒ͪ̕͝ͅG̴̛̱͉͈̜̈͋Ȏͨ͗͒̅̈ͧ͘͟͏̙̖̣̩̫̭͔̳!̝͙̣̞͑̄
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:47 AM on October 4, 2011


let's not forget stravinsky's "the rite of spring". does that count in this context? it's certainly one of my favorite stories of how art can get into your head and poke around in strange ways (even if perhaps now remembered as more extreme than it really was).
posted by rude.boy at 11:52 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


See also Stendhal Syndrome.
posted by kmz at 11:54 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


or does the rite of spring not count because it actually happened?
posted by rude.boy at 11:54 AM on October 4, 2011


I dunno, but I love Classical music riots.
posted by Artw at 11:54 AM on October 4, 2011


Of course, mostly they are just Dylan goes Electric in a tux.
posted by Artw at 11:55 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: so entertaining that the viewer can no longer think about anything else


I think you mean "TVTropes: so entertaining that the viewer can no longer think about anything else"

I spend HOURS on that page, when i was just looking for some page on one thing, then linked pages, and down the spiral... hmm... may have to go there now...
posted by usagizero at 11:55 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I continue my efforts to perfect the elusive "brown comment"...

PPPPPPPPPPPPPffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffpppppmfmmfpmfpmppppppppppp

Did it work?
posted by nathancaswell at 12:04 PM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


neat - I'm downloading the librivox King in Yellow now
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:04 PM on October 4, 2011


Can we include "Chess" in the "bores to death" category?
posted by happyroach at 12:09 PM on October 4, 2011


Be careful not to sing The Song.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:09 PM on October 4, 2011


Malor: I've played a session that was based around that story! Nice to know where it comes from.

Other examples include Chuck Pahlaniuk's Lullaby, the Stephen King short story, "Everything's Eventual," and of course this.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:25 PM on October 4, 2011


I remember finding the Wikipedia entry for this after reading about the China Mieville story "Entry Taken From A Medical Encyclopaedia." I believe the Wikipedia title was "The Myth of Harmful Perception."

At the time, I worked a phone-based tech support job that often involved being called and yelled at by very angry, very old alumni and professors emeritus of the school at which it was located. Threats of legal action were not uncommon, and we were sometimes asked to intervene in cases of affiliates using their email addresses to mass-mail paranoid rants about things like how the homosexual agenda had caused World War II, which I'm sure also didn't win us any favors among certain segments of the population.

Shortly after reading the article, I realized that if such a thing existed, I would almost certainly one day pick up the phone to find a retired classics professor telling me the Unspeakable Word in revenge for making him include special characters in his email password.
posted by Tubalcain at 12:26 PM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


The example that always comes to mind for me is Kate Bush's 'Experiment 4'.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:32 PM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Other canonical examples:
Infinite Jest, in which the title film is so entertaining that the viewer can no longer think about anything else.

Polybius, the legendary arcade game that caused insanity. Dramatized here.(NSFW and terrifying)

Videodrome, in which videotapes of snuff films cause hallucinations and horrifying transformations. Awesome/Cheesy 80s trailer.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, in which a perfume maker finds the perfect scent and tries to recreate it, with violent results. Also a film and a Nirvana song.




Dubstep.

That is all.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:32 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Malor: I've played a session that was based around that story! Nice to know where it comes from.

Neat! Yep, Dragon Magazine, April 1982. All these years later, I remember it by name, even though I never used it in any way.

At the risk of derailing this thread a bit, what did your DM do with it?
posted by Malor at 12:37 PM on October 4, 2011


I continue my efforts to perfect the elusive "brown comment"...

The mods can provide you with a sample of several thousand comments which cause mental disorders in otherwise sane people.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:38 PM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Almost, but not quite, like the Euthansia Coaster.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:43 PM on October 4, 2011


penduluum, you have totally sold me on The King in Yellow. I'll be downloading it from Gutenberg as soon as I get home.

(...if it kills me somehow, I WILL BE BACK FOR YOU.)
posted by theatro at 12:45 PM on October 4, 2011


Hmm.. I vaguely recall a novel where a guy was trying to drive his roommate crazy. He would always leave an open medical textbook on his roommate's pillow. So that way, the last things the roommate would see before he went to sleep were the color photographs from the book "Wound Ballistics."

I wish I could remember what novel that was.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:48 PM on October 4, 2011


The TV Tropes list fails to include the "Please Mr. Postman" episode of Cheers wherein "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" turns Rebecca into Backseat Becky. (And then Phil gets a giant stack of quarters for the jukebox.)
posted by Madamina at 12:49 PM on October 4, 2011


Other canonical examples:
Infinite Jest, in which the title film is so entertaining that the viewer can no longer think about anything else.


