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Nightmare of Normality

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"I heard a rumour you think you're just ordinary..."
Alison Hargreeves, The Umbrella Academy

When pitted against an opponent who can't be Brought Down to Normal, sometimes the next best thing to do is to trick them into thinking that they're normal — and that they always have been, more often than not.

A very specific form of brainwashing — or delusion — suffered by characters who are important, special, superhuman or supernatural in some way, this trope can be deployed in a variety of ways.

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One of the more common variants features the victim being plunged into a Mental World in which they can live out their days as if nothing special had ever happened to them, hence the "nightmare." In some cases the victim may be so taken in by the illusion that they suspect nothing and willingly assimilate; in others they may find it upsetting, even humiliating, and rebel against it.

The other, less dreamlike variant involves more straightforward mental manipulation, and features all knowledge of the victim's true nature being either suppressed or completely expunged: they can be allowed to roam free from then on, as they will have lost all knowledge of any special abilities they possessed and remain completely unaware of any great quests or vendettas that once defined their lives. In this case, the nightmare is of the purely metaphorical kind... though it does run into problems if the victims accidentally rediscover their abilities - for of course, their powers themselves haven't been destroyed, only the knowledge of them.

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One way or another, regardless of whether this has been inflicted through an illusion, a delusion or through good old-fashioned Mind Control, a breakout will be attempted sooner or later - often allowing the victim to turn the tables with the powers they were forced to deny.

May overlap with Cuckoo Nest if being "normal" also means being committed to a mental hospital. However, this is not an automatic necessity of this trope: in most cases of Cuckoo Nest, the victims are encouraged to believe that their lives before the illusion were just hallucinations, while here, it's fully possible for the victims to forget literally everything of their pre-"normal" lives.

May also overlap with Lotus-Eater Machine if the experience is treated as calming and seductive, Psychological Torment Zone if it's treated as a hell, or Laser-Guided Amnesia if their memories of their life before the illusion are erased.

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Compare and contrast Epiphanic Prison, Karmic Transformation, All Just a Dream, and I Just Want to Be Normal.

Warning: potential spoilers for major plot twists ahead. Tread carefully...


Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Big O: The second season begins with Roger going up against the forgien bots that come to attack Paradigm City. The fight ends up going badly and Roger... is somehow transported into a world where he's nothing but a homeless bum as opposed to the suave negotiator and wanders the street running into other characters who don't regconize him and have different roles then he knows. The implication being this was apparently everyone's former lives before whatever event caused the mass amnesia that swept over the world, though of course this show never clearly answers this. Regardless he eventually regains his resolve and awakes back in his world with renew vigor to battle against the bots.
  • After the events of the first season of Code Geass Lelouch has his mind wiped of the knowledge that he is Zero.
  • In Mob Psycho 100, Mob and Reigen are hired, along with other psychics and exorcists, to purge an evil spirit from a girl. Mob tries to fight against it by going into the girl's body but the spirit, named Keiji Mogami, turns the tables and puts Mob into a mental image of his neighborhood only without his powers where he's constantly beat up by images of people who knows. Keiji's plan being to drive Mob over the Despair Event Horizon to get him to want to kill once he gives his powers back. It's only thanks to Dimple managing to break into the mental world and stop Mob that saves him from the brink and puts him back on focus to save the girl. What's more during all of this, while 30 minutes pass in the real world, to Mob in the mental one six months had gone by.
  • In Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, when the protagonists fight the Anti-Spiral, they get trapped in a dimension in various fantasies, some for the most part dreams they wish could come true (Yuko getting with either Kamina or Kittan before they died, Viral wishing to have a family but can't due to his beastman nature keeping him from reproducing etc.) For Simon, he finds himself back in his teenage years in a world with where Kamina is still alive and they're petty jewel thieves rather than the badass mech pilots and revolutionaries who successfully helped humanity rise from the underground depths. What's more, the dream Kamina is a pathetic bootlicker who cowers at the first sign of trouble. Eventually the spirit of the real Kamina arrives and helps Simon break through the illusion.

