Think death is the cruelest fate? Think again. There are several things much worse: torture, taxes, and tofu, to name but a few. And more often than not, some unfortunate soul will experience it. Originally, this phrase was used to mean the rape of virgins in Gibbon's 1781 work Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but now there's even worse than that.
This phrase is usually used in a Just Between You and Me moment by the Evil Overlord as they boast about the agony-inducing Death Trap that awaits the hero for delaying their plans. It's also fairly commonly used as a warning to the hero against seeking forbidden power or knowledge, and consequently to foreshadow the particular Karmic Death the villain will suffer because of meddling with the universe's Cosmic Keystone.
The more fantastic the particular setting, the more creative villains (and sometimes heroes) usually get with this trope. If the victim is immortal, this fate may even replace death, which might suck royally. For characters who welcome dying (for example, to become martyrs and be posthumously considered heroes), one could invent a lot of ways to prevent their dream from coming true (and sometimes, just for added cruelty, kill them anyway). That is not to mention the tortures so horrible that death seems a mercy and a long-awaited release: Mercy Killings are common when heroes find anyone in this state. If the character can only beg for assisted suicide, I Cannot Self-Terminate occurs; if they can act on their own, they are often Driven to Suicide. Indeed, since all involve choosing death over a given fate, the characters often conclude that dying is preferable to that fate. Contrast Cruel and Unusual Death, for when the victim instead gets a gruesome death that sucks beyond telling.
Compare Cruel Mercy, Empty Shell, To the Pain, The Punishment, Room 101, Tailor-Made Prison, and Cool and Unusual Punishment. For extreme examples of this trope, see And I Must Scream. Not to Be Confused with A Fête Worse Than Death, though the two can occasionally overlap.
Do not list the real life examples here. It should also be noted that Do Not Try This at Home applies in full in this case. While reality can often suck a lot, using this trope as an excuse for suicide (or simply choosing death when given a choice) is nearly always a wrong answer. And that is not even mentioning using Mercy Kill as an excuse for choosing death for someone else against their will.
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- The drawing Esto es peor ("This is worse") by Francisco de Goya from his The Disasters Of War shows the mutilated body of a Spanish fighter spiked on a tree, surrounded by the corpses of French soldiers.
- In 36 Questions, Judith claims that having her husband Jase leave her was worse than death. This would be a hyperbole if not for the fact that Judith actually knows what death feels like.
Jase: Okay, Question 18: "What is your most terrible memory?"
Judith: Uh, dying. That was pretty bad. [...] Finding out you skipped town without telling me where you were going super sucked.
Jase: Okay, gotta pick one.
Judith: You leaving, then.
- The Arc Words of Aladdin: The Return of Jafar are the Genie Jafar's response to being reminded of his inability to kill: "You'd be surprised what you can live through."
- That's the basis of Jafar's Evil Plan, he states that: "It's not enough that we simply destroy Aladdin. After all, there are things so much worse than death." It's sure is: Aladdin not only learns that he will be executed, but Jasmine, the love of his life, ordered it. Then, a few seconds before the execution, Aladdin realizes that the one who ordered it was actually Jafar in disguise. Aladdin nearly died not only knowing that his enemy had returned, but having no idea what the latter did with Jasmine, or what he will do to her afterwards.
- In The Book of Life, unlike the vibrant, unique, and happy Remembered, the Forgotten are all dull, similar, moaning zombies who randomly turn into dust. Made all the worse when you understand that not everyone deserves this fate; it's just what ultimately happens when no one alive knows who you are regardless of your deeds.
- This is implied to be Ernesto de la Cruz's fate at the end of Coco. After it is revealed that he murdered his best friend Hector to steal the songs he used to achieve his fame in life and the afterlife, the people of both the living and dead worlds learn the truth, and he loses his fame, respect, legacy, and fans. He will likely spend the rest of his time in the afterlife alone, and shunned, until the day there is no one left alive that remembers him or the things he did, and he fades away.
- In Corpse Bride, Lord Barkis suffers this when he unwittingly drinks the poisoned wine meant for Victor at the latter's wedding and dies. With him no longer living, the dead swarm him and drag him off to an unseen, but certainly unpleasant fate.
