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"The Earthman's walls are crude and literal, so that their existence is obtrusive and obvious - and there are always some who long to escape. The Aurorans' walls are immaterial and aren't even seen as walls, so that none can even conceive of escaping." —Giskard, The Robots of Dawn
A prison doesn't need to have four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. Why would you need those if the prisoner doesn't want to or know how to leave? After all, if you think you are free, no escape is possible. This is the Epiphanic Prison.
As the name implies, the only way to escape an Epiphanic Prison is to have an epiphany. The nature of the enlightenment varies. Sometimes it's self enlightenment, and understanding and mastering one's own fears lets one escape the Ontological Mystery. Sometimes it's understanding of one's surrounding, of why one is trapped, and thus what must be done to escape.
This often overlaps with Lotus-Eater Machine when the prison is made to feel like paradise so you won't want to leave, Psychological Torment Zone and Tailor-Made Prison. Also see: Armor-Piercing Question and Orphean Rescue.
For a more literal construct, see also City in a Bottle.
The Animatrix has a story where a professional athlete nearly frees himself from the Matrix by becoming aware of the artificial state of the world around him while breaking the world record of the 100m dash. We think.
Only the most exceptional people become aware of the Matrix. Most that learn it exists must possess a rare degree of intuition, sensitivity and a questioning nature. However, very rarely, some gain this wisdom through wholly different means..
Giving ultimate powers over creation to Shinji Ikari? Smooth move, Rei...
Shinji: Nobody wants me. So, everybody can just die. Rei: Then, what are your hands for? Shinji: Nobody cares whether or not I exist. Nothing ever changes, so everybody can just die! Rei: Then, what is your heart for? Shinji: It would be better if I never existed, I should just die, too.
The series itself features this twice. And only if you only believe in one epiphanic prison in the series finale, which had prisons within prisons.
Revolutionary Girl Utena, Ohtori Academy serves this for most of the characters, especially Anthy in one popular interpretation.
Paranoia Agent: The cardboard world that Ikari is trapped in near the end.
Angel Beats!: Purgatory is only a prison if you let it become one. You have to just let it go if you want to move on.
Naruto features Izanami, a genjutsu of the Mangkeyo Sharingan and a compliment to Izanagi. Izanami was originally created to punish Uchiha who used Izanagi to escape the consequences of their own actions in battle. Its victims are trapped in an unalterable chain of events; the only way to escape is by accepting that what has already occurred cannot be changed. Kabuto was trapped in Izanami to remove him from battle, eventually emerging at peace with himself and having made a Heel-Face Turn.
Green Lantern Rebirth #4 implied that the Green Lanterns go through this every time they put on their rings.
In Green Lantern Corps Annual #2, an imprisoned Sinestro plots to escape by telling stories of the failures of the Guardians and their Green Lanterns to the occupant of the cell next to his, the sapient sector 3600. Said sector is actually a god-like being only held in captivity by its belief in the infallibility of the Guardians who vanquished and imprisoned it long ago. Once Sinestro has convinced it of the fallibility of the Guardians, the being easily opens the cells.
V for Vendetta: In a philosophical rather than physical/literal sense, this happens to both Evey Hammond and Eric Finch, in Evey's case due to her long imprisonment by V, and in Finch's, after an acid trip.
Inverted in the Fantastic Four when Reed is trapped in Doctor Doom's armor. To get out, he has to learn to think like Doom, thus trapping himself much more profoundly.
During a brief tour of Hell, right before he quits and locks it up, Lucifer the Morningstar explains to Dream that Hell is an Epiphanic Prison for the damned. They are trapped in Hell because, deep down, they believe they deserve to be trapped there and that their souls belong to Lucifer. Lucifer denies this, claiming that he has no need for human souls, and that they belong only to themselves — they just hate owning up to it.
