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Epiphanic Prison

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"The Earthman's walls are crude and literal, so that their existence is obtrusive and obvious — and there are always some who long to escape. The Aurorans' walls are immaterial and aren't even seen as walls, so that none can even conceive of escaping."
Giskard, The Robots of Dawn

A prison doesn't need to have four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. Why would you need those if the prisoner doesn't want to or know how to leave? After all, if you think you are free, no escape is possible. This is the Epiphanic Prison.

(Of course, to a Zen Buddhist, if you are free, then no escape is necessary.)

As the name implies, the only way to escape an Epiphanic Prison is to have an epiphany. The nature of the enlightenment varies. Sometimes it's self enlightenment, and understanding and mastering one's own fears lets one escape the Ontological Mystery. Sometimes it's understanding of one's surrounding, of why one is trapped, and thus what must be done to escape.

This often overlaps with Lotus-Eater Machine, when the prison is made to feel like paradise so you won't want to leave, Psychological Torment Zone, when you desperately wish you could, and Tailor-Made Prison. Not uncommon as a form of Purgatory or Limbo; the Karmic Reform Hell also often works this way. Also see: Armor-Piercing Question, Orphean Rescue and Platonic Cave.

For a more literal construct, see also City in a Bottle.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Angel Beats!: Purgatory is only a prison if you let it become one. You have to just let it go if you want to move on.
  • The Animatrix short World Record has a professional athlete nearly free himself from the Matrix by becoming aware of the artificial state of the world around him while breaking the world record of the 100m dash. We think.
    Only the most exceptional people become aware of the Matrix. Most that learn it exists must possess a rare degree of intuition, sensitivity and a questioning nature.
    However, very rarely, some gain this wisdom through wholly
    different means..
  • Doraemon: Nobita and the Winged Braves has a new character, Icarus the legendary bird-man, who's locked in a prison whose walls he can rip apart like dirt with a single flap of his wings. The reason he's behind bars is because he's The Atoner - guilty over getting his best friend Seagrid shot by humans because of his mistake, after losing his wife and son, Icarus deliberately allows himself to be imprisoned.
  • The anime Haibane Renmei is a beautiful example of self enlightenment to find the way out of an Ontological Mystery.
    To know your sin is to have no sin.
  • Kaguya from Kaguya-sama: Love Is War is in one created by her family, supported by the weight of the family name and the role she's supposed to fulfill for them. She was conditioned to be an accessory to their family plans, and this left Kaguya as an Ice Queen, perfect, immovable and uncaring. It's later that she realizes that her love for Shirogane is a way out of the prison.
  • Naruto features Izanami, a genjutsu of the Mangekyo Sharingan and a complement to Izanagi. Izanami was originally created to punish Uchiha who used Izanagi to escape the consequences of their own actions in battle. Its victims are trapped in an unalterable chain of events. The only way to escape is by accepting that what has already occurred cannot be changed. Kabuto was trapped in Izanami to remove him from battle, eventually emerging at peace with himself and having made a Heel–Face Turn.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: For Shinji, this is the "dark spotlight chair room" that he's often depicted sitting in during the show's navel-gazing moments. At the end, the room literally cracks apart and disintegrates when he finally realizes that he can learn to love himself.
  • Near the end of Paranoia Agent, Ikari is trapped in a cardboard world based on his nostalgia. He escapes by both metaphorically and literally shoving the figures out of his way.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena: Ohtori Academy is commonly interpreted as a place the students can only leave by growing beyond their circumstances, as per the words "If it cannot crack its eggshell, a chick will die without being born." This is much more blatant in Adolescence of Utena, where Ohtori is shown (at least to the audience) as a surreal Eldritch Location that Anthy and Utena spends the climax of the film literally escaping.
  • In The Tatami Galaxy, the narrator is trapped in one.

