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Possession Burnout
Castiel: What's wrong with your vessel?
Lucifer: Yes, um. Nick is wearing a bit thin, I'm afraid. He can't contain me forever.
Supernatural, "Abandon All Hope..."

When a demon, ghost, or other body stealing / possessing force takes control of a body, it causes the body to rapidly decay and get the wear and tear of a lifetime over a few days or months. Removing the being isn't a guarantee of undoing the damage, and staying for too long in the same body will likely kill the host before long.

This is different from (but may happen in conjunction with) Transformation Of The Possessed, which is where a body is changed to resemble (or become) the possessing entities' original body, and tends to be stable. It's more akin to Power Degeneration, and in fact use of superpowers can hasten the decay. This trope applies to both living, dead, and undead bodies; usually living bodies last longer and dead ones decay at a much faster rate, the tradeoff being that corpses don't put up a struggle.

Some stories may play with the trope and have undead beings like zombies or vampires, or inanimate objects suffering little or no decay, but having dulled senses/finesse.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Blue Exorcist Satan is so powerful that there's no body in the regular world can contain him for more than a moment without destroying itself.
  • Dante from Fullmetal Alchemist; that's the main reason she needs the philosopher's stone since she needs it every time she transfers to a new body. Also it's stated that each body lasts less than the previous one. And since Hohenheim has also swapped bodies at least once, it also happens to him; this is the main reason why he abandoned his family.
  • Bachilus in Birdy the Mighty is a parasite that requires a new body to inhabit every so often, due to this possession burnout. We see one of his bodies go to its limit and fall apart, after which he gets a new one, by consuming Geega, his (until then) boss.
  • Sailor Moon: Hotaru during the third season. It's not clear how much of this was Mistress 9's influence, given how she was an Ill Girl to begin with, but it's obvious that the possession certainly wasn't helping. Also a relatively rare case where it's implied that, had Hotaru indeed died before Mistress 9's resurrection, Mistress 9 would have died with her. The manga also implied that some of her illness was thanks to burnout on the end of cybernetic parts her father implanted her with.
  • Naruto: Orochimaru faces this issue after being forced to transfer into a body. While recovering from the transfer process, his body began to break down and required a constantly escalating regime of medication. Whether this was due to incompatibility or the damage done by the Third Hokage is unclear.

    Comicbooks 
  • The X-Men villain Proteus "burns out" any body he possesses; by the end stages, his victims look like walking corpses.
  • In Final Crisis, Darkseid's minions are frantically bioengineering new bodies for the New Gods of Apokolips because they destroy the human bodies they possess fairly quickly.

    Film 
  • The Bug Alien from the first Men In Black movie. By the end of the movie he had grey skin, could barely talk or walk. In this case, it had more to do with the bug wearing an "Edgar Suit" made of flayed skin, so it was natural decomposition.
  • People possessed by Jason in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday eventually melt into goo.
  • The Egyptian god Horus runs into this problem in Immortal, as he can only successfully possess pure humans unaltered by genetic modification. As most of the humans in 2095 New York are augmented in some way, they eventually die after he takes over their bodies. Nikopol is suitable as a host body precisely because he's still unaltered, having spent time in a cryo-prison for several decades.

