Is it a surprise that the internet has wholeheartedly, even giddily, embraced something gross? Absolutely not. Is it a surprise that this crude fascination has transcended the boundaries of the internet to become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon that anchors its own genre and industry? Kind of, but not really. Is it a surprise that in preparation for this article, I spent hours — literally hours — watching videos of pustules of every size, from spotty pimples to softball-sized cysts, being imploded and despite my cringing, my dry-heaving, I could not stop clicking to the next video, could not tear my eyes away from my computer screen? Yeah, it is.
If you’ve spent some time rooting around in the depths of the internet at any point in the last few years, you’ll likely be familiar with what I’m talking about: the confoundingly popular subgenre of pimple-popping videos.
So, where do you begin your journey to the center of the world’s fascination with exploding zits, cysts and everything in between? As with any deep dive into an internet trend that is simultaneously disgusting and confusing, you start by searching “pimple popping videos” on Google. Then, you sit back and let it all wash over you.
My first stop was a video called “Full Blackhead Popping Video – HOT 2019 – Part 1.” As a relatively minor target for extraction, I figured blackheads would be a good place to start, especially considering this video had more than 2.5 million views and promised pops that were both hot and 2019.
It was pretty much a masterpiece: a 15-minute meditation on the art of skin extraction, as an expert summoned blackhead after blackhead out of this person’s face, the deep-set dirt jumping out of pores like a worm breaking soil. Every so often, you would see a single tear streaming down the person’s cheek as their skin was brutally and relentlessly pinched. The pimple popper would usually just wipe them away.
I watched the entire thing and, once it finished, immediately started part two. The video was grotesque but extremely satisfying. I gagged at the sight of blood, pus and tears mingling together on this complete stranger’s flesh, but I also felt strangely calmed by the idea that their skin had just been so deeply cleaned.
At this point, it’s not that I was necessarily a convert, but I was certainly intrigued. Besides, I figured there was no use in trying to claw my way out of this rabbit hole.
My parents had told me throughout most of my adolescence not to pop my pimples. I listened but, of course, I desperately wanted to ignore them and hack away at each of my blemishes. Speaking to Refinery29, neuroscientist Heather Berlin explained that the relief brought on by popping a pimple actually causes the brain to release dopamine, AKA the happy hormone.
Watching these videos scratched that very same itch. I could experience this forbidden satisfaction, collecting that sweet dopamine over and over again, without any of the possible dermatological fallout. Sure, I witnessed these pops through a computer screen, but in typical fashion for the internet, these videos brought it to the extreme. These were bigger cysts and boils than I had ever seen in my entire life, noses colonized by so many blackheads it looked like a Whack-A-Mole with every squeeze. Seeing these once alien lesions explode was lightyears more satisfying than a garden variety pimple.
Add to this the fact that these videos were just straight up gross. The kind of gross that you would normally shy away from. Pimple popping videos create a type of intriguing internal dissonance. In the Refinery29 interview, Berlin compared the experience of watching the videos to watching a horror movie or getting on a roller coaster. These types of videos create a sort of safe and controlled discomfort, of doing something that freaks you out while knowing that the exit is still wide open and readily available.
People are drawn to things that disgust them, and people are drawn to things they shouldn’t do. For the same reasons the world loses its collective minds over a true crime podcast or can’t stop staring at a highway car wreck, they love to stare slack-jawed at huge amounts of pus exiting someone’s body.
Take “Dr. Pimple Popper,” the TLC reality show about Sandra Lee, the dermatologist who gained internet notoriety for her skin-extraction videos and has more than 3 million Instagram followers and 5 million YouTube subscribers. The very existence of this show should be proof enough of how much people love situating themselves in this realm of discomfort.
“Dr. Pimple Popper” has also pulled off the rare feat of growing in ratings over its two seasons (its series premiere notched 1.8 million viewers while its most recent finale had 3.24 million). Like mosquitos to a porch light, the world will always crowd around even the most repulsive of curiosities, just to see what’s going on.
By the time I had plowed through 35 minutes of blackhead popping content, I knew I was a goner. A quick look at my YouTube viewing history would reveal just how far down this porous internet k-hole I had fallen.
And, like endorphins, gambling or hard drugs, after the first taste it took more and more to satisfy. I no longer just wanted to see pimples being popped. I craved bigger and crazier extractions, weirder and weirder stuff being pulled disgustingly, wondrously out of the body. There was a video of a man getting a giant leech removed from what looks like the upper reaches of his brain and out through his nose, which I watched several times consecutively despite it being the worst thing I’ve ever seen.
At some point, I decided to venture through another disquieting journey into the bowels of the internet. As I watched a video that promised “SATISFYING BIG PIMPLE POPPING COMPILATION 2019,” I did something I never do: I scrolled down and read some comments.
“You people are disgusting,” one commenter wrote. “Show me more.”