    Comic Books 
  • Inverted in the Fantastic Four when Reed is trapped in Doctor Doom's armor. To get out, he has to learn to think like Doom, thus trapping himself much more profoundly.
  • Invoked in the mildest possible manner in a John Byrne story from around 2000 about the Golden Age Flash. The Fiddler has trapped the Flash inside a ring of violins which vibrate to counter his speed. No matter how fast he runs, or what frequency he vibrates at, they throw him back into the center of the ring. Someone who has been trapped in there before eventually shouts the solution to him: He can walk out just fine.
  • Green Lantern
    • Green Lantern Rebirth #4 implied that the Green Lanterns go through this every time they put on their rings.
    • In Green Lantern Corps Annual #2, an imprisoned Sinestro plots to escape by telling stories of the failures of the Guardians and their Green Lanterns to the occupant of the cell next to his, the sapient sector 3600. Said sector is actually a god-like being only held in captivity by its belief in the infallibility of the Guardians who vanquished and imprisoned it long ago. Once Sinestro has convinced it of the fallibility of the Guardians, the being easily opens the cells.
  • One issue of Miracleman centers around a spy working in a city called The City for some shadowy ill-defined government agency. They give her missions to relay information to other agents, who are identified using elaborate sign/countersign codes. She's also a double agent for another shadowy, ill-defined government agency who she leaks information to. Eventually she goes AWOL and decides to leave the city, at which point it's revealed that after Miracleman appointed himself ruler of the entire world and united it under a one-world government, there was no more need for international espionage, and since a lot of ex-spies couldn't function unless they were spying and being secretive, he just stuck them all in one city, wiped their memories of him taking over, and hired 4 people as the leaders of various "agencies". Literally everyone in the city is spying on everyone else while pretending to have regular jobs. And since they technically do have regular jobs, The City still has a viable economy and can contribute to the world without threatening the stability of his government. True to the nature of the trope, by daring to reach the boundaries of the city, learning its nature, and wanting to leave, she is allowed to go, no strings attached. She makes a brief cameo later on, having adjusted mostly well, but still not able to completely shake her suspicion that everything she's heard or experienced since then is just another very complex secret code.
  • The Sandman (1989):
    • During a brief tour of Hell, right before he quits and locks it up, Lucifer the Morningstar explains to Dream that Hell is an Epiphanic Prison for the damned. They are trapped in Hell because, deep down, they believe they deserve to be trapped there and that their souls belong to Lucifer. Lucifer denies this, claiming that he has no need for human souls, and that they belong only to themselves — they just hate owning up to it.
    • A more specific example is seen in the storyline of the boy at the haunted school, in the same arc. He stays at school even as it fills up with ghosts of the damned, befriending a sad little ghost boy who was murdered there decades ago and can't leave because his bones are still in the attic. After being tortured to death by the same sadistic ghosts that killed the other boy, the kid decides that there's absolutely no reason to stay there anymore, and the two of them simply walk out past the gates.
  • While trying to rescue a little girl who was part of The Collector's collection of unique specimens, Silver Surfer discovers too late that she is held because she is the host of a rare virus who immediately recognizes that the surfer would be a better host and invades him body and mind, trapping him in a cryptic mindscape. He eventually realizes that he has locked himself in a guilt nightmare over the destruction of Zenn-La and allowing himself release from this guilt also cures the virus.
    The Collector: Are you telling me that you got cured because suddenly you're well-adjusted?!?
  • V for Vendetta: In a philosophical rather than physical/literal sense, this happens to both Evey Hammond and Eric Finch, in Evey's case due to her long imprisonment by V, and in Finch's, after an acid trip.
  • During The Killing Dream arc of X-23's solo series, Laura is trapped in a hellish dreamscape by Hellverine, who wants to seduce her to his service to command his armies by claiming that as a clone she has no soul, and because of all the death she has caused. A manifestation of her true self, which may actually be the Enigma Force shows her that, despite all of the killing, she never succumbed to the Facility's attempts to break her, and was ultimately as much an innocent victim as those she killed. This, along with her decision to escape what she was made and choose a path and life for herself proves Hellverine wrong, and allows her to permanently throw off his influence and escape. After waking from the dream, Laura does continue to be troubled by the encounter, though, and a substantial arc for the remainder of the series is her questioning whether or not she has a soul.

    Fan Works 
  • In Aeon Natum Engel, one of the first thing the therapists teach you on how to deal with the nightmare caused by witnessing the unspeakable horrors is to employ this belief to your own nightmares.
  • Invoked interestingly in Bird, a long-running theme of inversion of the source material's motif of physical and authoritive threats means that ultimately most patients at Alchemilla are kept there by their own fears and insecurities. As superpowered humans that are mostly voluntarily institutionalized, the majority can leave at any time they choose. Part of Taylor's journey is realizing she has to, both to protect her friends who can't leave voluntarily and to grow herself.
  • The Cadanceverse has a nightmare (as in, the mythological creature) put the Musical 6 in one of these. Fluttershy is only able to break out of it when she realizes that she doesn't want a life of ease; she wants to always be helping other animals and won't be satisfied if she isn't. This lets her break out of the trap and free her friends.
  • The Infinity Train serves as one in Infinity Train: Blossoming Trail and Infinity Train: Knight of the Orange Lily. The latter opens with a Fairy Tale-like Prologue wherein the protagonist discovers an Awful Truth — that his quest for greatness led to his demise — but rejects it, trapping himself in one of these. This parallels Gladion's situation, as he angrily denies the negative impact of his own 'grand quest'.
    • In Blossoming Trail, Henry and Walter's plan is to trap the Apex within The Fog Car with one of these that will prevent them from leaving until they all realize their ideology is wrong. If even one member clings onto this, it will trap everyone else.
  • In The Lament Series (ChaoticNeutral), each scenario is created by somebody making a Wish on the Ladybug and Black Cat Miraculi that alters reality, plunging them into a world that serves as their Self-Inflicted Hell. While escaping their situation completely is unlikely at best, each lamenter can potentially improve their situation by recognizing where they went wrong and working on their Fatal Flaws... easier said than done.

