Everyone knows that The Guards Must Be Crazy, and one of the best examples of that is their reaction to faked illness. Convince your captors that you are unwell, and they'll throw all their common sense out the window, allowing you to take them out when they enter the cell to check on you. This works better if there's someone else in the cell who can do the talking ("Guys, I don't think he's breathing. You're not going to leave me in here with a dying man, are you?") and best of all if you can claim that the Big Bad would be unhappy with the guard if the prisoners died on his watch. Of course, if the guards have no reason to want you alive, this will probably fail. Accordingly, you'd better hope that yours are either semi-principled or that their boss gave them orders to keep you alive.
Compare Playing Sick (where illness is feigned for more mundane reasons) and Wounded Gazelle Gambit (where injury is feigned to get someone in trouble) and contrast You Don't Want to Catch This (where illness is feigned to keep people away). See also Faking Another Person's Illness.
- Lupin III: The Italian Adventure episode "The End of Lupin III" has Lupin pretend to be sick in order to fool Zenigata into letting him out. As the episode continues, Zenigata refuses to fall for such a trick, even as Lupin stops eating and says he's going to die. Eventually, Lupin does die. Except it was all a ploy by Lupin; he's well-enough, having used the food that Inspector Zenigata was feeding him to paint a dead copy of himself on the floor of his cell.
- Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam: In Episode 33 of the series, Char rages at Haman for indoctrinating the only remaining Zabi family member, Mineva, with the same authoritarian philosophy of the defeated Zeon. As a result, him and his crew are thrown in a cell. To escape from the room, Char beats up Kamille and has him play along as Kamille pretends to be seriously wounded. The guard who has a level of Genre Savvy retorts "That's an old trick!" and refuses to open the door initially. However, when Kamille continues to groan in fake pain and say that Char has betrayed them by being a secret agent, the guard finally relents and opens the door, falling for the trick that he was right to be suspicious of. It works, and Kamille escapes from the room, which was the plan all along.
- Noein: Haruka is abducted and put in a cell. She notices her food has a red, blood-like sauce, so she smears it on her stomach and lies on the floor moaning that she's in pain. When the guards open the door to check on her, she quickly darts out and escapes.
- In Batman #163, Batman and Robin are captured by the Joker. While he heads off to commit another crime, Robin uses tomato soup to create fake pox marks, and comments that he already had chicken pox. The mooks guarding them jump to the conclusion that he has smallpox and run away, clearing the way for the Dynamic Duo to escape.
- In the Norwegian comic The Knights of Dor, the titular knights try this trick. The guard is too clever to fall for it, and brings some of the other guards with him into the cell as protection against ambush. Unfortunately, the "sick" prisoner he was giving water to was Timian, an expert pickpocket.
- Attempted and defied in IDW Publishing's The Transformers: Drift - Empire of Stone issue 2. The Decepticons have captured Drift, Ratchet, and Grit and locked them all in a cell for later interrogation. Hearing a guard approaching, Ratchet gets Drift to lie on the ground and pretend to be dead so they can pull this off, but...
Ratchet: He's dying! Your boss is going to be furious if he loses his chance at finding that army.
Knockout: Well what? I'm supposed to be shocked, open the cell, and run in there so you can hit me on the head and escape? That guy's not even dying. Look at him. He's fine.
Drift (face down on the ground): You don't know!
- Shadows over Meridian: In Chapter 31, the captive Vera Bexley pretends to have fallen unconscious so that the guard checking her cell will enter to examine her. This allows her to get the jump on the guard and escape.
- In Two Hawks Hunting four Hogwarts students are kidnapped and imprisoned by Death Eaters. Three of them scream to one of the guards for help while the fourth has a fake fit, complete with rolled-back eyes and toothpaste-foam "froth."
- In Ant-Man and the Wasp Pym fakes a heart attack while tied to a chair to trick his captors into opening an Altoids tin that his daughter helpfully claims contains his medication, instead of ants primed to grow to giant size.
- Bloodrayne uses the "the other prisoner escaped" version in one of the laziest deliveries of the trope on-screen.
- Catch Me If You Can: Double Subverted. When Hanratty arrives at the run-down French prison to extradite Frank to the United States, he assumes that Frank's uncontrollable coughing is just him acting in order to attempt another escape. He's legitimately ill and has to be taken to the infirmary after he collapses in front of Hanratty. He does attempt to escape while there, but he doesn't get any further than the end of the block before he collapses again. The cops don't even bother running to catch him; they walk up to him coolly and put a gun to his head.
- Subverted in The Dark Knight: One of the Joker's henchmen claims to have severe stomach pain. The guards initially ignore this, but it eventually becomes clear he has a real problem, to wit: the Joker sewed a bomb into him in order to create a distraction and escape.
