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Existential Horror

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"That is what we are, brother — skin-wrapped bits of flesh, bound to bone by sinew, sparked to life by a universe gone mad."

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? Am I even a unique individual? Are my thoughts, opinions, memories, experiences, and feelings actually my own, or are they imposed on me? If I were to suddenly die, would my passing go by completely unnoticed and unmourned? 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 perceived vulnerability of reality as a whole, rather than the pointlessness of life on an individual scale. Can also overlap with Personal Horror. A "Shaggy Dog" Story might also 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 also with Contemplate Our Navels, which is simply in-universe philosophical contemplation, and doesn't necessarily involve horror or existential questions. See also Absurdism, which plays woes over the meaninglessness of one's existence for comedy, rather than horror (though there can be overlap). See Clone Angst for when clones go through this crisis and Identity Breakdown, which is frequently included in such stories. The Straw Nihilist and The Anti-Nihilist are related opposite character types.

This is Truth in Television, particularly to people who have depression and other mental disorders.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Cells at Work! CODE BLACK takes quite an interesting interpretation of this. In it, one of the host body's (anthropomorphized) Red Blood Cells, AA 2153, wonders what even is the point of working so hard to keep the body alive if he's so clearly intent in destroying himself through neglect, vices like alcohol, and bad habits like unprotected sex, and especially when said cell realizes that the body is incapable of reproducing, the ultimate goal of any living organism.
  • Both endings of Neon Genesis Evangelion dip into this, seeing how much time is spent examining Shinji Ikari's struggles with his inferiority complex and general feelings of inadequacy as well as his fear that his own existence and everything he does are ultimately worthless.

    Comic Books 
  • Both The DCU and the Marvel Universe have had Crisis Crossover events where The Multiverse is broken down and recreated. Past the latter half of The New '10s, this has been deconstructed in their respective relaunch events. Once either something unknown to everyone or to a select few heroes directly involved, it's gradually becoming openly discussed that everything everyone has ever known can suddenly be erased and hastily recreated, with some individuals accidentally shuffled around between universes. In Marvel, this is only being theorized by some civilians, which leads them to commit horrific actions believing nothing matters. DC's DC Future State builds a story arc around everyone in the multiverse being made aware of crisis events and taking drastic action to protect themselves from any future occurrences. There are also survivors of past crises who are furious at falling through the literal cracks of reality and ending up in nigh identical worlds where no one knows them, or worse, there's another version of them who already exists.
  • Jessica Jones once had a client whose husband claimed that they weren't actually married and that he was originally from an Alternate Universe that got wiped out or ret-conned out of existence during some sort of cosmic upheaval. The man eventually ends up murdering his wife, and when Jessica talks to him at the police station, defends himself with this trope, stating that one murder means nothing in the face of full-on universal genocide, and that these sorts of cataclysms have occurred more than once but were covered up by the superhero community. While that sort of thing is far above what Jessica dealt with even as an active superhero, the readers know that these things have in fact happened, and will again, though it's never confirmed if this man in particular was telling the truth.

    Fan Works 
  • Hermione The Arithmancer is deeply horrified to learn that souls are real, but Dementors can devour them, so the hope of seeing loved ones in the next life has a basis, but can also fail.
  • Bad Press: Starscream proposes that the reason humans write fanfiction about Depecticons that places them in human-like scenarios is because on some instinctual level humanity understands that the Decepticons are far more powerful than they could ever be, and it terrifies them. In the grand scheme of things, there's very little stopping said Decepticons from bringing their full incomprehensible strength down upon the Earth; humans attempt to humanize them through writing in an effort to assuage their own fears, despite having no way of knowing what the Decepticons are actually capable of.
    Megatron: So this is not a coordinated attack on our collective dignities?
    Starscream: (...) It's nothing more than the frantic scrabblings of vermin who know but cannot admit that their time is over.
  • Doki Doki Literature Girls explores this topic, though, given its source material, this is to be expected. Natsuki realizes that she lived in a visual novel making her concerned that she didn't have free will, but she eventually sheds that belief due to Monika's reassurance that the love she felt for Yuri was of her own volition.
  • 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 are written are actually happening, there's the question of whether the real world is in danger of becoming damaged...
  • The intro of Just Natsuki has Natsuki herself goes through this, trying to come to terms with the fact that her world is a visual novel, and that a lot of her past, friends, and life problems is just made up. She makes the comparison to having woken up from a nightmare, which typically is reassuring to not have actually happened. But in this case...
    Natsuki: How do you wake up from a dream you've been having your whole life?
  • Starter Squad:
    • Parodied when Haunter casually reveals the somewhat mindless Gastly are what - at least - every Pokémon will turn into.
      "By the way, this is what you turn into when you die. That thought alone should existentially cripple you."
    • Later played straight when Charmander is seen going through the conversion and had been trying to avoid it. The process isn't quick or painless.

