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True crime. Casually done.

The Titanic PCP Incident

It’s not easy being the internet’s top true crime analyst (citation needed). All those long hours spent dissecting cold cases can end up taking over your every waking thought. But life’s not all about murders and disappearances. Sometime you have to take a break from all that and… I dunno — go do drugs on a boat with James Cameron. 

And that’s exactly where I’m taking you today. In this Casual Criminalist short, we’ll be examining one of the most peculiar unsolved mysteries in Hollywood history; its victims, some of the biggest A-listers of the 1990s. This is the case of the Great Titanic PCP Spiking of 1996.

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On Set

In the late evening of August 8th, 1996, the cast and crew of James Cameron’s Titanic were well into their final stint of filming in Nova Scotia, Canada. After wrapping up this leg of the production, the plan was to travel down to the sunnier shores of Mexico, where the main set awaited: a gigantic replica of the original ship.

Nova Scotia, Canada. Titanic set location.
Landscape Canada Sea Nova Scotia Blue Rocks

This last night was the culmination of five weeks of work, filming all those framing scenes where the elderly Rose goes hunting for the wreck of the titular ship. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio were absent for this part of the filming, as they’d only be needed for the period drama part, filmed in Mexico. Some big names who were in attendance included Bill Paxman, Suzy Amis, producer Jon Landau, and of course James Cameron himself.

Since much for the filming needed to be done at night, the crew had become temporarily nocturnal, which meant stopping for lunch at midnight. A catering company brought in a nice spread — one of the perks of working on the most expensive movie ever made at the time. Reports of his fateful buffet mention Italian food, vegetarian dishes, and most importantly, great big pots of chowder.

Some say it was lobster chowder, some clam, some mussel. But the one ingredient that everyone involved can agree upon, was the copious amounts of psychedelics (just like my granny used to make it). That’s right, somewhere out of frame, someone had decided to spike one of the pots of chowder, inadvertently kickstarting one of the weirdest Hollywood parties of all time. 

Over 60 members of the cast and crew unwittingly ate from that pot, including Cameron, with some even going up for a second helping. 

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VICTIM TESTIMONY

As Paxton later reported, it only took about 15 minutes after breaking bread for things to get all kinds of weird. After everyone got back to work, Cameron disappeared to go make himself throw up. With his head spinning, he got completely disoriented along the way. 

Bill Paxton at the 2014 WonderCon, Anaheim, California.
Bill Paxton by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC-BY-SA

At first, he diagnosed himself with something called paralytic shellfish neurotoxin. That’s a kind of natural poisoning caused when shellfish accumulate high quantities of neurotoxins from microscopic algae. Serious business. And not what you need to hear when you’re tripping [balls].

By the time the Academy Award-winning director  finally found the toilet, threw up, then came back to set, the whole place was empty. As he put it in a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair: “I get back to the set and nobody’s there. I’m standing at the monitors, near the camera, and the room is empty. It was like the Twilight Zone.”

The reason they had all taken off, was because dozens of the crew had started exhibiting the same symptoms. Not only the nausea, but also alternating waves intense wellbeing, and intense anxiety — which will sound extremely familiar to anyone who had an experimental phase in uni. As one of the on-set painters, Marilyn MacAvoy later told Vice: “it was kind of like a combination of being high on marijuana and being drunk; I was functioning, I was reading magazines. It was like a dream.”

Cameron found her and the rest of his cast and crew organizing themselves into two lines. One for people who felt fine, one for anyone suffering from the giggles, a stomachache, or intense existential terror. More and more people starting leaving the A-OK line for the “yeah, I’m probably very high” one, where half the people were weeping and the other half in hysterics. 

Eventually it became clear that anyone who, like Suzy Amis, abstained from the chowder, was fine. Paxton was not among them. He later told an interviewer: “One minute I felt OK, the next minute I felt so goddamn anxious I wanted to breathe in a paper bag.”

With a good chunk of the crew potentially about to drop down dead from seafood poisoning, the sober ones decided it was time to get them to a hospital.

