The Movies Tell Us: What It’s Like to Be in a Coma

By  · Published on August 21st, 2014

Coma patients


In the movie If I Stay, Chloe Grace Moretz plays a teenage girl who winds up in a coma when she’s in a car accident with her family. As her body lies in a hospital bed, her consciousness stands to the side, able to observe what’s going on in the room. She can watch her loved ones visit, see her boyfriend play her a song. And she also flashes back to past events while contemplating whether or not she should wake up and stay alive. Her choice, apparently. Do comatose patients actually have out-of-body experiences? Some claim so, but OBEs are not really scientifically recognized, at least not as anything other than a dream.

Movies aren’t subject to the rules of accepted science, though, and that goes for depictions of comas in general. In 2006, a doctor conducted a study of 30 movies featuring comatose persons (not including Liz Garbus’s solid HBO doc Coma, made after the study) and concluded that only two of them were accurately portrayed: Reversal of Fortune and The Dreamlife of Angels (the study is published in the medical journal “Neurology”, which you can pay to read here; but you can download the data-supplement list of movie titles here). That was mainly for what comas are like externally and for the patient afterward, however. There’s not really much to go on as far as what it’s like internally from the perspective of the person in the coma.

So, this week’s edition of The Movies Tell Us is only briefly focused on how comatose consciousness is fantastically represented in the movies, such as in the OBE aspect of If I Stay. The rest of the 10 situations below are more like what happens to you when you’re in a coma than what the experience is like to be in that state. Either way, it’s enough to make us hope to never have to find out if any of it is true or likely to be.

Situation: Your spirit travels to a limbo-like realm
Movies: Monkeybone (2001); Insidious (2010)

In Monkeybone, Henry Selick’s live-action/stop-motion hybrid, the souls of comatose humans go to a twisted fantasy land called Down Town, where apparently cartoon characters you create are living and breathing. Sounds like something your subconscious would devise. In this scenario, awakening is also a matter of choice, coupled with permission from Death and an “Exit Pass.” As for Insidious, it’s ultimately revealed that an unresponsive boy is not technically in a coma but instead had an out-of-body experience where his spirit became trapped in a limbo dimension called “The Further,” home to tormented spirits and demons.

Situation: Your body parts are up for grabs
Movies: Coma (1978); Face/Off (1997)

Michael Crichton’s movie of Robin Cook’s novel “Coma” will not just make you fearful of entering a state of prolonged unconsciousness but also of entering any hospital, even for a minor operation. Patients put under at Boston Memorial are poisoned to the point of their being comatose, and then their bodies are transferred to a facility for the purpose of black market organ sales. In John Woo’s Face/Off, the body part pilfered is, of course, a man’s face. When a terrorist falls into a coma, and thereby incapable of revealing information about a devastating bomb, an FBI agent has to borrow his nose, cheeks and the rest in order to go undercover at a ridiculously high security prison. Waking up from a coma without a face has to be the worst case scenario next to never waking up at all.

Situation: Your identity is up for grabs
Movies: 18 Again! (1988); Dave (1993); Face/Off (1997); Monkeybone (2001); Unknown (2011)

You’d think this happens a lot. Of course, we just noted how the comatose terrorist of Face/Off has his identity borrowed, through face theft and transplant. And there’s Monkeybone again, because in that movie a monkey manages to steal an “Exit Pass” and jump out of limbo into the body of the coma patient, passing as him for a while. In the body swap comedy 18 Again!, an old man takes over the body of his grandson while his own is in a comatose state. Ivan Reitman’s Dave sees a man tasked with passing as the President of the United States when the real deal suffers a stroke that puts him in a coma. And in the recent thriller Unknown, Liam Neeson wakes from his brief coma to find that another man has filled his shoes, his job, his marriage and the rest.

Situation: Your home is up for grabs
Movies: The Dreamlife of Angels (1998); Just Like Heaven (2005)

It would be a shame to wake from a coma and find that you’ve lost your home, but that’s precisely why your home might be up for grabs, according to the movies. In the French drama The Dreamlife of Angels (one of the confirmed authentic coma films), it’s more of a sublet situation, where two women are living in the apartment of a family that almost entirely died in a car accident. The teenage daughter is still clinging to life, and one of the women keeps the connection going by visiting the comatose girl in the hospital. In the rom-com Just Like Heaven, a man unknowingly moves into the former apartment of a woman who is comatose and on life support (also by way of a car accident) – yet her spirit is still residing in her home, like a ghost, and he is of course the only person who can see her.

