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Overly dramatic portrayals of drowning in movies and TV spread deadly disinformation. This and other tropes show that if you believe everything you see, it could kill you.

Fuck you Hollywood. People don’t drown like they drown in movies. As explained by Navy and Coast Guard veteran Mario Vittone, drowning is usually a silent, undramatic, and chilling accident.

When drowning, the Instinctive Drowning Response causes the victim to react in ways we’re not used to seeing on screen. The victim is unlikely to make much movement above the water, instinctively trying to breathe and stay afloat with their hands under the water. Their mouth will likely be low in the water, sinking and reappearing. In most cases they will not be able shout for help, instead hyperventilating or gasping. If they can’t or don’t respond when you ask them if they’re OK, then they probably need help. (None of this means that someone panicking in the water doesn’t need your immediate help, too.)

Hollywood and television deserve much of the blame for reinforcing this misconception, making us think the opposite of how drowning actually looks. In recent movies, characters who drown—or come close to drowning—are almost always shown either flailing their arms in overdramatic panic or demonstrating an ability to think clearly until the end. The misconception about drowning that these scenes have reinforced is deadly and shows little sign of relenting.

According to the latest available data, around 700 children under 15 drown each year, with around 90 percent of these drownings happening while the child is in the care of an adult—though most caregivers admitted that they were distracted while supervising children that died. Considering how difficult drowning is to spot, it’s no wonder that measures such as installing fences around pools and keeping children in reaching distance are recommended. Knowing what drowning really looks like, rather than the Hollywood version, is essential as well.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have guidelines for TV writers and producers to follow if they want to better present an accurate picture of drowning. The C.D.C. makes it very clear: “Drowning children rarely are able to call for help or wave their arms, and thus usually drown silently.”

Breaking free of this perilous hyperreality isn’t going to be easy. There’s a whole catalog of cinemagraphic misconceptions to correct, but unlike when we hear the phrase in movies, some of these situations actually are “a case of life and death.”

Doctors’ Facepalm

An EMT explained in a forum post one example of idiocy they’ve faced thanks to Hollywood: “Emergency medical service providers will insist on interrupting the game to get information. ‘Grandpa will be just fine for another hour and a half because’ and I quote ‘those neurosurgeons can just turn him back on, you know, like in that movie?’”

No, we can’t turn Grandpa back on. But if you wanted to turn Grandpa back on, what machine would you choose? “Defibrillator” is the wrong answer. If someone is flatlining and their heart has stopped, you cannot shock them back to life with defibrillator paddles. You actually use a defibrillator to correct certain types of off-rhythm and uncoordinated heart beats. But then, shocking a flatliner doesn’t do any harm, right? In which case: CLEAR!

Strangle the Snake, Not Your Limb

Doctors are likely to advise you not to suck the poison from a snake bite. The poison will spread to the victim’s body quicker than you can react, and you have zero training. You’re more likely to infect the wound than do it any good by sucking on it. Just get the victim to a hospital and help him keep calm. If he happens to have also been shot in the arm during the struggle with the snake, then what bad luck! Don’t use a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Tourniquets only really help to increase the chance of you losing the limb you’re strangling.

And only in the most exceptional circumstances would you use a tourniquet for a snake bite, as one Tennessean man discovered when he was bitten. A passerby suggested applying a tourniquet, having seen it done in a Western. The tourniquet had the effect of keeping most of the venom in one place, killing tissue, while simultaneously cutting blood pressure and making the man temporarily blind.

Police Shoot Shooters, CSI Kills Trial by Jury

It’s the single most common line in a cinematic face-off: “Go on, shoot me.” And usually, the police do. You see, when someone says “Go on, shoot me!” they are really saying “I’m so crazy [wanting to die and all] that I could shoot you at anytime, so you better goddamn shoot me first.”

Law & Order Executive Producer Dick Wolf is very aware of this trope. He explained to NPR, “You know, it’s surprising. I don’t think people usually expect to get shot.” But this disconnect between real life and TV shows wasn’t entirely carried through in Law & Order—Wolf notes that a key part of the show is making a regular “acerbic, sarcastic, or insightful comment about the stupidity of murder,” and that there is a regular rhythm and structure to the show. Interrupting the rhythm by slaying a misconception or two on screen would disrupt this rhythm. But in trying to depict real-life policing, it’s in the show’s interest to be ahead of their competitors by killing the clichés.

CSI is different. It has demonstrated that misconception can truly affect the reality of criminal procedure. The show initially had the effect of raising jurors’ expectations regarding the sort of evidence that prosecutors are capable of producing at a trial, and also creating an overreliance on the quality of scientific evidence. Criminals then began to take note of technique used by detectives in CSI to avoid being caught in real life. But civilians are watching, too, and based on the show, they’d better preserve evidence.

So you might say things are balancing out.


TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith