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Bystander Action-Horror Dissonance

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This is it! The moment of truth! The heroes and the villains are duking it out in the midst of the flames, the Big Badass Battle Sequence between the armies of good and evil has begun, it's time to let the audience see how Badass each character can be and shine the Crowning Moments Of Awesome.

That is, so long as we keep the camera on the battle.

If the camera turns instead to the civilians near the action, you'll probably see more than one injured or dead person, people struggling to get out of the debris, children crying, houses and buildings burning.

God help us.

This is what is called the Bystander Action-Horror Dissonance, when an action scene is also Played for Horror when the narrative switches to the victims of an attack or conflict. This type of shot is used as a way to either showcase how dire the situation is, make an action series much more serious or to portray with greater realism what those big battles actually entail.

At its core, this trope's shock value relies on an indirect instance of The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You, in this case by making the spectator connect himself or herself not with the hero or heroes but with the common folk at ground zero, in turn making it clear to the audience that were they in the setting, they would most likely be victims.

The shock value also differs from each genre, as audiences are somewhat aware of what is in store for them in a movie by looking up at its basic premise - unless of course the director intends to pull the rug on the audience from the start, thus, a Kaiju or Disaster Movie typically won't have the same shock as a Comic Book Film would have in theory.

This trope leans towards the cynical side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, and can serve as a justification for the Anti-Hero to not fight fair and get to the villain as quickly and clean as possible, after all, when there are lives on the line, all bets are off.

That said, it's also valid to have The Cape justify how he or she acts precisely to avoid scaring the civilians, showing that the hero can be inspiring and responsible.

Also note that this touch of realism has to be handled with care. Too many of these sequences will colour the reception of the audience, either feeling that the heroes are ineffectual for letting this happen or blaming them for the casualties. Moreover, overuse of this trope can border on Torture Porn and Exploitation Film, which, because of the subject, won't be accepted by the casual viewer.

Compare with Violence Is Disturbing, when violence - even the "heroic" kind - is portrayed as horrifying even without bystanders involved; Mook Horror Show, in which case the ones at the end of the terror reel are combatants who are woefully outclassed against their enemies; and with Spectator Casualty, which is when those who want to see the fight end up harmed or dead for being close to the action. Also related to Deadline News as a news reporter will also suffer at the end of the collateral damage, and Inferred Holocaust, which is when lethal damage is done on an area but is not explored within the story.

Contrast with Conveniently Empty Building, which is when buildings are explicitly mentioned to be devoid of people, and thus safe to destroy (disregarding of course the amount of people who could end up homeless now); No Endor Holocaust, in which Word of God has to step in to make it clear that there were no collateral casualties; and Hero Insurance, by which the hero has a permission to cause property damage because of his profession.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Attack on Titan: Eren and the Survey Corps's second fight with the Female Titan following the revelation of the Female Titan's human identity happens in the middle of the day in the heavily populated Stohess District. It's the first time that Eren's transformation into the Rogue/Attack Titan is treated with any sort of horror, as civilians are repeatedly shown getting crushed by the debris being flung about during the fight, or by the Titans themselves; the Female Titan at one point lands on top of a church full of civilians after Eren lands a "Hey, You!" Haymaker on her, and Eren charges straight through a building to get at the Female Titan later in the fight.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: Shinji's first proper fight against an Angel, namely the Fourth, is witnessed by his classmates Touji Suzuhara and Kensuke Aida, who slipped away from the shelters and by chance also get to enter Unit-01's cockpit. They get to see how actually straining and terrifying is it to pilot the Eva against the Angels and how the wounds on the Eva are translated to the pilot's body. Tellingly, neither of them says anything to Shinji once he breaks down crying after the fight is over.
  • Orguss 02: In the OVA sequel to the original series, Nataruma (a Half-Human Hybrid descendant of the original heroes) is Blessed with Suck to have this as a side effect of her Psychic Powers. In her backstory, the Zafrin military raised her to psychically project the targets for artillery barrages, leaving her to experience the trauma of the enemies being torn to shreds. During the story, while bonding with the mechanic turned rookie spy Lean as they try to escape the country, she repeatedly experiences visions of the horrors of war as they impact those around them — particularly a kindly old Zafrin man who helps them at one point. During the final battle of the series, both Nataruma and Lean share a vision of an enemy mecha's arm falling on the people of the town they're fighting over — and immediately realize they need to move the battle elsewhere.

    Comic Books 
  • Marvels and other Kurt Busiek works are the prime example of that half the time. One half is the wonders everyday people living in a super hero world experience, and the other half the terrors. Like when Galactus first arrived on Earth, and everybody on New York seem totally convinced that the apocalypse was upon them.
  • Irredeemable's Spin-Off series, Incorruptible, shows the destruction of Sky City at the hands of the The Plutonian from the perspective of supervillain Max Damage. He was so horrified by what he'd experienced that it drove him to pull a Heel–Face Turn.
  • Ultramega shows people knocked unconscious just by being near a skyscraper-sized Ultraman Copy and a Kaiju trading blows at speed. Before the battle against the Kaiju King starts, the three Ultramegas agree they have to get out of the city as soon as possible to reduce collateral damage. They fail, to horrific results. The series’ tone can be best described as “relentlessly cynical”.
    Cab Driver: Those people… why are they all lying down? There’s no blood.
    Mariah: It’s the concussion from the fight. It’s knocked them out cold. This is what happens when gods fight.

