Word-Salad Horror

"For the first time we have risen, and I see we are being consumed. I see circles that are not circles. Billions of dead souls inside containment. Unravellers have eaten country's moral fabric, turning hearts into filth. I'm from a kingdom level above human. What does that yield? A hokey smile that damns an entire nation. There is no hope."

This is what happens when bizarre phrases, Non Sequiturs, and random successions of words are used and arranged either to be frightening on their own or to imply that something sinister is going on behind the scenes. The Word Salad might result from some supernatural alteration of local reality, a Nightmare Sequence, a drug-induced hallucination, an Eldritch Abomination oblivious to the fact that this is not how those Puny Earthlings actually talk, and many other myriad causes.

The opposite of Word-Salad Humor. Compare and contrast Cryptic Conversation, with which this trope frequently overlaps. Subtrope of Surreal Horror.


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    Comic Books 
  • Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol was full of this, either people ranting crazy things, or monstrosities themselves spewing crazy words.
  • Also from Grant Morrison is Professor Pyg, a villain introduced during his run on Batman. He's a somewhat more realistic depiction of insanity than most of Batman's foes in that most of what he says is complete gibberish.
    Professor Pyg: On Mondays it's Tiamat this and Tiamat that. Tohu va Bohu and boo-hoo-hoo. On Tuesdays the Gorgon Queen comes to visit, a thousand writhing snakes for hair. That's what it's like to grow upside down in a world where a hug is a crucifixion...

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Fog (1980). While Stevie Wayne is playing station promos on a tape recorder, supernatural things start to happen and the tape recorder plays a bizarre message.
    "Something that one lives with like an albatross round the neck. No, more like a millstone. A plumbing stone, by God. Damn them all."
The albatross reference is to Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, appropriately enough for a horror story related to seafaring (note the poem's page image).
  • Played with at the end of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. We, the audience, know exactly what Francis' deranged shouting means, but to everyone else, it comes across as this.
  • 1408:
    • In the original short story, Mike's recordings becomes this ("My brother was actually eaten by wolves one winter on the Connecticut Turnpike") though it sometimes makes sense in context.note 
    • The room's "conversation" with Mike Enslin is made of random sentences and series of numbers that add up to 13.
      "Five. This is five. Ignore the sirens. Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room. Eight. This is eight. We have killed your friends. Every friend is now dead. Six. This is six."

  • Subverted in Blindsight, when the alien artifact Rorschach speaks to the protagonists, it seems like it's using perfect English, following all of the grammatical rules. However, after a series of testing, the ship's linguist discovers that Rorschach is actually speaking nonsense, and is just procedurally generating responses telling them to stay away, like an organic Cleverbot.
  • Naked Lunch. So, so much.
    I was standing outside myself trying to stop those hangings with ghost fingers... I am a ghost wanting what every ghost wants—a body — after the Long Time moving through odorless alleys of space where no life is, only the colorless no smell of death...Nobody can breathe and smell it through pink convolutions of gristle laced with crystal snot, time shit and black blood filters of flesh.
  • In Arthur C. Clarke's short story "Playback", the protagonist is a disembodied intelligence recorded by Sufficiently Advanced Aliens when his ship blew up. The aliens offer to reconstruct a body for him, but the protagonist's attempt to describe what he looks like dissolves into incoherent babble as the imperfect recording breaks down.
  • In The Man Who Was Thursday, Sunday begins sending inexplicable messages that terrify the members of the council:
    “Fly at once. The truth about your trouser-stretchers is known.—A FRIEND.”
  • Dream, vision, hallucination, revelation and/or brainwashing sequences in Illuminatus! and its spinoffs tend to be either this or Word-Salad Humor, although they are frequently both simultaneously, combining imagery from everything from The Bible and Classical Mythology to Masonic lore, Occultism and the Kabbalah to H.P. Lovecraft, pornography and Krazy Kat with Arc Words chosen seemingly at random and very clever yet completely nonsensical wordplay.
  • In the The Southern Reach Trilogy, expedition members sent by the eponymous agency into Area X - an abandoned region apparently in the grip of a paranormal phenomenon - discover a subterranean structure containing a spiral staircase... along the walls of which is written the following:
    "Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim-lit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been. In the black water with the sun shining at midnight, those fruit shall come ripe and in the darkness of that which is golden shall split open to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness in the earth. The shadows of the abyss are like the petals of a monstrous flower that shall blossom within the skull and expand the mind beyond what any man can bear, but whether it decays under the earth or above on green fields, or out to sea or in the very air, all shall come to revelation, and to revel, in the knowledge of the strangling fruit—and the hand of the sinner shall rejoice, for there is no sin in shadow or in light that the seeds of the dead cannot forgive. And there shall be in the planting in the shadows a grace and a mercy from which shall blossom dark flowers, and their teeth shall devour and sustain and herald the passing of an age. That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated it shall walk the world in the bliss of not-knowing. And then there shall be a fire that knows the naming of you, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you that remains."
  • And speaking of The Bible, the Book of Revelation reads like this more often than not.
  • The title character in Eden Green gradually loses her rationality to an alien needle parasite. The narrative is increasingly interrupted by incoherent visions, nightmares, paranoid fantasies, and babbling.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Any scene in Twin Peaks that takes place in the Black Lodge turns into this. While there's usually some meaning behind what's being said, it's done in a very obfuscating manner.
    The Man from Another Place: I've got good news! That gum you like is going to come back in style.
  • Doctor Who: Dalek Caan seems to speak like this, but it's ultimately subverted; all of his cryptic riddles are perfectly accurate, if obtuse, either describing what he saw while traveling through the time lock around the Last Great Time War, or what is about to happen.
  • On one episode of Misfits one Reality Warper character's LSD-induced hallucination, imagined while flipping channels between an animal cruelty documentary, golf tournament, and action movie, becomes real. The result? A giant rabbit in a suit that kills people with golf clubs.
  • An episode of Code Lyoko: Evolution features this happening to Odd due to XANA's interference and the only way to fix it is to slip away to Lyoko; the horror is downplayed since the characters know what is going and can fix it, but it's still uncomfortable for all involved and puts everyone on edge. Later subverted for laughs when Yumi runs into Ulrich and William outside the principal's office and remarks on the school's decision to give the kids orange juice to make them healthier and combat stress; the boys think XANA has scrambled her brain while she wants to know what the heck they're talking about.

