Space Isolation Horror

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"In space, no one can hear you scream."
Tagline for Alien

There are a number of challenges associated with surviving in outer space: the current human need for oxygen, water, food, waste management, heating, as well as space's lack of gravity, being unable to hear what is going on outside, and other issues all make space life a difficult proposition. Any Casual Interstellar Travel drive requires an hour to "warm up" and is the most fragile thing on the ship. A single pebble travelling sufficiently quickly could kill you, or at least destroy one of those important life-support systems; these systems are either very-high-maintenance or require the use of an AI to keep everything under control. If you were to send a Distress Call, the nearest help would be a week away. And the interior of your spacecraft is designed to look as cold, clunky, mechanical, and minimalistic as possible — it might as well be a flashy Haunted House.

And that's when things are working correctly.

Now throw in a malevolent or malfunctioning AI that controls all of the above, or hostile aliens that you have never seen before trying to use you for breeding. But you can't go outside without taking on even more risks, such as getting a puncture in your space suit or the doors locking. Everyone but you has died, and realistically your problems cannot be solved by simply shooting them.

There aren't any other sentient beings within years of your location, but it doesn't matter since In Space Nobody Can Hear You Scream. Perhaps you can start an Apocalyptic Log so that when people do arrive, they know what you've been through and how to prevent the situation from happening again — it also allows you to talk to, and fill your days with, something, which might help prevent you from going mad from the isolation. Still, you will likely consider your slow, lonely death by maybe starvation, maybe suffocation, but probably not suicide as you don't even have the implements to end it all.

You're alone, in the cold depths of space, without hope of even seeing another human or your home before you die. You may not know if you die, because space already looks like oblivion.

For story purposes (especially in the past when hard sci-fi wasn't prevalent based on lack of knowledge) the deep sea works just as well, since it has similar conditions for survival and similarly-severe risks for going outside. In some ways it is worse, given how humanity that could help are no more than a few miles away, but usually cannot be contacted.

Sub-Trope of Sci-Fi Horror.

Functions by means of Enclosed Space and the Closed Circle. If the isolated people are instead focussing on their insignificance or the deep vastness of an unknowable universe, it's a Cosmic Horror Story — the two can overlap.


Examples:

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    Film — Live-Action 
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: Thousands of miles away from any help, two men and several frozen passengers and an artificial intelligence that is nowadays one of the Trope Codifiers for A.I. Is a Crapshoot.
  • Alien: The whole franchise is about people stuck in a Closed Circle courtesy of being far away in space with little to no chance of people coming to the rescue at all (and if they do, it will take them weeks to months to get to you) with the titular hostile species lurking on the dark and dreary corners of the ship or the planet trying to get you.
  • Event Horizon: A rescue mission in deep space that runs into a ship that is not only vile in terms of following No OSHA Compliance, but also because it's become a literal demon from Hell as a result of coming back from a dimension that should not be.
  • Moon: The protagonist is stuck on the dark side of the Moon all by himself, with very little communication with the world and the claustrophobia starting to drive him loopy... this is before finding out just how horrifying the Corrupt Corporate Executive cabal he works for truly is (without going into spoilers, suffice to say he's more expendable that he expected to be).
  • Dr. 'Bones' McCoy has a healthy fear of this, as he mentions in the beginning of the 2009 Star Trek (2009) movie. He goes on a lengthy diatribe of how dangerous it is to fly around in spaceships like shuttles and what may happen if they malfunction, how alien diseases are horrifying and how space in general is a collection of Death World s with an equally dangerous nothing in between them.
  • Pandorum: A crewman awaking from suspended animation to find the ship he's on in dire straits, and trying to puzzle out exactly what the hell happened. Bonus points for occurring on a spaceship that landed in the ocean and sank, making it an example of both types.
  • Deep Blue Sea: A character mentions early in the film that "living underwater is like living in space, you don't get many mistakes." The bulk of the film involves genetically-engineered super-intelligent sharks systematically flooding the mostly-submerged research lab with the intent to damage the fences enough to escape, while chowing down on any of the humans they come across.

    Literature 
  • The Michael Moorcock sci-fi novel about escaping from a lunatic dying Earth, The Black Corridor, uses this trope repeatedly, in the isolation felt by a crew-member on the escape ship who is doing his twenty-five year solo stint at flying the ship, attending to emergencies, and seeing nobody dies in suspended animation. This gives him time to brood and go quietly insane.
  • Tom Godwin:
    • The short story "The Cold Equations" and its various adaptations could count as this: they are about a pilot of a small spacecraft with limited capabilities facing a difficult decision to space a human stowaway whose presence endangers his mission. The different adaptations feature somewhat different endings.
    • In "The Nothing Equation", a scientist named Green is left alone in a one-man observation bubble that has had catastrophic effects on his predecessors. Over time, he becomes paranoid as the realization weighs on him that it's just him in a relatively thin-skinned pod miles from anywhere with the "nothing" of space all around.
  • This happens briefly to Gully Foyle at the beginning of The Stars My Destination. The trauma of the experience is so pivotal to his character development and his main motivation for the rest of the book.
  • An entire chapter of How to Survive a Horror Movie is devoted to teaching the reader how to survive the more common tropes of the genre if trapped in one.
    "This isn't science fiction. Strange new worlds aren't inhabited by talking monkeys or technologically gifted, sexy utopian women. They're cold, dark rocks harboring terrible secrets— secrets that gobble your crew up one by one."

