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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."

There's always going to be something terrifying in any media. Whether it's ghosts, invulnerable killers, or zombie outbreaks, people can at least tell themselves it's not real. Here? These horrors, which are probably terrifying on their own, can get extra-terrifying because you know it can happen in Real Life. To anyone, anywhere, anytime.

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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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It should also be noted that realistic horror is NOT inherently scarier than supernatural horror, as both simply represent different kinds of fears. The latter of which consists of forces that are beyond human comprehension and defy all natural laws. The fear of the unknown is a thing after all.

There are a few other tropes and reactions that can lead to this phenomenon. 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, 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 Mundanger if most of the villains are monsters/aliens/something else fictional, or Humans Are the Real Monsters if despite nonhuman dangers, 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 soup 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.
  • Death Note: The most horrifying part of Light's character, far eclipsing his more absurd god complex and mass-murder, is the fact that he is 100% absolutely convinced at all times that he is in the right and morally justified despite plentiful evidence to the contrary, and is able to use that delusion in order to justify increasingly reprehensible and heinous crimes under the notion of creating an "ideal world". While few real-life dictators would engage in his excessive hamminess, they absolutely do this mindset that their ends justify their means no matter what, and that in order to secure this ideal future, they coincidentally have to solely hold onto power.
  • Dragon Ball hardly falls into this with its violence delving into the more fantastical and outlandish. But during the Buu Saga in Dragon Ball Z we get the fight between Spopovich and Videl. His magical Healing Factor surviving a broken neck aside, Spopovich's brutalizing of Videl, a 15-year old girl is startlingly realistic. No energy beams or crazy techniques, just the pure brute strength of someone loopholing what should be a friendly martial arts match into literal torture. In the manga Spopovich goes far enough that he manages to break some of Videl's teeth. In the anime Spopovich actually tries to STOP Videl from exiting the ring. To some, it can remind people of Domestic Abuse or something similar at home. There's a very good reason fans consider this one of the most brutal fights in the series beyond the fantasy elements: because it could realistically happen.
  • 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.
  • Much of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable villain Yoshikage Kira's popularity stems from his trope. Unlike other JoJo villains, Kira isn't a supernatural being (though he does have a Stand) or exaggeratedly corrupt and delusional, instead being a (mostly) realistically-portrayed serial killer. Like most real-life killers, Kira has no grand schemes and keeps a low, everyday profile, with his motives of self-gratification and modus operandi of isolation and evasion paralleling cases like Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, and 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.
  • One Piece is well known for having a bevy of villains that delve into this going beyond their fantastical Devil Fruit abilities. Among some of the worst and most realistic are Arlong and later on Hody Jones. While they are shark fishmen that’s not entirely what makes them terrifying. It’s their heavily racist views on humans and superiority complex being very reminiscent of the Nazis that makes them scary. Although monstrous, Arlong had a Freudian Excuse due to what happened to his former captain, as well as a personal bad experience with humans. Hody on the other hand? Never had any bad experiences with humans. He's a racist purely from the environment of the slums he was raised and being told humans were inferior. Many real life racists gain similar viewpoints from being raised with nothing to oppose what they have been taught.
    • Additionally, at one point Hody forces the people of Fishman Island to declare allegiance to him by forcing them to step on a picture of their Queen Otohime. This is similar to something done in Imperial Japan in the 1600s where Christians were forced to renounce their faith by stepping on a likeness of Christ.
  • Pokémon: The Series: 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.
    • We also have the likes of Damian/Daisuke and Shamus/Suwama. Both abandoned their respective Fire Starters (Charmander and Tepig) leaving them to die because they no longer found value in them. When they get a taste of how they have since grown? They try to manipulate them into returning to their ownership. Both are considered among the most realistic one-shot villains because of how they're handled, albeit slightly over-the-top. There really are people like this who will abandon animals, even CHILDREN and then turn around and try to coerce them back into their lives. And unfortunately unlike Damian and Shamus? Sometimes they succeed.
  • The early chapters of Yu-Gi-Oh! occasionally dealt with more realistic threats compared to the more supernatural villains later on. The fourth chapter in particular deals with an escaped convict who holds up the restaurant Anzu/Tea works at. The fifth deals with a Phony Psychic who uses his position to get girls to like him, at one point he actually knocks Anzu out with chloroform and plans to RAPE HER! Lastly, chapter 45 deals with an actual terrorist attack from a Mad Bomber. Other instances have Yugi and his friends face gang members and bullies like in the first chapter with Ushio.

