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Flatline Plotline

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"I did not come to medical school to murder my classmates no matter how deranged they might be."
Randy Steckle, Flatliners

A character or group of characters make it so they die for a certain amount of time (often times by simulating a heart attack) and then are revived. Sometimes this is so they can have an out-of-body experience or see if there's an afterlife or become a ghost for a certain amount of time. Sometimes this will result in their nightmares becoming real or sometimes it's a plot for one of the characters to kill another without getting caught. May be part of a Faking the Dead plot.

Extra fail points occur if the victim actually does flatline. Only about 10% are successfully brought back once their cardiac cells have stopped channeling enough electricity to trigger an ECG blip, with preemptive treatment. Clinical death actually means cessation of breathing and circulation and is not the same as flatlining. Bonus fail points if the victim is then revived with defibrillation, since a flatline by definition has no heart rhythm to "defibrillate".

Most of the time, this requires some Artistic License – Biology.

Not to be confused with Faux Death — that's when the character never really dies in the first place — or with Flatline. Compare Revival Loophole, Resurrection Gambit. Compare and contrast with Disney Death.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Unsurprisingly, the Faking the Dead version has shown up in Black Jack at least once. In one story he temporarily induces clinical death in the President he's operating on in order to fool the terrorists who are holding Pinoko hostage so he'll throw the operation.
  • In Descendants of Darkness, during the "King of Swords" story arc, Muraki does this as the ultimate alibi.
  • In the Stardust Crusaders phase of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Star Platinum actually grabs Jotaro Kujo's heart at one point of the ultimat battle with Dio Brando and holds onto it until it stops beating to make Dio think he's actually dead. When Dio calls the bluff and decides to stab Jotaro to Make Sure He's Dead, Polnareff intervenes, allowing Star Platinum to quickly massage Jotaro's heart to revive him.
  • This is done to Sasuke in Naruto after he defects from the Leaf Village in order to raise the power of the cursed seal Orochimaru gave him.
  • In Occult Academy, Kozue goes through one to try to get a glimpse of the afterlife and ends up leaving part of her soul behind.
  • An early episode of Pokémon: The Original Series has Ash and Pikachu go through this, temporarily turning into ghosts after being crushed under a fallen chandelier. This proves key in helping Ash bond with the ghostly trio of Haunter, Ghastly and Gengar. (Over the course of the series and several movies, Ash undergoes several more Flatline Plotlines.)

    Comic Books 
  • One of Batman's plans in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns involved injecting himself with a drug timed to stop his heart after he has beaten Superman in a fight, allowing him to fake his own death after proving to Superman that he can defeat his former friend if it comes to a fight.
  • In ElfQuest there's a scene where Leetah the healer confronts death by bringing herself to its very brink. It's a huge risk because she aims to revive herself at the exact split-second before she dies. But it's a flashback story so we know she lives.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In The A-Team, "Hannibal" Smith does this while in prison.
  • In Danger: Diabolik, Diabolik's elaborate Batman Gambit to rescue Eva and keep the emeralds that he stole for her involves ingesting a pill that will make him appear dead for 12 hours but will kill him if he doesn't take the antidote before then. When does Eva bring him the antidote? 11 hours, 57 minutes.
  • In the Evil Dead (2013) remake, only living people can be possessed, allowing an unconventional "exorcism" technique. Bonus points for the defibrillator, purpose-built from scavenged materials.
  • Flatliners is the Trope Namer. In the original 1990 film and the 2017 remake; med students take turns flatlining themselves to experience the afterlife and gain new perspective, but there are unexpected consequences.
  • The Frighteners: Frank Bannister does it to experience the afterlife first-hand instead of communicating with it, as he did as a medium, in order to confront the ghost killing humans.
  • In Ghost Town (2008), Ricky Gervais's character briefly becomes one of the ghosts he sees.
  • In The Invisible, Nick becomes a ghost, and sees the rest of the world trying to solve or cover up his murder. Except it turns out Nick isn't quite dead yet, and once his body is found they are able to revive him.
  • In The Phantom Carriage, the hero dies and becomes an observer to his misdoings in life which makes him repent and change his bad ways.
  • In The Walking Dead (1936), Dr. Beaumont uses an experimental procedure to bring John Ellman back to life after he has been wrongly executed. After Dr. Beaumont brings John back, he is desperate to know what lies beyond death. However, Ellman either cannot remember or cannot express (or perhaps is forbidden from expressing) what he experienced, and anything he does say is frustratingly vague. The one thing he does know is that Beaumont should not have brought him back.