  • More than a few Tom Waits song lyrics combine this with Harsh Vocals to make nonsense and dream imagery seem deeply threatening. For instance, from "Everything You Can Think":
    Everything you can think of is true
    And fishes make wishes on you
    We're fighting out way up Dreamland's spine
    Red flamingos, expensive wine
  • Radiohead uses lots of it, and frontman Thom Yorke has been known to conjure streams-of-consciousness that fall under this trope. Dead Children Playing, a book released by Stanley Donwood (an artist that has prominently worked with the band), has even more of it to even creepier effect, considering how it's juxtaposed against equally nonsensical-scary artwork.
  • A common lyrical technique of The Mars Volta, to the point where it's arguably the dominant tendency of their lyrics. Sample excerpt: "I've caught mono bobbing for barbed wire / These nasty sores of ataxia will feel the sting of the opiate copulation." It's not entirely clear what that means, but it's creepy, to say the least (particularly in the context of the song itself).

    Video Games 
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty features this as part of its memorable ending, with the Colonel suddenly spouting off bizarre nonsense over the codec to Raiden. This is the first indication that it's a fake AI Colonel.
    Colonel: I hear it's amazing when the famous purple stuffed worm in flap-jaw space with the tuning fork does a raw blink on Hari Kiri Rock. I need scissors! 61!
  • Max Payne:
    • When Max is tripping on Valkyr in the first game (the prologue to part 3), he receives a "prank call" (in his dream), wherein the caller just spouts creepy nonsense at him, until Max puts the phone back down. For extra creepiness, just a bit later, Max receives another call, wherein the caller tries to explain to him that he has been drugged. Max proceeds to call it nonsense in exactly the same words as before and put the phone down.
      "...the bartender is shiny stuff and dreams are made of stooped necromancers. He sings like a banana wrist having strayed too close to the constellations on their shaved skulls. The rain of frogs ended and the rain of blood comes down. Doing the flips and then I'll be gone! The whole city was an image, riding the bar. He yearns to get a taste of those tentacles..."
    • The Twin Peaks-esque Show Within a Show "Address Unknown", whose episodes are scattered throughout games one and two, is all about this.
  • The "Taken" enemies in Alan Wake spout this constantly. The words usually seem to have something to do with the possessed individual's former life, but they do not appear to comprehend the sense behind their words. Sometimes skirts the line between horror and Narm.
    Fisherman: Omega-3 fatty acids are good for your heart!
  • Early on in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Mandus answers a mysterious ringing phone, and gets the cryptic message "Precious eagle cactus fruit... help us." before the other person hangs up. That said, the phrase does have an actual meaning (though most players are unlikely to know that) - it's a poetic name by which Aztecs referred to hearts ripped out of sacrifices' chests.
  • While not by any means a horror game, the JRPG Xenogears has quite a few uniquely unsettling moments, though that is likely par for the course for a game that is essentially an extended Creation allegory; a famous example from the game's opening scene involves a spaceship's command displays slowly being overwritten with the repeated message "You shall be as gods" shortly before the ship self-destructs.
  • Near the end of Marathon: Durandal, if you see a human "ally" running up to you while shouting "Frog blast the vent core!", back up and shoot it because it's a reploid suicide bomber trying to kill you.