    Card Games 

    Comic Books 
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise Ozai teaches a lesson of governing to his son Zuko. He says that there are no right or wrong decisions, the decisions taken by the Firelord is always the right ones. Ozai is right because throughout mankind's turbulent history, mad-powered dictators with delusion of grandeur like him have always used this twisted mindset to rule over others.
  • 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 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.
  • Jackie Chan Adventures: Olympian Journey: Eris new fear vision powers gained from Phobos' essence is petty run of the mill supervillain stuff, especially when it causes Jackie and Tohru to see Shendu and Tarakudo. But then we get Uncle's vision, which is of going senile and being sent to a care home where no one ever visits. That is something that can and does happen to people in real life all the time, and Uncle reacts to the vision with a quite understandable amount of fear and grief.
  • While Never Had a Friend Like Me has the anti-fairies, pixies, and later Bob the Boil as villains, the most unpleasant characters are the Adams parents, for being a chillingly realistic depiction of neglectful and abusive parents.
  • Ruby and Nora:
    • While Admah Keter, the villain of Ruby's Birthday is terrifying in his own right as a Serial Killer, he is Laughably Evil and ultimately still too over-the-top, allowing a degree of separation. The villain of Weiss and Pyrrha, Nurse Abigail Lemon, is a more realistic version of a serial killer. Everything about them barring her Semblance is uncannily similar to a type of serial killer found in real life. Her methods as an "angel of death" involve using poison and picking off already vulnerable people so that no one would notice. While a more banal threat, this person could actually exist in our world.
    • A lot about Raven's sociopathy is utterly chilling, but one thing that brings it down-to-earth is how she manipulated Summer and Tai by dating them both without telling either of them. The breach of trust makes it all the more heartbreaking when Raven shows Summer that she never cared about her. The whole time, the person she trusted and loved more than anything saw her as nothing but a way to get off and would have easily discarded her without a second thought. While it is far from the worst thing she has ever done, it shows just how cold Raven can be in a very real way.
  • Tokimeki PokéLive! and TwinBee:
    • While most conflicts as well as some disasters that have happened across the series have more fantastical roots such as alien Pokémon causing the destruction of another world, including the deaths of alternate versions of Sonic, Tails and Eggman who are native to said world as a result, Mia using her Hydreigon as a means of helping Lanzhu disband the Nijigasaki High School Idol Club and this universe's Modern Eggman attempting to use a Kyurem to take over the world in the "Ideal Hero" Side Story arc, however, there is one disaster seen in certian Special Stories like "Prophecy of Failure?!" that is something that may well happen in Real Life should things go south in regards to Global Warming in the future, wars over dwindling resources, some of which could well go nuclear like how a war Aleena mentioned between India and Pakistan in said story did as well as people huddled around the Arctic/Antarctic areas and the surrounding tundras just to survive at a subsistence level and this is portrayed pretty realistically!
    • Not to mention, Yoko's biological parents dying in a train derailment accident, which is also portrayed realistically, though thankfully, without much mention of blood and gore, too!