    Literature 
  • H.I.V.E. In the later books, this is what happens to bodies that Overlord possesss via the animus fluid.
  • In Harry Potter Voldemort goes through several host bodies before he can perform a resurrection ritual that gives him a stable new form. He has to resort to things like drinking unicorn blood to keep his hosts alive.
  • In the YA Urban Fantasy Book Series beginning with The Demons Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, the heads of The Masquerade keep Mezentius House, a hospital/prison for bodies possessed by demons, which basically keeps the demons under control (chained up) until the body decays and dies. However, in the third book, a magician makes a deal with a demon who wants to possess her to share the body alternating days and nights, hoping to stave off this trope.
  • In Alan Garner's The Moon of Gomrath, an ancient Celtic demonic entity, the Brollochan, is released form its prison cell by human interference. The Brollochan is an entity that lives vicariously through the senses of people and animals it serially possesses - but no host can contain it for long without burning from the inside and crumbling to death.
  • Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel A Hat Full of Sky introduces an entity called the Hiver, which is so alike in description, purpose and occupation to Garner's Brollochan that you might assume Pratchett had read Garner's book in his youth and "borrowed" the idea. (Although Garner says his conception is not original - he has updated it from Celtic mythology. Pratchett may have read the same root sources.)
    • Further Discworld example: The Cunning Man, whose rage is so intense that it literally burns out whatever unfortunate person it chooses as a vessel.
  • This happens to everyone who's possessed by the ancient evil Tak in the Stephen King novel Desperation. Tak is so powerful that it causes any body it possesses to expand and grow more powerful, but it also amplifies any physical ailments they have. A host with cancer will die within hours, a staph infection in days and even something as simple as being easily sunburned will cause a body's skin to blister and drop off within a week, yet again leading to death. With animals it's even worse: They last an hour at most even if it's a strong, healthy animal. They might even explode.
  • In Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan and City On Fire, there's a type of disembodied spirit called an "iceman", formerly human. It possesses people so it can experience physical sensation again, but because it doesn't belong, everything feels "muted", so it wears its hosts out with physical excess. Sucks to be the host, sucks even more to be the iceman.
  • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Palpatine's spirit possessing clone bodies made them degenerate really fast, which provided a limit on his resurrections.
    • It was later revealed that this was not the case, and that someone had tampered with the genetic sample for Palpatine, which is what actually caused the clone bodies to degrade so quickly. The fresh bodies start to degrade before they are even ready for possession, and Palpatine can't fix it because even the original genetic material used as the template is damaged.
  • Played very literally on rare and usually momentous occasions in Perry Rhodan. If a Cosmocrat wishes to pay the "standard" universe a visit and a 'mere' Projected Avatar (already indistinguishable from a normal life-form and potentially quite badass in its own right if challenged) won't suffice, there exists an alternative in which the entity possesses a specially prepared host body, typically drawn from a servant species of physically extremely tough and naturally long-lived cyclopean giants, which allows it to bring a significantly larger portion of its power to bear directly — but which also results in said almost preternaturally durable host body immediately starting to smolder and then burn, held together and kept moving only by the willpower of its possessor. Cosmocrats using this approach will generally arrange to have several spare bodies available because they can go through them fast even in the course of a slightly extended conversation.
  • In the Hush, Hush world, it's said that this happens when fallen angels possess humans. This is why they generally aim to possess immortal Nepilim - those bodies don't wear out, so the Nephilim can look forward to an eternity of being possessed.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Smallville, any host for a certain Phantom Zone criminal dies in 24 hours. Naturally, a Kryptonian body can withstand it much better, but somehow, trying to possess Clark results in the creation of a new, cloned body (with the same clothes Clark is wearing, too, though the color of his jacket becomes the color of his shirt and vice versa.) He becomes the series' version of Bizarro.
  • The demon in the Angel episode Lonely Hearts. It had to keep body jumping because the bodies wore out and died.
    • Also Illyria, the initial infestation and death of Fred might count, but then there's also the aftermath-she was wearing out the body and the team had to zap her with a Frickin' Laser Beam to drain some of her power away.
  • Invoked in the Doctor Who episode "The Doctor's Wife", wherein the "soul" of the TARDIS is forcibly transferred to a human body — which is reported by its new occupant to be fast falling apart due to its inability to long hold the energy of the TARDIS.
    • And in the TV Movie, the Master's stolen human body decays rapidly.
  • Happens in Stargate SG-1 when Anubis possesses a host. The host develops sores and various ailments, eventually dying, forcing him to look for a new host. This is because he's partially ascended.
  • The alien leader Mabus from First Wave was able to possess humans, but the process was often fatal, sometimes within seconds. He eventually realized the host's physical health was unimportant, but rather high intelligence was the key to prolonged survival.
  • Supernatural:
    • Demons are the premier example in the series as they can possess people against their will. Any normal wound they receive while possessed is ignored, but once exorcised the wounds take their toll on the host, frequently killing them. It is unclear if there would be any burnout from an injury-free, long-term possession as no such cases arise.
    • Angels are so powerful that they will do this to any host that isn't specifically suited to them. Sam and Dean are the result of generations of breeding to produce viable hosts for Lucifer and Michael. Satan has to go through a few different host bodies, since they degenerate from his sheer power. He believes Sam's body has enough power on its own to stand the possession. Even Raphael's true vessel is left catatonic after being his possession. It may just be he didn't care to heal him, as Michael promises Dean he wouldn't leave him a "drooling mess" after possessing him.
    • The Leviathans' combined power is too much for their first host Jimmy after they booted out/killed Castiel forcing them to disperse.
  • In an episode of Lois and Clark, a man switches bodies with Clark. Soon after, the Kryptonian's body starts becoming vulnerable.
  • Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger: After losing Utsusemimaru as a host, Animated Armor villain Dogold is forced to use Cambrimas. Unfortunately for him, they only last a month, forcing him to keep moving on to a new Cambrima when the current one perishes. They melt when he leaves them. His goal for some time is getting Utchy back, then it's finding a new host. Eventually, the new general Endorf makes an ass of himself once too often, and so once weakened by King's Super Mode, Dogold kills two birds with one stone, getting rid of him and getting an even stronger host than Utsusemimaru.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons, Monster Manual III, introduces the Effigy, a fiery undead spirit that literally immolates its host.
    • Forgotten Realms has deities very strongly involved in the world's affairs. They are known to possess people sometimes, but can't keep the body in a good shape for long even in the perfect circumstances - it's simply Too Much For Man To Handle.
      • In the backstory, Elue Silverhand voluntarily got possessed by Mystra, in order to give birth to the innately semi divine Seven Sisters. Her husband noticed that something very unhealthy goes on, and with an expert's help managed to determine that "some very powerful entity" rides her, but not who — naturally, if the goddess of magic tries to keep a personal secret, everyone else is down to guess-work. Since nothing else helped, Dornal decapitated his wife to "free" from the possession. From this point it all got more awkward for everyone involved, of course.
  • In Warhammer 40K, this happens to daemonhosts, along with (and partly because of) the Transformation Of The Possessed.
  • Deadlands: Hell on Earth inverts the trope; the cyborgs are robotized dead bodies possessed by demons, which are being used as soul fuel for the body.
  • Vampire: The Requiem: The strix can possess mortals just as well as vampires, but possessing a mortal outright kills the host, which means the body doesn't really keep all that well.

