The intersection of All Just a Dream and the Ontological Mystery.
You're trapped in a weird and inexplicable situation. Nothing you do seems to get you any closer to sorting it out. However will you escape?
Simple: it's all just a dream. Once you know that, you're free.
It doesn't have to be a literal dream. Maybe you've been hooked up to a Lotus-Eater Machine. Maybe you're having a hallucination thanks to your enemy spiking your drink. It could be a magical perception-altering spell. Whatever.
The key thing is that as soon as you realize that it's not real, you snap out of it.
There is some real life support for this: most people have found themselves suddenly woken just as they realize that they're dreaming. This may be a defensive mechanism to prevent sleep disruptions (the state of being aware that one is dreaming, called "lucid dreaming", cannot cause a breakdown of the mechanisms that normally prevent behaviors such as sleepwalking, contrary to popular belief. Many people enjoy lucid dreams and try to have as many as possible, generally with only positive side effects). But anyone who has experienced sleep paralysis knows that it's not always as simple as that. (and if you've ever been able to control Sleep Paralysis, things get more complicated).
Pinching is generally used as a method of dream detection because it is said that we don't have the sense of touch in a dream. If it's real, then you'd feel the pain from a pinch. This has been debunked by lucid dreamers, who can feel pain/touch in a dream.
See also Did You See That Too? for seeking confirmation that something is real. Unrelated to Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (the novel or the childish prank).
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In Akame ga Kiru! when Esdeath and Tatsumi are teleported away to a distant island, Tatsumi, thinking it's an illusion asks Esdese to "hurt me". Esdese is overjoyed, because she thinks this means Tatsumi is a masochist and as an insane sadist with a Villainous Crush on Tatsumi, she thinks this makes them a better match. He quickly corrects her.
Many a shonen hero has managed to free himself from a villain's illusion by the use of self-inflicted pain (e.g., stabbing himself in the leg, breaking his own finger, etc...) like Sasuke Uchiha during the Chuunin Exam in his first fight against Orochimaru or Vash the Stampede while facing an opponent that could nullifying all of his senses for a few seconds.
Played for tears in Sailor Moon. In the first season finale, Usagi is sitting alone in the snow after all four of the other Inner Senshi die one by one, each sacrificing themselves for her. She tells herself that she is only dreaming, and when she wakes up everyone will be there and tell her good morning.
In Lucky Star, doujinshi artist Hiyori is approached at Comiket by a man who offers her an opportunity to write for Comptiq. She pinches her cheek, finds that it hurts, and thinks for a moment that it was reality... until she wakes up and discovers that she was, indeed, dreaming, and can feel pain in a dream.
From K-On!!, in maybe the third or fourth dream she had that day, Azusa rightly guesses she's in a dream and asks dream!Mugi and dream!Ui to pinch her, and she laments that she won a trip to Finland in that dream.
Parodied in Ranma ½: When Akane goes on a date with Ryoga, he's sure that it must be a dream — so he hits his head against the wall hard enough to cause structural damage to the building. It doesn't hurt, so he thinks he must be dreaming. However, the real reason it didn't hurt is because he's just that strong after training with Cologne.
Subverted in the comic book JLA. The heroes are trapped in a dream-machine by the villain The Key; however, the machine is constructed so that realizing that they're dreaming and awakening will provide the energy for the machine's true function.
In Zot!, Jenny "woke up" to find that she had dreamed Zot and his parallel world, until she realized it was a dream.
One Calvin and Hobbes story has Calvin falling from a great height. He figures it's just a dream, and that all he has to do is look down and gasp, and then he will wake up. Doesn't work.
In Garfield, when Jon learns that a woman wants to go out with him, he says to Garfield: "Pinch me, I must be dreaming!" He then wakes up in his bed, screaming.
In one Slash Fic, the main character's just had sex with his best friend and isn't sure whether he's dreaming, so he pinches his friend, who asks him what the hell that was for. "But you're supposed to pinch someone to see if you're dreaming!" "You pinch yourself, idiot!"
In the Portal fanfic Blue Sky, Wheatley asks Chell to touch him so she can prove she's really there, as GLaDOS messing around with his insides has been making him see things. She responds by painfully yanking him out of the wires connecting him to GlaDos.
