Well, now you're just making it worse!
"He'd scrubbed and scrubbed, but it seemed to have no effect. Eventually he'd gone down to the dungeons and borrowed one of the torturer's wire brushes, and scrubbed and scrubbed with that, too. That had no effect, either. It made it worse. The harder he scrubbed, the more blood there was. He was afraid he might go mad..."
Consumed by guilt
, a killer tries to wash away the blood they know is on their hands, but they can't, no matter how much they scrub. This can extend to obsessively trying to clean away imagined bloodstain, or other evidence, when there is no physical trace of the crime left. Can overlap with Shower of Angst
Please note that examples of this trope need not always involve literal
washing. Quite often, in fact, it is manifested in any general sense of feeling "dirty."
As the name comes from William Shakespeare
, this is Older Than Steam
at the very least.
This is an example of Truth in Television
: the New York Times published a study showing that some people wash their hands when they have feelings of guilt.
Compare with Brain Bleach
, which is used to scrub away unpleasant mental images instead of guilt. Can be one of numerous ticks that result from a Sympathetic Murder Backstory
... or not so sympathetic.
Sometimes accompanied by a Madness Mantra
. See also Must Make Amends
, Blood Is Squicker in Water
. Often part of a Dark and Troubled Past
. Contrast These Hands Have Killed
, which tends to be a more temporary reaction.
Not to be confused with really annoying TV spots that you wish would go away
WARNING: This trope quite literally concerns flesh and blood, so possible Squick
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Anime and Manga
- InuYasha, two examples. In one, a Jekyll & Hyde slasher-villain/doctor did this after his villain side savagely murdered some people. Earlier in episode 52, Inuyasha tried to clean his hands after he killed a bunch of bandits when his Superpowered Evil Side took over, but after each frantic scrubbing found he could still smell their blood.
- Shishio Gen from Kekkaishi does this after remembering how he accidentally slashed his sister.
- Done in Pluto, by a robot with shell-shock.
- Kenshin of Rurouni Kenshin, a master swordsman, hates to kill but decides to become an assassin for the Choshu during the Boshin War because he wants a peaceful new era. Much angst and hand-washing during those days.
- In Yami No Matsuei, after Hisoka has to kill Tsubaki at the end of the cruise murder mystery arc, he continues to see blood on his hands even though there is nothing there. His partner Tsuzuki comforts him.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion: After destroying Leliel, Shinji becomes scared of his own hands, because he can't get rid of the smell of blood.
- Kamisama Kiss has two examples. When Tomoe first met Mikage he was trying and failing to wash blood off of himself. Later on, Tomoe kills a literal Demonic Spider and is trying and failing to wash to blood off when Nanami shows up to help.
- Naruto's recent filler arc explores Kakashi's life in the wake of killing Rin. He gets a few montages like this.
- In Attack on Titan, Reiner Braun is so crushed with guilt over his actions as The Mole that he begins suffering from bouts of self-inflicted Trauma-Induced Amnesia, creating a sanitized version of his identity and memories. During his various breakdowns, he stares at his hands more than once in disgust.
- The issue of Saga Of The Swamp Thing that resulted in the title no longer carrying the Comic Code Authority seal features a truly horrific instance of this trope, after Abby realizes the Awful Truth behind why her husband has been acting differently:
She ripped all of her clothes off, tearing them up. They were dirty. They'd touched her skin. She tried to burn them, but her hands were shaking and the matches kept going out. In truth, she was a little crazy by this time. It was the smell. She couldn't get rid of the smell. In the shower she used up all of the soap, the shampoo, the bubblebath, the perfume... the smell was still there. Have you ever burned an insect with a magnifying glass? Just once, long ago, when you were a kid and didn't know any better? There. You know it. You know the smell. When the soap wouldn't get rid of it, she went to the kitchen and fetched the wire brush that she used for scraping the potatoes... twenty minutes later she passed out. Twenty whole minutes. Even then she could still smell it. She could smell it in her dreams.
