'Tis Only a Bullet in the Brain

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search

About 90% of the time, shooting someone in the head is going to kill them, because the brain is obviously what tells your body what to do and allows it to function, and is the seat of your personality.

In fiction, surviving a bullet to the head is nearly exclusively the domain of a Badass and shows just how much of a Determinator a character is. Sometimes the injury will be Handwaved as a lot less serious than it looked, and sometimes it will merely be implied that the character is just that tough.

In real life, in relatively rare cases people actually have survived a bullet in the brain, though it usually comes down to luck rather than skill. Slightly more common are cases where a bullet has lodged in the skull. There are very rare cases of someone surviving with their personality intact - most with brain injuries have their abilities and personality altered.

Note: This trope only applies to people who have no special powers other than the Rule of Cool. If they can regenerate or have some other bullet-defying superpower, it belongs elsewhere.


Examples of 'Tis Only a Bullet in the Brain include:

Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • In Monster, Johan Liebert is shot in the head at the beginning of the series. He survives, but only because elite neurosurgeon Dr. Kenzo Tenma operates on him. The series does point out how hard it is to safely remove a bullet to the skull though, and points out that Dr. Tenma is the only one in the entire hospital (an enormous complex) who can do it.
    • At the very end of the series, he's shot in the head once more, and again survives thanks to Tenma.
  • In My-Otome, Sergay is shot in the head. He survives with little more than Easy Amnesia.
  • If the newly-found Meiji Government actually bothered to check the corpse of the assassin they shot in the head and then set on fire, they wouldn't have to deal with supreme Social Darwinist warlord Shishio Makoto ten years later.
  • Accelerator of A Certain Magical Index. Ordinarily his ridiculous powers would have redirected the bullet, but he was very occupied with using them in other ways at the time. He survives but cannot speak, walk, or use his powers without assistance.
  • Invoked in Master Keaton, where a man threatening to kill himself is told by the negotiator the police sent that with the gun he's using and position he's holding it (pointed inward at the temple) he's far more likely to just give himself crippling brain damage than cause his own death. If he really wanted to guarantee his own death he'll have to point it down his mouth toward the base of his brain.

Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • There's a weird example in the short Hellboy-verse comic "The Killer in my Skull". A mad scientist shoots himself in the head (better that than be turned over to "the butchers" at Zinco-Davis) and dies. His brain then exits through the bullet hole, apparently uninjured. The brain then grows huge and begins flying through the air and attacking people.
  • The Joker was shot in the head by an unhinged police officer dressed as Batman. While he had to go through some physical therapy, the event basically just switched him to a different brand of crazy.
  • The Punisher MAX version of Bullseye had four bullet scars on his head. Most of them were probably the result of opponents aiming for the "bull's eye" tattoo on his forehead, but it was implied that his insanity and resulting career choice may have been due to brain damage from the first head shot.

Film[edit | hide]

