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Primal Scene
Pictured: Mental Scarring

Hey, champ. I, uh, wanted to talk to you. You know, about what you just saw. Because things aren't always what they appear. Sometimes, when someone is choking, you have to get behind them to give them the Heimlich. This was not that. I was not helping your mother with a leg cramp, I was not giving her a lying-down hug, I was not helping her look for her contacts. I was plowing, Steve.
Stan Smith, American Dad!

Someone, usually a child, is wandering in his or her house and walks into two people having sex. Most of the time it's the parents. This can be a trigger for A) the parents to give that one discussion we all mention vaguely, B) the unfortunate soul to be Shell Shocked for a while, C) be very funny or some combination of the three.

Its psychological term is the Primal Scene, coined by none other than Freud.

Naturally, media always plays this as a traumatic experience, rather than the person just figuring it is natural, quickly realizing it, or just not understanding why mommy and daddy are playing leap-frog naked (and then after looking back on it all, will quickly apply Brain Bleach to forget about it).

And of course, all 'child' characters, no matter how old, don't understand sex. Characters identified to the audience as 'teenagers' will simply be horrified. This rule applies to almost every example, despite the fact that most children (even 8-9 year olds) will know what they interrupted in Real Life.

See Caught with Your Pants Down for the single-player version; for the reverse scenario with parents walking in on their adult child getting frisky, see Parents Walk In at the Worst Time. A subtrope of Interrupted Intimacy.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Advertising 
  • This ad for Ragu pasta sauce. It has become one of the more popular ads of 2012.
  • A UK for Flora margarine has two children making breakfast-in-bed for parents on their anniversary and then walking in on the two of them 'wrestling'.
  • This Tostitos commerical with the "Mommy and Daddy Wrestling" portrait.

    Anime 

    Comics 
  • In Watchmen, a young Walter Kovacs walks in on his prostitute mother servicing a client. Unlike most instances of this trope, this is not Played for Laughs and is shown to be very Harmful to Minors, the behavior of the adults involved plays a part too.
    • It wasn't so much the exposure to sex that damaged to him, but the fact that his mother insulted and beat him up afterwards for bothering her at "work."
      • It's implied that the most important thing was that he thought the man was hurting her, not understanding what they were really doing. He was worried about his mother, and then she beat him when he came in to help her.
      • The shadow he sees on the wall (two upright people joined together) is repeated throughout the book: In the graffiti Rorschach looks at, in the shadows on Rorschach's mask, in the dream Dan has of him and Laurie, and when Dan has sex with Laurie in Adrian's home. Finally, Adrian's shadow is shown all alone and deserted, providing some contrast to the theme.
  • In Runaways, when Gert finds out her parents are actually super villains, she says "This is worse than the time I walked in on them doing it!"
  • Robert Crumb once tried to explain such a scene to his son as him and Aline (his wife) playing horse-riding. He didn't find an explanation though for why Aline had to be naked to do this.
  • In Kick-Ass, Dave walks in on his father and his new girlfriend doing it doggy-style on the living room couch.
  • At one point in Scott Pilgrim, the titular character walks in on his gay roommate having sex with a guy. He's horrified.
    Wallace Wells: Presumably, you saw his junk, and I apologize for that.
  • In Friday The13th Pamelas Tale issue two, in June of 1957 Jason Voorhees is enraged by the sight of Barry and Claudette having sex. That probably led him to kill everybody who engages in nonmarital sex.