    Audio Plays 
  • Big Finish Doctor Who
    • As it turns out, this is the hidden twist behind "The Holy Terror": here, Eugene Tacitus is discovered to have complete control over the void-like Pocket Dimension, having created the Castle and all of its inhabitants as a manifestation of his perfect fantasy world; however, he's also been imprisoned within the Castle as punishment for murdering his son, and has lost all memory of both his powers and his life before incarceration. By the time the Doctor meets him, he's employed as a lowly bureaucrat and truly believes himself to be "worthless" - up until his perfect world suddenly turns Black Bug Room. It's never made clear if some alien entity is punishing Eugene for his crimes, or if his own subconscious is torturing him.
    • Combined with Heel–Face Brainwashing in "Master". Here, the Doctor has made a deal with Death to erase the Master's memories and give him a new life in the human colony of Perfugium, where he can be at peace away from Death's influence. Now unaware of the Time Lord powers he still possesses, the Master assumes he's just an ordinary human being with a disfigured face and takes on the name of John Smith, and even becomes a well-respected doctor in the town. Unfortunately, the fact that he's still a Time Lord causes problems: the Master's personality is still active and not happy about being pushed out of the limelight, and though he's not able to control John directly, he's able to use John's telepathic powers to encourage people around him to succumb to their darker natures. Add to that the fact that Death is actively manipulating the setting to her advantage and the Doctor's hopes of redeeming the Master permanently are dead in the water by the story's end.
    • The final story of "Circular Time" begins with Nyssa (years after leaving the TARDIS for good) meeting the fifth Doctor in a dream: believing himself an ordinary human being, he is now married and has retired to an isolated farm with his wife and children. However, he's snowed in by a blizzard and continuously haunted by a strange white figure circling the building... along with a disembodied Evil Laugh. It's eventually revealed that the story is set during "The Caves of Androzani", and the Doctor is just about to regenerate. However, the Master is psychically interfering with the process in an attempt to trap him in a Dying Dream and keep him from regenerating. Fortunately, the Doctor has been psychically reaching out for help from his former companions, thus Nyssa's presence in his dreamworld: once she destroys the illusory farmhouse and reminds the Doctor of who he really is, the psychic energies of her, Adric, Tegan, Turlough and Kamelion all combine to overwhelm the Master's psychic interference and usher the Doctor into his next regeneration — finally explaining the visions he experienced in "The Caves of Androzani".

    Comic Books 
  • In the final confrontation of the Captain Britain plot arc "A Crooked World," the eponymous hero faces off against reality-warping prime minister Mad Jim Jaspers. Though at first Captain Britain seems confident in his ability to go on fighting, Jaspers unleashes his powers on him - and next thing he knows, Brian Braddock is waking up from a coma with no sign of his powers and the indication that his adventures were just delusions. This lasts only for a page before Jaspers wakes him up again; apparently he did this just to demonstrate how meaningless the good Captain's powers are in the face of a Reality Warper.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Captain Marvel (2019), the Kree make Vers believe that she has no powers. They tell her that her abilities come from a Kree implant. In the end, she discovers that she is imbued with superhuman strength, energy projection, and flight, and that the implant was actually suppressing her powers.
  • In the first half of Glass, David Dunn, Kevin Wendell Crumb, and Elijah Price are captured and put in a mental hospital, where their doctor tries to convince them that none of them have any actual superpowers.
  • Invoked in Shutter Island and combined with Cuckoo Nest for good measure. In the climax, it appears that heroic US marshal Teddy Daniels is going to be brainwashed into believing that he was just a helpless mental patient all along, just so he won't break the news of the conspiracy going on at the eponymous Bedlam House. Daniels even has to keep drawing attention to the fact that he's a marshal just so he can hang on to the fact that he still has authority. And then it's completely subverted when it turns out that the entire film has been a massive roleplaying scenario created to break him out of his delusions: nothing in the story has been real, and "Daniels" AKA Andrew Laeddis was insane all along.