- In the Red Robin path in DC Showcase Batman: Death in the Family, if the viewer has Two-Face's coin come up scarred side, Harvey will let Jason live once Jason tells Harv to kill him already, figuring killing Jason would be mercy and that letting Jason live with the guilt of his actions and failure will be worse.
- Frozen: Prince Hans has a somewhat pitiable appearance in Frozen Fever. For his attempted murder of Anna and Elsa in Arendelle, his family penalized him to forced labor, which includes shoveling horse manure. From the brief look at his condition in the Southern Isles, he's in a bleak and unfriendly environment, with the stables alone looking dark and uninviting.
- The Tie-In Novel A Frozen Heart expands on Prince Hans's backstory, showing him panicking when the guards drag him to be deported to the Southern Isles without even seeing Anna and Elsa one last time. He's begging to be let go, not wanting to return to the hellhole he was desperately trying to escape from in the first place. Considering the book expands on his role and reveals more about him than the movie did, it's clear to the reader he will suffer far worse treatment than he has from his family beforehand, who were already horrible to him.
- Hades ultimately is given this at the end of Hercules. After Hercules rescues Megara's soul from The River Styx, he punches the god into the river himself. Being a god, of course, he can't die, but the last shot of him fighting a losing battle against both the waters' current and the many vengeful, undead souls that drag him further underneath as his minions Pain and Panic watch on, too frightened of him and his wrath to fish him out.
- This is almost definitely the fate of the Tallest after going through the titular Florpus in Enter the Florpus. The last time we see them, they're stuck in or passing through a hellish-looking dimension surrounded by flames and screaming. Even if they make it out to the other side, who knows how long that would take?
- ParaNorman: This is the sad fate of Judge Hopkins and the members of his jury after convicting Agatha to death. Agatha placed a curse upon all seven of them, turning them into zombies. Thus, they spend five hundred years suffering with the knowledge of their mistake. Fortunately, Norman is able to understand them and helps to end the curse, freeing them and allowing them to properly pass on to the afterlife — though Hopkins isnt too pleased about what awaits him.
- In Pinocchio, the boys who end up on Pleasure Island end up being permanently transformed into donkeys through their drugged beer and cigars whenever they act up. The majority of them are then shipped out to the harshest of conditions to work as slave labor while the few that can still talk are dealt an unspeakable, unseen fate, although you must wonder how much sentience the "lucky" few still possess and how much longer it will last...
- The Princess and the Frog: After Dr. Facilier fails to stop Tiana from destroying his blood talisman, his "friends" arrive to claim their debt by dragging him into their realm, something he is clearly very terrified of. While otherwise karmic considering he was planning this fate for all New Orleans just to save himself, it's still, for all intents and purposes, a man being dragged to hell to endure never-ending torture for a mistake he made.
- Discussed but ultimately averted in Shrek by Lord Farquaad, who upon Fiona's true form being revealed, had his guards seize her and Shrek. He then said that while Shrek would be tortured, namely drawn and quartered and that he'd beg for death to save him, she would be given the same fate she had already endured at the beginning of the film.
- Toy Story:
- For toys it is a terrible fate to be forgotten by children, left alone and abandoned without no one to love them. Even getting shelved, like what happened to Woody and Wheezy in Toy Story 2, is almost as bad.
- Worse is to be tossed into the garbage, as Stinky Pete says, "spending eternity rotting in some landfill." Conscious the entire time, until finally all your plastic parts degrade into a puddle of goo.
- In Toy Story 3, Lotso winds up tied to the front of a garbage truck by a truck driver who had a Lots o'-Huggin'-Bear as a kid, with other more decayed toys strapped to the truck to show Lotso what's ultimately in store for him. The previous Big Bads, Sid and Stinky Pete, received crushing defeats but ultimately wound up better off, but this guy was so extra evil that he was given this fate instead.
- There's a joke of a movie that was so bad that the audience walked out... when it was shown on an airplane.
- Creature Feature's aptly named song "A Fate Worse Than Death", which is actually not so much about this trope but more about how incredibly many horrible ways to die there really are, and yet that the fact that you'll be dead afterwards means your fate was still much better than the one this trope entails.