  • Happens in the first X-Files movie. It's Handwaved by saying the bullet only grazed Mulder's skull, although that's a little odd since he was shot at point blank range. In any case, as soon as he wakes up a couple hours later he escapes the hospital, and within 48 hours he's off to Antarctica to carry his partner out of a massive underground alien spacecraft on foot.
  • Machete has two examples; Machete himself survived a bullet in the brain some time prior to start of the film while Luz is shot through the eye and is back on her feet in no time (it isn't directly stated that the bullet went into her brain but given the range and the size of the gun it seems pretty likely it did.)
  • The Bride survives a bullet in the head from Bill himself in Kill Bill, though it does put her in a coma for four years.
  • Renard in The World Is Not Enough not only survived a bullet in the brain but actually gained a superpower: he can't feel pain. Admittedly it is slowly killing him but still, pretty cool. One can presume he was already badass enough not to injure himself (which is a constant danger in real life for pain-insensitive people).
  • In Blazing Saddles, the Waco Kid warns Black Bart not to shoot Mongo. "It'll just make him mad." Played for Laughs.
  • Narrowly averted in The Quick and the Dead, when Spotted Horse, who boasts that he "cannot be killed by a bullet," is shot in the forehead by Cort; he briefly raises his gun arm in the air before he finally expires.
  • In Traffic, an assassin discusses why he prefers bombs: "I don't really like guns. You shoot someone in the head three times and some pinche doctor will keep them alive."
  • In Fight Club, the narrator survives a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, though it looks like it mostly hit him in a jaw. In the book, it's more clearly stated that he shoots himself through a hole in his cheek rather than in the head.
  • This trope is deconstructed in Regarding Henry, a domestic drama starring Harrison Ford. While Henry does survive a gunshot wound to the head, the pinched artery that results affects his memory. Cue the rest of the movie depicting him coming to terms with not remembering anything about his life before the shot.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • In The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth survives this. And then digs herself out of her own grave to attack the man who shot her with an axe. It is explicitly a very low-power gun, the bullet is explicitly still halfway in the skull, and there's plenty of medical work done afterwards, but when all is said and done, there isn't even any noticeable brain damage.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Jonah Gabriel of The Shadow Line survived being shot in the head prior to the events of the series, though it did give him Laser-Guided Amnesia as a side effect.
  • Averted in Supernatural when Bobby is shot in the head, and while he had a chance at survival, he died in the hospital.
  • In CSI: NY episode "Hearts of Glass" it was eventually determines a woman with a headache actually has a bullet lodged in her skull from when her husband tried to kill her while she was asleep. She slept through it and took a shower on waking up, so there was no blood. Needless to say, the shooter was stumped.
  • A variant in CSI: Miami when Delko was shot in the head by a nail gun. And back on the job a couple weeks later. In reality, the nail probably would have done nearly as much damage as a bullet when you think about it.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Zaeed Massani from Mass Effect 2 survived a bullet from the back of the head because "Rage is a helluva anesthetic."
    • One must note that guns in Mass Effect dont work like Guns in the modern day, as instead of bullets they fire sand-grain sized pellets of matter accelerated to near-relativistic speeds; the Ballistics involved are likely very, very different. Worth noting though that you can see the aftereffects of the damage, namely a swollen, discolored patch of skin the size of a CD on his face from where his face was presumably blown open, then repaired.
    • Also Garrus takes a missile to the face and miracolously survives, though the damage to his armor suggest that it actually hit the armored collar which deflected most of the explosion away from his head.
  • Subject Delta in BioShock (series) 2 actually dies from the bullet. He only wakes up because Eleanor and her Little Sisters hacked the Vitachambers to revive him.
  • Max Payne is shot in the head by Vladimir in the second game but survives. Also, Mona Sax takes a bullet to the head in the original game. Both cases are Lampshaded several times in MP2. Both times it seems that the bullet just grazed them, although Mona is vague about how she survived.
  • The Courier in Fallout: New Vegas is shot in the head at close range, twice, and buried in a shallow grave at the very beginning of the game. Naturally, being the Player Character, they get better, though some quick work on the part of an escort robot and the local doctor, along with being the Fallout universe, could affect the outcome.
  • Due to the way damage works in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, it's entirely possible to go through the game with various foreign objects (usually but not limited to, bullets) lodged in various limbs. Most obvious is against The Fear, who uses arrows, and yes, they can hit Snake's head and not kill him.
  • In Team Fortress 2, 4 classes (the Demoman, the Pyro, the Soldier, and the Heavy) are able to survive headshots unless they are decently charged; a fully charged headshot can still take out even a Heavy being overhealed by a Medic. But if the Heavy takes out an unlock called the Fists of Steel, he can easily survive any sort of headshot; however, melee attacks also do more while the fists are out.
    • Snipers equipped with the Croc-o-Style kit[1] cannot be killed by headshots, which instead leave them with one hitpoint remaining no matter how healthy he was before.
  • In Deus Ex Human Revolution, a headshot was only the last thing to happen to Jensen that prompted his Emergency Transformation.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • In American Dad, Stan survived a headshot when his hypnotized daughter shot him directly in the head.
  • In Reboot, Killabyte shrugs off having a laser shot through his brain by a guardian before impaling her.