    Film — Animation 
  • In Kung Fu Panda 2, Masters Ox and Croc are captured by Lord Shen and put into a prison. When the heroes come to rescue them, it quickly becomes apparent that they could've easily broken out any time they wanted, but didn't out of fear that Shen would turn his new weapon on the city if they resisted. This fear is so strong that they outright refuse to escape until Shifu somehow persuades them off-screen.
  • In Over the Moon, Chang'e has one called the "Chamber of Exquisite Sadness" where she retreats into whenever her grief about Houyi peaks. It's a pocket dimension full of distant stars that only one can enter if they are experiencing their own feelings of grief. People outside of Chang'e run the risk of being trapped forever because they can see and experience visions of their saddest moments. As it would turn on, Chin was able to enter due to his determination to rescue his sister. Both Chang'e and Fei Fei would finally leave when they resolve to move on and love once more.
  • Tangled: Nothing was actually physically keeping Rapunzel in the tower, as she later proves by descending on her own hair. Mother Gothel built a staircase to the tower, but Rapunzel never knew about it. Her real prison was her messed-up psyche and lack of mental strength to stand up to her emotionally abusive Wicked Stepmother. Rapunzel's trip shows her that The World Is Just Awesome, and that she is capable and brave... and yet, when asked by Flynn if she wants to return to her tower, she still doubts, declaring it's complicated. Because Mother Gothel never kept Rapunzel physically in the tower, Rapunzel never realized she was a prisoner. So she never intended to escape, she only wanted to go to see the lamps. If not for Rapunzel realizing her kidnapping, she would never left the tower.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Subverted in The Cube. The protagonist suffers an hour of pure Mind Screw, trying to leave the Cube, but finally seems to be released when he simply decides that he's had enough and won't fall for any more tricks. He is let out, but then cuts himself and bleeds strawberry jam, and finds himself right back in The Cube again.
  • Groundhog Day. The character must find self-enlightenment to finally escape the day. In the original script, the actual condition was getting the girl. However, he had to come to self-enlightenment to get the girl anyway, so...
  • For Inception, limbo is a very real version of this trope. Is it possible to get out of limbo? Well, the first time Cobb and Mal tried, the two of them didn't escape fully sane...
  • The Matrix has an Inside a Computer System version of this trope. Kind of reversed, actually — you only realize how it was a prison once you've already gotten free. Usually. And invoked even further with the revelations of the the second film. Those in Zion believed themselves free of machine control, and thus were unable to escape the repeating cycles of destruction the machines had created until the Oracle and Neo (both aware of the "prison" by the end) forced a new outcome.
  • In THX 1138, the title character is imprisoned in a vast, featureless white room along with a number of others. As it turns out, the doors were unlocked the whole time, everyone was just too passive to check. Later, one of the prisoners who escaped with THX voluntarily returns to the white room because he found the world outside too overwhelming. That said, they did have to walk seemingly for miles, and leave the only place where they were guaranteed food and water, to get to the "edge" of the room. So it wasn't as if escaping was risk-free.
  • The Truman Show overlaps this with its own trope, "Truman Show" Plot, in that Truman doesn't realize he's been living his entire life trapped in a giant dome-shaped TV set and lied to by the people around him to prevent his desire to ever leave his hometown. The show's creator stages events that give Truman phobias and a general fear of the outside world. In the end, Truman realizes that these fears are the only thing really keeping him in his prison. If he stops being afraid and really tries to leave, the only way they can stop him is to actually kill him.
    • The Director of the show explicitly argues that they aren't keeping him prisoner because of this. Truman could easily leave if he really wanted and they wouldn't stop him. But when Truman really does try to go, the man reveals himself to be something of a hypocrite by flipping out and pushing the weather effects to the point where he really could have killed him.
  • Wesley Gibson in Wanted lives a crappy life working for a terrible boss, suffering his girlfriend cheating on him with his best friend, and he takes pills to cope with a heart problem. Then a secret society of assassins shows him that the "heart problem" is really his body winding up for Bullet Time and he's destined to be a huge badass.
  • In What About Bob?, Bob thinks that his therapist has put him in one of these. In reality, he's been tied up by ropes and left next to a ridiculous amount of black powder on a short fuse... since his therapist can no longer stand him.
  • In What Dreams May Come, this is the condition for both leaving Earth following death and for escaping Hell.

