The audience in the movie theatre sits in darkness, their faces lit occasionally by flashes of light from the screen. It's a late showing of the latest blockbuster, so the seats are filled with a young crowd. Almost everyone is eating or drinking: nachos, candy or sodas the size of their heads. But by far the most popular snack is popcorn. Vast cardboard cartons are clutched in laps or balanced on arm rests. Hands reach in to stuff mouths mechanically. Stray kernels litter the floor. They fall down girls' tops and gather on men's belt buckles.
Those who were forced to sit near the front dare not try it: it is only safe to do so in the true dark of the back rows. The young men that sit there are quietly confident. Most of them have already put an arm around their date.
This is an epidemic: a movie theatre in Birmingham, Alabama, has banned the sale of popcorn under heavy pressure from evangelical Christian groups, who claim that they must stamp out the so-called “popcorn trick”, a thoroughly unholy disturbance that is becoming rife amongst the state's youth.
A brief visit to a multiplex in Montgomery reveals that the popcorn trick is indeed common practice among young males. I surveyed young women in their teens, asking if they had been targeted. Almost all answered yes, and one nineteen year old even confessed to having been targeted on a first date.
'I should have seen it coming. He was desperate to get a super-sized carton. I wanted sweet but he insisted on butter, now I know why. Midway through the trailers I went to the bathroom. That's when he must have cut the hole. Then I came back and stuck my hand in the popcorn, and there it was. I screamed.'
In movie theatres across the country, girls happily bury their hand into the carton of popcorn they are sharing with their boyfriend, only to find an erect penis hidden amongst the buttery puffs.
Growing up, I lived in the same valley as a popcorn manufacturing plant. With tremendous foresight, my mother banned both my brother and me from eating it. She rightly claimed it was unhealthy and overpriced. Even when I went to the movies with friends in my teens, I was too scared to disobey her in case she caught a lost kernel in my hair or noticed a buttery sheen on my lips. Any dates who might have tried the popcorn trick on me were quickly turned off by my piety. In adulthood I have been duly seduced by chocolate and alcohol: popcorn feels like the child's option at the movies. But this uproar in Birmingham had me wondering what exactly I've been missing out on.
It's been a bad year for corn crops in America. High temperatures and drought have blighted as much as two thirds of many farmers' yields. This will devastate farming communities, and push prices up on a global scale. I've come to see the corn farmers of Iowa, to see if they agree with the Church's latest theory; has God sent this blight to curb the sinful effects of popping corn?
The Marshall County Corn Farmers' Union hold their monthly socials in an empty barn near Laurel, at the intersection of three crops. Tonight the sky is heavy with storm clouds, which four months ago would have been welcomed. Now, it is a case of too little, too late. The farmers have come to drown their sorrows.
Only one man agrees to talk to me. Louis Nixon seems particularly downbeat, and his liquor bottle is larger than others'. He slides into the front seat of my car and looks straight out the windscreen at the approaching clouds. He could be fifty, or much younger, as his face is lined from the sun but his hair is not yet grey. I wonder if the stress of this season will change that.
I ask him if he's familiar with the popcorn trick. He laughs.
'Sure. That trick's been going since my father's days. I would've thought girls would be wise to it by now.'
I assure him that this is not the case. I ask if he thinks the drought could have been sent by God, as punishment for the sins of corn. Only then does he turn to look at me.
'Well, sure it's been sent by God. But all my corn goes to feed livestock, so I don't see why I should be the one punished if some horny teenagers can't keep it in their pants.'
I soon find that it's not just horny teenagers who are being affected. Mitchell Davis, a truck driver from Des Moines, has been tortured by a shred of popcorn that has been stuck between his teeth for thirteen months.
'I used to love having a bag of caramel corn on the dash of my truck when I was driving. It was a test of my driving skill, to see if I could drive smooth enough to stop the bag falling off. One bag would never last long anyway. But this time, it was a Tuesday, I was on Highway 102 and I was almost done with a bag. Now I used to get bits of it stuck in my teeth all the time. You could usually wiggle it out with a toothpick. But this Tuesday when it got stuck, well it's still never come out to this day.'
Mr. Davis says he has tried everything; he has brushed and flossed until his gums bled, and he has even tried eating more popcorn, in the hope that another piece will dislodge this rogue fragment. But strangest of all, Mr. Davis's dentist was unable to identify the fragment when he visited him in distress one month later.
