There has never been a better time in human history to be a sick, demented bastard who likes watching people remove enormous gobs of earwax from the inner reaches of their ear canals.
You can go on YouTube right now and find scores of these disgusting videos. Watch enough of them, and you’ll soon be introduce to a wider array of body horror — back cysts 30 years in the making; people squeezing blackheads the size of a dime; in-grown hairs that go for days; entire channels dedicated to dermatologists popping blemishes; bloody boogers that require surgical removal; and people removing tonsil stones, a type of bodily malfunction I didn’t even know existed until today.
It’s all extremely gross. And I love it.
The more disgusting, the better. I want to see a blackhead so long and large it makes me question God’s benevolence. I want to see earwax buildup so severe it extends out of the person’s ear and is visible while staring them in the face. I want YouTube videos so foul they simultaneously confirm my pre-existing belief that the human body is, at its core, a soggy, no-good meatsack, and make me rethink the limits of what’s physically possible. Apparently so do millions of other sickos just like me. Because in just a few years, body-extraction videos have become one of the most popular categories on YouTube.
The fascination seems to have begun six years ago, with the August 24, 2011, video “HUGE CYST EXTRACTION.” The four-minute clip features a shirtless man, presumably named Gary, getting a cyst drained in what appears to be his garage. The description of the video is a poorly-worded, but nonetheless accurate warning that the video is “NOT FOR THE WEAK STOMACH.” The cyst is prodigious and brimming with pus — so much so that it erupts with creamy, off-white liquid the moment it’s lanced. The woman in the video then spends a fair amount of time squeezing the remaining pus out of the abcess. Based on the comments of the people in the background, this isn’t the first time Gary has undergone this at-home procedure.
Less than a year after Gary’s cyst removal, which today has nearly 37 million views, a similar video was posted to YouTube with the title: “BIGGEST CYST ON THE PLANET | Operation ‘Kill George.’” The poster had been carrying a sebaceous cyst on his back for 20 years, and had grown so attached to it that he named it George. But the video marks the end of George, as a team of doctors slice open the cyst and drain and clean the infected orifice.
The original “Kill George” video has 25 million viewers, but the video has been ripped and reuploaded hundreds of times, so its actual view count is many millions higher, making it one of the most popular (and infamous) body extraction videos in internet history. “Kill George” is so legendary that it even inspired a YouTube tribute video.
Even George, though, didn’t explode quite like the aptly named Dr. Pimple Popper (real name: Dr. Sandra Lee), the dermatologist who’s garnered 3.6 million YouTube followers with videos of her removing blackheads, whiteheads, cysts and other blemishes at her dermatology practice in Southern California. Lee, in fact, has grown so popular that she’s managed to parlay her YouTube success into her own reality TV show on TLC.
“Popping” videos then begot earwax extraction videos — though the audience for earwax appears to be inherently smaller than that for zits. Mr. Neel Raithatha (aka “The Wax Whisperer”) owns YouTube’s foremost earwax extraction channel, and his most popular videos have been viewed more than 2 million times. His work involves placing a tiny camera in the patient’s ear canal as he vacuums and scrapes away the wax, giving an up-close-and-personal view of the person’s impacted earwax, as if the audience were on a Magic School Bus adventure. (The videos also have no sound, which makes them eerily pleasant.) Still, he has a measly 55,000 YouTube subscribers to Dr. Pimple Popper’s millions.
Trust me when I say that my affection for the Wax Whisperer and Dr. Pimple Popper isn’t just some boyish fascination with what’s gross and taboo (although that’s part of it). I receive a genuine calming effect when I watch such videos. They soothe my hurried mind in much the same way, say, chopping vegetables or cutting the grass does for others. I imagine the relief a person must feel when a 30-year cyst is drained, and I feel a similar release wash over me.
As for the science behind this serenity, the prevailing theory is extraction videos trigger what’s known as an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a feeling of visceral relief when experiencing certain sights and sounds. The feelings are especially intense for people who struggle with depression and anxiety.
“Distraction is one of the more reliable ways in the short term to cope with feeling anxious and to relax,” Lauren Hallion, psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and head of the university’s Mechanisms of Anxiety Lab, told Today earlier this year about ASMR YouTube videos. “If people are paying attention to the video and the sounds and sensations, they aren’t able to dwell on the things that bother them.”
Indeed, many of Dr. Pimple Popper’s fans say her videos help them de-stress, particularly before before bed. Lee has even created blackhead extraction videos set to calming music for the expressed purpose of helping her fans fall asleep.
On the evolutionary psychology tip, pimple popping and ear extraction are vestiges of a distant past when our primate forbears used to groom one another’s hair and skin. “We still do use those classic primate grooming actions,” Robin Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, tells Inverse. “We really do see it very commonly with mothers sort of fiddling with the hair of their children… And they’ll be kind of flicking through it, and so on. And, of course, more extensively beyond that, it does get into pimple popping.”
Another explanation is we have a counterintuitive attraction to images that revolt us. Daniel Kelly, philosophy professor at Purdue University and author of the book Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust, says we have an evolutionary aversion to bacteria, viruses and other organisms that cause disease. And that aversion extends to markers of infection, such as pus and other bodily excretions. Our disgust with those sights is part of our innate desire to stay alive and continue the species.
But disgust also gives us a cheap thrill, especially when we can view disgusting acts from the safety of a computer screen. “Disgust is multifaceted,” Kelly tells me. “You make that yuck face. You get that flash of nausea and emotional frisson, but you also tend to keep an eye on whatever it is that triggered your disgust. Disgusting things attract and capture attention.
“That’s why these videos get so many hits: Watching them triggers this psychological system, and you get a little charge of emotion. The valence may be aversive, but only a little, and for whatever reason, people sometimes like negatively valenced feelings in little doses (spicy foods are a mild chemical burn, for instance, or the pleasant burning of muscles after a long jog or hard workout).”
To that, I say, bring on the negative valence.