  • The Cat Who... Series: In book #8 (The Cat Who Sniffed Glue), wealthy parents Nigel and Margret Finch have their twin sons David and Harley in one of these. They addicted the boys to a life of luxury, then give them just enough of an allowance to let them keep living the good life — as long as they do everything that their parents tell them to do.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: In The Last Battle, Calormenes imprison some Dwarfs in a stable. The Dwarfs eat rotten turnips and such-like stable detritus. When Aslan triumphs, the Dwarfs are in a beautiful country eating a feast. Being flat Earth Atheists, they believe they are still in the stable.
  • In The Chronicles of Prydain, Prince Gwydion is held by Achren in what he calls a prison of the soul. He escapes by having an epiphany which causes it to become a Cardboard Prison that can no longer hold him.
  • In Chung Kuo the city is a physical prison, but the system is shown to be a epiphanic one when the Aristotle File appears. The driving force of Berdichev's revolution is the fact that the history of the world was re-written.
  • Implied in Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. If Roland would just learn to let things go, he would be free of the Tower's trap.
  • Most books written towards the end of the life of Philip K. Dick feature this in his adaption of Gnosticism, where reality itself is the prison. In other words ESCAPE THE IRON FORTRESS!! THE EMPIRE NEVER ENDED!!!. See VALIS for more details... if you're not likely to start believing that your cognizant intellect is imprisoned in your own body.note 
  • Discworld
    • Referenced in Small Gods: an Omnian says "we have no word for 'slave'." An Ephebian retorts: "I imagine that a fish has no word for 'water'."
    • Interesting Times: "something worse than whips". The Agatean Empire's (many) customs are so ingrained in everyone's minds that hardly anyone questions them. Rincewind discovers that guards don't expect prisoners to put up any kind of struggle, and nicking a different caste's outfit and avoiding eye contact makes for a foolproof disguise. There's still a dangerous spy network and a massive wall around the continent.
  • Doctor Who Expanded Universe: The Fourth Doctor book Ghost Ship has a variation. Before the story starts, the Doctor is suffering from depression, living in the Time Vortex and refusing to land the TARDIS, being far too depressed to do anything. The TARDIS senses his mood and materialises in a time and place haunted by a depression-based malevolent force that he is instinctively terrified of (despite normally being scared of nothing), and refuses to let him leave until he's defeated it, in the hope that it'll get him over his demons. For the record, he has such a miserable time on the ship that he attempts to drop the mystery and leave (something the Doctor usually never even considers) twice.
  • One of the three key themes in James Joyce's Dubliners is "paralysis": the characters are doomed to stay captive in their unfulfilling lives, because they are mentally unable to contemplate how life can be different.
  • The Great Divorce has this as what keeps damned souls in Hell. They can get out easily; there's a bus leading to the outskirts of Heaven, and anyone nearby can get on it. Heaven is so much realer than the ghosts that it's painful for them (Grass cuts their feet like knives, for example), but that can be overcome- each Ghost is met by a Bright One (native of Heaven) who can guide them up into Heaven proper (they will become more solid as they do). But to do so, they have to give up the flaws that keep them in hell, something most are unwilling to do.
  • In Guardians of Ga'Hoole, the hagsfiends' descendants are held in the Crystal Palace, kept in by keeping them so pampered that their feathers grow so long that they cannot fly, and they don't care about the outside.
  • In the novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, the "End of the World" sections take place in a walled town which the narrator must escape in order to reconnect the pieces of his mind before it shuts down completely. He escapes but turns back at the last minute, effectively committing suicide.
  • In David Brin and Gregory Benford's Heart of the Comet, Virginia the computer wiz has her brain uploaded to the AI core she's been trying to create sentience in because her body is too badly injured to live. The "space" in the computer seems too small to fit her mind into it, until she works out a different way of looking at it and arranging herself.
  • Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality: In Bearing an Hourglass, Norton is trapped by Lucifer in fantasy world and a science fiction world, supposedly in an Anti-Matter Galaxy where time flows backwards like Norton does (As the Incarnation of Time, Norton moves backwards in Time, as he has to know when things need fixing). He knows it's a trap, but he wasn't sure if it was all in his mind. At one point, he came to a room where each of his companions in the fantasy world was possessed by a strange force, and compelled to answer his questions. After one of his companions, an alien, tells him something that he himself did not know, he realizes it isn't a dream. Next, he came to a room with three individuals, a King who offers power, even over the Anti-Matter Galaxy, a woman who offers him all the riches in it, and a young, irreverent boy, who tells him that there is no Anti-Matter Galaxy. After this, he comes to a room showing him the entire Universe, and goes back and forth through all of time, seeing it start as dead dust, eventually collapsing into a single point at its end. With those three revelations, he realizes that Satan had placed an illusion on his Hourglass, making him think he was still going backwards in time, and upon exiting, the entire fantasy world was revealed to be Satan's Movie Studios.
  • Inferno (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle): Hell is speculated to work something like this. It is possible, albeit extremely difficult, to leave it. One of the primary things keeping the damned from doing so, besides the demons and the fire and such, is their own belief that they cannot and that they deserve to be where they are. On several occasions, the characters offer to let sinners join them on their trek, only to be met with jeers and self-pity and be forced to move on.
  • The Iron Man novel The Armor Trap has Tony Stark trapped in a virtual reality. Once he realizes the nature of his prison, he's able to use his ability to interface with computers to send an emergency signal to War Machine, who rescues him.
  • Played with in Otherland, specifically in the case of Paul Jonas, an amnesiac inhabitant of the virtual reality worlds who is, at first, unaware that he's in a simulation. As the story evolves, he manages to regain his memories a little at a time, eventually remembering exactly who he is and how he got there... at which point the realization strikes that he's really a virtual copy of the real Paul Jonas. This realization causes him to cross the Despair Event Horizon, thanks to Cloning Blues, but also gives him the resolve to perform a Heroic Sacrifice which allows the real people trapped in Otherland with him to survive. After everything gets resolved, the heroes then awaken his real self.
  • According to R. Giskard Reventlov in The Robots of Dawn, this is why Earthmen, not Spacers, are destined to settle the galaxy — they at least know that they are trapped. Eartmen live in a a nasty increasingly overpopulated world where they take care of almost everything themselves out of luddite anti-robot beliefs, but the Spacers live in incredibly wealthy idyllic utopia worlds where robots happily do all the work for them with no pressure of any sort to leave or improve. It's implied that all the Spacer worlds eventually either collapsed or changed to the point they could no longer truly be considered human after they refused to leave or grow.
  • Star Wars Legends: Sort of used in the MedStar Duology. Padawan Bariss Offee is assigned to a fetid swamp of a world to assist the doctors there. They work on the clones who fight the droids over the bota supply that only grows on this planet. This is supposed to be Bariss's Trial before she can become a knight, which puzzles her. The Trials and whether or not they are standardized is never explained, but just being assigned like this isn't typical. Her Trials don't even involve combat. Any fighting she does is purely because various threats stray into where the field hospital is. At the end of the two books, having undergone Character Development, overcome an addiction to bota, gained and lost friends, and participated in the evacuation as both sides realized that the bota was mutating and becoming ineffective, she realized that her Trial had ended when she recognized that she was a Knight. ...Or something like that. She's a Knight by Revenge of the Sith, anyway.
  • The poem To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace. Not really a straight example in that he actually is in a very real prison, and stays there, but the "epiphany" part is what sets his mind free. At any rate, the first two lines of the last stanza are possibly the Ur-Example.
    Stone walls do not a prison make,
    Nor iron bars a cage;
    Minds innocent and quiet take
    That for an hermitage;
    If I have freedom in my love
    And in my soul am free,
    Angels alone, that soar above,
    Enjoy such liberty.
  • Villains by Necessity: The Labyrinth of Dreams, the last test the protagonists face, works only if you believe in the illusions.
  • Vorkosigan Saga: According to Miles, this is what the Cetagandans were trying to create with their Dagoola IV prison camp in The Borders of Infinity:
    "It's the Cetagandans' plan to break you, and then return you to your world like little innoculated infections, counseling surrender to your people.

    "When this is killed," [Miles] touched her forehead, oh so lightly, "then the Cetagandans have nothing more to fear from this," one finger on her bicep, "and you will all go free. To a world whose horizon will encircle you just like this dome, and just as inescapably."
  • In The Wheel of Time this is Ishamael's motivation for serving the Dark Lord: the Wheel has no beginning and no ending, meaning that his soul is bound to be reborn at each turning of the Wheel and fight the same fight again and again. If the Dark Lord wins, tough, he will break the Wheel and remake the world to his image, breaking the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
    • In the last book, this is what the Dark One promises to do if he wins and remakes the world in his image: firstly, alter everyone's memories so they think they won; secondly, remove any capacity for compassion or nobility so that they will have no desire to resist and because, in his words, they are "not necessary".

