Depictions of cough in movies have become increasingly important as media has become one of the primary sources of medical information for the public. Indeed, some media experts suggest that entertainment can be even more successful than news in giving people a sense of institutions such as medicine. Used right, they can even help in training health professionals.
Imagine all the movies you have watched, gather all the cough sounds you have come across. Quite a number. Right? Now, imagine your reactions to the coughs? Coughs in movies tend to build anxiety, tension, and drama. So what do these coughs mean?
Does cough always have the same meaning in the movies?
The art and craft of screenwriting can be dynamic. However, there is rarely a casual or purposeless cough in a movie. In most cases, screen coughing is a sign of imminent death. In real life, people cough all the time from non-life-threatening causes. Still, in cinema, those basically don’t count for interesting stories. Some of the meanings of cough in movies are;
To portray an illness or suffering
Clinically a cough is a spontaneous reflex and usually is your body’s way to clear the throat or get rid of an irritant. However, a persistent cough could be a sign of an underlying condition. A few examples of such movies include;
In Midnight Cowboy (1969), Ratso Rizzo’s (played by Dustin Hoffman) persistent pneumonia gives him a deadly cough.
In Heavenly Creatures (1994), Juliet Hulme (played by Kate Winslet) is diagnosed with TB. A scene signals her relapse as a teenager at school: she coughs slightly and then spurts a tasteful amount of blood on her textbook.
The fictional virus MEV-1 in Contagion (2011) is highly transmissible and very deadly. It kills people a few days after they start coughing. In this film, MEV-1 claims millions of lives.
In Constantine (2005), John Constantine (played by Keanu Reeves) is dying of lung cancer, signaled with a persistent hacking cough with blood and more blood, and he knows it. The novelization says:
There goes my life, bit by bit, down the drain. He was pretty sure it was going to be a rough day. Because the morning sucked big-time. Today’s the first day of the end of your life… He looked in the mirror, and he knew the oncologist had been right.
Coughing up blood in real life can result from organ and tissue damage from disease, which ruptures the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts and causes trauma to the body. It is also worse if the lungs become punctured, as one can drown in their own blood if not treated.
Movies may depict more proactive suffering in the Kungfu movies where an Old Master coughs at the beginning of a scene. Then soon after, he decides to look for an honorable way to die or desperately embarks on training “the chosen one” before the illness takes him down.
To create a foreshadowing effect
Screenwriters use foreshadowing to engage the audience with the story by creating dramatic tension. Hence, they use cough as a trope. Movie creators have, over the years, perfected this type of screen cough.
The scene could start with coughing, which may or may not come with abundant amounts of blood from the mouth, which is always a bad sign, even when there’s no probable reason for it. Sometimes the character may collapse.
In Straight Outta Compton (2015), Eazy-E begins coughing when he fires Jerry Heller for embezzling money from his group. During the reunion, Eazy has a seizure and collapses. Soon he is admitted to the hospital, and it becomes clear that his coughing foreshadowed his HIV/AIDS diagnosis.
What do viewers interpret from cough in movies?
Movies, television shows, videogames, and other forms of entertainment indeed shape how we perceive reality. The main goal is to entertain however viewers choose their takeaway. Most of these medical-related television storylines with background coughs have helped viewers with information, education, and motivation to make choices for healthier and safer lives.
A sizable percentage of people obtain health-related information from mass media more than any source other than health care professionals. Though accurate representations of medical situations on television can be valuable and educational, inaccurate portrayals can misinform.
Some viewers perceive movies as an educational tool. For example, a study on an innovative approach to teaching psychosocial medical care states that film clips are “time-efficient and provide emotionally engaging experiences for faculty and residents.”
Some viewers are often motivated by movies that are somewhat like a prediction of future events. Movies like Contagion, Outbreak, The andromeda strain (1971) have everyone on high alert of coughs around them in light of the current pandemic. Some people are motivated to be cautious to avoid the extreme scenarios portrayed in such movies.
If you are interested in how movies represent cough and respiratory diseases, check out this art project by Jason Eppink and Mike Lacher. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have gone to great lengths to create the world’s most complete collection of cinematic coughs and sneezes, the website Every Movie Cough.