The lights are on, but there's nobody home. He's not staring right at you... he's staring right through you. note This famous painting by Tom Lea, originally titled the 2,000 Yard Stare, is set at the Battle of Peleliu - one of the bloodiest of the US's battles in the Asia-Pacific Theatre .
This is the part where Cameron's soul snaps like a Twix bar.
A character who has just gone through some sort of trauma, learned something they probably didn't need to know, or seen something they really shouldn't have had to, will often have an unfocused, vacant stare into a vast abyss of nothingness, slipping into a shock and weariness from which it is very hard to escape.
Note that this trope describes the stare/facial expression itself, and not what causes it or anything related.
The term "thousand-yard-stare" is believed to have originated in World War I, and was coined for the faces of battle-weary soldiers. Named for the perception that such stares really do seem to be able to see very far ahead. Eyes cross a little when focusing on something reasonably close, but eyes not looking at anything will behave like eyes looking at something very far away. Dull Eyes of Unhappiness can look similar to this, but they're chronic while this trope tends to be transitory.
See also Heroic BSOD, for what usually goes hand-in-hand with this. Not related to the "Thousand Yard Stare of Impending Flashbacks", an affliction near universally shared by the characters of LOST.
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Anime and Manga
In general, most manga and anime will achieve this look by removing the "shine" from a character's eyes. Light is not reflected, but absorbed.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, Mustang and Hughes discuss it during the Ishvalan war. Hawkeye approaches, and Mustang laments that Hawkeye has the stare too.
In Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid this happens when Sousuke believes he's failed in protecting Kaname. This happens again after Gauron tells Sousuke that Kaname was killed by Yu-Lan and Sousuke snaps.
In the Marineford arc of One Piece after Ace gets killed.... oh God, the look on Luffy's face, of all people.
Zoro's expression after taking all of Luffy's pain in Thriller Park. It even got to the point of almost being a case of Died Standing Up until Zoro speaks up and says "Nothing happened."
Vash the Stampede of Trigun is prone to this expression when pushed far enough. Even leaving aside his Heroic BSOD after Legato's death, he will do this while smiling sometimes.
Nothing emphasizes his isolation from humanity better or more tragically than a sad-Vash thousand-yard-smile, especially if he's doing something like hugging Miss Elizabeth while she breaks down over his not being evil, after trying to blow up the town to kill him.
Rurouni Kenshin starts doing this when his angst level picks up late in the manga, though his first uses are after taking absurdly heavy damage in the Shishio arc. Maxes out during his especially persistent Heroic BSOD and 10-Minute Retirement to the slum of despair. Scares everyone in its first major appearance right after Enishi formally declares his Jinchuu.
A less pitiful-looking version was also employed back when he was Hitokiri Battousai, aka Teenage Kenshin, and attempting to put off his moral crisis and shellshock for as long as possible so as to fulfill his duty.
Chibodee Crockett of G Gundam has one while wandering around in a (somewhat violent) daze resulting from his clown phobia.
Kira Yamato of Gundam SEED and Gundam SEED Destiny looks like this following the conclusion of the Bloody Valentine War. He spends most of his time sitting on his porch, staring off into space, and flashing back.
This serves as another deconstruction for Casca's post-Eclipse behavior in Berserk. After going through a very heinous ordeal of being raped by her former captain-turned-demon lord Griffith right in front of her lover Guts, Casca shows very realistic signs of rape trauma syndrome, one of them being that she often vacantly zones off and stares at nothing. Prominently shown on the hilltop scene when she miscarries her baby.
Guts showed very similar signs the morning after his own traumatic rape at Donovan's hands back when he was a little boy.
In A Cruel God Reigns Jeremy displays this very often, every morning after his stepfather sexually or physically abuses him. As the series progresses, his gaze becomes like this most of the time, especially when he is close to one of his several instances of Heroic BSOD.
Discussed in Attack on Titan, during the initiation of new recruits. One officer notices the Drill Sergeant Nasty completely ignores some of the recruits during his hazing process, and wonders over this. His companion points out the ones being ignored have already been broken down, with their blank stares revealing them to be survivors of previous Titan attacks, and to tear them down any more would be pointlessly cruel.
