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Polar Madness

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"There'll be nothing, you hear? Nothing lives there. Nothing grows. You'll eat your shoes again. You'll eat worse. Death is slow in the Great White Nothing, and a hundred and thirty-four starved men will turn devil against you, starting with the ones you hold closest."
Sir John Ross, The Terror

Antarctica and the Arctic Circle feature some of the harshest environments on Earth: freezing temperatures, total darkness for months on end and extremely bleak scenery are the mainstay out here, and human habitation grows increasingly sparse the closer you get to the poles. For good measure, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave except at certain windows of opportunity — unless you feel like Braving the Blizzard. With so much pressure on the people who actually have to live in these environments for extended periods of time, it's perhaps no surprise that life in the far north or south can have some very negative effects on the mind.

Much like Ocean Madness and Space Madness, Polar Madness can be caused by the monotony of the landscape, the sense of isolation, the pressure to survive, Cabin Fever, dwindling supplies, harsh environmental conditions, or even something more alien. Mysterious Antarctica is a trope for a very good reason, and you never know what might be hiding under the ice, just waiting to slowly eat away at your sanity...

From the 19th to about the middle of the 20th century, ethnographers were quite firmly convinced of the truth of this trope and posited that the native peoples of the Arctic are prone to all kinds of mental illnesses caused by the conditions of their environment. This supposed predisposition was called "Arctic hysteria". Naturally it was assumed that people from more southerly regions who stayed in the Arctic for too long were also in danger of being seized by Arctic hysteria. The concept of Arctic hysteria was abandoned by academic discourse on account of being too fuzzy and generalizing, but the term (like the concept) may still be encountered in popular images of the Arctic.

Also, note that while the extreme north and south are the most common sources of this trope in action, they are hardly the only locales of choice: Siberia, Mount Everest, and even the Sierra Nevadas provide suitable venues for Icebound Insanity. As long as the elements of frost, isolation, confinement, potentially lethal weather, stress and growing instability are intact, the trope still applies.

A possible feature of Nordic Noir, the darker sort of Canadian Western, Grim Up North, and the Eerie Arctic Research Station.


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    Audio Plays 
  • The Big Finish Doctor Who episode " Winter for the Adept" is set at an isolated finishing school deep in the Swiss Alps. With heavy snowfall having prevented the last four remaining teachers and students from leaving for the Christmas holidays, Cabin Fever has set in hard, and the worst hit has been Miss Tremayne, the headmistress: already a germophobic fundamentalist with some rather extreme ideas about the purifying nature of cold alpine air, being trapped and witnessing the supernatural activity around the school sends her into full-blown religious mania - to the point that she actually goes so far as to start opening windows during a blizzard in a deranged attempt to "purify" the school. And when she finds out that the two remaining students are actually psychic, she takes her madness to the next level by trying to stab them to death.

    Comic Books 
  • The first part of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Nemo sees Janni Nemo and her crew running to Antarctica in order to get away from a trio of bounty hunters sent by her nemesis Ayesha. In the process, she, her crew, and their hapless pursuers all blunder into the plot of At the Mountains of Madness, and nearly lose their sanity and their lives in the process. This was also an attempt to stick it to her father, who left to explore the Antarctic immediately after she was born (he’d really wanted a boy), lost all crew who landed with him, and upon returning to the Nautilus needed to be sequestered for some time for his sanity to return.

