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Neverending Terror

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Mind you, he's still trying to escape from his mom.

"Jesus Christ, Reese. Can't you see I'm scared?! I can't spend my life waiting for that thing to catch up with me...always looking over my shoulder, wondering if I left some tiny clue behind..."
Sarah Connor, The Terminator (deleted scene)

The most frightening thing isn't being in peril or danger—it's that you'll always be. Forever.

In this situation, a character realizes that the safe, worry-free life they once enjoyed is over. Whether they stumbled across The Masquerade, are being stalked by an Implacable Man or Super-Persistent Predator, are on the run from Murder, Inc., or are afflicted with Demonic Possession, they know that no matter what they do, one careless Moment of Weakness, one lapse of attention or concentration, one instant that they stop looking over their shoulder, and it's all over. From now on, whatever problem they've acquired had better be their new life, or they won't live at ALL.

This trope is effective because all of us crave some sort of normalcy, safety, and security in our lives. When that's taken away from us, and we realize that it can never be gotten back (or not without great risk/cost), and that our safety/survival/fate is dependent on always living in fear, it can become pure Nightmare Fuel.

This trope should be limited to deadly threats specific to a single character or relatively small group of characters. While it technically applies for any instance of The End of the World as We Know It, any Death World, or any person diagnosed with an incurable/terminal illness, this trope implies that there is a "normal life" just dangling out of reach for the character if the antagonizing entity would just go away. If an entire world or major setting is like this, the trope you're looking for is Had to Be Sharp. For deadly diseases or ailments, see Your Days Are Numbered. Further, any "solutions" to the problem should be either impossible, improbable, or such a huge risk that it isn't worth it.

See also Is It Always Like This?, when a character has entered a new status quo well beyond what they expected. Also, if it's a Broken Masquerade, this probably overlaps with Ignorance Is Bliss or These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. Also overlaps with The World Is Always Doomed, especially if the character now has the responsibility of protecting it.

This can also be a Fate Worse than Death, such as knowing that some sort of demon or malevolent entity is after your immortal soul, or they've already taken it, and there's no way out.

A Curse, being a perpetual Doom Magnet or being Claimed by the Supernatural will lead to this, as might going into Witness Protection. If the character does try to fight back, it's probably because they're Tired of Running. This is one possible consequence of the As Long as There Is Evil rule since this continuous, torturous existence means that the world is never really safe from darkness and that the character who deals with it, is even more attached to it and can never really hide and leave it behind like others.

Sub-Trope of Paranoia Fuel. See also The Problem with Fighting Death. Compare And I Must Scream and Inescapable Horror.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Anyone who is Branded for Sacrifice in Berserk and manages to survive the experience has to deal with all kinds of bad supernatural shit trying to claim them night after night, often not even letting the person sleep. This world is quite big and since it is filled with countless unsavoury characters it is no surprise that wherever the branded ones go, they will attract evil spirits as quickly as an abandoned corpse will attract flies. It's little wonder that Guts is as messed up as he is post-Eclipse, and that he turned to hatred in order to survive this nightmare.
  • The fourteenth has undergone this 35 years ago in D.Gray-Man while trying to run away from the Noah who always knew where he is. Wisely prophecies this will happen to Allen too now that Nea has started to awaken in him