Eren makes this face at the beginning when Hannes asks him about his father's whereabouts.
After Levi returns from the mission that the Female Titan had sabotaged, he is greeted by Petra's father, wanting to discuss his beloved child's future, not knowing Petra had died. Levi's face is completely frozen, not speaking or even blinking, during the whole time the father was talking.
Both Eren and Mikasa experience this in Chapter 49 when they see the Titan that killed their mother five years ago slowly approaching them. Cue Roaring Rampage of Revenge...
Depictions of Batman's origin often show young Bruce with this look as he stares at the bodies of his parents in the ally after they're shot.
NYX: The very first appearance of X-23 in the comics is of her staring blankly at the blinking "Vacancy" sign of the seedy, rundown motel where she has just finished a session with a John. She spends the rest of the issue in virtually mute catatonia, and is visibly traumatized for much of the series.
In the Free! fic seen everything there is to be shown, Seijuurou walks in on Rin and Haru having sex in the pool office and runs out "sporting a thousand-yard-stare more commonly seen in war veterans than in swim team captains."
Films — Animated
In Rango, one of the supporting characters goes into this as a "defense mechanism" to keep her from recognizing her abandonment issues with her dead father.
In the final segment of The Iron Giant, a soldier is seen with this expression holding a walkie talkie, staring at the scene before him in shock. Even after the general drives by and grabs the communicator from him, the man remains standing with the same vacant expression after they drive away.
In Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Victoria does this during and after her wedding to Lord Barkis.
Payback: The thousand-yard stare. A marine gets it after he's been in the shit for too long. It's like... it's like you've really seen beyond. I got it. All field marines got it.
Joker himself gets to do the stare after shooting a sniper as a Mercy Kill.
Commonly, the expression on some of the characters in Saving Private Ryan (indeed, the beginning graveyard scene ends with this).
Enforced Method Acting: The entire cast was run rugged, interminable military exercises - except Matt Damon (who plays Pvt. Ryan). It even made the cast resent Damon, which was entirely the point.
WWII veteran and b-movie star Audie Murphy, who saw many of his comrades in arms killed and is credited with personally killing, wounding or capturing more than two hundred Axis soldiers, had a particularly bleak and distant stare, which director John Huston put to good use in The Red Badge of Courage. Murphy developed a warmer and somewhat more animated screen persona around 1953, perhaps due to the birth of his beloved son Terry, but he never really lost the Thousand-Yard Stare.
If there is a fetish for thousand-yard stares, the film version of The Road is your fuel.
Boogie Nights: During the scene at Rahad Jackson's house, a drug-addled Dirk stares into space for what seems like an eternity.
Invoked in Rambo, the fourth film in the series, when an Australian mercenary informs Rambo that he's seen the thousand-yard stare before. He's not impressed, but his opinion changes after the shit hits the fan.
In Animal Kingdom, Darren, the youngest Cody brother, develops one after getting raped in jail.
In District 9, Wikus has one of these in the back of a MNU van after he has crashed Christopher's command module and has been apprehended by Koobus.
In Battle Royale, Yuko has one just before she tries to poison Shuya and ends up killing all of her friends.
Marius from Les Miserables sports one of these after the events in the barricades. It takes a love song from Cosette to pull him out of it.
He sports another at the end of the film due to (Word of God confirming this) him hearing his dead comrades from the barricades singing to Valjean from Heaven.
Angela in the original Sleepaway Camp has one of these. It's one of the most memorable aspects of the film.
In Apocalypse Now, Willard sports one right at the end, after he completes his mission.
In Platoon, Chris after he kills Barnes. And just as dramatically, when Chris first arrives in Vietnam, one of the soldiers boarding the plane back to the States sports a doozy of one.
In Paths of Glory, General Mireau inspects his troops in the trenches before an assault. One soldier is just standing there with a vacant stare, unable to answer questions about his family. The general sends him off for "cowardice."
Plenty in The War Game due to its docudrama portrayal of a nuclear attack on Britain. Most interviewees After the End just stare listlessly into the camera when answering questions.
