And I Must Scream / Real Life

Warning: This page contains major Nightmare Fuel. Preparation of Brain Bleach is recommended.

  • One of the most common forms of this is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Motor Neurone Disease or Lou Gehrig's Disease. If you have Lou Gehrig's Disease, your motor neurons, which are responsible for triggering actions, gradually decay away while the rest of your nervous system (including your brain) remains perfectly intact. You can still feel pain and boredom but cannot move to avoid it. Clumsiness is one of the first symptoms. Poor Stephen Hawking got more of a taste of this than anyone ever wants, living like this for decades, though he at least had sight, hearing and enough eye movement to control his computer (which did the communicating for him), along with retaining his incredible mind.
    • Most sufferers of this condition die after a year or two. Only 4% last for 10 years or more. Hawking lived with the disease for over half a century.
    • This fact has led to question whether it was actually ALS or not, and stymied a definitive diagnosis until an autopsy can be performed. Hawking actually had to retire from his post as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (the same title once held by Sir Isaac H. Newton) because nobody is allowed to hold that job-title after the year of their 67th birthday.
  • Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) is a horrible genetic disease where, if your muscles are damaged in any way at all, your body decides to replace the damaged muscle - not with more muscle, but with bone. By the time you're thirty, most, if not all of your joints have been locked into place by newly-grown bones and you die of starvation/suffocation because you can't move your jaw or ribs. And trying to remove the bone growths with surgery only results in the body "healing" the surgical cuts with even more bone.
  • The Tokaimura Nuclear Incident of 1999. Three technicians improperly feeding a uranium compound into a feeder reactor were irradiated by the resultant nuclear reaction and witnessed a burst of blue light (Cherenkov Radiation, a beautiful blue glow which is also a surefire sign that the nuclear fuel has reached criticality) but in doing so, two of the three technicians, Hisashi Ouchi and Masato Shinohara, died painful deaths. Ouchi was kept alive for almost three months while doctors tried to do everything to save him, but even so, they also kept him alive to study the effects of radiation on the human body. His skin and eyes boiled away, his chromosomes couldn't be arranged into any order, for they were fragmented and destroyed. His organs failed and melted into goo. Not even transplanted bone marrow could survive in his body before it was destroyed by the radiation. Eventually, his bones turned black, and his muscles fell away. He begged the doctors to end his life, but they refused, thinking that there was a chance that he could be saved. To make matters worse, the doctors began carrying out experiments on his dying body, while he was still alive. When his intestines failed, an endoscope was inserted to look into the cavity that was left behind, and on the 50th day, his heart stopped several times, but doctors revived him each and every time. To quote the Coroner:
    At first glance, Ouchiís body was bright red, as if he had been scalded. But it differed from burnt corpses whose entire bodies were pitch black. The front side of his body, where he had apparently been irradiated, looked severely burnt. No skin remained on this side and it was smeared in blood. The back side was entirely uncolored and the skin appeared normal. There was a distinct border between the irradiated and untouched areas.
    The intestines were swollen and looked like a writhing serpent. There was 2,040 g of blood in his stomach and 2,680 g in his intestines. It was obvious that the gastrointestines had not been functioning.
    Every mucus membrane in his body had disappeared. In addition to the mucus membranes in the intestines and other parts of the gastrointestinal tract, mucus membranes in the trachea had also disappeared.
    What most astonished Misawa was the muscle cells, normally thought to be the least susceptible to radiation damage. Ouchiís muscle cells had lost most of their fiber and only the cell membrane remained.
    There was only one organ with vivid red muscle cells which had remained intact. It was the heart. Only the muscle cells of the heart had not been destroyed.
  • The case of Martin Pistorius. After contracting a brain infection at the age of twelve, Pistorius lost his ability to control his movements and speak but had full mental awareness for most of the 12 years he was trapped in his own body. An aromatherapist noticed his attempts to communicate through slight movements and he was eventually able to obtain a computer that gave him a voice, a job and a wife.
    • He was also forced to watch reruns of Barney & Friends all the time. In an attempt to keep his sanity, he started focusing on the movement of the sun over the day.
    • "I cannot express how much I hated Barney"
      • As stated under his entry on The Power of Hate, Pistorius' hatred for Barney was so strong, he managed to regain some movement in his head and arms out of pure spite.
  • A bad experience with dissociative drugs such as the psychoactive herb salvia divinorum can cause horrifying sensations of being trapped in an eternal loop or transformed into an inanimate object. Time dilation plus ego death equals this trope becoming very, very real.
    • This can also happen with certain hallucinogens like K-2 which also slow time perception. It is not fun.
