Created By: ViktorCrowford on November 21, 2011 Last Edited By: ViktorCrowford on January 9, 2012

No Pulse Means Exitus

If you don\\\'t feel a pulse, don\\\'t bother.

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The standard procedure whenever a character (usually in crime series) discovers a corpse: They will either put their hand on the victim's wrist or neck, stare at it for two seconds, and then loudly announce their death, and also that nooone should touch anything. At this point, expect everyone in the audience who has any emergency training to cringe. Because in real life, just because you can't feel a pulse does not mean that the person is irrevocably dead. This is the very reason CPR exists - you are only supposed to use it if there is no pulse (or a very weak one in certain circumstances, but let's not be nitpicky). While not everyone in real life knows this, the amount of fictional police officers, detectives and sometimes even medical personnel who apparently never heard of modern medical emergency procedure is truly staggering. Of course, there are clear signs of death (like rigor mortis), but almost noone actually goes so far as to check for them. Sometimes even people who clearly were alive moments ago are only given the pulse check and then the coroner is called in. In even more egregious cases, just the breathing is checked, which is an even worse indicator.

This can be perfectly justified in historical settings, since the idea of someone being able to survive after breathing and circulation have stopped is fairly recent. Resuscitation was first studied in the late 18th century, and modern CPR has only been around since the 1950s.

Somewhat the other extreme of CPR (Clean, Pretty, Reliable) - instead of CPR being a miracle cure, it is apparently unknown. A subtrope of He's Dead, Jim.

Examples:

  • Jonathan Creek, all the time. At least once this was used to determine the death of someone who had a heart attack literally five seconds ago.
  • Case Closed sometimes even went a step further - declaring someone dead from across the room. You'd really think at least Conan knows that not everyone who has an unblinking stare is dead.
  • Soap: Burt has a crisis of faith so he goes to talk to his old priest, now a bishop. The bishop dies via the Big Sleep while Burt is talking to him. Burt barely even checks for a pulse.

Subversions, Lampshades and Parodies:

  • In the climax of Tiger & Bunny, Barnaby pronounces Kotetsu dead. Everyone is thus shocked when he seemingly comes back to life, whereupon he points out that nobody checked his pulse.
  • In the pilot episode for The Dreamstone, Rufus checks the wrist of Pildit following an attack, and is convinced he is dead. He catches up with him alive and well shortly afterwards.
  • The Little Mermaid: After Ariel rescues Prince Eric, Scuttle checks for a heartbeat but can't make one out. Because he was checking it on his foot.

Community Feedback Replies: 31
  • November 21, 2011
    Lyendith
    I agree there is no need for straight examples since it's so desperately common. Besides aversions and subversions, we can list parodies and lampshades... there has to be some.
  • November 21, 2011
    Katana
    Here's a Lampshaded Aversion.
    • In the climax of Tiger And Bunny, Barnaby pronounces Kotetsu dead. Everyone is thus shocked when he seemingly comes back to life, whereupon he points out that nobody checked his pulse.
  • November 21, 2011
    Psi001
    • A rare aversion in the pilot episode for The Dreamstone, Rufus checks the wrist of Pildit following an attack, and is convinced he is dead. He catches up with him alive and well shortly afterwards.
  • November 21, 2011
    ParadiscaCorbasi
    I think this is Hes Dead Jim, which is troping of the multiple ways someone determines one who looks dead is dead, with or without a tricorder.
  • November 21, 2011
    captainpat
    No, straight examples will do. This is a common trope but not omnipresent.
  • November 21, 2011
    ViktorCrowford
    I think it could still be it's own trope. Hes Dead Jim lists all the ways an audience is convinced someone dies, either by being told, shown or it being metaphorically implied. This is a very specific instance of everyone in fiction forgetting that things like CPR and defibrillation exist. Note that several of the examples listed on Hes Dead Jim link to their own tropes as well.

    Ok, for now I am also collecting straight examples. If they are overwhelming we can still remove them afterward.
  • November 22, 2011
    StarryEyed
    Can obviously be justified in certain historical settings.
  • November 23, 2011
    peccantis
    No gratuitous Latin in names please? "Death" is a perfectly usable word.
  • November 23, 2011
    ViktorCrowford
    I was hoping someone would offer an actually witty title anyway. But that aside, I would still prefer Exitus over Death in this title. It nicely fits in with the medical context, in a way Death doesn't. And really, we shouldn't overdo it with dumbing down trope names.
  • November 23, 2011
    randomsurfer
    Soap: Burt has a crisis of faith so he goes to talk to his old priest, now a bishop. The bishop dies via the Big Sleep while Burt is talking to him. Burt barely even checks for a pulse.
  • November 26, 2011
    TonyG
    The Little Mermaid: After Ariel rescues Prince Eric, Scuttle checks for a heartbeat but can't make one out. Because he was checking it on his foot.
  • December 1, 2011
    zarpaulus
    SSDD: Tessa was once mistaken for being dead because she doesn't have a pulse due to her mechanical heart.
  • December 3, 2011
    TonyG
    On Modern Family, Phil and Claire go into their old neighbor's home and find him in his chair, seemingly dead. Phil checks for a pulse, and that's when the neighbor wakes up, scaring them both.
  • December 3, 2011
    Antigone3
    Subversion in the Doctor Who episode The Daemons. A local physician tells Jo that the Third Doctor is dead, there's no way anyone could have survived, checks just to shut her up ... and finds a pulse.
  • December 4, 2011
    Arivne
  • December 7, 2011
    Mozgwsloiku
    Used in Marvel comics with Sabretooth - Silver Sable defeated him by Deadly Dodging in an unstable ruin and left him buried. There was no pulse in the arm sticking out of the rubble but obviously he got better.
  • December 7, 2011
    Vegifrog
    In an episode of Justice League Unlimited, Green Arrow uses a special type of stun-gun to appear dead. This was to show Wild Cat what it would feel like to kill someone. After Wild Cat sees that Green Arrow has no pulse...no one trys to revive him.
  • December 8, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    I'm not sure which of your categories you'd put this one, so I'll let you do it:

    In the Agatha Christie short story "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" (AKA "The Theft of the Royal Ruby"), Poirot plays on this trope. He attends a Christmas party at a country house, and the children of the house stage a murder scene for him as a prank. Poirot already knows their plans and asks the intended victim to help him by making the murder look real, using a tourniquet on her arm to temporarily stop the pulse from her wrist. He gets another guest to touch her wrist to prove to him that she's really dead, then shoos the family inside (away from the body).
  • December 9, 2011
    MidnightMan
    • Subverted in Death Becomes Her: The female leads clearly have no pulse (and they are dead in a sense), but they're quite lively nevertheless.
  • December 9, 2011
    Darthcaliber
    An episode of He Man had Skeletor invoke this to his advantage. Skeletor tricks He-Man into thinking he has accidentally killed a man. But in fact the dead man was really General Tataran of the Goblin Army in disguise. General Tataran had no heart and therefore no heartbeat, so when disguised as a human, his heartbeat could not be felt and he appeared to be dead.

  • December 12, 2011
    Arivne
    Film
    • The Matrix. Agent Smith has just shot Neo in the chest numerous times. Another Agent puts his fingers to Neo's neck to check his pulse, announces "He's gone", and the Agents turn and walk away.
  • December 15, 2011
    TiggersAreGreat
    Comic Books

    • Batman checks Jason Todd's pulse and doesn't find one in Death In The Family. He automatically assumes that Jason is as dead as a doornail.

    Literature

    • Sisterhood series by Fern Michaels: When Barbara Rutledge is struck by a hit-and-run driver in Weekend Warriors, Nikki Quinn checks for a pulse, and there isn't one. This, of course, is used to mean that Barbara is dead, along with her unborn child!
  • January 6, 2012
    Darthcaliber
    ^to be fair Batman also noted that Jason was "already getting cold to the touch" Jason was actually dead he was resurrected later. The original explanation was it was a result of Superboy Prime punching a hole in reality (No Really) but the writers (Wisely) retconed this by saying his body was stolen by Ra's al Ghul and revived in a Lazarus pit.
  • January 6, 2012
    reub2000
    • Sherlock Holmes - Watson declares Lord Blackwood dead after detecting no pulse. He's not dead at all.
    • House - I forget the episode, but after House learns that the patient of the week has assumed the identity of a dead person, he makes a point of taking the patients pulse.
  • January 6, 2012
    Ckuckoo
    ^^^^ If the characters are trying to kill someone, then it is justified they don't bother to try and use CPR or whatever to see if he/she can be brought back. I think this should be clarified in the trope description.
  • January 6, 2012
    randomsurfer
    A similar thing happens on Star Trek. A doctor will quickly scan a body and say Hes Dead Jim. Zig Zagged on Deep Space Nine, where in an early episode Dr. Bashir revives a patient whom the tricorder says is dead, telling O'Brien that tricorders are great for living beings but not so good on dead ones. But then after that one scene we constantly see Bashir doing the quick scan/"he's dead" just like any other Star Trek doctor.
  • January 6, 2012
    JonnyB
    Exitus?
  • January 6, 2012
    reub2000
    Okay, the House episode I referenced was Fall From Grace. That would be an inversion, right?
    Danny Jennings is dead, meaning Danny Jennings has no pulse, you on the other hand, do, ergo, you are not Danny Jennings, or I did the test wrong.
  • January 8, 2012
    ChaoticNovelist
    Is there a reason 'exitus' is in the title? I personally don't have a problem but someone else might raise a stink.
  • January 9, 2012
    razorrozar7
    Exitus might be a little clumsy. It's not unlaunchable with that title, but there are definitely better options. I'll third No Pulse Means Death, partially because that allows for an eventual Snowclone called No Pulse No Problem, which would be hilarious.
  • January 9, 2012
    SorciaMacNasty
    Literature: Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" -- subverted, since the doctor who declares a character to be dead (based on a supposed lack of pulse) is revealed later to have been assisting a faked death [spoiler: Dr. Armstrong and Judge Wargrave as doctor and patient, respectively].
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