    Live-Action Television 
  • Played straight in the Firefly episode "Out of Gas". The titular gas is oxygen, and running low (with a ship that is dead in the water) means sitting around waiting for a slow and painful death or, in a degree of scary that is hard to argue whether is lesser or higher, risking whoever finds you decides murdering you is more profitable (or more fun) than saving your life.
  • Star Trek: Voyager had a couple of episodes where Seven of Nine and/or the Doctor were the only crew members immune to the Stellar Anomaly of the Week and thus had to command the ship by themselves for long periods of time when the rest of the crew hibernated in stasis pods or were under the mental control of aliens.
  • Subverted in Red Dwarf, where Lister's main reaction at looking out of the cabin porthole into the awesome and terrifying infinity of Deep Space is how bloody arse-achingly dull and boring it all gets after a while....
  • The Expanse uses this on the very first scene of the series, with Julie Mao waking up in a ship that is marooned in space, with failing power, communications that may or may not be working right, and eerily empty. And then it turns out that the reason why it's empty and losing power is because the protomolecule has eaten the whole crew and is syphoning juice from the reactor.
  • Black Mirror: The ultimate fate of Robert Daly in "USS Callister" - his mind is trapped in the game, unable to exit with all the controls disabled, in an inert spaceship cockpit floating through the infinite darkness of the deleted game, with nothing to do but rant and flail impotently at the controls. Given an offhand comment implying that time doesn't flow the same way in-game as it does in the real world, Daly might be stuck like that forever. Honestly, serves him right for how he treated those sentient game characters.

    Music 
  • The repeated line about Space is dark/And it's so endless/When you're lost it's so relentless from one of Michael Moorcock's books was later set to music by space-rockers Hawkwind, who also mined Moorcock's book for another bleak song on the same theme, "The Golden Void" (Golden Void/Speaks to me/Denying my reality/Lose my body, lose my mind/Solar wind, I flow like wine...)
  • Brave Saint Saturn's Saturn 5 Trilogy is about a spaceship that gets stuck in a geosynchronous orbit with the dark side of Saturn's moon Titan, leaving the crew trapped in the darkness of the planet's shadow for three years. Many of the lyrics are about the loneliness of space, especially Space Robot Five.
  • Spruke's "Music to Die Alone in Space to" is an electronic album designed to make the listener feel like they are an astronaut dying alone in space, complete with snippets of personalised voice overs and "Earth songs" through static set to slow, minor-key electronic and synth music. Tracks include "Adrift", "Void" and "Asphyxiation".

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Starfinder, getting abandoned in space with no hope of rescue can cause your body to reanimate as a Marooned One, an undead bent of causing as much anguish as possible by getting other space travelers marooned like they were.

    Video Games 
  • Deliberately, the entire Metroid franchise is an example of this trope. The developers of the first game stated that it was their intention to make the player feel trapped and alone in a very hostile and alien world. The visuals and audio work to built the atmosphere of isolation.
  • Axiom Verge is an other-dimensional version, with many of the H.R. Giger-esque art styles, haunting music, and a deliberate homage to lots of Metroid's style and gameplay.
  • The third Don't Escape game takes place on a spaceship whose crew have all been horribly murdered save the protagonist, who starts the game about to be jettisoned out the airlock. Since he murdered them while possessed by a sentient crystal, it was trying to kill him before he could solve the mystery and warn the incoming rescue ship. Unlike most examples, the ship actually seems quite pleasant to live in.
  • The Breach: The game apparently takes inspiration from every space horror franchise from Event Horizon to Space Hulk, so naturally it takes place on a derelict space ship whose crew are either dead, zombified, or fused with insectoid lifeforms. And as the game progresses the ship starts merging with the alternate dimension responsible for everything.
  • Subnautica leaves you stranded on an ocean planet full of large, terrifying sea monsters who want to eat you.

     Web Original 
  • The Creepypasta Lost Cosmonaut is about a woman who goes into space before Yuri Gagarin. She finds a "muttnik" capsule with half of a childs body orbiting it. When she threatens to tell, Mission Control blasts her into a higher orbit to starve or suffocate.
    • In From the Cold has the protagonist alone in a moon base after the other astronaut died in an airlock malfunction. The dead astronaut tries to get back in...
    • One has an experimental FTL engine fail, and the crew goes insane, eventually dying until the automatic return kicks in.
    • In Thaw, sometime in the distant future, a man wakes up from his cryonic suspension onboard a spaceship, only to find himself only partially dethawed and trapped in his capsule, which seems to have failed. Then, he notices that the ship is on emergency lighting, and even that seems to be failing. THEN he notices that the other capsules in the room have also failed and either contains decayed corpses or blood splatters like someone bashed their heads open from the inside. Realizing that some sort of disaster has befallen the ship, he suddenly notices that they are still in orbit around Earth, having never left... except this Earth has a giant glacier of a new ice age covering most of the northern hemisphere, and no signs of human cities anywhere...
    • In I Was an Astronaut and I Experienced Something Terrifying, the narrator has someone knock on the door of his capsule. He and his copilot are the only living things within several million miles...
    • In some versions, "It" masquerades as his copilot, who begs him not to open the airlock.
    • In The Lonely Stars, the protagonist and his space station is thrown back 1500 years in time by a Negative Space Wedgie. The story ends just as he begins to succumb to Space Madness.

    Western Animation 
  • Implied in Disney's Lilo & Stitch as the fate of Experiment 626: he's to be taken by prison transport to a barren asteroid, and abandoned there. Perhaps, the authorities forbid capital punishment, or the condemned is too indestructible to be executed. It's still marooning on a cold, lonely rock in the void of space.

    Real Life 
  • The astronauts on the Apollo 13 discovered midway to the moon that a malfunction had occurred, requiring them to return to Earth immediately, through a terrifyingly narrow re-entry window. If the re-entry attempt had gone wrong, the astronauts would have been either burned alive or stranded in space.

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