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Poorly Lit Pareidolia

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Pareidolia is the human tendency to mistakenly interpret random visual stimuli as meaningful. More specifically, it entails seeing faces in inanimate objects. Does the door of that house look like a mouth, those two windows above the door like eyes, and the keystone of the door like a nose? That's pareidolia. The object in question isn't a face, nor was it necessarily intended to resemble one, but that's what the human brain has evolved to instinctively perceive certain arrangements of shapes as. Combine this tendency with humans' tendency to be afraid of the dark — on the grounds that humans are vulnerable to predators in the dark — and you get this trope.

A character (most commonly a young child) is alone in their bedroom, or in a basement, or a forest, or a cave, or somewhere similar, at night (or otherwise in the dark). Increasingly frightened, they begin imagining threats in the form of inanimate objects appearing as monsters. Shadows are cast on surfaces in just such a way as to create scowling faces. Tree branches resemble scraggly claws. Stalactites and stalagmites appear as teeth and indents in the rock as eyes. And as the character's pulse and pace quicken, they'll start seeing more, and more, and more, until they're completely surrounded by monstrous impressions and terrified... whereupon someone will turn the light on, and they'll realize that all those teeth and claws were just rakes and pitchforks hanging on the wall of the garage.

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This only applies to everyday objects such as trees or rocks or furniture happening to resemble monsters. If it turns out there's an actual, literal monster stalking the character, it isn't an example. (Sometimes, a character might think something is a monster, verify that it's just an inanimate object, only for it to then turn out that, no, actually it really was a monster after all). This also doesn't encompass objects purposely-sculpted so as to resemble monsters, such as statues. Can overlap with Beware the Skull Base, if the base is in a natural formation (such as a cave) resembling a human skull rather than intentionally built or carved to look like one.

Most common in Western Animation. A rich source of Nightmare Fuel.

See also: Scary Shadow Fakeout and Things That Go "Bump" in the Night. Often overlaps with Cave Mouth, It Kind of Looks Like a Face and The Trees Have Faces.

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Examples:

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    Fan Works 

    Folklore 
  • One explanation for the idea of trolls turning to stone in daylight is that pareidolia caused people to see faces and human-ish features in rock formations.

     Film - Animated 
  • The Rugrats Movie: Chuckie, Phil and Lil are lost in a forest during a thunderstorm, with the lightning strikes creating the impression of faces in the treetops.
  • The dark forest sequence from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Snow White flees, at the hunter's behest, through a forest, and envisions every tree trunk as a leering ogre until she breaks down and collapses to the ground in terror.

    Film - Live-Action 
  • A recurring motif in The Babadook is that the Haunted Heroine keeps seeing a coat and hat hung up on the wall in a way that suggests the Babadook as he appeared in a disturbing and mysterious pop-up book she found on her son's shelf earlier in the movie.
  • The Fox And The Child: The protagonist (a little girl who has been following a fox through a forest) emerges from a cave back into the forest at night, and is scared by the shapes of the tree branches and all the noises made by all the local wildlife.
  • Home Alone: Kevin is scared of going into the basement because he envisions the furnace as a monster.
  • MouseHunt: The two protagonists venture into the attic of an old mansion at night, wherein a lightning strike casts the scary shadow of a jack-in-the-box against the wall.
  • The NeverEnding Story: Bastian is scared of the stuffed animals, skeletons and other objects in the attic.
  • Pink Floyd - The Wall: During the song 'Mother', young Pink, sick in bed, is scared by shadows resembling faces on the ceiling of his bedroom.