- In The Sandman after mercy killing his son Orpheus (who has spent millennia as a disembodied head) Morpheus is seen washing the blood from his hands in a bowl of water looking sadder than he ever has in the series.
- "Touch and Go!" is an EC Comics adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl" (see Literature).
- In the Firefly fanfic Forward, River has a few of these types of moments, even using "Out Damned Spot".
- Subverted in the The West Wing fanfic Band of Blood. Toby has this reaction to Josh's blood all over his hands while waiting in the hospital after the Wham Episode, although he wasn't even indirectly responsible and his guilt was fanciful guilt over the possibility that his decision to take down a protective canopy for PR reasons might have caused the shooting.
- In the ongoing "Axis Powers Hetalia" fanfic Clinging, Ivan (Russia) has a couple of these moments. At 9 years old, he killed his father, who was trying to rape his older sister. Six years later, the owner of the orphanage he and his sisters wound up in repeated Ivan's father's actions, this time directed at Ivan himself. He killed the owner in self-defense. Even though both of them were at least somewhat justified, he has had at least two Out, Damned Spot! moments. So far.
- In Mutant Storm, a Harry Potter/X-Men Crossover, Harry kills Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange, and then he goes through a Heroic BSOD while he tries to clean himself.
- In We Are All Pokémon Trainers:
- Played very straight in the remake of Casino Royale, during the shower scene. Vesper's consumed by feelings of guilt after watching James kill a bunch of Mooks, and he finds her sitting in the shower, clothed, and sobbing about the blood on her. The original plan was for her to be in her underwear. Daniel Craig, upstanding gentleman that he is, convinced everyone that this wouldn't make sense since she wouldn't have stopped undressing at her underwear. So she either had to be fully clothed or fully nude.
- Bullitt: Used rather beautifully at the end.
- Repo! The Genetic Opera has Nathan Wallace. He's very good at repossessing organs, but the fact that he actually enjoys his work leads to a lot of Out, Damned Spot! moments. It doesn't help that he's constantly being guilt tripped by Dead Marni and taunted by the Genterns.
- A good example comes at the end of "Thankless Job" - when the song ends, it hits Nathan◊ about what he's doing while his arm is still in the corpse, and he ends up spraying down his uniform and tools.
- As Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood is Macbeth in feudal Japan, it is unsurprising that Asaji freaks out over blood only she can see.
- Similarly, in Scotland, PA (which is Macbeth in a rural 70's Pennsylvania fast-food joint), Pat McBeth gets a small burn from frying oil when Duncan dies. As she sinks into madness, she becomes convinced that the burn is getting worse, even though it completely healed in reality. In the end, she's driven to cut off her hand with a kitchen knife, then promptly faints and bleeds to death.
- Chicago has a bit at the beginning with a character having a hard time scrubbing the blood off her hands in the dressing room before being called up on stage.
- Subverted, in that the character carries no guilt at all about the murder.
- The Machinist: Reznik is constantly seen washing his hands with bleach and lye. It turns out he once killed a young boy and has repressed the memory.
- Dead Presidents: Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine) is a Bronx-based Protestant minister. He is also a Vietnam War veteran who feels remorse about the atrocities he committed in the jungle, and so he initially refuses to participate in a bank robbery being organized by an unemployed fellow vet. But he eventually agrees to take part in the crime, because there's a lot of money involved. After the violent heist, during which several policemen and two of the robbers are killed, Cleon is inconsolable as the gang counts their money at their hideout. He bleakly proclaims that "we've bought our way into Hell" and "I'm not sure I even want any of this dirty money." It all eventually gets to be too much for Cleon, and he rats out the rest of the gang after being himself arrested.
- The Robe: Pontius Pilate is depicted briefly as washing his hands repeatedly, likely due to unconscious guilt over Christ's crucifixion. note
- Parodied in Batman Returns, by Catwoman: "The thought of framing Batman makes me feel so dirty. I think I'll give myself a bath right here." Then - being a cat-person - she proceeds to lick herself!
