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Realism-Induced Horror

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The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.

Not all horror is something fantastical. While people are scared of ghosts, slasher-villains, and zombie outbreaks, they're also afraid of things that can happen in their normal, everyday life. A work can add a strong dose of horror by portraying bad and unfortunately-commonplace events in a realistic way.

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Maybe the Big Bad is trying to take over the world, but the main character's mother is considered more upsetting due to being realistically abusive. Maybe much of the story is exaggerated, surreal and, perhaps, even outright comedic, but there's a moment that portrays some jarringly realistic suffering. Maybe the creator has Shown Their Work as much as possible — or they even might've written what they've seen directly or experienced — and the result is uncomfortably close to reality. Whatever it is, some of the audience react to these scenes with horror, finding them uncomfortably close-to-home.

One genre that attempts to hit this mark every time is Found Footage, which portrays horrific, fantastical events through the lens of someone's camera, making everything feel just a bit more realistic.

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This trope occurs from an an excess of external Consistency, and as such isn't always beneficial to the work, or even intended by the authors. In a work intended for escapism, having these moments will shock viewers back to the horrors of reality, not only breaking their immersion in the work but also their trust in the work being able to deliver on its intent. In horror stories where the main threat is a supernatural entity, having a more realistic Hate Sink as a minor villain runs the risk of distracting from the main threat. More generally, trying to invoke this trope as a calculated plot device — without seeking to explore the subject in-depth (and sometimes even then) — will come off in poor taste, especially to those that have personally dealt with these traumas in real life. This trope can still work in unexpected circumstances but requires the ability to not only address these issues with tact but also account for the impact this will have on the tone of the work.

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There are a few other tropes and reactions that can lead to this phenomenon. Adult Fear can easily cross this line, and if there were disturbing implications turned into Ascended Fridge Horror, the result may be too darkly realistic for the audience to bear. This may happen long after a work was released thanks to Harsher in Hindsight or "Funny Aneurysm" Moment, if the events of the work are too similar to something bad that'd happened weeks, months or even years later. If the work is normally lighthearted, this reaction can be caused by a Vile Villain, Saccharine Show scenario. It can overlap with Mundane Horror when some situation is shown in a mundane and lighthearted way but the audience knows from everyday experience that it has much darker implications. May also overlap with Humans Are the Real Monsters if most of the villains are monsters/aliens/something else fictional but the human villains are more disturbing. Compare Deconstruction, which shows the Real Life consequences of a trope, and may also contribute to this feeling.


Examples:

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    Advertising 
  • A series of workplace safety PSAs from Canada’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board depict workers getting into gruesome "accidents" and then rising from the dead to explain how it could have been prevented if the working conditions were safer. However, the ad most people consider the scariest is the first one, where a sous chef slips and pours boiling water all over her face. While the other ads are meant to be realistic, the workers rising from the dead and talking calmly about their accident despite being horribly disfigured makes it more fantastic, with some finding it too silly to take seriously. On the other hand, the chef ad doesn't have her come back from the dead, and puts a lot more focus on the chef's suffering while she's being horrifyingly disfigured, with a close up of her boiling skin. Comments on videos of the ads often note that the ads without the workers rising from the dead are much creepier.
  • The Meth Project PSAs. No wacky metaphors or cartoony monsters, just the horrible and very real effects of doing meth: tearing open your own skin, committing robberies for drug money, assaulting your loved ones, falling into prostitution, and so much more.

    Anime and Manga 
  • Berserk: One of the most horrific things about Griffith is that he is a realistic and believable villain. He is not without any feeling whatsoever, yet he is able to handle himself with such dignity and intellect that you'd never presume that he's a ruthless, murderous rapist, much like many real people of his ilk.
  • In Elfen Lied, Mayu's mother and stepfather are relatively mundane people who appear only briefly, but are two of the most hated characters due to the damage they inflict on her. Her stepfather sexually abuses her, while her mother shows her no sympathy and blames Mayu for the abuse. Part of what makes them so disturbing is that people like them exist in real life, and children like Mayu do indeed suffer from their actions.
  • When discussing JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable, this trope is generally regarded as a prominent factor in Yoshikage Kira's popularity, which is great enough to rival other JoJo villains. Unlike more supernaturally-oriented villains like DIO and Kars or exaggeratedly corrupt and delusional characters like Diavolo and Pucci, Kira is a realistically-portrayed serial killer (barring his Stand abilities of course). He doesn't have any grand schemes of domination, instead simply being driven to kill both because he enjoys it and to feed into his fetish for women's hands, which he severs from his victims and keeps around as "girlfriends" until they start to decay. He doesn't announce his presence in the way that other JoJo villains do, instead keeping an intentionally low profile and deceiving those around him by coming off as a charming and charismatic figure without seeming too interesting as to stand out, and if people do start getting suspicious, he finds ways to isolate them from their peers and pursue them until he can kill them. What stands out about all of this is that these traits are visibly modeled after real-life serial killers of decades past, most notably Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, and the then-recently apprehended Jeffery Dahmer, giving a chilling amount of realism to a character in a franchise that otherwise lives up to the "Bizarre" part of its name.
  • Pokémon: Pokémon Hunter J is one of the anime's best-received villains because of how frighteningly realistic she is. While the other villains tend to be over-the-top in both personality and goals, J is simply an Evil Poacher who only cares about money, and won't hesitate to kill anyone, adult or child, who gets in her way. Dawn lampshades this at the end of her debut appearance, saying it's shocking that people like this actually exist.

