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Moral Event Horizon

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Once they cross that red line, there's no turning back.

"Tarkin, if ever there was a shred of humanity in you or these twisted creatures of yours, it's dead now. You're at war with life itself. You are enemies of the universe...your Empire is doomed."
Princess Leia Organa (after Grand Moff Tarkin wipes out Alderaan), Star Wars Radio Dramas

Named for the boundary around a black hole from which there is no escape once crossed, this trope uses the black hole as a metaphor for evil; the Moral Event Horizon refers to the first evil deed to prove a particular character to be irredeemably evil.

If the character wasn't a villain or wasn't played seriously by the story before, they now are. Note the word irredeemably. It is a demonstration of permanent evil. This is the moment which confirms that this character will always be a bad person. The moment where you realize that it's simply not possible for them to wash away that damned spot of blood. The moment any Freudian Excuse they may have loses all meaning.

While they may not have had a term such as this to define it, many authors clearly recognized it. Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land referred to it as being the result of an act that was "so bad, so black" that it was basically unforgivable. Meanwhile, multiple religions have the concept of "perdition," where those who have committed a truly unpardonable sin are irrevocably doomed to punishment in the afterlife. A common term for this trope is "crossing the line".


Obviously, it follows from the definition that a character can't cross this boundary more than once. Crossing it implies going from redeemable to irredeemable, and that's it; the other way around contradicts the definition. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll always be getting worse. Sometimes a character who has crossed the horizon will invoke I've Come Too Far afterwards... but they have still crossed the line. Yet there are ways to stem the descent into a true monstrosity. Sometimes all that stands between man and monster is a Single Tear... or even a full-out weep. Perhaps a show of respect for the enemy. A Heel Realization that you've gone too far. Sometimes they become The Atoner. But the act has been committed, the line has been crossed, and they will never fully succeed at redemption...


And since it's subjective, some characters will think you've crossed it, while others may be still prepared to believe in your possible redemption.

Just as with a real black hole, the closer you come to a Moral Event Horizon, the harder you must try to escape.

A Complete Monster lives on the other side of the Moral Event Horizon, but crossing the Moral Event Horizon does not automatically imply that the crosser is a Complete Monster. The character can just be unambiguously evil (and maybe even somewhat sympathetic); the Moral Event Horizon is a black mark in their history that can never be forgiven. A character who performs an act that should make them irredeemable but somehow gets away with it is a Karma Houdini. Unless they realize it, feel horrible, and work their ass off to atone for that crossing. Then maybe it'll evolve into Forgiven, but Not Forgotten; that one crossing certainly will stay as a black mark, but they're working to be a better person. Such instances, however, are rare. If they are written to have successfully redeemed themselves in universe with no one making any mention of their actions and treating them as if nothing had happened, it is almost certainly the sign of a bad writer, especially since most redemptions of that sort involve lots of hand-waving, contrived retcons or future plot twists, extreme whitewashing and heavily skewed character interpretations, or (sometimes) significant Values Dissonance.

Sometimes, however, there is a positive usage of a Moral Event Horizon. If, in a work, a villain seems to be too ineffectual and pathetic to be a threat, yet the show wants to insist that it's a dangerous villain, letting the villain cross the Moral Event Horizon can be a good way to establish that villain's caliber, that they're meant to be opposed and taken seriously. In other words, it can save a supposed villain from being a failure of a villain. At the same time, it has to make sense; a straight-up joke villain who has always been averse to doing anything beyond petty crimes suddenly jumping to raping a baby or burning an innocent captive to death is going to feel a lot more contrived than an ineffectual villain who has also consistently shown themselves to be a complete scumbag who is 100% evil and just sucks at pulling off villainous plots doing the same.

When a hero crosses a Moral Event Horizon and it becomes questionable whether they can still be qualified as a hero, this is Designated Hero.

When people decide in-universe that someone has crossed this line, the character in question is considered Beyond Redemption.

The Good Counterpart to Moral Event Horizon is Heroes' Frontier Step, when a character commits a noble deed that firmly establishes that they are indeed heroic and even pure.

No Real Life Examples, Please! For one, calling a real person a villain is not allowed here. Secondly, whether or not a real person has crossed this line is way too debatable; we already have enough trouble with fictional characters.

