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Headache of Doom

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"I have a terrific pain in the back of my head."
— The last words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died shortly after of a cerebral hemorrhage

Of the many symptoms used to indicate that something is seriously wrong with a character, the headache is the most subtle and often the most insidious: the Ominous Hair Loss, the Deadly Nosebleed and the Tainted Veins are immediately obvious to the viewer, an easy visual indicator that the afflicted character's health is suffering in some way. Barring a few exceptions, it's rare for viewers to notice anything out of the ordinary about a headache unless it's immediately and noticeably crippling: often, the only indication that it's happening is a brief mention of the symptom and maybe the odd wince of pain.

However, due to the Law of Conservation of Detail, if a headache's serious enough to be mentioned in the story — especially aloud — there's a distinct possibility that it's tied in to something very serious.

As for what's actually causing the headache, it could be a mundane but potentially lethal condition or it could be something as fantastical as My Skull Runneth Over; in more overtly supernatural stories, it might even be a premonition of something terrible about to happen. Whatever the case, the character is suffering a headache and it's a sign that bad things are due to follow.

In extreme cases, may involve a nasty case of Your Head Asplode.

Compare Incurable Cough of Death, I Can't Feel My Legs!, I'm Cold... So Cold..., and Dangerous Drowsiness, other innocuous symptoms with worrying consequences.

As this can be a Death Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Not long after escaping from the hospital in AKIRA, Tetsuo begins suffering from crippling headaches so severe that he begins hallucinating, imagining the ground cracking open under his feet and his internal organs spilling out in front of him. Eventually, government forces recapture him and take him back to the hospital, where he spends the next few hours semi-conscious and grappling with the pain in his head. It's actually a direct symptom of his psychic powers being activated. By itself, this isn't a bad thing... up until Tetsuo figures out how to use them.

    Audio Plays 
  • Big Finish Doctor Who:
    • In "The Marian Conspiracy," new companion Evelyn Smythe has been suffering from headaches for the last few weeks and the painkillers she's been prescribed aren't helping. It's quickly revealed that this is because an anomaly in the fabric of time is erasing one of her ancestors from history, prompting her to join the Sixth Doctor on a journey back to the reign of Mary I to put events back on course.
    • "Protect And Survive" features Ace and Hex finding themselves stranded in a parallel timeline where the Cold War erupted into a nuclear exchange in the late 80s. Forced to hide in a makeshift fallout shelter with Albert and Peggy Marsden, the four of them appear to have escaped the cataclysm mostly unharmed... but then Peggy begins experiencing a painkiller-resistant headache, followed closely by Blood from the Mouth - a sure sign that they've all sustained a lethal dose of radiation.

    Comic Books 
  • Bone: Gran'ma Ben has the "Gitchy", which manifests itself as painful migraines warning her of nearby enemies or something bad about to happen. It would prove to be useful in helping Thorn and the Bone Cousins in their travels, giving them one step ahead of the Rat Creatures, the Hooded One and the Lord of the Locusts.
  • Spider-Man: Spidey's Spider-Sense will sometimes trigger when something really wrong or awful is about to happen, such as in The Infinity Gauntlet. In the Ultimate Marvel Universe, Venom triggers this automatically - his approach causing the Spider-Sense to go into overdrive. Spidey compares such occasions to a bad migraine.
  • Superman: In the beginning of The Strange Revenge of Lena Luthor, Lena gets an abrupt headache as talking with Supergirl. Kara grows concerned, but Lena assures it is a normal migraine and she is ok. Shortly after, her son and mother-in-law find Lena collapsed on her apartment's floor. Lena is hurriedly taken to a hospital, and it is revealed she has suffered a brain stroke.
  • When the Wind Blows: Following the nuclear attack on the United Kingdom, the first hint Jim and Hilda have been exposed to radiation are the headaches and shivering spells they suffer in the wake of the initial blast; before long, it's escalated to vomiting, bloody diarrhea, bleeding gums, and hair loss. In the end, it kills them.