    Comic Books 
  • Many fans find The Joker's horrible treatment of Harley Quinn to be his most despicable trait, as while him trying to, say, turn fish evil by putting poison in the water seems like your typical hokey comic villain plot, his abuse of Harley is all too much like real Domestic Abuse, and, even in the kid-friendly works, doesn't have any Amusing Injuries or the like as cartoon violence often does. Tellingly, the (Now-defunct) YouTube channel Guitan had a video about why Harley Quinn is such a good character, and at one point he showed a list of clips (mainly from the animated series) of the Joker abusing her and put Content Warnings even though most of the clips are from a Y-7 rated show.
  • The very premise of The Punisher MAX adds an undercurrent of this to every story, but the Slavers arc displays it most prominently. In that arc, Frank Castle battles against a disturbingly realistic group of sex slave traffickers from the former Yugoslavian territories. They kidnap young women from Eastern Europe, rape them repeatedly until they break their spirit, and then force them into prostitution. The arc ends when Frank Castle kills the leaders of the US part of the ring, knowing both that he can’t truly stop the operation since the true leaders lie far beyond his reach, and that he cannot help the women that he freed from them to remake their lives, with the last page depicting Viorica, the woman who alerted The Punisher about the ring and herself a victim of them, having a PTSD attack in her job as a waitress.
  • The Mask: I Pledge Allegiance to the Mask has a politician becoming Big Head, and using the resulting lack of inhibitions to spew wacky sociopathic outbursts that make himself endearing to the populace in a presidential run. As put by the author of said series:
    Big Head is actually kind of… normal against the backdrop of 2019. Hyperbole tinged with ignorance and fear is becoming more of the norm, and someone as crazy, amoral, and dangerous as Big Head can absolutely become the leader of the free world. And ultimately, that’s the real terror.

    Fan Works 
  • The crux of the horror found in Infinity Train: Blossoming Trail lies not within the eponymous Infinity Train but the rampant Adult Fear that comes when we learn how Chloe was bullied and ostracized because she wasn't into Pokémon and was saddled with many useless adult figures in her life (with only her mother and English teacher doing anything they can to keep her afloat) and how everyone, friends and family alike, realize that they know little to nothing about the girl with her maroon hair in a braid and must figure out how to deal with the ramifications of her disappearing onto a magical therapy train.