Role-Playing Games[edit | hide]

  • In SLA Industries, the titular corporation's owner and CEO, Mr. Slayer, is such a Badass that someone tried to assassinate him by shooting him in the forehead with a .50-caliber pistol at point-blank range. It didn't work. In fact, it didn't even get past his skin. Then again, he's a humanoid alien of unknown species (and as far as anyone knows, the only one of his kind, though there is a rumor that he has a brother who runs a rival company), and is at least a thousand years old, probably older.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • In 1978, a young woman named Leslie Worther, working as a cashier at an isolated 7-Eleven in one of the more rural areas of Orange County, Florida, was shot in the back of the head twice (and stabbed in the abdomen once) during a robbery. After the robbers left her store, she called the police for help. Then she sat down and waited for nearly ten minutes for help to arrive. She survived her wounds and is still alive today. Only in Florida.
  • Chumbawamba have a song about the Real Life "El Fusilado", who survived an entire firing squad's worth of bullets to the chest and a Coup De Grace to the head. In later life, he toured with the Ripley's Believe It or Not show.
  • Simo Haya, the famous Cold Sniper, was finally incapacitated when the last man left of a counter-sniper team sent against him managed to shoot him in the head. With an explosive round. And not only did Haya live, he maintained consciousness long enough to shoot the guy back and kill him.
  • There are also tales of people surviving brain impalement via other means (such as a steel bar). The most famous case is probably Phineas Gage, who survived despite his tamping iron being driven right through his skull by an explosion. He lived for more than a decade after the accident, although friends remarked that his personality (and skill in math) had changed so greatly that he was no longer recognisable as the man he had been. However, by the end of his life his character largely recovered to the point that he was able to live with his family again, demonstrating the survivability and adaptability of human brain.
  • Press Secretary James Brady was shot in the head during John Hinckley's assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. He survived and became a noted advocate for gun control; the "Brady Bill", instituting background checks on gun purchases, was named after him.
  • Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a shooting spree at a constituent meet-and-greet, and survived.
  • This Marine managed to survive an Afgan sniper's attempt to shoot him in the head, the Kevlar helmet deflecting the bullet just enough that it didn't go straight into his brain. It was, however, mere millimeters away from hitting his spinal column and opening several major arteries.
  • There is a story that has appeared online a couple of times, about a man who gets out of bed one morning and heads down to his kitchen to commit suicide. He holds a revolver to the side of his head (a lower caliber type, like a .32) and fires. When his wife comes down a little while later, she finds him at the table eating cereal, with a hole through his head and no recollection of the event.
  • There was a story in a magazine in England a few years ago about a woman who was shot while trying to escape an attacker. She was apparently halfway up a fence she was trying to climb over when he shot her several times in the back and in the head. She survived because the gun he was using had been stored improperly in a garden shed and the damp had caused the bullets to fire at a reduced velocity.
  • There is a story of a suicide attempt with a nail gun leaving the man with amnesia about the whole event. However, terrible headaches soon brought him to hospital. Luckily the hospital didn't have an MRI machine and they X-rayed him instead.
    • Another suicide attempt with a nail gun had the man shooting himself in the head ten times. He survived.
  • Russian field marshal Kutuzov survived a musket ball in one of his early Turkish campaigns, when he was just a Colonel Badass. The bullet pierced his head temple-to-cheek, glancing his brain, and the wound was initially thought to be fatal. Surprisingly, he completely recovered with nothing worse to wear than splitting headaches after he used his right eye, injured by a bullet, for more than a couple of minutes. Because of this he had to wear an eyepatch that led to the popular myth about him being one-eyed. And then, probably just to finally prove that he was Nigh Invulnerable, he was injured a second time in the same place with the same result.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven's nephew attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head, and survived.
  1. Sydney Sleeper, Darwin's Danger Shield, Bushwacka and Ol' Snaggletooth all equipped together