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Ashes to Ashes (2008) Alex Drake arrives in the 80s after being shot, a similar situation to that of Sam Tyler in Life on Mars. Because of this she believes that she is in a coma like Sam, and that the entire world is a construct of her imagination. Making use of her psychological training, she tries to find the reason she has arrived in this world in order to find a way to return to her daughter in 2008. At the end of the series, it is revealed to most of the main characters (except Gene, who knew all along) that the world is a form of purgatory and that they are all dead. Thus, Alex and the others do receive an epiphany, but this epiphany allows them to progress into heaven, and not to return to the living.
  • Beyond the Walls:
    • The House in general: It traps the people who wander into it, waits until they lose their will to leave, and then turns them into zombie-like creatures, that impede and intimidate new arrivals. One can withstand its pull, if the will to escape is there and you have a way to remember the outside, for example by eating bread, but that still doesn't mean you will manage to leave.
    • The little idyllic house at the lake that Lisa finds on her journey can almost count as a Tailor-Made Prison. The House lets her live happily with her dead little sister, but she is not allowed to leave. The realization that her sister is dead and nothing she does will change that is the epiphany she needs to have before even thinking about leaving.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In "The Keeper of Traken", anyone who is evil and winds up on the planet becomes imprisoned in a stone form called a "melkur" by the anti-evil effects of the area (It Makes Sense in Context). "Melkur" is their word for a fly trapped in honey. To be freed, all you have to do is not be evil anymore. Once your heart changes, you're free. Naturally, the Master had been stuck for a good long while. Not. The Melkur is really his TARDIS, whose chameleon circuit works just fine. He's been free and able to orchestrate the evilness that had been going on all along. He probably avoided actually becoming a melkur by staying inside and moving it wherever he needed to be, as the Melkur was sometimes seen to move.
    • The episodes "The Long Game", "Bad Wolf" and "The Parting of the Ways" do this with the whole population of Earth, and eventually the Doctor and Co. too.
      The Editor: Well, now. There's an interesting point. Is a slave a slave if he doesn't know he's enslaved?
      The Doctor: Yes.
      The Editor: Aw. I was hoping for a philosophical debate. Is that all I'm going to get? "Yes"?
      The Doctor: Yes.
    • In "Heaven Sent" the Doctor is teleported into the confession dial seen earlier in the series. Its interior is a series of puzzle rooms with strange clues that suggest the presence of other prisoners, yet the Doctor also notes that many of their elements seem designed to intimidate him, including the veiled monster that constantly shuffles after him. Eventually, he realizes that, for billions of years, he's been using the teleporter to create duplicates of himself as he first arrived in the dial. And then repeats the process.
  • Heroes: Matt traps Sylar in one of these in Volume 5, though he more intended for it to be an actual prison, as he never meant for Sylar to get out. However, when Peter forces himself into the dream to save Sylar, the two, after YEARS of quarreling, eventually make peace and are able to tear down the literal wall keeping them from waking up.
  • In Life on Mars Sam Tyler, the protagonist, is hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in the '70s. The show revolves around Sam trying to understand how he came to this new place (whether it is Time Travel, a coma, Madness, etc.) and how to get home. When Sam does eventually get home, he does receive an "epiphany" but it motivates him to return to the '70s world, and not to stay in his original world. The "new world" itsef is not explained in Life on Mars but it is revealed in the sequel series, Ashes to Ashes (2008), to be a purgatory for police officers.
  • This is how Hell works in Lucifer. Everyone there is trapped by their own guilt, essentially punishing themselves for all eternity. They could leave any time by breaking the cycle and letting go of their guilt but no-one has ever done so. This may apply only to humans as Goddess (God's wife and the mother of the angels) was specifically mentioned to have been locked up in Hell with other doors shown to be sealed despite Lucifer's claim to the contrary.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: In "Frame Of Mind", the Tilonians try to get Riker to reject the Enterprise as real. It works for a time, as Riker admits that the hospital is where reality makes the most sense, but he eventually realizes that neither world makes sense. Once he accepts this, he is able to wake up from his drug-induced sleep and escape his captors.
  • The djinn of Supernatural "grant wishes" by imprisoning a person in a dream of whatever they wished for. You can bust out by killing yourself.
  • In the season 4.5 premiere of Warehouse 13, Artie puts himself in one of these after Claudia banishes the Artifact-induced dark presence within him that made him kill Leena. Subverted in that Claudia forces him out even after his epiphany because he wants to stay there with his memory of Leena rather than live with the guilt.

  • Eagles
    • The Hotel California. "You can check out any time you like/but you can never leave"
    • Also by the Eagles, from their song "Already Gone"; "So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains /And we never even know we have the key."
  • The R.E.M. song "World Leader Pretend" is about somebody getting out of a self-imposed isolation.
    This is my mistake,
    Let me make it good.
    I raised the wall,
    And I will be the one to knock it down.
  • In the Janelle Monáe song "Many Moons", the singer seems to suggest that the audience is in such a trap ("You're free but in your mind, your freedom's in a bind...").
  • The Wall starts out as the barrier separating Pink's public and private selves, but ends up becoming one of these. Worth noting that he comes this close to achieving the epiphany halfway through the second act, but the intervention of his handlers sends him backsliding. His later Epiphanic Trial ensures that his escape is permanent. Maybe.