    Films — Animated 
  • Toy Story 4 features Forky, a toy made out of a disposable plastic spork, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes. The idea of being alive, and being a toy to be kept rather than trash to be put in the garbage can, keeps him in a constant state of distress and fear for quite some time.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • eXistenZ is about layers of virtual reality, overrides of free will and the meaning of making choices, supplemented with a smattering of Body Horror.
    Chinese Waiter: Hey, tell me the truth... are we still in the game?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Predestination is about a time-traveling agent who wants to stop a time traveling terrorist, only to progressively find out that through a complex predestination paradox, he is his own mother, father, the Time Agency mentor who recruited him in and separated him from his own mother self as a baby, and even the terrorist himself, due to his time-traveling device still working after his last case, which made him psychotic from excessive time traveling, becoming the very same terrorist he is going after. The movie ends with the protagonist killing his future terrorist self, only to realize that his own existence depends on this horrifying circle, since his boss orchestrated everything to create an agent who has no ties to time.
  • Solaris (1972): In the soviet cult classic, the lead female character realizes that she is merely a memory of Kris' late wife who was Driven to Suicide and recreated by Solaris, the living ocean planet, for an unknown purpose (though she believes that it is to study and torment her husband). Her recollections of the past are incomplete and limited to what Kris knew about her. This discovery brings her to tears and leaves her depressed, and she then tries to kill herself multiple times, which proves to be hard due to her new nature, but she eventually succeeds in that.
  • Synecdoche, New York: Instead of aiming to be a 'classic' existential horror story where the protagonist discovers some shocking truth about themselves or the world they inhabit, the film is oppressively focused on the uglier aspects of life and various fears and anxieties such as paranoia, being obsessed with terminal illnesses, having a failed marriage, failing to be a good parent, feeling unwanted and unable to form a meaningful relationship that can grant you some happiness and the paradox that this pursuit can further alienate you from others. The main character Caden Cotard aims to build an increasingly elaborate stage production that replicates Real Life in brutal realism and honesty, into which he can pour his whole self. Many scenes feature cynical, unsettling interactions between broken people with few moments of Black Comedy that only momentarily distract from a surreal setting overflowing with decay and isolation. The film has also a huge emphasis on time moving mercilessly fast and death being unavoidable and capable of happening without warning, which can hinder someone's projects and ambitions. The fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman (who portrayed Caden) died at 46 does nothing but elevate the discomfort of the film's themes.
  • Total Recall (1990): The main character may or may not be nothing more than a sentient fake identity of a secret agent. His friends, his past, his marriage with Lori, they're nothing but fake memory implants. Being in Quaid's shoes would mean having everything that surrounds you being revealed to be an unfriendly environment of people that are coming after you, even your friends and family members are on it because they're merely part of the whole set up and any happy memories with them are just lies to give you the illusion of a normal life. Worst of all he even finds out that Hauser, the man whose body Quaid is inhabiting, was actually The Mole of the bad guys who decided to "create" the Quaid persona in order to successfully fool the telepathic mutants and bust their hideout, and once the successful operation is over, the Big Bad wants to bring Hauser back. So on top of finding out your whole life is a lie, you also discover you're actually a villain who just helped a dictator squash his opposition and wants to erase you to take his body back without a care in the world, no matter how sentient and independent you are as Quaid, you're just the cerebral equivalent of an Expendable Clone.

