Local History: A chowder to remember

Plus: When a drugged meal in Halifax sent the cast and crew of a Hollywood blockbuster into turbulent waters

In August 1996, filmmaker James Cameron and his crew were in Halifax shooting scenes for the soon-to-be blockbuster movie Titanic, when a strange setback hit the project.

It began when Cameron, along with actor Bill Paxton and dozens of crew, decided to follow the path of so many visitors, and have a feed of traditional seafood chowder.

“The chowder was unbelievable,” recalls a crew member. “People were going back for second bowls. I really thought about going back because it was so good. And I think that was part of the problem: People ate a lot more than usual because it was so delicious.”

Within a few minutes, it was clear something was amiss, as Paxton later described to Entertainment Weekly: “The crew was all milling about. Some people were laughing, some people were crying, some people were throwing up … One minute I felt okay, the next minute I felt so goddamn anxious I wanted to breathe in a paper bag.”

Bill Paxton

Eighty people ended up in hospital, where doctors initially suspected food poisoning. Tests soon revealed that the chowder had been spiked, and the victims were experiencing the potent effects of the narcotic PCP. 

In 1998, the Calgary Herald published an article titled “Titanic Mystery: Who Spiked the Chowder?” In it, Paxton and Cameron shared their anger and confusion over the incident, saying that whoever laced the chowder put everyone on set, including elderly people and children, in danger.

Police never arrested anyone for the mass drugging, and there are no known suspects. Urban legend has it that the culprit was a disgruntled chef, while others believed that a crew member was attempting to get revenge on Cameron, who had a reputation for being a tyrannical director

Everyone recovered with no lasting effects, and Titanic went on to be one of the most successful films of all time, winning 11 Oscars and becoming the first movie to make over $1 billion in revenue.

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