In The Awkward Adventures of Meghan Whimblesby, when she sees the movie characters, she tries to wake from her dream. In chapter 1, Meghan pinches herself. In chapter 2, she tries to escape danger by shouting, "WAKE UP!" Then she bleeds. Because of her blood, Meghan concludes, "I'm not dreaming."
I Am NOT a Mary Sue dumps Caroline into bad fan fiction. She tries to wake herself as in The Wizard of Oz, by bumping her heels and saying "There's no place like home!", but it was not a dream.
Amusing variation: In Police Squad!, Drebin mentions in his narration that at such a moment he asked the guy next to him to pinch him. Said guy, a big ugly bruiser, gives him an odd look and very carefully backs away.
The Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team originally used this one in their feature film Airplane!, in the Flashback scene where Ted Stryker relives his first meeting Elaine.
About halfway through the film Waking Life, the main character learns he can tell if he's dreaming by flipping light switches or checking digital clocks. Unfortunately, this knowledge doesn't help him wake up.
Brittany says this twice in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel; the first time is when the Chipettes enter Ian's penthouse for the first time, and the second time is moments before Ian mentions barbecue.
In the movie Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise realizes that he is dreaming at the end of the movie when he finally removes the mask he wears to hide his disfigured face to find that his face is perfectly fine underneath. This prompts him to start shouting that he wants to wake up.
A deleted scene in Back to the Future had Marty telling an old lady to pinch him only to receive a slap for shame realizing he's in 1955 from a newspaper.
A plot element in Inception. Pinching alone's not nearly enough; a 'kick' of some sorts is required to forcibly eject the dreamer from their dream.
In Stanislaw Lem's novel The Futurological Congress, Ijon Tichy is the victim of a hallucinogenic attack, and treats his doctors, revival after cryo-freezing and Fish Out of Temporal Water setting as a product of his hallucinations, usually trying to fall back in a sewer he had originally been hiding in to snap out of it. He's absolutely right.
In Robert Sheckley's short story Ghost V, the two main characters realize the air of the planet they've landed on contains chemicals that cause hallucinations; unfortunately, since Your Mind Makes It Real, knowing that they're hallucinations doesn't make them the least bit less dangerous.
In A Little Princess, after Sara sees the food, furniture, and fire left for her in the attic, she marvels that for a dream, everything feels real, and then puts her hands by a fire. She draws them away quickly, saying that a dream-fire wouldn't be so hot. In the next chapter she admits to pinching herself repeatedly and "just now I touched a hot coal, on purpose."
Many All Just a Dream episodes end when the character says, "Of course! It's all just a dream!"
Doctor Who: "The Deadly Assassin". The Doctor is able to escape the Master's traps by denying that they exist. Also "Vengeance on Varos". Also "The Trial of a Timelord".
In the spinoff novel The Stealers of Dreams, the Doctor scoffs at someone who literally pinches himself to remind himself that it's not just a dream. The Doctor explains that though a dream can feel real, when something is real you generally just know - so the pinching is unnecessary.
Star Trek: The Original Series: "Specter Of The Gun". The realization that their situation is just a psychic projection renders Kirk and company Immune to Bullets. In their defense, immunity required a certitude of belief that could only be achieved via mind-meld to a nigh-emotionless Vulcan.
Star Trek: Voyager. When an embedded subconscious trigger caused characters to realize they were asleep, they were able to will themselves awake.
An early episode of Star Trek: Enterprise involved hallucinogenic alien pollen, but most of those affected didn't figure it out.
The X-Files. Subversion: Mulder and Scully realize that they are trapped in a chemically induced hallucination, and are promptly freed. Wackiness continues to ensue, at which point it occurs to Mulder that there is absolutely no scientific reason that their having worked it out should negate all the hallucinogenic chemicals in their systems. It's the supporting cast who end up rescuing them for real.
Vic Palmero: You are having a hallucinogenic reaction to me. I'm in your belly. Watch me dance.
Mildly subverted in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's season 4 finale. Buffy realises she's dream-fighting the First Slayer and wakes up. As she's looking around the Slayer attacks again. Buffy ignores her and wakes up for real.