    Literature 
  • Crops up in Lotus-Eater Machine form in Animorphs: The Ellimist Chronicles. After crashing on an ocean world, Toomin is forcibly connected to a planet-wide Hive Mind known only as Father and finds himself in an illusion of his carefree life back on Ket. In exchange for amusing Father through games of skill and chance, Toomin is provided with an imaginary life where he remained an ordinary gamer and never became the heroic leader of the Ketrans; here, he can be reunited with his friends, marry Aguella, start a family and grow old. He doesn't really enjoy it, especially since he knows full well it isn't real and everyone he's ever known and loved has died; however, he agrees to Father's terms because the games are all he has left. In the end, Toomin escapes the illusion by winning at enough games to hijack Father's nervous system and absorb all of the entity's collected knowledge, thus paving the way for Toomin's transformation into the Ellimist.
  • The big twist in the first of The Curse Workers novels is that Cassel isn't the token muggle of the family after all: he's actually a transformation worker, and has been brainwashed by his brothers into forgetting his powers — except on occasions when they need an assassin who can effectively kill people without leaving any kind of evidence. As such, reclaiming his powers and saving one of his past victims forms a major part of the story from then on.
  • Forever Knight has a tie-in novel called "Imitations of Mortality," where Nick becomes increasingly trapped in a dream world where he's human. Strangely, he's increasingly tired while awake and has to find out what's causing it all.
  • Labyrinths of Echo: Happens in "Volunteers of Eternity", when Max travels from Echo back to our world, but upon arrival, assumes that his adventures in Echo were All Just a Dream. Fortunately, this delusion falls apart as soon as he tries using the magical powers he learned in Echo. In the next novella, it is revealed that said delusion was the result of an insidious psychic attack launched at Max by the villain-of-the-week while he was traveling between the worlds.
  • A common practice at Brakebills School of Magical Pedagogy in Lev Grossman's The Magicians. Because the study of magic is so intensive, the faculty take pains to weed out anyone who doesn't live up to the college's high standards via a ridiculously difficult entrance exam: those who fail have all memory of Brakebills and what little knowledge they have of magic expunged, before being sent on their way. As it turns out, this is the fate of Quentin Coldwater's friend Julia; however, following a great deal of Sanity Slippage, she manages to unearth what really happened and begin studying magic as a Hedge-Witch, as The Magician King demonstrates.
  • In The Silver Chair, the Green Lady has managed to enslave Prince Rillian for years by hypnotizing him into believing that he is a general in her army and that his life aboveground was a dream. When Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum arrive to rescue him, she uses her powers to try and convince them that Narnia doesn't exist and that their heroic adventures so far were just delusions.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's short story "They". A man suffering from paranoid delusions and megalomania is locked up in an insane asylum. He believes that he is an immortal being and that the entire universe is a false reality that he has been trapped in by unknown enemies. The Karmic Twist Ending is that all of his beliefs are correct: he is a supernaturally powerful being brainwashed into thinking that he's a normal human.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Normal Again", hallucinogenic demon venom causes Buffy to have visions of a world in which she's been in a mental hospital for years and her battles against evil supernatural entities were just delusions.
  • The Deep Space Nine episode "Beyond The Stars" features Captain Ben Sisko abruptly going from the respected administrator of the eponymous space station and Emissary of the Prophets... to a sci-fi writer on Earth in the 1950s, struggling against the racial prejudice and brutality of the time. However, he isn't aware of who he really is at first, being fully taken in by the illusion, only becoming aware of it in apparent hallucinations of his life in space. It's eventually revealed that this is a vision from the Prophets intended to inspire him not to lose hope in his fight against the Dominion.
