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Surreal Horror
...the hell?

As much as they might scare some people, at least monsters, serial killers, and Primal Fears are scary in a comprehensible way.

This is where Surreal Horror comes in. It's not just nightmare-inducing, it's nightmarish in a literal way, by being surreal, disjointed, dreamlike, and filled with bizarre imagery, usually saying goodbye to all logic and sanity in the process. In some cases, though, it might not always work.

This is likely the main reason clowns are scary.

It might be worth noting that not all Surreal Horror works are considered "horror" in the genre sense, but they're horrifying all the same.

Often overlaps with Through the Eyes of Madness, Silence Is Golden, Mind Screw, Freud Was Right, Deranged Animation, Uncanny Valley, Body Horror, Eldritch Abomination, Eldritch Location, Evil Is Visceral, Our Monsters Are Weird.

See also Surreal Humor, Nothing Is Scarier, and Word Salad Horror.


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     Anime and Manga 

     Classic Art  

  • The Sandman: The Corinthian has shades of this, where this trope meets the more reasonable horror trope of the Serial Killer. Guy who strips teenage boys to their underwear, ties them up, then cuts out their eyes to eat them? Freaky but not too out of place in a realistic setting. Immortal literal nightmare who's been doing this for about forty years running for his own amusement? Freakier. (And, of course, he has More Teeth than the Osmond Family in his eye sockets in lieu of eyes. Yet he can still see. And he can eat things with them, like people's fingers if they try to take his shades. And if he eats someone's eyes that way he can see things they've seen.)
  • The Grave-Robber's Daughter., and many of Richard Sala's other works.
  • Every conversation about Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron will bring up David Lynch.
  • Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. Throw Goth, Surreal Humor, Black Comedy and Surreal Horror in a blender and you get this. ...And Jhonen Vasquez's brain.
  • Much of Grant Morrison's run on Doom Patrol. Notably, the Scissormen, his first story-arc. Weird, red-suited slenderman-lookalikes, oh but they have scissors for hands, and speak in nonsense phrases, and "cut" people out of reality and into a city in another dimension. Grant Morrison does some weird stuff, long story short.
  • Shade, the Changing Man's first villain was the American Scream, and the blend of Surreal Horror with Primal Fear and Adult Fear recurred throughout the series.

     Fan Works 

  • In the film Being John Malkovich, being the original John Malkovich and not knowing when a hole in an office building could allow you to be controlled by someone else; then there's the time he tries to go through it himself.
  • Come and See. Several sequences in the movie are implausible and downright surreal, and intentionally so.
  • Mamoru Oshii dips into it on occasion with his live-action films. In particular, Talking Head is about as close to a David Lynch film as you can get without the man himself directing.
  • Apocalypse Now has an increasingly surreal and downright disturbing atmosphere throughout its duration.

  • H.P. Lovecraft: A horse with a hundred horse legs, 50 human heads, 200 human legs, and the whole thing is purple. H. P. Lovecraft one ups that by 100 levels.
  • House of Leaves: A book that is a labyrinth. To sum it up, each person who is screwed over by the book finds a book with the story of him finding the book and his story being written in the book and said person dying or disappearing, MAYBE.
  • This is the reason some people find Alice in Wonderland to be nightmarish rather than amusing.
  • Tim Waggoner does this a lot. Picking Up Courtney is a good short-form example.
  • Again Alfred Kubin with his The Other Side.
  • Thomas Ligotti, who has drawn on a lifetime of intricate and disturbing nightmares for much of his writing.
  • Stephen King's From a Buick 8 has as the theme that there are some things you just can't understand and sometimes you'll never have answers. Also, the things that come out of the Buick's trunk make you feel like you're being raped. They're not even malicious, but their bizarre nature horrifies everyone who sees them.
  • The Third Policeman is a nightmarishly surreal novel by Irish author Flann O'Brien (think James Stephens meets House of Leaves while being dictated to by Salvador Dali) and after reading you'll probably never look at a bicycle in the same way again.
  • Lots of Neil Gaiman's works use this.
  • John Dies at the End.
  • The Circe section in Ulysses is full of this.
  • In a world where most of the characters see nothing wrong with breeding babies as pets or using them as sex toys, The Baby Jesus Butt Plug definitely qualifies.

