Popping a pimple is the furthest thing from an orgasm. It’s a shameful deed done in secret. The thrill of watching bloody pus hit the mirror lasts only a few seconds before we quickly wipe away the evidence, resigning ourselves to the lingering pain…
On second thought, popping a pimple is a lot like an orgasm. But considering that sporting a leaky zit falls somewhere on the ladder of social taboos between eating your own boogers and gargling hobo cum, why do so many excruciatingly graphic videos of zit-popping become smash hits on YouTube?
Psychological disorders like dermatillomania—an irrepressible urge to pick at one’s skin—account for some of the zit-popping fan base. In today’s self-help culture, where every cure for your flaws is just a Malcolm Gladwell book away, it’s easy to see why those suffering from an obsessive-compulsive need to claw at their physical imperfections might find temporary relief in watching videos of epic zit explosions instead, like junkies watching Trainspotting between fixes.
But the mentally ill are just a small portion of the zit-popping universe, which is a wide cosmos that even includes its own share of celebrities. Like Vikram Yadav, a diminutive doctor from New Delhi, who, with his doe-like eyes and head full of perfectly slicked curls, looks just like a dad-next-door. Dr. Yadav is hardly the type of guy you'd think would be responsible for some of the most horrifically stomach-churning videos on the internet.
And yet, if you’ve ever happened to watch a video of extreme zit-popping—you know, the ones where pores that have been clogged for like 25 years are prodded with a needle till they shoot an unholy rivers of toothpaste-thick white muck—chances are, you watched it on Vikram Yadev’s YouTube channel.
To put it plainly, Dr. Yadev is a bonafide zit-popping superstar. His cache of blackhead extractions, abscess drainings, and cyst removal videos have earned more than 18,307,412 views and 105,000 subscribers. His most popular upload, the poetically-titled “Gold Mine of Black Heads on Nose,” has racked up over 12 million views alone. On zit video-sharing communities like Zitmeister.com his cult following affectionately calls him “Doctor Y.”
Doctor Y’s impetus seems to be a medical fascination with the most horrific skin problems a person could suffer from. His videos, posted twice a week without fail, focus on conditions so gruesomely bizarre they could easily double as a B-reel to an icky body horror movie. Think Videodrome: The Giant Cyst Edition. Zit-popping fans flock to his channel to gape at the grotesque, a phenomenon that Dr. Allen Feldman, an associate professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, sees as a modern-day version of a 19th century practice: the carnival freak show, where the working class public flocked to witness bearded ladies, Siamese twins, dwarves, and other malformed, “othered” bodies. Who knows? Maybe if Bakhtin were still around, he’d be a Dr. Y fan too.
Our collective desire to gawk at the weirdoes isn’t the only way zit-popping videos could function as a social practice. Dr. Feldman also draws a parallel between purging yourself of a cantankerous zit and getting your dick circumcised, identifying both practices as forms of “public expiation” whereby “people whose appearance do not fit a societal norm views themselves as social failures, and they see the deforming visage or body zone as emblematic of their cultural inadequacy and failure.” Getting rid of the contaminating body part allows that person to return to the community, fully purified. “But these acne practices are not direct parallels to [circumcision] rites of passage,” Dr. Feldman adds, “Because there is no real community to join after the mutilation, no collective initiation. Just the mass consumption of the grotesque like the Jackass or Mondo Cane movies.”
For Russ Hamstring, the founder and site administrator of Zitmeister.com, a vicarious feeling of cleansing is exactly what drives him to scour the internet for these videos. “Personally, I just want to get the impurities out. The satisfaction is great once I see the blockage release. It’s even better if there is a sound.”
Russ also acknowledges that for some users on his website, zit-popping is a fetish with a decidedly sexual aspect. “I have had one woman offer to fly over to me just to squeeze my pimples. She promised that she would shower me with gifts and let me stay in expensive hotels,” he said. “But I’m not into pimples like that. A pimple popping wedding doesn’t sound attractive to me at all.” (He also notes that 35 percent of the users on Zitmeister.com are females in their 40s and 50s.)
Yet, the very structure of a fully satisfying zit-popping video is centered on an orgasmic climax. One user on the /r/popping subreddit explained that the narrative arc of a good video should have a beginning, middle, and end. “The bigger the cyst, the more pus comes out and the sooner it happens. A fingernail-sized blackhead that has been there for 25 years has an excruciating middle, whereby the poppers try and fail to extract the substance, and the end comes around so gloriously,” he said. Of course, gratification only happens if the camera operator has a strong stomach. “Can’t stand the person recording the floor tiles while smelly pus is oozing from a perfect cyst,” another Redditor complained.
But not all zit-popping voyeurs are doing it for the love of the ooze. Some—including myself—are simultaneously disgusted and attracted to these videos out of a prurient interest in what the human body can do when taken to the extreme. Dr. Harris B. Stratyner, a clinical associate professor at Mount Sinai’s department of psychiatry, made his revulsion very clear. “The videos I looked at, they made me sick. People are doing things that are simply disgusting. I’ve worked in ERs… It’s hard to gross me out. But I have to tell you, this grossed me out. This was simply disgusting.”
So where does Dr. Stratyner think this truly disgusting urge to watch these extremely disgusting videos comes from? Well, Freud’s theory of thanatos, or the death drive, might be the key. His theory goes, “If you go up to the top of the Empire State Building and you look over the edge, there’s always a part of you that would like to jump. Not because you want to kill yourself, but because there’s a strong urge towards the unknown concept of death—that which we do not understand.” Similarly, we are instinctively drawn towards the mystery of what, exactly, lies inside of us. What are we extracting? What is this foreign body under our skin? As my favorite Reddit comment so eloquently concluded, these zit-popping videos are poignant reminders that we’re all just made of shit.