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Jay: The deneuralyzer. In a few moments, transverse magneto energy will surge through your brain, unlocking information hidden deep and dormant that could hold the key to Earth's very survival.
Kay: Oh, okay. What's the thing?
Jay: ...The deneuralyzer.

One especially horrifying bit of Nightmare Fuel happens when a character is Brainwashed, hypnotized, or thoroughly messed up psychologically the good old-fashioned way. While everyone imagines they'll be able to resist or be snapped out of it by a friend in an "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight, this isn't always the case. A villain who does their laundry with care and thoroughly bleaches, softens, rinses and dry-cleans the brains they wash will give their victim's brains incredible resistance against free will spills, love stains, and friendship fudge. Meaning that rescued and restrained brainwashees will still pose a serious danger to the heroes. The solution is Deprogramming.

In Real Life, deprogramming is the process of counseling members of new or controversial religions — with or without their consent — to abandon their belief system. In the 1970s, responding to the increasing number of such faiths, deprogramming became a form of programming in and of itself with deprogrammers resorting to questionable, violent and often cruel lengths to do their job.

Most people today think of deprogramming as more akin to therapy and "exit counseling" in that it's geared toward former members trying to leave a Cult or overly controlling situation. Today's deprogrammers try to help the person come to terms with what's happened, not forcibly change their mind. While fiction may follow this route, it's also likelier to be complemented with a good old round of Epiphany Therapy, a Battle in the Center of the Mind, "sunbathing" under a Care-Bear Stare, and a quick blow to the head (in one form or another).

The net result is that the character is now good as new!... except for the part where they'll freak out when they realize they (could have) hurt their friends. To make things worse, once a victim of Mind Control is freed there will always be that niggling feeling that there remains residual programming, or the former brainwasher can do it again. Because of this there's the chance of the character being Reformed, but Rejected because of a potential Pygmalion Snapback.

Compare Defusing the Tyke-Bomb. Not related to Brain Bleach.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Played subtly through illustrated metaphors in the second half of A Cruel God Reigns. Ian tries (often in vain) to help Jeremy to recover from the trauma of sexual abuse received from their father/stepfather. Using group counseling, several vacations, housing and schooling changes, Love Redeems, Intimate Psychotherapy, and showing Jeremy those Embarrassing Old Photos, Ian attempts to guide Jeremy out of the metaphorical "forest" that separates him from "gardens" life has to offer and to help him feel emotions as he did before the abuse. In one poignant scene, Ian catches the "pieces" of Jeremy as the latter is recounting all of the incidents he was raped, and reassembles them, realizing that Jeremy is still missing the center "heart" piece that he needs to be whole. The scene comes back to reality with Ian placing the final piece into Jeremy's chest (against the latter's wishes) and Jeremy sobbing into Ian's shoulder as he acknowledges that choosing to feel is painful.

    Comic Books 
  • Wonder Woman (1942): The poor women Paula von Gunther brainwashed into her enslaved operatives were taken to Reformation Island in order for Mala to oversee trying to make them functional on their own again, and capable of making their own choices and such. Her efforts are shown to be partially successful.

    Comic Strips 
  • Played for Laughs in Bloom County when the protagonists rescue Bill the Cat from a cult and have to "reprogram" him to be normal. The last panel shows him tied to a post, forced to watch a show which is clearly parodying Leave It to Beaver.
    "Ward, the Beaver blew up another Dairy Queen today!"

    Film — Animated 
  • In Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, it is mentioned offhand that after Tim Drake was tortured and brainwashed by the Joker, it took well over a year of intense therapy to make him sane again. Judging by some of his reactions, he still isn't entirely over it some 40-50 years later. In an additional complication, Tim is still under the Joker's mental control, not due to the conventional brainwashing that he suffered but rather to the Joker's digitized consciousness possessing his body via an implanted microchip that was somehow undiscovered.

