Welcome to Science of the Scare! Every month I will dissect a Big Science Question from a horror movie and talk through it in (mostly) easy-to-digest terms.
Science and horror have a wild, entangled history and have left us with loads of questions to ponder. Deep, important questions like: just how many ways could we have a zombie pandemic? Is genetic engineering always a slippery slope to monstrosity? This month’s Big Science Question:
Could Jen really have survived that fall and impalement in Revenge?
Coralie Fargeat’s rape-revenge thriller Revenge (2017) takes us to a weekend hunting getaway gone horribly wrong when Jen (Matilda Lutz) is assaulted by her boyfriend’s buddy at a remote desert getaway. In a move that would make even the most docile lamb want to gut a man, instead of disowning his friends and coming to Jen‘s aid, her boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens) sees the risk that this situation will shed unwanted light on his affair with Jen and wreck his marriage and life back home. So, he does what a despicable asshole would: he pushes her off a cliff while his friends stand by, complicit. Jen is impaled on a tree below and left for dead.
Except, of course, she doesn’t die.
Could Jen have survived being pushed off a cliff and skewered on a dead tree? Yes, but probably not if her injuries were dealt with (or, not dealt with at all) in the way we’re shown throughout the film. While relatively common in horror movies, impalement injuries like Jen‘s are rare — and incredibly serious — in real life. That said, they are survivable.
As someone who spends her free time writing about representations of science in genre media, people often ask me if it boils my blood when I see something medically or scientifically unreasonable unfold on-screen. While it’s exciting to see accuracy when it happens, a lot of the time verisimilitude can be sacrificed for cool and memorable moments. Revenge is the absolutely perfect example of this Rule of Cool. Because let’s face it: Revenge‘s gnarly phoenix-rising imagery would totally deflate if we were stopping the action to show Jen‘s internal bleeding and probable septicaemia.
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What’s actually going on inside of Jen‘s body isn’t pretty. Besides organ and soft tissue damage, it’s almost unavoidable that the tree has perforated her intestines. We know that she has internal bleeding, thanks to the blood we see dribbling from her mouth as she hangs, trapped, from the branch, but the contents of her colon are probably leaking into the spaces inside of her where they don’t belong and co-mingling with her blood. Between the microbes living on the branch that just got forcefully punched into her insides, and the opportunistic bacteria that already live inside her intestines, Jen is basically doomed to die of a nasty blood infection and septic shock if she doesn’t get to a hospital soon.
“Jen’s cauterization is basically a band-aid on a bullet wound solution, but it looks slick and at least she’s not leaving her body open to more microbes.”
There are case studies for injuries that were similar to Jen‘s — a man who fell over 13 feet to land on a piece of rebar that pierced his body in almost exactly the same spot as Jen, a child who fell 15 feet from a coconut tree to find himself impaled on a bamboo stake — where the injured person survives thanks to emergency surgery. Treatment involves careful removal of the impaling object, sutures to seal each layer of perforated tissue inside the body, scans for free air that might have been introduced and trapped inside the abdomen where it shouldn’t be, and courses of antibiotics to stop any infections from bacteria that might have been introduced through the injury. Even with medical care, infections are likely. All in all, this is more than Jen could possibly handle alone in her adrenaline-, blood loss-, and peyote-addled state, no matter how much grit she has.
Jen is clever enough — even through a haze of pain and blood loss — to not immediately try to remove the branch that’s speared through her pelvic cavity. While we did see Jen leave a trail of blood for her hunters to follow, leaving the branch in place probably kept her from bleeding out and dying (what can be referred to as a tamponade effect ). The branch, lodged inside the hole in her body, can act as a sort of plug to pack, compress, and seal the wound. Furthermore, removing impaling objects, especially when they aren’t smooth objects, can cause more damage being pulled out than it did going in (think about what can happen if you tear out a barbed fishhook).
Typically, however, the first priority with an impalement injury is stabilizing the impaling object so that it doesn’t wiggle around and cause more damage to the tissues it’s punctured. Jen is lucky that the branch doesn’t get pulled out when she escapes the dried-out tree by setting it on fire (a whole other decision that could have harmed her more than it helped in the movie). She doesn’t do anything to immobilize the branch once she is free, and I assume adrenaline and fear keeps her moving through what would have been extreme pain, but adrenaline rushes are hormone surges that eventually fade, and so Jen can’t continue for too long without having to deal with her injury.
Tripping on peyote she’s cached away in her locket, Jen manages to cut out the branch and cauterize the wound with an opened and flattened beer can. Nevermind that the cauterization wouldn’t create an imprint of the can’s eagle logo onto her flesh like a brand — the burning-hot aluminum would create a burned and melted mess at best and tear away some of her skin at worst — sealing her wound doesn’t do anything to solve her internal bleeding and organ damage. Jen‘s cauterization is basically a band-aid on a bullet wound solution, but it looks slick and at least she’s not leaving her body open to more microbes. I only wish she’d found time to cauterize her wound before she’d gone splashing around in a river that we know had at least one man’s urine in it.
“While relatively common in horror movies, impalement injuries like Jen’s are rare — and incredibly serious — in real life. That said, they are survivable.“
As for the peyote as anaesthetic — psychedelic anaesthesia is a thing, although peyote is not the drug usually explored in this area (that honour would typically lie with ketamine). Peyote works not so much by removing the pain, but by mediating Jen‘s conscious experience of her pain. We see her enter a sort of psychedelic delirium that divides her from the excruciating experience of melting her own flesh, a delirium that also comes with the cost of horrifying hallucinations of her attackers returning to kill her.
Jen, being the determined bad-ass that she is, lives to take her blood-slippery vengeance against the men who left her for dead. Here’s hoping that the peyote-toting pilot that we hear showing up in his helicopter at the end of the film takes one look at Jen and flies her straight to a hospital.
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