     Fan Works 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Everest, extreme cold and oxygen deprivation wreaks havoc on climbers in the Himalayas: people begin to undress in freezing cold because they're experiencing delusions of warmth, walk off the cliffs without realizing it, and in one case, perceive a perfectly functional set of backup oxygen tanks as empty.
  • Both Insomnia and the American remake are set in towns close to the Arctic Circle, where the sun never sets for months at a time: because of this, the main character begins to suffer Sanity Slippage due to his inability to sleep during these "white nights" — exacerbated by guilt over accidentally shooting his partner dead — to the point that he begins to hallucinate.
  • The Lodge: Set in a cabin over a snowbound, freezing Christmas, Grace goes insane, the heating stops working, and she starts to hear the voice of her dead father, which leads her to realize that she may have accidentally killed them all by using the space heater on the first night. Made even more explicit by the fact that she hasn't; this is in fact all caused by gaslighting from Aiden and Mia. However, when Grace tries to escape the house to get help and look for her beloved dog Grady, she gets so disorientated, lost, and nearly dies in the snow that an unoccupied house convinces her that Aiden is right and they are all dead.
  • In Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, a long period of isolation and Cabin Fever in the snowed-in Overlook Hotel gradually begins to wear at Jack Torrance's sanity, and the fact that he's a recovering alcoholic doesn't help. When the ghosts haunting the Hotel begin influencing him, this downward spiral ends with one murder and two attempted murders on the caretaker's conscience. For good measure, some reviewers have interpreted the film as a purely psychological thriller, suggesting that the ghosts witnessed in the hotel were all imagined, and Torrance's descent into madness was due entirely to mundane polar madness.
  • The Thing is set in an Eerie Arctic Research Station, and features some eccentricity and tensions among the crew fairly early on. When two Norwegians show up at the camp, shooting at a fleeing dog and throwing bombs all over the place, it's assumed that they've gone crazy after too many winters... right up until the "dog" begins sprouting tentacles and trying to assimilate people. After this, communications failures, the inescapable winter, growing paranoia and the near-omnipresent threat of the Thing quickly drive the base personnel to the brink of insanity — and in the case of Blair, right over it.