    Fan Fiction 
  • Happens in this Naruto fanfic, with the predictable result/s.
  • In the (not for faint-hearted!) Pokémon fic Latias' Journey, the cast enjoys a quiet-before-the-storm party on the night before the final battle. Some of them go for more... involved celebrations than others. So anyway, Phanpy walks in on Uncle Brother Pikachu going at it with a Weavile. Traumatized, he runs to Aunt Corsola for help, and walks in on her right in the middle of Crawdaunt's massive orgy. You can probably imagine what happens next.
  • In the Order of the Stick fic the Oneiroi Series, Vaarsuvius's parents intentionally have sex where their child can see them, leading to this situation often. On the other end, Tiasal has walked in on her (more modest) parents an unnamed amount of times and has even seen her grandparents going at it, and she's demonstrated a surprising amount of nonchalance about the whole thing.
  • Due to a series of spoileriffic circumstances in Luminosity, Elspeth ends up with almost all of her father's memories. After a person asks a question about how much she can remember, she thinks of the wrong memory, and...
    I remember my parent's honeymoon!
  • Played With in a recent chapter of this fanfic— Kyon's sister walks in on him and his girlfriend having sex. Evidently this happens so often that it no longer fazes her. Also, Mikuru (who in this fic is Kyon and Haruhi's future kid) knows about it, and is a bit shocked, even though she knew it had to happen eventually.
  • Toyed with in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic Progress. Princess Luna's embarrassed enough to flee to a castle labyrinth and blush bright red after walking in on her roommate and roommate's boyfriend, but as she's old enough to figure prominently in the local Creation Myth and more than old enough to be aware of sex (if only in the theoretical sense), she attributes this reaction to her old-fashioned views. Then she has a particularly surreal nightmare about walking in on Celestia with Luna's abacus, suggesting the matter to be much more traumatic than Luna is willing to admit to herself.
  • In chapter 4 of the My Life as a Teenage Robot fic My Life As A Teenaged Von Neumann Device, Sheldon freaks out when he walks in on Jenny and Brad after they've just had sex... with unfortunate consequences, as Sheldon ends up running into the street and getting hit by a car, forcing Mrs. Wakeman to upload his brain into the body of the Silver Shell.
  • In this Avatar: The Last Airbender fanfic, Kya walks in on disrobed parents Aang and Katara in the process of foreplay. While she immediately understands what’s going on, she’s still horrified.
    "Mom, Bumi won't stop mak—," Kya froze mid-rant, her irate complaint dangling mid-sentence as she fully assimilated the sight of her parents in bed and tangled in one another's arms. In that brief, appalling second, it was difficult to determine who was more horrified, Aang and Katara or their traumatized teenage daughter. However, Kya's explosive reaction that followed mere beats later firmly determined that it was the latter.
    She immediately clapped her hands over her face and bolted down the hallway screaming. "Oh my, blech... my eyes! My EYES! Dad, you said you were going to read a book! What's wrong with you people? I'm blind! The oogies!”
  • Worst possible variation in Reprise, the prequel to Hivefled; among other horrific things, Gamzee is forced to watch his potential future siblings be made. Would be bad enough if they weren't also getting across the point that he's a "moirail bastard".
  • Played with in this NSFW My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fic. Twilight follows Pony!Flash Sentry after he tells her he's seeing someone else. Hilarity Ensues. She sees him and Shining Armor have sex, and is disgusted because she thinks Shining is cheating on Cadence. But then it is revealed that he wasn't, as Cadance lets him do that, and likes to watch.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic Crashback, Twilight Sparkle inadvertently witnesses her own conception, courtesy of a flashback potion.
  • The Monsters University fanfic Born to Please has Chet walking in on two of his fraternity brothers having sexual relations.
  • Ai Yori Aoshi Koi: Chika inadvertently discovers Kaoru and Aoi's Secret Relationship when she walks in on them during an intimate moment in the bathroom.

    Films 
  • A very dark version occurs in Orphan, when Esther catches Kate and John having sex over the kitchen counter.
  • Averted in Poltergeist, as Carol Ann's request for a late-night glass of water takes place when her parents are only engaged in foreplay, not intercourse.
  • In Rain Man, Raymond walks in on Charlie and Suzanna making love, and as he doesn't understand what's going on, mimics their orgasmic moans until Charlie realizes he's in the room and snaps angrily at him.
  • In Reality Bites, one of the characters tells that this once happened to her.
  • Occurs in The Rebound when Sandy's young son walks in on her and Aram having sex on the living room couch. Hilarity Ensues. Not much mental scarring though.

    Literature 
  • In The Da Vinci Code, a version of this is the reason why the female protagonist had a falling-out with her grandfather. As a young girl, she walked in on him performing a sexual ritual.
  • In Memory, Miles has a moment of surprise when he realizes his Aunt Alys (widowed since shortly before Miles's birth) has started sleeping with his former boss, ex-Spymaster Simon Illyan. When Alys's son Ivan finds out, he has reaction B, and the reader gets a nice dose of reaction C from the interplay.
    • Unlike most instances of this trope, Miles and Ivan are adults. Ivan's reaction has more to do with: a) the fact that this is his mother we're talking about, and b) the fact that both Simon and Alys have public reputations for being extremely prim and proper (well, for Simon it's more "respectable" than "prim"), and what they're doing together is... not.
  • Robin in The Tomorrow Series mentions this was how she last saw her parents.
  • Briefly discussed in Head Count by Ingrid Noll: when Maya is in counseling after accidentally killing her brother, she makes up a dream about being a little bird that flies around and looks into people's windows. Her psychiatrist assumes that she must have walked in on her parents as a child.
  • Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest has none less than a young Adolf Hitler being traumatized after walking in on his parents having sex in the 69 position.
  • Parodied in the Girl Genius novel Agatha H. and the Airship City: Young Agatha was traumatized by walking in on her "construct" foster parents recharging themselves.
  • Seemingly an isolated incident in J.R. Lowell's 1972 thriller Daughter of Darkness. Willie Connolly knows what sex is, that's not the problem; it's the idea of her beloved parents going at it like animals. Yicch!
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, one of the key events that sets the plot in motion is 7-year old Bran Stark climbing a castle tower and accidentally witnessing, through a window, the Queen having sex with her brother.
  • Legacy of the Dragokin: Daniar and Kalak express their love for each other right in front of Benji.
  • This is one of the catalysts to the big deception in Atonement. Briony encounters her older sister Cecilia having sex with her lover Robbie in the library. The two awkwardly leave the site upon discovery. Briony has already had her suspicions about Robbie due to several previous events that tell her Robbie is sexually abusing her sister, when in fact all the instances were consensual. Their discovery here is thus the final nail to the coffin that causes Briony to pin Robbie for revenge.