Situation: Your unpublished work is up for grabs
Movie: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

In one of Woody Allen’s lesser recent works, a man thinks his friend has died in a car crash – if he knew the guy was simply in a coma, he might have thought twice about stealing an unpublished novel for himself. This sort of thing seems even less plausible than having a whole identity or a few body parts lifted because works of literature should be easily recognizable as the product of their true author. But similar plots do occur in other movies, such as Morvern Callar, where the work is stolen from an actual dead person, and World’s Greatest Dad, which does the inverse and has a man’s unsold manuscript passed off as his late son’s diary.

Situation: You miss the world changing around you
Movies: Good Bye Lenin! (2003); Kickin’ It Old Skool (2007)

Imagine falling into a coma for a long enough time that the world is unrecognizable when you awaken. That’s the situation for two very different comedies from last decade. One is a brilliant play on the fall of communism in Europe. Good Bye Lenin! puts the fall of the Berlin Wall as happening while a GDR-loving old woman is in the midst of a heart attack-induced coma. Fearing that the change will literally kill her, the woman’s son leads her to believe everything is the still the same. Then there’s the Jamie Kennedy vehicle Kickin’ It Old Skool, which makes a 20-year coma seem like time travel by having a guy awaken after two decades. There’s a lot of culture shock involved, but fortunately there’s also a lot of nostalgia today, allowing him to use his retro talents for modern success.

Situation: You unknowingly fall in love
Movies: While You Were Sleeping (1995); Just Like Heaven (2005)

We already established that in Just Like Heaven, the spirit of a comatose woman is still residing in her apartment, and a man has moved in while her body is lying in a hospital. They hit it off and fall in love, of course, because destiny. But according to this movie, when you wake from a coma you don’t remember anything you experienced in your out-of-body state, so she’s not even aware that she sorta got a boyfriend while unconscious. A boyfriend with a magic kiss that miraculously helped her wake from that coma. A decade earlier, there was While You Were Sleeping, where due to some confusion, a woman with a crush on a man who winds up in a coma is believed to be his fiancee. And she plays along. So, he too wakes up unaware that he is in a relationship – because actually he’s not.

Situation: You are raped
Movies: Talk To Her (2002); Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003); Sleeping Beauty (2011)

Suddenly this guide has taken a very dark turn. Thanks to movies involving comas taking their own dark turn. The first is Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar-winning Spanish drama Talk to Her, in which a comatose woman is raped by her nurse and becomes pregnant as a result. A year later, we got the first part of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which kicks off with a comatose woman being raped by clients of a nurse, one of whom has the deserved misfortune of mounting her after she has woken up. More recently there’s Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, which deals with men paying for a rape fantasy with a young woman who puts herself into a deep coma-like sleep. The last one might not fully count, but it’s partly a connecting fiber in that the Charles Perrault version of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale had the title character raped and impregnated while in her coma.

Situation: People will enter your body
Movie: Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Yes, the way that situation is phrased makes it sound like the same thing as the prior guide entry. But this one doesn’t involve intercourse but rather a course of scientific exploration and a medical mission to save a man’s life. That man is a comatose scientist who has found a way to miniaturize people and things, such as those who use a ship to navigate the inner workings of the human body and destroy a blood clot in the scientist’s brain.

Situation: People will enter your mind
Movie: The Cell (2000)

In Fantastic Voyage, the little heroes are headed to the coma patient’s brain, while in the underrated Tarsem Singh’s sci-fi thriller The Cell, one woman is headed into a coma patient’s mind. The movie’s depiction of a person’s state while in a coma is somewhat akin to the movies where the spirit travels to another plain, but here that spirit stays put and involves as much if not more of a surreal world. And in a way, because it’s the mind of a serial killer, that world is as scary as anything seen in the demonic realm of Insidious. The one thing that makes this fantastical version of The Silence of the Lambs not that relevant to this guide, though, is that the concept doesn’t really need a comatose person. The killer is only in a coma so the plot can be, like Face/Off, about a race against time to get information that otherwise can’t be, because the person is in a deep unconscious state.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.