Also, the James O. Incandenza film The Medusa vs. the Odalisque.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:51 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The TV Tropes list fails to include the "Please Mr. Postman" episode of Cheers wherein "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" turns Rebecca into Backseat Becky. (And then Phil gets a giant stack of quarters for the jukebox.)

Or the Seinfeld episode where Elaine's boyfriend is hypnotized every time he hears "Desperado."

I think songs and their effects on characters should be a trope of its own. Or perhaps Hypnotizing Triggers, e.g. the Manchurian Candidate's queen of diamonds.

Does the effect need to be permanent to be a Brown Note?
posted by mrgrimm at 12:57 PM on October 4, 2011


Reading that wikipedia entry might be the thing that led me to read The King in Yellow, actually, which I cannot recommend highly enough. In case anybody here hasn't read it.

WARNING: Only the first three or four stories are what you're expecting. The remainder is hideously, horrifyingly SANE. Actually, pretty schmoopy.
posted by JHarris at 12:59 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


mister Mazzy's missing mister mazzy's missing miss mazz miss miss

eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
posted by benzenedream at 1:01 PM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is also the plot-driver of about 8 or 9 episodes of Fringe.

FTFY
posted by ancillary at 1:01 PM on October 4, 2011


My favorite example of this (or at least most fondly remembered from youth) is a short story in which a chess master turns half his hair white from researching eldritch patterns which he uses to defeat his opponents through madness.
posted by thedaniel at 1:03 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


BTW, addressing the Lovecraft references, I think in most Mythos stories it is a more profound thing that drives people insane, not arbitrary noises or sights but what they signify. Lovecraft never presented the Necronomicon as anything other than an ordinary book -- it was what was written in it that could derange the mind, and that only because it was true.
posted by JHarris at 1:04 PM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Actually, pretty schmoopy.

AAAAAAAAAGH WHAT I HAVE SEEN CANNOT BE UNSEEEEEEEEN
posted by theatro at 1:08 PM on October 4, 2011


In Howard Chaykin's excellent American Flagg! Plexus Ranger Reuben Flagg is the only person who can see the subliminal messages inserted into the Bob Violence television show, due to his Martian diet. At the conclusion of each episode, the sublims cause the Go Gangs (violent motorcycle clubs) to attack the Chicago Plexmall. Great stuff, and a very prescient series, at least for the first 18 or so issues.
posted by Scoo at 1:13 PM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


The TV Tropes list fails to include the "Please Mr. Postman" episode of Cheers wherein "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" turns Rebecca into Backseat Becky.

I think songs and their effects on characters should be a trope of its own.

Doh. ... Magic Music.

Plexus Ranger Reuben Flagg is the only person who can see the subliminal messages inserted into the Bob Violence television show.

Would that not be You Cannot Grasp the True Form (or Only Sane Man ... or The Chosen One ... or Mass Hypnosis ... or See Thru Specs ... or ...)?
posted by mrgrimm at 1:26 PM on October 4, 2011


WARNING: Only the first three or four stories are what you're expecting. The remainder is hideously, horrifyingly SANE. Actually, pretty schmoopy.

It's true, but I didn't want to tell anybody. When I read the book, I didn't actually know this. As a result, I read the second two-thirds of the book just waiting for the horror to come. I expected that at any moment the doofy romantic story would be interrupted by one of the principals stumbling into a secret room, walls unnaturally warm and paneled with bronze and jet, where a thin reedy (but still definitely human) whining could be heard, just beneath the floor ...

This probably helped the experience of reading for me immensely. But yeah I still think the four first stories are incredibly good.
posted by penduluum at 1:27 PM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh! That would have been awesome actually.
posted by JHarris at 1:37 PM on October 4, 2011


No, no, no. THIS is the brown note.
posted by Mcable at 1:41 PM on October 4, 2011


Weird, this is the first I had ever heard of the Polybius story. Sweet.
posted by joe lisboa at 1:47 PM on October 4, 2011


/stimulates pineal gland.
posted by Artw at 1:50 PM on October 4, 2011


Yeah, love has done that to me a few times.
posted by Decani at 2:07 PM on October 4, 2011


(that wasn't your pineal gland)
posted by nathancaswell at 2:10 PM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Let's not forget the PowerPoint presentation that will turn you into a zombie.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 2:15 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Now I want to have weird sex with Deborah Harry's mefi avatar.
posted by clvrmnky at 2:19 PM on October 4, 2011


*ctrl+f Snow Crash*
*ctrl+f The Yellow Wallpaper*

Also although El Zahir is mentioned, I think Borges's other short story El Aleph sort of does this in a roundabout (and pretty cool IMHO) way. Come to think of it I'd say a lot of Borges's works deal with this concept in some way or another.

