Motif Of Harmful Sensation
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Basic Information

The motif of harmful sensation 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.

The theme is similar to the notion of the evil eye: the sight that harms is the gaze that harms. The harm is thought to be caused by seeing something or being seen by it — a parallel idea 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-life example is epileptic seizures triggered by flashing lights such as strobe lights.

Mythology, legend and tradition

  • Viewing a Deity. To see the Face of God is certain death.
  • The eye that can kill
  • Greek mythology
  • The harp of Daghda in Celtic Mythology.
  • Indigenous Australian (Aborigine) traditions
    • Ceremonies that are part of men's business should not be seen by women, and vice versa. Harm is said to come upon those people who accidentally witness what they are not traditionally permitted to see.
    • Various beliefs in the evil eye, pointing a bone and wishing death on someone, being whispered to death.
  • One version of the legend of the Rhine siren Lorelei says that the man who sees her loses sight of reason, while the man who listens to her is condemned to wander with her forever.
  • Those who see the Galician procession of the dead, the Santa Compaña, must join it.
  • It was a widespread belief in Spain, Portugal, Latin America, Middle East that some people had an "evil eye" (mau-olhado, mal ojo, olho gordo) that could cause a lot of trouble regardless of the subject's intentions (the effect was unintentional and the possessor of the evil eye could be unaware of it):
    • Livestock would die off or cease producing milk,
    • Beautiful children would die or suffer disfiguring diseases,
    • Porcelain china would fall down and break,
    • Pregnant women would suffer miscarriage,
    • Handsome men would die or become impotent,
    • Pets would get rabies, be killed by wild animals or attack their owners,
    • Houses would catch fire,
    • Paintings would peel off or fade away,
    • Milk would turn sour,
    • Employees would leave or become lazy,
    • Betrothals would be broken,
    • Furniture would be involved in domestic accidents hurting people,
    • Clothes would wear off or be attacked by moths.
  • In various Balkanic mythologies, seeing a faerie without performing preventive rituals, or even worse being spotted by one, breaks a faerie taboo, and consequently the person may receive illnesses ranging from foot or leg-related problems to epilepsy or madness. These conditions can be cured by going back to the same place at the same time of day with a person who is on good terms with faeries (for example, a shaman initiated by faeries) or with someone who is able to cure such illnesses.
  • In the Lady Godiva legend, Peeping Tom is the character who defied a proclamation and watched the naked Godiva riding through the streets of Coventry. As punishment, he was blinded; though in other versions of the story, he was struck by lightning.

Urban legends

  • The Nigerian phone call - answering phone calls made from a certain number would result in instant death.
  • The Hungarian Suicide Song - the song Gloomy Sunday written by Rezső Seress in 1933 inspired hundreds of suicides. Publicity accompanying its North American release described it as the "Hungarian Suicide Song", probably as a marketing ploy. The German/Hungarian movie Gloomy Sunday - Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (1999), based on the novel by Nick Barkow, suggests the song contains a hidden message which, once heard clearly, will resolve the listener to suicide.
    • The Brad Paisley/Alison Krauss song Whisky lullaby has been accused of similar things.
  • Egyptian killer SMS - a text message that causes a Stroke in anyone who reads it.
  • In the 19th Century, some claimed that the ethereal sounds of the Glass Harmonica created vibrations in the nervous system of the listeners and the player leading to melancholy, depression and madness.

Modern fiction

  • Stendahl syndrome, from Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817) - the sensation of being physically overwhelmed by a surfeit of beauty
  • Mark Twain's short story "A Literary Nightmare" (1876) about a jingle that causes obsessive behavior until it's spread to others.
  • In 1895, a collection of stories by Robert W. Chambers about a fictional play that drives people mad, The King in Yellow.
  • In Jorge Luis Borges´ short story "El Zahir", (from his book "El Aleph") there is a coin that causes obsession and madness to those who look at it.
  • In Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, showing a maliciously-crafted black-and-white bitmap to a person familiar with binary numbers can cause their brain to be reprogrammed.
  • "Basilisk" and "Medusa weapons" are mythological terms used by David Langford in Different Kinds of Darkness and related short stories by various authors to describe a fictional type of fractal image designed to "crash" the brain by generating thoughts which the mind is physically or logically incapable of thinking.
  • Diary, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, makes several references to Stendhal syndrome.
  • One of the most famous examples of recent years would be the film Ring (1998) where it is stated that if you watch a certain videotape, you will die exactly seven days later.

In real life

  • Some recently developed nonlethal weapons use sounds to induce paralysis or extreme discomfort.
  • The Mosquito alarm is a commercially available device which emits high-frequency sounds designed to cause discomfort to teenagers in order to discourage loitering.
  • Stone-Cold Basilisk, the Magic Card that turns you to stone if you read it. :)

See also


Most of the above text came from Wikipedia. That page is currently marked for deletion, so I decided to mirror much of it here, since it has so much gaming potential.

Game and Story Use

  • Tons of ideas ripe for the picking. Use them for powers, characters, cursed items, etc.
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