A more specific example is seen in the storyline of the boy at the haunted school, in the same arc. He stays at school even as it fills up with ghosts of the damned, befriending a sad little ghost boy who was murdered there decades ago and can't leave because his bones are still in the attic. After being tortured to death by the same sadistic ghosts that killed the other boy, the kid decides that there's absolutely no reason to stay there any more, and the two of them simply walk out past the gates.
One issue of Miracleman centers around a spy working in a city called The City for some shadowy ill-defined government agency. They give her missions to relay information to other agents, who are identified using elaborate sign/countersign codes. She's also a double agent for another shadowy, ill-defined government agency who she leaks information to. Eventually she goes AWOL and decides to leave the city, at which point it's revealed that after Miracle Man appointed himself ruler of the entire world and united it under a one-world government, there was no more need for international espionage, and since a lot of ex-spies couldn't function unless they were spying and being secretive, he just stuck them all in one city, wiped their memories of him taking over, and hired 4 people as the leaders of various "agencies". Literally everyone in the city is spying on everyone else while pretending to have regular jobs. And since they technically do have regular jobs, The City still has a viable economy and can contribute to the world without threatening the stability of his government.
During The Killing Dream arc of X-23's solo series, Laura is trapped in a hellish dreamscape by Hellverine, who wants to seduce her to his service to command his armies by claiming that as a clone she has no soul, and because of all the death she has caused. A manifestation of her true self ( which may actually be the Enigma Force) shows her that despite all of the killing she never succumbed to the Facility's attempts to break her, and was ultimately as much an innocent victim as those she killed. This, along with her decision to escape what she was made and choose a path and life for herself proves Hellverine wrong and allows her to permanently throw off his influence and escape. After waking from the dream Laura does continue to be troubled by the encounter, though, and a substantial arc for the remainder of the series is her questioning whether or not she has a soul.
Invoked in the mildest possible manner in a John Byrne story from around 2000 about the Golden Age Flash. The Fiddler has trapped the Flash inside a ring of violins which vibrate to counter his speed. No matter how fast he runs, or what frequency he vibrates at, they throw him back into the center of the ring. Someone who has been trapped in there before eventually shouts the solution to him: He can walk out just fine.
In Aeon Natum Engel, one of the first thing the therapists teach you on how to do deal with the nightmare caused by witnessing the unspeakable horrors is to employ this belief to your own nightmares.
The Cadanceverse has a nightmare (as in, the mythological creature) put the Musical 6 in one of these. Fluttershy is only able to break out of it when she realizes that she doesn't want a life of ease; she wants to always be helping other animals and won't be satisfied if she isn't. This lets her break out of the trap and free her friends.
Film - Animated
Tangled: Nothing was actually physically keeping Rapunzel in the tower, as she later proves by descending on her own hair. Her real prison was her messed-up psyche and lack of mental strength to stand up to her emotionally abusive Wicked Stepmother.
In Kung Fu Panda 2, Masters Ox and Croc are captured by Lord Shen and put into a prison. When the heroes come to rescue them, it quickly becomes apparent that they could've easily broken out any time they wanted, but didn't out of fear that Shen would turn his new weapon on the city if they resisted. This fear is so strong that they outright refuse to escape until Shifu somehow persuades them off-screen.
Film - Live Action
Groundhog Day. The character must find self-enlightenment to finally escape the day. In the original script, the actual condition was getting the girl. However, he had to come to self-enlightenment to get the girl anyway, so...
For Inception, limbo is a very real version of this trope. Is it possible to get out of limbo? Well, the first time Cobb and Mal tried the two of them didn't escape fully sane...
The Matrix has an Inside a Computer System version of this trope. Kind of reversed, actually — you only realise how it was a prison once you've already gotten free. Usually. And invoked even further with the revelations of the the second film. Those in Zion believed themselves free of machine control, and thus were unable to escape the repeating cycles of destruction the machines had created until the Oracle and Neo (both aware of the "prison" by the end) forced a new outcome.