Good stuff.
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:13 PM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ambrose Bierce's "The Suitable Surroundings" is one I've written about (a ghost story that kills in the proper setting). The movie, _La Fin Absolute del Mond_ in John Carpenter's film _Cigarette Burns_ is another example.
posted by LucretiusJones at 3:44 PM on October 4, 2011


Off hand, my favorite example is in Lansdale's Short story "It Washed Up." Although Mr. King sure seems fond of it as well.

Let us not forget a song (NSFW) that impregnates women.
posted by Gygesringtone at 4:14 PM on October 4, 2011


There was a sci fi short story, I think it was called "Blink", about a sort of pattern that people would spray paint onto walls or unroll as posters and run away, which caused a sort of fractal version of it to uncoil in the brain.. it was called "The Parrot" and even exposure to half-glimpsed images of it would eventually prove fatal. But all my attempts to Google it etc just get references to the "Blink" book written by someone else entirely. I keep meaning to spend and AskMe on it but now I'm cheating here.
posted by The otter lady at 4:57 PM on October 4, 2011


You're perhaps thinking of the comp.basilisk FAQ (which I was, incidentally, just about to mention anyway)?
posted by NMcCoy at 5:05 PM on October 4, 2011


This is one of my favorite literary device, because it can be unnervingly creepy when done well. Used to great effect in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station.
posted by polywomp at 6:42 PM on October 4, 2011


There was a sci fi short story, I think it was called "Blink", about a sort of pattern...

Close; it's called BLIT.
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:55 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I got this when I tried going to two dance music festivals. I would literally get panic attacks. Same thing when I listened to local indie/electro radio for too long. I theorized that it was because the music didn't have an obvious emotional content, but it was probably just random anxiety attacks.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:37 PM on October 4, 2011


Everything Lovecraft ever wrote.

You're joking, but a few years ago back in New England I picked up a volume of the Annotated Lovecraft at a musty bookstore. I kept it with me but never really read it, and during my last move I stashed it on my little brother's bookshelf. A few months later he's making his own Lovecraft videos and drawings, and he's not the only one infected.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:38 PM on October 4, 2011


The first day I started working at TV station SBS I had to deliver 13 copies of The Ring on videotape to another department.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:47 PM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


meziphiltre: the resonant frequency of a chicken's skull
posted by ovvl at 7:57 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


LIB - so YOU were the one who did that?

Bastard.
posted by cerulgalactus at 8:35 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


fletch owns
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:16 PM on October 4, 2011


Nyan cat is one of these things, right?

On a more serious note, I'm going to track down those Borges stories for sure.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:17 PM on October 4, 2011


I can vouch for "The Aleph," it's good.
posted by JHarris at 12:33 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


There was a small series of Hellraiser comics based around the idea of the various alternate gateways to hell that existed, other than the Lament Configuration from the movies.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean had the best entry, with "Wordsworth", about a crossword-puzzle fanatic who finally finds a puzzle that's up to his level of skill. As he goes down the list of clues, they become more difficult, and then leave the realm of general knowledge for very specific knowledge, such as "What does the London Society for Cannibalism serve as the final course at their monthly dinner meetings?" or "What will be the final dying word of Mr. Arthur Hampshire, of 324 South Paulson Drive, after being stabbed to death by an unknown assailant?" And of course he goes more and more insane as he's compelled to go and find out these ghastly bits of information, until finally he fills in the last answer, and the Cenobites come and get him.
posted by rifflesby at 3:55 AM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Oh, and now that I think about it, there was also a group of supervillians in Peter Milligan's Vertigo miniseries The Enigma called The Interior League, who would break into peoples' houses at night and rearrange the furniture in such a way that one of the residents, upon seeing the change, would snap and murder the rest of the family.
posted by rifflesby at 4:05 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think songs and their effects on characters should be a trope of its own.

Musical Trigger.
posted by stebulus at 11:51 AM on October 5, 2011


Just wanted to come back and say that thanks to this post I've now read Perfume as well as The King in Yellow. I loved them and I'm very grateful to have added both to my library. Thanks, modernserf and Greg Nog.
posted by komara at 4:11 PM on October 17, 2011


Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean had the best entry, with "Wordsworth"

All of those has the exact same plot ("I have become obsessed by Thing X! Oh noes, it is a Lament Configuration!"), but that is by far the best iteration of it.
posted by Artw at 4:17 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Man, Pontypool, what an amazing movie.
posted by Artw at 10:24 AM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


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