  • In Ted Dekker's supernatural thriller Adam, the protagonist does this twice to gain clues from the near-death experiences.
  • In Beyond Varallan, Cherijo does this in order to break up with Xonea (since that's about the only way one can back out of a Jorenian engagement). Justified in that not only is she essentially immortal, but it's decidedly rough on her.
  • In The Dresden Files, ghosts are effectively echoes sticking around to take care of unfinished business, not necessarily the actual spirit or soul (or what not) of the deceased. So, when one was kicking his ass, Harry came up with the plan to die just long enough for a ghost to be created, then have his friends resuscitate him so that he could team up with his own ghost to beat the baddie.
  • God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by Kurt Vonnegut, is a series of interviews with the dead conducted by a reporter getting repeatedly nearly killed by the Doctor.
  • Played for laughs in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where intergalactic rockstar Hotblack Desiato is spending a year dead for tax purposes, communicating with his staff through his ghost shaking a glass or other items.
  • Happens inadvertently to Teatime in Hogfather, who takes a fatal fall in the Tooth Fairy's realm and is instantly transported back to the Disc due to death being impossible where he'd been. He lands in the Great Hall of Unseen University, where Ridcully, not realizing he's the villain behind the current troubles, revives him with a back-thumping method he'd used on baby goats in his pre-Archchancellor farm days.
  • Dennis Wheatley's The Ka of Gifford Hillary is an entire novel based around this trope. The lead character spends most of the book on the Astral Plane, unable to interfere in dreadful things he witnesses, and ends up being buried alive.
  • The Scott Lynch novel The Lies of Locke Lamora features a cult devoted to the goddess of death which, as part of its initiation, requires extensive experimentation with near-death experiences. The protagonist, whose mission is to infiltrate the cult, essentially says "the hell with this" and leaves that night.
  • In Terry Pratchett's Nation, it's a way to pay a visit to the local death god.
  • Terry Bisson's short story Necronauts. The main character is an artist hired to produce paintings of his experiences during the NDEs.
  • Connie Willis's Passage is about a doctor experiment with a drug that can trigger NDEs, although it's not dangerous at all. That is until the doctor takes it and finds herself on the Titanic. It's much better than it sounds.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: On the Iron Islands, the religion of the Drowned God sees drowning as a holy experience. The clergy of the religion are called Drowned Men for a good reason: They're baptized in sea water until they drown and then are revived with "the kiss of life," which is essentially mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Not everyone survives the process. The religious zealot Aeron Damphair has had himself drowned multiple times, and it probably hasn't benefited his sanity.
  • In Stefano Benni's book Terra!, a character tells a story about the richest man in the world, Ibn Hunt, who wanted to live forever so he wouldn't have to leave his hard-earned riches behind. Having exhausted all other options, the man arranges to have himself put in a state of near-death for a short time, in the belief that if he could just reach the afterworld and talk to whoever was in charge there, he'd be able to bribe the secret of immortality out of them. The ploy actually works, although the man eventually dies just before reaching his ultimate goal.
  • It is the plot of Bernard Werber's Thanatonauts. The protagonists work on a way to trigger NDEs (Near Death Experiences) and to make them progressively longer so as to go further into the afterlife. The book starts as hard-ish science fiction, with several test subjects dying in the process, then proceeds into Werbery philosophical tale with a good dose of silliness when they actually find Heaven and start regularly going there and back.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Raven in The 100 gets Super-Intelligence at the cost of increasingly lethal seizures, but eventually figures out she can "reset" her brain by drowning herself in a tub of ice water and setting up a Magical Defibrillator to restart her heart a few minutes later.
  • On Adam Ruins Everything, in the "Death" episode, Emily gets hit by the Little Bugs truck, and winds up in the hospital in critical care. She has an out-of-body experience, where Adam shows her that it's not possible with current technology to be immortal, upload one's brain onto a computer, or become a Human Popsicle and be thawed out and revived when there's a cure for whatever illness/injury. He also shows her that the funeral industry is a huge ripoff that plays on grieving family members' emotions, and introduces her to Caitlin Doughty (the mortician behind "Ask a Mortician" web video series), who discusses "natural burial." Finally, he introduces her to a doctor who explains the importance of advance directives. Meanwhile, Murph has to decide whether or not to keep her on life support...and she decides she's going to leave so as not to be a burden on him. She comes back when he mentions that he was planning to give her tickets to a Rhonda Rousey meet-and-greet.
  • Done in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Agent May after some incorporeal entities "infected" her brain, causing her to see them everywhere and sending her adrenal system into overdrive. Simmons resorts to "killing" her to stop the adrenal overdrive, but an EMP forces them to get creative reviving her.
  • The A-Team does this at the start of the last season, by getting shot by a firing squad with replaced, nonlethal bullets.
  • Charmed: At least once a season; for example, there was a spell that could be used to banish ghosts that could only be spoken by a ghost, requiring one of the sisters to 'die' so that they could cast the spell and be revived later.
  • One episode of Criminal Minds had an unsub doing this to his victims, drowning them so that he could revive them and ask them what near-death experience they had. He'd been diagnosed with fatal cancer and wanted to know what was coming for him. The deaths he caused were accidental.
  • Diagnosis: Murder had an episode featuring this trope - where a group of medical students induced cardiac arrests in themselves and then gradually increased the amount of 'flatline time' on each occasion to try and make themselves more resistant to death. Then one of the medical students decides to murder another by not reviving him and it goes on from there....
  • In the La Femme Nikita episode "Mandatory Refusal", Madeline is captured by an enemy unit. She is entirely unimpressed, and forces them to treat her well by somehow stopping her own heart; her captors, aware of exactly how screwed they will be if they don't have her to bargain with, give in to her demands immediately.