Compare with:

  • Abusive Parents: Characters who abuse their children often cross this. Especially if this abuse turns sexual or deadly.
  • And That's Terrible: When the writers feel the need to explicitly point out when this occurs.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: A race or group is treated, justifiably or not, as so innately evil that they're over the line by default.
  • Bad Boss: Characters who abuse their subordinates often cross this.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Characters who abuse animals often cross this.
  • Bait the Dog: A villain sets up a moment that endears them to the audience, only to commit a deed to show how utterly despicable they are.
  • Beyond Redemption: When a character In-Universe crosses a line of evil that makes someone else give up trying to redeem them.
  • Black Widow & The Bluebeard: While abusing a spouse is bad enough, killing a succession of them is a major crossing.
  • Bully Brutality: Bullies who go beyond giving their victims black eyes and wedgies by severely injuring them are line-crossers.
  • Bullying the Disabled: Ostracizing or mocking someone's disability is a sick act.
  • Child Eater/Eats Babies: A villain who only targets defenseless children often crosses the line by default, as it combines Would Hurt a Child and I'm a Humanitarian.
  • Complete Monster: A character that's pure evil. Not everyone who crosses the Moral Event Horizon become this, but a Complete Monster has definitely crossed it.
  • Cop Killer: When a murderer demonstrates their lack of regard for morality by killing representatives of law and justice.
  • Crosses the Line Twice: When these actions are played for laughs.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Inflicting painful and hideous deaths to your victims, especially innocent or sympathetic ones, is a line-crossing.
  • A Deadly Affair: When an affair turns into a crime scene. Victim(s) can vary.
  • Defiled Forever: In a setting where Sex Is Evil and/or where Nature Adores a Virgin.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Some characters who lose all hope can be more likely to cross the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Designated Hero/Unintentionally Unsympathetic: Audiences think the characters are deserved to be condemned, even if the author makes their actions justified or reasonable.
  • Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat: Giving up an advantage just to hurt someone, while definitely stupid, petty, and pointless, can also be a line-crossing if it involves a truly heinous act due to the underlying thought process: they care less about winning and more about inflicting harm, and they're totally willing to throw away what was a guaranteed victory just to indulge in petty cruelty.
  • Dirty Coward: In some cases, characters who put their lives before others to the point that they don't care if others die or suffer are line-crossers.
  • Dirty Cop / Killer Cop: Usually they often cross the line especially if they are deliberately aiding and abetting criminals as well as killing good cops that try to stop them.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Sometimes, the retribution is disproportionate enough that it causes the person who committed it to cross the line, and often it does.
  • Dog-Kicking Excuse: Deliberately targeting bad people just because it presents a good excuse for doing something heinous to them is still as crossing it because, at the end of the day, they really only cared about inflicting serious or fatal harm on someone and just needed a good excuse for doing it.
  • Domestic Abuse: Characters who abuse their families/spouses/lovers often cross this.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Destroying an entire planet is a major line-crossing.
  • Evil Feels Good: Being on The Dark Side after a Face–Heel Turn makes a character feel good committing evil deeds.
  • Face–Heel Turn: A character on the side of good turns bad and allies with a villain (or group of villains) and forever affiliated with them.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: Rewarding selfless acts of kindness with wanton cruelty can absolutely be a line-crossing.
  • Family Extermination: The killing of entire families especially the hero's loved ones is a major crossing of the MEH.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Many Affably Evil characters can become this when they cross the line.
  • Final Solution: Genocide, the act of wiping out an entire people, is one of the most monstrous acts that a person or a society can commit, and is a serious line-crossing.
  • Forced to Watch: Forcing someone to watch the torture or murder of those they care about is almost invariably a line-crossing.
  • For the Evulz: Many usually Kick the Dog for no reason than Evil Feels Good and to get a sick kick at others' expense.
  • Freudian Excuse: Villains are often the way they are because they were on the receiving end of someone crossing the line.
  • Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse: When a villain’s sad past makes absolutely no impact on the villain having crossed the line.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Sometimes a situation becomes so desperate that even heroes must do the previously unthinkable or forbidden.
  • Guilt by Association Gag: Punishing someone for what someone else has done can be considered this due to how unfair it is.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: A Heel–Face Turn and/or an apology is attempted, but for whatever reason(s) is rejected; in other words, it's too little, too late. Also, a villain who kills someone just as they are about to make a Heel–Face Turn often crosses this.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: He who seeks revenge against the villains should be wary, not to get so influenced by them that he crosses the line and becomes a villain himself.