    Films — Animation 
  • At the end of The Incredibles, the Underminer's debut is shown from the point of view of the Incredible family, who are ready and eager to spring into action to stop him. At the beginning of the sequel Incredibles 2, the same scene is revisited from the point of view of Innocent Bystander Tony Rydinger, who is terrified and scrambling to dodge flung cars and hide behind or under any cover he can get.
  • True to its source material, Superman vs. the Elite goes to portray how a more unhinged Superman would fight, and the amount of collateral damage he would cause if he cared little about the Metropolis's inhabitants. Thankfully, Superman took measures beforehand to ensure that the scare was non-lethal and no civilian was killed.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Cloverfield is a meta-example amongst the various Kaiju and monster films done before. Instead of the focus of the movie being the monster, its powers and the efforts of the military and scientists to deal with it, the movie centers exclusively on the civilians' terror and confusion at the appearance of the monster, as well as their suffering at the collateral damage left by it.
  • DC Extended Universe: Man of Steel has several scenes with the civilians of Metropolis scrambling in horror as they're caught in the crossfire during the final battle between Superman and General Zod, as well as the Hostile Terraforming of the World Engine. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens with the battle from the perspective of Bruce Wayne as he tries to traverse the city to get to one of his company buildings to save his employees. Watching the battle and witnessing Superman's raw power while being completely powerless to stop anything leads to Bruce fearing a Beware the Superman situation down the road, driving him to find a way to neutralize Superman.
  • Gareth Edwards' previous film, Monsters (2010) also exaggerates this: the entire situation about an animal Alien Invasion doing a Hostile Terraforming of Mexico and the efforts of the armed forces to contain it is a Great Offscreen War and the protagonist couple are for the most part just marching towards the Mexico/US border while taking sights of the devastation it leaves behind.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe
    • Captain America: Civil War: Thaddeus Ross brings the fighting sequences from the previous MCU movies (The Avengers (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron) into a darker context when he shows the recordings made by the people at the site of the fights in a debriefing. This in turn serves as the justification for the governments of the world to create a Super Registration Act that would rein in the heroes to prevent such disasters from ever happening again, creating the rifts that ends up in the eponymous civil war. Helmut Zemo's motivation is also partially derived from being at ground zero and seeing the heroes go home after his family died from Ultron's attack in Sokovia.
    • In Avengers: Infinity War, Peter Parker takes advantage of this to sneak out as Spiderman while his fellow school bus riders are distracted and terrified at the sight of the massive alien spaceship hovering over Manhattan, with Ned at one point screaming, "We're all gonna die!"
  • Godzilla (2014) goes a bit overboard with this trope — most of the sequences involving the Kaiju are shot with a focus on the people in the vicinity of their rampages trying to not get killed (and not always succeeding) or marching through the devastation they leave behind. Up until the climactic battle, all that is given of the monsters is fleeting glimpses at best. One of the biggest complaints regarding this film, as a result, is that there is not enough Godzilla.
  • A memorable shot in Transformers (2007) shows Ironhide backflipping in slow motion over a civilian woman, screaming terror. The shot is a low angle on the woman, making Ironhide gigantic by comparison, and driving home just how frightening it would be for transforming giant alien robots to start blasting the hell out of each other in the middle of your morning commute.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Game of Thrones: During the battle for King's Landing in "The Bells", we get to see some epic fantasy action when Daenerys Targaryen takes on the Iron Fleet from dragonback, while her armies fight the Golden Company and Lannister forces on the ground. However, once they've broke through the city's defences, there's more focus on the terrified civilians screaming and fleeing. And then it gets worse when Daenerys undergoes some Sanity Slippage and begins razing the city despite them surrendering; it quickly turns into an extended horror sequence of innocent civilians cowering in fear or running for their lives as they're burned alive or cut-down by the rampaging soldiers. Jon Snow tries desperately to keep his soldiers from massacring civilians and at one point has to kill one of his own men for trying to rape a woman, urging her to hide. Arya Stark is nearly killed several times during the destruction and futilely attempts to save some civilians she crosses paths with.

    Video Games 
  • Fable: By the midgame, the Hero's combat prowess becomes outright frightening to some NPC witnesses, leading to situations where he rescues Intrepid Merchants from bandit ambushes, only for the merchants to cower away from him.
  • Da Orks in Warhammer 40,000 are the setting's main source of Laughably Evil Black Comedy. The videogame Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine has several audio logs from Imperial civilians in the midst of an Ork invasion, which show how horrifyingly un-funny an Ork attack is to anyone who's not an Ork or trained and equipped to deal with them.