    Fan Works 
  • In the Wicked fanfic The Land of What Might-Have-Been, the alternate Elphaba begins suffering from sudden headaches after being surgically "rehabilitated" and reintroduced to the people of Oz as a loyal servant of the Wizard. It's eventually revealed that Madame Morrible is using magic to alter her personality in the hope of making her easier to control; as a result, Elphaba becomes calmer and less violent - at the cost of headaches, intrusive thoughts, and a gradual breakdown of empathy. Following a magical accident, Elphaba later finds her symptoms escalating to a Deadly Nosebleed and she collapses. though she survives, her personality has now been warped into a villainous, beauty-worshiping parody of herself, paving the way for her transformation into the Radiant Empress.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Date with an Angel, the main character constantly complains that he has a headache throughout the movie. At the end, he collapses and is rushed to the hospital: he has a brain tumour, and it's in such an advanced state that surgery wouldn't help.
  • Grace suffers migraines throughout The Others (2001), and it's heavily implied that the cause is supernatural in nature: it's eventually revealed that she's actually a ghost. After realizing that her husband had been killed in action, Grace smothered her children to death, then blew her head off with a shotgun; given that her children continue to suffer uneven breathing even as ghosts, it's possible that Grace's headaches are also echoes of the wound that killed her.
  • As Pete inadvertently reveals in Shaun of the Dead, one of the earliest symptoms of the zombie plague is a splitting headache: having been bitten in a "mugging" on the way home from work, Pete loses his temper at the racket Shaun and Ed are kicking up at four in the morning and makes it abundantly clear he isn't in the mood thanks to his headache. A few hours later, he's found to have succumbed to the infection and become a zombie in the shower - resulting in a Full-Frontal Assault.
  • Early in Shutter Island, Marshal Teddy Daniels suffers a mild headache not long after arriving at Ashecliff, apparently caused by dehydration from sea-sickness. However, the second day on the island ends with Daniels suffering a migraine so powerful that it causes him to collapse, and he has to be helped into bed. According to Rachael Solando, this has actually been caused by the hospital staff drugging him in the hopes of faking a descent into madness and imprisoning him as a patient. The truth is much stranger: Daniels is actually Andrew Laeddis, a delusional patient at the hospital, and his headaches are withdrawal symptoms - the result of him being taken off antipsychotic medication.
  • In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, symptoms of infestation by Ceti Eel larvae include extremely painful headaches and suggestibility, making them ideal when Khan needs a way of controlling Captain Terrell and Commander Chekov. The pain grows exponentially throughout the film, until Terrell shoots himself rather than cooperate with Khan's orders and Chekov collapses - thankfully prompting the larvae to leave his brain before it ends up killing him.
  • After watching Videodrome with Nikki Brand, Max Renn appears noticeably tired and headache-ridden the next morning, symptoms that Masha initially mistake for a hangover. After watching a Videodrome tape given to him by Bianca O'Blivion, the trend continues, and following a hallucination-filled evening, Max wakes up with a headache - but this time, Bianca reveals the source of the symptoms: the Videodrome signal induces the growth of brain tumors in anyone watching it. And that's not all it does...