     Live-Action TV  
  • Various scenes from Twin Peaks (again by David Lynch), including the dream at the end of episode 2, the Black Lodge scenes in the finale, and every scene with Killer BOB.
  • The Danish TV series The Kingdom (Riget), which is set in a hospital and involves such things as the birth of a fully-grown man with way too long legs, and a doctor having the cancerous liver of another man transplanted into his own body For Science! and as a trophy.
  • The British series Sapphire And Steel, while nominally SF, is also deeply unsettling in the fashion of a good ghost story—little or nothing is explained in any detail, which tends to enhance the dream-logic feel of the show.
  • The Prisoner: Did he escape? Who captured him? What the hell is going on? Who is #1? Why do they care? Who are these people? WHY DOES THAT DOOR OPEN THE SAME WAY AS ONES ON THE ISLAND?!
  • Garth Marenghi's Darkplace has some comically absurd horrors, like Skipper the Eyechild.
  • American Horror Story
  • Doctor Who has dipped into this with some storylines:
    • "The Web Planet", which focuses on several races of Insectoid Aliens and uses lots of dreamlike imagery in the visuals, sound and deliberately nonsensical dialogue ("We must make mouths in the walls and then they will speak more light"). Not to mention the sheer dream-logic which the aliens run off - beeping ants with larvae that fire bolts of shrieking light controlled by a strange tentacled creature that speaks through web tunnels, makes the TARDIS console go spinning out of the TARDIS and away, and can control anyone wearing gold; giant bees with strange inhuman voices that can fly through space to the moon... The rather unrealistic costumes also enhance the weird atmosphere, perhaps unintentionally.
    • "The Mind Robber", which takes place in a kind of dream dimension, starts in a blank white void, and has things like Jamie's face getting turned into a 'puzzle' that the Doctor has to solve, but he does it wrong and ends up changing Jamie's appearance.
    • "The Deadly Assassin" involves the Doctor being sent into a computer nightmare based on common bad dreams strung together with no narrative coherence in a dreamlike manner - a surgeon with a giant syringe about to inject him full of blood while he's paralysed, a soldier leading a horse wearing a gas mask, and sudden falling being just three things.


     Newspaper Comics  
  • The week-long Garfield Story Arc where he wakes up one morning and finds his home inexplicably empty and decrepit, as though no one has lived there for years, and images of the people he knows fade away into nothingness as he approaches them. Yeah, Jim Davis was really going for Something Completely Different in those strips.
  • Liō often resembles a Victorian morality fable, but more random. Go fishing? The fish are fighting back, and ready to eat you! Ignore the warning not to go sledding on a particular hill? There's a monster hiding under the snow at the bottom! Naturally, the emphasis here tends to be on the brutal death awaiting those who make the wrong choice.

     Tabletop Roleplaying Games  
  • Try leafing through the descriptions of Chaos mutations sometime. And good luck catching a peaceful night's rest if you do. Oh, and Chaos imagery and architecture also counts. Explicitly described is the alphabet of Chaos a "sanity blasting sigils".
  • Normality embodies this trope, as it lacks a dice mechanic and largely consists of furious ranting at a world gone wrong.
  • In Deadlands, players may have to run through a session or two of this if they die and come back harrowed or travel through the Hunting Grounds.
  • Changeling: The Lost has Arcadia, domains of The Others. The other Dark Worlds in the New World of Darkness pale compared to it, simply due to its sheer variety and absurdity.
  • Exalted: The entirety of the Wyld. Mortals entering it will be unmade, but the Exalts might have a slight chance of surviving with both their mind and body intact.
  • In JAGS Wonderland, Chessboard One has elements of this. The Chessboards below it are this.
  • The Hastur Mythos in Delta Green are made of this.