  • During surgerynote , patients are supposed to receive a general anesthetic cocktail that includes neuromuscular blocking agents (which keep them paralyzed so they don't twitch and mess up the surgery), sedatives (to knock them out and give them amnesia), and an analgesic (to numb them so they don't feel anything). There are numerous reports of patients who have had the sedatives and analgesics wear off during/after surgery but KEPT ON the neuromuscular blocking agent. So essentially they are wide awake — but completely paralyzed — with no possible way to give the doctors a sign that they are in excruciating pain. Luckily, the autonomous systems keep functioning and react to the pain as normal (quickened breathing and pace, heightened blood pressure, sweat), so a good doctor would probably be able to tell and readminister the anesthetic. Hopefully.
    • Anesthesia awareness, as it is called, happens in about 1 in 500 operations.
    • Modern anesthesia machines include an "entropy sensor", essentially an EEG, to make sure the patient is unconscious. The problem is that quite often it gets removed for being in the way.
  • Polio often caused paralysis. Sometimes of limbs. Sometimes of the various breathing mechanisms. Iron lungs, for a very long time, meant lying down in a sort of cylinder, with only the head outside. That's a nonintrusive way to keep someone breathing, and it's fine and dandy as a temporary thing. Most people who needed them only needed them for a week or two. But some polio patients were never able to breathe on their own again, and it was years before smaller long-term breathing machines were invented. Why We Immunize has a good article on that.
    • There's Elizabeth Moon's essay on polio. Put your chin on your chest.
      I did some volunteer work in a children's hospital. There was only one polio patient: one of the last cases, then a teenager, in an iron lung. By then there were no more specialty polio centers, no more polio wards, in which at least the inhabitants could talk to someone who understood. In a ward for children, where the other patients were kids who'd had some other treatable illness or injuries, there was his iron lung. He wanted no part of the cheerfulness we tried to bring to the ward.
      And no wonder. Unless he could adapt to one of the smaller respiratory assists that came later, he was stuck for life in a huge, unwieldy, scary case... immobile, having to be tended by people who reached in through portholes on the side to clean him up, change his diaper... and who, increasingly, would not have a clue what his life was like because people like him were so few now. He could not see his body, engulfed in the machine that kept him alive. He could see only what was directly above him or reflected in the mirror over his head. None of the electronic aids for the disabled existed then... or for another decade or two.
      There were, and are, more lethal diseases than polio: those with a higher mortality, and greater infectivity as well. But polio had a special horror to it.
  • This is the gist of Locked in syndrome, wherein you appear comatose, but are actually 100% aware of everything going on. This can go undiagnosed, everyone thinking they're just plain comatose. Like Kate Allat, now a patient advocate.
    • When former editor of Elle magazine Jean-Dominique Bauby was struck by locked-in syndrome after a stroke, he managed to communicate through a system of eyeblinks, and wrote a book about his experiences called The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, later made into a film.
  • Some people have severe enough cerebral palsy or other brain injury that they have almost no ability to walk, speak, or control their muscles, but still have a normal I.Q. Thankfully, modern communication methods mean people can communicate in ways such as using a letterboard. (This is how Eva Sweeney communicates. She is a massive, massive subversion of this trope!) However, consider all the people in third world countries, or who lived in previous centuries.
    • Christopher Nolan (not that one, the Irish author) could only communicate by typing with a "unicorn stick" after taking anti-spasmodics so that he could have some voluntary control of his muscles.
    • Neil Young's son Ben has this. He is completely spastic, quadriplegic and non-oral. He uses a device similar to Stephen Hawking's and now runs a chicken farm (something Neil himself had considered doing as a child).
  • See the references to Johnny Got His Gun in Film and Literature? One unfortunate Gulf War II veteran is living the nightmare.
  • Empress Dowager Lüi of the Han Dynasty, after having the young prince Ruyi murdered as a perceived threat to her son Hui's throne, tortured his mother, Consort Qi, by hacking off her hands and feet, putting out her eyes, deafening her, and tossing her in a pig pen to live out the rest of her life. Emperor Hui was so traumatized by his mother's unspeakable and pointless cruelty that he took to drink and died.
  • Carlos II of Spain, the Trope Illustrator for Royally Screwed Up:
  • In the book "Musicophilia", Oliver Sacks describes the sad case of conductor Clive Wearing, who suffers from an acute case of both retrograde and anterograde amnesia (i.e. he has lost almost all memories of his past, and is also unable to form new long-term memories, like the protagonist in the film Memento). Wearing is aware that something is terribly wrong with him, but he has no way to learn what has happened or come to terms with it, and is left only with a constantly recurring realization of having been robbed of all past experience. At one point, Wearing's therapist suggested that he might try keeping a diary...
