Steel Ear Drums

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Joey: [running through a script] Dude, there's no need to shout.
Ross: [still shouting] There was just an explosion! My hearing would be impaired!


In Real Life hearing protection exists for a reason. Exposure to 140 decibels (the loudness of gunfire) can cause pain and permanent hearing loss. That's why people at a shooting range typically are required to wear earplugs, with frequent shooters investing a lot into top-notch protection, and that's why deafness is a real occupational hazard among soldiers.

Yet in fiction, even as badasses are using guns and explosives and outrunning explosions, they don't seem to be affected by the sound at all.

This is an Acceptable Break From Reality as no one wants to hear about the Badass losing his hearing from trying to outrun a fireball or surviving a shootout. And no one wants to see him putting in earplugs or wearing gigantic earmuffs, either. Typically only coward-type characters will cover their ears while anticipating an explosion.

Most "aversions" that involve a character's hearing being affected (and the effect being demonstrated on the other side of the Fourth Wall) go under Shell-Shock Silence, the Truth in Television version. Note that similar to Law of Inverse Recoil, aversions that don't fall under Shell-Shock Silence are usually found in comedies.

Has nothing to do with Caribbean music.

Examples of Steel Ear Drums include:

Anime and Manga

Comic Books

  • Kitty Pryde must have these, she's stood at ground zero during everything short of a nuclear blast.
    • You'd think being intangible would really remove any sense of hearing in the first place, since sound waves have to strike your eardrums before you can hear anything. (Of course, by that logic none of your external senses would work.)
    • It's controllable, otherwise she'd simply fall through the floor. Assuming she remembers to do so, she could simply make her ear drums intangible right before the explosion, and solidify them right after.