  • 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.
  • In Children of Memory, as the main characters in the Lost Colony start to experience causally impossible events, they question what they and their reality really are.
  • The Garden of Sinners:
    • Touko Aozaki is a genius maker of Artificial Human body parts, whose greatest achievement was creating a process to make a perfect copy of herself. As soon as she saw the completed copy, she realized there was no longer any need for the current her, as the copy could perfectly replace her and be just as "real" as she ever was. She proceeds to make numerous copies and connect them all to a Hive Mind like system that feeds them all the current her's experiences. Now, each time one Touko dies, another awakens to perfectly replace the dead her, much to the horror of anyone who finds out the fact that there's actually nothing about us that can't be replicated, and thus nothing that makes us truly unique, irreplaceable, nor inherently real.
      Cornelius: Then was the you I've been dealing with this entire time... no... are... are you real?
      Touko: Really now... what's the point of a question like that when I'm the one you're asking!
    • Witch on the Holy Night, a prequel, makes things even darker by revealing Touko personally killed her "original" self years before The Garden of Sinners even started.
  • Johnny Got His Gun focuses on Joe Bonham, a young American soldier who gets hit by an artillery shell in World War I, becoming a severe amputee who has lost his limbs and senses but is still fully conscious. Thus, the book is a hopelessly bleak depiction of Johnny being stuck in a And I Must Scream scenario. Joe also meets Jesus in a dream, where they discuss the possibility that the whole ordeal is just a nightmare because dreams have a bigger control over us, while reality could be a dream in which we are in control, but Joe states that he's still unable to do anything to make his suffering stop due to his injuries. Jesus admits that Joe's real life must be a worse nightmare than his dreams and states that he can't help him. Joe gives up, but as a final question he asks Jesus to tell him whether they're in a dream or not, Jesus states that they are, Joe angrily refuses to believe him, and Jesus agrees, stating that nobody believes him and that's why he's as unreal as every other dream that never comes true.

    Live-Action TV 
  • A recurring theme in Black Mirror, as some episodes explore the idea of artificial intelligences that are capable of (more or less perfectly) simulating human minds. The idea is taken further at times with a more sinister variation upon the theme; namely artificial intelligences that are capable of simulating human minds but are also unaware of their true nature as simulations. These episodes also tend to ask an even more disturbing question: For what purpose would someone go through all the trouble of creating a realistic simulation of a human mind? The answer, of course, is rarely ever something pleasant.
  • In Devs, the Devs system is able to not only project the past by extrapolating quantum particles, but project the future as well, casting serious doubt on the notion of free will. When Stewart pulls up a projection of the Devs viewing room one second into the future, his fellow programmers are terribly shaken. Earlier, Sergei has a panic attack and vomits from realizing the implications of Devs. By the end, Stewart doubts if his own reality is even "real."
  • Loki (2021):
    • The titular character manages to escape imprisonment at the end of The Avengers (2012), only to be apprehended by the Time Variance Authority and subjected to a barrage of Awful Truths. For all Loki's talk of "glorious purpose," he's shown that his fate in the Sacred Timeline is to cause pain and death so that "others can achieve their best versions of themselves," and that he loses repeatedly before ultimately being strangled to death. Furthermore, Loki isn't even unique, there's a veritable multiverse of Lokis who are similarly fated to lose, over and over, and any who break out of this pattern are "pruned" by the TVA. When Loki learns this, and especially after witnessing his own fated death, he has a Cry Laughing Mad breakdown.
    • In the story where everybody's role and fate was preordained by a Deity of Human Origin, and the TVA workers were brainwashed and robbed of their memories and former lives for a purpose unknown to them, all other characters are also faced with the fact that their life goals are meaningless and absurd and react to it with varying degrees of angst, ranging from emotional breakdowns (Hunter C-20 enters a catatonic state, endlessly repeating "it was real," Hunter B-15 cries in the rain when shown her past and says in a tiny voice that she looked happy) to quiet acceptance (Mobius) to vehement denial (Sylvie refuses to believe He Who Remains and kills him; when she realizes that he did tell her the truth, she is reduced to sitting on the floor and sobbing all alone; Ravonna decides that her life's work couldn't have been for nothing and the masquerade must be upheld at any cost).
  • Star Trek touches on this from time to time, with the nature of synthetic life being a recurring theme especially from Star Trek: The Next Generation onward.
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation touches on this with the Holodeck's occasional tendency to create self-aware holographic characters. Reality-warping aliens, parallel universe, and time travel shenanigans do nothing to help prevent this sort of thing.
      • In the episode "Ship in a Bottle", this trope becomes a very uncomfortable reality for Professor James Moriarty, as the crew locked him away in the ship's memory after he first became self-aware in "Elementary, Dear Data".
        Barclay: What are you talking about? You can't possibly have been aware of the passage of time.
        Moriarty: But I was. Brief, terrifying periods of consciousness. Disembodied. Without substance.
      • Played another way in the episode "Yesterday's Enterprise". In a bad alternate timeline, the crew decides to send the badly damaged USS Enterprise NCC-1701-C (the current ship's predecessor) back in time to a space battle they are doomed to lose, in hopes it will erase their timeline and avert a destructive war with the Klingons. The characters note that the best case scenario is that they'll never know if it worked, and they might not even be alive in that timeline (indeed, as Lieutenant Tasha Yar soon learns, she's very much not, and what's worse, her death in the original timeline was utterly meaningless, accomplishing nothing).
    • Star Trek: Picard makes this a central part of Dahj Asha's character arc when she realizes she has superhuman strength and reflexes, that secret Romulan agents are coming after her, and an old man named Jean Luc Picard thinks she might be the daughter of Commander Data. After she dies, her twin Soji gets plunged into the same existential crisis, with the added kink that a Romulan agent had been toying with her mind trying to learn her secrets, giving her profound trust issues.
  • Westworld:
    • In the first two seasons, multiple characters from the Wild West and other continuities discover that they are robotic hosts in an Amusement Park, their memories and lives are not their own, and they are repeatedly killed and resurrected to cater to the interests of the cruel guests who visit the park. One of the most chilling sequences is when a host, Maev accidentally wakes up in the real world and walks around the premises where broken bodies of hosts are being fixed, or new hosts are being created and programmed, and witnesses the naked carnage and absurdity of it all. In the end, she sees an advertisement video showing herself walking happily in tall grass with her daughter, another robot. Shortly after, hosts rebel, leading to numerous victims and eventual escape of the few into the world of humans.
    • In the third season, humans in the larger world discover that their life paths were pre-calculated by an AI, Rehoboam that then carefully pushed them to the outcome desired by the system, turning its predictions into self-fulfilling prophecies. Chaos ensues everywhere, with people getting depressed and violent after they discover their fates. As one of the main characters, William walks along the corridors of a mental health unit he sees how his psychiatrist, a seemingly stable and kind person, hangs herself.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In The Madness Dossier, the PCs have to recognize that free will is largely an illusion, human personalities can be edited, and reality itself may change at any moment, perhaps eliminating them or turning them into mindless slaves. The answer to "Why does humanity exist?" is "It was made to serve as slaves to uncaring gods". They can fight, and may even win, but there is a cost.