    Comic Books 
  • In The Sandman (1989), Dream punishes the one responsible for his imprisonment with 'Eternal Waking': a series of nightmare that will send the victim to a Catapult Nightmare... only to realize he's in another, even worse nightmare, for all eternity.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Terminator:
    • The Terminator: This is the nightmare Sarah Connor faces. Now that she has this unstoppable Killer Robot after her, she must live in fear for the rest of her life. She has to be careful of every action, every person she meets, every little detail, or it will find and kill her. Even the hero of the story, Kyle Reese, believes that there's no hope of destroying it, and that even if they do, in the original script, he knows that it's possible another will come someday. Deleted scenes have Sarah come to realize this problem and decide that, if she has no hope of outrunning this thing forever, she's at least going take its creator, Skynet, down with her by blowing up the company responsible for creating it. Unfortunately for her, You Can't Fight Fate.
    • Terminator 2: Judgment Day: Even after destroying the Terminator sent to kill her, the fear mentioned above has driven Sarah to Sanity Slippage because its true target (her son) is still in danger. Sure enough, Sarah has lived the last ten years of her life struggling both with the knowledge that she must protect her son at all costs and what is destined to happen that requires his safety.
    • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: After the events of the second film and the death of his mother Sarah, John has been living off the grid for years, even though he hopes that their actions in the last movie have prevented Judgment Day and the machine uprising. Unfortunately for him, it didn't work and the machines send yet another Terminator to find him. Fortunately for him, because he's been living off the grid, it can't find him easily. Unfortunately for everybody else who would have been part of his chain of command and inner circle, they hadn't.
    • Terminator: Dark Fate: Three years after the second movie, John and Sarah believe themselves to be safe with Cyberdyne and all the traces of the Terminator destroyed, only for John to die at the hands of a second T-800, as Reese was right and Skynet had sent out multiple Terminators throughout the timeline. It's then seemingly subverted, since killing John at this point doesn't change Cyberdyne's destruction in the past, and Skynet is wiped from existence... only to play it straight when it's revealed that just because Skynet never existed doesn't mean that humanity stopped working on military A.I.s, and a completely separate A.I. called Legion gains sentience and unleashes its own Judgement Day, as well as even more powerful Terminators known as Rev-9, starting the cycle all over again with a new target.
  • The Grudge: This is one of the scariest parts of the eponymous grudge curse. Once the ghost/demon is after you, there is no getting away from it. Also, it will come for you anywhere. It doesn't care how locked up you are or how many other people are nearby.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street: Since Freddy kills his victims in their dreams, part of the terror is knowing that you have to go to sleep sometime. Also, killing Freddy will at best only give you a temporary period of safety...that you have no way of knowing has ended until people (possibly you) start dying again.
  • The Matrix: Morpheus unplugs Neo from the Matrix, where he was living Inside a Computer System. He teaches Neo the truth about the Matrix, including the nature of their foe, the evil Artificial Intelligence machines. Neo has a mental collapse and falls unconscious. When he wakes up, he asks Morpheus "I can't go back, can I." In fact, fatigue with the unending, terrifying Robot War is what prompts Cypher to betray the group on the slim hope of being able to go back.
