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Playing Possum
Quando omni flunkus moritati.note 
—Motto of Possum Lodge.

A small-scale exchange of fire has just taken place. The bad guys see one of the heroes lying on the ground, apparently dead, with a sword or whatever sticking out of him or her.

They approach the apparent corpse, or corpse is brought to them via The Body Bag Trick. As they stand over them, the "corpse" opens their eyes. And beats them up.

In Real Life, this is a war crime and has been since 1977. The Laws and Customs of War state that those soldiers that are hors de combat ("out of the fight") a category that includes prisoners, the severely wounded, the dead and ejecting aircrew — although not paratroopers — are not to be attacked. Feigning that status is perfidy and highly illegal, since it would lead to the other side killing the genuinely wounded on the spot (which is a war crime too) to make sure. Of course, fictionally (and non-fictionally), you're often up against people who aren't signatories to the Geneva Conventions, or the instigator themselves is not protected under them due to not belonging to any 'official' government...

Although, playing dead in Real Life does have its quirks in specific situations. Such as when being confronted by certain animals, like bears, who are hardwired to mostly take interest in prey that look alive and kicking. If you can pull it off long enough, the animal in question will most likely leave your body alone, giving you a chance to escape.

Note that Playing Possum is a phrase inspired by the Virginia opossum, which famously feigns death and produces a rotting smell. Proper possums are not noted for employing this strategy. Unfortunately for the opossum, this response to danger is involuntary and often leaves it incapacitated in a dangerous situation.

Subtrope of Faking the Dead. See also I Surrender, Suckers. Compare Defensive Feint Trap. Contrast Finger Twitching Revival and Of Corpse He's Alive.

Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga  
  • Jotaro Kujo from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure plays dead in order to draw his opponent, Dio Brando, within attacking range. As Jotaro currently has a bunch of knives in his body, he can't afford to take any more hits from Dio, so he waits until Dio is practically inches from him and then uses Star Platinum to deliver a skull-shattering punch.
  • Deed attempts this during the finale of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS so she can perform one last sneak attack on Teana (it fails thanks to Vice), though since she was struck by stun rounds, it's more accurate to say that she was playing unconscious instead of playing dead.
  • Hei from Darker Than Black does this in the second episode, at which point we and some hapless goons learn both that his Badass Longcoat is bulletproof and that he doesn't really go in for that whole "fighting fair" thing.
  • Samurai Champloo : Mugen against a Shaolin trained swordsman at the end of 'Lethal Lunacy'. After pretended to be weakened by his opponent's chi attack, he waits for the swordsman to come close to strike the Coup de Grâce, only for Mugen to kill him with a knife built into the opposite end of his sheath.

    Comic Books 
  • Preacher: Cassidy does this when investigating a Serial Killer's apartment. Just as he finds the corpses (and the guy whose face was cut off and nailed back upside down, he hears the police coming in and realizes he's been set up. So he grabs the first scalpel he finds, jabs it in his throat and plays dead.

    Fan Works 
  • A Growing Affection has Kakashi pretend to be caught by a foe's mind control technique, so he can learn more about their combat and tactics.