In THX 1138, the title character is imprisoned in a vast, featureless white room along with a number of others. As it turns out, the doors were unlocked the whole time, everyone was just too passive to check. Later, one of the prisoners who escaped with THX voluntarily returns to the white room because he found the world outside too overwhelming. That said, they did have to walk seemingly for miles, and leave the only place where they were guaranteed food and water, to get to the "edge" of the room. So it wasn't as if escaping was risk-free.
Subverted in The Cube. The protagonist suffers an hour of pure Mind Screw, trying to leave the Cube, but finally seems to be released when he simply decides that he's had enough and won't fall for any more tricks. He is let out, but then cuts himself and bleeds strawberry jam, and finds himself right back in The cube again.
The Truman Show overlaps this with its own trope, Truman Show Plot, in that Truman doesn't realize he's been living his entire life trapped in a giant dome-shaped TV set and lied to by the people around him to prevent his desire to ever leave his hometown. The show's creator stages events that give Truman phobias and a general fear of the outside world. In the end Truman realizes that these fears are the only thing really keeping him in his prison. If he stops being afraid and really tries to leave, the only way they can stop him is to actually kill him.
The Director of the show explicitly argues that they aren't keeping him prisoner because of this. Truman could easily leave if he really wanted and they wouldn't stop him. But when Truman really does try to go, the man reveals himself to be something of a hypocrite by flipping out and pushing the weather effects to the point where he really could have killed him.
Wesley Gibson in Wanted lives a crappy life working for a terrible boss, suffering his girlfriend cheating on him with his best friend, and he takes pills to cope with a heart problem. Then a secret society of assassins shows him that the "heart problem" is really his body going winding up for Bullet Time and he's destined to be a huge badass.
In What About Bob?, Bob thinks that his therapist has put him in one of these. In reality, he's been tied up by ropes and left next to a ridiculous amount of black powder on a short fuse... since his therapist can no longer stand him.
In What Dreams May Come, this is the condition for both leaving Earth following his death and for escaping Hell.
In the novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, the "End of the World" sections take place in a walled town which the narrator must escape in order to reconnect the pieces of his mind before it shuts down completely. He escapes but turns back at the last minute, effectively committing suicide.
The Iron Man novel The Armor Trap has Tony Stark trapped in a virtual reality; once he realizes the nature of his prison, he's able to use his ability to interface with computers to hack an emergency signal to War Machine, who rescues him.
Sort of used in The MedStar Duology. Padawan Bariss Offee is assigned to a fetid swamp of a world to assist the doctors there; they work on the clones who fight the droids over the bota supply that only grows on this planet. This is supposed to be Bariss's Trial before she can become a knight, which puzzles her. The Trials and whether or not they are standardized is never explained, but just being assigned like this isn't typical. Her Trials don't even involve combat. Any fighting she does is purely because various threats stray into where the field hospital is. At the end of the two books, having undergone Character Development, overcome an addiction to bota, gained and lost friends, and participating in the evacuation as both sides realized that the bota was mutating and becoming ineffective, she realized that her Trial had ended when she recognized that she was a Knight. ...Or something like that. She's a Knight by Revenge of the Sith, anyway.
Played with in Otherland, specifically in the case of Paul Jonas, an amnesiac inhabitant of the virtual reality worlds who is, at first, unaware that he's in a simulation. As the story evolves, he manages to regain his memories a little at a time, eventually remembering exactly who he is and how he got there... at which point the realization strikes that he's really a virtual copy of the real Paul Jonas. This realization causes him to cross the Despair Event Horizon, thanks to Cloning Blues, but also gives him the resolve to perform a Heroic Sacrifice which allows the real people trapped in Otherland with him to survive. After everything gets resolved, the heroes then awaken his real self.
One of the three key themes in James Joyce's Dubliners is "paralysis": the characters are doomed to stay captive in their unfulfilling lives, because they are mentally unable to contemplate how life can be different.
In David Brin and Gregory Benford's Heart Of The Comet, Virginia the computer wiz has her brain uploaded to the AI core she's been trying to create sentience in because her body is too badly injured to live. The "space" in the computer seems too small to fit her mind into it, until she works out a different way of looking at it and arranging herself.
Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage; Minds innocent and quiet take That for an hermitage; If I have freedom in my love And in my soul am free, Angels alone, that soar above, Enjoy such liberty.
Referenced in Small Gods: an Omnian says "we have no word for 'slave'." An Ephebian retorts: "I imagine that a fish has no word for 'water'."
Also in from Interesting Times: "something worse than whips". The Agatean Empire's (many) customs are so ingrained in everyone's minds that hardly anyone questions them. Rincewind discovers that guards don't expect prisoners to put up any kind of struggle, and nicking a different caste's outfit and avoiding eye contact make for a foolproof disguise. There's still a dangerous spy network and a massive wall around the continent.
The Chronicles of Narnia: In The Last Battle, Calormenes imprison Dwarfs in the Stable. Dwarfs eat rotten turnips and such-like stable detritus. When Aslan triumphs, the Dwarfs are in a beautiful country eating a feast. Being Straw Atheists, they believe they are still in the stable.
Vorkosigan Saga: According to Miles, this is what the Cetagandans were trying to create with their Dagoola IV prison camp in The Borders of Infinity:
"It's the Cetagandans' plan to break you, and then return you to your world like little innoculated infections, counseling surrender to your people.
"When this is killed," [Miles] touched her forehead, oh so lightly, "then the Cetagandans have nothing more to fear from this," one finger on her bicep, "and you will all go free. To a world whose horizon will encircle you just like this dome, and just as inescapably."
According to R. Giskard Reventlov in The Robots of Dawn, this is why Earthmen, not Spacers, are destined to settle the galaxy — they at least know that they are trapped.
In The Cat Who Sniffed Glue, wealthy parents Nigel and Margret Finch have their twin sons David and Harvey in one of these. They addicted the boys to a life of luxury, then give them just enough of an allowance to let them keep living the good life — as long as they do everything that their parents tell them to do.
In Guardians of Ga'Hoole, the hagsfiends' descendants are held in the Crystal Palace, kept in by keeping them so pampered that their feathers grow so long that they cannot fly, and they don't care about the outside.
In The Wheel of Time this is Ishamael's motivation for serving the Dark Lord: the Wheel has no beginning and no ending, meaning that his soul is bound to be reborn at each turning of the Wheel and fight the same fight again and again. If the Dark Lord wins, tough, he will break the Wheel and remake the world to his image, breaking the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
In the last book, this is what the Dark One promises to do if he wins and remakes the world in his image: firstly, alter everyone's memories so they think they won; secondly, remove any capacity for compassion or nobility so that they will have no desire to resist and because, in his words, they are "not necessary".
Most books written towards the end of the life of Philip K Dick feature this in his adaption of Gnosticism, where reality itself is the prison. In other words ESCAPE THE IRON FORTRESS!! THE EMPIRE NEVER ENDED!!!. See VALIS for more details... if you're not likely to start believing that your cognizant intellect is imprisoned in your own bodynote Seriously, do not read those books if you think you're going to start believing that because it will not end well for you!
In Chung Kuo the city is a physical prison, but the system is shown to be a Epiphanic Prison when the Aristotle File appears. The driving force of Berdichev's revolution is the fact that the history of the world was re-written.
In Ashes to Ashes Alex Drake arrives in the 80s after being shot, a similar situation to that of Sam Tyler in Life on Mars. Because of this she believes that she is in a coma like Sam, and that the entire world is a construct of her imagination. Making use of her psychological training, she tries to find the reason she has arrived in this world in order to find a way to return to her daughter in 2008. At the end of the series, it is revealed to most of the main characters (except Gene, who knew all along) that the world is a form of purgatory and that they are all dead. Thus, Alex and the others do receive an epiphany, but this epiphnay allows them to progress into heaven, and not to return to the living.