- Ace Ventura Pet Detective, wherein the title character burns his clothes after he finds out that Lois Einhorn is really Ray Finkle. And then at the end, the entire police force (and even the dolphin) starts puking upon that revelation.
- A subtle one in Pulp Fiction. After dealing with I Just Shot Marvin in the Face, Jules and Vincent wash their hands. Then they wipe them clean and Jules points out that Vincent's left some bloodstains on the towel. Which is symbolic of how Jules chooses a different path, but Vincent doesn't.
- In Only God Forgives, Julian is given to sullenly staring at his hands and watching them slowly turn into fists. At one point he washes his hands, but he sees the water become blood. This is implied to be guilt over having beaten his father to death.
- Marnie in 100 Feet repeatedly paints over the bloodstain left by her husband from the Killing In Self Defense she was forced to. His ghost keeps bringing the bloodstain back.
- Cassie is disgusted and horrified by all that she's done and the deaths that she's responsible for. In one book, after ripping out a Hork Bajir's throat with her teeth while in wolf morph and finding a piece of flesh still lodged between her teeth after demorphing, Cassie brushes her teeth until her gums bleed.
- Parodied in Wyrd Sisters (naturally, since it's a parody of Macbeth) where Duke Felmet becomes so obsessed with washing the metaphorical blood from his hand, he tries scrubbing it with a wire brush, among other things. (It's implicit his measures ensure that his hand will always have blood in it, just not the victim's anymore.) At one point he's even seen with a cheese grater, and bandages on his hand. The parody starts to turn very dark, though, when towards the end the narration describes "the remnant of his right hand," culminating in him falling to his death because he no longer has any (working) fingers with which to grab on to a wall.
- Orson Scott Card
- Xenocide note . Han Qing-jao becomes a "Godspoken" after she suddenly starts feeling her hands constantly dirty, washing her hands all the time and scrubbing them with stone until they bleed. It then turns out it's because Qing-jao, as well as all the Godspoken, was born with OCD.
- The Tales of Alvin Maker series: The trope features prominently in the form of a curse.
- This is taken to extremes in the Ray Bradbury short story "The Fruit At The Bottom Of The Bowl", in which a man becomes so obsessed with removing all his fingerprints from a murder scene that he actually forgets that his main objective is to escape and get away with the crime — the police eventually find him at three in the morning, polishing old coins he'd found in a box in the attic, by which time he seems scarcely bothered about being caught and is only concerned with making sure he polishes the handle of the door as they lead him out of the house.
- Edgar Allan Poe
- Played in The Telltale Heart, in which the main character murders his master because of an imagined Magical Eye that the man possesses, and afterward, he hears the man's heart beating loudly below the floorboards where he buried the man. The guilt of this beating drives him insane, to the point where he loudly confesses the crime to two policemen who were visiting his house, believing that they heard the sound as well and were playing a cruel joke on him by pretending not to hear.
- Done twice in The Black Cat, where the protagonist kills his cat in a fit of drunken rage and murders his wife and hides her behind a wall. In the first instance, his wife brings home a new cat which is suspiciously similar to the old one, and the shadow of a gallows eventually emerges in its fur. After the wife's murder, the cat disappears, only to later reveal her grave to visiting policemen.
- In Mila 18, which is based on true events in German-occupied Warsaw, Poland during WWII, one of the Nazi leaders is constantly bathing. At least one of the more astute people around him is aware he is trying to wash away his guilt in the slaughter of Polish Jews.
- In The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne Boleyn takes an extremely hot bath and rubs her skin raw the morning after she takes a potion from a witch to induce a miscarriage. She believes the baby to be dead, but probably still harbors guilt on the offchance that it may have been alive and the male heir she needed to bear to secure her position as Queen
- After hearing Smerdyakov's explanation of events in The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan begins to continuously recount the events prior to his father's death over and over again, trying to convince himself that he is not the one responsible for murdering him. This ends up with him talking to Satan and eventually freaking out spectacularly at the trial of his brother.