  • In the 2010 remake of True Grit, several characters fire their guns in the air with the cylinder only inches away from their ears.
    • Justified in that most of these characters are gunslingers and likely have poor hearing at that point anyway.
  • Averted in Snatch: Boris the; Blade / Bullet-Dodger / Sneaky-Fucking-Russian puts ear plugs in before shooting Frankie Four Fingers
    • But not with Bullet-Tooth Tony's sustained Desert Eagle shootout.
  • The baby in Shoot Em Up spends an entire film having guns fired around and beside him, but barely even cries- in reality, I'm pretty sure that'd deafen the poor tyke for life...
    • Maybe it has, right from the start, and that's why it doesn't seem to bother him for the rest of the movie.
      • For what it's worth, the baby can be calmed down with extremely loud heavy metal music.
    • Considering the rest of the movie, maybe we just shouldn't take this all that seriously...
  • In the movie Iron Man, during Tony Stark's escape from the prison camp at the beginning. Gun battles are noisy affairs in any case, but when you're walking around inside a metallic echo chamber... (Of course, since he's Tony Stark, he probably found the right parts in that CAVE... WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS! to build some kind of sound-damping system.)
    • Later in the film, Agent Coulson uses an explosive to open a door. Civilian Pepper Potts covers her ears while Coulson and his fellow SHIELD agents do not.
    • Indirectly supported in the sequel, which has a POV shot of a dazed Rhodey with his War Machine suit shut down accompanied by very muffled audio.
  • Happens in Witness. Harrison Ford's character kills a corrupt cop by drowning him in grain towards the end. He blows another one away with the shotgun taken from the guy who was buried in the grain.
  • Averted in the realistic movie Black Hawk Down, when one character is left mostly deaf for the rest of the movie after a 5.56mm M249 squad automatic weapon is fired from within a foot from his head.
    • Also happened to SPC Nelson in real life, though he was able to recover about 15 hours later.
  • Averted in The Fugitive (1993). When Marshal Gerard fires a gun near the head of one of his deputy marshals, the movie makes a big point about the deputy suffering temporary hearing loss.
  • The baby in the carriage sequence in The Untouchables.
    • An aversion occurs in the movie as well oddly enough. When Malone is shot, you can hear a baby in the background crying afterwards.
  • Averted in There Will Be Blood, where the hero's young son is permanently deafened by the loud noise of an out of control gas eruption in one of his father's derricks.
  • Averted In The Kingdom, a female FBI agent falls to the ground in pain when someone fires a .50 calibre machine gun over her head. She expresses worry that it blew out her eardrum, and is temporarily deafened by it.
  • Averted in Cop Land, in which the sheriff is purposely deafened by a gunshot and the last scene is showed mostly from his perspective of having no hearing.
  • Heavily averted in Tears of the Sun where one of the operators has obviously had his eardrums burst from the gunfire.
  • Saving Private Ryan: A nearby explosion during the opening amphibious landing and final battle causes shock and ringing in the ears of Tom Hanks' character.
    • Not only that, but the way they finally find Private Ryan is through information from a soldier whose hearing was damaged by a grenade, and is yelling all the time as a result.
  • In the Soviet film Come and See, the protagonist suffers ringing in the ears after the Nazis shell the partisan camp.
  • Averted in Jacques Audiard's Un Prophete. As the main character is temporarily deafened, the sound of the film is dulled and only the protagonist's voice can be heard loudly and clearly.
  • Averted in My Fellow Americans. When one of the characters fires a handgun he has appropriated from the pilots of their helicopter into their radio, thus ensuring no communication, it results in pain and reprimands from his nearly-deafened companion.
  • Averted in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song where the police try to torture Sweetback's location out of the owner of the brothel where Sweetback lived and worked (information he doesn't have) by firing a pistol right next to his ears, which destroys his hearing.
  • Averted at times in 2009 Sherlock Holmes. When someone shoots too near to the titular character (and during the explosion of a gunpowder shack), the audience hears what Holmes hears (dampened noises and loud ringing in ears). The aversion doesn't work for every shot, though.
  • Played incredibly straight in the Kick-Ass film adaptation, where Dave has the superpower of "not going deaf when firing two Gatling guns on either side of his head".
    • He could be wearing good earplugs under that cowl, for all we know.
  • Mostly played straight in Tremors, particularly in the famous rec-room barrage scene. Heather does cover her ears when Burt resorts to the elephant gun, but only to demonstrate that it's even more powerful than the rest of the Gummer arsenal.
  • Somewhat averted in Under Siege. Gunfights never cause an issue, but when Tommy Lee Jones' character is walking on the deck of the ship when the heroes fire off a 16 inch main gun, he is shown to be deafened and in pain for a few minutes.
  • Played ludicrously straight in Double Jeopardy, when the protagonist fires a gun twice while trapped inside a coffin and shows no ill effects, even though in real life, she would have been deafened by the noise.
  • Equally ridiculous in the Bond movie Moonraker, when Bond and Dr. Goodhead escape from underneath a space shuttle. They're only inches away, running through an air vent, yet are completely unaffected by the noise. In real life, not only would they have been left deaf, the noise would probably have been enough to kill them.
  • Averted in Cecil B. Demented; Chardonnay fires her shotgun at one point while wearing headphones(on the movie, she's in charge of sound), and immediately regrets it.
  • Averted in The Guns of Navarone when the guns' loading crews, just before the firing, form up in ranks and on order cover their ears and open their mouths.
  • Averted and discussed in The Other Guys, along with other explosion tropes.