The Editor: Well, now. There's an interesting point. Is a slave a slave if he doesn't know he's enslaved? The Doctor: Yes. The Editor: Aw. I was hoping for a philosophical debate. Is that all I'm going to get? "Yes"? The Doctor: Yes.
In "The Keeper of Traken", anyone who is evil and winds up on the planet becomes imprisoned in a stone form called a "melkur" by the anti-evil effects of the area (It Makes Sense in Context). "Melkur" is their word for a fly trapped in honey. To be freed, all you have to do is not be evil anymore. Once your heart changes, you're free. Naturally, The Master had been stuck for a good long while. Not. The Melkur is really his TARDIS, whose chameleon circuit works just fine. He's been free and able to orchestrate the evilness that had been going on all along. He probably avoided actually becoming a melkur by staying inside and moving it wherever he needed to be, as the melkur was sometimes seen to move.
Heroes: Matt traps Sylar in one of these in Volume 5, though he more intended for it to be an actual prison, as he never meant for Sylar to get out. However, when Peter forces himself into the dream to save Sylar, the two, after YEARS of quarreling, eventually make peace and are able to tear down the literal wall keeping them from waking up.
An episode of Life dealt with a murder in a college where an experiment about prison was being conducted. The professor told the guards to do whatever it takes to break the prisoners so they resorted to physical and psychological torture. The object is to get the students to act like prisoners. There's no need for locks, bars or even guards. When one of the students killed one of the guards, you could say it worked.note Actually an adaptation of a real-life psychological experiment. Except in this one, the "guards" aren't told to be cruel. They just become that way because they're playing the role of guards. Much scarier. The Stanford Experiment has been roundly criticized NOT because it was unethical, but because the experimenteer contaminated the data by encouraging the "guards" to misbehave. Since the whole point was to see if they would do so WITHOUT encouragement (and many of them didn't, in spite of encouragement) the data gathered was worthless and no conclusions drawn from it. A complete waste of time.
In Life on Mars Sam Tyler, the protagonist, is hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in the '70s. The show revolves around Sam trying to understand how he came to this new place (whether it is Time Travel, a coma, Madness, etc.) and how to get home. When Sam does eventually get home, he does receive an "epiphany" but it motivates him to return to the '70s world, and not to stay in his original world. The "new world" itslef is not explained in Life on Mars but it is revealed in the sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, to be a purgatory for police officers.
The djinn of Supernatural "grant wishes" by imprisoning a person in a dream of whatever they wished for. You can bust out by killing yourself.
In the season 4.5 premiere of Warehouse 13, Artie puts himself in one of these after Claudia banishes the Artifact-induced dark presence within him that made him kill Leena. Subverted in that Claudia forces him out even after his epiphany because he wants to stay there with his memory of Leena rather than live with the guilt.
In the Janelle MonŠe song "Many Moons", the singer seems to suggest that the audience is in such a trap ("You're free but in your mind, your freedom's in a bind...").
The Hotel California. "You can check out any time you like/but you can never leave"
Also by the Eagles, from their song "Already Gone"; "So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains /And we never even know we have the key."
Myths & Religion
Certain Hindu philosophies believe the world to be this. They believe the world is one great "maya", an illusion to distract us from the enlightenment which can only be found within oneself.
The concept of reincarnation, particularly those in Buddhist and Tao philosophy. The self, Buddha said, was distinct from the soul. Death is the destruction of the self, not the soul, which could then be reborn as any animal, as there was no real fundamental difference between animal and man. All were trapped in an endless cycle of Karma. The body and the senses were an illusion, we are in reality just a stream of consciousness, which may eventually break the cycle by attaining 'Moksha', enlightenment.
Gnosticism is basically something along the lines of this trope. The general gist of it is that the universe wasn't created by God but Her misguided offspring, the Demiurge. Human souls are trapped in the material world and must, through mystical experience, learn the right secrets (hence "gnosis", "knowledge") that will get them past the Archons after they die, so that they can ascend to the higher, spiritual reality where the true God resides and souls originate.
White Wolf has a few properties that deal with this sort of narrative.
