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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. Can be invoked in and/or by a Breaking Lecture.

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 and Existential Horror. Very much Truth in Television, but please keep examples civil. 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 
  • In Brother Bear, Kenai is first transformed into a bear. Then he finds out that the bear he killed earlier was Koda's mother.
  • In Frozen (2013) Elsa freezes her sister Anna while trying to drive her away to protect her.
  • Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon 2 after being Brainwashed and Crazy and killing Stoick.
  • In The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney), Quasimodo inadvertently leads Frollo to The Court of Miracles when he goes there to warn everyone that Frollo is coming.
  • In Justice League: Doom, the plan against Green Lantern relies on this trope.
  • The Last Unicorn starts losing her sense of self when she's transformed into a human.
  • Perfect Blue, along with a healthy dose of Psychological Horror and Surreal Horror. Yay, Loss of Identity and emotional insecurity!
  • In Turning Red, both Mei and her mother Ming face this.
    • The red panda transformation shatters Mei's self-control; she wants desperately to get rid of it and be her old self again, but the more she fights to repress it, the more often she transforms. At the same time, the discovery that her parents knew about the panda and didn't warn her breaks her trust in them in a way that she never dreamed possible.
    • Ming fears two things above all others: losing control, and losing her daughter's love. Unfortunately, like many people she equates "love" with "obedience," so when Mei starts disobeying her, she thinks that the thing she's long dreaded is finally happening. When Mei openly defies her during the red moon ritual and chooses to keep the panda, Ming's fear turns to Unstoppable Rage, driving her to lose control, unwittingly set her own panda free, and go on a destructive rampage at the concert.
  • In Zootopia, Judy Hopps' self-esteem takes a big hit when her own unconscious prejudices cause her to inadvertently start a speciesist panic against predators and betray Nick Wilde's trust, leading to their Plot-Mandated Friendship Failure. Her guilt over what happens is so strong that she resigns from the ZPD for a while because she feels she betrayed her own ideals.

    Film — Live Action 
  • In 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.
  • In Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Leta Lestrange is dealing with this after swapping her brother for a baby who 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 has to live with the fact that she inadvertently locked his brother in the closet during the Nazi raid. He died there because she couldn't manage to rescue him, and her depression eventually leads her to commit suicide as an adult.
  • 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.

  • This is what the horror of Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four 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.
  • ALiCE (2014): Christopher is horrified by the idea that his sexual orientation may be apparent to everyone on the island.
  • 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.
  • Funny Business is entirely about the guilt the main character feels as a result of misusing her Reality Warper powers.
  • The Imperius Curse in Harry Potter can result in this. Both times when Voldemort took over many people were being mind controlled by him.
  • Tom Bertram of Mansfield Park behaves as though his only responsibility as the heir to a baronet's estate is to spend money and have fun, causing numerous problems for his family that he refuses to take responsibility for. Near the end of the book, he gets ill while on a trip with his friends and they ditch him to continue their own entertainments, which allows his condition to worsen until his life is in real danger. Realizing how quickly he was abandoned by his "intimate friends" and how close he came to death leave him severely shaken and forces him to acknowledge the consequences of his careless behavior.
  • 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 

  • The song "Trees and Flowers" by Strawberry Switchblade is about a person who does not sleep at nights, dislikes bright and upbeat things like trees, flowers, sunshine etc. Considers home to be a prison. Hates buildings in general. Admits feeling frightened but does not elaborate on it. One could say it is agoraphobia but there is definitely something else about the case. This person is lost in a horror of a very personal kind.

  • 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 Old World of Darkness and New World of Darkness, 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 are 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.
  • SIGNALIS: While there is plenty of Body Horror and eldritch horror, as the story progresses it's clear that the crux of the matter lies in the relationship between Elster and Ariane and the former's guilt over the inability to keep her promise. Later levels even take on a more personal tone, being based on Ariane's life and situation which is implied to have influenced her surroundings via bioresonance.
  • 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.
  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky The 3rd is an extended Personal Horror for its protagonist, Kevin Graham. While he puts on a happy front, Kevin is clearly traumatized by all the Dirty Business he's done as a Dominion of the Gralsritter, and it's later revealed he volunteered himself for the role out of sheer self-loathing due to accidentally killing his Parental Substitute. The lategame reveals that the story takes place inside a Lotus-Eater Machine, which Kevin subconsciously molded into his own personal hell... literally, as the semifinal area is a replica of the church's hell, populated by those Kevin killed. (From a Sinister Minister he assassinated, to a demonically-possessed child he had to Mercy Kill) Ultimately Kevin learns to forgive himself and escape the illusion, setting up his appearance in later entries.

    Western Animation 
  • Justice League does this to several of the heroes in the episode "Only a Dream". Superman's nightmare has him dealing with Power Incontinence. His heat vision kills Lois Lane and he accidentally breaks Jimmy Olsen's back when attempting to give him a hug. Meanwhile, Green Lantern is dreaming about losing his identity to the ring to the point where he becomes transparent, and the Flash dreams of being unable to turn off his Super-Speed and being trapped in a world where everything else is standing still.
  • Steven Universe:
    • "Mindful Education" has Steven and Connie Maheswaran both dealing with this, Connie from attacking a kid who bumped her out of reflex and the All-Loving Hero Steven from being unable to save Jasper, poofing Bismuth and sending Eyeball out of his bubble when they were lost in space.
    • The movie gives us Spinel's Heel Realization. She was literally made to be Pink Diamond's friend, and she enjoyed being Steven's friend. Then she reactivated the injector that would kill all organic life on Earth when she thought he was going to use the rejuvenator on her, as her past experience with Pink left her paranoid about people abandoning her without a second thought.
    • Steven Universe: Future revolves around this for Steven Quartz Universe. After saving the universe, he has not idea what to do with himself, since everything is mostly fine and he no longer has to be an Living Emotional Crutch to his friends/family. As such, Steven finds himself having to finally process all the pent-up trauma and anger at his mother's irresponsibility that he ignored during the original series, causing him to undergo a slow mental breakdown over the course of the miniseries.

    Real Life