- The Dresden Files: The robes of the Wardens are enchanted so that blood will not stain them. Keep in mind that the Wardens are tasked with administering death to anyone found in violation of the Laws of Magic even if they had no knowledge of the Laws and were unaware that they were performing dark magic (most of whom are teenagers). Because of how Black Magic affects people in this 'verse, though, most of the ones they execute are, by that point, less "punishing someone who broke a rule" and more "putting down a rabid beast before it kills anyone else."
- Outcast of Redwall: Veil suffers something similar. His victim was poisoned, and the Abbey herbalist puts out an announcement that it will be easy to find the killer because the particular poison used will stain one's skin and fur red within two days if one touches it with bare paws. Veil, unaware that this is a complete and utter lie, starts frantically scrubbing his paws at every opportunity, even with sandstone, thus making them look red. He breaks into the infirmary to find the "herbal solution" the herbalist supposedly left there and dips his paws into the basin without looking, only to find that said basin actually contains beetroot juice, thus leaving his paws very obviously red and proving his guilt.
- On My Honor: As the Newberry Award-winning book goes on, the guilt-ridden protagonist keeps smelling the river everywhere he goes.
- Mortal Stakes: Robert B. Parker uses this very line from the mouth of Genre Savvy Private Detective Spenser, who thinks this after he's forced to kill two mob men in self defense.
- Another literary example: The leader with blood-stained hands, from Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer's Rhymes and Legends, depicts the tragic story of the Hindi Warrior Prince Pulo, a Byronic Hero who always wore gloves so nobody would see the permanent blood stains on his palms He got those by killing his older brother to steal away his beautiful wife, so the stains remained there as a symbol of his crime. And they didn't go away until he crossed the Despair Event Horizon and commited suicide to atone for his sins.
- In the novel Stormland by the icelandic author Hallgrímur Helgason, the protagonist Břddi begins seeing black flies crawling on himself, objects and the faces of everyone he talks to after shooting his brother through the eye and seeing the flies crawl around in his wound. The visions get more intense as his mental breakdown worsens.
- The Hungarian Ballad of Agnes by János Arany tells the story of a woman who has her lover stab her husband in his sleep, and afterward she spends day after day at the river, trying to wash the (imaginary) bloodstain out of the sheet, though said sheet has already been reduced to a handful of ragged cloth from all the scrubbing. Even when she's taken to court, she just keeps saying she has to go back to her washing; the judges take pity on her and decide her own guilt is punishment enough.
Mistress Agnes in the streamlet
Washeth still her ragged sheet;
Downward are the cover’s remnants
Carried by the current fleet.
- Robert Harris' Fatherland has a disturbingly understandable version. The protagonist, a U-Boat captain, finds out that the socks he was issued for 10 years are manufactured from the hair of executed Jews. He describes not feeling clean after bathing repeatedly for days; more justified than most given the close physical contact involved...
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: After Francie's attack, she begs her parents to help her because she can still feel where it touched her thigh. Her father pours acid over the spot, leaving a permanent scar but Francie is happy to have it rather than the feelings or dirtiness left by her ordeal.
- In Warrior Cats, Hollyleaf killed Ashfur. The official iOS app mentions that she can still taste his blood in her mouth.
- Redeeming Love: When she first begins to see that Michael is a genuinely good man, Angel feels that because of her past as a prostitute she is unworthy of him; she plunges into a river and frantically begins trying to make herself feel clean. Michael eventually finds her rubbing her skin raw with gravel and sobbing.
