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The Hollywood Movie Death That’s Most Like a Panic Attack

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I couldn’t think of an answer at first, so I settled on: “It’s like I’m dying.”

My brother looked off and tried to process the claim, but the only thing he could come up with was, “Oh.”

Not his fault. My response was too big and vague and who the hell even knows what dying feels like anyway unless they’ve already done it?

But it made me wonder if a panic attack is the kind of experience that can ever really be conveyed to someone whose brain doesn’t work like that. (Correction: doesn’t break like that.)

Thing is, when a panic attack hits me, it doesn’t feel like my brain is messed up — it feels like my entire body is. My muscles seize up and start to shudder. My chest tightens. My stomach clenches. My veins constrict. I can’t breathe. I need to get outside because the walls are too close, but I can’t move my body to make it happen. If it’s especially bad, I will literally whimper the word “help,” even if the room is empty.

It’s just… like I’m dying.

A panic attack is an event — an experience. Death is too. But I’ve only experienced death at the funerals of friends and family, when it’s all been cleaned up for us so we won’t cry so hard. I’ve never seen death happen… at least, not outside of a movie theater.

Maybe that’s just it then; maybe panic disorder isn’t like real death at all. Maybe it’s more like simulated death… like a movie, where no one mourns you and you get to do it again and again and again, like take 366 on the set of mental illness’ “Groundhog’s Day.”

I started sifting through a lifetime of fake blood and fake gore and fake body counts from a childhood filled with all the 1980s shoot-em-ups that used to seem so real to me. I was looking for something very specific: the death scene that best encapsulates my experience during a panic attack — one where the victim is found postmortem with a look of horror frozen on his face.

And so, after careful consideration, the movie death that comes closest to summing up the feeling of a panic attack is (envelope please)…


In the first Jurassic Park (the only good one), there’s a pasty lawyer who is nervous and sweaty and devoid of humor. In fact, he’s such a disposable cliché that I don’t even remember his name and am willing to bet five bucks that the credits list him only as “lawyer.” Bottom line: we know he’s a goner from the first scene. He’s the young blonde who runs out of gas in front of The Bates Motel.

But it’s not the way he dies that is especially panic attack-ish. It’s the build-up… a slow build-up. First, he gets a feeling in his gut that something is wrong. Then he hears the giant footsteps coming and feels the jeep shake. He watches the cup of water shake with wide eyes. His environment is slowly changing around him and he’s powerless to do anything about it.

At first, he doubts, “Maybe it’s the power trying to come back on.” (I do this too: “Maybe I’m getting tired. Maybe I’m just having a bad day.”) But we’re both screwed, because a T. rex just dropped a bloody goat carcass on the sunroof. Now we feel the need to run. The lawyer finds himself a tiki-themed restroom and cowers on a toilet seat. (I’ve done the same… without the tiki theme). Both of us have time to contemplate what is now inevitable. The lawyer watches the walls of the little hut fall apart around him. My brain falls to pieces just as easily.

Pause. That’s the moment. Keep it paused, right there. That’s a panic attack.

Worst of all, you have no idea how long it will last because you just lost the remote. You’re stuck. You are the soaking-wet lawyer, huddled on the toilet with the hot breath of this-shouldn’t-be-happening terror on your face. Motionless. Horrified. Jeff Goldblum can’t save you — nobody can.

There’s an appropriate amount of embarrassment in this death scene too. The poor guy is sitting on the can, shaking like a coward. Exposed for what he is. Having a panic attack can be just as embarrassing.

So, sit there. Endure it. Clamp your fingers around your head until someone you can’t see finds the remote in the dark and hits the eject button.

And, when the disk slides out on its tray, the whole thing will be over. No death. No dinosaur. Back to life… slower, shakier and sicker to your stomach than before.

In short, “Panic Attack: The Movie” isn’t something you want to see, but I hope you have a better sense of just how bad it is. If you’re still not convinced, you can check out the freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes to see the 0 percent it received from everyone who’s ever been trapped in its theater for the undisclosed running time.

And, like a franchise that The Walt Disney Company has acquired to exploit for no other reason than total market saturation, the sequels come fast and furious. They get worse too. God, they get worse.

The only good news I have for you, if you suddenly find yourself stuck in a folding theater chair — the one with ankle and wrist restraints on it — is as follows:

They won’t run the film all the way to the end. You won’t die. Just try to remember that, as much as it sucks, it’s all just light on the wall.

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Getty Images photo via Ljupco

Originally published: April 21, 2018
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