In Predator, Dutch delivers one in the final shot of the movie after he's picked up by the rescue helicopter, most likely reflecting on the fact that his entire squadron is dead at the hands of the Predator.
In Godzilla (2014), Dr. Ishiro Serizawa acquires one in the aftermath of the male Muto's awakening.
Actually the subject of a joke in Shaun of the Dead: Diane is giving her impromptu zombie-acting lesson, and compliments Barbara for successfully displaying one of these. Barbara: "Sorry dear. I was miles away.." It eventually turns out Barbara has been bitten by a zombie.
Edge of Tomorrow. William Cage is stuck in a "Groundhog Day" Loop, condemned to fight the same bloody battle, get killed, then be woken at the start of the day by a kick from a Drill Sergeant Nasty. After watching his female colleague die yet another horrible and pointless death he wakes up yet again, and the drill sergeant forgoes his abuse and silently hands Cage his gear in recognition of this trope. Then when Cage is being strapped into his Powered Armor, he's told off by fellow soldier Griff for not wearing a helmet. Cage says the helmet is a distraction during combat and demands extra ammunition, grenades and power packs. Griff looks like he's going to object, but one look at Cage's crazy eyes convinces him otherwise.
Some (canonical) DVD specials from Doctor Who have noted this about Rory Williams. He spent almost two thousand years guarding a box as an immortal centurion. It happened in a defunct timeline, but he still has the memories, which he must suppress for his own sanity, though as the Doctor points out "Sometimes you catch him just staring..."
He mentions that he can remember all two thousand years he stood guard, he just doesn't try to remember it.
The Doctor himself does it sometimes, but usually only when he's alone or his companions aren't looking. Eleven in particular.
Archie would stare blankly when troubled in Series One quite a lot. Being ruthlessly tormented by a shipmate followed by being presumed dead, imprisoned by the enemy, and punished painfully for escape attempts and then getting caught up in someone else's war where the chances of survival/victory are extremely low will have an impact on a person.
Horatio Hornblower gets this unfocused look when he's troubled by something or somebody and when he goes into his "questioning my abilities" mode.
Mal Reynolds has an empty shocked stare in the Firefly pilot at the end of the Battle of Serenity Valley. He gets it from not getting any backup, from losing everyone under his command except Zoe, from losing the war to the evil Alliance, from being essentially sold out by his superiors, and especially from witnessing the last rebel stronghold get firebombed and overrun into oblivion.
One of the soldiers on leave in Band of Brothers (the whole episode focused on various soldiers dealing with the sudden change from battle to civilian life) has this.
Game of Thrones. Catelyn Stark gives one of these after seeing her firstborn son murdered before her eyes.
Subverted in the first episode of Season 4. Jaime and Brienne discuss Sansa Stark as she stares listlessly out to sea. The moment they leave, she drops the vacant look and walks off, implying she's not the Broken Bird they all imagine, but is only pretending to put her captors off their guard.
Star Trek: The Original Series: In "The Doomsday Machine," Commodore Decker has this when he's found on his wrecked ship, having just watched his entire crew get killed.
A little girl on CSI Crime Scene Investigation, who came downstairs to find her relatives butchered and her mother missing, mutely prepares her own breakfast, selects a favorite book from the shelf, and goes outside to sit on a bench in the yard, staring silently into the distance. She's still staring and clutching her book hours later when D.B. questions her.
Teenaged Rosetta reacts this way in Two Women after she is gang-raped by some French Moroccan soldiers. She stares blankly for a while, and even after snapping out of her catatonia she shows this look a lot.
Referred to in the song "Assassing" (sic) by Marillion.
Shown in the music video for "Ghost of You" by My Chemical Romance, much of which is set during the landings at Normandy during World War II. The music video ends with a shot of the lead singer's stunned eyes.
Referred to more humorously in Tom Smith's "Rich Fantasy Lives"
"That waitress at Pete's who took so long to seat you and left you to stand in the doorway. With her stringy red hair and her thousand yard stare, in her mind, she's the princess of Norway."