'Apparently it's quite a common thing; once the thing gets out, you keep imagining that it's still there. But it's a phantom sensation.'
Phantom or not, Mr. Davis continues to be tortured.
'When I'm driving now, I prefer cookies, or even potato chips. Sometimes I reckon the sharp corner of a potato chip could get it out. I can't even look at popcorn now.' For him at least, the poor crop yield is a blessing. He doesn't have to drive long routes along the highways, passing endless fields of tall, swaying corn ears taunting him. The stalks are stumpy this year, which is a comfort.
Thirty-year-old Trudy Lipman also used to love popcorn. For nine years she worked for AshForce Mail Order, who coordinate white goods mail orders across the state. In 2009, Trudy's bosses started using popcorn as a replacement packing material for polystyrene, in an effort to be more environmentally conscious. This soon proved problematic for Trudy, who has been battling popcorn addiction ever since.
I meet her in a diner near her home. She is neatly dressed and bright. I notice a candy corn milkshake on the menu, but she either does not see it, or she has developed enough self-control to only order coffee.
'I had recently started a diet at the time. I wanted to lose thirty pounds before my sister's wedding, so I cut out all candy, cookies and chips and I switched to diet soda. Then they started using popcorn for packing at work. My job was to check the delivery notes that were slid in the top of the boxes. So when I took the delivery note out, I would just eat a couple of bits of popcorn. It didn't seem like a big deal. It's not like I worked in a cake factory.'
But Trudy's innocent habit soon began to spiral out of control. 'Soon, I was craving popcorn all the time. But I couldn't eat it plain any more; it was my replacement treat for all the candy I was missing. At my worst, I took a salt cellar into work and kept it in my pocket. I would sprinkle each handful of popcorn with salt before eating it. I was soon eating five or six handfuls per box. Luckily, you couldn't really notice it missing because they used so much. I was careful, but it did take me longer to check each order. And then I started eating it at home too.'
Trudy continued her subterfuge for two years. The hidden salt cellar went unnoticed, but although she managed to lose twenty seven pounds before her sister's wedding, her blood pressure sky-rocketed. Plain popcorn is hailed as a high-fibre, low-fat snack alternative to chips and candy, but since Trudy was smothering hers in salt, her sodium intake went through the roof. She is now having to beat her addiction if she wants to have a child as planned in the next couple of years.
Addiction specialists say salted popcorn addiction is particularly difficult to beat; the physical lightness of the food, and the fact it doesn't look greasy or bad for you, means it's harder for the brain to compute its dangers. Furthermore, you can often eat popcorn inconsequentially, while you're watching TV, cooking or even vacuuming, making it even more deadly than alcoholism. Addicts crave that puckered mouth feel that comes with too much salt; until they get that feeling, their brain tells them to keep eating. And as the addiction progresses, they're constantly aiming for that saturated feeling, which means eating a lot of popcorn. Trudy says she suffered from terrible dehydration headaches.
'I also had steam burns on my hands from opening the microwave bags too quickly. I was a mess. It was only when I visited my doctor for a routine check-up that I realised what effect popcorn was having on my body.'
She is now on a controlled dosage of one bag per day, provided she drinks plenty of water, as well as drugs to lower her blood pressure. Soon she hopes to make the switch to plain. 'Switching to candy corn for a while is another option, but my dentist isn't so keen on that,' she jokes.
I leave the diner before Trudy, who is waiting for a friend. As I stand at the crossing I watch her out of the corner of my eye. To a stranger, she is just a nicely-dressed woman; she isn't even noticeably overweight. She doesn't have the yellowed fingertips of a nicotine addict, or the bloodshot eyes of an alcoholic. Hers is a hidden addiction, controlled by something thought to be so innocent.
The National Association for Popcorn Addiction (NAPA) has noticed a sharp rise in the addiction in the under-25s. But it's not the salty taste that they crave. NAPA chairman, Colonel Parker, says it all stems from the rise of social media.
'Popcorn has always been associated with entertainment: you're sitting down as a family to watch a movie, so you make a big bowl of popcorn to share. This became the ritual that when a spectacle was going on, like a fight between colleagues at work, you would joke that you would bring popcorn to make the whole thing a real “event”. But what we've found now with young people and the rise of Facebook events and Twitter hashtags and so on, is that they are getting addicted to making “non-events” popcorn-worthy.'