- In The Fugitive, one of Richard Kimble's fellow passengers on the prison bus fakes a severe coughing fit in order to lure a guard into shanking range. The ensuing escape attempt goes completely sideways when another guard accidentally blows the bus driver's head off with his shotgun and the entire vehicle crashes into the woods.
- In Primal, Richard Loffler fakes a seizure in order to lure his guards into his cell. Justified in that his fake seizure is very convincing, and he is being Shipped in Shackles so they have no choice but to send at least one guard into the cell to ensure he does not injure himself.
- Red Zone Cuba: Played absolutely straight, as Griffin tells a cellmate to ask for water as a ruse to take out the guard.
- Defied in Shanghai Noon: Chon Wang suggests using it, and Roy responds "The sick prisoner routine? Does that still work in China? Here, it's kind of been done to death."
- Sherlock Holmes pulls this in Sherlock: Case of Evil: pretending to be more incapacitated by Moriarty's drugs than he actually is so he can overpower the two henchmen when they come to inject him with his next dose.
- In The Silence of the Lambs, an incident is mentioned where Hannibal Lecter faked having chest pains to get a prison nurse to untie him. As soon as he was free, he killed and started eating her.
- Thor: Ragnarok has this in the form of Thor and Loki's "Get Help" routine, something they've apparently done before. When they do it on a group of guards as they're attempting to escape Sakaar, it works very well.
- In City of Thieves you can pull this to get your cell unlocked if you get arrested entering the city. The guards are apparently particularly gullible, even compared with most guards who fall for this trope - when they open your cell, you can claim to have the plague, which causes them to run off in a panic and leave the cell both unlocked and unguarded.
- In Full Metal Panic!, Mithril officer Andrei Kalinin cautions Special Response Team leader Gail McAllen that if Gauron should insist that he's ill, he's told to ignore it at all costs, even if it turns out be real. Due to Gauron's reputation as a dangerous mercenary terrorist, Kalinin doesn't want anyone to let their guard down.
- A variation is used in Eternity Road when the protagonists are held captive by a security robot, who will only hand them over to an authorized (and long vanished) law enforcement officer. One of the protagonists pretends to be a doctor and takes the 'wounded and possibly dying' prisoners for medical care, confusing the robot (who has been programmed only to capture, not kill) long enough for them to escape.
- Stephen King wrote The Green Mile about Death Row in a Louisiana prison. Its newest inmate is "Wild Bill" Wharton, who has to be transferred from a sanitarium. The corrections officers conclude that Wharton has been "doped up," based on his cataleptic state. It proves to be a ruse to attempt an escape. Adapted into a feature film by Castle Rock Entertainment in 1999.
- Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn: Bigman, when escorted as a prisoner by two robots, pretends they broke his arm. Since they are Three Laws-Compliant, this confuses them long enough for him to pull a blaster out of his Martian boots.
- Done in Martin The Warrior, with a fake disease called "flurgy twinge".
- Spaceship Medic, by Harry Harrison. The ship's doctor has to take command of a spaceship when all the officers are killed, but is later deposed by a mutiny of the passengers. They still need a doctor, so they lock him in the Sickbay. So when it's time for the crew to retake the ship, one of them just pretends to be injured so the doctor will be brought to his location.
- In the Vorkosigan Saga book Komarr, Ekaterin uses her aunt's not-completely-feigned infirmity to get them out of the lavatory being used as their cell, and then to make a break for the control room.
- In Mercedes Lackey's short story Oathblood, Kira and Merili not only do this by eating a few seeds that cause them to appear to have a stomach bug, when they are let out of the prison wagon they were locked into because of their supposed illness, Kira dumps more of the seeds into their captors' breakfast, which is cooking over the campfire. This making their captors get sick and make an emergency camp. This makes it so that Tarma, Kethry, Warrl, and Jadrie catch up to the kidnappers quickly and rescue the girls.
- In an episode of Blue Heelers, a criminal swallows a handful of thumbtacks when he is caught: guaranteeing that the police will take him straight to the hospital, where it will be easier for his gang to break him out than if he was in jail.
- Skyler from Breaking Bad pretends to go into labor after being detained by a jewelry store owner for returning stolen merchandise.
- Criminal Minds: In the episode "Ominivore" The Boston Reaper aka George Foyet cuts his wrist on a sharp edge of the bed, sucks out some of his own blood, and pretends to vomit blood and have convulsions in order to escape.
- In Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Goren's incarcerated nephew Donny pulls this off to get his Uncle out of isolation in "Untethered" by faking appendicitis (Goren went undercover after being manipulated by Frank into thinking he needed assistance after being sent to prison on trumped up charges). He is then taken out of the prison and promptly escapes, never to be seen again, though it begs the question of why he never tried to attempt this before.