Referred to in Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" - Now there's a look in your eyes / like black holes in the sky - describing the look Syd Barrett sometimes wore on his face during his Creator Breakdown.
Wrestlers who take powerful blows to the head are often described as having this, and it is usually an accurate description. Randy Orton, during his brief face run a few years ago, was involved in a story line where he was taking too many bumps to the head, and had this blank stare after each one.
In particular, Chris Benoit was described as having this for much of the last year of his life, outside of the ring.
Angelina Love had one on TNA Impact as a result of being drugged by Winter.
Played for laughs in one of Bill Bailey's routines, wherein he describes a conversation with someone about swimming with dolphins; apparently, the dolphins the other person had swam with were ex-military dolphins which had been used for underwater bomb training, and had "a glazed, faraway look in their eyes."
Bill Bailey:[As the dolphin] You weren't there, man; you weren't there.
Space 1889 there are a few pictures in the main book show shipwrecked people who have are going through an arduous wilderness journey. Some of these have a person looking at the reader with this stare.
Walker in Spec Ops: The Line has two, one each at a significant moment in the plot. The first is when he finds the corpses of civilians among those of the enemy soldiers he ordered to be bombarded with white phosphorous mortar. Walker delivers his lines with steely calm, but the moment at which he snaps is still chillingly clear. The second is the climax, when he realizes the man he hunted down and committed atrocity after atrocity to find is already dead; Walker has been imagining a taunting voice to create an enemy to blame for his own crimes.
Lara Croft ends up sporting one of these after her hellish experience on the island in the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider.
According to the Pokedex entry on Espurr, it probably looks like that because it has to keep a constant lockdown on its psychic powers; its brain can barely handle the strain.
Gen III Pokemon Xatu also has one. It is said to be horrified by its visions of the future.
In the NES Mega Man (Classic) games, Mega Man's normal sprite has this same, void expression most of the time, even in some close-up sprites from Mega Man 3. It would make sense in that A: He's a robot, and B: a lot of his media plays with the idea that destroying other robots isn't something he takes easily, But most cutscenes throughout the series (and even sprites in later games) show that he normally has at least an angry glare on his face, or some exaggerated anime-style expression like shock or excitement.
Taken to its logical conclusion in the fourth Super Smash Bros. title where Mega Man is a Guest Fighter; his expression is not only almost always blank, but his eyes seem to have a rather vacant stare at all times...note Notably, his eyes in Smash For are presented as LED screens where his eyes flicker on in his debut trailer, invoking this trope even more. As mentioned, in the main Mega Man franchise, particularly in printed media rather than in his games, Mega Man is as expressive as any human and his eyes seem to be the same as a human's, rather than being LED screens.
Season 2 of Telltale's The Walking Dead opens with Clementine giving one straight into the camera, thanks to all the suffering she's seen in the past two years in the zombie apocalypse.
Ariel from Drowtaleshas this expression after she's forced to choose between killing an enemy who tried to kill her and fighting her cousin to the death. She chooses to kill the enemy, and it's strongly implied this leaves her with PTSD. Even worse, she's physically the equivalent of a seven year old child when this happens and the victim is the same age.
Commentary: I have frequently seen Susan described as having a "bored" look on her face. For a long time now, I have seen it as something else.
Stains the dog, also known as the "cupcake dog", has become an internet meme due to sporting one of these when trying to resist a plate of cupcakes.
In an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants the eponymous sponge blanks out after receiving an improbable order. Mr. Krabs explains it as the thousand yard stare to Squidward, that he had seen it during the war.
Donald Duck's stuck with one at the end of "Up A Tree", after Chip n' Dale blew up his house into smithereens.
Used in Adventure Time frequently. Finn gets one in Susan Strong when he contemplates being the last of his kind for too long. He gets another one in "Marceline's Closet," when he sees Marceline naked.
In Rick and Morty, in the episode Rick Potion #9, Morty gets this at the ending. With that ending, even the viewer has the same face. Burying a corpse of yourself and then replacing their lives while you leave your own reality to die off in an apocalypse does that to people.