    Live Action TV 
  • Breaking Bad: Walter Jr. comes home during (or possibly after) his parents had sex, asking where they are. When he realizes that they are both in the bedroom, claiming that they are "busy," he gets the message and walks away from their room in disgust.
  • A 1973 episode of The New Dick Van Dyke Show had this. When CBS refused to air it, writer-director Carl Reiner quit the series in protest.
  • Formerly named for the scene in That '70s Show in which this happens to Eric, with his parents yelling the quote at the top of the page. Donna reveals that it also happened to her when she was a kid - which she can recall vividly even a decade or so later.
    • Used more than once too, as later in the series, Eric casually walks into the kitchen, where his parents are playing an "adult" version of Marco Polo (don't ask).
    • The age-flip occurs in the episode about Jackie's lodge, where at the end of the episode Kitty and Red walk in on Eric and Donna doing the horizontal tango on the kitchen table. The next scene shows Kitty and Red scrubbing the table furiously to cleanse it, eventually deciding that it would just be best to get a new table.
  • In an episode of Sex and the City, Brady sees Harry and Charlotte having sex. Charlotte freaks out and calls Miranda, panicking and convinced that she has damaged the boy for life. Miranda is amused and explains to Charlotte that being a toddler, he doesn't even know where his nose is, let alone what sex is.
  • J.D. explains his emotional problems in Scrubs:
    My emotional journey began at 5 years old when I walked in on my parents having sex in a position my father would later playfully describe as "the jackhammer."
  • On Desperate Housewives, Gaby and Carlos are having blind sex (he is blind; she's wearing a blindfold). Gaby hears a sound, rips off the blindfold and, lo and behold, there is Juanita drinking from a juice box. They don't know how long Juanita has been there, either.
  • Dawson from Dawson's Creek was constantly walking in on his parents having sex, at least in the first season. He also once saw the "preview" to some reconciliation sex between them, but managed to sneak out unnoticed before "the main attraction."
  • Monica from Friends first found a video tape of her parents having sex (complete with "Oh Jack" and "Oh Judy"). Then a few episodes later she was hiding from her parents in the bathroom when both walk in, and, well, this quote pretty much sums it up:
    Ross: Mon? Mon, are you okay?
    Monica: Remember that video I found of Mom and Dad?
    Ross: Yeah?
    Monica: Well I just caught the live show.
    • In a later episode, when she recounts this, Chandler mentions that he once walked in on his parents and a man having a threesome.
  • The Drew Carey Show. His response to a psychiatrist:
    "Why is Daddy hurting Mommy? Wait, he's not hurting Mommy, he's loving Mommy."
  • In an episode of Oliver Beene, Oliver walked in on his parents doing the deed, but they placated him by claiming to have been playing some sort of game. The narration notes:
    Years later, I realized I had walked in on my parents having sex, and was appropriately disgusted. Back then, I was just glad they'd managed to make up so we could be a family again.
  • In Six Feet Under, Nate's daughter Maya sees him and Brenda having sex and starts jumping up and down.
  • In the first episode of Titus, a misunderstood message causes Erin to walk in on her parents.
    Titus: Your dad isn't dead.
    Erin: Yeah, I know. Otherwise, what I walked in on my mother doing to him would've been so sick!
  • An episode of Ready or Not revolved around sexuality, beginning with Amanda walking into her parents shagging it out.
  • Torchwood has the adult version when Gwen walks in on Jack and Ianto. In a hothouse. Hilarity Ensues.
  • On Modern Family, Phil and Claire's kids walk in on them having sex which traumatizes both Claire and the kids. Phil tries to deal with it humorously. The family have an uncomfortable talk about it.
  • King of Queens Doug and Carrie look after Deacon and Kelly's kids at their apartment while they're out of town. One of the kids walk in on Doug and Carrie having sex and draws a picture of it.
  • In Sugar Rush, Kim finds out about her mother's affair with their home decorator when she walks in on them having very loud sex in the living room.
  • Referenced in this scene from Eastbound And Down.
  • In 30 Rock Nancy Donovan has given at least two different excuses to her children when they walked in on her. She comments to Jack that they walk in a lot, but doesn't specify how much "a lot" is.
  • In Mad Men, Sally Draper sees her step-grandmother giving a blowjob to her Honorary Uncle Roger Sterling. Given that she's pretty precocious (despite being only 12 or 13, she's more aware than the average girl her age, and has been masturbating herself for at least a year), she doesn't seem to be particularly scarred—merely astonished and kinda disgusted.
    • Much earlier, Sally and her little brother Bobby also walked in on their parents having sex once, which Don and Betty awkwardly explained as "Mommy and Daddy are... sleeping..." When Sally later sees a picture of Paul Kinsey's girlfriend, she asks him "Do you kiss her? Do you lay on top of her?"
    • Later, however, Sally walks in on her father having sex with the upstairs neighbor. While not necessarily disturbed by the act itself, she is appropriately outraged and disappointed that he would cheat on Megan like that.
  • In Single Father, six-year-old Evie walks in on her recently widowed father in bed with her dead mom's best friend. While Evie doesn't tell anyone and probably doesn't actually understand what happened, she does say that her dad and Sarah "really like hugs" with a look that says she probably at least knows that they were doing something inappropriate.
  • On Once Upon a Time Emma Swan and her son Henry walk in on Snow and Charming in bed. Henry is only eleven and is oblivious, asking why they're sleeping in the afternoon. Emma is scarred for life because while they are about the same age because of a magic curse, they're still her parents. Said parents seem amused by the incident, probably because they weren't actually "busy" when their daughter and grandson walked in, just in bed.
    • They had just finished being "busy", and were clearly postcoital, with a Modesty Bedsheet, so it was pretty close.
  • In the Misfits episode where Curtis nearly starts a Zombie Apocalypse, Rudy reveals that he is afraid of cheerleaders because, when he walked in on his parents having sex, his mother was dressed as a cheerleader.
  • One Psych episode involves Shawn (and his mom) moving back in with his dad to help Henry recover after being shot. At one point, Shawn walks in on his divorced parents having sex. The scene then cuts to him curled up in bed like a traumatized child would after witnessing such a thing. His father also tries to have what sounds suspiciously like "the talk" with Shawn.
  • This is how Viva, the main character of Some Girls discovered her father's relationship with her new gym teacher: she walked in to see Anna riding Rob in the living room and immediately shuts the door in disgust. Luckily for Viva, both Anna and Rob were clothed but poor Viva still can't stand Anna.
  • In the second-season premiere of The Americans, poor Paige walks in on her parents performing mutual oral sex on each other.
  • Discussed in the Veronica Mars episode "The Wrath of Con"; while playing "I Never", Duncan asks if any of them have seen their parents having sex. Lily drinks, and describes how she walked into her parents' room to borrow her mother's sweater and saw her parents. Interestingly enough, Duncan is more freaked out about this than Lily was.
  • On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon pays a surprise visit to his mother. He glances through the front window and sees, as he puts it, "Mommy with a naked man and trying to be a mommy again."