- Logan's Run: In "Capture", Jessica is aware that Irene Borden is observing her through security cameras. She feigns collapsing so that Irene will come in and check on her. Jessica manages to escape when she does so.
- The Lone Ranger: The episode "Old Joe's Sister" has two prisoners escape using this while lampshading what an old trick it is. This episode aired in 1949.
- One particular moment from Malcolm in the Middle inverts the trope: when held captive along with several of his fellow soldiers during a bout of war games, Reese decides to force one cadet to eat enough dirt to make him vomit uncontrollably to the point of looking like he's dying. Naturally, this draws the attention of the guards, who are locked in the cage with said cadet after Reese and the others get the jump on them.
- Mystery Science Theater 3000: In the first host segment of the Season 8 episode She Creature, the Observers are trying to dissect Professor Bobo while Pearl is kept trapped in Some Kind of Force Field. Mike and the bots distract the others, leaving only one Observer, future cast member Brain Guy, to guard Pearl. Pearl raps on the invisible bars with a mug and lures Brain Guy into the force field by telling him the other Observers "created an invisible man with their minds" and put him in with her, and that this man is now "looking reeeal sick." When Brain Guy gets close (because, of course, he can't see the sick, invisible, nonexistent man), Pearl takes his brain hostage and escapes with Bobo.
- Pearl parodies the above mentioned Red Zone Cuba, saying she's sick — she needs moisturizer.
- Star Trek: The Original Series
- In "I, Mudd", the crew sedate Harry and tell the androids that he's dying but could be saved if they could get to the Sickbay on board ship as part of a plan to get the upper hand. Played with in that this scheme is only part of a more complex one to outgambit the androids, who will expect them to make an escape attempt. Now that they've made an obvious one, they can continue with the real one.
- In "By Any Other Name", after Kirk, Spock and Doctor McCoy are imprisoned by the Andromedans, Spock places himself in a trance in order to appear to be ill. McCoy tells the Andromedans that Spock needs to be taken to the Enterprise in order to be cured, and they fall for it. It helps that they definitely need Spock's expertise as the Science Officer to cross the galactic barrier. Besides, the trance slows his metabolism to a level that can definitely indicate near-death state. Even McCoy who knows exactly what is going on seems genuinely alarmed for a moment when he checks him.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: While "guests" of the Breen, Ezri mentions she and Worf tried doing this, but the Breen being the Breen, it didn't work.
- Treadstone. In "The Bentley Lament", a journalist needs information from an ex-boyfriend who's unfortunately serving time in a Ghanaian prison. So she pays a prisoner to stab him in the back so he'll be taken away in an ambulance. She assures him it's only a minor flesh wound.
- On Ugly Betty, Claire, Yoga, and two other inmates escape from a prison van by having one of them who's diabetic fake a blood sugar crisis, and then overpowering the guard.
- In the Captain Kremmen radio series, our heroes hear that Gort, evil leader of the Thargoids, has escaped after Kremmen captured him in the last episode.
Kremmen: The authorities had him locked in the Sickbay. How could he have escaped from there?
Karla: Perhaps he came out in a rash!
- Journey into Space: In The Red Planet, after they are captured by the flying doctor, Lemmy pretends to faint so that Jet, who is rapidly losing oxygen due to his helmet having been punctured, can escape.
- The gnoll guarding the PC prisoners in the Dungeons & Dragons module Castle Caldwell and Beyond is not very bright and will fall for any reasonable trick, such as one of them pretending to be ill.
- This is a common player tactic at the start of Lady Blackbird, whose player characters start out locked up in the brig: since the eponymous protagonist is particularly skilled at deception and social manipulation, she can distract the guards by pretending to feel unwell, while her companions break out.
- When the party is captured in Chrono Trigger, the third member of the party will use this trick on the guard. It can be very funny when the party member who plays sick is Robo, who pretends to crash and fails to reboot (for once, the guard's staggering gullibility can be explained by the fact that you're trying this trick in 12,000 B.C.).
- Divinity: Original Sin II: A ghost in the Driftwood jail cells admits that he tried to make himself sick to get released to the infirmary, but misjudged how much poison to take.
- Dragon Age: Origins if the Grey Warden and Alistair get captured rescuing Queen Anora, one of the options for escaping is to feign illness and overpower the guard when he comes into the cell. If the Grey Warden was captured while Alistair wasn't in the party, they can get the prisoner in the cell next to theirs to call out to the guards in Alistair's place.
- In DragonFable, you can get captured by the Rose in a military checkpoint between towns. If you try to get out by pretending to be dying, the guards celebrate your "death" and how they don't need to take care of you anymore.
- A variant occurs in Dragon Quest VIII. After being locked up with you, the Bishop will claim that he's having sudden stomach pains because he swallowed his gold rosary so it wouldn't get stolen. As soon as the guards unlock the cell, the heroes overpower them.