    Film 
  • In Rambo III, Rambo shoots down a huge Russian gunship with a small bazooka, by playing dead until it approaches within point-blank range.
  • Robert Carlyle's character in period film Plunkett and Mcclean does this at the end of the film.
  • The bad guys sometimes pull this trick as well. See Hot Shots!! Part Deux for a spoof of this.
  • In The Patriot, Col. Tavington does this at least once.
  • Karl does this in Die Hard. Like the previous example, it goes rather poorly for him.
  • In Fatal Attraction, Glen Close appears to be dead— but wakes up and attacks Michael Douglas again.
  • In the movie Runaway Jury, Marlee plays possum to stab a hitman's leg.
  • Liam Neeson's character Bryan Mills in the movie Taken does this in one scene. After Mills massacres all the bad guys in the kitchen, the men standing guard outside run in to find the cause of the commotion. They see a room filled with dead bodies. Suddenly Mills begins firing from underneath a corpse.
  • Played straight in Enemy at the Gates, with two characters both pretending to be dead in order to eliminate a German officer. On the other hand, the German soldiers were bayoneting corpses just in case.
  • BB uses this trick against her mommy near the end of Kill Bill Volume 2.
  • In Plunkett And Macleane Plunkett uses this to lethal effect during the finale.
  • In The Dark Knight The Joker uses this to gain control of a gang.
  • Zombieland and its golden rule, the doubletap, is key to avoiding this kind of situation with zombies.
  • In Shooter, Bob Lee Swagger is badly wounded after being shot twice, but as a highly trained Marine Scout Sniper he is far from disabled. He plays up his injuries so FBI Agent Memphis will get close to him, then quickly disarms him and steals his car.
  • The Big Red One. German infantry lay doggo around a knocked-out panzer and its dead crew, planning to ambush the main troops once The Squad of Americans have finished their recon. Fortunately Lee Marvin's character notices the mixed uniforms (panzer troops have red piping on their shoulder tabs, but infantry have white).
  • The Thing (1982) does this. Most notably with Norris-Thing. It doesn't quite work out as planned, though. Instead of being treated like a dead body, Norris-Thing is shocked with a defibrillator and retaliates by biting off Doc's Arms when he goes in for a second shock.
    • It was more successful with the attack on Bennigs by what was assumed to be a completely dead and burned body.
  • In Casino Royale, James Bond's first kill stops struggling a bit too quickly while being drowned in a toilet. He also waits a bit too long to leap back up, though, allowing Bond to retrieve his gun and kill him for real.
  • In P2, Angela performs one of these after a game of chicken, allowing her to stab her kidnapper in the eye, grab his keys to uncuff herself, and then cuff him to the car door.
  • In Dragonheart:
    • Bowen does this in the novelization after falling off a wall during the training scene at the start.
    • In the film, Einon does this briefly after falling down a flight of stairs. Einon can't actually die unless Draco does, because he shares Draco's heart.
    • In the sequel, Dragonheart: A New Beginning, Osric and his men do this. Osric pretends he's dying in order to try and get half of Drake's heart, but when Geoff realizes that he's not hurt, Osric and his "dead" men jump to their feet and attack.

    Literature 
  • This is used in the book The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, during the siege of Helm's Deep. After Aragorn and Éomer have run off a group of Uruk-hai, a dozen of them pretend to be dead and leap up on them when their backs are turned - only to have Gimli pop up and cleave off two of their heads in a typically Dwarven display of awesome.
  • In the novel Robert A. Heinlein Time Enough for Love, Lazarus Long, having lived for 2,000 years and fought in numerous wars, mentions that he knows to "waste" a bullet in any "corpses" he runs across during battle.
  • This tactic is used so often in the WW2 novels by Sven Hassel that veteran soldiers never pass an enemy corpse without putting a bullet in it.
  • Tsubodai comes up with such a plan in Wolf of the Plains when the Mongols move to attack the Shizuan fort. Those with the hammers feign death and, when the Xi Xia soldiers come to loot their corpses, they jump up and attack the now-open fort with the rest of the Mongol army waiting just around the mountain.
  • In Dan Abnett's Warhammer 40,000 Gaunt's Ghosts novel Blood Pact, when Maggs attacks Kolding, he goes down. Gaunt tries to stop Maggs, and Kolding reappears to clock Maggs from behind; he explains to Gaunt that he thought it wiser to stay down — and that Maggs had clearly been hallucinating.
  • Harry in Harry Potter. He is apparently killed by Voldemort. It didn't quite work. He ended up playing possum until he could slip away unnoticed, only to confront Voldemort again and come out on top.
  • In Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Triumph, Sharpe survives Dodd's massacre, as the Sole Survivor, in the opening by this.
  • Invoked in The Inheritance Cycle's third installment, Brisingr, when King Galbatorix starts enchanting soldiers so they feel virtually no pain. They can thus play possum when they really are sorely wounded.