    Video Games 
  • Kana from Kana: Little Sister once catches her brother Taka and his friend Yumi having sex. Aaaaaawkward.
  • A funny machinima made with The Sims 3 milks this trope for all it's worth.
  • In Psychonauts, it is revealed that as a kid, government agent Sasha Nein read his father's thoughts to see what his Missing Mom was like. It doesn't end well.
    • A pretty tragic example, seeing as he was just remembering the woman he loved and it causes Sasha to freak out so badly he runs away from home.
  • You Don't Know Jack: The Ride includes a question, based on the idea that Steven Seagal movies all have three syllables (Under Siege, Hard to Kill, et. al.) and asks the contestant(s) to identify the likely plot to a Seagal movie named Primal Scene (the correct answer, of course, being the outline of this trope). At the end of the round, players are treated to someone impersonating Seagal's voice and acting style and blandly exclaiming, "Oh no, mom and dad are wrestling!"
  • A variant (photographs taken at the time by a third party, seen after the event) occurs in Meet The Spy... Sort of. It's probably quicker to watch than to try and explain.
  • Dramatic variant in the backstories of Long Live the Queen The child in question happened to see his father having sex... with his half-brother. And when she found out, his mother murdered his father. Said child grows up rather traumatised.
  • Having no ability to control his psychic powers, Psycho Mantis of Metal Gear Solid was forced to view countless people's sexual fantasies, leaving him very badly warped.
  • In South Park: The Stick of Truth, when the player is shrunk by the Underpants Gnomes, he chases them down to his parents' bedroom just as they're having sex and culminates to a boss battle right under them as they're doing the deed. You get an achievement if you simply stay and watch them for an entire minute.