  • Forever Knight. In "Near Death", doctors are conducting illegal experiments in flatlining. Vampire Detective Nick Knight decides to take part as well, in order to find if he's damned forever.
  • Fringe keeps dancing close to this line.
  • Game of Thrones: The Iron Men consider it a holy experience to drown a be revived due to worshiping the Drowned God. When Euron is crowned King of the Iron Isles, he is drowned and then revived by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
  • House once shocked himself and was clinically dead for 97 seconds so he could see what another guy was talking about about the afterlife. He saw nothing, which confirmed for him that there was no afterlife. He did this despite the fact that he'd experienced clinical death before and seen visions, which he'd already rejected as proof of an afterlife.
  • The TV miniseries House of Frankenstein (1997), featuring various horror-staple monsters, had a scene where a man carries a dying wolf (his werewolf girlfriend) into the ER and forces the doctors at gunpoint to attend to the animal. He lays her on the operating table, then insists that they let her die, at which point she reverts to human form. They rush to resuscitate her; upon awakening, she remains human and is cured of the curse, as it's the wolf that died.
  • Done by Lucifer to find a dead poisoner in Hell and discover the antidote to what he'd given to Chloe. After Lucifer gets stuck in his own personal Hell his mom goes in after him.
  • The Medium episode "Things to Do in Phoenix When You're Dead" had a doctor doing this so he could travel as a ghost to see rich people doing bad things and then blackmail them.
  • In one episode of Merlin, the only way to break a spell is to make Uther cry, and the only way to make Uther cry is to kill Arthur. He'll be just fine provided he gets the antidote within 30 minutes. 29 minutes later...
  • In the Murdoch Mysteries episode "Staircase to Heaven" Dr Grace is part of a group making a scientific study of near-death experiences, which is derailed when one of their members has an actual death experience.
  • The OA: Has this as a major plot element. Prairie claims that while she was kidnapped, she and four others were repeatedly subjected to experiments in which they were drowned and brought back to life to study what happens when someone dies. She also claims that sometimes when she died, she went to another dimension to gain knowledge necessary to escape.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): In "Free Spirit", CryoSync Laboratories, working on behalf of the US government, conducted experiments into near-death experiences in order to determine whether those involved would have out-of-body experiences. The government hoped that the resulting disembodied spirits would be able to serve as the perfect spies. However, Project Free Spirit, as it was known, had an unfortunate side effect: it resulted in the three test subjects, Mark Gregory, Alex Hanover and Kevin Lockwood, going insane after being brought to the brink of death and returning so many times. The government ultimately ordered Project Free Spirit to be terminated and the three men were killed while the experiments were still ongoing. Gregory and Hanover's spirits died along with their bodies but Lockwood's spirit survived and he began plotting revenge against Dr. Rachel Harris for disconnecting him.
  • Exactly the same idea as The Frighteners had been inverted about 20 years earlier by Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). In that case, they needed the man they were interrogating to have a near-death experience so Hopkirk (the dead one) could talk to him.
  • Red Dwarf tries this once. Except they almost forget one important bit... Kryten: MR LISTER!!!
  • In a season 3 episode of Sanctuary Will has himself flatlined in order to make a connection to a certain abnormal running amok at the time. This is presented as a last resort after performing a Bollywood-style dance fails.
  • In an episode of Sliders, the team lands on a world where the Egyptian dynasties never ended, and people are conducting afterlife experiments by temporarily killing test subjects. Naturally, one of our heroes gets caught up in it.
  • In the Smallville episode "Void", Lana Lang experimented with a kryptonite drug to have a near-death experience so that she could talk to her deceased parents, but never managed to talk to them directly although she apparently saw them from a distance. In the course of the episode, Lex Luthor and Clark Kent are also injected with the drug to stop them interfering, Lex being confronted by his mother who criticises him for his current dark path and Clark seeing his recently-deceased father who warns him that Lionel Luthor knows Clark's secret.
  • In Stargate Atlantis the team resorts to temporarily flatlining John to get a life-sucking bug to detach from his neck. Though their field defibrillator fails to revive him, forcing them to stick him in the gate buffer until they figure out how to get back to Atlantis.
  • Star Trek: Voyager
    • In "Barge Of The Dead", B'Elanna didn't actually die, but she had a near-death experience and ended up in Klingon Hell. Then after she got revived she asked the Doctor to put her in another near-death experience, because she wanted to save her mother from Klingon Hell (which she knew full well existed).
    • In "Mortal Coil", Neelix has a crisis of faith when he is killed during an accident and is brought back to life by Borg technology, but doesn't experience the afterlife he expected from his culture. Chakotay has to talk him out of suicide when Neelix feels that he can't live knowing he'll never be reunited with his family (all killed during a Great Offscreen War).
  • Supernatural
    • To figure out why the people in a town have stopped dying, Sam and Dean decide to try astral projection so they can see ghosts and reapers.
    • In Appointment in Samarra Dean has himself temporarily killed so he can contact and make a deal with Death. According to the man conducting the procedure he has a 60% success rate.
    • In Advanced Thanatology, it's revealed Dean carries around a kit with two hypodermic needles: one needle stops the heart, the other one starts it up again. He stops his heart to find out where the bodies of the ghosts the brothers are hunting were buried.
  • An episode of Tru Calling called "Haunted".
  • Parodied in an episode of Upright Citizens Brigade; Anton is trying to improve his chess-playing skills by hooking himself up to a machine that briefly renders him clinically dead every time he makes a bad move. It doesn't work out well.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Orpheus was all about this trope. The titular corporation flatlined its agents through cryogenics, who would become ghosts and be able to interact with the spirits of the recently deceased on behalf of well-paying clients.
  • Subverted in a Dragon article about Weird Tech for Over the Edge. Great Beyond Tours claims that their Near Death Experience Helmets briefly kill you and then bring you back. In fact, they just stimulate the part of the brain responsible for near-death hallucinations, but people wouldn't pay if they thought they weren't getting the "real thing".