    Film — Live-Action 

  • Bastard Operator from Hell has an episode in which PFY discovers that one colleague is a Mac User — and he seemed like a normal person. For years, he'd been living a lie! Thus, this trope is the only solution. Then PFY himself turns out to be an Archimedes user — and promptly gets zapped and strapped to a wheelchair by caring BOFH.
  • The Dortmunder novel Good Behavior involves the group of criminals having to rescue a young nun from the deprogramming efforts of her corporation-owning father.
  • The Hunger Games portrays a long, unpleasant treatment for a long, unpleasant torture. Peeta was repeatedly tortured with a substance that draws out the victim's worst fears, and the torture was shaped in such a way as to make him project those fears onto the main character, whom he was formerly in love with. Attempts to cure him begin with having him converse with a friend whom he wasn't programmed against, but eventually move into chemical treatments that leave him "confused" — considered to be a step up from "terrified". Even when he's released, violence triggers a flashback that gets a minor character killed. Ultimately, he ends up mostly deprogrammed. He falls back in love with Katniss, and they eventually start a family together. However, it's never mentioned exactly how he gets deprogrammed and at least for a while, he still has moments when he needs to hold on to the back of a chair to fight off his flashbacks. The epilogue, set twenty years in the future, makes no mention of whether or not he's fully deprogrammed by then or if he'll never fully heal.
  • Let Our Children Go by Ted Patrick is about the author's practice of old-fashioned deprogramming of young cult members, including kidnapping, imprisonment, and violence. Wikipedia describes him as "considered to be the 'father of deprogramming.'" He was given the moniker "Black Lightning".
  • The Man with the Golden Gun: A formerly brainwashed James Bond marvels that the electroshock therapy he receives as his part of his deprogramming now affords him the mercy of sodium pentothal, which renders him unconscious for the process.
  • Prolecto has a device which functions like this. When it is used on an Azazel infectee, they are instantly returned to normal. Unfortunately, it can only be used by fitting a gas mask to the subject, so it's rather hard to use in battle.
  • In one StarCraft novel, a powerful Protoss female deprograms a human marine. Considering that most marines at that point are former convicts, this doesn't end well (the convict disables the ship's life support in order to take everyone down with him). However, it does allow the protagonists to escape, and the convict even helps them flee as thanks for freeing his mind.

    Live-Action TV 
  • One episode of Airwolf has a "miracle deprogramming cure" in a syringe.
  • The Deprogramming of Aaron is a 1989 CBS 48 Hours documentary featuring the methods used at that time. In this case, 14-year-old Aaron felt a strict Christian churchnote  was helping him get off drugs, and wanted to continue as a member after his mother had left.
  • Elementary: In one episode, Sherlock Holmes and Detective Bell interview the leader of a cult that was being investigated by the Victim of the Week. While Bell speaks to the leader, Sherlock steps aside and starts talking to a young woman. A few minutes later, he informs the leader that the woman has decided to leave and is currently retrieving the information the cult had gathered on the victim. The leader attempts to go after her only for Sherlock to stop him and insist that the woman will be leaving with them.
    Holmes: After a brief conversation with Aria, a.k.a. Elizabeth Weinberg, I was able to determine that some unresolved issues from her childhood had led to a transference of a need for structure and discipline onto Mr. Finn. Elizabeth agreed and has forthwith terminated her relationship with your church.
    Finn: What?
    Bell: Wait a second, are saying you deprogrammed her?
    Holmes: I would never use such a rigid and close-minded term.
  • In the first episode of Lexx, Kai, the last of the Brunnen-G, regains his memories and willpower when he touches the brain of the Shadow host who stole them in the intro.
  • Lou Grant: In one episode, after editor Charlie Hume's son joins the Hare Krishnas, Charlie hires some deprogrammers to kidnap the son and deprogram him. In the end, after witnessing how harsh their techniques are, Charlie decides that his son is better off with the Krishnas.
  • In Monk, this is done to Adrian after he gets sucked into a cult.
  • One especially heartbreaking episode of The Outer Limits (1995), "The Deprogrammers", has a scientist and his assistant deprogram the personal servant of an alien from a race that has conquered the Earth in order to assassinate him. It ends with the Cruel Twist Ending that the assassination was orchestrated by a rival of the alien's same species, and that both the servant and his wife will now be reprogrammed.
  • The Path has a good old-fashioned kidnapping off a public road, right out of the 1970s.note  Sean, a relatively new Meyerist, is tricked into his parents' car with a counselor in the back seat, saying that they're going to help him and his pregnant wife "get out" of the community.
  • Parodied in an episode of Roseanne in which Roseanne deprograms David after he goes to work for a cult-like amusement park.
  • Stargate SG-1:
    • An early episode has Teal'c's son brainwashed by Apophis. Here, the deprogramming techniques are a bit of shouting and shock therapy administrated with a rather hand-wavey phaser blast. Possibly justified in-universe by the fact that Apophis used advanced alien technology to brainwash each of them in a matter of hours in the first place; regular therapy and counseling may well have proven useless.
    • One episode involves deprogramming Teal'c after he'd been brainwashed by Apophis in the previous episode. Let's just say that the deprogramming methods are nearly as traumatizing as the programming methods...
    • In another episode, the team infiltrate a cult on Earth run by Set, who has brainwashed his followers by infecting them with a microbe that is very vulnerable to electrical shocks — thus, all they have to do to deprogram the cultists is to shock them. It's implied to have been what Apophis used on Teal'c's son.
  • Star Trek:
  • This happens to a classmate of Veronica's in Veronica Mars. Veronica finds no evidence that the cult is harmful, and the kid actually became a nice person after joining it. Unfortunately, his deprogramming undoes his Character Development.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Vampire: The Requiem actually provides two game systems for deprogramming victims of the Dominate power "Conditioning" and the VII faction of Sleepers who create vampire blood-based brainwashing. Some of the brainwashing powers even provide their own cure; one of the side effects of The Forgetful Mind (which covers up another person's memories) is that it allows you to uncover a person's buried memories, even if you weren't the one who buried them in the first place. In the book Antagonists, White Wolf's writers note that deprogramming as generally thought of is really brainwashing back to social norms; it even uses the same system as brainwashing, just with different modifiers.

