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Personal Horror

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"It's your sense of alienation from self that provides, perhaps, the deepest terror. Where other meters measure how traumatized you are by the things that happen to you, Self measures how traumatized you are by your own reactions to those things. To put it another way, the only thing you can ever really be 100% sure of is 'I think, therefore I am.' The Self meter measures how uncertain you are about the 'I' in that statement."
Unknown Armies corebook.

This trope is when a painful betrayal of one's self image, self-loathing, internal conflict, personal failing/flaw or guilt is Played for Drama. It can be because of what someone did, didn't do, tried and failed to do, or they were just unlucky and got caught up in a bad situation. The key part of this trope is that something goes against the character's personal moral code, leading to the alienation of self.

Can lead to Heel–Face Turn or the character becoming The Atoner. Sometimes results in Past Experience Nightmares or the character crossing the Despair Event Horizon. Some characters have an overlap with You Are What You Hate. Often results in Heroic BSoD, sometimes after running Heroic Safe Mode.

Because this trope is personal, examples will be of a different kind for different characters. When editing, keep in mind to explain why an example is this trope for that character.


Related to Psychological Horror. Very much Truth in Television, but please remember the Rule of Cautious Editing Judgment if adding examples. Not related to I Know What You Fear or Author Phobia.

Compare Primal Fear, Death of Personality, and Cessation of Existence.

Can cover:

Works with their own subpage:


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    Anime and Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • The origin of Spider-Man involves this, as Uncle Ben's death is indirectly caused by Peter's irresponsibility.

    Film — Animation 

    Film — Live Action 
  • Taxi Driver is all about the protagonist projecting his self-loathing on others, where his antagonists are just placeholders for the things he hates about himself or wants for himself.
  • In The Film of the Book of 1408, the overall schtick of the titular hotel room seems to be dragging guests kicking and screaming through the darkest corners of their own subconscious and beating them over the head with their own doubts, fears, and regrets. Mike Enslin discovers this to his extreme detriment.
  • Inception deals with the aftermath of this. In The Reveal we find out that Cobb planted the idea that her reality isn't real in his wife's head when they were stuck in a dream. This resulted in her suicide to wake up. It's unclear if she died or woke up.
  • In Iron Sky Renate has a Heel Realization followed by a Heel–Face Turn when she finds out who the Nazis were.
  • In Red Rover Kylie killed her mother with her powers, and all of Kylie's problems and life events since then have revolved around her denial of what she is. The film ends with her acceptance and owning of her powers.
  • In Sarah's Key the eponymous Sarah had to live with the fact she inadvertently locked his brother in the closet during the Nazi raid, he died there because she couldn't manage to rescue him and eventually her depression lead her to commit suicide as an adult.
  • In Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Leta Lestrange is dealing with this after swapping her brother for a baby that wasn't crying so she could get some sleep. The ship sunk directly afterward and her brother died.
  • Ghost Stories (2017) begins as a fairly unique but still pretty standard movie about a noted professor and skeptic being challenged to explain three cases that have haunted his mentor for years. It ends as a movie about a man suffering from locked-in syndrome, doomed to live in the world of dreams created by his own brain as a coping mechanism over the choices he's made in life.
  • Elise in Insidious discovers that despite her life's goal being to help people who are afflicted with supernatural entities, she unknowingly let a woman in her house die as a teenager because she believed her to be a spirit and didn't save her from being murdered by her father.

  • This is what the horror of Room 101 in 1984 is all about. Using your greatest fears to get you to betray the most important thing about yourself, to destroy your self-image by making you betray everything and anything that's left of what you valued before they arrested you.
  • The title character in Eden Green is a rationalist young woman infected with an alien needle symbiote that gradually takes over her body. Her intelligence is her main weapon, and her greatest fear is losing it to the symbiote's survival-obsessed instincts.
  • The Imperius Curse in Harry Potter can result in this. Both times when Voldemort took over many people were being mind controlled by him.
  • Funny Business is entirely about the guilt the main character feels as a result of misusing her Reality Warper powers.
  • Hollyleaf in Warrior Cats is a staunch follower of the warrior code. After finding out her birth broke the code, she feels horrified by what she is, which is worsened when her first reaction is to murder the cat threatening to reveal the secret of her and her siblings' parentage. The increasing realization her actions and her birth have betrayed everything she is leads her to end up revealing the same secret she killed to prevent coming out.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Game of Thrones episode "Hardhome", Jon Snow, the rest of the Night Watch, and surviving Wildlings can only watch as the army of the dead grows by the almost 100,000 Wildlings they went to save.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Best of Both Worlds", Federation Captain Jean-Luc Picard is forcibly assimilated into the Borg Collective. The trauma this caused him is explored over the course of several later episodes, the movie Star Trek: First Contact, and the later series Star Trek: Picard.

  • After fatally wounding Devin and Daigo in Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues Harriet is horrified to discover that she feels nothing about trying to kill them. She questions whether she's an Empty Shell, which causes her to experience severe cognitive dissonance.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Bond and Sanity mechanics in Delta Green bring this, as Agents will start slowly burning their sanity and becoming stressed as they lose relations with the external world and isolate themselves from friends and family as their lives fall apart.
  • Done in both the Old World of Darkness and the new one, especially the Vampire gamelines.
  • Unknown Armies has the Self madness meter, which is meant to address this trope specifically.

    Video Games 
  • Honkai Impact 3rd: The protagonist Kiana has several cases of this, from her Guilt Complex over having her closest people get hurt while trying to help her and her not being able to do anything about it, to realizing that she's a "monster" or a "time bomb" due to her Superpowered Evil Side, in which she was controlled to hurt her closest ones. It's "horror" enough for her that she keeps getting nightmares about it. Her whole struggle is about how she could become a "hero that saves the world" despite suffering from all of the above.
  • Overwatch: Imagine that one day, you decide to join a group of bank robbers, and to ensure that nobody can figure out that you're no longer a law-abiding citizen you come up with a criminal alias. That alias quickly snowballs out of control to the point that years later, long after you've quit the outlaw lifestyle and now trying your hardest to uphold the law, practically everyone still called you by said alias, which you now regard as a shameful reminder of your mistakes that you wish to part with. This is what Cole Cassidy had to deal with, and in the New Blood tie-in comic Ana Amari comments that she could tell that he felt trapped by the life that he was living beforehand.
  • Several characters in Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon end up with this trope. Nuzleaf, Yveltal and Beheeyem are all controlled by the Dark Matter to turn everyone into stone and go into self-imposed exile after breaking free and helping to defeat Dark Matter.
  • Silent Hill 2 is the poster-boy of this trope, featuring the guilt-ridden protagonist being invited by mail from his supposed-to-be-dead wife to the namesake town. Many of the horrifying apparitions in the namesake town takes from the protagonist's own fear and guilt, up to and including the revelation that he killed his own wife in the past.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life