  • In the final episode of The Haunting of Hill House, the surviving Crain siblings are lured into the Red Room and trapped in their personal Lotus-Eater Machine: Theo finds herself in bed with Trish and without her powers, fully assimilated by the illusion. Though she enjoys the fact that she can be touched without experiencing disturbing stimuli for a change, she eventually asks for it to stop — whereupon the illusion turns nasty. In the end, she has to be rescued by Nell's ghost.
  • Overlaps with Cuckoo Nest in Legion. During the apparent final confrontation with the Devil With The Yellow Eyes in "Chapter 5", David and his allies are plunged into a mental recreation of the asylum from the beginning of the series and convinced that they are mundane, powerless human beings. Completely assimilated by the illusion, they remember nothing of their real-life experiences and regard any idea of their powers as facets of mental illness; amusingly enough, David actually seems quite content with his new life, believing himself to be well on the way to recovery. Oliver Byrd ends up having to awaken most of the group from the brainwashing so they can attempt a breakout, while David rediscovers himself after the Devil tries to pull a Grand Theft Me on him and — with a little help from his subconscious - breaks free with a massive telekinetic blast.
  • As with the original novels, The Magicians features Julia failing the Brakebills entrance exam and having her knowledge of magic erased, before eventually regaining it by joining a gang of Hedge-Witches. However, following an angry confrontation with Quentin, she and fellow Hedge-Witch Marina take revenge on him in "The World In The Walls" by trapping Quentin in a dream of a mental asylum and making him believe that his entire Brakebills experience was just a hallucination - all just to give him a taste of life without magic. It turns out that Marina is actually using this as a Batman Gambit to steal something from the campus; after realizing that Quentin will end up trapped forever, Julia chickens out and tries to save him - only to end up getting kicked out of the Hedge-Witches as well for "betraying" Marina.
  • In the Grand Finale of Mr. Robot, Elliot ends up in an alternate universe where he is a happy, well-adjusted member of society and "Mr. Robot" is just a comic-book character that he came up with. It later turns out that this is a fantasy that the real Elliot Alderson has been trapped in; the Elliot we've been following for the past four seasons is actually an alternate personality who took over Elliot's body during a nervous breakdown that happened just before the series began.
  • The Red Dwarf episode "Back To Reality," the boys from the dwarf end up getting a dose of hallucinogenic venom from the Despair Squid, sending them into a illusory scenario in which the events of the series were just a virtual reality game they were playing over the course of the last four years. Most of the four are even more pathetic than ever before as a result: Rimmer is no longer a hologram, but is a homeless man and lacks what little achievements he possessed on Red Dwarf and he's also Lister's half-brother; Kryten is a cyborg traffic cop with zero authority and eventually, a death on his conscience; Cat's arguably been hit the hardest up front, having gone from an effortlessly-cool evolved cat to a hopeless dork by the name of Dwayne Dibbley. Lister's the odd one out, being rich and successful... but only because he's actually a mass-murdering official in the totalitarian government that runs the world. Essentially, the illusion is meant to force the crew to the Despair Event Horizon, and it's up to Holly to snap them out of it before all four of them commit suicide.
  • In the Smallville episode "Labyrinth", a Phantom wraith traps Clark in a mental nightmare dreamscape where all of his powers and previous interactions with friends and foes are actually part of a paranoid schizophrenic delusion resulting from a psychotic break five years prior. The wraith, who is masquerading as Clark's treating physician Dr. Hudson, nearly succeeds in convincing Clark that a lobotomy-like operation will relieve his delusions. However, Martian Manhunter is able to sneak into the dreamscape as a fellow patient and convince Clark to kill Dr. Hudson and free himself from illusion.
  • In The Umbrella Academy, it's eventually revealed that Alison Hargreeves was once ordered to use her Compelling Voice to delude Vanya Hargreeves AKA Number Seven into becoming a Muggle for all intents and purposes. For good measure, the victim was regularly supplied with superpower-neutralizing drugs, disguised as medication for a non-existent anxiety disorder. Disaster strikes when one of the villains of the series discovers Vanya's powers and steals her prescription with the intention of using her against the rest of the Academy — turning the shy Token Muggle into an Apocalypse Maiden.

