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. A "Shaggy Dog" Story might induce this kind of feeling. Compare with Angst, which while originally referring to "existential angst", has broadened its meaning to refer to a more general form of anguish or unease with oneself. Compare also with Navel-Gazing, which is simply in-universe philosophical contemplation, and doesn't necessarily involve horror or existential questions. Compare with Absurdism which plays woes over one's existence for comedy, rather than horror (though there can be overlap).
- Both endings of Neon Genesis Evangelion dip into this, seeing how much time is spent examining the main character, 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 is ultimately worthless.
- Cells at Work! [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.
- The Infinite Loops can lend itself to this on occasion. The setting is explicitly a broken multiverse, with lore inconsistencies being the result of reality itself not knowing the exact details of what should and should not be; various characters have loop-variable backgrounds and are just as surprised when details crop up about themselves as the viewers of their canon show. And since the setting is portrayed as an Alternate Reality Game where all the events written are actually happening, there's the question of whether the real world is in danger of becoming damaged...
- 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 wherein she was concerned that she didn't have free will, but she eventually sheds that belief given Monika reassuring her that her love for Yuri was of her own volition.
- eXistenZ is about layers of virtual reality, meta-gaming and meta-narration, conspiracy theories... and a fair amount of surrealism and Body Horror.
- 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.
- 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.
- Kara no Kyoukai: 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!
- Black Mirror, where 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 kind of purpose would someone go actually through all the trouble of creating a realistic simulation of a human mind? The answer, of course, is rarely ever something pleasant. A recurring theme in
- 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.
- The Stanley Parable is a comedy game, but viewers report feeling distincly uncomfortable, horrified and confused by the experience. It's very hard to explain without spoiling it.
- Splatoon 2:
- Splatoon 2 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?
Marina: It's funny because we're all living in a simulation and free will is a lie.
(both Aside Glance)
- Splatoon 2 plays this for laughs during a commentary for Inkblot Art Academy.
- 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.
- Doki Doki Literature Club! asks the question; "would happen if a side character in a typical Romance Visual Novel was self-aware, but was also still unable to go against the fundamental constraints of the kind story/game of 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"?
- Most episodes of Rick and Morty deal with this, and even sometimes plays it for Black Comedy. From the dread of knowing you're only one disposable version of yourself among an infinite number of universes, to parasites that can fill your head with Fake Memories and make you believe you've know them your whole life, to the mere concept of Mr. Meeseeks, the show has plenty to choose from when it comes to existential nightmares.