    Literature 
  • The Origin Story for the Cabbage Patch Kids franchise, as detailed in the kid's story book Xavier's Fantastic Discovery, features a scene of the protagonist wandering through a dark cave. The textures of the cave's walls are drawn in a way that resembles creepy faces.
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Wrecking Ball: Greg overhears his parents talking about the "nasty grout" in the bathroom and assumes that the Grout is a monster. At night, he thinks he sees the shadow of the Grout in his room; when he wakes up, it's revealed to be a hockey stick leaning against a chair and covered in clothes.
  • Discworld:
    • In Reaper Man, Bill Door is trying to find a tarpaulin to protect Miss Flitworth's harvest on a stormy night. He thinks he sees a robed, skeletal, scythe-wielding silhouette (the New Death) coming for him, but it turns out to be Ned Simnel's harvesting machine. Later inverted, when Bill assures Miss Flitworth that a figure on the hillside illuminated by lightning is just the shadow of the Combination Harvester, but it turns out to be the actual New Death.
      "Isn't that... a figure on the hill?" she said. "Thought I saw a... shape."
      NO, IT'S MERELY A MECHANICAL CONTRIVANCE.
      There was another flash.
      "On a horse?" said Miss Flitworth.
    • In Hogfather, one of the thugs' great childhood fear was a wardrobe with a carved door that vaguely resembled a face. And in the night...
      "...it whispered things," said Chickenwire, in a quiet little voice, like a vole in a dungeon.
    • Inverted by Granny Weatherwax in Maskerade, where a combination of furniture and background elements looks like an old woman until she starts moving.
  • The Park in the Dark, a children's picture book by Martin Waddell. It involves three stuffed animals leaving their owner's bedroom to go to the local playground at night. One of the pages, on which one of the characters lists the monsters they fear encountering at the park, portrays the sky, trees and undergrowth as being full of faces watching the characters.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the episode "Ray Home Alone" of Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray teases Robert about how when he was a child, he was scared of a shoe tree in his closet which he thought looked like "a monkey holding an axe".

    Puppet Shows 
  • In one Sesame Street skit, Cookie Monster sleeps over at Ernie and Bert's house (Bert is absent because he's visiting his grandmother, so Cookie Monster gets his bed). After the lights are turned out at bedtime, he gets scared of what he thinks is a monster in the corner of the room. It turns out to be a rumpled blanket on a toy chest.

    Video Games 
  • A game mechanic in Creaks, all the creatures in the castle sans the Bird People are objects from the surface that have become alive, the doglike creatures were cabinets, goat creatures were chairs, the jellyfish were globes, the deer people were coatracks with trenchcoats on them etc. Strong light renders them inanimate for the duration.

    Western Animation 
  • Arthur:
    • "Arthur's First Sleepover": Arthur recounts being afraid of the dark as a child, and envisioning the radiator in his bedroom as a toothy monster.
    • "Locked in the Library": Arthur and Francine are locked in the town's public library at night, and Arthur sees a scowling face in a hanging overhead mobile.
    • "Arthur's New Puppy": Pal has to sleep in the garage, but is scared due to envisioning a rake, lawnmower and tree branch as monsters.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In the second half of the pilot, "Elements of Harmony", the Mane Six are traveling through the Everfree Forest and see terrifying faces in the old trees, but Pinkie Pie teaches them how to laugh their fears away.
  • Pingu: In "Pingu Runs Away", Pingu runs off into the night after his parents spank him for misbehaving, and promptly encounters three slabs of ice shaped like ugly faces.
  • Rugrats:
    • "Let There Be Light": During a blackout, Chuckie points out the shapes of various scary monsters in the dark, but Tommy's flashlight reveals them to be the shadows of things like discarded toys or the branch of a tree outside the window.
    • "The Legend of Satchmo": Chuckie walks through a backyard at night, and imagines the windows of houses as scowling faces and the shadow of a tree as a chomping monster.
    • "Under Chuckie's Bed": Chuckie - his father having traded in his crib for his first bed - is afraid to sleep in it because he sees a monster underneath it. Turns out, it's just one of his dad's sweaters.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants:
    • In "Night Light", SpongeBob develops a fear of the dark after reading a scary book. He imagines he sees a monster's hand tapping on his window (actually a coral branch) and a giant brain monster in his room (his chair).
    • In "InSPONGEiac", during SpongeBob's coffee-induced hallucination, he imagines that he sees a sea troll from a book Patrick read him. He begins to talk to it, but soon realizes that it's just a bush.
  • In the Thomas & Friends movie Tale of the Brave, Percy imagines that a pile of scrap is a monster, but it really wasn't, as James left it there to scare Percy.

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