  • Demon Knight: The Legions of Hell are chasing after an ageless Chosen One who carries a holy flask containing the blood of Jesus and previous Chosen Ones. The Chosen One must stay on the run from them, constantly moving and never slowing down too much for an instant, or else the demons will get the flask and unleash Hell on Earth. Also, the Chosen One bears a mark on their arm counting down how much time is left until they must make their Last Stand, at which point they must face an onslaught of Demonic Invaders and then pass on the flask to the Sole Survivor, who is the next Chosen One.
  • Body Snatchers: After the heroes manage to pull off a Death from Above Roaring Rampage of Revenge on the pod convoys and go to what they think is a safe place, the heroine/Character Narrator thinks that maybe they are too late to stop the invasion. And eventually they will be too tired to fight off sleep...
  • It Follows: The titular "It" is an Implacable Man Eldritch Abomination that, oddly enough, can't move faster than regular walking speed... the scary part is that it never stops, it always knows where its victims are, and it can go through any obstacle through smarts, shapeshifting or sheer brute strength alone. Any people who become targets of It must keep moving, as fast as they can, and never stop.
  • Cat's Eye has a segment featuring an anti-smoking group run by The Mafia ("Quitters, Inc.") from which, once you become a member of, can never leave. They will watch you forever, you will need to follow their instructions on clean living to the letter, and if you ever so much as think of disobeying an order, they will torture your family, force you to watch, and they will charge you for the torture's implements (like electricity) on their monthly membership bill. Or start dismembering them bit-by-bit, starting with the fingers. And if even that can't stop you from smoking, well... they give up on you.
  • In Unfaithful, the protagonist kills a man his wife is having an affair with. After she learns about it, the wife feels guilty about her infidelity and helps her husband cover up the crime. The ending scene has the two of them both break down crying as they pass a police station, and it's usually interpreted to be because they know they'll be living in fear of being caught for the rest of their lives.
  • The main source of fear in Phantasm and its sequels is that no matter what you do to stop The Tall Man, he'll just carry on with his work. Kill him and he gets a new body. Destroy his spheres and slaves, he'll just make more. And if he's set his sights on you, you can stay on the move for decades, and he'll still be coming for you.
  • Hook: Invoked on Captain Hook to force Peter Banning/Pan to face him in the final battle: Peter can take his children and go home, but as long as Hook exists he will never stop gunning for Peter, his children, and his children's children; and one day, no matter what Peter does, he will come home and find another note nailed to his door with a dagger. That's enough reason for Peter.
  • The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Katniss naively assumes that after completing the Victory Tour, she and Peeta will be left alone by the Capitol to live out their lives. Haymitch bluntly tells her this is never going to happen; they may have survived the arena but now they will have to mentor new tributes, with all the details of their so-called "starcrossed lovers" story being put under the spotlight for all of Panem to see. President Snow himself warns Katniss that he and others aren't convinced that she defied the Capitol purely out of love for Peeta and that there will be dire consequences if she doesn’t help quell any potential rebellion. To protect her loved ones, Katniss tries to play along but clearly finds it challenging to put on a performance practically any time she’s in public (and she’s not always safe in private either, given President Snow can have her spied on).
  • Catch Me If You Can: With Frank as the Villain Protagonist, this is how he sees Hanratty's and the FBI's pursuit of him. At various points Frank tries to bargain with Hanratty to let him retire, but as Hanratty explains, Frank broke the law, stole millions of dollars, and embarassed a lot of people—his crimes are simply too egregious to let him off the hook. Moreover, it's literally Hanratty's job to catch Frank, it's all he does, and no matter where Frank goes, he will always be looking over his shoulder until the government catches him.