    Visual Novels 
  • Tsukihime has several pages of this while Shiki is bedridden in Hisui's route.
  • Fate/stay night: Pretty much guaranteed whenever Angra Mainyu shows up.
    Rabbit's corpse. One eye missing. Rotten, soft, and fresh. Forced into my mouth. Rabbit's corpse smears my esophagus. A clear sensation of eating life. Life is life, even if is rotten. Its real. I can't taste this with cooked food. It feels good. There's no taste. But I'm forced to eat it as long as it is in front of me. A popular place. A big line. A place that will eat rabbits. There is only one clerk. The line consists of rabbits. Lines and lines. They rot as soon as they get in the line. Infested with maggots. Which is rotten? Which is infested with maggots? Which is alive? Which is doing the eating—
  • Super Dangan Ronpa 2:
    • The ending features the entire world around you collapsing as the program begins to corrupt. The screen is constantly glitching, particularly when people who were supposedly dead appear onscreen. The speech before and throughout this part often glitches and contorts into weird, unreadable strings of letters, numbers and punctuation.
    • If you were to visit the houses of people who died during the ending, word salads filled with numbers and punctuation appear once again, but this time it's their last thoughts jumbled up. Notably, nothing appears for Komaeda, which could point to many theories.

    Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation has several:
    • SCP-1981 a.k.a. "RONALD REAGAN CUT UP WHILE TALKING", which provides the page quote, is a VHS tape showing Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, only the speech and concurrent events are different with each viewing. Each iteration has in common Reagan talking about various events that happened after the real life speech, surreal references to gruesome subjects like Cold-Blooded Torture along with nonsensical subjects, Reagan being mutilated by invisible forces while casually continuing the speech, and a black-robed figure who replaces a random member of Reagan's cabinet each time. note  When the Foundation showed Reagan himself the tape (he was still alive when it was discovered), it gave him horrible nightmares and possibly Alzheimer's, even though the Foundation almost certainly wiped his memory of the tape afterwards.
    • SCP-058 is some creature resembling a cow heart with limbs that constantly spouts off completely incomprehensible phrases even while going around killing humans.
      SCP-058: I had dreams of the queen wonders that lived inside the hearts of love and silent treatments of all the elderly that I knew were once whole.
    • SCP-1782 is a rather anomalous room whose randomly manifested entities and disembodied voices say some very bizarre phrases, most prominent of which is "There's a hole in the wall in the bottom of the floor." This is because the cause of the anomaly is the still-living aborted fetus of a Reality Warper, and it's trying to help the Foundation discover its location, which is indeed in a small hole in the wall.
    • SCP-2030: The Netflix description for the anomalous TV program "Laugh is Fun":
      "Have you ever like laugh you come laugh and have all the fun and laugh! Starring all your favorite laugh so ever and always make go to your life!"
  • Happens all the time on Welcome to Night Vale, particularly when Cecil reads advertisements, notices, or whatever else he is handed by others in the studio. A Running Gag is for Cecil to announce "a word from our sponsors," and then read an "advertisement" consisting of an extremely surreal Word-Salad Horror passage, followed by the name and slogan of a real-world company such as Audible.com or Home Depot. For bonus creepy points, sometimes the real slogan is followed by a nightmarish variation on the same phrase.
    As their slogan famously says, "A thousand ways in, no way out. Subway. Eat fresh. Eat so terribly, terribly fresh. Terribly, awesomely, gruesomely, terrifyingly fresh."
  • The Slender Man Mythos features this frequently, particularly when dealing with totheark. For instance, his name comes from the phrase "lead me to the ark" from his videos in the Marble Hornets series. No indication is given as to what "ark" is being referenced, nor why he wishes to be taken there.

    Real Life 
  • The infamous Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion of 1987 saw the interruption of a Doctor Who broadcast ("Horror of Fang Rock" specifically) with a video of a person in a Max Headroom mask, whose identity is unknown to this day, rambling about completely nonsensical subjects interrupted by him(?) alternately laughing and screaming. There are some identifiable themes present (the intruder makes a point of mocking Chicago sportscaster Chuck Swirsky and WGN), but they're quickly subsumed by madness.
    Catch the wave... (throws a Coke can at the camera) Your love is fading... (hums the theme to Clutch Cargo)