    Video Games 
  • Batman: Arkham Knight: Ironiclly this is how Batman beats the Joker, who's imprint was left in him via the blood transfer in Arkham City and surfaces when Batman is exposed to Scarecrow's upgraded fear toxin. Throughout the the game, due to being forced into situations that cause him to inhale the gas, Joker grows stronger to the point he can take over Batman's body. At the end, when Batman is captured and his identity exposed. Scarecrow injects him with more of the toxin, but overdoes it that it eventually infects the Joker side in Batman's mind, showing him being forgotten as Gotham goes on without him and leaving no lasting legacy. Batman finishes this by locking the Joker in the darkest recesses of his mind, never to return.
  • Appears in the climax of Control: the game seemingly ends - complete with credits - when Jesse is infected by the Hiss, sending her mind into a nightmarish illusion where she never became the superpowered director of the Federal Bureau of Control, but instead lives out her days as an office temp at the FBC. In sharp contrast to her stoic, confident former self, she's shy, demure, and constantly bullied by just about everyone in the building, forcing the player into an endless Mini-Game of collecting coffee cups and delivering mail. However, with a little encouragement from Ahti, Jesse gradually begins to notice that something's wrong; after figuring out what's going on, she finally breaks free by rediscovering the power of Polaris within her, backdooring into the Oceanview Motel thanks to Dr Darling, and unleashing her renewed powers on the Hiss.
  • In The Darkness 2, Jackie Estacado finds himself occasionally suffering delusions of being a patient in a mental hospital, where all his friends and enemies are either patients or staff, and his life as an Anti-Hero empowered by the Darkness was just a delusional fantasy. Eventually, the Darkling (disguised as a janitor) reveals that this is just the Darkness trying to keep Jackie distracted in situations where he's been injured enough to end up in the Hell realm it presides over - because if Jackie ends up in Hell this time, he'll find that Jenny is being held prisoner there. Eventually, Jackie is given a choice between staying in the asylum with an illusory Jenny to comfort him, or jumping from the balcony to his "death" to escape the illusion and rescue the real Jenny. It's up to you...
  • During the mission to save the Circle of Magi in Dragon Age: Origins, you and your companions are lulled into an enchanted sleep by a Sloth Demon. Emerging in the Fade, all of your companions end up being trapped in their own respective dreams and nightmares — some of which are essentially this trope:
    • Alistair has been convinced that he abandoned the life of a heroic Grey Warden and is living happily with his sister and her many, many kids, having finally achieved his dream of having a family of his own. You break him out by drawing his attention to the the blanks in his "memories" within the fantasy.
    • Leliana is back in the Chantry at Lothering, a lowly lay-sister with no idea who you are, no memory of her prophetic vision, and no notions of saving Ferelden in the name of the Maker. For good measure, she has a Revered Mother around to chide her for ever imagining that she could have a higher purpose in life. You snap her out of it by reminding her of the sign from the Maker, prompting Leliana to realize that the real Revered Mother wouldn't be trying to discourage her.
    • Oghren has ended up lost in a nightmare of his life before you met him: back to being a dishonored warrior and a drunkard, he's relentlessly picked on by his fellow dwarfs, regarded as an embarrassment wherever he goes, and unable even to summon the will to fight back. All he can do is keep drinking and hope that everyone will go away sooner or later. You awaken him from the illusion by inspiring him to get angry enough to resist the sense of futility and fight back.
    • Shale is returned to the village square where she was stuck for 30 years as an inanimate statue. You awaken her by talking about the fact that the golem control rod no longer works on her.
  • Fallout 3 springs this on the players during the mission to Vault 112: upon discovering James imprisoned within one of the Tranquility Loungers, you take a seat in one yourself in an attempt to rescue him..... only to end up in the virtual-reality neighborhood of Tranquility Lane, a suburban cul-de-sac modeled on 1950s-era sitcoms. Here, you're not only stripped of all your equipment but regressed to the age of ten - meaning that those hard-earned skills and powers earned out in the Capital Wastelands are now effectively useless. For good measure, it eventually becomes apparent that the Loungers are equipped with mechanisms that can erase your memory and alter your personality, ensuring that the illusion of normality is utterly unbreakable for most of the residents; fortunately, you're spared the extra mile of mental manipulation for as long as you remain amusing to Vault 112's overseer, Stanislaus Braun. Breaking out requires you to either indulge his sadistic whims or sabotage the scenario from within.
  • The big twist of Knights of the Old Republic: the player is actually the legendary Sith lord Darth Revan, having been captured by the Jedi after being betrayed and nearly killed by Darth Malak; essentially, the Jedi set you up with Fake Memories of being an ordinary human being - either a soldier, a scout or a smuggler, depending on the player's choice. However, you weren't intended to remain this way forever, as it was hoped that with Bastila's guidance, you could pinpoint the way to the Star Forge using the fragmentary memories that you retain and even become a Jedi - which you end up doing.
  • After being captured by the Zin in Saints Row IV, Kinzie is plunged into another one of Zinyak's Mind Prisons - namely The '50s-era suburban paradise that the Boss escaped from earlier in the game: here, she's reduced from a badass hacker with borderline administrator-level control over the simulation to a passive, subservient and completely oblivious sidekick to Cyrus Temple - wearing a poodle skirt, no less. It takes the Boss firing up stereos all over town with rebellious music to snap Kinzie out of the illusion, whereupon she unlocks her simulation superpowers and kicks Cyrus's ass.
  • Invoked by the Black Signal AKA John in The Secret World. Having caught you trying to access his memories, he inflicts a Poke in the Third Eye that forces you to replay memories of past incidents and battles, including a scenario in which you were never bonded with one of the Bees and became one of Gaia's Chosen. From here, John taunts you by suggesting that you're just an ordinary human being who accidentally swallowed a bee and is now in hospital, dreaming of being special. Unfortunately for John, replaying your memories eventually results in him encountering a vision of Lilith, hammering his Trauma Button so hard he turns the Mind Rape on himself.

    Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation: Downplayed in the case of SCP-239. An eight-year-old girl with reality-warping powers, she's been convinced that she's actually a witch and can only cast "spells" from a pre-approved list, all as part of an effort to limit her powers to manageable levels. Not quite down to completely normal levels, but definitely a drastic power loss given that she's actually Goo Goo Godlike — and while uncontrolled, has managed to do things like summon Santa Claus. Unfortunately, this approach no longer works, and 239 is now being kept in a medically-induced coma in order to avoid a potentially apocalyptic incident.

    Western Animation 
  • Batman: The Animated Series: "Perchance to Dream" begins with Bruce waking up one day to find himself living a life where he isn't Batman; his parents are alive, he's engaged to Selina Kyle, and is otherwise living the happy life he's always dreamed of. He almost writes off his life as Batman as delusion until he notices he can't read anything and realizes he's trapped in a dream world. He spends the rest of the episode being hunted down by the dream Batman, all the while desperately trying to convince himself that he isn't going insane, before finally waking himself up by committing suicide in the dream world (he was betting on Your Mind Makes It Real not being in play, and figured death was the more merciful fate if it was). It turns out he was the victim of a Lotus-Eater Machine set up by the Mad Hatter.
  • Batman: The Brave and the Bold: In "Emperor Joker!", the Joker gains Bat-Mite's powers and uses them to torment Batman by repeatedly killing and resurrecting him. Batman defeats him by begging him not to destroy his sanity; when the Joker tries to do just that, he finds himself outmatched by Batman's highly disciplined mind. The Joker finds himself in a dreary version of Gotham City where he is nothing but a perfectly normal average person, a prospect that dismays him so badly that he agrees to give up the powers to escape it.
  • Codename: Kids Next Door: In the context of the series, this is invoked on agents that turn 13 so as to keep them from turning against the agency by decommissioning i.e erasing their memories, specifically so they can leave without the knowledge of the ins and outs of the organization which can make them a threat if they go evil (Chad and Cree being examples of this, having left KND before this could happen). The movie, Operation: Z.E.R.O., uses this as a plot point as Grandfather was defeated back in the past by wiping his memories, turning him into a docile old man. Father uses a gadget that re-commissions KND agents to restore his memories, bringing his terror back into the world. Sector V beat him by launching their moon base in such a way that it crashes on Grandfather and puts him right into the decommissioning chamber, wiping his memories once again.

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