  • Generally averted in Duumvirate, but played somewhat straight for the superhuman title characters who can also regenerate hearing damage.
  • There is a simultaneous aversion and straight use of this trope in Utopia by Lincoln Child. In the end, Dr. Warne, the temporary Badass Bookworm kills a terrorist using a fireworks mortar as an improvised bazooka and stops the terrorist's armored truck by using his pet robot, which is carrying about 10 pounds of flash powder, as a suicide bomber. He is mentioned as suffering from bleeding ears afterwards but other than that, there seems to be no permanent damage. Realistically, noise of that magnitude should have rendered him permanently deaf almost instantly.
  • Averted in A Tale of Two Cities, where Miss Pross goes deaf from a gunshot.
  • Averted in Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar. Aral and Kou are both temporarily deafened after a near miss from a grenade in an assassination attempt.
  • Averted in the Gaunt's Ghosts novel Necropolis, where a number of minor characters were permanently deafened by explosions.
    • Oddly, in the first book in the series, a number of soldiers from the same regiment were deafened in the exact same way, also "permanently", but the medical procedure for repairing the damage was quick and simple.
  • Averted in the Artemis Fowl series, where the professional gunmen always have earplugs handy if they expect to get into a fight. Artemis picks up on this habit and equips himself and Butler with elvish technology earplugs that seal their ears from sudden loud noises (such as, say, their own sonic grenade trap).
  • Comes up in a book in the X Wing Series. Two of the Wraiths, Wedge Antilles and Kell Tainer, kill a probe droid using explosives and are deaf/semideaf for a while afterward, although their hearing returns slowly before the mission is over. It doesn't seem to have caused them problems later on. Of course, this is the Star Wars Expanded Universe. They probably have medical technology for that.
    • Also averted in The New Rebellion. After some bombs go off in the Senate chamber, Leia is deaf for a few days, until she's had some medical treatment. During that period, she lipreads.
  • Lampshaded and justified in the Tom Clancy novel Without Remorse. Before he begins his Roaring Rampage of Revenge, John Kelly does some quick practice with his .45 pistol. He considers hearing protection, but then decides not to... since he's just modified it with a suppressor and needs to see how well it works. Also occurs with later with a suppressed CAR-15 for the same reason.
    • He also forgoes ear protection when practicing with the pistol without the silencer, but only when outdoors and in private. After being through a couple of tours of duty in a warzone, plinking a few cans with a .45 probably won't make much difference.
  • In John Varley's short story In the Bowl, one of the main characters laments that since they were going on a trip with well known exploding crystals in the area, they were foolish to forget to pack extra ear drums (this being the future when replacing your parts is easy).
  • Averted in A is for Alibi, the first book in Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series. The protagonist shoots someone from inside a garbage can and is temporarily deafened. Later books reveal that the ringing didn't go away for weeks, and her ears never fully recover.
  • Averted in The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo - Quasimodo eventually goes deaf from near-constant exposure to the huge cathedral bells. Frollo teaches him sign language so he can cope. The trope is played completely straight in the Disney movie, however.
  • Averted in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, when the protagonist, Katniss, is deafened in one ear by an explosion and worries that it may be permanent.
    • It's repaired after she wins the games.
  • Averted in Cursor's Fury. Tavi's eardrums burst after he's struck by magic lightning due to the air pressure difference. His life was saved by a magic gem, but his ears were less fortunate. Played straight later when they hit him again and he's expecting it; he keeps his mouth open to stop the pressure from blowing his ears out. (It's apparently a common problem among novice fliers, so people knew how to combat it)
  • Both averted and justified in Mercy Thompson. Mercy is deafened by the blast and has to wait for her hearing to return, but the werewolves' super healing factor means that they hardly notice any inconvenience.
  • Averted (sort of) in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Aslan warns Lucy and Susan to plug their ears before he lets out a huge roar. Slightly damaging the realism is the statement that while Lucy has her fingers in her ears, she can't hear anything. (Plugging her ears should have damped the noise but not blocked it out entirely.)
  • Averted in Monster Hunter International. The main character is repeatedly forced into fire-fights without his earpieces in. He notes towards the end that his hearing is the worst of his group as a result.

Live Action Television

  • Averted in Criminal Minds, where one character is deafened by the explosion of an SUV near him and remains partially deaf for some episodes later (notably, he is present at a shoot-out - when the guns start firing, he goes down screaming in pain).
    • Also lampshaded in a later episode, where the Agents are driving around decked out with MP5 submachine guns in anticipation of a major shootout. Hotch tells Rossi "Try not to shoot that inside the car", to which Rossi remarks "You mean, try not to deafen you?" "Exactly." A few minutes and one ATV-riding, heavy machinegun-equipped unsub later, Morgan and Prentiss show up in an SUV and Morgan shoots the unsub right through his own SUV's window. Prentiss lambasts him for blowing away her eardrums.
  • Averted in Early Edition. The plot of one of the episodes is that Gary can't hear things because he was too close of an explosion.
  • Averted in an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, where one of his sidekicks loses his hearing after being near an explosion. He eventually undergoes an operation that restores his hearing, but not before spending time at a school for deaf children. This occurs a mere season after an episode where Walker loses his vision, yet not his hearing, because of an explosion.
  • Played with in Friends when Ross and Phoebe are rehearsing scenes with Joey for a James Bond type movie. A big bang goes off, and the following exchange occurs:

Joey: Dude, there's no need to shout.
Ross: There's just been an explosion, my hearing would be impaired!

