The film is grainy, but it’s not hard to see what’s going on: An adult woman is submerged in a bathtub except for her legs and feet. Her wrists are shackled in tight handcuffs, held beneath her outstretched legs, and her face is obscured as she writhes around in the water, trying to free herself.
As she struggles, her legs quiver and tense, a supposed effect of oxygen deprivation to which she is rapidly succumbing. As the video goes on, the woman becomes increasingly panicked, splashing harder until suddenly—stillness. Presumably, the woman is dead: a Harry Houdini maneuver gone horribly wrong.
On message boards, the video has largely been deemed a fake, a hyperrealistic hoax for some fetish site (detractors of the video are quick to call out the stilettoed boots and the red panties that the stuntwoman is wearing). Nevertheless, it’s one of the most haunting videos featured on Run The Gauntlet (The Daily Beast is not linking to the site’s address), a website which heralds itself as the custodian of “the most vile, puke-inducing, hard-to-watch videos on the Internet.”
After watching a woman drown in a bathtub, it’s hard to disagree.
Run The Gauntlet bills itself as a perverse challenge where viewers are encouraged to watch one “vile” video in order to advance to the next. The first video in the lineup is cringeworthy: Two women arm-wrestle until one woman’s arm snaps. But the videos quickly get worse. In one video, a baby slips under a train in Mumbai and is instantly killed. In another, a woman presses a hot iron onto a man’s penis. Run The Gauntlet has garnered almost 900,000 individual users and 6.9 million page views, with users spanning hundreds of different countries.
The site has become an international phenomenon—but why?
The first thing to know about Run The Gauntlet is that it almost never happened. “G” is the site’s creator, a web developer who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. In 2010, he was approached by a client with the idea for a website with progressively worsening videos.
“The idea,” says G, “was that by the end of it you’d ‘seen it all’ and are probably desensitized to anything else on the Internet.”
G agreed to build the site on the condition that he didn’t have to actually watch any of the videos. When the site was completed, sans video, the original creator bailed and left the site to G, who sat on it for years before launching it in March 2015.
“The task of finding content actually put me off the project multiple times,” said G, who is particularly sensitive to animal cruelty videos and says he draws the line there. “But eventually I started to stomach [it].”
After “spamming” the site to message boards like 4chan and Reddit, Run The Gauntlet became a rapid success.
“It amazes me,” G says, of the site’s popularity. “I mainly launched this site as an experiment once I realized I was stuck with it.”
G says he enjoys the behind-the-scenes aspect of watching the gauntlet grow, such as following the referral links and reading discussions about the gauntlet on various message boards. Some of the statistics intrigue him: Despite the majority of the viewers hailing from the United States, Americans are statistically the least likely to admit they have run the gauntlet.
“For whatever reason Thai people love clicking the Facebook ‘Like’ button,” G says. After RTG appeared on message boards in Thailand and Hong Kong, he saw his Facebook ‘Like’ count skyrocket by several thousand in just a few days.
“It seems, at least Thai and Hong Kong people are totally fine clicking like on a site without the social stigma associated with it showing up on their feed the same way Western culture does,” he says.
When The Daily Beast reached out to self-proclaimed gauntlet runners on Reddit, their reasons for watching the videos were varied. Several admitted that watching the gauntlet videos are exciting, with one redditor describing the gauntlet as “kind of a thrill” and comparing it to watching a horror movie. “It’s a shock factor in my otherwise average life,” said another.
Dr. Carl Shubs is a trauma and addiction specialist practicing out of Beverly Hills, California. According to Shubs, seeking out disturbing content is simply human nature.
“People are drawn to challenges when they feel they are manageable challenges,” says Shubs of the gauntlet. “People are drawn to something new and different—even if that something new and different is really repulsive. Something about the revulsion is attractive to us.”
One anonymous redditor confided that “[Tragedies] like this happen in life,” and that he wanted to be prepared for them. Another responded, “The more exposure you get to this type of thing, the less affected you are by it, which is a good thing if something like this happens to you.”
But people who watch gore in order to prepare for something, says Shubs, are simply trying to stave off their anxiety.
“[Watching the videos] is not about trying to prepare for a specific event. Because how likely is it [a beheading] will happen that they need to prepare for it?” he says. “It’s about a lack of control and a sense of helplessness. People want to be in control of everything, or feel like they can be.”
According to Shubs, the reasons people seek out gore online is “extremely individual” and varies widely from person to person. When redditor “Zarxer” ran the gauntlet, the bathtub video was the only one that disturbed him.
“I’ve experienced drowning first-hand,” he says. “As I was running out of air, I could feel that urgency to get out. I could see that’s exactly what the bathtub person was feeling, that urgency.”
For Zarxer, the video was disturbing, but cathartic. “It allowed me to better understand how [drowning] might feel—except with no rescue.”
For the most part, however, G thinks that a sense of entertainment is what drives people to run the gauntlet. One of the most popular features on the site isn’t the gauntlet, but first-time viewers’ reactions to videos, themselves. G updates this section frequently.
On Run The Gauntlet and on YouTube, users record themselves watching the videos in real time and upload their reactions—mostly squirming, cringing, and laughing in horror.
“It’s like a party thing,” G says. “I think people like watching the reactions of others. It’s a window into how other people think.”
Dr. Shubs is not surprised.
“Look at the show America’s Funniest Home Videos. Most of the videos are people hurting each other, and people are cracking up over that,” he says.
Shubs says that laughing and recording reactions is a common coping mechanism.
“It can be a way to help someone feel safer,” he says. “People exorcise their discomfort by laughing it away.”
Despite the popularity, G says that eventually he’ll sell the website and move on to other projects. Although now the gauntlet is a fun hobby that offers him some insight into human nature, G is admittedly a little disturbed by some of the reactions of his viewers.
“In all honesty,” G says, “it’s a little scary that so many people seem to be totally fine with what they see. Maybe they’ve seen enough of it already.”