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.
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 and surreal, 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.
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. 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.
- Pokémon: Pokémon Hunter J is one of the anime's best-recieved 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.
- Many fans find The Joker's horrible treatment of Harley 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.
- 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 gypsies.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Contagion: No zombies, nothing supernatural, just a contagious disease with a high mortality rate. Yep, that could happen. 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.
- 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.
- Umbridge from Harry Potter 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.
- 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.
- 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 interested 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 showing an interest in her, despite Spottedpaw saying she's too young for him. The entire book has a lot of child grooming allusions
- 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 were 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Spiderman PS 4: 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 labelled as such in-universe.
- 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.
- 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 cased 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 committed suicide.
- 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 corverage 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 Afraid of Doctors 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 unforseen 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 beat 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).
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: Ozai is a tyrannical king 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. He forced her to marry him and the children were conceived under dubious consent.
- Bojack Horseman enters this territory quite frequently, most frequently with it's 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.
- 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.
- 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.