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The Hospital

Hospital coridor
Hospital coridor

They had the production company’s drivers bring round the vans, and loaded five dozen tripping Hollywood folk into the back of them. Imagine being an ER nurse on that night, as this drugged up rabble burst through the doors all at once.

By this point, the drugs had kicked in even more, with some of the affected going down the rabbit hole into flashback and freakout territory. The rest however, were impossible to contain. Each patient was given their own cubicle, separated by curtains, but soon they started leaping out and running amok like a bunch of unruly toddlers.

People were falling over onto gurneys, racing down the hallways in wheelchairs — Paxton joined a conga line led by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father to the slightly more famous Zoe). Even Cameron had chilled out by this point; lying in his hospital bed, blood running down his cheek, giggling away. 

He had been stabbed in the face with a pen by one of his staff, but was too buzzed to care. Stab wounds, conga lines, people weeping in the corners. Just sounds like a standard house party in the UK, to be honest. So nostalgic.

While the ER was being torn apart by drugged up film folk, the hospital staff were busy pursuing the food poisoning theory. They forced everyone to drink activated charcoal — a liquid variey which stops anything further being absorbed into the bloodstream. Over the next few hours, things started to simmer down.

The damage to the filming schedule was already done, but at least nobody died. I mean, one of the cast members — Gloria Stuart, who played the elderly Rose — was 76 at the time. Unless she was a hardened ex-hippie, the drugs could had hit her body hard, but thankfully she was eating out at a restaurant when the whole thing went down. Paxman had already bowed out by the time the cups of charcoal were being passed around too. 

He had told the director: “Jim, I’m not gonna hang out here, this is bedlam. I’m gonna […] wander back down to the set and just drink a case of beer.” Apparently that worked wonders, but I should add that neither I nor Bill Paxman is a doctor. And the NHS website does not list Carlsberg as a remedy for a bad trip.

As for the rest of the afflicted cast and crew, a nice cup of disgusting charcoal and some bed rest was all they needed. After that, they were right back on set the very next night to continue shooting, which must have been one of the worst days at the office imaginable…

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Suspects

By this point, the police had already been alerted to the incident. The toxicology reports soon came back, to reveal that PCP was to blame. Also known as ‘angel dust’, this drug can cause hallucinations, sensory malfunctions, and even violent behavior (like stabbing the director of Terminator 2 in the face with a byro, for instance). 

Now, as funny as the idea of a film set descending into giggling madness is, indiscriminately spiking dozens of people is still a pretty serious crime. The police launched a full investigation. They compiled lists of everyone on set at the time; who was affected, who wasn’t affected, who had a grudge, who they had grades against. In the end they were unable to come up with any definite suspects, and closed the investigation after two and a half years.

Pot of chowder
Pot of chowder

That’s not to say it was a total mystery, however. The fact that the particular pot of chowder chosen was nearest to Cameron’s table, led some to speculate it was an act of revenge against him. But who could it have been? Had Tom Cruise rappelled down from the ceiling as vengeance for missing out on the lead role?

Maybe, but actually there’s a much more likely candidate. Cameron is pretty certain that a certain ex crew member was to blame. The unnamed suspect — some say a chef — was apparently fired just the day before, over his unprofessional conduct with the catering company. A touch of PCP in the chowder would be the perfect way to get back at both the production and the caterers at once.

In the end, it worked. The film company fired the caterers the very next day, suspecting that one of their people may have been to blame. That suspicion probably led plenty of the crew to bring heir own ham sandwiches from there on out, but the caterers were adamant that the PCP was brought in by the Hollywood folk.

Whatever the case, the show went on. The Titanic cast and crew went down to Mexico, endured a host of other non-psychedelic setbacks, and scooped up 11 Oscars for their troubles. And nobody in Hollywood ever took drugs again, the end.

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Wrap Up

That brings to a close our retelling of the most unfortunate incidents in blockbuster history. Or fortunate, depending on your feelings about free PCP soup. When there were elderly people and children involved though, you really have to question the judgement of the culprit. 

I for one will not be condoning the spiking of soups, nor the consumption of angel dust… However, I do have a pretty banging recipe for an LSD chicken balti. I’ll leave a link in the description.

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