Neverending Terror

"Jesus Christ, Reese. Can't you see I'm scared?! I can't spend my life waiting for that thing to catch up with me...always looking over my shoulder, wondering if I left some tiny clue behind..."
Sarah Connor, The Terminator (deleted scene)

The most frightening thing isn't being in peril or danger—it's that you'll always be. Forever.

In this situation, a character realizes that the safe, worry-free life they once enjoyed is over. Whether they stumbled across The Masquerade, are being stalked by an Implacable Man or Super-Persistent Predator, are on the run from Murder, Inc., or are afflicted with Demonic Possession, they know that no matter what they do, one careless Moment of Weakness, one lapse of attention or concentration, one instant that they stop looking over their shoulder, and it's all over. From now on, whatever problem they've acquired had better be their new life, or they won't live at ALL.

The reason this trope is effective is because all of us crave some sort of normalcy, safety, and security in our lives. When that's taken away from us, and we realize that it can never be gotten back (or not without great risk/cost), and that our safety/survival/fate is dependent on always living in fear, it can become pure Nightmare Fuel.

This trope should be limited to deadly threats specific to a single character or relatively small group of characters. While it technically applies for any instance of The End of the World as We Know It, any Death World, or any person diagnosed with an incurable/terminal illness, this trope implies that there is a "normal life" just dangling out of reach for the character if the antagonizing entity would just go away. If an entire world or major setting is like this, the trope you're looking for is Had To Be Sharp. For deadly diseases or ailments, see Your Days Are Numbered. Further, any "solutions" to the problem should be either impossible, improbable, or such a huge risk that it isn't worth it.

See also Is It Always Like This?, when a character has entered a new status quo well beyond what they expected. Also, if it's a Broken Masquerade, this probably overlaps with Ignorance Is Bliss or These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. Also overlaps with The World Is Always Doomed, especially if the character now has the responsibility of protecting it.

This can also be a Fate Worse Than Death, such as knowing that some sort of demon or malevolent entity is after your immortal soul, or they've already taken it, and there's no way out.

A Curse, being a perpetual Doom Magnet or being Claimed by the Supernatural will lead to this, as might going into Witness Protection. If the character does try to fight back, it's probably because they're Tired of Running.

Sub-Trope of Paranoia Fuel. See also The Problem with Fighting Death. Compare And I Must Scream.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Anyone who is Branded for Sacrifice in Berserk and manages to survive the experience has to deal with all kinds of bad supernatural shit trying to claim them night after night, often not even letting the person sleep. It's little wonder that Guts is as messed up as he is post-Eclipse, and that he turned to hatred in order to survive this nightmare.
  • The fourteenth has undergone this 35 years ago in D Grayman while trying to run away from the Noah who always knew where he is. Wisely prophecies this will happen to Allen too now that New has started to awaken in him