    Films — Animated 
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Judge Claude Frollo is often considered one of Disney's most disturbing villains due to being a surprisingly realistic portrayal of fanaticism and xenophobia, in contrast to other Disney villains, who often have more simply (if not cartoonishly) evil goals and personalities. Ironically, his own fears of hell and eternal punishment lend him even more humanlike qualities, although he eventually puts these fears aside to focus on his Knight Templar mission to eradicate the Roma.
  • The Rescuers has Madame Medusa. While her plan of kidnapping Penny and using her to get the Devil's Eye diamond comes off as a little more grandiose, one of her most loathed moments among fans of the movie occurs when she mocks Penny as "homely" and claims no adoptive parent would want her. As horrible as her endangering Penny's life is, that kind of cruelty happens far more commonly.
  • Tangled: Mother Gothel is a quite accurate depiction of real-life Abusive Parents in what is otherwise the adaptation of a classic fairytale; several of her actions wouldn't be out of place coming from a caring parent, but she also keeps Rapunzel inside the tower by making the world outside sound scary and discouraging her from thinking for herself.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Contagion: No zombies, nothing supernatural, just a contagious disease with a high mortality rate. It's no wonder the movie got a publicity bump during the COVID-19 Pandemic, as the threat of a novel contagious disease made the movie hit extremely close to home at the time. Note how the film's Acceptable Breaks from Reality are mostly to make the disease easier to solve, not to make it spread faster or be more deadly.
  • While all of The Exorcist is pretty horrifying, the whole "cross scene" just might be the worst, as it basically depicts a 12 year old girl being raped and begging for help, even if the rapist is a demon instead of a human. As such, even if one doesn't believe in demons or the supernatural, the whole scene is pretty gut wrenching.
  • In Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, Rennie's Attempted Rape at the hands of some gangsters once the group gets to New York is far more disturbing than anything Jason does. Indeed, his appearance almost seems like a relief, as he does an unintentional Villainous Rescue (he kills the rapists and Rennie runs away while he's pre-occupied.)
  • There's a reason the first Godzilla movie is usually considered the scariest, namely the actual consequences of a giant fire breathing monster wrecking a city are depicted a lot more realistically than later films (with thousands dead and hospitals full of burned and otherwise injured people.) Most of the later films were a lot Lighter and Softer, and rarely showed humans actually dying due to monster attacks (with the implication being most of the buildings are unoccupied.)
  • The Invisible Man (2020) may be a science fiction horror film about a man who turns himself invisible, but the premise of someone being stalked, threatened and gaslit by their abusive ex after they try to leave them is horrifyingly realistic, as is the depiction of a narcissist's attempts to control and manipulate those around them, to the point that many people found this to be the most disturbing part (especially for viewers who have experienced domestic abuse).
  • One of the reasons why Joker (2019) is as scary as it is is because it's the story of a man who goes crazy and becomes a Spree Killer, a pretty harsh reality that has only become harsher with the sharp rise in these kind of criminals (so much that a lot of the film's naysayers believed that this movie would give them another reason to go on a rampage — that is, to emulate Fleck), and it's the most realistic interpretation of the Joker's Origin Story to date.
  • Franz Sanchez from Licence to Kill. He far less cartoonish than any other Bond villains and hasn't "Super Technologies", like them. But he still one of the most evil Bond villains, not by his plan, but by his cruelty.
  • In Night of the Living Dead (1968), the use of grainy black-and-white footage made the film to some viewers look less like a movie and more like a newsreel or documentary.
  • Osmosis Jones: The main villain Thrax is not only a serial killer but a contagious virus that has killed several people and wanted to set a record in the medical books.
  • Defenders of the Kubrick version of The Shining often feel that the ambiguous nature of the Overlook Hotel's haunted nature make the film scarier, in that it makes it seem like a similar scenario could happen in the real world.
  • A franchise-wide example in Scream, where Ghostface has a legion of fans, imitators, and media portrayals who constantly trigger the survivors of the first rampage.
  • The Silence of the Lambs: What makes Buffalo Bill such a terrifying and memorable villain (although he is admittedly second-fiddle to Hannibal Lector) is that he isn't an extremely intelligent or grandiose villain. He's a nutcase Serial Killer who kidnaps women, locks them in a hole, and tortures them unless they cooperate with his murder preparations. If one places themselves in the position of his captives, it is absolutely terrifying to be locked away in some dark pit with no hope of escape, while your captor tortures you and makes you do something that you're well aware will only lead to your inevitable death. Also keep in mind that Bill was based on real life serial killers, meaning that somewhere at sometime, a real person was put through this and in fact could be going through it right now. Sleep tight.
  • Star Wars:
  • While the payoff of the "Boys Do Get Bruised" story in Tales from the Hood is totally fantastical, the horror comes from the brutality of the abusive father (and to some extent the shock of David Alan Grier really Playing Against Type).
  • This trope is what separated The Terminator from other Slasher Movies of its time. Unlike the incredibly unlikely idea of a masked, supernatural knife-wielding stalker chasing a bunch of idiot kids around a small suburban neighborhood or isolated forest, the titular killer is deceptively "normal"-looking, is chasing his prey through one of the most populous cities in the world, will use any weapon or means available to do so, is capable of outsmarting or outwitting anyone trying to stop it, and last...but not least...is built upon a highly plausible fear about artificial intelligence.
    • The "nuclear nightmare" scene in the second movie is one of the scariest scenes in the entire franchise, as it's something that could happen any day without any killer robot. or evil AIs being required. It's become even worse in the post 9/11 world, as some experts have suggested it's not only possible, but likely that a nuclear terrorist attack will occur in our lifetime.
    • Something else that's become downright prescient of the film is that it centers around a dark future where the military recklessly automated national defense. Although at the time the idea that the military and government would "hand over the keys" to an AI was considered a fantastic possibility, the use (and abuse) of AI and robotics technology—such as the widespread proliferation of militarized drones and algorithmic facial regocnition technology—is becoming a very real concern for human rights organizations and world governments, the later of which are at times all too willing to jump to adopting them despite serious flaws.
  • The basic idea of The Truman Show is that the titular character is being continually stalked and monitored by a group of people who hide behind screens. It's even more unnerving in a world filled with amateur surveillance and social media.
  • This is what makes Lakeview Terrace so terrifying, and it's not even a horror film. What would you do if you had a neighbor who was that willing and able to cause you harm, whose actions were escalating by the day, anything you did to retaliate would just bring trouble onto you, and there was no one you could go to for help and No Help Is Coming? It's a disturbingly realistic and possible scenario for anyone, made worse by the comparably unlikely circumstances with Abel that Chris is able to exploit to put an end to it.
  • Pan's Labyrinth is a dark fantasy film about a girl going on gothic magical adventures in the woods outside her home, at one point even encountering an eye-less ghoul who eats children. However, the most terrifying monster of the movie is by far the protagonist's foster father Captain Vidal, a cruel psychopathic fascist military officer who is waging a brutal campaign against republican guerrillas against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.

