Sunday March 11, 2007

Stalking the Psychic Nosebleed

Over at Polite Dissent (previously mentioned here), one of the regular features is titled "Your Moment of Psychic Nosebleed Zen".  In it, intrepid physician and medicine-in-comics blogger Scott writes about instances of a very common trope in comics and science fiction.  To quote the TV Tropes Wiki:

Purely mental battles are hard to show with special effects.  Therefore, when a character with psychic powers pushes them to the limit, or when a character is under mental attack, often you'll see a thin trickle of blood oozing from their nose.

Recently, Scott posed a question to his readers: what was the first appearance of the psychic nosebleed, in comics, literature, or film?

The earliest example he could come up with was David Cronenberg's film Scanners, released in 1981.  The Stephen King novel Firestarter, published in 1980 after having been serialized in Omni, was also suggested, but it appears that the novel may only have referred to "tiny cerebral hemorrhages", with the full-fledged nosebleed not appearing until the 1984 film adaptation.

I was sure I'd read about psychic nosebleeds in prose science fiction...somewhere.  I skimmed several stories featuring characters straining their psychic powers—Robert Heinlein's "Operation Nightmare" and Time for the Stars, Alan Dean Foster's The Tar-Aiym Krang, Larry Niven's "The Warriors"—before I hit paydirt in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.  In this scene, some futuristic soldiers on their first mission have just accidentally killed some alien herbivores.  They’re puzzling over the bodies’ lack of any apparent sensory organs when suddenly someone notices that one of their comrades, Ho, died at the same moment as the animals:

"Massive cerebral hemorrhage.  No..."  He watched the dials.  "No...warning, no indication of anything out of the ordinary; blood pressure up, pulse up, but normal under the circumstances…nothing to...indicate—"  He reached down and popped her suit.  Her fine oriental features were distorted in a horrible grimace, both gums showing.  Sticky fluid ran from under her collapsed eyelids, and a trickle of blood still dripped from each ear.  Doc Wilson closed the suit back up.

"I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if a bomb went off in her skull."

"Oh, fuck," Rogers said, "she was Rhine-sensitive, wasn’t she."

"That’s right," Cortez sounded thoughtful.  "All right, everybody listen up.  Platoon leaders, check your platoons and see if anybody’s missing, or hurt.  Anybody else in seventh?"

"I...I’ve got a splitting headache, Sarge," Lucky said.

Four others had bad headaches.  One of them affirmed that he was slightly Rhine-sensitive.  The others didn’t know.  (pp. 46-47)

It’s an ear-bleed rather than a nose-bleed, but it's clearly the same fictional medical phenomenon—psychic overload producing bleeding from the head.  The novel was published in 1974, so it definitely predates Scanners.  (In fact, it was serialized in Analog starting in June of 1972, though I can’t verify that this passage occurs in the magazine version.)

I doubt this is the first psychic nosebleed in fiction.  Can we push the date further back?  In order to find out, I propose we apply the method of the Oxford English Dictionary: distributed reading.  A lot of you have read a lot of science fiction—there must be memories of thousands of novels and movies floating around in your brains—so think back.  Can you recall any earlier instances of the psychic nosebleed?  Earliest citation wins!  (Bonus points if you strain so hard trying to remember that your nose starts bleeding.)

[Now playing: "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" by Blue Öyster Cult]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Google book search offers this tantalising snippet:

"... Siberia consider children who bleed at the nose or mouth to be destined by
the gods to the profession of shamanism."

The Origin of the Inequality of the Social Classes by Gunnar Landtman (1938)

Posted by: Steve at Mar 11, 2007 8:03:46 PM

This may not be the sort of thing you're thinking of, but the murderer in Conan Doyle's Study in Scarlet is prone to nosebleeds at times of emotional distress.

"The pulses in my temples beat like sledge-hammers, and I believe I would have
had a fit of some sort if the blood had not gushed from my nose and relieved me."

That pushes it back to the 1880s.

Posted by: James Enge at Mar 13, 2007 9:52:23 AM

I know it's not strictly bleeding from the head, but can we overlook this event in the first book of Luke-Acts?:

"In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground." Luke 22:44 (NRSV)

That pushes it back to roughly 65 C.E.

Posted by: Michael at Mar 13, 2007 3:59:41 PM

While I can't think of any songs about psionic struggles. Since "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" refers to the Corum novels and not to actual psionic battles, I think we need to expand the search to include songs about the use of mental powers.

Posted by: Christian Johnson at Mar 13, 2007 6:18:39 PM

Neither of the examples provided (Doyle and Acts) seem on target to me. I don't think we're looking for examples of nosebleeds in literature caused by stress or high blood pressure—that's an actual medical phenomenon. The psychic nosebleed is bleeding from the nose (or other head orifice) brought about specifically by psychic strain (i.e. extra-sensory perception or the like). It's a literary trope, not a medical phenomenon.

You might argue that the example from Acts qualifies as psychic strain because praying, after all, is sort of like telepathy. But I maintain that what we're looking for is strain associated with the modern, materialistic, science-fictional notion that psychic powers reside in the brain, and so psychic strain specifically results in bleeding from the head.

Here's another example of something that I don't think is an example of the psychic nosebleed: in Japanese comics and animation, there's a common trope that sexual excitement can lead to nosebleeds. This is (as far as I know) a fictional phenomenon, but even so it doesn't qualify as a psychic nosebleed, since nobody's trying to read anybody's mind, move objects with their minds, or predict the future.

Of course, now somebody's going to mess with me by coming up with an example of an anime character with hypertension whose nose starts bleeding when trying to read the mind of someone they're sexually aroused by. Bring it on, I say—we'll split that hair when we come to it.

Posted by: The Tensor at Mar 14, 2007 4:49:54 PM

Here is a very recent example of a nosebleed from being "hated so much."

Posted by: Erkki at Apr 11, 2007 8:15:51 AM

Does the PA comic really qualify? It matches the TV tropes quote ("or when a character is under mental attack"), but I thought The Tensor was asking specifically about the other case, where it's the strain of pushing the ability that causes the nosebleed. In which case it would have to be Gabe rather than Tycho to qualify, and if Gabe's nose bleeds it's off-panel. :)

I know that the movie Firestarter was certainly the first time I ran across this particular trope, because I recall being fascinated by the implications - and yet, by that time I was 16 and had read lots and lots of science fiction. Still, that makes sense - I would expect it to be relatively rare in prose, where you can use analogy, metaphor, and other varieties of lurid description.

Another recent example: there was a scene in Heroes when Matt the Mind Reader pushes so hard to overcome a psychic shield that his nose bleeds.

Posted by: Marcos at Apr 11, 2007 10:23:54 AM