  • The Carpet People: Early on, the Munrung Snibril starts to develop an intense headache, which rapidly becomes agony. It turns out that he's sensing the approach of Fray, which proceeds to destroy the Munrung village. Once Snibril realizes this, he's able to provide warnings against subsequent Fray attacks.
  • The Dresden Files: Starting a little before the eleventh book in the series, Turn Coat Harry Dresden deals with minor headaches. These headaches progressively get stronger over the years. This culminates with the revelation in Ghost Story, two books later, the cause of them is a "parasite" that is growing in his head. He later learns if he does nothing, the parasite will rip out of his head and go after all the ones he loves. By the book fifteenth book, Skin Game, the headaches are incredibly severe and he needs a magical earring to abate them, though this is only a temporary solution. He further learns this is a "parasite" only in the most base definition. In full truth it is a Spirit of Intellect created when Harry befriended a more powerful spirit, it lived in Harry's head for a time, and it died for Harry. The spirit is Harry's child and all these headaches were growing pains and more recently labor pains. If Harry dies giving birth, then as an innocent child lacking malevolence, it would allow the young spirit to bypass many defenses around Harry's loved ones and innocently torment them trying to help. Harry needs emergency mental surgery at the end of the book to safely deliver the child. Once that is done, he is headache free.
  • In Firestarter, Andy McGee's power of psychic persuasion takes a significant toll on his brain the more he uses it, resulting in agonizing headaches by the start of the book. With his daughter's safety on the line throughout the story, he's inclined to use it more and more, until he actually begins suffering mini-strokes that leave his face numb. In the finale, it ends up causing a stroke, though given that Andy had been shot by Rainbird by this stage, it's not certain if this was the final cause of his death.
  • Gods and Warriors: During the second book, Kreon suffers from migraine attacks until Thalakrea's volcano erupts at the end. The author confirms this was another intentional foreshadowing to what would happen because there are records of people getting worse migraine attacks before a volcanic eruption.
  • In Lord of the Flies, all of the boys get headaches as a result of the humidity on the island, which is foreshadowing how quickly they're going to lose their minds. Simon in particular mentions suffering a headache not long before encountering the Lord of the Flies himself.
  • The Master and Margarita: In the Master's novel, Pilate's headache before Yeshua's execution can be considered as an example.
  • In Reflections of Eterna, Roque Alva becomes plagued with debilitating migraines when Ollaria falls to Aldo Rakan and his co-conspirators. This foreshadows, among other things, supernatural disasters destroying the home fiefdom of one of said conspirators, and Ollaria itself succumbing to a Hate Plague.
  • The Kingston Cycle by C.L. Polk: Grace's Weather Manipulation powers give her severe headaches when a dangerous storm is approaching. One such storm early in the book cripples the country's economy despite her best efforts, and the headaches from another nearly incapacitate her while she's trying to prepare for the climactic scenes.
  • On to Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968: After his assassination attempt, Robert Kennedy is left with recurring migraines that increase in intensity over time. It's eventually revealed that the migraines came from a bullet fragment left in his head pressing against a cranial artery, which eventually ruptures and leads to his early death at the age of 44.
  • In Siren Novels, Vanessa gets splitting headaches whenever she's around Zara, who turns out to be a siren.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Black Mirror:
    • "White Bear" features main character Victoria waking up with a severe headache, and throughout the episode experiences additional surges of pain accompanied by vivid flashbacks to her forgotten past; at first, it's believed to be from the "White Bear" signal, an apocalyptic event transformed most of the human race into "hunters" and "observers." The signal was just a story cooked up to fool her: she's really a prisoner in an amusement park, and the headache is a side-effect of Victoria being Mind Raped in order to erase her memory of the day.
    • In "Hated In The Nation", controversial rapper Tusk begins suffering agonizing pain in his head and has to be sedated. An attempt to examine the problem with an MRI reveals the cause - though probably not the way the technicians intended: an Autonomous Drone Insect had flown into his ear and started torturing his brain from the inside; during the MRI scan, the ADI is magnetically yanked out of Tusk's head, puncturing his eyeball and killing him instantly.
  • Blindspot: In season 2, after Patterson has been tortured by Shepherd, headaches are one of the signs that something is wrong about her. After a few episodes, it turns out that the headaches are caused by the radio signal of a bug embedded in her tooth.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    • In the episode "The Puppet Show," Buffy hunts a demon who's harvesting organs from students participating in the school talent show. One of her classmates is shown suffering from severe migraines; when he's killed later for his brain, it turns out the demon rejected it because he was suffering from a tumor.
    • In "The Replacement," Joyce has a headache that's treated lightly at the time (she attributes it to having two teenage girls in the house), but in hindsight feels like foreshadowing for her brain tumor arc which starts more seriously in the next episode when she suddenly collapses. She dies from complications by the end of the season.
  • Doctor Who:
    • "The Daleks" features Barbara coming down with a headache during her visit to Skaro. Unknown to her, the blasted wilderness she's been exploring is dangerously radioactive, and the headache is actually an early symptom of radiation sickness.
    • In "The Almost People" Miranda Cleaves suffers from headaches, revealed to be the result of an inoperable blood clot in her brain. Her Ganger, being a perfect replica, also experiences these symptoms. The Doctor gives her some medicine that can dissolve the clot at the end of the story, giving her a new lease on life and allowing her to testify on behalf of Ganger rights.
  • The Farscape season 4 premier episode reveals that Chiana's prophetic abilities have evolved into slow-motion insight of the present, but at a terrible cost: afterwards, she experiences crippling headaches so severe that Temporary Blindness ensues. In the season finale, the blindness becomes permanent.
  • Hannibal: Crippling headaches are one of the first signs that Will Graham is stricken with encephalitis. Other symptoms (time loss, hallucinations, etc.) quickly follow.
  • Olivia Crain of The Haunting of Hill House (2018) had migraines all her life, but while staying at the eponymous house, the "color storms" became much more intense. As the flashback sequences make clear, her growing pain seemed to coincide with her escalating Sanity Slippage, Olivia suffering hallucinations, sleepwalking and odd fits of possessiveness as the migraines turned agonizing. It's revealed that this was due to the House actively messing with her head, eventually driving her to try and poison Luke and Nelly, then throw herself from the library staircase.
  • Early in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Wire," Garak experiences a severe headache, though he attempts to dismiss it as nothing. Following a number of unusual incidents and a seizure, he eventually admits that he was fitted with an endorphin-releasing anti-torture implant during his time in the Obsidian Order, and has been manually activating it in order to cope with his exile aboard Deep Space 9. Unfortunately, the implant wasn't meant to be used continuously, and it's rapidly breaking down inside his head after two years of abuse. Worse still, he can't just turn it off, as his body is now completely dependent on the heightened endorphin levels, making it an apparent death sentence.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Scientific Method", Janeway suffers from a near-crippling headache that she compares to "hot needles driving into [her] skull". Unbeknownst to her, that's exactly what's happening, courtesy of some out-of-phase alien scientists conducting experiments on her and the crew.
  • Torchwood episode "They Keep Killing Suzie" features Gwen bringing Suzie Costello back to life with the Resurrection Gauntlet several months following her suicide in the pilot episode. Not long after this, Gwen comes down with a headache that grows progressively worse as Suzie's health improves, eventually resulting in crippling pain, loss of mobility, and unexplained bleeding from the back of her skull... because she's beginning to manifest Suzie's bullet wound. This is a natural consequence of the resurrection, and Suzie has no qualms about condemning Gwen to die in her place.


