This trope occurs when a thinking subject (a human, sentient
animal, etc.) is part of a scientific experiment and has no idea that it's being experimented on and has not explicitly consented to the experiment. Usually, in such stories, there is some surreal and alienating moment in which the subject (or audience) realizes this after The Reveal
, an unmasking or a series of clues in the story.
Unwitting experimental subjects are entities that embody the experience of being caught up in a maze like a rat, being a guinea pig for the scientific-industrial complex and/or some mad scientist
's eerie human experimentation, done for the sake of satisfying scientific curiosity. Subjects are unaware for a time that they're actively being creeped and experimented upon for a certain period of time. However, there could be copious amounts of unconscious subjects falling victim to Playing with Syringes
or Strapped to an Operating Table
, and maybe even the evoking of an Eye Scream
Experiments like this are carried out by The Conspiracy
, an Ancient Conspiracy
, The Syndicate
or The Government
who have their own inscrutable motives. These bad boys might, in turn, have a Chessmaster
who plans and runs it, making sure all the while that the unwitting subjects remain so. Sometimes one of the test subjects turns out to be working for the bad guys, in which case, the conspirator participates in a masquerade
to keep his or her true intentions from the subject(s).
The difference between an Unwitting Experimental Subject and Tested on Humans
is that with the latter some sort of weapon or destructive device is tested on a subject for show; for example, to humorous effect, just as a more or less random target to demonstrate how awesomely powerful a weapon is. A person who's a victim of Tested on Humans
pretty quickly gets hep to the jive that s/he's the test subject, that is, the effects are immediate and plain to the subject/victim. Unwitting experimental subjects, in contrast, show up many times in the psychological horror
or psychological thriller
The experiment doesn't necessarily have to actually be shown to be an experiment. The story could be an Ontological Mystery
, which the character is faced with after You All Meet in a Cell
or You Wake Up in a Room
. That is to say, the work might not have any visible scientists (to the audience or to the characters) who are performing the experiment, the purpose of the experiment may not be apparent or it may not be clear that it's an experiment at all. It could just be hinted at by various means (say, by the mathematical or vaguely scientific nature of the environment the characters find themselves in), or just implied in some clever way.
On the Older Than Feudalism
level, this trope could be placed in the God testing Abraham's and Job's faith arena. The trope has been active since the '30s mostly in sci-fi works, but shows no signs of becoming discredited
Contrast Professor Guinea Pig
, compare Guinea Pig Family
. May involve a Disposable Vagrant
or Condemned Contestant
and an Evilutionary Biologist
. If the humans are seen as a vast philosophical computer simulation, then compare with the Wetware CPU
Anime and Manga
- Soul Eater: One of the first things we learn about Dr. Franken Stein in the second volume is that he used to perform experiments on Spirit Albarn while the latter was asleep, without his finding out. This is later played for perverse humor, when Stein asks Spirit if he noticed that he swapped his toes around.
- The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, directed by Werner Herzog. A semi-fictionalized account of the true story of a young boy who spent the first seventeen years of his life in a cellar without any human contact. He's fed, clothed and bathed by a mysterious man in a black overcoat who drugs him in order to prevent any contact. It's suspected that this was part of an early rogue experiment in psychology.
- Scanners, directed by David Cronenberg, features a super breeding program experiment performed by a pharmaceutical corporation on unwitting pregnant women with the goal of world domination. A drug, ostensibly for morning sickness, is administered in order to encourage the development of psychic abilities in their fetuses. The reveal comes when the protagonist realizes that his own psychic abilities came about as the result of those experiments.
- In The Cube, six people from diverse backgrounds and with differing abilities find themselves in a vast mathematical and geometric maze that contains booby-traps. The very nature of the maze is left up for grabs, but it's hinted at that it's a scientific device, perhaps built by a government (or not), that serves no conceivable purpose, but maybe once did.
- The Kovak Box involves a scientist involved in a massive government conspiracy to control society through implants that induce people to commit suicide. It involves using unwitting human subjects in the preliminary phases to test whether social engineering can be reliably and efficiently achieved.
- The sentient chimpanzee, Caesar, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is forced to come to terms with the fact that his entire reason for existing and being sentient was the result of an experiment carried out on his mother, who was terminated.
- A broad and overarching example of this in Prometheus, when the humans realize that the aliens were doing genetic manipulation experiments and probably were responsible for 'seeding' (see: Panspermia) Earth with the DNA necessary for establishing the human species.
- The 2013 film Dark Skies has this trope as well, when the two protagonists realize that aliens are using them (perhaps) as experimental subjects for creepily incomprehensible reasons.