    Video Games 
  • Mass Effect 2: Both played with and parodied. The parody is when a security officer states that being dead for a year is a popular tax-dodge.
  • Metal Gear
    • In Metal Gear Solid, Snake is able to lay in a pool of ketchup to convince a guard that he has died.
    • In Metal Gear Solid 3, Big Boss can do a similar trick by using a fake Cyanide Pill to cause a temporary state of "death". However if you don't use the revival pill before a certain time limit, he dies permanently, causing a Time Paradox.
    • Lastly in Metal Gear Solid 4 it is possible to lay among a group of corpses after a battle and play dead. This usually causes any passing guards to ignore you.
  • Persona 5: After his Shadow Self is defeated, Shido takes a drug which temporarily kills him in order to destroy his Palace prematurely and kill off the Phantom Thieves. It only barely fails, with Ryuji in particular almost dying in their escape.
  • In The Sims, if your Sims are watching the Romance channel, you will pretty regularly hear the "flatline alert" coming from the TV. (Probably because this plot device is used so often on Soap Operas and Medical Dramas.)

    Web Comics 
  • The Adventures of Dr. McNinja: Dracula helps Benjamin Franklin create an elixir of immortality, so that Ben can die and come back to tell him what the afterlife is like. Dracula gotten tired of his own immortal existence, but wants more information before he decides whether to pass on. (It turns out Ben never found out the full details, because he got stopped in Purgatory, where souls may remain for hundreds of years.)
  • Girl Genius
    • A short story has Agatha investigating a team of construct con artists who do this: the front man, if caught by the authorities, collapses and dies. A week or so later, his/her friends, who weren't caught, dig up and revive the body, and they go to play their moneymaking tricks somewhere else.
    • In one major arc Tarvek contracts a disease, and the best plan for curing it involves killing and resuscitating him. Things go fairly well until Agatha contracts the disease as well, and her homicidally protective castle refuses to let them kill and revive her.

    Web Original 
  • In the Questden adventure Moot Point, the final step of the Path of the Medium, to unlock their Astral Projection power, involves a near-death experience. There's only one way to succeed (achieve projection) and two ways to fail: Ring the emergency bell, or actually die.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Some scientists have managed to replace the fluid in dogs with a solution that places them in a state of suspended animation of sorts (they're clinically dead). By then replacing that solution with the proper fluids, the dogs could be revived. Other methods have also been experimented with.
  • Nikki Sixx is famous for flatlining and then resurrecting. He "died" of a heroin overdose, and a paramedic was able to revive him using a shot of adrenaline. The incident inspired the song "Kickstart My Heart".
  • Hypothermia induced flat-lining is also a procedure performed by brain surgeons to increase the amount of time the patient's brain can go deprived of oxygen to facilitate the surgery.
  • An less-intentional version of this is drowning in cold water can allow people to survive longer than they might otherwise have because of the hypothermia slowing down the body's processes, and preserves the body in an Only Mostly Dead state longer.

Alternative Title(s): Flatliners Plot