  • Averted in the final episode of M*A*S*H, when Father Mulcahy goes deaf after being too close to a shell explosion. It's played for all the drama it's worth.
    • Averted again in an episode where Klinger goes temporarily deaf. When his hearing comes back, Potter says "Too bad your hearing came back. Otherwise, you'd be discharged." Klinger (who will do anything to get out of the Army) says "Huh? What did you say?"
  • The Lost episode "LA X" invokes Shell-Shock Silence by muting soundtrack is muted and a faint whining sound played over it to represent some characters having trouble hearing...but for a couple of minutes, in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion? Not quite enough to get it bumped off this page.
  • Averted in CSI: Miami, where an explosion in a Meth Lab gives Natalia hearing loss, some of which may be permanent. More, her unwillingness to admit to it has an impact on events later in the season.
    • And yet, played all too straight by Horatio Kane, who finds himself walking calmly away from a massive explosion at least twice per season.
  • Simultaneously averted and played straight in an episode of the 90's Zorro revival: Having caught Don Diego's servant Felipe listening in on their plans, and told it's OK as he's deaf, one bad guy fires his huge musket right beside his ear—at which point another bad guy who was close by mutters "And now I am [deaf] too!" The kicker? Felipe (common to most versions of this character) is only pretending to be deaf, and while he passes the gunshot test, when he's rescued by Zorro a few short hours later he's clearly hearing him normally.
  • Averted in The Box in Fringe. Peter needed to disarm a device that kills by sound, so he was was deliberately deafened by firing a gun next to both ears.
  • Averted in the premiere of The Walking Dead, when Rick kills a zombie within the close confines of a tank. The blast is so loud, he's stunned by the shock and pain.
  • Averted in The Office, as Andy's eardrum is burst by Dwight discharging a gun near him.
  • Averted AND played straight (at the same time no less) on the classic |Mission Impossible. While conning a meeting of the "Syndicate", Rollin Hand pretends to be deaf so he can eavesdrop on the meeting. Naturally, noone believes he's deaf so someone fires a gun right next to his ear. Rollin doesn't even flinch and makes it all the way back to the kitchen and the safety of the other agents before freaking out in pain (and it takes him obvious time to recover physically).

Video Games

  • Played straight in Brutal Legend, in which your weapon is Up to Eleven Heavy Metal.
  • First-Person Shooter games will either have this or use Shell-Shock Silence effects depending on where it falls on the Sliding Scale of Realism Versus Playability. A few examples:
    • Being too close to an explosion in Half-Life 2 will result in Shell-Shock Silence, along with physical damage. Guns however, are unaffected.
    • Uncharted Drakes Fortune, also limits it to explosions.
    • Ditto F.E.A.R., Battlefield: Bad Company 2...
    • Most "realistic" military shooters use some form of Shell-Shock Silence effect. That said, Steel Ear Drums may be excusable in games with characters in the military (or otherwise knowing beforehand that they're going to be around gunshots), as it can be assumed they'd know enough to wear earplugs.
    • Justified in Mass Effect: All of your weapons are essentially rail/coil guns firing rounds the size of a grain of sand. Even with the bits of metal reaching relativistic speeds, there's probably not a loud BANG to accompany each round being fired. Explosions still dampen sound when you're hit.
  • Averted in the finale of Call of Cthulhu (tabletop game): Dark Corners of the Earth, where deafening yourself with the blast of the BFG is used to solve the last puzzle and defeat the Load-Bearing Boss. Played straight for the rest of the game, though, although madness-effects sometimes distort the audio throughout the game, as well.
  • Old Sierra Adventure Game Police Quest 2 requires you to go to the target range and adjust the sights on your gun to improve your accuracy. While there, you're required to wear ear protectors, or you get Have a Nice Death when you blow out your ear drums. At one point in the game (at the Cove), it's possible to fire your gun once (twice results in another Have a Nice Death from insanity), at which point the narrator/character will comment, "WOW, that was loud."
  • In Policenauts, characters recommend Jonathan use hearing protectors on the range. While you get a different conversation afterwards where he complains that his ears are ringing, it causes no lasting effects, and in the actual game he can fire his gun freely without worrying about ear damage.
  • Vindictus has explosive barrels in some areas, which if you are too close when they explode, you lose your hearing for a few seconds.
  • Mostly played straight in Super Smash Bros Brawl, where explosions and other loud noises are commonplace and nobody reacts to anything but the hitboxes. In one aversion, however, Snake will duck and cover his ears if one of his grenades explodes sufficiently close to him.
  • Averted in Monster Hunter, some of the monsters's roar are so loud that your hunter can't help but cover his hear (which leaves him defenseless for a few seconds), however, there is a skill to counter this. Some monster are also very weak again "sonic bombs"
  • Not really averted in a mission in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. CJ and Catalina chase after redneck bank-robbers on a quad. CJ's driving, Catalina's shooting while sitting behind him. CJ keeps on berating her shooting right next to his ears, even saying at one point that he thinks he's gone deaf. However, he suffers no hearing loss whatsoever, and all other instances of people being gunners in/on the same vehicle as him go without any mention from him. (The difference between Catalina and all other instances is that Catalina is a lot more trigger-happy than the others are.)
  • Averted with flashbangs in the Rainbow Six series, which cause Shell-Shock Silence and temporary blindness to the player character (although this doesn't affect AI-controlled characters), but played straight with guns and frag grenades.