    Film - Live-Action 
  • Terminator:
    • The Terminator: This is the nightmare Sarah Connor faces. Now that she has this unstoppable Killer Robot after her, she must live in fear for the rest of her life. She has to be careful of every action, every person she meets, every little detail, or it will find and kill her. Even the hero of the story, Kyle Reese, believes that there's no hope of destroying it, and that even if they do, in the original script, he knows that it's possible another will come someday. Deleted scenes have Sarah come to realize this problem and decide that, if she has no hope of outrunning this thing forever, she's at least going take its creator, Skynet, down with her by blowing up the company responsible for creating it. Unfortunately for her, You Can't Fight Fate.
    • Terminator 2: Judgment Day: Even after destroying the Terminator sent to kill her, the fear mentioned above has driven Sarah to Sanity Slippage because its true target (her son) is still in danger. Sure enough, Sarah has lived the last ten years of her life struggling both with the knowledge that she must protect her son at all costs and what is destined to happen that requires his safety.
    • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: After the events of the second film and the death of his mother Sarah, John has been living off the grid for years, even though he hopes that their actions in the last movie have prevented Judgment Day and the machine uprising. Unfortunately for him, it didn't work and the machines send yet another Terminator to find him. Fortunately for him, because he's been living off the grid, it can't find him easily. Unfortunately for everybody else who would have been part of his chain of command and inner circle, they hadn't.
  • The Grudge: This is one of the scariest parts of the eponymous grudge curse. Once the ghost/demon is after you, there is no getting away from it. Also, it will come for you anywhere. It doesn't care how locked up you are or how many other people are nearby.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street: Since Freddy kills his victims in their dreams, part of the terror is knowing that you have to go to sleep sometime. Also, killing Freddy will at best only give you a temporary period of safety...that you have no way of knowing has ended until people (possibly you) start dying again.
  • The Matrix: Morpheus unplugs Neo from the Matrix, where he was living in a Virtual Reality simulation of Real Life. He teaches Neo the truth about the Matrix, including the nature of their foe, the evil Artificial Intelligence machines. Neo has a mental collapse and falls unconscious. When he wakes up, he asks Morpheus "I can't go back, can I." In fact, fatigue with the unending, terrifying Robot War is what prompts Cypher to betray the group on the slim hope of being able to go back.
  • Demon Knight: The Legions of Hell are chasing after an ageless Chosen One who carries a holy flask containing the blood of Jesus and previous Chosen Ones. The Chosen One must stay on the run from them, constantly moving and never slowing down too much for an instant, or else the demons will get the flask and unleash Hell on Earth. Also, the Chosen One bears a mark on his/her arm counting down how much time is left until they must make their Last Stand, at which point they must face an onslaught of Demonic Invaders and then pass on the flask to the Lone Survivor, who is the next Chosen One.
  • Body Snatchers: After the heroes mange to pull off a Death from Above Roaring Rampage of Revenge on the pod convoys and go to what they think is a safe place, the heroine/Narrator thinks that maybe they are too late to stop the invasion. And eventually they will be too tired to fight off sleep...
  • It Follows: The titular "It" is an Implacable Man Eldritch Abomination that, oddly enough, can't move faster than regular walking speed... the scary part is that it never stops, it always knows where its victims are, and it can go through any obstacle through smarts, shapeshifting or sheer brute strength alone. Any people who become targets of It must keep moving, as fast as they can, and never stop.
  • Cat's Eye has a segment featuring an anti-smoking group run by The Mafia from which, once you become a member of, can never leave. They will watch you forever, you will need to follow their instructions on clean living to the letter, and if you ever so much as think of disobeying an order, they will torture your family, force you to watch, and they will charge you for the torture's implements (like electricity) on their monthly membership bill. Or start dismembering them bit-by-bit, starting with the fingers.
  • In Unfaithful, the protagonist kills a man his wife is having an affair with. After she learns about it, the wife feels guilty about her infidelity and helps her husband cover up the crime. The ending scene has the two of them both break down crying as they pass a police station, and it's usually interpreted to be because they know they'll be living in fear of being caught for the rest of their lives.

    Literature 

    Live Action Television 
  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: A particularly twisted example with a Serial Rapist who takes sick pleasure in stalking and tracking his victims after their first assault and then re-attacking them at random points in their lives. One poor woman is so broken by the experience that her career, marriage, family and entire life go to pieces as she becomes afraid of ANY human interaction, or even leaving her house...forcing her to live in painful solitude. The criminal gets pleasure from knowing he's the only thing these women think about, every moment of their lives. The team finally catches him, but not until after he kills the character described above.
  • Sapphire and Steel: At the end of the fourth story arc, the supernatural menace is converted into a Sealed Evil in a Can, but Sapphire and Steel warn the human who helped them trap it that it will probably escape and come seeking revenge eventually, which it will be able to even if she's dead by then unless she spends the rest of her life taking certain precautions, living with the knowledge that if she slips up even once she's potentially doomed.
  • Jessica Jones: this is Jessica's nightmare as she is stalked by Kilgrave, an evil bastard who can Mind Control people and enslaved her for his sick purposes. Not only is Jessica herself always in danger because all it would take is one word from Kilgrave to enslave her again (until she finds out she's immune), but she lives in New York City, meaning she lives among 20 million people he can control at any time. Hope, after being victimized by Kilgrave and being forced to kill her parents, chooses to cut her own throat rather than fall back under his control.
  • Like the Terminator films, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles indulges heavily in this. Both Sarah and John are heavily shaped by their years living underground "just in case", and when Cromartie comes after them it is intensified. This is also the focus of the episode "Alpine Fields", in which two guest characters are depicted in two time frames, one when Sarah and Cameron come to rescue them from a Terminator when they have no idea what's going on, and one some time later after they've spent a while on the run.

