True Crime in Hollywood
The Poisoning of James Cameron and the Titanic Cast
It’s relatively well-known that the filming of Titanic was challenging; many cast and crew suffered illness and injury, including Kate Winslet herself who contract pneumonia, chipped bones, and almost drowned. Some people believe the production to have been ‘cursed,’ but it definitely wasn’t a supernatural activity that left approx 70 of the cast and crew suffering severely following a deliberate poisoning on-set.
Despite police investigations, the culprit of the mass-poisoning was never identified, nor did the motive ever become clear.
Was it attempted murder? Revenge? Or perhaps a prank gone awry?
Following the final day of filming in Nova Scotia, Director James Cameron and the cast and crew of Titanic, arrived at an on-set party. To celebrate the completion of months of hard work, a catered meal had been arranged.
Over 100 attended, including Cameron and Hollywood A-Lister Bill Paxton. Pre-orders had been taken the day before, and around 70 of the team had opted for a seafood chowder dinner.
Not long after they’d finished their main course, people began to behave very strangely.
Several of the crew and cast members began to lurch about, laughing. Others went outside to vomit. Some were crying uncontrollably.
Cameron described feeling ‘distinctly woozy’ and believed that they were suffering from paralytic shellfish neurotoxin poisoning. Acting quickly, the Director went to the rest-rooms and made himself sick, hoping to rid his body of the toxin.
Upon returning to the room, Cameron discovered that everyone had vanished, saying it was ‘like the twilight zone.’
As it turns out, the entire party had made their way outside to throw-up.
Emergency services were called and everyone affected was taken to hospital. Everyone except Bill Paxton that is, who decided to drink a crate of beer and flush his system that way.
Once inside the hospital, the scene fittingly reassembled a movie.
“People are moaning and crying, wailing, collapsed on tables and gurneys. The D.P., Caleb Deschanel, is leading a number of crew down the hall in a highly vocal conga line. You can’t make this stuff up.” James Cameron.
Others recall people participating in wheelchair races around the hospital ward.
While a hospital full of a tripping Hollywood cast and crew may sound amusing, the situation was highly dangerous.
Some became violent and Cameron himself was stabbed in the face and left ‘sitting there bleeding and laughing.’
The police were called.
The investigation uncovers deliberate poisoning with PCP
A police toxicology report showed that shellfish was not to blame.
The seafood chowder had been deliberately laced with PCP. Phencyclidine (PCP) is a mind-altering drug that may lead to hallucinations (a profound distortion in a person’s perception of reality).
Depending on the dosage, PCP can cause a range of bizarre behaviors, but can also lead to seizures, coma, and even death, particularly if the user is on any other medications.
It was clear that the Titanic crew had been maliciously poisoned — but why?
Theories around the crime include attempted murder, revenge & fun.
1. Attempted murder
One theory is that the poisoning was an attempt against the life of an individual.
By committing a mass-poisoning, it’s argued that the would-be-murderer could claim one victim among many and police would never be able to identify the actual target.
It’s possible that the criminal believed one individual would react to the poison fatally, due to other meds or a particular susceptibility.
The logic against this theory is that the dosage would have needed to have been significantly higher to kill unless other medications were in the victim’s system.
If this was a Sherlock Holmes or Poirot case, this would certainly be the conclusion!
2. Revenge for the disgruntled employee
James Cameron believed the poisoning to be the work of an ‘idiot’ he’d fired the day before for ‘making trouble with the caterers.’
The fact that the employee was both angry at the Director and the caters, seems to bolster the theory; he used the food from the caters and poisoned Cameron with it.
The caterers were indeed fired following the incident and Cameron was attacked during the hospitalization of the crew, so this plan seems to have succeeded.
However, the disgruntled employee was not seen back on set after they were fired and they likely had little access to the caterer’s kitchens, so they had little opportunity to commit the crime, despite their strong motive.
It’s possible that another member of the Titanic team was disgruntled — Cameron is a notoriously tough Director — perhaps someone else took revenge that night.
3. A prank gone wrong
PCP is used recreationally and some of its effects are indeed amusing.
The cast and crew of the most expensive film ever made doing a conga line and wheelchair racing around a hospital might sound like a terrific joke to someone.
It’s theorized that perhaps one of the crew themselves laced the chowder as part of the celebration — PCP the party drug. Perhaps the individual expected far milder reactions and simply a fun evening for all.
No one ever owned up to the prank and no one had traces of PCP on them or on the set, but the possibility remains that this was a prank.
Other possibilities floated at the time include the theory that a rival studio wanted to prevent the movie from going ahead. This is highly unlikely as Titanic was predicted to sink at the box office.
Another idea was that one of the chefs from the catering company was a PCP user and ‘dumped’ their stash of drugs into the food to avoid detection. This seems way too far-fetched to even be titled a ‘theory.’ PCP is not a drug that can be used discretely…ever.
It’s possible that an individual or group who objected to the filming of the movie on moral grounds attacked the crew in the hope of derailing the production. This again seems unlikely as they’d have little access to the kitchens.
The crime remains unsolved
Despite a two-year investigation, police never closed the case of the Titanic poisoning.
The Director, James Cameron, remains certain that it was an act of revenge by the employee he fired, but others are less certain.
What is known is that around 70 people were dangerously and deliberately poisoned that night and the culprit was never apprehended.
Despite this event, and a number of other unfortunate incidents on set, Titanic went on to be one of the biggest box office hits of all time.
Cameron, Winslet, and DiCaprio were catapulted to the highest levels of stardom and the movie is now a right-of-passage for teenagers around the world.
Other True Crime stories from Jessie London:
How a 17-year-old Convinced a Serial Killer to Spare her Life
The amazing story of Lisa McVey’s fight for survival against one of America’s most predatory criminals.
All sources are linked within the article.