- Done by Zell in Final Fantasy VIII, after the party are imprisoned by the Galbadians. He has his friends Selphie and Quisitis lie on the floor of the cell they're sharing, telling the guard that a snake bit them, then sucker-punches the guard that comes in to check on them.
- In the Henry Stickmin game Fleeing the Complex, one of the options when Henry is locked up in a cell is feigning illness. He gets tranquilized and thrown into a quarantine of really sick prisoners.
- One level in GoldenEye (1997) starts out in a prison cell within the Supervillain Lair. If the player doesn't immediately use Bond's Gadget Watch to escape, he'll instead try to bluff the guard by lamely pretending to have a stomach ache. It doesn't sell, and Natalya makes a sarcastic quip about Bond's cleverness.
- Grandia1 sees the party get arrested by the Garlyle Forces for trespassing and held in a cell on one of their military bases. Justin pretends to be violently ill and Sue cries shouts at the guard to come help him, allowing Justin to sucker-punch him and escape with his key. And then Justin is promptly captured after leaving the room and thrown back in the cell, this time shackled, separated from Sue, and with less-trusting security guards, forcing him to find a different way out.
- Metal Gear:
- In Metal Gear Solid, one possible way you can escape from your containment cell is to apply ketchup to the floor of the jail cell and lay in it as the guard passes by, fooling him into thinking you're seriously injured and open the door to inspect you.
- In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, you can make Snake vomit at will by spinning him around in the Survival Viewer. If you do this while inside the prison cell, the guard will assume you're sick and unlock the door to check on you.
- The in-game backstory file for Wolfenstein 3-D establishes that B.J. used this ploy to trick the guard into opening his cell. The pistol and knife you start with were taken from the hapless sucker's corpse.
- Referenced in Exiern here, where the guard has the key taken from him because he's already considering the necessity of opening the cell if the prisoner is sick.
- Girl Genius: Tarvek pretends that Mister Obsidian knocking him out lasts for far longer than it really did, only dropping the act of playing unconscious when his grandmother, who hired Obsidian to kidnap him, reveals she doesn't plan to kill him and calls him out on it.
- In El Goonish Shive, Elliot practices this in front of Tedd as part of his plan to get them out of a holding cell. Tedd dismisses his plan due to Elliot's unconvincing acting. When they are let go for unrelated reasons immediately afterward, Tedd sarcastically commends him for successfully pulling it off.
- Let's Destroy the Metal Gear!: The Metal Gear Solid example on the Video Game folder is lampshaded more accurately (the actual game had the guard acting more surprised and in-line with the trope):
"Hello, I'm a trained soldier who cannot tell the difference between blood and ketchup." (WHAM) "Oww, so it was ketchup..."
- Skin Horse has what Marcie calls "a spin on the oldest trick in the book," where instead of feigning an unspecified illness, she pretends to have suddenly contracted Science-Related Memetic Disorder.
- Discussed and performed in the DuckTales (1987) episode "Where No Duck Has Gone Before". The boys, Launchpad, and Courage are imprisoned on an alien spaceship and brainstorming ideas for getting out of their cell. Launchpad recommends playing sick, an idea which Courage likes enough to steal.
- Justice League: In "A Better World", when the League is kidnapped by an evil Mirror Universe League, the Flash manages to trick Earth-2 Batman into freeing him by speeding his heartbeat so much that the prison's sensors can't detect it, causing Earth-2 Batman to think Flash is going into cardiac arrest and unchain him. It's implied to work because of Earth-2 Batman's affection for the Earth-2 Flash.
- Happens in the Motorcity episode "The Duke of Detroit" when the Burners are captured by the titular Duke of Detroit. Locked up in the Duke's mansion, Chuck is able to construct a lock pick, but they need someone to sneak out and disable the alarms before they can escape. They try to get Texas to feign illness, but he can't. They try to get Dutch to fake it, but he flat out refuses. Fed up with the bickering, Julie kicks Dutch in the shins, and his very real pained groans are enough to distract the guards and allow her to slip out with the lock pick.
- In the Eek! The Cat episode, "The Great Eekscape" after Eek and Sharko are sent to a dog pound, Eek ignores the very obvious dig out of prison plan and instead tries a half-baked sick prisoner plan, which doesn't work.
- In real life, people in police custody who feign illness are referred to as having "Incarceritis" or "Jailitis" and regardless of how doubtful their story is EMS still has to be called to check the person over, and chronic users of this know exactly what to say to fake a heart attack. The end result is the person getting tossed right back into jail once they're medically cleared and it ends up being a giant waste of time for everyone.
- In Real Life an old trick is to deliberately drink water with cigarette ashes in it, producing genuine (but non-harmful) intestinal cramps that can be objectively verified by a doctor. One way this is used is to get an assassin into the medical wing when a target is also there.