Web Comics

Web Original

  • Parodied in the Machinima series Freeman's Mind, in which the titular character fires a gun in an air vent and promptly receives massive pain and a high pitched keeling, followed by him whining about how he's going to end up deaf at this rate.
  • Averted in the Survival of the Fittest Mini "The Program" with Matt Gourlay a number of times; almost everything he does in the compound takes place in the warehouse, and every time a gun is fired at him (or he fires at someone) he's left deaf, with a headache, and blind from the muzzle flash in a dark building. When John Ferrara steals his gun and kills him, even shooting one round outside causes him to lose some hearing; while practicing at the firing range afterward, it's noted that his hearing had not fully recovered and the subsequent shots seemed quieter.
  • Interestingly, the man who goes by the name FPS Russia follows the vast majority of gun safety regulations to an admirable degree. That said he very infrequently wears ear protection, though well-concealed earplugs are a possibility. This includes during such instances as firing fully automatic submachine guns at explosive targets, or dual-wielding AA-12 shotguns.
  • The Nostalgia Critic plays this straight and subverts it for Rule of Funny. Shooting his gun wildly in a small space doesn't give him any problems, but wookie noises and high-pitched teenagers produce visible blood.

Western Animation

  • In The Simpsons, Marge worries that the "Spinal Taps" will play too loud and damage Bart's hearing. Homer mocks this because he went to lots of rock concerts and his hearing is just fine. Cut to Homer's perspective: Marge's lips move in almost total silence accompanied by a gentle "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee"
  • Subverted in The Boondocks, where, to highlight what an imbecile he is, Ed Wuncler III always forgets to put in his earplugs before an attempted heist, frequently damaging his ears when he fires his shotgun.
  • The animated movie of The Hunchback of Notre Dame plays this totally straight - while in the novel Quasimodo goes deaf after long exposure to the bells of Notre Dame, in the movie, nothing stops him from bursting into wonderful melodious song on a regular basis.
  • Averted in Archer, as people (usually Archer) getting temporary hearing loss from gunshots or explosion when they forget their earplugs is a Running Gag, to the point that Archer thinks he may be developing tinnitus. In one episode, Lana drives the point home when Archer's flirting with an attractive actress on the firing range without ear protection; in another, both she and Archer are deafened when he mistakes a frag grenade for a smoke grenade, and can only talk to one another after they pay a visit to Lana's ear, nose and throat doctor.

Archer: Seriously, I have to sleep with a fan on.


Real Life

  • Gunners in the British Army are issued ear defenders to protect from the sound of the chonking big gun going off when you're stood right next to it - but they make it hard to hear orders, so they generally only cover one ear permanently during fire missions.
    • Actor Tim Barlow, while serving in the British Army, was left profoundly deaf from firing a high-powered rifle.
    • Modern earplugs that can allow different amounts of sound into the ear via switches are issued for 21st century US ground troops (and presumably others). However, many soldiers prefer to leave them out and risk eardrum damage if it means a better chance of hearing something that happens to be both quiet and vital to his or her survival, not to mention it's one less piece of kit to hassle with in a warzone. Colonel Kathy Gates, audiology consultant to the US Army surgeon general, stated in an Army Times article [dead link] that soldiers who wear the issued earplugs properly are protected from most hearing damage.
  • In orchestras players who sit in front of the trumpet section are issued earplugs because if you sit in front of any decent trumpeter, when the music gets loud and/or intense, you face the very real threat of having your eardrums ruptured.
  • William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy both suffer from tinnitus because of standing too close to explosions going off on Star Trek, as did the late De Forest Kelly. The last specifically from the FX explosions at the beginning of The Arena.
  • Danny Elfman suffers similarly from hearing loss due to his days in Oingo Boingo.
  • Many rock and roll musicians, especially from the days before it was commong practice to include earplugs. Special mention though to Pete Townsend of The Who, who has tinnitus as a result of being too close to Keith Moon's drumkit when he blew it up. And all that guitar as well...