    Video Games 
  • In Metal Gear Solid's official mission handbook, there is a section at the beginning of the game profiling all the major characters, complete with stats and a biography. For Decoy Octupus' entry, it notes at the end that, "The stress and combination of getting into character lead to Decoy Octopus becoming confused and almost completely changing into the person he mimics. In order to protect himself, every time he disguises himself as someone else, he asks the military for an extensive mental deprogramming afterwards." Based on the tone, it gives the impression that this sort of thing happens to him on a regular or reoccurring basis.

    Visual Novels 
  • Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair: This is essentially the goal of the Neo World Program. Makoto Naegi and his friends capture the Remnants of Despair (the main characters of the game), erase their memories, and place them into a virtual world where they'll form new bonds in an extremely relaxing and non-hostile environment. This is all done with the goal of freeing them from Junko's brainwashing and turning them back into normal people so that the Future Foundation won't have to execute them.

  • Last Res0rt has Gabriel, a doctor who specializes in exit counseling to help people leave the Church of the Endless. He attempts to offer his services to Jigsaw, except she's not one of the Endless — she just has an emergency "soul shell" that makes her appear to be one, but actually hides her vampire identity. She didn't put it on, so she doesn't know how to take it off.

    Western Animation 
  • In 6teen, Caitlin has to do this to snap Nikki back to her snarky, lovable self.
  • Aang and the gang try this with Jet in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "Lake Laogai". Results are mixed.
  • In one episode of Danny Phantom, an Evil Diva ghost named Ember brainwashes teens using her music. Sam and Danny are unaffected, but Tucker is. They deprogram him by restraining him and forcing him to study for a test for several hours, which has the added bonus of making him the only student to ace the test later. They actually use the term "deprogram" to describe this. When Ember casts a spell on Danny that causes him to fall in love with Sam, making him too distracted to fight, they don't have time to do to the same to Danny because Ember is about to complete her plan, so they have to break his heart to make him snap out of it. They then free everyone else from Ember's mind control using Tucker's bad singing.
  • In the Gargoyles episode "Sentinel", a well-intentioned alien thinks he's doing this to Eliza when he erases her memories of the gargoyles, believing that they're agents of the other side of an interstellar war. Fortunately, his methods only permanently remove Fake Memories, so Eliza gets her own back. When Eliza's returning memories prompt her to defend Goliath from the alien, he is convinced that the gargoyles aren't his enemies.
  • King of the Hill: Luanne and Peggy get tricked into joining a high school sorority that was into brainwashing its members. Hank saved the day by barbecuing meat within smelling distance, because the cult's main method was depriving people of protein.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In "Burns' Heir", Bart goes to live with Mr. Burns, so Homer and Marge hire a man to abduct Bart and deprogram him. Then it turns out that he grabbed Hans Moleman instead, who now believes himself to be Bart. Homer wants to keep him (partly because kissing him is like kissing a peanut), but Marge ends the episode with "Homer, I want that thing out of my house."
    • In "The Joy of Sect", when Homer and his family join the Movementarians cult, he is rinsed with one drop of beer, and Bart, Lisa and Maggie are converted back to normal by the false promise of hoverbikes. Groundskeeper Willie attempts to deprogram Homer shortly before he's reintroduced to beer, and becomes accidentally programmed into joining the Movementarians himself in the process.
  • This happens in practically every episode of Totally Spies!. Almost never will any of the girls actually being strong-willed enough to be able to snap out of whatever brainwashing has been done to them without outside assistance. WOOHP really needs to step up their mental training exercises.

    Real Life 
  • This is supposed to help victims of Stockholm Syndrome and indoctrination (such as with Child Soldiers or members of Cults) become free from the psychological grip of their tormentors. Originally, deprogrammings tended to involve kidnapping and confinement, as well as violence and other types of psychological abuses (including in the worst cases, rape), which is why many detractors of the technique would say that it is really just reverse brainwashing. However, after the public got wind of those practices through various court cases (one of which involved the attempted deprogramming of a Catholic nun), and got upset, those types of deprogrammings have become less common (although still done in some countries).
    • Since the validity of true brainwashing has largely been debunked, and such extreme measures are often seen as doing more harm than good, modern deprogrammings, more aptly called "exit counseling", rely on a lot of therapy and time, and the after-effects may take years to be resolved, if ever. They usually serve ex-members trying to break away from a faith that is harming them. The Wellspring Retreat is an example.

Alternative Title(s): Deprogramming