Vorpal Pillow


In TV Land, murder by suffocation is quick and easy. Simply hold a pillow over someone's face; your victim will struggle for all of ten seconds and then expire. A child could do it.

The same applies to attempted murder by strangulation, though a person being held by the throat (say, the hero's girlfriend) is more likely to survive. Drowning is also quicker in media than in reality, but a character who falls into the water will probably manage to thrash and splash for several minutes before going under, and even someone who is brought to shore unconscious can often be revived.

A pillow over the face, on the other hand, is a death sentence. Anyone so treated will struggle for about five seconds, squirm for about five seconds more, and then go limp. Once dead, they will be dead for real, with no possibility of revival.

While there is some justification for this (characters murdered by pillow are often weakened, sick, or injured), this trope employs considerable artistic license. An ordinary pillow is quite porous and will allow some air to get through, so even if it were pressed as tightly against the victim' nose and mouth as possible (despite struggling and all) it will still kill much more slowly than other methods which entirely cut off the victim's air supply.

Unmarked spoilers abound, this trope being about a foolproof method of inflicting nigh-instantaneous death and all. Watch yourself.

Often associated with Sickbed Slaying. Compare Instant Sedation, Instant Death Bullet for similar examples of the unrealistically quick dispatch of a human being.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Subverted, in the show's usual way, in Black Lagoon. Revy seems to try killing her father this way, but simply uses the pillow to muffle the blast from her gun.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: Dark Victory - Alberto Falcone is killed by his sister Sofia in exactly this manner. Semi-justified in that Sofia is a very strong woman and Alberto is very frail - she didn't suffocate so much as crush him.
  • The "instant strangulation" trope is averted in the 2008 remake of Unknown Soldier. The main character uses a makeshift garrote to quietly kill a Child Soldier and thinks to himself how it takes a long time to strangle a person, even a young boy. Even he's surprised, and he's a doctor.

     Fan Works 
  • Averted in If Them's the Rules, when Buck attempts to smother an ill Tom Riddle, it takes a while for Tom to start blacking out and is struggling the whole time.

    Film - Live Action 
  • The Hindi film, Omkara, being a direct remake of Othello, has this in the end. It's a lot longer than five seconds. The scene actually goes on a painfully long time, but in the end, you know what happens.
  • After McMurphy gets a lobotomy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden decides to put him out of his misery by suffocating him with a pillow.
  • Greta is killed this way in Blood and Black Lace.
  • In Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Cal tries to do this to end his friend's suffering. Since Ricky Bobby isn't suffering at all, just napping, he fights Cal off.
  • In Vanilla Sky this is mixed to a disturbing degree with Out with a Bang.
  • Esther does this to Danny in his hospital bed in Orphan. He doesn't die, but is left in worse shape than he was before.
  • In The Naked Gun, a hypnotized doctor is about to suffocate Nordberg with a pillow before Frank Drebin interrupts him. The doctor throws the pillow at Drebin as he flees, and it inexplicably sticks to Drebin's face. It takes him several seconds of struggling to rip it off.
  • Subverted in The Godfather Part II when a hitman is shot dead just as he's about to carry out a Sickbed Slaying.
  • The Grey Zone: In the opening, the Sonderkommandos smother one of their own with a pillow as a mercy kill.
  • Played with in John Waters' Desperate Living: it doesn't take more than a few seconds for maid Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill) to kill Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole)'s husband, but then again a 400lb woman sitting on a man's face ain't exactly a pillow...
  • Subverted in Inglorious Basterds. During his murder-montage, Hugo Stiglitz is seen shoving a pillow over the face of a Gestapo officer... then stabbing him in the face repeatedly, THROUGH the pillow.
  • Gore Orphanage has the trope performed with a teddy bear.
  • Haywire plays with the trope by having the protagonist appear to start to apply the pillow to a defeated opponent — only to instead fire her gun through the pillow to kill the guy instead.
  • Narrowly averted in Sleeping with the Enemy. When Martin visits Laura's blind mother in the nursing home and tricks her into giving him information, it's heavily implied that he's about to smother her with a pillow - but a nurse walks in just in the nick of time, and he instead tucks the pillow behind her head.
  • In The Good Son Henry attempts to do this to his sister Connie after he had earlier tried to drown her by pushing her onto thin ice, he stops because he notices his mother is in the room and pretends he was fluffing her pillows to cover it up.
  • A different version in Dillinger (1973). Dillinger's gang have to flee their hideout after G-Men attack, but one of them is too wounded to flee, so Pretty Boy Floyd covers his face with a pillow and shoots his pistol into it. This is right in the middle of a gunfight involving automatic weapons, so it's more like a blindfolded execution than a covert murder.
  • In The Uncanny, Janet murders Miss Malkin by smothering her with a pillow. Miss Malkin puts up more of a struggle than victims of this trope usually do, and Janet ends using her entire body weight to oin the pillow over her face.