- A song called "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye", tells about a soldier (named Johnny), who came home alive from a war, but is so horribly disfigured and crippled that even his family could not recognize him. Since he can no longer walk or use his arms and hands, they decided to have him beg on the streets (Ye're an armless, boneless, chickenless egg Ye'll have to put with a bowl out to beg). The lyrics said very pleasing things about his loss of legs and arms (Where are your legs that used to run, hurro, hurro; Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo), him being overly skinny (So low in flesh, so high in bone).
- The song "One" by Metallica details the life of a soldier, after he loses all his limbs, his sight, his speech, and his hearing due to a landmine. He has machines that breathe for him, and so he's unable to die. His mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body.
Darkness, imprisoning me! All I see, absolute horror! I cannot live, I cannot die! Trapped in myself, body my holding cell!
- In "Hitobashira Alice (Alice Human Sacrifice)", the Third Alice is condemned to live forever seeing herself as a decaying body, as a punishment for fooling and using people to become a queen. Whether it was an illusion or if she was constantly decaying until she rotted completely is debatable; either way, both punishments are valid for this trope.
- Len's fate in the song "Re_Birthday" (which is very possibly a continuation of the Evil Series). He is doomed to spend eternity in an empty room with his hands bound in red handcuffs (representing bloodshed) and his ankles bound in blue shackles (representing tears spilled), all while reliving the sins he committed in his life. It's made a little more jarring in that Rin, who ordered him to commit all of those atrocities to begin with, gets off essentially scot-free. In the end, it's her lullaby that ends up saving him, and they get to be reincarnated as twins, just as they had wished.
- Depending on how you look at it, the fate of the doctor's wife (and possibly the doctor himself) from a song of the same name by The Clockwork Quartet. The lyrics are written as entries in the doctor's journal, detailing his beloved wife's slow death by an incurable disease. He becomes more and more obsessive in his attempts to save her, until he has sacrificed his business and his entire life in order to keep her alive... to no avail. By the last stanza she has died, but the doctor replaced her heart with a mechanical device that keeps her other organs alive. The doctor is completely maddened by his tragic inability to let her go, and his wife is kept in a permanent state between life and death, unable to simply pass away because he won't let her.
- "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" by Eric Bogle (and later covered by The Pogues), about a young Australian rover sent off to the Battle of Gallipoli:
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over tit,
And when I woke up in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
Never knew there were worse things than dying.
- Mentioned in "Keep Quiet" by The Protomen. 'They say, this city, she's been dead for years now, so death is not something that scares me. There's worse things than death here.'
- Many descriptions of the fates of the Egyptian dead in Nile songs contain this element. Some of these souls can get particularly unlucky and wind up in And I Must Scream situations.
- The eponymous pirate in Alestorm's Captain Morgan's Revenge curses his mutinous crew to this: "As sure as hell's my final fate, you'll all soon die or worse!"
- The Song That Never Ends.
This is the song that never ends
It just goes on and on my friend
One day I started singing it, I don't know what it was
And I will keep on singing it forever just because
This is the song that never ends...
- The novelty song "The Thing" is about a man who finds a box containing unidentified contents and being stuck with it for the rest of his life because everyone he shows it to turn him away in disgust, including a shopkeeper he tried to sell the box to, his own wife and a hobo asking for a handout. In the last verse, it is shown that not even death will allow the man to be rid of the box, as St. Peter refuses to allow him into Heaven and orders him to take the box with him to Hell just because he had the box in his possession.
- Philosopher Nick Bostrom classifies doomsday scenarios into four categories. The first two, bangs and whimpers, are situations in which everybody dies, the difference being whether its instantaneous or drawn-out. But the other two, crunches and shrieks, are basically fates worse than death for all humanity. Crunches are the less bad of the two, indicating that human culture and scientific knowledge have gone backwards and cannot recover. But shrieks are the worst of all, being when human nature itself has changed to make virtue impossible, but mankind lingers on as some posthuman abomination.
- Fate/stay night has the Fate Route and what happened to the other survivors of the fire ten years ago. On a completely unrelated note one wonders what's under the church... Makes it worse that Shiro must to visit it and see the "survivors" barely alive after being turned into Gilgamesh's sources of mana, unless the player wants him to get storyline killed.
