If you’ll excuse the pun, the impact of Titanic cannot be underestimated. What was a much-maligned production quickly became a cultural touchstone, like other epics before it, such as Star Wars and Jaws. While audiences members either loved it or hated it, there’s no doubt that one story from production is just as epic as the movie itself. That’s the story about the night when the cast and crew of James Cameron’s Titanic ate PCP-spiked clam chowder.
That’s a wrap
On the last night of filming in Nova Scotia, back in 1996, the cast and crew were shooting the submarine scenes that bookend the movie. At around midnight, which was the lunch hour for a filming schedule that began in the evening, the crew got together before the production headed to Mexico for the period pieces.
It was a big event, which even saw Cameron come down to toast a successful wrap with his cast and crew. Given the occasion, the catering crew put on an impressive spread, which included a big batch of creamy clam chowder. The chowder was so good, that people were lining up for seconds and thirds, but were unaware of its secret ingredient.
One of those crew members was Marilyn McAvoy, who was employed as a standby painter on the set, which used her background in fine art to paint forgeries, illustrate Jack’s sketchbook, and age props. Over two decades on, McAvoy spoke to VICE about that eventful night, where she and Jim Cameron ate PCP-laced chowder.
What was the chowder like?
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 realize 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 realized that everyone who had eaten the chowder was 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.
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 rumors that it had been a disgruntled chef that had been let go, but nothing ever came of that.