  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
  • Done by Bromden to McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, as a Mercy Kill.
  • Native Son features a particularly extreme version of this trope. Not only does the victim die from suffocation by the pillow, but the person killing her didn't even realize what he was doing. What's more, a third person in the room didn't realize what was going on because the sound of the smothering was so negligible.
  • In The Remittance Kid by J.T. Edson, one of the anarchists sneaks into a hospital disguised as a priests and uses a pillow to smother a wounded accomplice before he can talk to the police.
  • In The Mallorean, Silk smothers a number of people offscreen as vengeance for the death of a fellow spy, in order to Make It Look Like an Accident. However there's no indication given that it was instantaneous or easy. Then he runs short on time and has to start using knives...
  • Death Comes as the End doesn't follow this exactly (not a pillow, but lots of bed sheets). Maybe in Ancient Egypt the pillow wasn't invented yet.
  • In Stephen King's It, this is how 5-year-old Patrick Hockstetter kills his baby brother Avery, but he does it by pressing the baby's face into the pillow rather than holding a pillow to his face.
  • The Sickbed Slaying of Alan Venters in Trainspotting is carried out by this method.
  • Clive Cussler's Night Probe features a murder carried out by this method to facilitate its concealment. The victim is sufficiently frail and weak that his death is not unexpected in any case, and is too feeble to put up a significant struggle. The murderer uses theatrical makeup to conceal the bruising on the inside of the victim's lips from the pillow pressing them against his teeth.
  • The Dresden Files: In Cold Days, Mab's first attempt to kill Harry as part of his 'physical therapy' is to try to smother him with his pillow.
  • In "By These Presents", by Henry Kuttner, a person signs a Deal with the Devil (complete immortality and invulnerability unless he commits suicide)... and immediately does this to his disabled mother. That's because the devil took as surety the man's conscience. At the end, he returns it. By then, this case is far from the only reason that the devil gets the man's soul a few seconds later.