    Video Games 
  • Rule of Rose
  • The Silent Hill series sometimes drifts into this,
    • Pyramid Head's appearance in Silent Hill 2 is also a visual example of Surreal Horror, with his massive, rusted polygonal head that could never be supported by the rest of his body.
    • The nightmare hospital from Silent Hill 3 and its infamous mirror room that shows various mismatched reflections.
    • Silent Hill 4 has an infamous hospital room.
    • Silent Hills' playable teaser has you looping through a slowly degrading suburban home over and over again, finding Eraserhead-esque babies in a decrepit bathroom and talking to a mutated paper bag, among other strange things.
  • American McGee's Alice
  • Yume Nikki. Sure, it's a dream, and dreams are weird, but how many people have whole worlds in their head full of bloody eyeballs?
  • In Eternal Darkness the Surreal Horror angle runs rampant, especially once your sanity meter runs low. The whole thing is just one big screwed up wide awake nightmare.
  • Mondo Medicals and its sequel, Mondo Agency, could be seen as more benign (or not) examples of this trope.
  • While much of Earthbound is surreal and trippy, its endgame heads straight into this trope. Mother 3's famous removed unused enemy backgrounds even more so.
  • The Path
  • Covetous is a game in which you are a fetus trapped inside your normal twin brother, living parasitically and eating him from the inside and eventually getting big enough to burst out of him.
  • Baroque
  • The Orz from Star Control 2 are your friendly neighborhood aliens, who look a bit like large parrotfish, and, due to their language being too alien for the Translator Microbes to manage, they also speak in Engrish. And remember: never, EVER ask them what happened to the Androsynth.
  • When it isn't a tactical shooter, F.E.A.R. goes for this. One of the highlights of the first game was an extended sequence where you couldn't be sure if the man taunting you was a hallucination or in the room with you, and doors you were trying to flee through seemed to move away from you. It ended with a dive into a pool of blood that left you standing beneath a gore-soaked ceiling. In the first expansion to F.E.A.R, there was a very memorable sequence where the player tries to open a door at the end of a hallway. Finding it locked, you turn around to see that the hallway you had just came down had transformed into the entrance way to an asylum.
    • Entering one room and finding it empty, save for an operating chair and a door on the end. Go through that, and find TWO operating chairs. Repeat until blood starts appearing and the increasingly large volume of chairs start getting attached to the walls and the ceiling, as the walls start to progressively cave in. Hmm.
  • Survival Crisis Z looks like a standard Zombie Apocalypse at first, but the observant player will notice something... odd about these undead. (For instance, they giggle as they attack.) The farther you get, the crazier it gets.
  • The Penumbra series. Starts off as a fairly normal horror scenario of the PC going into a abandoned mine full of savage wildlife to find his father, then you end up in the Elaborate Underground Base of a ancient conspiracy, dodging sentient virus infected zombies, and in the final game you're solving puzzles in a weird mash of all the locations in the first two games, while the PA system begs you not to finish the game so that she won't be alone, and dead supporting characters rant inanely at you.
  • Killer7, a technicolor acid nightmare of a video game.
  • Drakengard sneaks up on the player, beginning as a dark Medieval European Fantasy that just happens to have weird references to "the Watchers" sprinkled in. The standard ending mostly avoids the trope, but each unlockable alternate ending gets successively more unhinged, till by the fourth there are giant demonic babies falling from the sky.
  • Catherine. Never have the consequences of infidelity looked quite so nightmarish.
  • The game Eversion is a very happy example of this. Enjoy your blood.
  • All Of Our Friends Are Dead is a particularly hellish example of this.
  • Shadows Of The Damned drifts toward this frequently, with content that's as disturbing as it is nonsensical. Somewhere between goats being a source of light and finding out strawberries are made of ground-up tongues, you either learn to just roll with it, or give up.
  • Sentinel Returns has been described as "the most terrifying E-rated game ever made". It is set in a surreal, dark, chequered landscape where you play as a robot with the mission to absorb monstrous creatures of flesh and metal called Sentinels before they absorb you, by teleporting to gradually higher altitudes. The landscapes feature trees that look like spermatozoa and breathing boulders with a sphincter on the top. This is the introduction. And the soundtrack has been composed by John Carpenter. By the way, if you're expecting explanation for anything about the game to come from anywhere, you're going to be disappointed.
  • Sanitarium
  • I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
  • The Binding of Isaac, a deranged tale of a little boy, whose brutally abusive mother intends to sacrifice him to God. Filled with Body Horror, Big Creepy-Crawlies, disturbingly Freudian imagery, and Toilet Humor.
  • Maxis's User Created Content game SPORE has a subculture among the creators known as UBD, which lives for Surreal and Body Horror, making bizarre, twisted versions of just about any animal, plant, body part, or object you can imagine, as well as a few you thankfully can't imagine. The morbid Puns they use for names don't help. Neither does the fact that all of SPORE's hardcoded character animations are goofily exaggerated.
  • LSD: Dream Emulator is a cult Playstation game in which you explore colorful and quirky dreams, with a lot of randomly generated content. The more dreams you play through, the stranger and more deranged things get.
  • The Half-Life mod Cry of Fear features this to some extent throughout but a few "nightmare sequences" use this to even greater effect, the start of one is signified by Alien Geometries and/or hallways and rooms coated in blood.
    • In the subway behind the brick wall is an excellent example, after some hallways using Alien Geometry you drop down into a maze covered in blood and full of impossibly tall people bound up in bags with twitching heads that look like they've had their grey-matter squeezed out. All of them are hanging from the ceiling like cattle in a butcher factory and constantly moving around. Touching one results in instant death and the soundtrack does not make things any more pleasant.
  • Ao Oni is a distinctly Japanese example of this.
  • UIN is the story of a boy, lost in a cupboard filled with Eldritch Abominations.
  • the white chamber is filled with surreal horror and sudden shifts to a Dark World.
  • The Chzo Mythos is particularly noted for its heavy surreal horror.
  • Lone Survivor is this and Survival Horror. The monsters are fleshy, twitchy things, walls are covered in gore, half the dialogue makes no sense, and mirrors teleport you to your apartment.
  • Limbo is set in a grainy, monochrome world mixed with forested and industrial terrain. There are dead bodies in the early part of the game and almost everyone and everything are there to kill you. And when they do, the deaths are quite gruesome. There is one part where you have to use the husk of a giant spider as a makeshift bridge across a pit of spikes. And that is not the end of it.
  • Among most Zelda games, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask uses this trope to the largest extent, which inspired the creation of Ben Drowned. Other games show surreal moments at specific times, such as the Fused Shadow backstory in Twilight Princess.
  • Spec Ops: The Line starts veering into this territory as the main character's grip on reality becomes more fragile. It doesn't help that the setting, Dubai in ruins and constantly wracked by sandstorms, makes for a vicious, victory-less battle on ever-shifting ground amidst collapsing infrastructure with basic supplies dwindling...set among some of the most beautiful and opulent displays of wealth on Earth, all rendered worthless in the struggle. Say, a shoot-out in a glitzy night-club between dusty, screaming soldiers, bullets ripping into the artwork on the walls and cover provided by life-size jewel-studded giraffes, while a floor-installed aquarium of live fish flits beneath their feet and burning hot sand spills in through the windows. Hallucination? Nope. It's just what warfare in Dubai would look like.
  • Ib has some pretty decent mind screws. Like stairs that meow, walls that give applause, hallways that never end unless you walk through it a certain way, paintings that come alive, roses that determine your value of life, marble statues that can walk, and crayon drawn books whose pictures move and depict preschooler murder. Fun times...
  • The normally comic MMORPG Kingdom of Loathing descends into this in its more serious zones, such as fighting an Eldritch Abomination resembling Mr. Peanut in the Caliginous Abyss, or having the embodiment of the Crackpot Mystic's fears, doubts, regrets, and anger be old-school video game characters.
  • OFF eventually turns into one during Zone 3. Even earlier than that if you return to one of the purified Zones and discover that the Batter's mission isn't as good as you thought it was.
  • Amnesia: The Dark Descent the game starts off where the player character has little memory of who he is, and travels deep in a dark dungeon while dodging misshapen monsters. The player not only has to watch out for his health, but also his sanity.
  • Harvester has absolutely copious amounts of blood and guts, but a lot of the creepy factor comes from just how utterly wrong the entire town is. Then in the end-game, you break into the headquarters of the Lodge of the Harvest Moon, and things get really weird.
  • The Last Door is chock full of this. Everything feels a little unhinged from reality and each person seems to be at least a little insane. The closer Jeremiah gets to solving the mystery of what's going on, the more warped and bizarre everything gets.
  • Five Nights at Freddy's has you play as the night-watchman at Freddy Fazbear's, who discovers that the restaurant's robot mascots are not just creepy, but downright dangerous. And as if keeping an eye on homicidal animatronics wasn't crazy enough, in later stages your character starts hallucinating.

