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Hollywood Drowning

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"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 they slip below the surface but strength born of panic and desperation will bring them back up for air. Finally, all hope gone and their exhausted frame failing, they go down for the last time. They may even have a moment to say their Last Words or shed a Single Tear.

In reality, a drowning victim paddles quietly for a few moments and sinks. They are too busy struggling for air to yell or scream, nor can they control their arms enough to wave or signal for help. Instincts are running the show, and they're ineffectually flapping their arms against the water to push their 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 — "aquatic distress" — does happen, and is also not to be ignored, but it's rare, often occurring when encountering strong currents, and almost never happens in a place like a pool. 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 their breath and sink. Toddlers have drowned in public pools with crowds of people around them.

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. Contrast Symbolic Serene Submersion, where the drowning person is completely calm.




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    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 fiancée 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).
  • One Piece, surprisingly enough, doesn't do a half-bad job. The Super Drowning Skills that Devil fruits magically bestow on their eaters are given varied portrayals, from the standard panicky flailing (Luffy, Mr. 2) to the eater's limbs simply locking up as they silently bob under the water (Buggy).
  • Fushigi Yuugi:
    • Miaka very nearly drowns in an inexplicably deep pond at the palace of Konan... twice. The first time, she's been sent to retrieve an earring by Nuriko and got tangled in some water weeds. She knows Nuriko was just trying to get rid of her, but she also knows she needs Nuriko on her side, and gives Nuriko a pretty stone instead., and the second time, she gets distracted while Angsting over Tamahome. Both times, she is rescued, but neither time features her thrashing wildly at the surface or calling out for help.
    • In the 3rd OVA, Mayo realizes the gravity of what she's done and attempts to drown herself. Her survival instincts don't kick in, so she doesn't thrash or struggle either. She, too, is rescued, and helps Miaka to summon Suzaku once more to save the Universe of the Four Gods.

    Comic Books 
  • 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.

    Comic Strips 
  • 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."

    Films — Animation 
  • 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.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • Titanic is an aversion. Rose nearly gets dragged under by another swimmer trying to use her as a flotation device, and most of the victims actually die of hypothermia rather than drowning (most were wearing life vests that kept their heads above water, even in death). A deleted scene shows a man who is quick-witted enough to use a crate as a raft to get himself mostly out of the water and survives until he is rescued by fifth officer Lowe's lifeboat as a result.
  • Kind of justified in the Slovak fairy film "Frau Holle". The evil stepmother and her daughter fall into a pitch pool note , and Death (she note  was the Butt-Monkey through the whole film and finally gets cut some slack) gleefully watches their predicament. A methane bubble comes up (at least that's the obvious scientific explanation) and they suddenly drown without even a proper death scream. Regardless how much Asshole Victim the two were in the film, imagine what a Nightmare Fuel the scene would have become for kids if they had splashed and screamed around.

  • 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 
  • The A-Team, "Bullets and Bikinis". When Face performs his drowning act to get close to Epic's girlfriend, Denise, he does a lot of thrashing and yelling, "Help, I'm drowning!" This might be justified as it was faked in-universe; however, Denise, who's presumably been around water a lot, seems to fall for it.
  • 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."

    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.

    Web Comics 
  • The Dragon Doctors: In a spiritual realm that's still real 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.

    Real Life 

Cough splutter gasp ack:

    Comic Strips 
  • 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).

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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, Addams Family Values. 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.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY Chibi showcased the hydrophobic Neptune Vasilias on lifeguard duty (he's covering for Sun). When Jaune slips and falls into the pool, Neptune just looks away with a Not-So-Innocent Whistle.
    Jaune: Help! *SPLASH* Someone! *SPLASH* I'm drowning! *SPLASH* I'm in the water and I'm drowning! *SPLASH* Right now! *SPLASH* Drowning! *SPLASH* I might die! *SPLASH* This could be it! *SPLASH* If only someone—! *SPLASH* Could jump in the water! *SPLASH* And save me! *SPLASH* This is it! *SPLASH* I see the light! *SPLASH* I'm going toward it! *SPLASH* So warm... bllargghh... glargh... glargh... [air bubble rises into the air and pops] Dead.

    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 drowns with the same gag as as Wile E. Coyote above.


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