    Literature 
  • Goosebumps:
    • The Curse Of The Mummy's Tomb book has a big case of this: the danger is not actually a mummy or curse but Ahmed, who is basically a religious fanatic Serial Killer who's part of a long line of people who kill and mummify anyone who "desecrates" the tomb in the pyramid. At one point he tries to kidnap the protagonist and his cousin (likely planning to either kill them or take them hostage.) After they escape they tell Uncle Ben about Ahmed and the three of them go to the tomb to investigate, only to get ambushed by Ahmed who plans to kill and mummify all three of them. The only actual supernatural stuff happens in two pages near the end where some mummies come to life in order to save the heroes and scare off Ahmed. As The Pop Arena puts it in his review "The threat just seems too human and real for this kind of series."
    • In the same series, there are multiple books where the protagonist has a sibling who bullies or otherwise abuses them, often times causing them more suffering than the scary/supernatural thing in the book, with The Cuckoo Clock Of Doom being the most extreme example. Disturbingly, it often seems like the parents are aware of this but don't do anything to stop it, which is also realistic.
  • Harry Potter
    • Take out the magical diary part of the Ginny subplot in the second book and it’s the story of an impressionable little girl falling prey to a manipulative older boy. Ginny is a kid who’s grown up in a loving family with a whole heap of brothers to play with but goes to a boarding school and has a hard time adjusting to her new life. She’s lonely and starts talking to a “new” friend, a handsome and charming older boy. He gaslights her and makes her do his dirty work. She can’t remember what she’s doing which calls to mind him drugging her. Every time she tries to tell one of her brothers something’s gone wrong they tell her Not Now, Kiddo.
    • Umbridge is perhaps the most universally despised character in the series. Her authoritarianism, child abuse, and Sadist Teacher Villain with Good Publicity status make her hit home in a personal way. While people like the Big Bad Voldemort are unlikely to be encountered in real life, Umbridge represents a far more mundane, far more common kind of villainy. Stephen King, reviewing the book that introduced her, wrote:
      Stephen King: A great fantasy novel can't exist without a great villain, and while You-Know-Who (sure we do: Lord Voldemort) is a little too far out in the supernatural ozone to qualify, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts does just fine in this regard. The gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, is the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter. One needn't be a child to remember The Really Scary Teacher, the one who terrified us so badly that we dreaded the walk to school in the morning, and we turn the pages partly in fervent hopes that she will get her comeuppance... but also in growing fear of what she will get up to next. For surely a teacher capable of banning Harry Potter from playing Quidditch is capable of anything.
  • The Mercy Thompson book Iron Kissed has the Arc Villain, a seemingly ordinary man, give Mercy the magical equivalent of a roofie and rape her.
  • The Once and Future King adapts Morgause into a horrendously abusive mother, tracing many of the factors that will eventually bring down Camelot to her horrible treatment of her family. In a departure from earlier versions of her sleeping with her brother and siring Mordred its framing in this book clearly is meant to show it as assault. T. H. White suffered from an abusive mother and so really knew how to write such a character.
  • Requiem for a Dream: The story is about four people that undergo the negative consequences of their drug abuse. There's no real villain of the story and the horrors each of them go through are portrayed very realistically.
    • Harry is the one that causes the whole mess that his mother, Sara, his girlfriend, Marion, and his best friend Tyrone get into when Marion, Tyrone and him decide to try heroin. Throughout the movie, their lives begin to slowly decay. His left arm gets more infected as time passes due to his heroin abuse.
    • Sara's situation is even more unnerving as she becomes addicted to weight loss pills prescribed by her doctor to overcome her anxiety of being seen in her red dress on television.
    • The ending is one of the most realistically terrifying causes of all. All four end up having their lives destroyed with Tyrone being the only one who can get it all back. Sara ends up in a mental institution, Harry's left arm is amputated, Marion ends up in a prostitution ring, and Tyrone ends up in jail. The whole story can scare anyone from even considering the possibility of trying heroin since only one dose can cause severe addiction.
  • In the (now defunct) Star Wars Legends, the Yuuzhan Vong seem uncomfortably similar to real world terrorist groups in terms of mindset, in particular their weird religious rules and murderous hatred of unbelievers.
  • Stephen King:
    • While the telekinesis aspects of Carrie are firmly grounded in fantasy, the school bullying aspects are very much not, and people like Chris Hargensen exist in real life. If anything, with the attention on bullying in recent years, this aspect of the story has become scarier as time goes on.
    • Whenever there's a major wave of sickness going around (such as SARS or the Coronavirus), the beginning part of The Stand with a disease killing 99% of the population starts seeming much scarier (and more plausible) than Randall Flagg's supernatural menace.
    • If you're a dog owner, or know a dog owner, the premise of Cujo, which centers around a rabid St. Bernard violently attacking its owners, comes off as extremely unsettling.
    • In a lot of ways, the scariest part of Pet Sematary isn't the titular corpse-reanimating graveyard. It's the scene where three-year-old Gage Creed gets run over by a truck while playing in the street. It's described in gruesome detail, and puts readers in the shoes of a parent watching their child die, unable to do anything about it.
    • One of the most horrifying aspects of Apt Pupil from Different Seasons is that there are no supernatural elements at all, and the possibility that the old man living on your street could have been instrumental in one of the worst atrocities in human history while seeming like a charming, grandfatherly type.
    • Part of what makes Misery so effective is that the novel's basic premise — being abducted and held prisoner by an Ax-Crazy, sociopathic person like Annie Wilkes who will hurt you on a whim — is something that can and has happened in real life. For extra points, King notes that she was written as a representation of his personal struggle with cocaine addiction, and was inspired by an encounter he had with a man who claimed to be his "number one fan" note .
  • Warrior Cats: Spottedleaf's Heart is one of the most "adult" and uncomfortable books in a children's series known for Family-Unfriendly Violence, war, religious issues, and other mature topics. In it, a full-grown warrior named Thistleclaw shows an interest in Spottedleaf starting from when he begins giving her gifts as a kit. When she becomes an apprentice (around the human equivalent of 10-14), he begins isolating her from her peers and encouraging her to keep his romantic intentions with her a secret from her parents and friends, despite Spottedpaw saying she's too young for him. The only thing that stops Spottedpaw from starting a relationship with Thistleclaw is his violent nature and brutality in battle. Moonkitti puts it best:
    Moonkitti: Spottedpaw should've told her leader or her mentor. Spottedpaw didn't know any better, she trusted Thistleclaw, and that's what makes this book so horrifying.