    Web Comics 

     Web Original 
  • In the flash film Nin10Doh! by 'Kirbopher', Ness walks past a porno theater. Being psychic, he is reduced to a quivering wreck on his bed.
    Ness: Everything... I could hear... everything... they were thinking!
    Poo: Oh, the poor child.
    • Made even funnier if you recall Itoi's explanation for Giygas: when he was a child, he walked in on a movie sex scene that ended in murder, mistook it for a rape scene, and when he reached adulthood, he channeled his childhood shock and terror into Giygas.

    Western Animation 
  • Invoked in the American Dad! episode "I Am the Walrus"; Steve is trying to usurp Stan's role as the Alpha Male of the house, so Stan tricks Steve into walking in on him and Francine being intimate. After Not What It Looks Like, he tells Steve that the fact that he mates and Steve doesn't proves he's still top dog. Then he chases Steve out of the room while yelping like a Walrus.
  • Family Guy - "The Son Also Draws":
    Lois: Now, you shouldn't be frightened, Stewie. What you saw was actually a very beautiful thing.
    Stewie: Evidently, madam, you and I differ greatly in our conception of beauty.
    • There also the episode focusing on Lois's brother, Patrick, who as a child saw his mom having sex with Jackie Gleason. As a result he went crazy, was shipped off to a looney bin (at a young age no less), and developed a hatred for obese people. So much so he goes on a murder spree when Lois temporarily releases him ('course Peter's idiocy is also to blame).
      Jackie Gleason: Pow! Right in the kisser!
    • A variant is the one where Peter & Lois decide to have sex in his office.
      Peter: Opie's right there.
      Lois: I want him to look, Peter. (Opie runs away in terror)
      • Opie is severely mentally handicapped, which makes this all the more traumatizing.
    • Considering that a later episode shows Peter and Lois engaging in BDSM and another shows Stewie's "sexy parties," it may well have been something legitimately traumatizing.
  • King of the Hill had Hank walking in on his elderly mother and her new boyfriend having sex on his dinner table. He goes temporarily blind as a result.
  • The Simpsons had a Flash Back to Bart's first words. He's walking down the hall and sees Homer and Marge fooling around, to which he says "ˇAY CARAMBA!"note  For obvious reasons, Marge thought it better not to bring it up.
    • In another episode, Bart walks in on his parents again, worried about having seen a UFO - he doesn't figure out what they were doing, but both Homer and Marge scream "Don't turn on the light!" in panic as they cover themselves with the pillows.
    • Also happens in "The Haw-Hawed Couple," when Bart and Lisa walked in on Homer and Marge 'Snuggling', despite the boombox playing the fake argument tape Homer and Marge made, leaving Bart traumatized.
      • Until he gets some perspective from Milhouse: "Trust me, Bart, it's better to walk in on both your parents instead of just one of them."
  • There were quite a few times when Cartman of South Park is exposed to his mother's oft-mentioned promiscuity, though usually through seemingly blank video tapes.
    • The most memorable example came from The Movie, when the boys are on the internet and stumble on a German porno.
    Kyle: Dude, it's a lady getting pooed on!
    Stan: Whoa, is it Cartman's mom?
    Cartman: Oh, very funny!
    • The plot of the "Insecurity" episode (season 16) begins when Ike sees his parent having sex (Gerald being dressed like an UPS delivery man), and then thinks that his mother is having an affair with an actual delivery man.
    • Which is only the second time that happened.
  • Biff and Chip Oblong walk in on their parents having sex and scream in horror. Then, much later in the episode their mother mentions that she hopes the boys aren't too traumatized. Cut to Biff and Chip, still in the shower literally scrubbing their eyes with soap screaming that they can still see them.
    • And on the flipside is Milo, whose room is right next to his parents', who can't sleep at all without the sound of his parents lovemaking to act as white noise.


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alternative title(s): Oh Kitty; Kids Walk In At The Worst Time
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