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Existential Horror

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Horrifying the viewer through making them question their existence, the purpose thereof, the freedom they really have...

This trope has been Launched!
Proposed By:
TheHandle on Mar 10th 2014 at 1:08:52 PM
Last Edited By:
Masterweaver on Dec 14th 2016 at 8:25:54 PM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: Trope

Am I real? Why do I exist? How much control do I have over my own life? What choices do I have? Does it even matter, the choices I make? Is my entire life pointless? Are my efforts to achieve meaning doomed to failure?

Most stories take a positive stance towards these questions, with characters having a clear identity, and clear goals. Not these, though.

May overlap with Cosmic Horror Story; the horror on those relies more on the percieved vulnerability of reality as a whole, rather than the pointlessness of life on an individual scale. A "Shaggy Dog" Story might induce this kind of feeling. Compare with Angst, which while originally referring to "existential angst", has broadened its meaning to refer to a more general form of anguish or unease with oneself. Compare with Navel-Gazing, which is simply in-universe philosophical contemplation, and doesn't necessarily involve horror or existential questions.


  • The Stanley Parable is a comedy game, but viewers report feeling distincly uncomfortable, horrified and confused by the experience. It's very hard to explain without spoiling it.
  • Franz Kafka specialized in such stories, with a dark comedic bent; the world was out to get you, no matter how good you tried to be, and any efforts you might make to clear your name or even understand what the hell is going on are going to make things worse.
  • Metal Gear Solid had a bit of this, and Metal Gear Solid 2 took it to maturity: the boundaries between the different meta levels of the game, the complete negation of most any character's free will, the manipulation of the protagonists' identity, the doubt cast on the very reality of the events depicted in the game ("It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from.") all contribute to this state of mind. Luckily (?) the games keep distracting you with clear objectives and a fast-paced, involved, world-at-stake narrative, so that you don't freak out too much.
  • The Matrix presents the idea that people are inadvertently living their entire lives inside of a Lotus-Eater Machine. The Matrix Reloaded shows that the protagonists' rebellion is accounted for and an inherent part of the system. The Matrix Revolutions has Happiness in Slavery be the end fate of most of humanity, the Happy Ending being that humans who are unhappy with the system as such will be released to the depressing, black-skied Reality. Said reality is however put into question by the seemingly supernatural powers the protagonist demonstrates in it. Both sequels have Smith as The Virus, hijacking people's personalities and turning them into ever more of himself, until, by the end of Revolutions, he's the only one left. Between the two sequels, Neo is stuck in a limbo where he is absolutely powerless and ineffectual. The viewer may be left to question whether they themselves are living in a constructed reality to some degree. A lot of philosophers and humanists would say yes, in a variety of ways, but not in the literal way of the films; one of them is referenced in the first film, with Neo keeping his illegal software inside a hollow copy of Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard.
  • Inception has some parallels to the Matrix, where one of the characters in-universe (and perhaps some of the audience) question which stage of "reality" they are in, and whether death or suicide will propel them upward toward a more real existence.
  • Existenz is similarly about layers of virtual reality, meta-gaming and meta-narration, conspiracy theories... and a fair amount of surrealism and Body Horror.
  • In Real Life, perception-altering drugs can have this effect; some of them can cause illusions that are completely indistinguishable from reality by the user, others can annull the sense of self and make the user feel "one with the Universe", others can paralyze you in a And I Must Scream situation... Sometimes, the effects can be permanent.
  • The Infinite Loops can lend itself to this on occasion. The setting is explicitly a broken multiverse, with lore inconsistencies being the result of reality itself not knowing the exact details of what should and should not be; various characters have loop variable backgrounds and are just as surprised when details crop up about themselves as the viewers of their canon show. And since the setting is portrayed as an Alternate Reality Game where all the events written are actually happening, there's the question of whether the real world is in danger of becoming damaged...

Feedback: 17 replies

Mar 10th 2014 at 1:38:39 PM

  • The film The Matrix presents the idea that people are living lives inside of a computer program.

Feel free to expand on the idea anybody. I got a bad headache. :(

Mar 10th 2014 at 1:47:56 PM

Is there some reason why Kafka is namespaced to Video Game?

Mar 10th 2014 at 6:39:49 PM

^^My bad, I made a mistake.

^I don't get why we should contrast those. If anything, Cessation Of Existence is part and parcel of existential horror.

Mar 10th 2014 at 7:53:41 PM

Navel gazing aka Contemplate Our Navels is when characters have a deep contemplation over the nature of themselves or their surroundings. Same theme here.

Mar 10th 2014 at 8:20:17 PM

I asked you about the contrast part, not the compare part.

Mar 10th 2014 at 8:31:33 PM

^ No. It's when characters interrupt the plot to contemplate philosophical problems. It's not necessarily good or bad; Tropes Are Tools. Still, that article could stand to be rewritten, since it does generally imply it's a bad thing.

Mar 10th 2014 at 9:48:34 PM

@ Handle: well... they sound contrast-y enough, if nothing else. :P

Mar 10th 2014 at 9:58:24 PM

"Contrast" is about tropes that are more-or-less the opposite of the one discussed, "compare" is about those that are alike to it.

Mar 11th 2014 at 2:54:52 AM

Often will involve a Straw Nihilist... if not an actual nihilist.

Mar 11th 2014 at 8:31:36 AM

Inception has some parallels to the Matrix, where one of the characters in-universe (and perhaps some of the audience) question which stage of "reality" they are in, and whether death or suicide will propel them upward toward a more real existence.

Mar 11th 2014 at 10:47:35 PM

  • At the beginning of Kingdom Hearts, Sora has a bit of an existential conversation with himself about whether any of his life is even for real or not. Eventually, he chucks any existential self examination out the window and just makes friends with everyone he meets instead.
  • In Final Fantasy X Tidus begins to ponder his own existence after he realizes he is a dream of the Fayth. Justified, as he may not be real after all. Although he has been tangible, once the Fayth go, so does he and his tangibility.

Mar 12th 2014 at 12:26:23 AM

Shortening the laconic version by cutting off the part after "existence" would improve it.

May 9th 2016 at 3:03:38 PM

I suggest categorizing the examples.

Jun 27th 2016 at 10:02:25 AM

In the 2013 run of Young Avengers, Hulkling is given the wonderful idea by Loki that his reality warping boyfriend Wiccan could've created him by accident, or at the very least manipulated his feelings. The idea got to him so bad that he interrupted the mission they were on for a quest for identity. All according to plan, of course.