    Films — Animated 
  • Gaston from Beauty and the Beast is just an ordinary human with no magical or supernatural abilities. What makes him a dangerous individual is how he uses his popularity to manipulate the villagers to commit heinous acts among Belle and her father. This makes him no different than a corrupt politician who would manipulate their loyal followers into committing acts that would normally be seen as morally questionable.
  • Cinderella: This is what makes Lady Tremaine so terrifying. She's not some over-the-top, magical being like most Disney villains, rather she's just a regular elder woman who milks her affluence and power over exactly one person, her stepdaughter, for all it's worth (she's only slightly kinder to her biological daughters, but she is quick to force them to replace Cinderella when she gets her happy ending in A Twist in Time). Due to Cinderella's young age when Tremaine took her in and the time period in which the story is setted, Cinderella's abuse feels especially inescapable. Had Cinderella haven't been helped by her Fairy Godmother to assist her in going to the ball, or have refused to show her other slipper she hid out of fear to the duke when Tremaine destroyed the shoe, Cinderella may have been subject to this life forever.
  • Encanto is a fantasy movie, but nothing magical about it is terrifying or even dangerous. Instead, the flashback showing armed horsemen burning and (implicitly) killing people is a haunting allusion to Colombia's many violent political conflicts and civilian displacements.
  • Grave of the Fireflies does not shy away from the horrors of World War II nor the consequences of war as a whole:
    • Seita and Setsuko's mother dies from the bomb raid of Kobe that burned down the town. She's burned practically beyond recognition and covered in bandages when Seita finds her. She doesn't survive much longer, including getting infested with maggots as a result of so much blood in one place.
    • Setsuko dies a slow death of malnutrition. By the time Seita finally takes her to a doctor, she's practically skin and bones, she's covered in rashes from seawater, and she mentions that she's been having diarrhea from not eating properly. Just before slipping off into death, she's hallucinating that marbles are candy and rocks are rice balls, a result of her brain on its last legs. Even though Seita does manage to feed her watermelon, she's too far gone to save.
  • Heidi's Song: The song "She's a Nothing" features surreal animation where Rottenheimer, Sebastian, and Schnoodle turn into monsters. However, at least one viewer has pointed out that the way Rottenheimer and Sebastian belittle Heidi by telling her she's small and "a nothing" is the most chilling part, because it feels similar to the tactics that bullies in real life use.
  • 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 (and the political clout to make others carry out his evil agenda), 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 Incredibles: Syndrome aka Buddy Pine is a former fan of Mr. Incredible that grew up feeling slighted by his hero after he supposedly turned him away, and has since declared war against all superheroes, wanting to destroy everything and everyone that Mr. Incredible in particular holds dear, out of sheer pettiness. He's frequently seen as a horrifying example about toxic fandom, an issue that's gotten more alarming thanks to social media making it easier for these fans to directly harass actors and other creators.
  • Hal Stewart AKA Titan from Megamind is a shockingly realistic portrayal of people who feel like they're owed romantic affection. He pretends to be nice and flirts with Roxanne with every chance he gets, even when Metro Man supposedly died. When he gets powers, he believes that if he rescues Roxanne, she'll automatically fall in love with him. But when he finds out that's not how real life works, he goes on a temper tantrum and starts destroying Metro City, even trying to murder Roxanne for not returning his feelings.
  • Pachamama has fantastical elements from Inca Mythology, but they're all wonderful. Instead, the danger comes from the Spanish conquistodores openly murdering the indigenous people without remorse.
  • 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.
    • The Rescuers Down Under takes things up a notch with McLeach, an Ax-Crazy Evil Poacher who has no qualms about hurting or even killing innocent animals. All of this wouldn't be too bad...if people like McLeach didn't exist in real life. The chances of someone being menaced by typical Disney Villains such as an evil queen, a sorcerer, a sea witch, or a pirate are slim-to-none, but there are most certainly many sociopathic poachers out there who take delight in innocent animals getting hurt and/or killed.
  • 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.
  • The Wild Thornberrys Movie has the villains Sloan and Bree Blackburn. A couple who at first appear to be animal loving zoologists, but reveal themselves to be evil poachers who will go to any lengths to make a buck, up to and including killing anyone who gets in their way and massacring animals en masse to get said profit. Compared to the recurring villains Kip O'Donnell and Neil Biederman who wouldn’t hurt Eliza and generally have comedic traits, the Blackburns are played completely seriously. Many real life poachers make it clear they don’t care who gets hurt or killed in their pursuit of profit, and will even kill children.