    Myths & Religion 
  • Certain Hindu philosophies believe the world to be this. They believe the world is one great "maya", an illusion to distract us from the enlightenment which can only be found within oneself.
  • The concept of reincarnation, particularly in Buddhist and Taoist philosophy. The self, Buddha said, was distinct from the soul. Death is the destruction of the self, not the soul, which could then be reborn as any animal, as there was no real fundamental difference between animal and man. All were trapped in an endless cycle of Karma. The body and the senses were an illusion, we are in reality just a stream of consciousness, which may eventually break the cycle by attaining 'Moksha', enlightenment.
  • Gnosticism is basically something along the lines of this trope. The general gist of it is that the universe wasn't created by God but Her misguided offspring, the Demiurge. Human souls are trapped in the material world and must, through mystical experience, learn the right secrets (hence "gnosis", "knowledge") that will get them past the Archons after they die, so that they can ascend to the higher, spiritual reality where the true God resides and souls originate.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Armies of the Abyss supplement of Dungeons & Dragons mentions Samora, a resort-like area in the Abyssal realm of Azzagrat, the kingdom ruled by Graz'zt. At first, the place seems like the Red Light District of Azzagrat, and it basically is; mortals can gain any fantasy they desire, for a price, from the succubi under Graz'zt's employ. But there is a risk. Mortals who take too much advantage of the services are drawn in too deep, until they lose the desire to leave, becoming Sex Slaves of the succubi - and new customers as well - without even knowing it.
    • At the other end of the Lower Planes, Tyrants of the Nine Hells mentions a location in Dis, the second layer of Hell, called the Garden of Delights, that appears to be a paradise to mortals who enter; it's a beautiful garden where lovely nymphs welcome visitors and lavish affection, along with food and drink of the finest quality on visitors - all for free, no less. The fact that this place is in Hell should tip people off that it's a trap. Dispater, the ruler of the layer, employs efreet sorcerers to maintain the place, and the "nymphs" are erinyes. The purpose of the Garden is to enspell its visitors with its intoxicating nature to prevent them from wanting to leave, and eventually tempt them to evil. (If the erinyes can't do that because a mortal is incorruptible, they just let the visitor starve; the food is an illusion, and visitors will eventually die of thirst or starvation trying to live on it.)
  • The Darklords of Ravenloft are trapped in their Ironic Hell as punishment for their monstrous deeds. The term for such deeds in Ravenloft is an "Act of Ultimate Darkness", a near-perfect blend of hypocrisy, depravity, cruelty, and selfishness. The clincher, though, is absolute refusal to acknowledge that what they did was wrong. Indeed, that's part of The Punishment for darklords: if they worked up the moral strength to admit that what they have done is inexcusable and that they reaped what they sowed, their curse would be moot. But the thing is, if they were capable of admitting they were wrong, they wouldn't be here in the first place. And, surprise, surprise! While originally a TSR setting and currently in the hands of Wizards of the Coast, due to an apparent desire to own every example of this trope in gaming, White Wolf had the Ravenloft license for most of Dungeons & Dragons's Third Edition era (under their Sword & Sorcery imprint).
    • The one darklord who did eventually escape, Lord Soth, was a case of Real Life Writes the Plot since White Wolf no longer had the rights to the character. In-universe, Lord Soth apparently finally realized how everything bad that happened to him was ultimately his own fault and he became totally apathetic as a result. The Dark Powers grew bored with him and let him go.
  • White Wolf has a few properties that deal with this sort of narrative.
    • The ultimate goal in Wraith: The Oblivion is to Transcend, i.e. to conquer one's own darkest nature, in order to lose one's 'fetters' and Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence.
    • Promethean: The Created has shades of this. The Prometheans suffer and desperately want to be human. But how? What is it really, to be human? How can these cowardly, weak creatures be worthy of their beautiful souls? How can you earn a soul?
    • The epiphanic prison is almost literally the condition of the entire human race in Mage: The Ascension. Mages can change Reality, but they have a hard time doing it because most people don't believe Reality can be changed. If everyone on Earth Awakened and realized that they have the power to, together, literally do anything.
    • You can actually do this twice in Mage: The Awakening: once when you Awaken and realise that the entire reality is a prison of the demiurge-like Exarchs, and again after the Awakening if you can conquer the prison of reality and Ascend to the Supernal Realms.
    • In the fan-made gameline Princess: The Hopeful, the Trap the Darkness wove for the souls of the Radiants in the Dreamlands was this. It held the Radiants for eons in a dreamworld where they had never been defeated, but the minute that they realized that they were in an illusion they were able to tear it to pieces.
      • This also applies to the lesser prisons the Wardens still create for individual Radiants who wander too far from the territory of the Queens. The book explicitly states that as soon as a Princess actively tries to escape her prison, she will have no trouble doing so. Walls crumble at her blows, and guards are helpless in true battle. For this reason, the Wardens must make their cage either so tempting that the Radiant won't want to leave, or so intimidating that she won't even try to escape.


    Video Games 
  • In Brütal Legend, the first group Eddie recruits into the new army are prisoners toiling in a mine. Lars explains that there is no gate or restraints on the men because they have no knowledge of life outside of the mine, the only thing they know how to do is hit things with their heads, so they stay underground. Eddie introduces the Headbangers to heavy metal to inspire them to reject their slavery.
  • Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner revolves entirely around this concept, especially the one based on Hinduism (see Real Life examples). It even continues after the main character have reached the true world in the sequel.
  • Hagatha's tower in the third chapter of Kings Quest (2015) requires an Act of True Love to escape, and even Hagatha herself (a princess who turned herself into an ugly lizard-creature through overuse of beauty potions) is trapped there... until the epiphany that it doesn't need to be romantic love: simply loving yourself is enough.
  • Legacy of Kain: Defiance. At the climax of the game, one of the main characters realizes that Nosgoth itself is essentially one giant epiphanic prison, the wheel of fate ruled by the elder god. "All the conflict and strife throughout history, all the fear and hatred, served but one purpose - to keep my master's Wheel turning. All souls were prisoners, trapped in the pointless round of existence, leading distracted, blunted lives until death returned them - always in ignorance - to the Wheel." And having made that epiphany, Raziel knows he alone has the means to correct it...
  • Persona 5 uses this as a major theme, with you recruiting new party members by convincing them to leave the questionable social situations that have imprisoned them, but that they could also leave if they were willing to stand up for themselves.
    Game Director Katsura Hashino: We may feel some sort of suffocation in this world today, but as long as the world is comprised of relationships among humans, it is a person’s character, or a group’s character, that will provide the "power" to destroy that "feeling of entrapment".
    • Mementos, the Palace of the Collective Unconscious, manifests as a giant prison, symbolic of everyone who feels constrained by the civil order, but are too afraid or uncaring to do anything about it. Fitting with the Seven Deadly Sins motif of the game, they collectively represent the sin of Sloth.
  • In Planescape: Torment The Nameless One can hear a story of what the Sensates do to those who only indulge in pleasures and neglect to seek the truth behind experiences: They are imprisoned within a feast hall in Arborea where they do nothing but indulge those pleasures constantly and to the exclusion of everything else. The feast hall is inescapable, because none of its prisoners realize they're imprisoned there in the first place.
  • The Airship in Rule of Rose is very much one of these, as it mixes together Jennifer's most traumatic experiences and memories together, while forcing her to face them to move forward.
  • In the Silent Hill games, the town of Silent Hill acts as a prison for the tormented souls it attracts, creating monsters from their personal demons. People can only escape the town by overcoming the problems that drew them to it in the first place (see James and Murphy). Once they succeed in doing so, the town no longer has any power over them and they are free to leave. Things get more complicated if someone is trapped in another person's dark world. The only way to escape in those cases is either to help that person face their demons (see Alessa), or put them out of their misery if they are beyond saving (see Walter).