He tells me one mother's story of her fifteen-year-old son, who some days eats a bowl of popcorn for every half-hour news bulletin.
'He isn't even interested in the news normally, but with popcorn he can make it an Event. Young people today just cannot deal with their mundane, everyday existence. They must tag, check in and tweet constantly.'
The most extreme cases eat entire bowls just sitting watching the world go by out of their bedroom window. Colonel Parker says 'they need to imagine they are seeing everything on a screen. The world needs to be watched, and recorded, and put on YouTube, and popcorn helps with this feeling that our whole lives are made of Events that are worthy of sharing on the internet. More often than not, of course, there's nothing exciting for them to witness, but the damage is already done.'
Popcorn only continues to be glamorised; it is the new favourite for experimentation with celebrity chefs and new gourmet flavours are the foodie gift of choice. Critics fear that it's only a matter of time before popcorn becomes the new cupcake. Will they develop new, more elaborate pornographic tricks using salted caramel popcorn, or chocolate and chilli flavour? Will anxious teens build up huge debts through peer pressure to pop the latest variety? Mini popcorn, super-sized, popcorn-flavoured potato chips, popcorn birthday cakes. Popcorn soda and gum. This slide from innocence to addiction seems inevitable, especially if the trend is fuelled by social media.
This year, a man from Illinois was awarded damages of over $7m from a popcorn manufacturer, after claiming that there was no warning on bags of microwave popcorn that inhaling large amounts of diacetyl, found in buttered popcorn, could cause health problems. He had averaged two bags a day for years and had developed so-called “popcorn lung” which has been linked to diacetyl. He is no impressionable youth, but he is another victim of this increasingly lawless world.
His case has finally brought the dangers of popcorn to the attention of politicians. Using this leverage, NAPA has reached out to the government to control the grain nationally. The Republican party say that access to popcorn is a right. I search, but I can find no mention of popcorn in the Constitution. The Democrats, conscious of rising obesity, youth social problems and the cost of dental care, seem more willing to open discussions.
When I interview Iowa State Governor, Mac Percy, he is nostalgic. 'Popcorn symbolises first dates at the drive-in movies, which is a great American tradition. It is important that our children's children still know that magic.' When I ask him if he ever tried the popcorn trick in his youth, he is evasive. If a bill was to be passed, politicians could well fear a new type of kiss-and-tell; teenage dates from their past outing their love of large buckets of buttered.
There is only one place left for me to visit on this quest: my home town, and the root of my popcorn memories. After Iowa, I travel there, to see if I can confront the dirtiest demons left in this deadly chain.
Reed & Core popcorn and candy manufacturers are responsible for the employment of thirty per cent of the workforce in my home town. They produce forty per cent of the nation's popcorn, supplying to movie theatres, theme parks and selling it in stores.
I watch from the parking lot. It's a Monday afternoon, so what I assume is this week's supply of salt arrives in an unmarked truckload. I think of Trudy's high blood pressure and my own rises. From the outside, the factory could be producing anything from fridges to orange juice to paper clips. There is no sign that it deals in the most dangerous form of metamorphosis.
As I am considering trying to get inside, a 350 Ford Mustang rolls into the lot. I recognise CEO Jerry Reed's face from Google, even with half of it hidden behind huge aviators. He has not answered any of my letters or phone calls. Does he know he is a wanted man, responsible for the newest sin of the modern world?
He's young, having inherited the business after his father's death four years ago. He parks in his marked space and waits a moment before stepping out of the car. He's dressed to match it: expensive shoes, jeans, and even a Letterman jacket. His hair is slicked back. He would look ridiculous if he wasn't so handsome. As he steps out, he brushes at his crotch and a few bits of popcorn fall to the ground. Sure enough, he is holding a squashed empty carton. I see him lick something off his lips. Has he been to the movies? Is he monitoring the competition, or testing the quality of his own brand? Did he choose salted, buttered or sweet? I am mesmerized.
I close my eyes; I am at the movies with Jerry Reed. We agree to share a large bucket of buttered. In the darkness of the theatre I brush arms with the Popcorn King, our fingers touching as we reach to fill our mouths with the taste of suspense. It is hot and salty on my tongue.