  • Honor-Related Abuse: Characters who abuse their families/friends in the name of honor often cross this.
  • Human Traffickers: Since their entire business involves kidnapping young women and girls for the purposes of slavery and sexual desire, they automatically cross the MEH.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: When a character does something irredeemably terrible in the name of the greater good (or, less favorably, believes that it was for the greater good) while being at least nominally aware of the gravity of their actions.
  • If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten: One is made to cross the line to prove their character.
  • Ignored Epiphany: A villain or morally gray character has a brief moment of realizing how bad their actions are, only to shrug it off a few moments later, knowing how far they've fallen.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Willingly engaging in cannibalism is often seen as the sign of a truly despicable person, as you're killing people for your own enjoyment and desecrating their corpse at the same time. This may be much more forgivable in survival scenarios or if one is unaware of what they're eating.
  • It Can Think: When a creature is revealed to be highly intelligent, what were once amoral actions can become this.
  • I've Come Too Far: When a character recognizes (or believes) that they have crossed the MEH and know that they don't have a chance of redemption anymore.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: A character skips over several progressively darker shades of gray and goes straight to crossing it.
  • Kangaroo Court: Deciding that the accused is guilty without any evidence can cross the line.
  • Karmic Death: What the irredeemable character will usually face due to crossing it.
  • Karmic Rape: A character may also face this if they've done something irredeemably awful, especially if that thing involved sex.
  • Kick the Dog: An act which serves no purpose other than to mark the character as evil, which frequently overlaps with this.
  • Kick the Morality Pet: If Kicking The Dog wasn't enough, the evil character hurting the ones who brought out their inner humanity is worse - and, from a narrative standpoint, is a good way to cut off their most obvious path to redemption.
  • Kill the Poor: Killing those who are in poverty is a form of genocide, and therefore an obvious crossing.
  • Kinslaying Is a Special Kind of Evil: Murdering one's relatives in general is often considered this.
    • Genocide from the Inside: Wiping out your family is bad enough, but extending it to your entire species is an extreme case of this.
    • Matricide: A character killing their own mother is considered to be heinous in most cases.
    • Naughty Narcs: Just like Dirty and Killer Cops, they can often cross the line if they willingly help the drug cartels against the wishes of the DEA and even kill anyone who tries to expose them.
    • Offing the Offspring: Parents killing their children is considered this.
    • Pater Familicide: A male character killing their family and then themselves or leaves town is considered to be heinous.
    • Patricide: A character killing their own father is considered to be heinous most of the time.
    • Self-Made Orphan: A character killing their own parents is considered to be heinous most of the time.
    • Sibling Murder: A character killing their own sibling is considered to be heinous.
  • Knight Templar: One of the most frequent crossers, as they're too deluded to realize that they're in the wrong or believe that the outcome will vindicate them.
  • Mind Rape: Psychologically torturing someone into insanity is quite depraved.
  • Mocking the Mourner: Anyone who harasses the bereaved, especially over their loved one's death, is considered having crossed the line into this.
  • Monster Misogyny: A character or creature targeting defenseless women exclusively often crosses the line by default from doing so.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The character will react with great remorse after he/she crosses the Moral Event Horizon.
  • No Place for Me There: When a character who has crossed it or inevitably will is trying to create a better world, but does so knowing that there will be no place in that world for people who commit monstrous acts like them.
  • No Woman's Land: A race or group abuse women so they're over the line by default.
  • Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: Lying about the horrible atrocities you committed as being for a good cause is a great method to cross the line.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: Soldiers crossing the line to show War Is Hell.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: Trying to kill EVERYTHING almost certainly puts one past the line.
  • Ordered to Die: Telling someone you have authority over to kill themselves. If a hero does this, it's hard to argue they're a "hero" any longer.
  • Pædo Hunt: Sexual contact with a minor is treated as this, as it combines Would Hurt a Child and Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Bigotry is treated as this, lest they have a really good Freudian Excuse.
  • Punished for Sympathy: In a cultural sense, a character showing sympathy for someone who has crossed it is considered just as bad as the line-crosser.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Rape is easily considered a major crossing.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Any one of those is crossing the line, doing them all at once on a large scale is an easy line-crosser.
  • Realism-Induced Horror: Realistically horrific acts are more likely to cross the line than fantastic ones.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Exacting revenge on someone innocent, especially if it's done in order to hurt someone connected to the person who the avenger wants revenge on, is treated as this.