    Visual Novels 
  • The Holiday Star in Hatoful Boyfriend turns out to be like this. At first it seems like a pleasing dream or an interesting place to visit. Its inhabitants urge visitors to stay, they are not permitted to leave, their lives are portrayed as hopeless struggles, and to begin to escape they must decide to face difficult lives anyway.
  • In Umineko: When They Cry the "Meta-World" (where the witches play) might be one of these.

  • Dominic Deegan gives this treatment to Hell as well. If damned souls are able to acknowledge their sins in life and own up to their past mistakes, their souls explode and return to the Life Stream.
  • In The Dragon Doctors, Sarin's analysis suggests that the seed is one: both victims we see caught by it escape after they let go of the violent, dysfunctional people they used to be.
  • Jack: Hell's parole system (pretends to) work this way. All sinners are stuck in their punishment until 1) they realize that what they did to get condemned there was bad and wrong, and manage to admit this to themselves, and 2) ask for forgiveness. After that, it's a matter of working to the point where the angels keeping an eye on things down there are willing to say that you've earned the chance to reincarnate and try again.
    • Unfortunately, Hell loves toying with its residents, especially those trying to redeem themselves. Some sinners are placed in tortures that prevent them from coherently thinking about their sins, while others are given jailers who ignore their genuine pleas of atonement and just rip them to shreds. At least two of the residents that we've seen so far have either no memory of what they did that got them condemned to Hell — or no memory at all, prior to ending up in Hell. In both cases, it's noted that this kind of screws the individual over. It's also implied, though, that Hell itself may be a Genius Loci that acts as a sadistic jailer. In Jack's case, this was self-inflicted. At the moment of his death, he pleaded with God to erase his memories.
    • What makes it even more of a downer is that we meet more than one or two people who are in Hell, and know exactly, specifically why they are there, and what it would entail to get out. Just one of two problems: 1, they feel they deserve to go unforgiven and suffer forevernote , or 2, the reason they believe themselves to be in hell is wrong, becoming something of a spiritual wild goose chase as both Heaven and Hell refuse to spell it out for them.
  • A repeated motif of Kill Six Billion Demons is that all of the Seven are trapped, to one degree of another, in a prison of their own making. Mottom is too afraid of the balance of power shifting and her own Decadent Court to take agency in her own life beyond bleeding her worlds dry, Mammon is bound by his senile obsessions with counting his wealth and the guilt of murdering his family, Solomon is too arrogant to give any autonomy to his empire for fear of eventual anarchy, Gog-Agog is imprisoned by her inability to accept her own existence (as a hive mind of worms), Jadis is imprisoned by her own Cosmic Horror Story-induced fatalism, Incubus is imprisoned by his need for praise and affirmation, and Jagganoth seeks to violently destroy his prison of violence even if it means killing everyone else. Even Zoss, the Top God, admits he has turned the multiverse itself into his prison from his selfish arrogance.
  • The Order of the Stick: One of these is part of the defenses of Girard's Gate. It traps people in an illusion of their "perfect world", and the way to escape is to understand that it's not real. When the Order of the Stick gets trapped in it, Elan frees them when he admits that his dream, of his family reunited, is childish and could never happen, because his father and brother are evil. Nale later gets caught in it, and escapes when he realizes that his Bond Villain Stupidity (spending an hour describing his evil plan to Elan and Haley) is having no negative consequences.
    • A metaphorical one of these afflicted Haley when the trauma of losing a huge amount of gold, coupled with a number of pre-existing psychological issues, caused her to speak exclusively in cryptograms that noone else could understand. (Initially no translation was provided, leaving readers to puzzle out the solutions themselves; the print compilations kindly provided the translations) This continued for a substantial amount of time and strips before she finally resolved (most of) her issues and was willing to confess her love to Elan.
  • Slightly Damned: Kieri (and Kazai) carry Heaven's duties and burdens in their hearts, even in Medius. It takes them (Kieri first) a long time to realize this is a bad thing.
    Kieri: What has Heaven done to us?

    Web Original 
  • A plot point in Hitherby Dragons is that people can be separated from the world by a question they cannot answer. Of the few times these do get answered, the answer is usually along the lines of "the question isn't that important".
  • SCP-666, the "Spirit Lodge" is a Tibetan yurt inhabited by a demon that tempts addicts with their particular vice, be it drugs, gambling, or even video games. If you accept its offer and show no signs of intending to stop, it forces you into taking your addiction to lethal extremes. If you show remorse or express a desire to stop however, it becomes more friendly and allows you to leave with your addiction completely cured.
  • Website Prison Planet blatantly invokes this.