    Live Action TV 
  • Star Trek: The Original Series:
    • In episode "Journey to Babel", Kirk defeats an untouchably-fast enemy ship by shutting down the Enterprise ship's power and pretending to be dead, causing the enemy ship to close in for the kill; this allows the Enterprise to disable the ship with one well-placed phaser shot.
    • In "Balance of Terror", the Romulan commander orders debris ejected into space (along with the body of his friend the Centurion) to make it look like his ship has been destroyed so that the Enterprise will drop its pursuit. The trick doesn't work.
    • In "The Ultimate Computer," the M5, convinced that "murdering" men and women on the starships in the war games deserves death, deliberately drops the Enterpise's shields to induce the other ships to destroy it. Kirk keeps the shields down in order to restore communications and the commander of the opposing force breaks off attack. Spock comments that this is just the type of trick that the M5 would have played, but Kirk trusted the other captain.
  • Robin Hood: First episode of Season 2
  • Babylon 5: Sheridan destroyed the Minbari warship Black Star by luring it into a Space Mine trap with a distress signal. While also signaling for the legitimate reason, he knew that (as per Word of God) the Minbari ship's response to the distress call will be in order to find and destroy the surviving ship, not to rescue the crew, and that they'd get there before any EarthForce assistance could arrive.
  • A random, unnamed soldier does this in an episode of Torchwood, Faking the Dead in order to attempt to kill an alien. Most of the guards stationed at the entrance to a stockpile of United Kingdom nuclear weapons have all been slaughtered by the attacking alien, who has now crossed the entrance and is approaching the facility itself, when suddenly one of the soldiers lying on the ground bounds up, grabs his assault rifle, and starts gunning right into the aliens back. It fails (Damn forcefields), but still, Bad Ass.
  • In the Doctor Who serial The Invasion of Time, one of the savage Gallifreyans, after telling Leela I Will Only Slow You Down.
    • One of the pirates in Meglos.
  • Horatio Hornblower: In "The Frogs and the Lobsters", Master Bowles plays dead and kills a French soldier whose uniform he needs for another rather dirty trick —Dressing as the Enemy. He's a British guy in the Royal Navy, so we still love him. He was sent to accompany General Charette to brief Captain Pellew about their progress, but nearly everybody in the troop gets killed except him, and the General advises him to disguise himself and return back to his ship, as it is not right to die in a foreign war. In addition, the French soldier was stealing valuable things from the dead and had it coming.
  • Call Of The Wildman once demonstrated why this idiom exists when a literal possum pretended to be injured while Turtleman was trying to remove it from a house. It wound up being removed anyway but the ploy briefly worked.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • This is a trademark trope of Bret Hart. He would often fake being injured far more severely than really was (usually with the leg) in order to sucker his opponents into pinning predicament. During his feud with Vince McMahon in 2010, he executes a Batman Gambit revolving around this trope to screw his Arch-Enemy.
  • Used brilliantly by AJ Lee in order to win the 2013 Diva's Battle Royale: early in the match, she gets kicked in the face and is apparently knocked out cold. She remains lying on the floor, 'unconscious', until there's only one competitor left, Layla, who thinks she's won. Layla is quickly told that she has to get AJ out of the ring to win; AJ keeps up the pretence until Layla's trying to haul her over the ropes, and then she pulls away and kicks Layla out of the ring.