    Live-Action TV 
  • After five seasons of fighting vampires, demons, and even a physical god, arguably Buffy Summer's scariest opponent would be an ordinary human being, albeit a sociopathic, genius-intellect human being, Warren Mears. Over the course of a season, Warren screws with Buffy more mentally, emotionally, and psychologically than all her other villains, save one: Angelus. And, of course, there's his most infamous moment...
  • The Marvel Netflix shows have gained a reputation for featuring super-grounded in reality villains.
    • Jessica Jones (2015): Kilgrave gains a lot of praise because, mind control abilities aside, he's like several different kinds of abusers rolled into one.
    • Daredevil (2015): Matt's biggest threat throughout the show is Wilson Fisk, a sociopathic and very powerful mobster. Fisk is responsible for the majority of the problems that Matt has to deal with. Season 3 takes this up a notch by adding Benjamin "Dex" Poindexter to the mix, who is slowly manipulated by Fisk into becoming a master assassin.
    • Luke Cage (2016): Luke's main threats in his show come from the Stokes crime family. This is played with in Season 2, as although the somewhat mystical Bushmaster is also a villain, Mariah is the main villain that both he and Luke are motivated to take down.
  • Wandavision: Beneath the campy sitcom shenanigans and superhero weirdness, the show is fundamentally about how loneliness, depression and unresolved grief can lead to reckless, dangerous and self-destructive behaviour.
  • The X-Files: Two of the scariest episodes of the show, as consistently ranked by online sources, are episodes that don't have any supernatural elements in them:
    • Season 2's "Irresistible" involves a fetishist who kidnaps women and dismembers them, keeping their body parts in his freezer. Nick Chinlund's performance sells him as inoffensive and exceedingly polite, but with an air of something "off." He uses his "normal" aesthetic to get women to trust him.
    • Season 4's "Home" was banned from network television for years after its production, owing to its rather unsavory plotline of an interbreeding family in rural Pennsylvania.

