This article includes spoilers from various films and TV series with characters who start coughing and soon die.
You know the story. A character starts coughing—at first quietly and then, over the course of the movie, louder and more aggressive until, often, they’re hacking up blood. Before you know it, they’re dead from lung cancer or tuberculosis or any number of potentially fatal diseases in which coughing can be a symptom. And it always begins with that first ominous cough.
That cultural trope is proving to be a major source of anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic. Most coughs are not a sign of Covid-19 or any other dangerous illness, but it’s hard not to immediately think that whenever you see someone on the street cough into their armpit (or, worse, when you feel that urge to cough bubble up through your chest). We have movies and their decades worth of associating coughing with imminent death to thank for this.
The “Incurable Cough of Death,” as the site TV Tropes dubs it, goes back hundreds of years in popular culture. Its origins are hard to pinpoint, but it is prominent in the romance novels Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Jane Eyre (1847), both of which were written at a time when severe coughing fits were, unfortunately for Jane’s poor friend Helen Burns, a sign of consumption. Fantine in Les Misérables and Mimi in La bohème were also victims of the incurable cough of death.
So pretty much from the inception of film and television, the trope has been a common storytelling device. It is basically a version of “Chekov’s Gun,” the principle that states all elements of a story—however seemingly small—will eventually matter. If a writer or filmmaker calls your attention to a gun on the wall, you know that gun will probably be fired before the story is over. Likewise, if a storyteller wants you to know a character is coughing, there’s a reason. And that reason is usually the person is doomed.
We see the trope in Moulin Rouge! (RIP Nicole Kidman), Braveheart, Man on the Moon, Brian’s Song, The Road, Saving Mr. Banks, and countless other films and TV shows. Alec Baldwin parodied the death cough in a sketch on a 2009 episode of Saturday Night Live, in which he guided a mock infomercial for actors learning how to convince audiences they were about to die. TV Tropes compiled a massive list of other examples across entertainment, including those in comic books, manga, theater, and video games.
In the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, Soviet politician Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgard) subtly coughs through his testimony at the trial for those responsible for the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster. The real-life Shcherbina, who was exposed to large amounts of radiation, died a few years later.
No one has coughed more on film than Kate Winslet. The English actress had dire coughing fits in Heavenly Creatures, Finding Neverland, and, more recently (and most relevant to current anxieties), Contagion. In Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller, Winslet plays an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer dispatched to Minnesota to investigate the outbreak of a deadly virus. She soon develops symptoms, including a nasty cough, and then dies:
Even Jedi masters are not immune. Toward the end of Return of the Jedi, Yoda begins to cough, and within minutes he’s dead.
As much as the movies have made us fear coughing, during a pandemic, that learned behavior can also save lives. People should be suspicious of coughs right now. According to a World Health Organization report, a dry cough is the second most common symptom for Covid-19 (68% of cases), behind only fever (88%). Some who contracted the virus and recovered have since said the debilitating coughing fits were the worst part of the disease. One of the primary ways the virus moves from one person to another is through coughing.
For that reason, many governments and health organizations are adopting the policy of social distancing to reduce the likelihood that the virus spreads between people. If we were not as afraid of coughs as movies have taught us to be, then implementing that response might be more difficult. Intuitively, we know coughs aren’t always deadly, but right now it’s probably best to take a cue from Hollywood and act like they are.