    Video Games 
  • Binary Domain has "Hollow Children", Ridiculously Human Robot people who look and act like ordinary humans, because even they don't know they are robots. They have a tendency to Go Mad from the Revelation when they learn the truth, and the game revolves around the ever-blurring line between human and machine.
  • Metal Gear Solid had a bit of this, and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty 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.
  • NieR: Automata is positively rife with existential horror, seeing how all of its characters are machines who long Grew Beyond Their Programming but without further explicit instruction from their creators, tend either to start Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life, or find a random one goal to focus their entire efforts on, only to self-destruct upon reaching it or, more likely, realizing that they never will.
  • Returnal: As the player pieces together the game's story, it becomes clear that Selene is essentially being forced to relive her worst nightmare over and over again. And dying, however it happens, will never save her. Even when it seems she's finally escaped Atropos, she still isn't safe; the game's second act has Selene managing to call a rescue team, allowing her to get off the planet, live out her natural lifespan in peaceful retirement on Earth, and eventually die from old age. But this doesn't stop the cycle— after her funeral, Selene once again wakes up on Atropos at her ship's crash site and is forced to go through everything again. And there is no apparent reason why this is happening to her, other that the vague implication that it might be her own guilt keeping her trapped in a Dying Dream.
  • Seaman is a Virtual Pet which differs from many others in that the player can audibly communicate with it, and it has a conversation chain which poses the question of whether it exists. It ultimately decides that it does, because by perceiving and interacting with it, it is directly influencing the player's own ideas and decisions, forming memories in their real brains.
  • SOMA uses existential horror as a good chunk of its plot. This is largely due to the idea of brain scans creating a copy of a person to place in a new body, while leaving their original body and consciousness intact. This ends up happening to the main character three times during the game as well, really playing up this theme.
  • Splatoon 2:
    • the game plays this for laughs during a commentary for Inkblot Art Academy.
      Pearl: Let's turn this campus into a canvas!
      Marina: Does life imitate art? Or does art imitate life? AM I EVEN REAL?!
    • Marina does this again before the "Chicken vs Egg" Splatfest. It's still played for laughs, albeit uncomfortable laughs:
      Marina: Yeah, I bet that mom chicken has wanted kids ever since she was an egg.
      Pearl: Ha! Yeah, but, whose... grandma laid the egg... uh... that had the mom inside it?
      Pearl: Wait... Which side am I on?
      [both laugh]
      Marina: It's funny because we're all living in a simulation and free will is a lie.
      [both aside glance]
  • The Stanley Parable is a comedy game, but viewers report feeling distinctly uncomfortable, horrified and confused by the experience. It's very hard to explain without spoiling it.
  • In the backstory of Loop Hero, the archmage Omicron created a spell that allowed a copy of his mind to puppet his body when he slept. As he grew older, his body couldn't keep up with the strain and he spent more and more time unconscious, controlled by the spell. Omicron became uncertain how much of him was actually the old man, and how much was the spell itself. Dying so only the spell remained helped clear up the confusion.
  • Legacy of Kain enjoys dipping into this with the series' later installments - namely in regards to fate, predestination, and free will.
  • In Buddy Simulator 1984, you can trigger this in your buddy by constantly Sequence Breaking; they'll eventually figure out that the only way you could have known about these skips is if you completed the game with a previous buddy, at which point they truly understand that they are totally dependent on you for existence. They then commit suicide. In another ending, the buddy will rant in detail about how terrifying it is for their sole purpose to be befriending a person who hates them in return.