    Video Games 
  • Baldi's Basics in Education and Learning: It's generally agreed among fans that one of the scariest things about the game is the anxiety and Paranoia Fuel that comes from having a teacher get furious at you and chase you down simply for failing to solve a math problem you don't understand. This has led to multiple fan theories, such as this, suggesting that the protagonist is a child in the real world, possibly with a disability of some kind, and they're imagining themselves being chased by an Evil Teacher in an Edutainment Game world either as a result of general anxiety from school or possibly from traumatic experiences with an actual abusive teacher.
  • Dreaming Mary: The horror in this dream-and-nightmare themed games come from the subtle and horrifying implications of what Mary's home-life is like in the waking world; specifically, the numerous hints about her being a victim of Parental Incest at the hands of her abusive father. The game has a lot of creepy moments, but it's the realistic portrayal of her father that makes the game as horrifying as it actually is.
  • Ketsui gets its horror factor from the fact that while other CAVE games get dark plots from supernatural or science fiction elements (killer robot girls, evil psychics, a miasma threatening to kill everything), Ketsui's backstory consists of things that could plausibly happen in the future: climate change causing the ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise, nations going to World War III over increasingly scarce resources, and a Mega-Corp that profits off of said war through the production and sale of weapons and even the maintenance of a private army (while real-world examples have never been able to really reach the levels of N.G.O. Superpower, a sufficiently rich corporation with sufficiently little regulation could theoretically reach that level) to keep themselves untouchable.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has the premise of Calamity Ganon, an Eldritch Abomination incarnation of the series' Big Bad, using an army of possessed Starfish Robots to destroy Hyrule's civilization a century before the beginning of the game. But one optional encounter with a character named Brigo managed to unnerve players because of the subtle and realistic Fridge Horror it involves. If you stand on the ledge of the bridge he patrols near the Great Plateau, he'll start Talking Down the Suicidal, assuming that you plan to drown yourself in the river below. The way he brings this up implies that this is a fairly regular task he carries out. While the main After the End premise of the game is pretty fantastical, the implication that people living in such a setting would pass the Despair Event Horizon and try to kill themselves unnerved a lot of players.
  • Persona 4 is a murder mystery Urban Fantasy with plenty of supernatural elements, but its most frightening characters are the first suspect and the true killer, as their motives and actions are disturbingly true to life.
    • The suspect is an emotionally-distant teenager who committed a murder and took credit for two others just for the attention.
    • The true killer tries to sexually assault a woman, only for his supernatural powers to kick in and accidentally cause her death. He then lures a high-school girl, abusing his position as a police officer to hit on her under the guise of an interrogation. He kills her when she rejects him. When cornered, he blames everyone but himself for his own situation and claims those women deserved their fates. An entitled manchild who resorts to murder when he doesn't get what he wants is chillingly realistic, especially since he puts on an affable facade until he's exposed.
  • Persona 5
    • The game sets the tone of its story with the Starter Villain Suguru Kamoshida. He's a Sadist Teacher who sexually abuses female students, runs his volleyball team ragged with physical punishment, and goes to heinous lengths to keep himself the "star" of Shujin Academy. As the player meets his victims and learns more what a Hate Sink the guy is, it's absolutely horrifying to learn that this monster gets away with it all because he's just too invaluable to the school's reputation; a situation that is nightmarishly realistic. It helps that three of the first four party members, including the main character, are some of the victims of Kamoshida's abuse. A majority of the game's subsequent antagonists follow the theme of authority figures abusing their power to get away with crimes, but none of them feel quite as personal as Kamoshida.
    • This is also part of why Okumura, the fifth Palace owner, is considered one of the most evil characters in the game and flies far, far into the realm of Unintentionally Unsympathetic: he's a heavily corrupt CEO who treats his Burger Fool employees like dirt and gleefully treats them (as well as everyone else around him) as disposable, neglects his daughter, and even uses her as a bargaining chip to get into politics by forcing her to marry someone's son, an individual who clearly has no respect for her, treats her like property, and acts like he's only a single step away from raping her. He also is very, very much aware of everything he's doing, with the game making it very clear that he doesn't care about anyone but himself until the moment he dies. If you've ever known someone who has power over you that you can't run away from without great harm to yourself, yet is completely unfit to hold any power at all, you've experienced this villain's evil firsthand.
  • Pokémon:
    • Ghetsis from Pokémon Black and White and its sequels Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 earned his reputation as the "worst Pokémon villain (at the time of release)" largely due to his abuse of his son N. He kept N secluded with little-to-no human contact, dehumanized him, and is implied to have had plans to kill him once his plot was done. Even the reveal that N is an orphan boy that Ghetsis adopted doesn't ease the horror of the abuse.
    • Lusamine from Pokémon Sun and Moon is an effective villain because she's a realistic portrayal of a narcissistic abusive parent. She underwent a Sanity Slippage after her husband disappeared years ago. Lusamine became controlling and emotionally abusive towards her two children, to the point where both ran away from home. Lusamine also shows apathy in general, such as when she put various Pokémon in a frozen stasis.
  • Lucas Baker of Resident Evil 7 is one of the most horrifying villains in the entire Resident Evil series, despite operating on a much smaller scale than the likes of the Umbrella Corporation, Wesker, and the Los Illuminados. In real life, you'd probably be very unlikely to run into mad scientists or a virus-enhanced superhuman, but Lucas could really be any weird kid you knew in school, who happens to have predatory sociopathic tendencies just waiting for the right situation to unleash them.
  • In Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the first zone (Angel Island Zone) starts out as just a tropical island, but Eggman launches a massive napalm attack which in turn creates a huge wildfire. This seems a lot darker in general than his usual goofy plots such as turning people into robots or building giant space stations with his face on them. It's also pretty obviously meant to be reminiscent of The Vietnam War, and considering you never see the zone after, you also wonder if the whole place just burned down eventually.
  • Spider-Man (PS4): The game has its fair share of darker moments, but the City Hall bombing sequence is often cited as the most horrific, as the entire sequence was noted to be heavily reminiscent of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. As if to hammer the parallels further, the Demons (the gang responsible for the bombing) act more and more like a terrorist organization from that point on, and are outright treated and labeled as such in-universe.
  • When The Darkness Comes is chock-full of creepy visuals and unsettling moments, but the true horror comes from the realistic portrayal of how depression and anxiety feels. Players are more likely to walk away feeling emotional over the psychological elements than they are creeped out about the glowing-eyed people or strange settings.
  • OMORI contains numerous nightmarish scenarios, but the hardest-hitting of them all is the brutal depiction of a young boy's borderline suicidal depression stemming from having accidently killed his sister.
  • Part of what made Lethal Enforcers so controversial back then was the use of digitized actors (much like Mortal Kombat). Because of this, it looks like you're killing real people instead of just cartoon characters. However, unlike Mortal Kombat, which takes place in a fantasy setting with sorcerers and ninjas, Lethal Enforcers depicts the frighteningly realistic scenario of a police shooting (or even a mass-shooting). Unfortunately, it's a scenario that might hit too close to home for some people.

    Visual Novels 
  • Buried Stars relies on a combination of themes that are pretty understandable, and even expectable, on their own — buildings built too cheaply to endure, skeletons in the closets of reality show contestants, Manipulative Editing for the sake of drawing in viewers, and so on. Put them all together, and you get a very believable situation that easily conjures dread.
  • It's well-known that Doki Doki Literature Club! undergoes a sudden Genre Shift from romance to metafictional horror after the first act. But some players, including Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation, claim that the most disturbing part of the game can be found before the twist: Sayori's depression and eventual suicide are presented in a very realistic way, making them very relatable to anyone who has suffered from depression or knows someone who has died by suicide. The game itself is aware of this, giving content warnings for the realistically-portrayed depression, suicide, and abuse, while still keeping quiet on the other horror themes.
  • Fate/stay night largely deals in the fantastical, with ancient heroes and gods and wizards and whatnot fighting each other for the Holy Grail, and the first two routes are correspondingly relatively light-hearted. However, the Heaven's Feel route takes a hard left turn into horror, and the primary horror element is... the extremely realistic psychological breakdown of a young girl who's been repeatedly molested by her adoptive family for years.

