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Hollywood Drowning


"Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life."
Mario Vittone, water survival expert

In media, death by drowning is a horrible, protracted ordeal. The victim flails against the uncaring water and screams for help again and again. At times she slips below the surface but strength born of panic and desperation will bring her back up for air. Finally, all hope gone and her exhausted frame failing her, she goes down for the last time. She may even have a moment to say her Last Words or shed a Single Tear.

In reality, a drowning victim paddles quietly for a few moments and sinks. She is too busy struggling for air to yell or scream, nor can she control her arms enough to wave or signal for help. Instincts are running the show, and they're ineffectually flapping her arms against the water to push her mouth above the surface. An untrained onlooker may not even notice that anything's wrong. Professionals keep a watch for telltale signs like a swimmer bobbing low in the water who is unable to speak or respond when spoken to.

The splashing-and-screaming reaction does sometimes occur — it's what many people do right before they start to drown, and no less an emergency — but not all drowning victims do it. So the lack of a scene does not mean that things are all right. Kids in particular are noisy swimmers, and it's more worrying if they're quiet. This is especially true for very young children who still have a diving reflex: a small child who falls into water will simply hold her breath and sink. Toddlers have drowned in public pools with crowds of people around them.

Shuddering yet? It gets worse. Swimming after someone who's panicking will not only fail to kick off a Rescue Romance and a subplot about fame but may very well get you killed. If you come within her reach, she will grab you and shove you under in a futile attempt to push herself up. An important part of layman's water rescue is knowing when to cut your losses and let the victim drown. Another is knowing how to fight her off and flee. It may be easier to save someone who is already unconscious and needs to be resuscitated, than to attempt to save a struggling victim and end up a victim yourself. Lifeguards and other trained rescuers employ life rings or other floating devices which can be thrown to a drowning victim, allowing them to assist while maintaining a safe distance. If they do physically go in, they approach and grasp the person from behind, raising her up while avoiding any contact with those thrashing arms. And they'll bring some type of flotation device along with them, to make the task easier.

This article should be limited to aversions and egregious examples: tropers cannot be asked to tell if King Graham's drowning animation is realistic enough, unless the process is depicted in detail and gotten wrong.

See also Last Grasp at Life, Super Drowning Skills.



Anime & Manga
  • In Detective Conan: a woman seems to be drowning in the "flailing and bobbing" manner which everyone can see from across the beach and rescue her from. It turns out she wasn't drowning at all; she was faking to see if her fiancee would try and rescue her even though he couldn't swim (which her friend, the only one she told beforehand, takes as a chance to try to kill her without suspicion).

Comic Book
  • In one Archie Comics comic, Veronica wants to invoke a Rescue Romance with a cute fisherman she sees while she and Betty are canoeing down a river. She overturns the canoe and starts flailing and screaming for help, which gets the fisherman to dive in and save her. As he pulls Veronica to shore he calls for Betty to hold on while he comes for her, only for Betty to snarkily note that the river is only waist-deep and she can easily walk out of it.

  • At one point during The Inbetweeners Movie, one of the foursome pushes a kid into a swimming pool. It occurs to the group that the kid might not be able to swim when they see him floating face down in the water.
  • In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Sam's near-drowning occurs without much flailing or noise. Frodo knows he's drowning because he knows Sam can't swim.
  • In Rise of the Guardians, Jack Frost drops through thin ice and only flails for half a second, as the combination of freezing water and lack of air gets the better of him very quickly.

  • In a short story by Bjorn Bjornsterne, called "The Father," a young man drowns after falling out of a boat. He struggles quietly for a few seconds, then rolls over on his back. As the body sinks to the ground and the bubbles stop rising his father realizes that his son has drowned.

Live-Action TV
  • Rescue 911
    • "Twin Drowning": The mother realizes that something's wrong when she hears a conspicuous silence.
    • "Two-Year-Old Pool Save": The mother checks the pool the moment she notices her youngest child is missing, and finds it empty, but doesn't post a watch on it before searching the house.
    • "Texas Pool Tot": The mother turns her back to the pool for 20 seconds.
    • "Double Football Player": A man pulls a boy out of a whirlpool in a river, and once the kid is secure, the rescuer drowns and dies. An onlooker comments that she didn't see him give any sign of distress, and she didn't realize that anything was wrong until he started going under.
    • "Motel Toddler Plunge": It doesn't really count since the kid falls from a third-story window and may well have gone unconscious on impact.
    • For the record, a number of other segments are known to feature drowning, but have not been checked one way or the other: "Potomac River" (s2e11), "Regatta Rescue" (s3e11), "911 My Baby Drowned" (s3e27), "11-Year-Old CPR Save" (s4e6), "911 Nurse's Bathtub Baby" (s5e1), "911 Son in the Spa" (s5e25).

  • Waist Deep In the Big Muddy: "We heard a gurgling cry; a second later, the captain's helmet was all that floated by."

Newspaper Comics
  • One Doonesbury comic has Mike and BD go on vacation to Fort Lauderdale. While at the pool, BD and a pretty girl watch Mike (who is underwater) and assume he's testing his stamina in holding his breath or practicing his underwater swimming. The last panel has Mike thinking, "Actually, what I'm really doing is drowning."

Web Comics
  • The Dragon Doctors: In a spiritual realm that's still enough to do the job; the victim appears in an ocean without boundaries presided over by a drowning spirit; the chilly water completely saps her strength over the course of a handful of panels and she sinks beneath the waves.

Western Animation
  • In Thunder Cats 2011 Lion-O drowns after falling into a river and being pinned under a boulder.

Video Games
  • In Photopia, a work-at-home mom hears a splash, and when she looks outside, her daughter is floating face down in the pool. The game notes the mother's restraint in taking the stairs five at a time instead of throwing herself down the staircase.

Real Life

Cough splutter gasp ack:

  • The Green Hornet really played up the loud flailing and splashing and even a roughly intelligible yell of "I can't swim". The drowner is saved with an inflatable lobster.
  • It's done in-universe in the second Addams Family movie. Campers are learning lifeguarding techniques. The Alpha Bitch, a "great actress", jumps in to pretend to drown with a display of worried shouts and flailing arms.
    • Also an inversion, as when the Large Ham gets into genuine distress in the water, she just goes under without ceremony.

Newspaper Comics
  • In Peanuts, Peppermint Patty flunks an English test and describes and re-enacts a dramatic drowning in grammar, complete with going down three times (and sputtering commas).

Western Animation
  • Common in Looney Tunes, particularly when Wile E. Coyote is drowning. Complete with the hand coming up with fingers enumerating "one... two... three..."
  • In Beetle Juice, Jacques almost drowned with the same gag as as Wile E. Coyote above.