    Live Action TV 
  • Angel tries this on Wesley at one point, but it doesn't work. (Some fans speculate that this was deliberate; he could have killed Wes easily in other ways, but he was really just making a point.)
  • Boardwalk Empire subverts the vorpal part by showing the impracticality of the method: Eli tries to kill a survivor of the woods massacre when he reappears, badly wounded, by smothering him with a pillow in a hospital. It takes a very long time, though, and Eli is clearly exhausted by the time prohibition agents come bursting in - with the survivor wheezing, but still very much alive.
  • In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Giles pulls off a Vulcan nose-pinch grip to kill Glory's host. In the episode before, Buffy also does this to Dawn during her Heroic B.S.O.D. dream.
  • Subverted on Chuck: Casey plays up this trope when a villain attempts to smother him in his hospital bed. Said villain falls for it, removes the pillow... and promptly gets a bonsai tree smashed over his head.
  • Used on CSI: NY, when a mother unknowingly did it to her own daughter. She believed the girl in the bed was the driver of the car in which her daughter died; however, there was mistaken identity as to who survived and who died. The girl tried to tell her mother, but she didn't get it.
  • In the Haven episode "Magic Hour Part 2", The Bolt Gun Killer finishes Noelle off this way after tracking her down after shooting her in the woods. She was bleeding out and probably would not have survived without medical attention anyway.
  • Monk: The killer does this in the opening scene of "Mr. Monk and the Very, Very Old Man." Not as much of a stretch as some other examples, since the man was in fact very, very old. We don't see exactly how long it takes him to die, but the death is apparently quick and clean enough that no one at first suspects foul play.
  • In Nip/Tuck, after a plane crash, Julia thinks that her mother is dying and euthanizes her with a pillow. It turns out not to be her mom after all. Whoops.
  • On Orphan Black, Grace attempts this on Helena. Subverted; Helena survives and turns the tables on Grace by strangling Grace to unconsciousness.
  • Penny Dreadful: Overlaps with Sickbed Slaying. Brona's affliction is pretty advanced tuberculosis, for which she is bedridden and in constant pain. At Ethan's request, Victor comes to assist in making her final moments more comfortable... Except that Victor also requires a beautiful female corpse to create a bride for his creature, necessitating a conveniently wound-free execution technique. Absurdly, he is able to send Ethan out for something down the hall and finish killing her before Ethan has even returned.
  • Played with on The Pretender when Miss Parker pretends to kill Jacob (Sydney's comatose twin brother).
  • In third season of PrisonBreak Lechero is killed by this trope.
  • In Revenge, after Michelle Banks paralyzes Aiden with a poison, this is how Victoria finishes him off.
  • Subverted on Scrubs during an Imagine Spot. J.D reflects on the fact that the new Chief of Medicine is very friendly and personable with her coworkers, but very cold-blooded toward the patients. In the Imagine Spot this is illustrated by her realizing that one patient's insurance won't cover any more time in the ICU, so she responds by attempting to smother him with his pillow. He survives and she keeps trying again while shouting Why Won't You Die?.
  • Played with on Seinfeld: George is in the hospital and is in "so much pain" that he asks Jerry to end his life this way. Jerry says "You mean like this?" and puts the pillow over his face for a second, and George starts yelling.
  • In Season 2 of Shameless (US), Frank's abusive mother, Peggy, is dying of cancer. Rather than wait to die in pain, she has Sheila smother her with a pillow. Of course since her fight-or-flight response kicks in, Sheila has to sit on her face with the pillow to get her down.
  • Happened near the end of season eight of Smallville to a depowered supervillain.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Even in the future they do this, with a killer trying to smother a comatose Quark before he wakes up and identifies him from an earlier attempt. The episode was a homage of murder mysteries, so perhaps he had tradition in mind. Regardless, the Sickbed Slaying gets averted when Quark's brother walks in and starts screaming, causing Odo to arrive with a bunch of guards. When Rom realises he's saved his brother's life (meaning he doesn't inherit the bar) he starts screaming all over again, waking Quark up from his coma.
  • In The Tudors Margaret uses a pillow to kill her husband, the king of Portugal. He does struggle quite a lot, but the attempt is successful.
  • Twin Peaks, Leland Palmer suffocates Jacques with a pillow in a few short seconds; granted, the man was already injured and in hospital, but it was an extremely quick suffocation nonetheless. Made all the worse by the fact that they referred to the act of smothering with a pillow as strangulation in the following episode.
  • Used in Weeds, after switching off the life support fails to have the desired effect. "Shane, get mommy a pillow."
  • Wiseguy. In "Postcard From Morocco" Carole does a Heel–Face Turn and decides to secretly gather evidence on her lover and co-conspirator, Mafia boss Rick Pinzolo. While they're in bed together she presses him for information on a contract killing he arranged, them after he falls asleep takes out a tape recorder. Turns out Rick is only pretending to be asleep, as he suddenly grabs the pillow and smothers Carole to death.
  • In The Blacklist, Reddington kills Lizzy's father this way.
  • Subverted in the Swedish series Crimes Of Passion - a murderer sticks a pillow over Amateur Sleuth Puck's face, but after leaving, she regains consciousness.
  • During the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring Master Ninja, Joel and the 'Bots cut back to Dr. Forrester down in Deep 13, and he's shown hastily trying to kill TV's Frank this way. In the "Poopie" outtake reel, this was one of many, many scenes which forced Frank into a fit of giggles.
  • Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Used as a murder weapon in "Blood & Money". A piece of down found on the Victim of the Week becomes a vital clue.
  • Murder, She Wrote: Used to kill the Victim of the Week in "The Error of her Ways" (who had already been shot).
  • The Doctor Blake Mysteries: Used to kill the Victim of the Week in "Room Without a View". Justified as the victim is passing out drunk and in no state to put up any resistance.
  • Commented on rather hilariously, during an episode of Roseanne:
    Nancy: Arnie's always whining that I'm smothering him.
    Roseanne: If you can still hear him whining, you ain't holding the pillow down hard enough.