    Video Games 
  • Zato-1 from Guilty Gear is an assassin who relies on a shadowy beast named Eddie possessing his body to help him fight. Until he died. In the newer installments, Eddie has to deal with controlling Zato's decaying corpse in combat until he can find a new host.
  • In FEAR 3, when you're controlling Fettel, you can only possess a body for a while before it explodes and you're expelled. You also destroy the body if you willingly leave it.
  • In Jedi Academy, the Light Side ending has an ancient spirit possessing the villain with the help of an ancient artifact. Once the artifact is destroyed and the spirit leaves... there is nothing left.
  • Mass Effect 2; while there's no gameplay consequences, the fact that Harbinger-possessed Collectors crumble into ash on their defeat while regular ones leave corpses suggests that there's something like this going on. Also notable is that their health bar is replaced with an armor bar, indicating they're no longer really alive.
    • All There in the Manual: Collectors are implanted with Reaper tech, that allows Harbinger to override their nervous systems, effectively driving the implants into overdrive. As Shepard wears them down, the implants work harder to keep the Collector alive, until they burn out, taking the corpse with them.
    • Saren's corpse in the first Mass Effect game is possessed by Sovereign, burning away all tissue until only the cybernetic components remained.
    • Extended Leviathan channelling in the DLC of the same name can be seriously bad for your health. Passive control seems to be sustainable indefinitely, with one area being under Leviathan control for ten years, but when they actually speak through you it can cause serious damage quickly, as Ann Bryson will demonstrate if you take the Renegade interrupt. Even if you don't, and she's saved, it's pretty much explicit in her War Asset writeup that she sustained a bit of damage, although most of her faculties are intact.
  • In Messiah, whenever Bob possesses someone, that person's physical health is drained to replenish Bob's own health.
  • In Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, Dracula can possess people by sneaking up behind them and turning into blood that enters his victims' orifices. His hosts can barely do anything but move slowly as their health slowly deteriorates.

    Visual Novels 
  • Individuals unlucky enough to be possessed by Michael Roa Valdamjong in Tsukihime die instantly once he leaves and possesses the next body. The only exception to this rule is Ciel, who somehow managed to survive and gained all the advantages of Complete Immortality as a result.
  • In Fate/stay night, this is why Matou Zouken wants the Holy Grail. His method of prolonging life is by possessing and molding other bodies by filling them with worms, but each body lasts less than the previous one, and by the time the game starts, he can only remain in a body for a few months at most.

    Webcomics 
  • In Gunnerkrigg Court, Whitelegs' possession of Jack Hyland gradually degraded his sanity and was very taxing, but it's not clear whether it was harmful on its own, because it "enhanced" him enough to manifest Powers via Possession, or simply because he never slept all this time. When the possession ended, he instantly collapsed, though later gradually recovered.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Legend of Korra, Wan wanted to be able to bend multiple elements to fight Vaatu. The Lion Turtle explained to him that humans lack the energy needed to bend more than one element at a time. To get around this problem, Wan allowed himself to fuse with Raava every time he needed to bend multiple elements. Holding a spirit and its extra power inside his body was extremely dangerous. Raava warned Wan that if she stayed inside him for too long he would die. In the end they solve the problem by making the fusion permanent, starting the Avatar Cycle.


PoltergeistParanormal TropesPowers via Possession
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