    But his journal entries consisted, essentially, of the statements "I am awake" or "I am conscious," entered again and again every few minutes. He would write, "2.10 pm: this time properly awake... 2.14 pm: this time finally awake... 2.35 pm: this time completely awake," along with negations of these statements: "At 9.40 pm I awoke for the first time, despite my previous claims." This in turn was crossed out, followed by "I was fully conscious at 10.35 pm, and awake for the first time in many, many weeks." This in turn was canceled out by the next entry. This dreadful journal, almost void of any other content but these passionate assertions and denials, intending to affirm existence and continuity but forever contradicting them, was filled anew each day, and soon mounted to hundreds of almost identical pages." (pp. 203-204)
    Wearing has been keeping this diary for more than twenty years.
    • Heartwarmingly, one of the few things Wearing can always recognize and remember is his wife.
  • This experiment involving MRIs implies that people in persisted vegetative states may be completely aware of their surroundings, even going so far as to answer complicated questions. What's worse, the BBC broadcast talking about this implied the moral and legal obligations of such a claim, that someone stuck in this state and capable of asking for it would not be legally allowed assisted suicide.
    • However, several other methods of determining if someone in this state is aware are prone to problems. To wit, facilitated communication (where allegedly the comatose is able to communicate through another person "guiding" his hand to a keyboard) does not work (tests where different facilitators are used and where a test object is hidden from the facilitator, but not the PVS). The most prominent case of this is Rom Houben, a man who was thought to be completely aware for his 23 years in a coma, but was determined to still be out when the facilitated communication used to stake the claim failed.
  • Sleep paralysis is a condition in which the normal REM atonia that normally prevents the body from moving during REM sleep persists after one regains consciousness. Though generally this is experienced for only a few minutes at a time, the body is generally unable to accurately perceive the passage of time, and it can feel like hours. If it's not bad enough you're in a state of panic because you can't move, the subject can also experience terrifying hallucinations.
    • Thankfully, it's possible to learn to recognize what's going on and teach oneself ways to stay calm. Some sufferers are also able to break out of it faster by wiggling their toes, gradually regaining the ability to move at a somewhat quicker rate than if one stayed perfectly still. For some people, sleep paralysis can be triggered by various environmental factors (some are more likely to experience it if they sleep in a hot room, for example), so figuring out and avoiding these factors may reduce the chances of it happening.
      • Annoyingly and/or terrifyingly, one can often suffer from the belief that they are moving. A person could be trying to move their leg and feel it move without actually having moved. This combined with hallucinations can cause someone to have the sensation that they got up and walked away from their bed only to reappear a moment later in their bed having never actually moved at all. For some suffers, even long-term ones, "fighting it" seems like the only reasonable option because they too tired to rationalize it.
    • Sleep paralysis can occur before one goes to sleep. For some people, the inability to move even when tired is too terrifying to handle. This creates a catch 22 situation where someone is tired enough to go to sleep, but too terrified to attempt it.
    • Some people experience sleep paralysis mostly as a result of sleep deprivation. That means that whenever you try to go to sleep, you get paralyzed, and once you escape, you're exhausted and have to try to go asleep again, which leads to more sleep paralysis... The saddest part about this phenomenon is that it is not uncommon. It is where the word for nightmare originated from.
    • Added Nightmare Fuel: sleep paralysis + fire alarm + smoke = aware of asphyxiation, but unable to do anything about it because you're on lockdown. Ditto the person in the room semi-aware hallucination turning out not to be an actual hypnogogic misfire, but an actual person... and, you're on lockdown. Enjoy!
  • The leukodystrophies, a family of disorders in which the fatty sheath covering the nerves slowly dissolves, oftentimes lead to the sufferer becoming paralyzed, blind and deaf.
  • Although, it is extremely rare (and almost impossible today), there have been instances in which people have been thought to be dead and buried alive in a coffin.
    • Of course, whether that impossibility is due to advances in medicine, or due to having embalming fluid pumped through your veins, remains to be determined.
  • The WNYC program Radio Lab reported the story of Emilie Gossiaux, who suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her unable to communicate with the outside world. Or was she? It was unusually hard to tell, since Emilie was deaf, and the accident robbed her of her sight. You can listen to it here; it's absolutely riveting.
  • Tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin found in newts and puffer fish, can induce muscular paralysis and a comatose stupor that lasts for several days—while leaving you fully conscious. It's believed by some to be the active ingredient in real-life zombie powder.
  • Curare, a toxin that causes full-body paralysis without affecting the mind or the feeling of pain, was used as an "anesthetic" for surgeries in the 1940's. On patients which included babies.
    • And before its medical uses were discovered, its traditional use was Poisoned Weapons. Specifically hunting, as most native preparations classified as curare could be safely ingested.
  • Some types of wine involve pickling a live viper in a bottle for months. Usually the snakes die but sometimes, they survive. There are even instances of snakes coming back to life and biting people who try to open the bottle.
    • Because of reptiles' slow metabolisms, decapitation can take hours or days to kill them, though they feel every bit of it the whole time.