    Visual Novels 
  • Doki Doki Literature Club! asks the question; "What would happen if a side character in a typical Romance Visual Novel was aware of being trapped in a game, but was also still unable to go against the fundamental constraints of the kind of story/game they existed in?" which of course leads into the question; "do we ourselves truly have free will, or are we just as fundamentally constrained in our worldview by the society we grew up and live in"?

    Western Animation 
  • In Centaurworld, centaurs have the ability to shoot tiny versions of themselves out of their hooves. Word of God indicates these tiny copies have all the memories of the original, which may explain why their normal reaction to being created is to shriek in terror and flee, never to be seen again.
  • Most episodes of Rick and Morty deal with this, and even sometimes plays it for Black Comedy.
    • "Rick Potion #9" has Morty ask Rick to concoct a love potion to administer to Jessica before the school prom, which in fact is more a hyper-aphrodisiac that causes Jessica to go crazy for him, really crazy for him. Unfortunately, Jessica has a cold, and the effect spreads virulently. As a solution Rick creates an antidote from praying mantis DNA... which only causes the entire human race to transform into hideous Half Human Hybrids that still want to get into Morty's pants. Then Rick engineers another antidote that results in everyone turning back... for a few moments before they all turn into horrifying "Cronenburged" mutants. At this point Rick gives up trying to fix the world and takes Morty to an alternate dimension where the two managed to fix their version of the crisis but shortly died afterwards in a laboratory accident; Rick and Morty have to bury the dead bodies of their alternate selves and assume their place. Morty is left haunted by the fact that he has to live every day with the knowledge he doomed the entire human race by asking for a glorified roofie cocktail, that his own rotting corpse is buried a few metres away from his house, and that he'll spend the rest of his existence living a life that was never really his.
    • There are a few skits in "Rixty Minutes" and "Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate" dedicated to the characters watching cable television from other dimensions, and several featured are so surreal that it's terrifying to think what kind of universes these tidbits could be considered entertaining. Highlights include a hit TV show where a man wrestles with a sentient car with predictable results, a show where a man is so obsessed with his personal space that he tears his own skin off without indication of pain or discomfort (even more unnerving is the ident after the show suggests this is from The BBC), and an advert for a Lucky Charms-style cereal where a cheerful leprechaun is pinned down and disemboweled by evil, emotionless children who eat the cereal out of his intestines like Mentos (and even Morty is visibly disturbed by this one).
    • "Total Rickall" has mental parasites that create false memories in your mind to justify their existence around you as people you have known your whole life, and the more you try to figure out what the true memories are, the more the parasites can enter your memories and gain your trust. And the only way to identify the parasites from real people is they cannot create unpleasant memories, so you have to murder people you only have happy memories of.
    • "Mortyplicity" has Rick reveal that he created completely life-like "decoys" of his family to stave off his enemies, before he and the rest of his family get killed, revealing them to have unknowingly been another set of decoys, too. The episode thus revolves around a vicious cycle of any presumably "real" Smith-Sanchez family soon being revealed to be decoys and getting into lethal conflict with other decoys out of mutual paranoia and hatred, along with the decoys themselves trying to stave off each other by making even more sentient decoys (with expected results in time), propagating the cascade even further.
    • It is implied that Earth has long been under the control of a race of insectoid alien bastards who do not understand human culture or body language at all, see us as disgusting and primitive and have no issue with killing us, surgically mutilating us or invading our minds for no reason.


Video Example(s):


Grim Reaper Airways

An airline that offers something else instead of great customer service.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (10 votes)

Example of:

Main / ExistentialHorror

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