Promethean: The Created has shades of this. The Prometheans suffer and desperately want to be human. But how? What is it really, to be human? How can these cowardly, weak creatures be worthy of their beautiful souls? How can you earn a soul?
The epiphanic prison is almost literally the condition of the entire human race in Mage: The Ascension. Mages can change Reality, but they have a hard time doing it because most people don't believe Reality can be changed. If everyone on Earth Awakened and realized that they have the power to, together, literally do anything.
The Darklords of Ravenloft are trapped in their Ironic Hell as punishment for their monstrous deeds. The term for such deeds in Ravenloft is an "Act of Ultimate Darkness", a near-perfect blend of hypocrisy, depravity, cruelty, and selfishness. The clincher, though, is absolute refusal to acknowledge that what they did was wrong. Indeed, that's part of The Punishment for darklords: if they worked up the moral strength to admit that what they have done is inexcusable and that they reaped what they sowed, their curse would be moot. But the thing is, if they were capable of admitting they were wrong, they wouldn't be here in the first place. And, surprise, surprise! While originally a TSR setting and currently in the hands of Wizards of the Coast, due to an apparent desire to own every example of this trope in gaming, White Wolf had the Ravenloft license for most of Dungeons & Dragons's Third Edition era (under their Sword & Sorcery imprint).
The one darklord who did eventually escape, Lord Soth, was a case of Real Life Writes the Plot since White Wolf no longer had the rights to the character. In-universe, Lord Soth apparently finally realized how everything bad that happened to him was ultimately his own fault and he became totally apathetic as a result. The Dark Powers grew bored with him and let him go.
The Armies of the Abyss supplement of Dungeons & Dragons mentions Samora, a resort-like area in the Abyssal realm of Azzagrat, the kingdom ruled by Graz'zt. At first, the place seems like the Red Light District of Azzagrat, and it basically is; mortals can gain any fantasy they desire, for a price, from the succubi under Graz'zt's employ. But there is a risk. Mortals who take too much advantage of the services are drawn in too deep, until they lose the desire to leave, becoming Sex Slaves of the succubi - and new customers as well - without even knowing it.
At the other end of the Lower Planes, Tyrants of the Nine Hells mentions a location in Dis, the second layer of Hell, called the Garden of Delights, that appears to be a paradise to mortals who enter; it's a beautiful garden where lovely nymphs welcome visitors and lavish affection, along with food and drink of the finest quality on visitors - all for free, no less. The fact that this place is in Hell should tip people off that it's a trap. Dispater, the ruler of the layer, employs efreet sorcerers to maintain the place, and the "nymphs" are erinyes. The purpose of the Garden is to enspell its visitors with its intoxicating nature to prevent them from wanting to leave, and eventually tempt them to evil. (If the erinyes can't do that because a mortal is incorruptible, they just let the visitor starve; the food is an illusion, and visitors will eventually die of thirst or starvation trying to live on it.)
Planescape: Torment. The Nameless One must find the answer to the question "What can Change the Nature of a Man?" to find out about his past and escape his endless cycle of rebirth.
Legacy of Kain: Defiance. At the climax of the game, one of the main characters realizes that Nosgoth itself is essentially one giant epiphanic prison, the wheel of fate ruled by the elder god. "All the conflict and strife throughout history, all the fear and hatred, served but one purpose - to keep my master's Wheel turning. All souls were prisoners, trapped in the pointless round of existence, leading distracted, blunted lives until death returned them - always in ignorance - to the Wheel." And having made that epiphany, Raziel knows he alone has the means to correct it...
The Airship in Rule of Rose is very much one of these, as it mixes together Jennifer's most traumatic experiences and memories together, while forcing her to face them to move forward.
In the Silent Hill games, the town of Silent Hill acts as a prison for the tormented souls it attracts, creating monsters from their personal demons. People can only escape the town by overcoming the problems that drew them to it in the first place (see James and Murphy). Once they succeed in doing so, the town no longer has any power over them and they are free to leave. Things get more complicated if someone is trapped in another person's dark world. The only way to escape in those cases is either to help that person face their demons (see Alessa), or put them out of their misery if they are beyond saving (see Walter).
