As a child, the concept of horror films perplexed me. What kind of person willingly gives themselves sleepless nights – and would go as far as paying to be frightened? As I have got older, I have come to look at friends who put themselves through such films with the kind of bewilderment and acquiescence I imagine a parent has when their child triumphantly announces they are learning the keytar.
It is with the same wide-eyed confusion that I have watched the rise of “gross-out videos”, a content strand that has made its way from the internet to TV. For years, there have been corners of YouTube where you can be disgusted and titillated by a breed of heinous videos: excretions of oozing sebaceous cysts, extractions of exploding whiteheads and blackheads, the removal of ingrown hair and toenails.
In the cursed world of “ickbait”, there is something stomach-churning, whatever your taste (a word probably best avoided when discussing leaking pustules). There are the removals of navel and salivary stones, or callus peels that turn doctors to lumberjacks as they hack away at dead skin like tree bark. Even pedestrian secretions such as earwax and bogeys become cinematic events.
But nothing has captured the zeitgeist as much as the humble pimple-popping video, a circuit dominated by the California-based dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Sandra Lee, also known as Dr Pimple Popper. Lee boasts a YouTube channel with 7 million subscribers. Videos of her scooping out angry abscesses, squeezing years-old pus from spots and removing cutaneous horns have been viewed more than 2bn times.
She is just one part of this repulsive industrial complex; there is a dedicated subreddit called r/popping, with more than 356,000 self-professed “popping addicts”, welcoming “the pop-curious” with open arms and fidgeting fingers.
As much as we may pretend the internet is populated by different, stranger people from those in real life, the mainstream explosion (sorry) of this content was confirmed when Lee was given her own TV show by TLC in 2018. As with many reality TV shows, it has expanded into its own retch-inducing universe, via the spin-offs The 12 Pops of Christmas and Before the Pop. There is even pimple-popping merchandise: a toy silicone slab with 15 “pimples”, from which users can squeeze out realistic, refillable “pus”.
A British iteration arrived in 2019, The Bad Skin Clinic, fronted by Dr Emma Craythorne, who tackles weeping sores, “bacne” and cysts as if she were going to war, armed with needles, knives, scalpels and lasers. Last year, it was joined by My Feet Are Killing Me: First Steps, in which three podiatrist surgeons, Ebonie Vincent, Sarah Haller and Brad Schaeffer, tackle the extreme foot problems of desperate patients, including one whose plantar keratosis had him shaving down growths with a cheese grater and box cutters. The Toe Bro, fronted by the Canadian chiropodist Jonathan Tomines, started the same year. His show, much like his YouTube channel, features toes riddled with gangrene, painful corns and claw-like ingrown toenails that had Goggleboxers refusing to look in an episode last year.
On one hand, this urge to halt our projectile vomit while watching the popping of projectile cysts feels relatively new. On the other, we have had years of watch-through-your-fingers medical shows on TV. Botched, a series in which the surgeons Terry Dubrow and Paul Nassif “remedy extreme plastic surgeries gone wrong”, has been running since 2014, before the gross-out video boom, and is well known for its depiction of graphic at-home implants and decaying nose jobs.
In 2019, The Sex Clinic made headlines with its story of a man who had not washed his penis in decades, resulting in a painful and putrid case of smegma. That show’s predecessor, Embarrassing Bodies, did it first, in 2007. One its most memorable episodes featured a man whose symptoms – a bad-smelling and leaking backside – were the result of his inability to wipe his bum properly after using the toilet. Our fixation with watching things shoot, drop and drip from our bodies is as long as reality TV’s history.
Its popularity may be proved, but for many the question remains: why? When we think of “satisfying internet videos”, the mind tends to wander to expertly done calligraphy, ASMR or observing a pretty Texan beekeeper rescue swarms of bees with her bare hands. But poring over pus-filled pores is also part of the “satisfying” genre, too. Everything from a secondhand dopamine hit from a spot well squeezed to an insatiable curiosity surrounding our innards has been used to explain this phenomenon.
“I think watching popping is similar to seeing a scary movie or riding a rollercoaster for some,” Lee told Refinery29. (As someone who would willingly do neither, this explanation does not work for me.) “You get a rush of euphoria and excitement.” Lee also told the Guardian that, for sufferers of dermatillomania, or SPD (skin-picking disorder), watching her videos can be a way of coping.
Hidden beneath the goop, pus and lumps are tender stories, lives changed in one pop, as well as the destigmatisation of myriad conditions. Such shows are addictive because they provide the ultimate storytelling arc – a problem is presented, analysed and then neatly solved to the shuddering satisfaction of all involved. The fact that you can’t look away confirms the truth about TV, and reality TV specifically: people will watch absolutely anything.
Dr Pimple Popper is on TLC at 10pm on Thursdays and is available to stream on discovery+