    Theatre 
  • Christine's part in The Phantom of the Opera. Some of her lines referring to the title character include: "My God who is this man/Who hunts to kill/I can't escape from him/I never will". Referring to the plan to stage Don Juan Triumphant (the Phantom's own opera) with her performance as bait for a trap, Christine is reluctant to perform and says:
    Raoul I'm frightened. Don't make me do this. It scares me.
    Don't put me through this ordeal by fire. He'll take me. I know.
    We'll be parted forever. He won't let me go.
    What I once used to dream, I now dread. If he finds me, it won't ever end.

    Videogames 
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt:
    • This is a favorite tactic of Gaunter O'Dimm, aka "Master Mirror", the closest analogue the series has to the Devil. Gaunter thrives on misery, so his deals are carefully constructed so that they cause as much torment for the person who made it as possible, until they're desperately searching for a way to end or reverse their deal, only to learn that there's no way they can. The best they can do is make the stipulations for collecting their soul so convoluted, and to actively avoid the Exact Words of the agreement, to draw out how much time they have for as long as possible. But don't worry, O'Dimm is very patient and will still tauntingly remind you that he'll get you someday.
      • In another instance, a woman was cursed by O'Dimm so that she not only slowly turned into a hideous monster, but so that she would remain hungry no matter how much food she eats. Once she realized how badly she was cursed, she spent years desperately searching for a cure to the predicament, and losing any family or allies who could help her. O'Dimm made her curse so convoluted, with wording so vague, that failing even one step typically resulted in the death or poisoning of the person trying. By the time you find her in-game, she's a monstrous wight who's been cursed for over a century and you can still fail to free her.
      • In yet another instance, O'Dimm placed a protective circle around a man who had been studing O'Dimm's true nature. He gently explains to the man that the circle is meant to protect him from any harm from evil, but his tone makes it clear that it's a thinly-veiled threat. Said man becomes terrified of leaving that circle for ANY reason whatsoever and thus became trapped in one spot for years, where his academic prowess and knowledge goes to waste (aside from aiding the local mage hunters, whom he despises). After he gives Geralt information how to beat O'Dimm, a trap is triggered which causes the man to accidentally fall out of the circle, where he bashes his head against a pile of books and fatally breaks his neck.
    • Ciri spends most of the series on the run from the titular The Wild Hunt, but in this game she has become Tired of Running and makes it clear that she will fight back.
    • The White Frost is an Eldritch Location which gradually leaks through the multiverse gradually freezing each and every world it touches. People who know about it live in constant fear of it eventually reaching their worlds (especially if they are immortal or long-lived). Finding Apocalyptic Logs in worlds that the White Frost has already destroyed conveys the slowly-dawning horror that comes with realizing that it's never going to stop snowing or growing colder, and colder...

    Webcomics 
  • Goblins has the unfortunate goblin who received the Prophetic Name "Dies Horribly" from the clan fortune teller. He firmly believes that You Can't Fight Fate and spends most of his time shivering. Once he does die horribly and come Back from the Dead, he gets better, despite being in vastly more dangerous circumstances.

    Web Video 

    Western Animation 
  • An episode of Batman: The Animated Series involves a poor run-down schlubb named Charlie driving home from work and shouting at another driver who cuts him off... only the other driver turns out to be The Joker. The clown prince of crime chases him down and demands a future favor from Charlie as compensation for his rudeness. Charlie quits his job, changes his name and goes into hiding with his family for years, living in fear that the Joker will catch up to him one day... and he does.

    Real Life 
  • Witness protection often feels like this for the individuals forced into the option. Whatever life you had is over, and depending on how powerful/widespread the people you pissed off are, you don't have a lot of margin for error.
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