  • Redemption Rejection: A character rejecting an offer to redeem himself is proof that he isn't willing to turn back from the line he crossed.
  • Reformed, but Rejected: Frequently befalls those who crossed the line if they try to atone. This may or may not be reasonable depending on their pre and post line-crossing actions.
  • Rejected Apology: Sometimes, a character's actions cross the line to the point where he isn't forgiven for them no matter how apologetic he is.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: A character in the middle of one of these very well may do something that strikes beyond the pale.
  • Sadist: A character who enjoys the pain and suffering of others and enjoys inflicting as much of it as possible is a frequent line crosser.
  • Serial Rapist: A character who rapes numerous individuals. For obvious reasons, it's a big MEH crossing.
  • Shamed by a Mob: A large group of characters will show extreme disgust towards the one crossing the line. Conversely, a mob shaming someone runs the risk of crossing this is the shaming goes to the extremes.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: Can be considered this due to the family having no control over what the culprit has done.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Slavery is considered as this. Applies first and foremost for slavedrivers who start it, and not always for those raised in a slavery-based society if they aren't cruel to the slaves.
  • Slowly Slipping Into Evil: One common slow approach to crossing the line.
  • The Sociopath: One of the most frequent line-crossers, as a complete Lack of Empathy, overarching egotism and grandiosity, ability to feign social cues to such an extent that it appears genuine to regulars, and willingness to escalate their depravity when they've grown bored with garden-variety cruelty are a lethal combination.
  • Soiled City on a Hill: An entire location that has crossed the line.
  • Start of Darkness: A flashback or prequel that shows where they crossed the line.
  • Stupid Evil: Characters who act like this tend to cross the line with alarming regularity, as the behavior is inherently pointless and purposeless and they also very frequently escalate their behavior when they've grown bored with garden-variety cruelty.
  • Suicide Dare: Telling someone to kill themselves is a heartless act to say the least, and becomes outright monstrous if the person should actually go through with it.
  • Suicide Is Shameful: Suicide is considered as this crossover by some cultures.
  • Tautological Templar: Even worse offenders at crossing the line than the Knight Templar because they believe everything they do is good, no matter how monstrous.
  • Team Killer: Killing one's own teammates is a reprehensible act.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: Deeming someone as evil without having done anything evil, and after getting fed up they decide to become evil or at least act the part. If mistreated and abused for no reason their persecutors have ironically crossed the Moral Event Horizon themselves. Their first unambiguously villainous act may well be their Moral Event Horizon.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: An in-universe proclamation that the Moral Event Horizon has been crossed. See also This Means War!.
  • Tragic Mistake: The line is accidentally crossed. May or may not be irredeemable depending on how they handle it.
  • Tragic Villain: A character believes they've crossed the Moral Event Horizon, and has nothing left to do but continue to be evil despite regretting it.
  • Treachery Is a Special Kind of Evil: When betraying someone is considered to be crossing the line.
  • The Unfettered: Willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, even if it means crossing the line.
  • Victim Blaming: Blaming someone for the tragedies happened to him/her is heinous.
  • Video Game Cruelty Potential: Sometimes certain things the player can do will push their character over it.
  • Where I Was Born and Razed: Destroying one's own homeland is a reprehensible act.
  • Would Harm a Senior: Hurting a senior citizen often crosses the line.
  • Would Hit a Girl: For a man, hurting an innocent woman may be considered as crossing the line.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Hurting a child often crosses the line.
  • You Monster!: Characters will get called this, indicating that they've severely crossed the line.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Bands of rebels (especially guerilla fighters) tend to be frequent crossers because in times of tyranny or occupation, you can't afford to not get your hands dirty, and the higher the stakes and the more powerful the opposition, the higher the chance of doing something truly heinous is. They may react to it with horror, resignation or, far less favorably, by setting it as a benchmark for future actions.
  • Zombify the Living: Subjecting people to a death far worse than normal death, by making them into undead, is a cruel deed.

Contrast with:

Example subpages:

Other examples:

Comic Strips

  • Crankshaft. The September 2013 plot arc has Crankshaft get even surlier than usual because a new co-worker is challenging his reign of smug, curmudgeonly idiot incompetence; his response is to try to 'scare' her into letting him be the festering asshole using his hard life as an excuse to be the antisocial clod he was born to be... by trying to run her over with his school bus.


Video Example(s):


Slaughter of the Innocent

Darth Maul takes a running leap over this in the fourth season finale. While most would argue that Maul had already crossed it when he killed Qui-Gon, Qui-Gon is a Jedi, Maul is a Sith. Nothing personal there. What is personal, however, is murdering a bunch of innocent people, including children, just to lure Obi-Wan for the sole sake of revenge.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

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