It was the cream of insider Hollywood scoops of 1996—the cast and crew of Titanic had been poisoned with PCP-spiked clam chowder. Even Bill Paxton. Even James Cameron.
It all went down on the last night of filming in Nova Scotia. The team were shooting those modern-period submarine scenes and five weeks of working up north was nearly over. The whole crew was about to decamp to the larger set down in Mexico and everyone was in high spirits; the mood festive.
Then at around midnight, which was lunch hour for a filming schedule that started at dusk and went until dawn, the crew was called together for a last meal. Even James Cameron descended from his office to toast a successful wrap. The catering team turned out an impressive spread, crowned by a big batch of creamy clam chowder. People were lining up for seconds and thirds. And then it was back to work.
Marilyn McAvoy was one such crew member. A standby painter on the set, she used her background in fine art to paint forgeries, illustrate Jack's sketchbook, and age props. Now an artist in her own right, she talks to VICE about what it was like to get extremely and accidentally high on the night of the PCP-chowder incident.
VICE: Hey Marilyn, so tell me, what was that chowder like?
Marilyn McAvoy: The chowder was unbelievable. People were going back for second bowls. I really thought about going back because it was so good. And I think that was part of the problem: people ate a lot more than usual because it was so delicious.
What else do you remember about that night?
There was no indication that there was anything strange happening... until the meal. By the time we got back from eating, after about 30 minutes, that's when I started noticing something was wrong. Everyone seemed confused. Everyone was having trouble getting their work done.
What were you doing at the time?
I was given a lab coat to age down, which is a super simple procedure. You just make a tea bath. I needed some stuff upstairs as well as some other equipment down in another area. And I remember just walking around trying to figure out the best way to get my supplies. Things just seemed fuzzy.
How did the rest of the crew react?
While I was trying to figure out what was going on, everyone else seemed to be going outside. They were all gathering outside of the giant doors of the building we were working in.
I also heard later on that as soon as James Cameron realised something had been put in the chowder, he ran up to his room and forced himself to throw up.
When did everyone realise what had happened?
It was actually kind of comical. It was like that game kids play, Red Rover: there were the people who were ok, who hadn't gotten any effects yet, and the people who were getting high. And there were these two lines apart from each other, with some people in the "good" line slowly trickling into the "bad" line. It was at about this point that people realised that everyone who had eaten the chowder were experiencing the effects of some sort of hallucinogen.
So what happened next?
The crew vans came and picked everybody up and took us to the Dartmouth General Hospital. En masse, we went through these hospital doors at 1 AM in the morning. They did not know what to do with us. It became pretty chaotic. Some people were having a really hard time. I think maybe the people who had more experience with drugs were having flashbacks and bad trips.
How did it affect you?
For me, the whole situation was pretty surreal. But in terms of effects, 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.
What was your experience with hallucinogens before this?
None. So when it started happening, I was pretty scared because I had no experience to base [this high] on. We didn't know then what it had been spiked with. But because it was such an unexpected thing to have happened, I didn't have time at the moment to fully take in how dangerous something like this could have been.
How did the hospital deal with all of you?
Well we were there all night. Eventually we all got put in these cubicles with the curtains around us, but no one wanted to stay in their cubicles. Everyone was out in the aisles and jumping into other people's cubicles. People had a lot of energy. Some were in wheelchairs, flying down the hallways. I mean, everyone was high! So they gave us this drink that had charcoal in it, to remove the toxins. By sunup, we had started to come down. People were playing hacky sack. Everyone just wanted to get home.
What was the aftermath like?
Well, we had to go home and get right to sleep and then back to work that night to finish the shooting that had been interrupted. It was very strange. In terms of what had happened, there were some investigations. Nothing was ever officially determined, as far as I know. Among the crew there were rumours that it had been a disgruntled chef that had been let go, but nothing ever came of that.
It seems like, since it happened at the end of the shoot, there wasn't much time for paranoia to brew among the crew.
Yeah, that's true. I never thought about that. I probably would have started bringing my own lunch. Because it was, while funny, pretty traumatic. So, you're right, it would have led to a very mistrustful situation.
Did this whole thing affect your attitude towards drug-taking, illegal or otherwise?
No, not really. Although, it made me realise how fragile, how delicate, these things can be. Had I gone back for that second bowl, I might have had an entirely different kind of experience.
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