    Video Games 
  • Can be done in Unreal and Unreal Tournament. In the earlier editions of the game, it caused the player to rather obviously fall over very slowly without bending any joints, leading to a "hinges in the feet" type of effect. Later games corrected this with the use of a ragdoll engine, though it returns in Unreal Tournament III.
  • Hunters' Feign Death move in World of Warcraft. Like similar moves in other MMOs, it causes monsters to stop attacking the Hunter, thinking him dead, although it can fail.
    • It also has its uses against other players, but since you're still attackable while you're "dead" and your pet will continue attacking them instead of disappearing like it does when you're really dead, it's unlikely to fool them for long. But even though smart players can see through it easily, the fact that it forces them to stop targeting you can nonetheless save your skin, as it'll interrupt any abilities that have a cast time and possibly get them to focus on somebody else in the vicinity instead.
    • Truth in Television, as it turns out, World of Warcraft saved the life of one kid.
  • Similarly, you can do this in Tenchu: The Wrath Of Heaven/Return From Darkness (same game, different consoles).
  • This was one of the powers of the Spy in the original Team Fortress, either dropping silently pretending to be a corpse that's been there for a while, or with a loud death cry. Beating A Dead Player ensues.
    • Due to an oversight by the developers (the feigning Spy was "solid" while a dead body wasn't), anyone can instantly recognize feigning Spy just by walking over him. What happens then is known as "Crowbar".
    • It returns in Team Fortress 2 with the Dead Ringer, which drops a fake corpse when the Spy is damaged, and makes the Spy invisible. Can be very useful to get behind and backstab an enemy, if they don't hear the Dead Ringers very loud decloaking noise.
  • Used in the Call of Duty series; some enemy soldiers, when wounded, will lay on the ground dying, but pull out a grenade or pistol and wait for the player to get close. It's also possible to do this in multiplayer, where if critically wounded your character can either pull out a pistol and try to take the enemy down with them (Last Stand), or drop a live grenade and blow themselves up (Martyrdom).
    • In World At War, the Japanese sometimes do this without being wounded first; at one point in the first mission, the player and his squad happen upon what appears to be a group of corpses. Within seconds, a flare shoots up, blinding everyone while the soldiers get up and surprise attack the unprepared Marines.
  • Done in Tomb Raider Anniversary with the final boss. She goes down and Lara slowly approaches with her guns drawn. The boss turns her head and then quickly leaps to Lara, grabbing her by the neck, and tossing her aside while taunting with "I cannot die, you fool. Sooner or later, you'll run out of bullets!"
    • This may be a lampshading of the fact that Lara never runs out of bullets (at least for her basic guns).
  • Dead Space has necromorphs do it, but it falls flat in part because after the first time people are never ever trusting a dead body.
    • On the harder difficulty, however, the necromorphs will do it after you've shot them. Remember kids: In this game, just because you shoot its head off and it falls down doesn't mean it's dead.
    • In the second and third games, any attempt by the necromorphs to do this falls flat, since when a necromorph dies, it drops an item. Did it just "die" without dropping anything? It's still alive, stomp it to death.
  • Splicers start doing this regularly by the end of BioShock, but it's certainly a scare the first time. "We tricked you, monster!"
    • This may trick your eyes, but not your interface: your targeting reticle will turn red when it aims at a seemingly dead corpse that is really a live splicer in ambush. Regular corpses have it keep its standard white color. Also, they'll still be holding their guns.
  • Near the end of Prototype, Alex pulls this off to get close to Gentek director McMullen.
  • The zombies in several of the Resident Evil games have a tendency to do this, falling to the ground after you've damaged them enough, but getting back up a short while later (or gnawing on your legs if you get too close). The key is that they're not really dead until you see the spreading pool of blood beneath them.
    • Jim Chapman of Resident Evil Outbreak can do it right back to them, plummeting to the ground to make zombies ignore him for a while. It's balanced by the virus gauge climbing at a much faster rate, so you can't just lay there forever.
  • Bad Girl will drop at random and start crying, though there are times her hands are completely off her bat, which means she's open to a Travis Touchdown spanking. If she's got one hand on her bat, approaching her is a bad idea.
  • In the Monster Hunter series there's the monster Gypceros, who will feign death once he recieves enough damage. If you fall for it and start carving him, he will flail around wildly, dealing huge damage if you're too close. You can tell if he's just pretending by checking your quest info or by throwing a paintball at it: if the dot in the map is pink, he's still alive, if it's grey he is really dead.
  • In Dragon Age, the rogues have an ability called "feign death," which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Karol from Tales of Vesperia can do this with one of his skills in order to regain HP/TP and escape enemy notice after he's been knocked down. He's a bit cowardly, so it fits.
    • Returns as a skill usable by multiple party members in Tales of Xillia, cowardly or not.
  • Riki from Xenoblade can do this to make enemies leave him alone and become invincible for the duration. However, he's so durable that his HP will rarely get low enough to warrant its usage, and the minor heal and brief damage buff it provides upon its expiration aren't worth the amount of time he needs to be out of commission. It's not so much bad as it is simply outclassed by the other potential abilities he could be using instead, though.
  • In Syndicate (2012), Agents Ramon and Merit do this. When you approach them to do a CHIP-rip, they get back up and attack.
  • The enemies in Rise of the Triad will attempt this, both in playing dead and faking surrender to get you to lower your weapon.
  • In Half-Life 2, there are several times that zombies fake being dead to then try to jump you when you approach them. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to test it by shooting things at them with the Gravity Gun.
  • In the Future level of Time Commando, there are spacesuited... monkey... things that will try to do this. Remember, it ain't dead if it don't fade!