  • Deconstructed in Big Dead Place by Nicholas Johnson where, despite official reports playing up the stress of working on isolated bases in Antarctica, you're more likely to be driven mad by office politics and obstructive bureaucrats.
  • Dark Matter (2010) features a lone member of an Arctic expedition slowly losing his mind amidst the polar night whilst being stalked by what he believes is the ghost of a dead trapper whose cabin the team salvaged to use as their base of operations.
  • At the Mountains of Madness features an expedition to Antarctica going horribly wrong when one camp of explorers is found slaughtered with only one man unaccounted for; it's initially suspected that he might have gone insane and committed the murders, but this theory is ultimately disproven when the "survivor's" body is found collected for dissection by the Elder Things. Later, following a harrowing escape, Danforth suffers a full-blown mental breakdown when he happens to turn around at the wrong time and see what lies beyond the mountains — but whatever he's witnessed is never precisely explained.
  • In Frankenstein, Walton finds a man desperately trekking over the Arctic ice sheets. The setting is far from the only thing driving Frankenstein mad, but it is a fitting place for the bottom of his collapse into madness and death. Walton, himself desperate to explore, recognizes the same fatal obsession in himself. He takes the dead man's story as a Jacob Marley Warning and turns back to escape the ice.
  • Pops up in the Highlander novel White Silence. Fitz, Duncan and Fitz’s student go to Alaska during the gold rush days and Fitz’s student slowly goes mad. Fitz ultimately takes his head to stop him killing either him or Duncan.
  • The Magicians:
    • Crops up during the Fourth Year at Brakebills: as this is the semester when student magicians are required to truly internalize everything they've learned so far, they're sent to the secondary campus in Antarctica for a Training from Hell at the hands of Professor Mayakovsky. Worse still, students are immediately rendered mute via magic so they won't be distracted by communicating with each other. Over the next few months, the ceaseless workload, humiliating pranks, lack of interaction between students, and the overwhelming monotony of the landscape gradually wear on the sanity of the young magicians. Quentin finds himself hallucinating various imaginary characters towards the end, obsesses over meaningless objects, and, during moments of lucidity, even witnesses other students who've gotten so desperate for human contact that they've started fucking each other in public.
    • It's heavily implied that Mayakovsky himself is suffering from this: rumours shared by Janet indicate that he used to be a much more forgiving teacher, up until he was quite literally Reassigned to Antarctica as punishment for having an affair with one of his students. Ever since then, his only company has been the annual class of Fourth-Year students, leaving him alone in Brakebills South for long periods of time, and he's not allowed to leave except to check that the portal back to the main campus is working. With all this in mind, it's perhaps no surprise that he's degenerated into the perfection-obsessed alcoholic maniac he is today.
  • In Stephen King's The Shining, Jack Torrance slowly begins to drift into insanity due to a combination of alcoholism and being trapped in the Overlook Hotel over the winter with only his wife and son for company - until the Genius Loci itself is eventually able to pressure him into trying to murder his family. For good measure, the hotel has a history of driving previous winter caretakers insane for similar reasons.
  • Combined with Ocean Madness in The Terror. Based on the events of the doomed Franklin Expedition, the crew of Erebus and Terror begin to fray under the pressure of being trapped in Arctic ice for years on end, especially with an unknown disease whittling away at their numbers and a hideous polar monster preying on them in the dead of night. Even the attempts to improve morale through improvised carnivals only seem to make the eccentricities even worse. By the end of the story, mutinies have torn the camps apart, people are stripping naked and stabbing each other to death, cannibalism has become distressingly common, and one particularly demented mutineer fully believes himself to be God.
  • World War Z: During the zombie war, millions of people fled to Arctic-temperature zones like Canada in the hope that the dead would freeze before reaching them. It worked for a brief time, but eleven million people ended up dying due to the cold and their own limited outdoor survival skills; due to dwindling resources, isolation, and freezing temperatures, there was Sanity Slippage all around: theft, infighting, murder, and ultimately cannibalism became common - to the point that the "Grey Winters" across the world were caused in part by the mass-cooking of human remains. Jessika Hendriks, the interviewee for this segment, recalls the mood of the camp becoming more aggressive by the day, culminating in a massive argument between her previously-Happily Married parents that concluded in Domestic Abuse and reluctant participation in the cannibalism that had become endemic throughout their camp. And then the zombies thawed out, so these starved, hopeless, and unprepared people were left fighting the zombies anyway.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Invoked on The Big Bang Theory. The guys are on an Artic research expedition between seasons two and three, and when they come back, they revealed that spending three months alone with Insufferable Genius Sheldon almost drove them crazy, so much they actually plotted to kill him. Instead, they falsified Sheldon's data to keep him satisfied.
    Leonard: We were going to throw his Kindle outside, and when he went to get it, lock the door and let him freeze to death.
    Sheldon: [gasps] That seems like a bit of an overreaction.
    Leonard: No, the overreaction was the plan to tie your limbs to four different sled dog teams and yell "mush"!
  • Black Mirror Christmas special "White Christmas", takes place in what appears to be an isolated outpost situated somewhere deep in a snowy wilderness. Main characters Matt and Joe have been stationed here for five years, and of the two of them, Joe seems to have been hit hardest by it: he has great difficulty even speaking to Matt at first, demonstrates odd aversions to certain songs on the radio, and the sight of a clock on the wall appears to upset him for no apparent reason. However, it's subverted in the end when Matt reveals that the outpost was just a Virtual-Reality Interrogation: Joe's perception of time had been altered so he'd perceive an hour of interrogation as five years, and his strange aversions are due to the clock and the songs being unpleasant reminders of the crime he committed.
  • The Head involves several murders among the winter-over crew of an Antarctic research station, and the story of what happened has to be coaxed out of an amnesiac survivor suffering from Polar T3 syndrome. However the murders turn out to be premeditated rather than the killer going insane.
  • Top Gear (UK) demonstrated this during their expedition to race to the magnetic North Pole. Hammond, traveling via traditional dog sled, and Clarkson and May, traveling via a specially-built SUV, all demonstrated the effects of prolonged polar travel, thanks to the extreme cold and harsh terrain, causing the normally light-hearted show to take some darker turns. The car crew got hit particularly hard when they ran into a field of jagged ice that constantly hampered their attempts to dig through and forced them to repeatedly backtrack. May admitted in a later interview that he seriously thought about killing Clarkson with a shovel. Hammond, meanwhile, had himself a "private weep" and threatened his guide Matty McNair with death in a less-than-joking fashion. Before they even started, they were warned by no less than professional polar explorer Ranulph Fiennes that this would happen to them.
  • Following in the footsteps of the novel it's based on, The Terror serves up a heaping helping of Arctic-induced insanity; it currently provides the page quote. Fitting, since the expedition has to deal with brutal cold, long periods of unending darkness, constant snowstorms, near-total isolation, dwindling and tainted provisions, ice that is slowly squeezing their trapped ships to pieces, and the giant, angry bear-demon-thing that keeps showing up to kill them in increasingly horrible ways. It's no wonder that more than a few of them snap under the pressure.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Call of Cthulhu supplement Fearful Passages, adventure "Sleigh Ride". While sledging along the Vitim river in Siberia, the Player Characters will experience the purga, a fierce Siberian blizzard. They have to spend three days in a shack and start suffering from cabin fever. During that time they hallucinate that they hear music, impassioned sighs, nursery rhymes and screams. When they go outside, they see apparitions of ancient memories, old friends, fields of dandelions and shrouded skeletons.
  • In the Dungeons & Dragons 5E module Rime of the Frost Maiden, madness is a theme throughout. Two years of endless winter with no sun compounded by dwindling food supplies and isolation due to perpetual blizzards has worn at the sanity of many of the characters in the module, and some people have started resorting to human sacrifice and cannibalism. And on top of that, there's an Artifact of Doom floating around that drives people who touch it insane due to its demonic taint. And the demon and devil worshiping cultists that have moved into the area during the storm aren't helping matters, either.
  • The final scenario of The End of the World: Revolt Of The Machines features an experimental batch of nanites going full-blown Grey Goo; in the post-apocalyptic phase of this scenario, it's discovered that the nanites can't tolerate extreme cold, forcing the survivors to flee for Antarctica... but given that the polar research bases weren't meant to accommodate more than a few people at a time, supplies quickly run short, resulting in violence, cannibalism, mounting despair, and insanity - especially once it becomes apparent that the nanites have stripped the rest of the world bare of all resources, including the ones needed for life to take hold again, meaning that the world is essentially dead and the remainders of the human race are condemned to slowly starve to death.
  • In Warhammer, the far north of the fantasy world is a bitterly-cold Chaos-tainted wasteland dominated by the Realm of Chaos situated at the north pole. Exposure to this otherworldly dimension can drive people into the murkiest depths of insanity. As such, most of the mortal inhabitants of this realm are frenzied Chaos warbands hoping to earn the favor of their chosen deities, growing steadily more demented as they get closer to the polar vortex and the attentions of the Dark Gods of Chaos: those who succeed when their god of choice finally deigns them worthy of attention will become daemon princes - none of whom can be described as sane in any human sense; those who fail are reduced to Chaos Spawn, all of whom are deranged to the point of insentience - or worse, perfectly aware and just sane enough to think but unable to control themselves or their pain.