- A Song of Ice and Fire. Melisandre uses a shadow assassin created from Stannis' Life Force to kill Stannis' younger brother Renly, who is disputing Stannis' claim to the Iron Throne. Stannis never outright admits to being aware of her plan but implies it, talking about how he was asleep in his tent at the time, having a nightmare of Renly's murder. "I was in my tent when Renly died, and when I woke my hands were clean."
Live Action TV
- In the ballad Bonnie St. Johnstone, a cruel mother ballad dating to the seventeenth century, the young woman who has slit the throats of her two illegitimate children attempts to wash the knife in a brook, but the knife keeps looking redder and redder.
- Coheed and Cambria's song, In the Flame of Error, does this with "These dirty hands just won't come clean".
- Tom Waits' "Blue Valentines" from Blue Valentine has "I can never wash the guilt or get these blood stains off my hands".
- Bob Seger's "Hands In The Air" has the line "If you're selling these lies, these impossible dreams, you can keep on washing, but you'll never get clean."
- !HERO: The Rock Opera: Governor Pilate at the end of "Kill The Hero" says "I wash my hands of this sick madness."
- Ensemble comedy troupe Im Sorry Ill Read That Again subverted this trope. As Lady Macbeth wanders bemoaning the dire stains she sees, she finally points to the cause of her woes and intoners ''Out, damned Spot!" At which a dog is heard to bark, no doubt Spot the Dog...
- Versed in The Bible as God's condemnation of Israel's behavior in the book of Jeremiah: "For though you wash yourself with lye, and use much soap, Yet your iniquity is marked before Me." (Jer 2:22)
- Also in the Bible, Pontius Pilate washes his hands after sentencing Jesus to death, to assuage his guilt (or to show Jesus was Convicted By Popular Opinion, not him).
- Macbeth, the original. Lady Macbeth, long after she had washed her hands dripping with Duncan's blood, continued to be preoccupied by hand-washing. So great was her sense of guilt that no amount of water and the ritual incantation of "Out, damned spot! Out, I say" could restore her peace of mind or ability to sleep.
- Inverted, interestingly, in the poet's Julius Caesar, in which Brutus suggests:
...Stoope Romans, stoope,
And let vs bathe our hands in Cćsars blood
Vp to the Elbowes, and besmeare our Swords:
Then walke we forth, euen to the Market place,
And wauing our red Weapons o're our heads,
Let's all cry Peace, Freedome, and Liberty.
- In Woyzeck, the title character murders his unfaithful girlfriend, and obsesses over fear that someone will find the murder weapon. His determination to hide it in the river and wash off the blood gets him drowned. Probably.
- This is the version of the ending used in the opera Wozzeck and Werner Herzog's film version.
- On Ren and Stimpy, "Stimpy's Fan Club", Ren rants about having to answer all of Stimpy's fan mail "with these hands... Dirty!! The dirt won't come off!"
- Sponge Bob Square Pants also spoofed The Tell-Tale Heart in the episode "Squeaky Boots". Mr. Krabs unloads a pair of unwanted fishing boots on SpongeBob, but is driven mad by the incessant squeaking. He steals the boots and hides them under the floor boards of the Krusty Krab, but the squeaking remains...
- The Simpsons :
- A jealous Lisa hides a girl's Tell-Tale Heart diorama, and then hearing the metronome used to simulate the heartbeat.
- It was also used humorously when Homer became a food critic and was criticized by his editor for an inept review. Lisa finds him in the bathtub repeatedly scrubbing himself and babbling: "Still not clean! Stink of failure still on me!"
- The Critic. A woman Jay dated is showering, muttering, "Still not clean yet!" when he calls. It's revealed she's been in the shower for a week.
- This is a common symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder — a feel of "dirtiness" and a compulsion to somehow clean it, often resulting in germ/cleanliness obsessions and frequent, almost continuous, hand- or body-washings.
- This can also be a behavior exhibited by sexual abuse victims. Some severe cases have (in a manic state) reportedly scrubbed their skin raw while bathing, trying to remove the filth that they believe is on and inside their body.