    Western Animation 
  • In Captain N: The Game Master, there was the Pleasure Zone, a carnival-like place that was so much fun, nobody ever realized that they were being held prisoner. The protagonists are there for a month without realizing it before Mega Man wises up.
  • In Gravity Falls, Bill's prison for Mabel, based on her happiest fantasies, prevents her from leaving until she wants to, which he describes as "the most diabolical trap I've ever created."
  • Infinity Train: Any human on the train has a number on their hand measuring their emotional turmoil, and can't go back home until it's lowered enough to take the number to zero. Tulip mocks the idea of an inanimate object trying to help people, but eventually comes to accept it. Unfortunately, it can go up as well as down, and in Amelia's case went very, very high due to her overthrowing the original Conductor in a vain attempt to resurrect her husband. The second book starts to deconstruct this concept, as it's shown some passengers actually prefer to live on the train, and thus see their high numbers as an encouragement to raise hell for everyone else living there.
  • In Justice League Unlimited episode "For the Man Who Has Everything" (based on a story written Alan Moore), Superman is trapped inside a prison in his own head by a parasitic plant called "The Black Mercy" which is a biological Lotus-Eater Machine that puts him in a dream world of the perfect life he wishes he had. The villain gloats that the only way to escape was to give up his heart's greatest desire.
    Mongul: [smugly] It must have been like ripping off your own arm...
  • In The Legend of Korra, there exists in the spirit world an impenetrable fog that causes humans to begin hallucinating their fears. To escape, Tenzin has to accept his flaws and failures; not an easy task, as the fog makes rational thought difficult at best. It takes a pep talk from his father, Avatar Aang, for Tenzin to break free and save his siblings and daughter. The outlook for people who are not as prepared as he to acknowledge their own flaws is far more bleak. Admiral Zhao, for instance, has been stuck in the Fog for over seventy years, repeating his titles to himself in a Madness Mantra and vainly searching for the Avatar.
  • In The Midnight Gospel, Clancy visits a prison for wayward simulation beings and spends time with a prisoner named Bob. Bob is killed and brought back to life in the prison over and over again until he learns to control his anger, refrain from killing others, and pay attention to his surroundings so he can escape. Once he does so, he becomes part of Indra's Net.
  • In Xiaolin Showdown, an Enemy Mime traps our heroes in an imaginary prison... until they realize they can simply imagine a doorknob to escape.
  • Rick and Morty has one in the form of the "Jerryboree", a daycare center in which the Ricks of the multiverses drop off their son-in-law Jerry if they ever end up unwitting tagging along. While the daycare is designed to fulfill Jerry's incredibly basic necessities, there's also nothing stopping them from leaving save for the fact that Jerrys are all typically gutless cowards who if they ever decide to live will inevitably just come back due to not being able to deal with the weirdness of the cosmos.

    Real Life 
  • Plato gave us the idea of the world being a cave in which we see shadows dancing on the wall and think they're the reality; only those who turn around and see outside the cave can escape, and when they try to explain things to the people still inside the cave, generally the people still inside the cave think they're nuts. C. S. Lewis also used this illustration to good effect in some of his theological writings and in the creation of Narnia.
  • The concept of learned helplessness is a real-life form of this. Basically, when an animal attempts to escape something and is hurt by the failed attempt, it will learn it cannot escape. Then, even when the barriers which prevented from escaping are removed, it will still not escape as it has learned that it can't. This also works with young elephants, who are tethered by one leg with a chain that could never hold an adult. But, because the baby can't break it, they become convinced that nothing can, creating the same situation without ever being injured. However, should something happen to the chain, that elephant becomes useless, as it can no longer be safely restrained.
  • Wilhelm Reich — guru to a few, crackpot to everyone else — believed that a sinister force called the Emotional Plague has put humanity in "the trap". Everyone yearns to leave the trap, but no one dares make a move for the exit, which is supposed to be obvious to everyone entrapped within. There's... a lot of sexuality and anxiety involved.
  • Clinical depression and anxiety disorders superficially appear to be this, in that there is nothing physically constraining your actions other than apathy or fear. However, since Epiphany Therapy doesn't work in real life and it often has medical causes, a lot of harm can be done by people who insist that someone depressed just has to get over it. On the other hand, people who are depressed or dealing with anxiety have to learn to function despite the feelings. So while the illusion doesn't go away, recognizing it as such helps.
  • It's also worth mentioning that although depression cannot be cured by a single "epiphany", Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is somewhat based on this trope. The idea is that depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are caused by (or at least worsened by) negative thoughts about oneself, the world, etc. For example, a person with depression and low self-esteem might say to themselves "I'm no good at school, why do I even bother trying?" Because of this way of thinking they do not try or they do try but get nervous and mess up, thus confirming their beliefs they are bad at school and creating a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. CBT aims to break this vicious cycle by replacing negative thoughts and attitudes with more positive ones, and exchanging bad behaviors/habits for good ones. This type of therapy can be effective against OCD and some other types of mental illness, but it isn't for everyone. Also, as the above bullet point stated, there are often medical causes involved in depression and other mental illnesses so if you or a loved one are struggling with mental illness, please see a professional. You may or may not need medication in addition to therapy, and different types of therapy work for different types of people so do not hesitate to try different therapists until you find one with a therapeutic style that works for you.
  • Cattle guards. Especially the ones that are just painted on the road. The painted ones are an effective "prison" for cattle because their eyes can't perceive that it's a harmless 2D painting. It's an optical illusion for them. (Real guards are not, as they can easily injure a cow that made a concerted effort to cross it.)
  • People with an unhealthy obsession with someone else (including Stalker with a Crush and the like) are in a version of this. Only by learning to let go of the person in question can they be free.