In the first season episode, Nightmares, where everyone's nightmares are coming true, Xander tries to get out of standing in front of his entire class while wearing only his underwear, by pinching himself.
House uses a variation in the second series finale "No Reason": House comes to realise he is hallucinating, but is unable to escape until he deliberately kills his 'patient', breaking his subconscious suspension of disbelief.
In an episode of the sitcom Newhart, after suffering through yet another day's worth of insanity from the locals, Dick pinches himself hoping he's dreaming. It doesn't work, but at the end of the series it's revealed that he really was dreaming the whole thing.
In Married... with Children, Al says this to Jefferson, who responds by punching him in the jaw. Al promptly goes, "I said pinch me, not punch me!" Jefferson then grabs a big handful of Al's gut.
The episode of Blackadder where he accidentally burns the only copy of the dictionary. The writer of the dictionary bursts in on Blackadder and says something to the effect of "I'm tired of the damn thing, it's rubbish, burn it". Blackadder is overjoyed, but then "Baldrick, who gave you permission to become an Alsatian?". Which is enough of a clue for Blackadder to realise and wake up.
In the Monk episode "Mr. Monk Meets the Playboy," Randy is so awestruck when the team enters Dexter Larsen's bedroom while questioning Larsen about the murder of his publisher that he asks Stottlemeyer to pinch him. Stottlemeyer naturally says "no".
At the near end of Supermarioglitchy4's "The Mario Parable", when Narrator sends Mario to be killed, the latter wonders he's just dreaming, and Narrator accepts with him by saying that everything is not real except him.
Narrator: Of course. None of this is real. I am real. You are not.
Mario:(scene switches to Castle Grounds) I am Mario! Of course I am real.
In Erfworld, Parson, still not quite sure it's not all a dream, tries pinching himself to "wake up".
In Menage a 3 Gary finds himself handcuffed to an unconscious girl through no fault of his own (long story) and thinks he's dreaming, so he tries to supply his brain with a sensation that it can't replicate. As he's a virgin, he does that by groping her breast. Then he realizes that he's awake.
Kids Next Door, "Op UTOPIA": Nigel realises that he's in a hallucination the moment he sees Wally swim (the real Wally can't swim). Cut to chamber with Nigel in it, struggling to break free.
Batman: The Animated Series, "Perchance to Dream": Bruce Wayne finds himself in a world where his parents are still alive and someone else is Batman. He realizes it's all just a dream when he finds he can't read any books (based on the idea that the left side of the brain, which controls the interpretation of written words, is mostly dormant during dreaming), though it takes him a bit longer to figure out how to free himself.
Also occurs in an episode of Justice League, where Superman is entrapped by a Lotus-Eater Machine and has to realize that his world was destroyed. In the same episode, Batman is attached to the plot device in question, and realizes it almost immediately—he knows, deep down, that his father didn't beat up the mugger, but was killed by him. A tearjerker moment for both, as Superman tells his scared son good-bye as Krypton explodes and Batman is forced to relive that terrible moment again.
In Only a Dream", Flash recognizes that he's in a dream a few minutes after Dr. Destiny shows up and believes that his alarm clock will wake him up.
Flash: Huh? This isn't supposed to happen.
Dr. Destiny: That's because this time, there isn't going to be a wake-up call.
The Disney version of Alice in Wonderland ends with her being chased by the Queen and her subjects, begging the talking doorknob to let her out. The doorknob is still locked and explains that she is out, and shows her sleeping under a tree through his keyhole. Alice then shouts for herself to wake up.
Subverted in the story "Where Oh Where is Flick?" of PB&J Otter. Flick enters into a dream in which Mallard Man asks him to help him and he immediately says "I must be dreaming!" Mallard Man agrees that he is and Flick is perfectly cool with this.
King Julien in The Penguins of Madagascar: "I must be dreaming the most horrible dream inside my head! Quick, pinch me, now bite me, now slap my face and spank my right buttock!"
In 2 Stupid Dogs, believing a situation too good to be true, Little Dog orders Big Dog to pinch him. After he complies, he tells him "Harder!"