    Literature 
  • Agatha Christie was a crime writer, not a horror writer, but that didn't mean she couldn't break out the horror when she felt like it. Curtain is one of the best examples- the killer, 'Mr X', doesn't actually kill people himself. Instead, he manipulates other people into killing without the people he's manipulating realising it. The majority of the people he manipulates never had any intention of killing anyone, but all it took was a few conversations with Mr X. There's no supernatural aspects, no blackmail, just a charismatic manipulator who knows exactly what to say to make people ready and willing to kill, and think it was all their idea.
  • Goosebumps:
    • In How I Learned To Fly, parents exploit the son for his ability to fly, and later the parents of the bully who later obtains his own ability to fly. The son is publicized, is used in science experiments, etc., and though it is clear his parents do love him. They still take advantage of his popularity. The boy eventually has to lie about having an ability to fly any longer just not to be commercialized in the view of the public.
    • 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 all too realistic. To make matters worse, his father especially emotionally put him down even when he was merely one years old saying that he could recall at least one other child who could talk in full sentences, and when the protagonist was five, his father criticized him for not being able to tie his shoes, talk about a rough childhood, the mother was easier on her son, thank goodness, and disparaged the father for demanding too much from him at that early of an age, but considering how she and her husband allowed his younger sister to bully him, and even faulting their own son when another kid bullied him, neither were that reliable as parents. Thankfully, they both treated him better at the end.
    • Deep Trouble may feature sea monsters and Mermaids, but the villain Alexander falls head on into this kind of horror. He isn't a monster, supervillain, or Mad Scientist, but rather an average, friendly young man who turns out to be a selfish, greedy coward willing to sit back and do nothing while his colleague and the children who trusted him are murdered.
    • In the Give Yourself Goosebumps book Tick Tock, You're Dead. The main theme is time travel. One of the more realistic horrors, if not the most realistic horror, is when you end up one day into the future and watch as your family is killed by a hit-and-run semi-truck driver who blew a red light as they were crossing the street. Ask anybody who lives in a place with a lot of traffic, and you can get at least one story of a hit-and-run driver.
  • 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.
  • House of Leaves: While the house is scary enough in itself, the really disturbing parts of this book tend to revolve around painstakingly detailed portrayals of mental illness and interpersonal abuse.
  • What makes Lord of the Flies so chilling is that the great evil of the book is not anything supernatural or mythological, but how fear and hubris bring out man's capacity for depravity, brutality, and cruelty. While the book's message is often debated, people like Jack and Roger, who get a sick thrill from violence and power, do exist in Real Life. There is one supernatural element in the book: the eponymous Lord of the Flies, but he insists that he's only a representation of evil, not the source of it, and may only exist as a hallucination of Simon.
  • 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.
    • In a similar vein to the above, some people find Henry Bowers (and by extension, his gang) more intimidating than It; after all, there's no such thing as a shapeshifting clown demon that preys on children and their fears, whilst there most certainly are bullies, psychopaths, racists and homophobes amidst us.
    • 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. Making things worse is that it's based off a real occurrence where the same thing nearly happened to Stephen King's own child.
    • One of the most horrifying aspects of Apt Pupil from Different Seasons is that there are no supernatural elements at all, just 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. There's also the horror of how easily a teenager could become obsessed with and even sympathetic to those atrocities, which hits even closer to home in modern times with fears of teenagers and other young people becoming radicalized by extremists they may have encountered in entirely normal places.
    • 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 .
  • For a series about a talking skeleton detective, the Skulduggery Pleasant is no stranger to this. In contrast to Lord Vile and Melancolia St Clair, Ian Moore is a mere mortal criminal who manages to nearly kill Valkyrie Cain after the latter assaulted him in jail for trying to mug her parents. While Lord Vile is unlikely to happen, people like Ian Moore do exist.
  • While The Silmarillion is not a horror story, Aredhel and Eöl's Destructive Romance is a rather disturbingly accurate portrayal of how some actual abusive relationships function. Eöl puts on a facade of being kind and helpful to draw Aredhel in, only starting to reveal his darker nature after they've married and had a child. He controls Aredhel by isolating her from the outside world and cutting her off from family and friends, forcing her to rely on him. When she does get the courage to leave he stalks her, tries to kill their son and ends up killing her (in the real world many victims of domestic abuse are at a higher risk of being killed by their partner when they're trying to leave).
  • 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 