  • Capcom's unreleased Kingpin has the "strangulation is instant death" version of this trope with the death of the mobster Jimmy.

    Tabletop Games 

  • Othello: this is how Othello kills Desdemona, though she's able to wake up and give a short speech before keeling over again.

    Video Games 
  • Silent Hill 2: Infamously, this is what James did to his wife. May be justified due to the circumstances, but ultimately the game leaves it up to the player to either understand or condemn the action.
  • BioShock 2. Eleanor, the victim, gets better, but she is technically dead long enough to damage you...
  • Project Zomboid Bob can kill his injured wife with a pillow as a way to escape the tutorial, but not before giving one of the most tear jerking last words ever.
  • Hitman: Contracts has one mission where you can kill one of your targets using a pillow. Amazingly, the rather long and loud struggle does not wake his wife sleeping next to him.
    • On a later mission, you can drown one of the targets as he floats on a pool. Similarly, the guard nearby doesn't bat an eye to his struggle, which is even louder.
  • In ''Hitman (2016), one of the targets in the Sapienza mission, Silvio Caruso, can tell 47, while disguised as his therapist, that he killed his abusive mother by smothering her with a pillow. 47 can pay the favor back to him.
  • In Crusader Kings II, if you plot to murder a child character, one of the possible event chains to execute the plot involves bribing a maid to smother the child with a pillow.

  • Averted in Dominic Deegan - when a pillow is used (backed with a spell that makes it cling to the victim's face) it chokes the attacker unconscious but, removed in time, causes no further damage.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Marco tries to do this to Quinn in Sealab 2021, once Quinn falls into a coma. A nurse catches Marco, though, who insists he was just trying to take the pillow off.
  • Spoofed in an episode of The Simpsons: Homer is in the hospital and when Moe and Barney visit with beer, Homer reacts with fearnote . Barney says "I can't stand to see him like this!" and tries to smother Homer before throwing a water fountain through a nearby window and escaping, while a confused Homer and Moe look on.
    Moe: He really needs a girlfriend.
    • In the episode of The Simpsons which parodied the life of Henry VIII, Homer is killed very hastily and very cleanly this way by Marge.
    • Homer also does this to one of the recurring aliens in a Treehouse of Horror episode.
  • Family Guy: Peter imagines doing this to Lois in one episode. He doesn't actually do this to her though.
  • In one episode of Robot Chicken, Woody does this to Buzz when he's effectively lobotomized as a result of Andy using him as a bong.
  • In one episode of Batman: The Animated Series one of Roland Daggett's men attempts to do this to Lucius Fox to keep him from spilling the shady practices he knows about the company. Luckily, Batman was waiting for this to happen and manages to get the drop on him. Unfortunately, Clayface has been waiting there as well, as he's looking to bump the mook off so he can impersonate him and get in close to Daggett in revenge.

    Real Life 
  • Real Life: This has been stated to be a leading cause of crib death in infants, whether inadvertently or deliberately. In the latter case the weight of the pillow itself provides all the force necessary for suffocation.
  • This was reportedly how Caligula killed Emperor Tiberius. (Most movie/TV adaptations seem to want to portray his death like this anyway...)
  • Nur Muhammad Taraki, who led the original Marxist coup that eventually resulted in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was murdered in this way in 1979. Witnesses reported that he took 15 minutes to die.
  • Surviving Assyrian records confirm that the "son of a nobody" Hazael murdered King Ben-Hadad and seized his throne. In a plausible variation of this trope, according to The Bible (II Kings 8:15), Ben-Hadad was sick and weak, the murder weapon was a washcloth, and Hazael was careful to soak it first before using it to suffocate him; in effect, one might say he drowned him in his bed.