    Video Games 
  • Dark Seed: Mike Dawson wakes up with a terrible headache, and discovers to his horror that the cause is an alien embryo that will burst out of his head and kill him if it's allowed to fully develop.
  • In Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, headaches are among the earliest symptoms experienced by those affected by the Pattern, followed swiftly by nosebleeds, disorientation, and finally disintegration into light. This initially allows the government to claim that there's a flu epidemic in the region, justifying the quarantine of Yaughton - though later symptoms debunk this excuse. Eventually, the headaches grow so severe that Dr Wade initially suspects that he's suffering from a rapidly-expanding brain tumour, up until he notices the "liquid light" in his blood.
  • Mass Effect:
    • Reaper Indoctrination typically begins with the victim experiencing headaches and ringing in their ears as the subliminal conditioning takes effect, eventually giving way to paranoia, hallucinations, religious awe, and total loyalty to the Reapers.
    • In the first game, colonists under the Thorian's influence suffer agonizing headaches the more they try to resist manipulation. As such, though they can't explain themselves to the player, the sudden onset of pain among more rebellious colonists is Shepard's first hint that something's going horribly wrong in Zhu's Hope.
    • Comparatively late in Mass Effect 2, scientists studying a derelict Reaper find out the hard way that the Indoctrinating power of the long-dead machine is still active, once again beginning with headaches and hallucinations.
  • Second Sight:
    • Throughout the game, each psychic power that protagonist John Vattic acquires commonly manifests with a headache so severe it leaves him collapsed on the floor from the pain. For better or for worse, the same headaches can result in him uncontrollably unleashing these new powers on anyone in range.
    • Prior to every flashback sequence, John begins to suffer more headaches, usually after finding information revealing that a friend or ally was killed in the backstory. It's indicated that this is actually the result of him using some kind of Mental Time Travel power, as the flashbacks seemingly allow him to improve the present... but unfortunately, the flashback headaches leave John helpless - resulting in him apparently being shot dead during the second-last level.
    • In the final level, John's headaches escalate to torturous levels and result in him flickering wildly between the past and present, all while experiencing bewildering visions. Over the course of the level, John finally realizes that he isn't time-travelling at all: he's unconsciously using psychic precognition and so overwhelmed by all the data that he's gotten lost in a possible future - meaning that the "flashback sequences" are actually his present. Once the final revelation has set in, John's headaches subside, apparently for good.
  • According to the Buzzing of The Secret World, the Filth has many potential symptoms before the Bad Black Barf starts flowing. In the case of a Brown Note strain of the disease mentioned in the lore, it initially manifests as a headache manifesting at exactly 3 AM; as exposure continues, this escalates to insanity, massive Body Horror, and conversion into a servant of the Dreamers.
  • SOMA
    • The game begins with Simon Jarret experiencing headaches and nightmares in the wake of a car accident, quickly revealed to be the result of brain damage sustained in the crash: his brain is bleeding, and his skull will need to be periodically drained so that the pressure doesn't build to dangerous levels. However, to stop the bleeding itself, a specific treatment plan needs to be worked out - hence the experimental brain scan he takes part in.
    • Later in the game, a visit to site Omicron reveals that the base personnel have all been killed, either being decapitated or simply having colossal holes punched in their skulls. Audio recordings reveal that this started out as electromagnetic radiation interfering with their black box brain implants, causing tinnitus and headaches that eventually escalated to nosebleeds and even bloody tears. However, this was just side-effects of the WAU attempting to bring Johann Ross back to life. It didn't turn fatal until Ross helped Raleigh Herber figure out a means of killing the WAU, whereupon the panicking AI triggered a fatal overload of the black boxes.


    Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation:
    • SCP-993's TV program inflicts "stabbing" headaches on any viewers over the age of ten, causing them to rapidly lose consciousness. As such, they're not in any position to notice viewers under the age of ten being corrupted into psychopathy by Bobble the Clown.
    • Anyone using SCP-1875 (AKA The Antique Chess Computer) will begin to experience anxiety and headaches within fifteen minutes of exposure. Continued exposure results in insomnia, hallucinations, catatonia, self-mutilation, and [REDACTED].
    • During the discovery logs for SCP-3000, a team of divers trying to investigate the giant eel begins to suffer anomalous symptoms as they get within three hundred meters of it, beginning with a crippling headache. This soon escalates to memory loss, Lovecraftian nihilism, insanity, and total mindlessness.
    • SCP-4001 can be used to alter the lives of certain individuals by rewriting the library's books on them. If their personal histories are edited, this can result in the targeted individual suffering headaches as their new history takes hold... and if the change is extreme enough, this can escalate to dramatic changes in personality, suicidal depression, or even a Retgone.
    • SCP-7006 features this in the backstory of the D&D style character Dr Imani Monroe: when she was a teenager, her already-compromised health took a turn for the worse when she began suffering crippling headaches apparently due to her brain becoming swollen and inflamed, forcing doctors to cut her skull open to relieve the pressure. On the upside, doing so allowed Imani to see the invisible monster that had been causing her ill health.
    • SCP-7955 suffers from painkiller-resistant headaches, believed to be a sign of his brain becoming inflamed as the shapeshifting-induced dementia worsens. As such, the headaches are eventually accompanied by more serious symptoms like seizures.

    Western Animation 
  • Dragons: Riders of Berk: Whenever the bucket on Bucket's head gets tight, it means a storm will hit. The tighter it gets, the bigger the storm will be and the sooner it will hit. At first Stoick believes this to be nonsense until he goes to see Gothi about it, who tells him that a big storm is about to hit Berk because she could hear Bucket screaming all the way from her house.
  • In Star Wars: The Bad Batch, Wrecker starts having headaches that everyone else thinks are just from being hit in the head. They're caused by his control chip activating, and he ends up Brainwashed and Crazy because of Order 66.
  • In The Legend of Vox Machina, Vex's Spider-Sense takes the form of a sharp pain in her head and a loud ringing in her ears when a dragon is close.

    Real Life 
  • On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt reported feeling a "terrific pain in the back of my head," before abruptly collapsing. He was quickly diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage, and by 3:35 pm that same day, he was dead.
  • Narrowly averted by then-Delaware Senator and later U.S. Vice President and President Joe Biden. During 1987, Biden was making his first run for president when, as he was starting one speech in New Hampshire, he found himself with a headache; he excused himself, then collapsed before managing to rouse himself several minutes later. As things turned out, by early 1988 Biden had suffered two brain aneurysms and would not return to the Senate floor until that September, leading to much speculation that, had a series of plagiarism scandals not ruined Biden's campaign, there was a good chance he could have died on the campaign trail.