Does Truth Serum Really Work the Way Movies and TV Would Have You Believe?

Truth serum: It’s a long-used Hollywood trope that either helps the heroes to save the day or becomes a sinister threat when the protagonist is strapped to a chair in a sketchy warehouse room, threatened with a syringe of the stuff.

Sometimes, the captives escape before the serum can be injected. Other times, they withstand the effects with great effort. Occasionally, truth serums are used for humorous plots. In almost every case in a movie or TV series, they help to move the plot along by revealing information either the enemy or the audience hasn’t known before. 

'Resident Evil' scene in a lab showing Lance Reddick as Albert
‘Resident Evil’ | Netflix

But does a truth serum really exist, and how reliable are they? Here’s what you need to know about them. 

Truth serums are a common Hollywood trope 

Truth serums are most often used in action or thriller plotlines involving spies, espionage, and captives under duress. Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper) withstood a truth serum injection in Season 1 of Alias, for example. It’s used in the Divergent series multiple times and also makes appearances in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s True Lies

In some cases, it’s also used in humorous plotlines. In Meet the Fockers, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) is injected with a truth serum and then admits he is the father of a teenage boy — and tells his intended father-in-law that his daughter Pam (Teri Polo) is pregnant.

In Johnny English, the bumbling English (Rowan Atkinson) mixes up a muscle relaxant with a truth serum and injects an assailant — and himself — with the muscle relaxer instead of the truth-telling potion. 

Does a truth serum exist in real life? 

In reality, there are a few chemicals that can make telling the truth easier, but there is no known foolproof “truth serum.” Barbiturates, including sodium pentothal (or thiopental), developed in the 1930s, and sodium amytal can inhibit brain function and slow response times, Discover Magazine reports.

Since it’s easier to tell the truth than to lie — and since these compounds can make people chattier than normal and sometimes induce a hypnotic state — occasionally, they can coerce subjects to give up the truth. 

However, substances like this also make subjects more open to suggestion, meaning they can admit something to their interrogator that isn’t actually true. If under the influence of one of these compounds, they can also believe that previous fantasies are, in fact, true, meaning they could repeat something as truth that isn’t reality. 

One journalist for the BBC subjected himself to sodium thiopental injections to see what would happen. At a lower dose, he was able to continue lying, though the lies weren’t very convincing. With a higher dose, he told the truth without hesitation. However, he also pointed out that he was much more open to suggestion, which means the serums aren’t actually reliable. Instead, the person might just say what their interrogator wants them to. 

“Nearly a century of scientific literature has confirmed that no known chemical compound can, without the slightest doubt, coax a tongue to truth,” Discover summarized. 

Netflix’s ‘Resident Evil’ is the latest show to use a truth serum to move the plot along

Netflix’s latest hit, Resident Evil, is the most recent Hollywood production to employ a truth serum to move the plot along. The eight-episode Season 1 follows scientist Albert Wesker (Lance Reddick) and his daughters Jade (Ella Balinska) and Billie (Adeline Rudolph) as they navigate Umbrella Corporation’s experiments in Raccoon City, per IMDb.

The show alternates between two timelines in 2022 and 2036 and is based on the horror franchise of the same name that is largely credited with reintroducing zombies as villains in pop culture. 

In Episode 6, Umbrella Corporation’s head Evelyn Marcus (Paola Nuñez) orders Wesker to administer truth serum to a man they kidnapped, but Wesker concocts a different mix of drugs to try to kill the subject so that he can’t tell the truth about Billie being infected with the T-virus — the infection that dooms people to become zombies.

Regardless of whether truth serums work in reality, the threat of them can certainly make a show more intriguing. Resident Evil is currently streaming on Netflix. 

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