    • Speaking of reptiles, if their prey is sufficently large (say, bigger than a duck), dying at the hands of a reptile becomes a slow and painful experience. There is an online video of an Alligator snapping turtle that caught a Mallard by the leg. As the bird tries to get away, the turtle just tightens its grip on the leg, slowly snapping the bird's leg bones one by one. Hours later, the duck slowly lapses into exhaustion and it presumably has to endure getting Eaten Alive.
  • There are a number of parasites that take control of insects or small animals and then force them, against their will, to allow themselves to be eaten by predators. For example, the Dicrocoelium infects an ant and then forces the ant to crawl to the tip of a blade of grass where it can easily be eaten by a bird, thus allowing the parasite to continue its cycle inside a bird. Even worse, the Spinochordodes larvae enter grasshoppers that drink the water they reside in and then after growing inside the grasshopper, they take control and force the grasshopper to jump into a body of water and drown itself. Imagine being unable to stop your body from drowning itself.
    • The notorious Cordyceps-type fungus was originally thought to actually infect the host's nervous system, rewiring it for the fungus' own purpose. Only recently studies shown that it's actually even worse: Cordyceps fungi infect the muscle tissue of the host, not the brain. An infected insect is forced to act in ways that are not its own, forced to climb towards high places before the fungus finally kills its host and spreads its spores.
  • Encephalitis lethargica. A disease that reached epidemic levels in the 1920s, it started as a simple headache, fever, and sore throat. If it killed you, you were lucky, as many people in the late stages of the disease were left totally unable to move or speak, despite possibly still being conscious, as explored in the movie Awakenings.
  • Some strokes can cause enough damage that they can leave you in such a state. An example is John Paul Getty III, grandson of oil baron J. Paul Getty. In 1981, years after his infamous kidnapping by Italian gangsters, Getty tried a cocktail of various drugs. He suffered a stroke and came out of it quadriplegic and blind. Up until his death in 2011, all Getty could do to communicate was scream.
  • Did you know that if you're decapitated, your brain doesn't die immediately? There are several documented cases of people being decapitated and being fully aware for up to two minutes afterward.
  • There are several species of wasp that target a specific animal, paralyze it with a sting, then lay an egg or eggs on it. When the eggs hatch, the larvae devour the creature alive, eating the meat first and the organs second to keep it alive and fresh for as long as possible. Of special note are tarantula hawk wasps. Their larvae take about a month to finish eating a tarantula, and the spider stays alive and unable to move for that amount of time, only dying when the larva starts eating its organs.
  • The Boltzmann brain, a hypothetical self-aware entity that would appear because of quantum fluctuations out of nothingnessnote . On its basic formulation, the thing(s) would appear with false memories of it/them living a life as ours instead of the truth (alone and in the middle of the most absolute nowhere). However, nothing that impedes a brain would appear without those fake memories and discovered it's alone in the cold, absolute darkness, and of course totally unable to do something about it -including, of course, to be unable to kill itself-.
  • Aphasia is a series of conditions that can arise following injury to the areas of the brain that deal with language, most commonly after a stroke. The most severe of these is Global Aphasia, where a person loses the ability to say more than a few words, understand speech, write, and even read. The good news is, since this type of Aphasia is often seen immediately following a stroke, most patients will be able to recover. However, if the brain damage is severe enough, the resulting language disability may be permanent.
  • Apparently there exists an extremely rare skin disorder that, in short, makes Taken for Granite all too horrifyingly real. Your skin literally hardens into stone-like lesions, as this poor boy is learning all too well.
  • According to a thought experiment called Quantum suicide, it's impossible to die for every individual observer (for everyone else you would still be dead), no matter how small the odds of survival are. If this were to be the case, then, depending on what counts as "survival", it could mean that either everyone in the universe is destined to spend eternity in a coma or this. That said, the "quantum suicide" and its predecessor, Schrodinger's Cat, were meant as thought experiments, rather than something that could actually happen i.e IF cats and people worked the same way as sub atomic particles, that is what would happen. Fortunately, they don't.
  • Working retail on a big shopping day, holidays, or during some special deal feels like this - Behold with shout outs to the Trope Namer.
  • The human brain has a finite memory storage capacity (the exact amount is unknown). It is too much to fill up in one life time, but if you were to live forever you would eventually reach a point where it couldn't store anymore and you would presumably either become inert or enter an endless loop.
  • Trigeminal Neuralgia, a chronic pain syndrome, has been described as one of the worst things a person can experience. Attacks from this condition last from a few seconds to a few minutes and have been likened to being struck in in the face by lightning. Said attacks can occur from the most mundane physical contact. Sadly, about 27% of sufferers are Driven to Suicide, which is also why it's been called the Suicide Disease.
  • The tragic fate of Otto Warmbier, who was described by his parents as "blind, deaf and howling".