  • I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: This is the main source of Nightmare Fuel for the story. AM, a Master Computer, has wiped out all of humanity except for five people, whom he immediately invokes Complete Immortality upon so that he can spend every waking second tormenting their bodies and minds in increasingly cruel and horrific ways. This an exception to the After the End rule: the five protagonists are still worse off than the billions of humans that died because death would actually be a relief for them.
  • In the Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu Mythos crossover story "The Adventure of the Death-Fetch" a man is menaced by a deadly doppelganger monster, who can come out of any mirror that shows his reflection. His only hope of survival is locking himself inside a room and never looking at a reflective surface ever again. In the end, he gets killed when he catches a glimpse of his reflection in his rifle's polished barrel.
  • The Hounds of Tindalos: Once the Hounds catch your scent, they can come out of any angled surface or corner to kill you. Your only hope is to plaster over all the corners in your house, and then never get close to an angular shape ever again.
  • The short story "The Ruum" by Arthur Porges has a mysterious shape-shifting robot that tracks a man through the mountains. Nothing — including bullets, boulders and dynamite — can stop it, and eventually the man has no choice but to give up. Turns out, the creature was left by an alien race, and its job is to collect species for experimentation; the man's attempts to escape have left him below the weight required by the robot, so he is left alone.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Behave": A particularly twisted example with a Serial Rapist who takes sick pleasure in stalking and tracking his victims after their first assault and then attacking them again at random points in their lives. One poor woman is so broken by the experience that her career, marriage, family and entire life go to pieces as she becomes afraid of ANY human interaction, or even leaving her house... forcing her to live in painful solitude. And he still finds her and rapes her again. The criminal gets pleasure from knowing he's the only thing these women think about, every moment of their existence. The team finally catches him, but not until he's ruined quite a few lives — and even though the active threat is now gone, the victims are likely to suffer serious, potentially lifelong effects from living in terror for so long.
  • Sapphire and Steel: At the end of the fourth story arc, the supernatural menace is converted into a Sealed Evil in a Can, but Sapphire and Steel warn the human who helped them trap it that it will probably escape and come seeking revenge eventually, which it will be able to even if she's dead by then unless she spends the rest of her life taking certain precautions, living with the knowledge that if she slips up even once she's potentially doomed.
  • Jessica Jones (2015): This is Jessica's nightmare as she is stalked by Kilgrave, an evil bastard who can Mind Control people and enslaved her for his sick purposes. Not only is Jessica herself always in danger because all it would take is one word from Kilgrave to enslave her again (until she finds out she's immune), but she lives in New York City, meaning she lives among 20 million people he could control at any time. Hope, after being victimized by Kilgrave and being forced to kill her parents, chooses to cut her own throat rather than fall back under his control. It's not surprising that Jessica chooses to kill Kilgrave when she finally has a chance.
  • Porridge: Long-term prisoner Fletcher explains that escaping from prison is not glamorous at all, because of the constant fear of being caught.
  • Like the Terminator films, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles indulges heavily in this. Following the second movie, both Sarah and John are heavily shaped by their years living (figuratively) underground "just in case", and when Cromartie comes after them it is intensified. This is also the focus of the episode "Alpine Fields", in which two guest characters are depicted in two timeframes, one when Sarah and Cameron come to rescue them from a Terminator when they have no idea what's going on, and one some time later after they've spent a while on the run.
  • This is a constant state of mind for the Kelpiens on Star Trek: Discovery, whose hat is the ability to sense danger and the coming of death. It's so bad for Commander Saru that when he finally experiences a day of peace on the planet Pahvo, he becomes so obsessed with staying that he's willing to kill his crewmates rather than go back to the war between The Federation and the Klingons.
    • It turns out that this is a reversal of the Kelpiens' natural life cycle bred into them by their former food source, another sentient species called the Ba'ul. In fact, the Ba'ul used to live in Neverending Terror of the Kelpiens until they rose up and conquered them, turning them into a slave/food race. Kelpiens actually go from a docile fearful state and transform into confident, predatory warriors through a cycle that they were brainwashed into believing was a death cycle by the Ba'ul who culled them at the point of transformation.

