Three minutes into the trailer for the widely debunked anti-vaccine film “Died Suddenly,” comedian Heather McDonald is shown collapsing on stage.
In the background, a voiceover from people identified as “whistleblowers” lays out the film’s mission statement.
“It’s the new bullet. It’s the new form of warfare,” the voice of a man in a darkened room says about the Covid vaccine.
“The dead can’t speak for themselves, so therefore, I have to speak for them,” says another.
The idea that she can’t speak for herself comes as a surprise to McDonald, who recently sat in her studio in Woodland Hills, California, prepping for her weekly podcast. She has published it every week since she passed out on stage in February 2022 at the Tempe Improv in Arizona.
Since then, videos of her collapse have been viewed millions of times on social media. Joe Rogan talked about it on his podcast. Fox News published an article about her collapse and tweeted: “Comedian collapses on stage, fractures skull after declaring she’s triple vaxxed.”
McDonald, 52, said she’s getting used to getting recognized as a piece of propaganda.
“Sometimes there’ll be people who say, ‘Oh my God, I just saw you on something,’” McDonald said in an interview from her bright pink podcast studio. “And I’m like, ‘Sadly, I know what it is. It’s me fainting.’”
McDonald, like a half-dozen other people whose medical events are shown in the trailer for the anti-vaccine conspiracy theory film, did not die as a result of the Covid-19 vaccine. Many of them now live their lives with a strange internet notoriety, the kind that didn’t exist even just a few years ago.
The film has since been widely debunked, including by Reuters and FactCheck.org. Its issues even sparked concern from people within the anti-vaccine movement who worried it made them look bad. The person featured immediately after McDonald in the trailer, Keyontae Johnson, collapsed on Dec. 12, 2020, days before Covid vaccines were available or widely administered in the U.S. This month, Johnson made it to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament with the rest of the Kansas State Wildcats and is a projected NBA Draft pick. (Johnson was eventually diagnosed with a heart condition unrelated to the Covid vaccine.)
That has done little to stymie the success of “Died Suddenly,” which has evolved from the title of a film into something of a rallying cry in the anti-vaccine world. The hashtag “#DiedSuddenly” trended on Twitter after the film’s release and has become a consistent internet trope, reappearing when high-profile medical events occur on television or in public.
Recounting the night she collapsed, McDonald said she felt dizzy at the start of her set and, had she not been on stage in front of friends and family for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, would have simply sat back down instead of trying to fight through it. Afterward, McDonald received a battery of tests from doctors, who said that she had no underlying condition and that the fainting spell was not linked to the vaccine. McDonald suffered a fractured skull and a concussion, and still checks in with doctors but has had no lingering issues.
Video of her collapse quickly spread online. Hoping to clear up any confusion, McDonald released the video along with an update from doctors to her own social media accounts days after her collapse. While she joked at first that she didn’t mind the attention, releasing the video had the opposite effect, and she became overwhelmed by conspiracy theories about her health.
McDonald said she was quickly able to clarify her health status with her own listeners, and wondered what it’s like for people “who can’t go on their podcast and say ‘I’m fine.’”
Even with McDonald’s platform, the video of her collapse continues to circulate online. Videos tagged with “Heather McDonald collapse” have over 17 million views on TikTok, frequently outnumbering her own recently posted content in search results that she posts to her 370,000 followers.
“That’s what really made me sad: I thought I was a little bit better known than that,” joked McDonald.
McDonald has had problems counteracting the viral misinformation about her even among people she knows.
Joe Rogan, who she knew from backstage conversations at comedy sets in Los Angeles, played the video of McDonald’s collapse on his podcast and alluded to links to the vaccine.
“I DM’d him and I’m like, ‘Joe, do you not know who I am?’” McDonald said.
McDonald said Rogan did not respond to her direct message. Rogan and Spotify, his exclusive podcast distributor, did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
McDonald, who is vaccinated, said she has gone to great lengths to stay apolitical, not mentioning politics on her podcast — which focuses on reality TV gossip — since the 2016 election.
“I’m nonpolitical, and I get thrown into this thing just for doing my job and working,” she said.
After that initial wave of attention, things started to go back to normal, McDonald said. Then, nine months after her collapse, “Died Suddenly” came out. She was back in the internet’s warped spotlight.
Despite immediate and repeated debunking, the film has had a lasting impact in the anti-vaccine community even as the film’s producer, Stew Peters, has had to come up with increasingly bizarre ways to explain its inaccuracies.
Peters pushed the conspiracy theory that Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin, who collapsed on Jan. 2 after being hit in the chest on “Monday Night Football,” was dead or being hidden away as part of a global conspiracy theory to protect vaccine makers.
When Hamlin reappeared and gave public interviews, Peters repeatedly insisted that Hamlin had been replaced by a “body double.”
As the documentary’s main thesis — that the vaccine is causing mass death to young people — fails to bear out statistically, Peters has pivoted to new conspiracy theories about other maladies he attributes to the vaccine.
Earlier this month, Peters tweeted that men who received the MRNA vaccine “are essentially infertile and their penises are rotting off.”
Peters did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, Peters and the “Died Suddenly” crew maintain an audience with lawmakers. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., appeared on Peters’ video podcast on March 14, above a scroll imploring viewers to watch “Died Suddenly.”
Interest in the film was renewed in the last month when an Idaho state senator and a representative introduced a bill that would make the administration of MRNA vaccines (the type used against Covid-19) a misdemeanor in the state.
One of the bill’s co-authors, state Sen. Tammy Nichols, has repeatedly implored her constituents and followers on Facebook to watch “Died Suddenly.”
“Everyone is talking about Died Suddenly on Rumble. Powerful!” she wrote on Nov. 22. “Watch Died Suddenly and stand up to this garbage,” she added the next day. Nichols, who did not respond to a request for comment, used the hashtag #DiedSuddenly as recently as Feb. 19.
Dr. Eric Burnett, an internal medicine doctor at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, has recorded several videos on TikTok attempting to combat the lies in “Died Suddenly.”
Burnett said that he now sees people conflating disinformation about the potential harm from vaccines with the actual threat of Covid-related illnesses.
“Anti-vaxxers and these myth-spreaders, they operate in this bubble that doesn’t require evidence, that doesn’t require any burden of proof. They could say whatever they want, and it’s consequence-free for them,” Burnett said.
Despite repeated debunking of “Died Suddenly,” the lies about the videos featured in it won’t die — and even morph into new ones.
McDonald said the release of “Died Suddenly” coincided with a second wave of attention and abuse. People began posting that McDonald, who is a practicing Catholic, was spited and “flicked” by God for the joke she tried to deliver right before her collapse, in which she said Jesus loved her because she hadn’t yet gotten Covid-19.
“They say something mean, like, ‘You shouldn’t be alive because you got the vaccine.’ Or they’ll say, ‘You shouldn’t be alive because you joked about Jesus,’” McDonald said.
Despite millions of views across social media platforms, McDonald said she was simply left with people questioning her faith, part of an ever-evolving conspiracy theory in which it’s unclear if she’s even alive.
“I am in this business. I’d like to be known,” she said. “But this was just not any bonus for me at all.”