    Video Games 
  • Dead Space 3 is partly set on Tau Volantis, a remote ice world complete with Eerie Arctic Research Station that is swarming with Necromorphs. The cold, isolation, and presence of Markers all over the place doesn't help Isaac or Carver's deteriorating mental states one bit.
  • Addressed in Evil Genius: the S.M.A.S.H.-held territory of Antarctica is inhabited only by scientists living in isolated research bases; as a result, the regional news reports heard when you complete a mission are broadcast by a disc jockey running a radio station solely keep himself and the other base personnel across the continent from going completely insane. Although, considering just how eerily calm he is in the face of increasingly worrying reports, he may not be completely sane himself.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, the Jedi master Atris has taken up residence at a hidden academy in the frozen polar region of Telos, where the lack of meaningful social interaction or opposing viewpoints of any kind seems to have amplified her already-strict perspectives on morality to insane extremes. Styling herself as the "last Jedi," she hopes to rebuild the Order with the aid of her fanatically-loyal cult of handmaidens, even ordering them to kill any apprentice who shows even the slightest hint of Dark Side corruption. Quite apart from the ludicrously unrealistic nature of her mission - especially since she doesn't even have students yet and probably never will given the current state of the galaxy - it becomes clear that Atris is not the last Jedi: she just refuses to believe any of the surviving Council members actually count as Jedi, believing that she alone has remained true to the Code. She's also secretly turned to the Dark Side, having accepted the tutelage of the Sith Holocrons she's collected, but she refuses to acknowledge it.
  • The Secret World:
    • The mission to the Carpathian Mountains reveals that the local Morninglight lodge has been snowed in, leaving the inhabitants unable to escape when the local vampires turned on them. By the time you get up there, there's only two survivors - Rada Nastase and Adrian Zorlescu - and both of them are visibly cracking under the strain: Rada's Stepford Smiler exterior is beginning to break down under the influence of cult-issued sedatives and alcohol, while her attempts to play at being a socialite often dissolve into terrified confessions, despairing monologues, sobbing breakdowns, and even precognitive episodes. Meanwhile, witness statements have painted Adrian as a bully and a sadist, but he's kept it hidden for the most part; now, with nobody around to hold him back and no reason to give a damn about orders anymore, he can be found casually threatening Rada's life, allowing her to mix drugs with alcohol despite the side-effects, barely reacting to the player's warnings and giving every impression of being amused by the carnage going on around them.
    • Heavily implied to be the case during the mission to Tokyo: collected lore on the Gugne mentions a Norwegian icebreaker sent deep into Antarctica to retrieve something from deep beneath the ice. Whatever the crew found, the process of retrieving it and the dark Antarctic environment terrified them with "memories too deep for the poor crew to have ever fathomed," their existences becoming "short horror stories." They were able to bring the find to Tokyo, but it's implied that the process either drove them mad or killed them - or both - for by the time you get there, the ship has been abandoned in the harbour, and no sign remains of their mysterious prize. The item they found is a Gaia Engine, one of the legendary prisons of the Dreaming Ones, and it's been hidden deep under Orochi Tower for safekeeping.
  • The Thing (2002) invokes the trope. As the player tries to unravel the mystery of what happened at Outpost 31, they have to manage their squad's Sanity Meters to keep them from snapping and attacking the player or killing themselves.