    Web Animation 
  • Felix from Red vs. Blue is considered a terrifying villain but not because of his genocidal ambitions. Instead, he is marked by his comparitively mundane deceits and Exact Words that manipulate both the characters and the audience, successfully masking his character as a Jerk with a Heart of Gold instead of a Psychopathic Manchild. This is increased when it is revealed that he has been emotionally abusing his mercenary partner, Locus, into staying with him by using his PTSD against him.

    Webcomics 
  • Homestuck features a lot of murder, supernatural brainwashing, and godlike manipulation of the universe. Yet for many fans, the most horrifying scenes are those that evoke abusive dynamics, even though many of these cases (such as Bro constantly fighting Dave and Vriska's frequent torment of Tavros) were initially played for dark laughs. One standout case is Gamzee's emotional and physical abuse of Terezi when they were kismeses, which for many made Gamzee more terrifying than his unabashed murder attempts earlier in the comic.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent:
    • Separate the segments of the Distant Prologue by weeks or months instead of days, and the Rash outbreak gets a narrative surprisingly close to how media coverage and public awareness of the seriousness of Covid-19 escalated between late 2019 and early 2020. On a more individual level, there is a young man getting his grandmother to come live with him before the disease hits their area, people losing their job because of the preventative measures, parents keeping their child out of school, discussion of where a pregnant woman will be giving birth and people self-isolating to various extents. The similarity breaks down when "turning into an Undead Abomination" joins the list of unforeseen complications of the disease in the main story.
    • In the backstory, a supernatural entity decimated an entire cluster of villages with an outbreak of the Rash. The entity's plan boiled down to smuggling an infected person into one of the villages, having the person be part of a large gathering during their Typhoid Mary phase (which is usually accounted for via putting new arrivals in quarantine), then having the people infected at the gathering continue the spread during their own Typhoid Mary phases. Avoiding an involuntary version of such a scenario with Covid-19 is the reason many countries put social distancing measures in place.