The Holiday Star in Hatoful Boyfriend turns out to be like this. At first it seems like a pleasing dream or an interesting place to visit. Its inhabitants urge visitors to stay, they are not permitted to leave, their lives are portrayed as hopeless struggles, and to begin to escape they must decide to face difficult lives anyway.
A plot point in Hitherby Dragons is that people can be seperated from the world by a question they cannot answer. Of the few times these do get answered, the answer is usually along the lines of "the question isn't that important".
Dominic Deegan gives this treatment to Hell as well. If damned souls are able to acknowledge their sins in life and own up to their past mistakes, their souls explode and return to the Life Stream.
Jack has the residents of Hell, all of whom are stuck there until 1) they realize that what they did to get condemned there was bad and wrong, and manage to admit this to themselves, and 2) ask for forgiveness. After that, it's a matter of working to the point where the angels keeping an eye on things down there are willing to say that you've earned the chance to reincarnate and try again.
Hell likes to throw curve balls sometimes. At least two of the residents that we've seen so far have either no memory of what they did that got them condemned to Hell — or no memory at all, prior to ending up in Hell. In both cases, it's noted that this kind of screws the individual over. It's also implied, though, that Hell itself may be a Genius Loci that acts as a sadistic jailer. In Jack's case, this was self-inflicted. At the moment of his death, he pleaded with God to erase his memories.
What makes it even more of a downer is that we meet more than one or two people who are in Hell, and know exactly, specifically why they are there, and what it would entail to get out. Just one of two problems: 1, they feel they deserve to go unforgiven and suffer forever, or 2, the reason they believe themselves to be in hell is wrong, becoming something of a spiritual wild goose chase.
In The Dragon Doctors, Sarin's analysis suggests that the seed is one: both victims we see caught by it escape after they let go of the violent, dysfunctional people they used to be.
In The Legend of Korra, there exists in the spirit world an impenetrable fog that causes humans to begin hallucinating their fears. To escape, Tenzin has to accept his flaws and failures; not an easy task, as the fog makes rational thought difficult at best.
In Xiaolin Showdown, an Enemy Mime traps our heroes in an imaginary prison...until they realize they can simply imagine a doorknob to escape.
'Mongul (smugly): It must have been like ripping off your own arm...
Plato gave us the idea of the world being a cave in which we see shadows dancing on the wall and think they're the reality; only those who turn around and see outside the cave can escape, and when they try to explain things to the people still inside the cave, generally the people still inside the cave think they're nuts. C. S. Lewis also used this illustration to good effect in some of his theological writings and in the creation of Narnia.
The concept of learned helplessness is a real-life form of this. Basically, when an animal attempts to escape something and is hurt by the failed attempt, it will learn it cannot escape. Then, even when the barriers which prevented from escaping are removed, it will still not escape as it has learned that it can't. This also works with young elephants, who are tethered by one leg with a chain that could never hold an adult. But, because the baby can't break it, they become convinced that nothing can, creating the same situation without ever being injured. However, should something happen to the chain, that elephant becomes useless, as it can no longer be safely restrained.
Wilhelm Reich — guru to a few, crackpot to everyone else — believed that a sinister force called the Emotional Plague has put humanity in "the trap". Everyone yearns to leave the trap, but no one dares make a move for the exit, which is supposed to be obvious to everyone entrapped within. There's... a lot of sexuality and anxiety involved.
The feeling of clinical depression, and the epiphany that comes from having overcome it, is a very accurate description of this trope.
Cattle guards. Especially the ones that are just painted on the road. The painted ones are an effective "prison" for cattle because their eyes can't perceive that it's a harmless 2D painting. It's an optical illusion for them. (Real guards does not fit, as they can easily injure a cow that made a concerted effort to cross it.)