    Web Comics 
  • Parodied in an issue of 8-Bit Theater. Following their capture by a Yeti in the arctic region, the Light Warriors end up getting trapped in its lair when Fighter accidentally causes an avalanche that blocks the cave entrance. Being trapped under the ice with his allies takes a toll on Black Mage's already-limited sanity, causing him to believe that he's actually the protagonist of a H. P. Lovecraft story — complete with an Apocalyptic Log. By the end of day 5, he perceives himself as hiding in a stone fortress from Lovecraftian monsters, when in reality, he's just sitting in a pile of ice while the rest of the team try to get his attention. Although there are, in fact, Lovecraftian monsters, but that's probably just a coincidence.

    Web Original 
  • This happens on a societal level for the Tsalal of Green Antarctica. That and the constant stress of living in a Death World leads the many Tsalal cultures to develop Blue-and-Orange Morality where things like cannibalism, rape, incest, necrophilia, bestiality, and torture as an art form are seen as normal (though each culture generally has only one or two of these hats and thinks the others are crazy). And then there's the Cold Islanders, who all of the mainland Tsalal are terrified of.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • The final stages of Hypothermia have been known to induce delusional behaviours in sufferers: among other things, victims have been known to strip naked in the belief that they're warming up or hide under beds and behind furniture in instinctive efforts to escape the cold.
  • Eccentricities, mental illness and delusions are all common among polar explorers:
    • The Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897 met with disaster when its ship, the Belgica, became trapped in the ice and was forced to stay there for a polar winter. Though they eventually managed to escape, ship's doctor Frederick Cook reported that the monotony of the landscape, freezing temperatures, perpetual darkness and cabin fever weighed heavily on the crew, and the threat of scurvy (which was so bad that the expedition leaders started writing their wills) only added to the stress. At least two began to suffer mental illness, and one sailor reportedly left the ship on a rambling journey across the ice, claiming that he was "returning to Belgium."
    • Certain actions taken during Robert Scott's doomed Terra Nova Expedition have been interpreted as symptoms of Polar Madness, most popularly the fate of Captain Oates: having apparently walked out of the tent in the middle of a blizzard, this was interpreted by Scott and the general public as a Heroic Sacrifice; however, some have taken note of Oates' habit of sleeping more than the other men and suggested that he may have been suffering from a cognitive impairment that drove him to simply walk to his death in a state of confusion.
    • Sidney Jeffryes, a radio operator assigned to Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expedition of 1913, began suffering symptoms of paranoia early in the mission. Apparently due to a combination of cabin fever and stress, he became convinced that Mawson was trying to drive him insane through magnetism, and even transmitted a message claiming that everyone else on the team was conspiring to murder him — eventually requiring him to be replaced. Tragically, he never fully recovered, ultimately dying in a mental hospital in 1942.
    • Felicity Aston, the first woman to make a solo trek across Antarctica, noted that spending sixty days in the polar landscape alone except for Twitter resulted in several eccentricities creeping in as time went on. In the aftermath, she wrote about "Having to remind myself of the rules now I'm not alone; no peeing wherever I stand, no talking to the sun, no snot or dribble on my face..."
  • On the rare occasions that crime is reported at Antarctic research bases, there's a good chance it's been caused by this — and it's usually pretty serious: in one case, a game of chess between two scientists at Vostok base became so competitive that the loser flew into a rage and attacked the winner with an ice-axe; in another, an entire research station was burned down when the resident doctor was ordered to stay for the winter; in one especially shocking incident, an engineer tried to stab a co-worker to death... supposedly because the man had been giving away the endings to books that the engineer was reading.
  • In an amusing twist, there's supposedly a tradition among Antarctic researchers that features them hanging a lampshade on this very trope: as soon as the last plane leaves and they prepare for a winter trapped in Antarctica, they get together and watch both The Thing and The Shining.

Alternative Title(s): Arctic Hysteria