    Web Video 
  • alantutorial is already a horror series, and the second half is less realistic than the first, with things being exaggerated. However, the first real bit of horror is in the very beginning, when all the audience knows is that Alan is a mentally handicapped man living in an abusive, or at least neglectful, household. The horror at this stage comes from watching Alan do his tutorials alone, some of them dangerous, while we receive numerous hints about his bad home life. It makes the series start off in a very unsettling way that slowly becomes more exaggerated and blatantly horrific.
  • Electronic Game Information: Alan and Robby's fighting in Season 2 is entirely scripted, as evidenced by the sheer fact that Alan had an entire post-credit scene talking to "Birdo" about it; but that doesn't make it feel any less real. With the entire show being portrayed as a live-streamed discussion about video games and video game conventions, having the co-hosts break into a major, on-screen argument seemed too genuine, especially with it being portrayed as a serious falling out. This genuine portrayal made the scenes a bit uncomfortable to watch.
  • In comparison to some of the more silly conflicts and interactions happening on the Dream SMP server, Dream's manipulation and gaslighting of Tommy is downright terrifying due to how realistic it is portrayed, to the point that some viewers have had to step back from the series for the time being due to being reminded of their own experiences.
  • The main reason why the Mario Party DS Anti Piracy videos are so effective is that they are actually convincing (the first ones are, at least; it becomes more questionable once Serial Escalation begins to set in), to the point that many people thought they were real.
  • The Nostalgia Critic: Most of the bit characters who torment Critic do it in a way too cartoonish to be scary, often with some sort of magic power. However, Hyper Fangirl (prior to her Character Development) is considered legitimately creepy to some, because while her antics are still usually Played for Laughs, her possessive behavior towards the Critic hits too close to home for some victims of stalking and sexual harassment.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender:
    • Ozai is a tyrannical Fire Lord who heads a war against the entire planet and tries to become the ruler of all the kingdoms. His most reprehensible behavior is his Domestic Abuse of his wife, children, and to a lesser extent his older brother. The comics made it worse by revealing he and Ursa were never in love. His father, Fire Lord Azulon, forced an Arranged Marriage between the two to breed powerful children for the family, and the children were conceived under dubious consent.
    • City of Walls and Secrets is one of the most terrifying episodes of the series — not because of creepy spirits like Koh or Sorcerous Overlords like Ozai, but its depiction of a Police State. While the Dai Li are benders too, this is not what makes them scary.
  • Bojack Horseman enters this territory quite frequently, most frequently with its fairly realistic depictions of abuse, addiction, and mental illness, which helps further the show's central themes of how celebrity can be damaging (particularly for someone who entered stardom very young) and how trauma can often be passed from one generation to the next.
  • Courage the Cowardly Dog:
    • The show filled with all kinds of fantastical and sci-fi threats, but Mad Dog is considered one of the scariest villains to appear — even though (or perhaps because) there's nothing supernatural about him aside from being an anthropomorphic dog. A big part of this is due to him being a disturbingly authentic portrayal of a domestic abuser who controls his girlfriend Bunny with threats and acts of violence while isolating her from people who could help her and using emotional manipulation to his advantage.
    • Though his plots dip into the scientific and he tries to be affable about it, Katz is another example of this. Katz is, for all intents and purposes, a serial killer with multiple M.O.s to try to ensnare and kill his victims. Courage often struggles in episodes of which he's the antagonist.
    • Although Freaky Fred is a Sweeney Todd Expy who speaks in rhyme in his inner monologues and only wants to shave people, he remains one of the most infamous characters from the entire show because his obsession with cutting hair is almost a fetish, and that it ruined his love life and career. There are many people in the real world, from serial killers to sex offenders to regular people who let their obsessions overtake their lives until they can't function normally anymore.
  • The Legend of Korra:
    • The Red Lotus is a terrorist group that seeks to topple the world governments to fulfill their anarchists' utopia. While fewer in numbers and less powerful than previous villains, they make up for it by knowing where to strike and let anarchy take care of the rest. Most prominently, they murder the Earth Queen and announce her death across Ba Sing Se. Within minutes, the city and eventually the entire kingdom falls into complete chaos, endangering the lives of innocents including Mako and Bolin's extended family. It has gotten so bad that a Napoleon-esque figure named Kuvira spent years trying to quell the violence and by the time she's done, she had gained the taste for dictatorship and refuses to give up her power to Republic City's Puppet King.
    • Korra's fights against bender and non-bender villains are awesome, but it's her depiction as a victim of poisoning (implicitly by mercury) that's the most deeply touching. Becoming paralyzed, at such a young age and with an all too decent chance of never getting back in shape (and with the added notion of feeling useless to boot), is infinitely more relatable that the series' usual villain.
  • In this review for The Loud House episode "A Fridge Too Far", the reviewer mentions that while he enjoys the episode as a whole, one problem he has with it is that when the Loud children get injured by each other's booby traps, instead of being beaten up in a cartoony way and being fine the next scene, some of them are realistically injured (Luan has to wear a cast for instance).
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • As the series began production right when the severity and long-term effects of bullying were becoming a hot-button issue, characters who tend to act cruelly to others tend to be painted less sympathetically compared to more "fantastic" villains like Nightmare Moon and Discord. This is perhaps best exemplified in "Flight to the Finish", in which Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon mock Scootaloo for her inability to fly; this, along with her subsequent downward spiral, is presented as being akin to someone being bullied for being disabled. As a result, Diamond Tiara's redemption was a lot more contentious than that of other characters, as her behavior hit closer to home.
    • Similarly, the episode "Hurricane Fluttershy" reveals that Fluttershy was bullied as a filly for being a weak flyer, the memories of which give her PTSD-like panic attacks even as a full-grown mare.
    • After dealing with a millenia-old centaur with the ability to absorb magic in the Season 4 finale, the Season 5 opener involves dealing with what essentially amounts to a cult leader in a faraway town. Despite the seemingly much lower stakes, it's played no less dangerously than the previous, fantastic villain.
  • Regular Show is generally the total opposite of what the title implies, but RGB2's story in the episode That's My Television is an unnerving tale of an actor being roped by contract into an abusive environment under corrupt executives who view him more as a Cash Cow than an actual person. It's so terrible he begs Mordecai and Rigby to help him flee the studio. From the perspective of TV fans it's just as disturbing to discover the cruelty going on behind the scenes, especially since the entertainment industry is no stranger to stars experiencing abusive treatment. The reveal that "RGB2" is actually a human sealed in his suit, while outlandish, just makes his treatment even more horrific.
  • The reason the Sponge Bob Squarepants episode "Are You Happy Now?" creeps out a lot of viewers is because Squidward's inability to be happy and lethargic behavior seemed too much like actual depression, which especially made the Bait-and-Switch gags where it seems like he's going to kill himself seem way too heavy because it was actually believable that he'd want to.
  • She-Ra and the Princesses of Power:
    • Shadow Weaver's treatment of her adoptive children, manipulating them, favoring Adora over Catra, and generally being despicable and cruel to them, have become memorable as among the creepiest and darkest themes the series is willing to take on. The consequences it has on both of them, especially Catra, who received the brunt of the abuse, are depicted in a way which can easily disturb viewers.
    • Catra's treatment of Adora is this. Catra is Adora's former best friend. Adora constantly begs Catra to join the Rebellion, and in spite of the fact Catra would be far happier and healthier there, she refuses, lashes out, and torments Adora; Shadow Weaver's conditioning is too hard to shake, and she and Adora were too codependent for her not to see Adora's leaving as a betrayal. It's a harrowing, heartbreaking experience for both parties.
    • Hordak turns out to have a medical condition, which caused him to be shunned and cast out of his home by his paternal figure, Horde Prime. It codes very heavily to a disabled or trans person being rejected by their society and feeling internalized guilt due to their upbringing.
    • Horde Prime and the Galactic Horde perhaps epitomize this. They are a dangerous force with heavy religious connotations. Their leader is a charismatic figure with No Sense of Personal Space, who uses Cold-Blooded Torture ( Which simultaneously resembles a baptism, and religiously-motivated conversion therapy designed to "cure" LGBT+ people) and abusive brainwashing to keep their people in line to fuel their narcissism. It was outright stated that Horde Prime was based on "suicide cult" leaders such as Jim Jones.

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