- While very much a borderline case, Mikhail Bulgakov's satirical novel Heart of a Dog (1925) could technically exhibit this trope. A street dog (in many ways, a Disposable Vagrant) is taken in by a surgeon who implants him with human glands to learn of the effects. He learns to speak and takes on human qualities – mostly the negative ones. While the dog is objectively not sentient before the operation, because of the characteristically human way the thoughts of the dog are presented to the reader, he could be considered sentient. However, throughout, it's fairly clear that the dog does not know that he's part of an experiment at first.
- In several short stories by Isaac Asimov:
- "Breeds There a Man...?": There, a brilliant physicist comes to believe that aliens are conducting experiments with civilizations all over the universe, and ours is close to a point where measures are being taken to shut it down.
- In "Jokester", it is discovered that humor is a psychological study tool imposed from without by extraterrestrials studying mankind.
- House of Stairs, a young-adult science-fiction novel by William Sleator features a group of children with fundamentally differing and conflicting personalities inexplicably imprisoned in a surrealistic environment, which calls to mind an experimental labyrinth, who are subjected to various trials. It's revealed at the end that a totalitarian government is testing a psychologist's theories about conditioning. The experiment is a "failure" because two of the children were prepared to starve to death rather than obey a conditioning stimulus.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The central revelation in the story is that Earth's purpose is an experiment/computer program from extraterrestrials in order to determine the meaning of life (compare with "Jokester" by Asimov).
- A major plot point of the Confederation of Valor novels. In Valor's Trial it turns out that a war has been started and encouraged as an sociological experiment by extraterrestrials.
Older Than Feudalism
- In both The Outer Limits and The New Outer Limits, episode and remake of "A Feasibility Study": A random neighborhood from a typical suburban town is transported to an alien planet in order to determine whether the inhabitants are suitable for the environment because they need suitable slaves compatible with the aliens' planet.
- In Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- Episode "Allegiance": one of the central protagonists suddenly finds himself locked in a room with random people, representing an experimental subject group, whose interpersonal reactions are being tested. After much ado, they finally realize that their responses to certain stimuli are being tested in some psychological behavior experiment by a group of aliens inclined to scientific curiosity.
- Episode "Schisms": Weird things start to happen on the Enterprise: Riker can't get a good night's sleep, there's a bacterial infection in Geordi's neural implants, Data's internal chronometer shows 90 missing minutes, several people are having panic reactions to ordinary objects, and there's a subspace rift in a cargo bay. Eventually the affected personnel get together and piece together their memories. In a chilling scene, they realize that each of them has been kidnapped into another universe, Strapped to an Operating Table and subjected to medical experimentation while they slept.
- Star Trek: Voyager, "Scientific Method": The characters' bodies are being manipulated and monitored without their knowledge by invisible aliens who are desperate to achieve medical knowledge at any cost. There are unexplained injuries and death, and it's up to one of the crew-members to alert the others without alerting the alien observers who are constantly present (Invisible to Normals) that they are on to them, which would result in the experimenters taking punitive action.
- An unintentional version happens in the NCIS episode "Double Blind". A Navy cook is being followed and doesn't know why. It turns out he signed up for a study on the effects of Big Brother on people's lives, then forgot about it entirely after suffering a concussion.
- In the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, in a forerunner to the Milgram experiment, God runs an experiment to determine the extent of Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son on an altar. At the last second, though, God says, "Whoa, dude, that's okay. Just checking."
- In the Book of Job, God makes a bet with Satan that Job won't waver in his faith. In an interesting study with perhaps one of the most controversial yet unquestionable Institutional Human Study Review Board approvals ever, God gives permission for Satan to run through a series of physical and psychological tortures to test Job's behavioral response.
- Various language-deprivation experiments were carried out by powerful leaders throughout history on unwitting children in order to ascertain the natural language. The Greek historian Herodotus in Histories famously describes one in which children were deprived of all external speech by the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I (664–610 BC). He concluded that the natural language sounded like Phrygian, a language spoken in Turkey at the time.
- From the 1950s up to the late '60s, the US government carried out large-scale experiments in psychological interrogation and conditioning sometimes involving powerful psychoactive drugs on unwilling and unwitting populations. Operation Midnight Climax, for example, involved the CIA recruiting prostitutes who would dose their clients, who were observed behind a one-way mirror, with LSD on whom sexual blackmail techniques would be tested.
- The US government carried out experiments to determine the effects of radiation on the human body. Schoolchildren's milk and prisoners' testicles were irradiated all to see what the effects might be without their having been told.
- Miss Evers' Boys. A stageplay by David Feldschuh about the infamous Tuskegee experiment (1932–1972), in which poor, African-American sharecroppers in Alabama were used by the government to study the long-term progression of untreated syphilis without their being told they suffered from it. It's told from the perspective of the nurse who worked on the study.
- In the Fallout franchise, residents of hundreds of separate subterranean bunkers, called 'vaults,' were unwittingly subjected to various large-scale (controlled) experiments, locked in and monitored closely. For example, in one vault, the residents were divided up into a red and blue group just to observe the long-term effects of that social division.