    Webcomics 

    Web Original 
  • In Worm, Foil pretends to be caught in one of Gray Boy's time loops so that she can shoot him in the back.

    Real Life 
  • Truth in Television just recently: at least one "dead" Islamic terrorist turned out Not Quite Dead and killed at least one U.S. soldier. Despite the perfidy and the laws of war mentioned above, the squad was savagely smeared by the media when the same soldiers, days later, shot a "corpse" for making a sudden move. Fortunately, it ended up into nothing.
  • Another example of Truth in Television - during World War II, Japanese soldiers often played dead and ambushed US troops when they passed, or took advantage of corpsman willing to treat them by letting off grenades - a cruel move. One Marine veteran wrote of possum squads - Marines who, after a battle, were tasked with bayonet "dead" enemy corpses.
  • Happened 1918 in the Finnish Civil War during the battle of Varkaus. The Reds had feigned surrender, and the Whites advanced over a lake ice to the Reds' positions. Once they were at point-blank distance, the Reds opened machine-gun fire. The Whites retaliated by an all-out attack and having overrun the Reds, then shot every fifth of the captured and wounded Reds on the spot. This incident is known as "Huruslahti Lottery" in the Finnish history.
  • In 1984, "Subway Vigilante" Bernard Goetz reportedly told one of his vanquished muggers "you don't look so bad, you could use another" before firing another bullet at him. As the mugger was only shot once, it is unclear if Goetz hit with the first then missed the second, or missed the first and hit the second, and if the mugger was down at the time or he was still legitimately defending himself against a threatening target.
  • When the State of Qi during China's Spring and Autumn period was entangled in a Succession Crisis in 685BC, the two pretenders, with their retainers, were racing back to the capital to be enthroned. When a retainer of Pretender Jiu saw Pretender Xiaobai, he promptly shot Xiaobai— but only hit his belt buckle. Xiaobai quickly played possum to fool Jiu's faction and won the crisis.
  • A college football defensive coordinator was suspended for a game after it surfaced that he ordered his players to feign injuries to slow down another team's hurry-up offense, designed to keep the defense winded and unable to substitute players. However, feigning injuries in and of themselves carries no penalty, unless they're blatant. The only "penalty" for going down with an injury is to leave the field for at least one play...an outcome the player faking the injury likely wanted to do in the first place. Now, to prevent such stunts, on the college and pro level, injuries cost the injured player's team (legit injury or not) a time out. If the team is out of time outs, ten seconds is run off the clock.
  • Germans started doing this in World War II. It wasn't long before American soldiers, when in doubt, bayonetted enemy corpses.


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