    Web Comics 
  • June uses this and creepy art to its advantage. Talking Communist dogs, Stan's repeating deaths, the obsession with faces (or lack of), no inner fourth wall with a TV that can control space...
  • Unsounded has one where Sette falls through a shadow and into the Khert, or fabric of reality itself, which is created from the memories of the dead. It's as bizarre as it sounds.

     Web Original  

     Western Animation  

     Real Life 
  • Nightmares.
  • Hallucinogenic drugs. Ones that are poorly prepared or spiked can cause horrifying hallucinations. Notable examples include:
    • K-2 is synthetic marijuana that has been banned from Michigan. The drug seems to slow time like regular marijuana, but it gives an extreme high that lasts a short period. It can react poorly in some people and cause them to be confused and dangerous to themselves and the people around them. People who take it can still move freely (if they don't faint) and can become easily frightened by the strange sensations they are experiencing. Non-violent people will suddenly assault seven people in half an hour. The experience messes with time perception and memory so badly, it can feel like a person has been trapped in some kind of prison for years.
    • There's also Salvia divinorum, which takes the horror to even more horrifying degrees than K-2.
  • Step one: cut a ping pong ball in half. Step two: tape the halves over your eyes. Step three: turn on white noise and listen to it through headphones. Step four: have a red light flashing above your head. Step five: hallucinate.

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alternative title(s): Dada Horror
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