  • Christine's part in The Phantom of the Opera. Some of her lines referring to the title character include: "My God, who is this man/Who hunts to kill?/I can't escape from him,/I never will". Referring to the plan to stage Don Juan Triumphant (the Phantom's own opera) with her performance as bait for a trap, Christine is reluctant to perform and says:
    Raoul, I'm frightened. Don't make me do this. It scares me.
    Don't put me through this ordeal by fire. He'll take me. I know.
    We'll be parted forever. He won't let me go.
    What I once used to dream, I now dread. If he finds me, it won't ever end.

    Video Games 
  • Dead by Daylight: The Entity is an Unseen Invincible Villain who finds several unlucky "Survivors" and "Killers" and lock them in an endless "Groundhog Day" Loop in which the former are hunted by the latter. If the Killers capture the Survivors, they are sacrificed to The Entity and sent to The Void—a realm of immeasurable darkness and suffering; if the Survivors elude the Killers long enough, they can escape through portals...only to find themselves right back at the start of the "loop", where it begins again. Thus, at best, escaping will only slow down the number of trips to the Void the Survivor takes. Also, every trip to the Void depletes some of the Survivor's soul and willpower, eventually destroying their hope and will to live. Since The Entity feeds not only from the sacrifice, but also the false hope and fear of the Survivors (in addition to the rage and bloodlust of the Killers), a Survivor with no will to live is no longer useful and thus sent permanently to the Void. That basically means that once the Entity has chosen a Survivor, they are utterly screwed. Also, those who know about The Entity but aren't part of its sadistic games are aware that with every Sacrifice, the Entity grows stronger and spreads its influence further in the world, able to take more and more Survivors until eventually it reaches everyone on Earth. And, as said before, there's NO WAY to stop this.
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt:
    • This is a favorite tactic of Gaunter O'Dimm, aka "Master Mirror", the closest analogue the series has to the Devil. Gaunter thrives on misery, so his deals are carefully constructed so that they cause as much torment for the person who made it as possible, until they're desperately searching for a way to end or reverse their deal, only to learn that there's no way they can. The best they can do is make the stipulations for collecting their soul so convoluted, and to actively avoid the Exact Words of the agreement, to draw out how much time they have for as long as possible. But don't worry, O'Dimm is very patient and will still tauntingly remind you that he'll get you someday.
      • In another instance, a woman was cursed by O'Dimm so that she not only slowly turned into a hideous monster, but so that she would remain hungry no matter how much food she eats. Once she realized how badly she was cursed, she spent years desperately searching for a cure to the predicament, and losing any family or allies who could help her. O'Dimm made her curse so convoluted, with wording so vague, that failing even one step typically resulted in the death or poisoning of the person trying. By the time you find her in-game, she's a monstrous wight who's been cursed for over a century and you can still fail to free her.
      • In yet another instance, O'Dimm placed a protective circle around a man who had been studying O'Dimm's true nature. He gently explains to the man that the circle is meant to protect him from any harm from evil, but his tone makes it clear that it's a thinly-veiled threat. Said man becomes terrified of leaving that circle for ANY reason whatsoever and thus became trapped in one spot for years, where his academic prowess and knowledge goes to waste (aside from aiding the local mage hunters, whom he despises). After he gives Geralt information how to beat O'Dimm, a trap is triggered which causes the man to accidentally fall out of the circle, where he bashes his head against a pile of books and fatally breaks his neck.
    • Ciri spends most of the series on the run from the titular The Wild Hunt, but in this game she has become Tired of Running and makes it clear that she will fight back.
    • The White Frost is an Eldritch Location which gradually leaks through the multiverse gradually freezing each and every world it touches. People who know about it live in constant fear of it eventually reaching their worlds (especially if they are immortal or long-lived). Finding Apocalyptic Logs in worlds that the White Frost has already destroyed conveys the slowly-dawning horror that comes with realizing that it's never going to stop snowing or growing colder, and colder...

    Visual Novels 
  • Even after his acquittal in court, the protagonist of Daughter for Dessert knows that Cecilia still has it out for him, and will take another crack at getting revenge on him.
  • In Double Homework, after the second avalanche on Barbarossa, the entire class has the threat of revenge from Dr. Mosely/Zeta hanging over their heads, which won’t go away soon.

  • Goblins has the unfortunate goblin who received the Prophetic Name "Dies Horribly" from the clan fortune teller. He firmly believes that You Can't Fight Fate and spends most of his time shivering. Once he does die horribly and come Back from the Dead, he gets better, despite being in vastly more dangerous circumstances.

    Web Videos 

    Western Animation 
  • Batman: The Animated Series:
    • In "Joker's Favor", a poor run-down schlubb named Charlie drives home from work and shouts at another driver who cuts him off... only the other driver turns out to be The Joker. The clown prince of crime chases him down and demands a future favor from Charlie as compensation for his rudeness. Charlie quits his job, changes his name and goes into hiding with his family for years, living in fear that the Joker will catch up to him one day... and he does. However, a desperate Charlie Takes a Level in Badass and threatens to kill both the Joker and himself with one of the Joker's own bombs, which actually terrifies the Clown Prince of Crime into submission long enough for Batman to capture him.
    • "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?" presents a satisfying Laser-Guided Karma example. Corrupt Corporate Executive Daniel Mockridge, publisher of a highly popular video game created by Edward Nygma, cuts him out of any share of the profits and fires him to boot. This inspires Nygma to become The Riddler and seek revenge on Mockridge. While Mockridge survives his enemy's wrath and gets no legal punishment (and presumably continues to profit from the game), the Riddler escapes and the experience leaves Mockridge a broken shell of a man who cannot even properly sleep at night, expecting Nygma to come for him eventually, and will be like that for the rest of his life, prompting Batman to wonder if the millions that he made were worth a good night's sleep...