  • Part of the reason why Warren is such a surprisingly terrifying antagonist in season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that he's the closest thing the show has to a grounded Big Bad. Compared to the likes of the Mayor and Glory, Warren's just a nerd with a whole lot of mental issues, so you wouldn't expect him to be much of a threat - and yet, his severe entitlement complex leads to increasingly heinous actions as he racks up failures and spirals through a mental breakdown. This escalates to Attempted Rape and murder (of his ex-girlfriend, in itself a terrifyingly common target), with Warren almost managing to kill the Slayer herself just by grabbing a dime-a-dozen handgun. Especially as time has gone on and more light has been shed on the toxicity of the nerd culture that he embodies, reception to his character has gone from disappointed at his weakness to acknowledging the possibility that someone like him could actually exist, and that only makes him that much worse.
  • While the Diff'rent Strokes episode "The Bicycle Man" is controversial, what makes Mr. Hortons such an effective villain is how realistic his character was in reference to actual child groomers. He blended in well because of his high standing in the community as a congenial bicycle shop owner, which was a job that gave him ready access to children. He never drops his demeanor of being a nice guy, simply trying to help Arnold and Dudley earn some easy money while gradually making his true intentions clear, but getting off with it by playing it off as perfectly normal to the kids. He very nearly succeeds if Arnold hadn't told his dad what happened.
  • The Marvel Netflix shows have gained a reputation for featuring villains that are relatively grounded in reality.
    • 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.
  • Moon Knight (2022): Many people felt this way towards Wendy and her Abusive Parent tendencies. To many, her willingness to go barging into Marc's bedroom to beat him up when he was just a kid is far more scarier than any of the Egyptian mythology supernaturalism going on.
  • One of the most chilling Night Gallery villains was Logoda from the episode "Logoda's Heads". The episode starts out with anthropologists studying a region with a permit to. They find a native being sacrificed and save his life which the chief of a nearby village takes as an act of war. When casting a spell using his shrunken heads fails, he resorts to using his natives to round them up and kill them himself. Taking out the magic and spell casting there have been cases of tribes doing this or at least attempting to do this to harmless census takers and missionaries.
  • While the overall threat is very fantastical with the brutal anti-environmental Orgs as the primary antagonists, Power Rangers Wild Force brings a very dark and grounded aspect with it's main villain Master Org. More specifically, his original identity Dr. Viktor Adler, a former friend to the Red Ranger Cole Evans' parents. In his backstory, it's revealed that the reason he became Master Org was due to a combination of his bitter jealousy at losing the love of his life (Cole's mother) to his fellow scientist (Cole's father), on top of his accomplishments never being acknowledged. What only added to this was the fact that his flashback makes it clear that he had never revealed his love to Cole's mother, and thus she couldn't have known anything about it, and his accomplishments not being acknowledged was the result of the reporter overlooking him, not his friends, something he chose to ignore. When he and Cole's parents found the remains of Master Org, he chose to consume them and use their power to brutally murder the Evans family, with only Cole left alive. Afterwards, he would go on to cause immense destruction as Master Org, causing untold grief to humanity in the process. The fact that such a seemingly fantastical villain was ultimately motivated by such a grounded and horrifyingly petty motivation in the grand scheme of things makes Master Org one of the more realistically disturbing villains in Power Rangers history.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: In the two-part episode "Chain Of Command", Captain Picard is captured by Cardassians and gets subjected to Cold-Blooded Torture. With the exception of the pain device, everything the Cardassians do to torture Picard was taken from Amnesty International archives in a terrifying case of Shown Their Work. Stripping for the purposes of humiliation? Check. Deliberately acting to dehumanize the prisoner and negate their identity and dignity? Check. "Stress positions", aka suspending the prisoner by their arms in such a way that their feet barely touch the floor, for long periods of time? Check. Idea that non-official combatants aka "terrorists" are not covered by conventions forbidding torture? Check. Objective of breaking the prisoner through distorting their perception of reality, successful to the point of producing hallucinations? Check. Patrick Stewart carefully studied the behavior of the victims to get the broken, defeated look just right and even insisted on being naked on set.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959) is known for its surreal stories and twist endings that swerve into fantastical horror or suspense. The episode "He's Alive" sets a very different precedent from others. The ghost of Adolf Hitler aside this is the story of a Neo-Nazi's rise to power and eventual fall as he attempts to spread the messages of the past war into the modern age. Many of Peter Vollmer's tactics including but not limited to claiming everyone who opposes him is a communist, framing his racism as merely "A different set of opinions" (without saying what those opinions are) are all tactics used by various real world hate groups, especially going into The New '10s. Take away Hitler's ghost and the episode is a disturbingly accurate portrayal of how hate groups continue to thrive after World War II.
  • Beneath all the weirdness in Twin Peaks, BOB is the cycle of trauma (or the "evil that men do" as Albert puts it), including an abused as a child man sexually abusing his daughter.
  • 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. The Peacocks aren't aliens or ghosts or mutants, just human monsters created through centuries of seclusion and madness.

