Hollywood "Comas"
Inaccurate Portrayal of Coma in Film

May 16, 2006

Several years ago, researchers showed that the film industry does a poor job representing the true nature of amnesia. According to a paper in the journal Neurology written by neurologist Dr. Eelco Wijdicks and his son Coen Wijdicks, the film industry also portrays coma inaccurately.

The Wijdicks reviewed 30 movies that had actors pretending they were in a coma. They studied the actor-patient appearance and the cause, treatment and length of the coma. People without a medical background also viewed scenes from several movies to determine if they could identify inaccuracies in the films and whether they were influenced by what they saw.

In the 30 films, a coma was caused most often by a car crash (11 films; 33%), gunshot wound (4 films; 13%) or violent brain injury (4 films; 13%). Most of the movies (19/30, 63%) were rated R; only 7 films (23%) were rated PG-13 and 3 (10%) were rated PG. One film (3%) was not rated.

"Hollywood" comas had several problems:

Actor-patients appeared well-groomed, tanned and muscular, even after many years in a coma. Real patients in a coma often experience muscle wasting and may have bedsores from being immobile. Patients may also lose the ability to control their bladder and bowels.

Actor-patients in comas almost always had their eyes closed and appeared as if they were sleeping ("Sleeping Beauty phenomenon"). Real patients often have their eyes open and have muscular contractures (tightening of muscles). Some patients require feeding tubes and a ventilator to help them breathe.

Actor-patients often awoke suddenly from their coma, sometimes in response to some event. For example, in one movie, a mosquito bite caused one patient to wake up. Immediately after awakening from a coma, actor-patients are often fully alert and moving. When real patients recover from a coma, they are often confused and require months of physical therapy.

Dream Life of Angels and Reversal of Fortune are two films that portrayed the symptoms of a coma accurately. For example, the comatose actor-patient in Dream Life of Angels was shown with muscle contractures and feeding and breathing tubes.

Nonmedical people who viewed scenes from the films were not always able to identify inaccuracies. For example, 22 (31%) of these people believed that a person in a coma could tap out Morse code. Moreover, 28 (39%) of the nonmedical people said that the films would influence their decisions about the care of a family member in a coma.

The film industry is in the entertainment business. Moviemakers often take liberties with fact to advance a story and to stir up emotions. People should remember that movies are fiction -- they should not look to Hollywood for facts about science and medicine.

Reference and further information:

  1. Wijdicks, E.F.M. and Wijdicks, C.A., The portrayal of coma in contemporary motion pictures, Neurology, 66:1300-1303, 2006.
  2. - Brain Injury Association of America
  3. Coma - from the Neurology Channel
  4. Neuroscience at the Movies - from Neuroscience for Kids

Examples of reviewed movies with patients in a coma:

Paparazzi, 2004 | Uptown Girls, 2003 | Blind Horizon, 2003 | Kill Bill Volume 1, 2003 | Swim Fan, 2002 | Monkey Bone, 2001 | Dream Life of Angels, 1998 | Dave, 1993 | Reversal of Fortune, 1991

Did you know?
The word coma comes from the Greek word "koma" meaning "deep sleep."

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