- Additionally, Archer considers his fate as a Counter-Guardian to be this, constantly forced to go against his ideals, saving the many by sacrificing the few. Just like his dear old Daddy, Kiritsugu.
- The Fruit of Grisaia: Every route in the novel has a bad ending, but only two of them could be clearly considered as worse than death.
- One is Makina's, where witnessing protagonist Yuuji's death causes her to snap, keeping his rotting body in a garbage bag, talking to him as he was still alive.
- The other is Michiru's case, where her attempted suicide causes her to suffer permanent brain damage, leaving her with no sense of self, and Yuuji to live out the rest his life with her and the knowladge that he could not help her, twisting the knife further, Michiru shows signs that she is still vaguely aware that she loves Yuuji.
- One of the antagonists of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, despite being (likely) the worst character in the game, survives, while the ones that weren't as bad as him were brutally killed. It turns out that Akane's plan was to have him be exposed publicly for his crimes, something that he, Ace, deems A Fate Worse Than Death.
- Fates Worse than Death are disturbingly common in Saya no Uta. The protagonist, Fuminori, is unable to see the world as anything other than a mess of infected-looking flesh and so finds himself trying to figure out a painless way to die before meeting the eponymous Saya. While all of the series' characters other than Saya end up insane, suicidal, or some combination of the two depending on the ending, Yoh Tsukuba is probably the most notable example. While simply seeing Saya can drive most people completely insane, Yoh is mutilated and tortured by her until, over the course of twenty hours, she becomes one of the same species that Saya belongs to. By the time Koji accidentally kills her, it's very clear that death is what she wants.
- Lampshaded with Colin Hunt in Season 7 of Arby 'n' the Chief. Being part of an evil clan alongside Sadist Eugene and Psychopath Tyler, Colin is revealed to be a Pedophile. Also by the season's end, Eugene commits suicide and Tyler is shot and killed by a cop. Colin is still alive, but thanks to Arbiter and Master Chief's intervention is now rotting in prison for a LONG TIME.
Arbiter: Not sure how long Colin will be imprisoned for, but due to the fact that he's a white, introverted software nerd and a kid fucker, he'll likely be targeted by his inmates for rape and sold as a cell bitch for a pack of smokes.
- Broken Saints: Oran's speech to the defeated scumbag Mars in Chapter 19, Act 3: "I have seen you scum — staked to the ground at night — belly and manhood split wide, wailing as jagged beaks tear and peck — as a million insect jaws carve the pulp. And when morning comes, I am standing over your seeping husk. You cannot turn from the horror. You cannot stop the rising sun that burns you into blindness. You cannot close your eyes... for I am feasting on their lids.
- At the end of his DEATH BATTLE!, Starscream's spark is last seen interred within Rainbow Dash's belly. In an Q&A, it is stated he is still alive, but the only machinery in Equestria is a sewing machine. Boomstick even lampshades this trope afterwards.
- Another example is the Thanos vs Darkseid battle. Thanos is invited into Darkseid's home dimension and learns the hard way that the Infinity Gauntlet won't work outside of his own universe and he can't outright give Darkseid's true form the Snap. Darkseid puts Thanos through the Omega Sanction where he'll be subjected to fates and deaths each more humiliating than the last, starting with Deadpool making out with Death and shooting the Mad Titan dead with a common gun.
- In the Homestar Runner cartoon Doomy Tales of the Macabre, Strong Sad takes the role of a Tales from the Crypt-esque storyteller and gives each of the other residents of Free Country, USA a terrible, ironic doom in the vein of this trope... That is, except for Coach Z.
Coach Z: Hey, what about my doom?
Strong Sad: Um... You're already Coach Z. No sense in beating a dead horse.
Coach Z: Hey, good point!
- Overly Sarcastic Productions: Discussed in the Trope Talk episode "Fates Worse Than Death", where Red goes through the most common examples of this trope. She also makes the observation that this trope, as racked with Fridge Horror as it is, is nevertheless incredibly common in children's media; by their very definition, fates worse than death aren't death, so they come to take the place of actual character death in any work for young audiences that adheres to Never Say "Die".