    Music 

    Theatre 
  • Iago in Othello is often lauded as one of Shakespeare's most terrifying antagonists, partly because he's one who could absolutely be encountered in real life - a man capable of driving everyone who trusts him to a tragic end via something so simple as his choice of words.

    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.
  • Your Turn to Die's second chapter has a Ridiculously Human Robot looting human corpses who is overseeing a Deadly Game designed to turn everyone against each other. More players reported being uncomfortable with the brutal representation of Survivor Guilt that the protagonist is shown to be facing, or the revelations that at least two fathers had set up their children to be killed.

    Web Animation 
  • Hazbin Hotel: In a show set in Hell, Valentino is considered one of the vilest demons of all. This is because even though demons haven't been proven to objectively exist despite being a nigh-universal fear, Valentino feels very real due to what he is: a controlling pimp who abuses and exploits his employees. People like him absolutely exist in real life, and combined with him lacking the comedic quirks and over-the-top personalities of other demons, he comes off as all too realistic and hits disturbingly close to home.
  • 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.
  • RWBY: Despite his edgy fashion sense and over-the-top anger, Adam Taurus is regarded as one of show's most awful antagonists by both the audience and the cast (including his own voice actor). This is because he's a disturbingly realistic portrayal of two very human threats. The first is a racially-motivated terrorist, who will carry out brutal attacks on innocent populations just to sow fear and further his goals. The second is a domestic abuser, who attempts to control and gaslight his girlfriend Blake before lashing out in horrific ways when she leaves him.
  • Despite the show being out there, Salad Fingers can easily be interpreted as this. The titular character is an obviously mentally-disturbed but friendly man who doesn't mean harm to anyone. The issue is that his undiagnosed mental illness(es) often eschew his world view and he ends up harming himself and almost everybody around him, including children. The only insight we get into the kind of person Salad Fingers was before is from the episodes "Cupboard" and "Glass Brother", and neither of which paint a happy picture. The latter especially displays his possible dissociative-identity disorder and/or schizophrenia in an especially tragic light.

    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 Original 
  • SCP Foundation: SCP-3512 ("The More You Know") satirizes pick-up artists and their misogynistic attitudes through monstrous beings brainwashing women into becoming sex dolls. Excerpts from a self-help book on becoming such monsters outright advise readers to stop thinking of hot women as people, and think of them as instruments. And in one of the logs, a SCP agent who is brainwashed by one of the monsters is just as quickly discarded once it's done with her. As noted in the discussion, the fact that some guys do think of women like sex toys to be used and disposed of quickly is what provides the entry with its horror as much as the Body Horror and descriptions of disgusting viscera.
  • The infamous Diary of a Wimpy Kid fanfic 25 Years Later has received acclaim from fans due to how disturbing it is (see the comments on this fandub for examples); not by being edgy or over-the-topnote  but due to its surprisingly accurate take on loss of innocence and crumbling dreams.
    • The cartoony artstyle and embarrassing situations from the books remain, but the childlike worldview and the inherent comedy in those embarassing situations has given way to the monotony of daily life, failure, attempts by Greg to build off his childhood (wanting to work at the company that made his favorite games and admitting his crush on his childhood friend) falling apart, horrible things that all people deal with later in life like the death of a family member (who was also a major character in the original series)note , with the embarrassing situations being treated seriously and all having serious knocks on Greg's will to live.
    • Parts of the original books like Fregley's "weirdness" or Frank's meanness and wish to "toughen up" Greg are brought up and recontextualized in extremely dark fashions (Fregley with having a highly abusive father, and Frank being revealed to be extremely homophobic), all of which further strengthens the idea that something like this could totally happen in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid-verse, despite the series being completely told through Greg's childlike viewpoint.

    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.
  • Don't Hug Me I'm Scared manages to be both this and Surreal Horror at the same time. Most of the "teachers" seem to represent a different form of harm that adult authority figures can inflict on the children they have power over: Sketchbook stifles Yellow Guy's creativity by punishing him for making art "the wrong way", Shrignold is a cult leader who employs love bombing, etc. The most disturbing part in episode 5 is not actually Duck Guy's gruesome death, but everything that comes before: he's conscious something is wrong with the lesson, but the teachers abuse their authority to patronize him and try to scare him straight to ensure he won't complain, and while he still does, they try this on the more naive Yellow Guy and succeed.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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