strange trip

25 Years Later, No One Knows Who Spiked the Titanic Chowder

Photo: CBS via Getty Images

As the clock struck midnight on August 9, 1996, the Titanic set was erupting into chaos. Filming had already paused for what, in the context of such a late shoot, was considered lunch — in this case, seafood chowder so delicious that some people ate three or four bowls’ worth. They didn’t know that was a mistake. Sensing mass confusion, an assistant director divided everyone into two groups: “good crew” on one side, “bad crew” on the other. The demarcation had nothing to do with the quality of anybody’s work and everything to do with who was suddenly high on PCP.

“We had a room for the grips and electricians, and one of the guys started talking really hyper,” crew member Jake Clarke says. “He’s a big guy, like six-four, and he says, ‘Do you guys feel okay? Because I don’t. I feel like I’m on something, and believe me, I would know.’ He was just chattering on like that. And just as he was saying this, we saw James Cameron run by the door and this extra running behind him. He said, ‘There’s something in me! Get it out!’”

At first, Cameron suspected what’s known as a “red tide,” a naturally occurring toxin that can make shellfish dangerous to eat. In reality, someone spiked that soup. Twenty-five years later, no one knows who or why. Even a police investigation couldn’t find the culprit. So, theories persist. Could it have been a disgruntled crewman who made their way to craft services after being fired by the famously tempestuous director? Was it a caterer with their own employment grievances? A prank gone too far? Perhaps someone from the “Hollywood crowd,” as the CEO of the catering group told Entertainment Weekly at the time, was attempting to kickstart a misguided “party thing” on what was meant to be Titanic’s final night in Nova Scotia before production relocated to Mexico?

Within an hour, the “bad crew” group had grown bigger. As sober personnel attempted to keep the situation under control, the intoxicated bunch, which included Cameron and actor Bill Paxton, flooded into nearby Dartmouth General Hospital. Some were freaking out. Others were having a ball. “Bill Paxton was a real sweetie,” says Claude Roussel, a set decorator who was less stoned than some of his colleagues. “He was sitting next to me in the hallway of the hospital, and he was kind of enjoying the buzz. Meanwhile, grips were going down the hallway doing wheelies in wheelchairs.” Nurses distributed liquid charcoal, hoping to safeguard against what they initially thought was food poisoning. One person who’d consumed four bowls was there until 10:00 the next morning, according to Clarke, whose shellfish allergy kept him away from the chowder.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio were fortunate to be nowhere near the Halifax operation, home to Titanic’s contemporary framing device involving Paxton’s treasure-hunting researcher and the elderly Rose DeWitt Bukater (86-year-old Gloria Stewart, who either ate half a bowl of chowder or was off dining at a restaurant that night, depending on which source you ask). Then the most expensive movie ever made, Titanic sometimes seemed as doomed as the ship it depicted. Cameron once told The New Yorker there was a sense of “catastrophe around the whole production.” By the time postproduction ended, the project was $100 million over budget and several months behind schedule. Cameron had obsessed over period details, pouring money into real caviar and authentic Edwardian carpeting. Meals on the set were as “over-the-top” as everything else, Clarke recalls.

The PCP incident became part of the backstage lore almost as soon as it happened, creating another headache for the suits at Paramount and Fox, which were co-financing the film. On August 27, the Nova Scotia Department of Health sent producer Jon Landau a letter stating that its inspection confirmed the lobster chowder contained PCP, a hallucinogen also known as angel dust. “I have handed this investigation over to the Halifax Regional Police Service, who I’m sure will be in touch with you,” health official Meredith Blake wrote. The following day, the police released a statement announcing the criminal investigation. Two weeks later, the ordeal was a headline story in EW. (Landau and Blake did not respond to Vulture’s requests for comment.)

“By the time we got back from eating, after about 30 minutes, that’s when I started noticing something was wrong,” Marilyn McAvoy, a standby painter who finessed various props, told Vice in 2017. “Everyone seemed confused. Everyone was having trouble getting their work done. … En masse, we went through these hospital doors at 1 a.m. in the morning. They did not know what to do with us. It became pretty chaotic.”

Somewhere between 50 and 80 people spent some or all of that night at Dartmouth. Eventually they were placed in individual “cubicles,” per McAvoy’s description, but there was no stopping the agony or the ecstasy that had broken out. “People are moaning and crying, wailing, collapsed on tables and gurneys,” Cameron told Vanity Fair in 2009. “The DP, Caleb Deschanel, is leading a number of crew down the hall in a highly vocal conga line. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Amid the disorder, Paxton hightailed it out of there. “I said, ‘Jim, I’m not gonna hang out here. This is bedlam,’” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “‘I’m gonna … wander back down to the set and just drink a case of beer,’ which is what I did. That seemed to help me.”

Back on the set, the unscathed were essentially quarantined. Clarke remembers hanging out in a Winnebago. Around 4 a.m., Cameron and Paxton strolled in. “Their eyes were beet-red, like unbelievably,” Clarke says. “Jim had a bottle of Scotch, and Bill Paxton had a bag of joints because he was a real stoner. I’m kind of laughing about it because I didn’t eat the chowder, and then I’m there in the trailer smoking a joint.” Cameron was thrilled because he’d been granted an extra day of production to finish the scene that couldn’t be completed due to all of the tripping.

As the sun went up, those who’d gone to the hospital came down from their highs. No one had died or been poisoned. Most returned to their accommodations to sleep so they could return for the additional night shoot. One grip grabbed his guitar and wrote a song about the whole thing. “It was just a strange experience,” Roussel says.

The Canadian investigation ramped up as Titanic spent months shooting the ambitious Kate-and-Leo flashback sequences in Rosarito, Mexico. News of the PCP debacle quickly traveled south, actor Billy Zane recalls. (“Those kids had all the fun,” he jokes.) Most of the Nova Scotia crew didn’t go on to Rosarito, but at least one craft-service operator did. He was rumored to have been “taken away at gunpoint by the Mexican police because somebody else on the crew said, ‘Oh, I think it was him,’ fingering the wrong person,” Clarke says. At least, “That’s the word I got back.”

With dubious accusations flying, the sleuthing continued for two and a half years, turning up no results. The case was officially closed in February 1999, meaning the wrongdoer(s) remain at large.

Despite unwanted drugs, on-set injuries, and the boatloads of money spent, Titanic went on to — well, you know how the story ends. It was huger than huge, making the offscreen drama more or less worthwhile. Dancing in a conga line while hallucinating at a Canadian hospital at 2 a.m. doesn’t necessarily sound like a rotten time, eh? If nothing else, it resulted in lasting memories and humorous mementos.

“One of the art-department guys made T-shirts, and he recreated that chowder on the corner of the T-shirt,” Clarke says. “He gave that out to a bunch of the local crew. It said underneath it, ‘Good crew, bad crew.’”

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25 Years Later, No One Knows Who Spiked the Titanic Chowder