In brief: any river voyage (or other journey into the wilderness) is a doomed expedition in which the characters alternately die, go mad, get lost, go native, or otherwise barely live to tell the tale.
This tends to broadly describe any expedition that involves a hopeless journey along a set path (or path of least resistance) to an unfamiliar (possibly hopeless or nonexistent) destination. Often this involves a boat and a river. This trope explains why Genre Savvy adventurers know to avoid river expeditions at all costs, even though it is usually the fastest way of penetrating the interior.
This trope was popularized in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. However, this is a more universal feature of wilderness expeditions, and predates Conrad.
River of Insanity more generally describes a doomed voyage "into the wild" (usually focused on the trip itself), since examples show that almost any wilderness voyage in fiction, especially by boat, is doomed from the start, either because of the river itself or the natives or Cabin Fever. The Captain of such an expedition will often be the Determinator, willing to press on regardless of cost, until only he is left. Far from being honored for his perseverance by the reward of a legendary destination, the author himself may mock him for his efforts.
Often there is An Aesop about the supreme power of Mother Nature or, more cynically, the fundamental indifference of Nature to our survival, or merely a metaphor for the triumph of barbarism and the darkness of the human soul. Compare Hungry Jungle.
Contrast Late to the Tragedy (in which the destination is often known because of a Distress Signal). See also Send in the Search Team and Deadly Road Trip, which is the Horror equivalent for vacations. The journey to get there is usually glossed over in that trope. For the exact opposite of this trope, see Walk into Mordor; in which the destination is pre-determined, and there is no set path, such as a river, to follow — only obstacles — such as Climbing the Cliffs of Insanity.
Compare Don't Go in the Woods and Horrible Camping Trip, both of which hold that camping trips in the woods never seem to turn out all that well either (though they turn out worse in the former than the latter...) See also Macho Disaster Expedition and Hungry Jungle. If the destination is merely a MacGuffin, it's Going to See the Elephant.
In this trope, the journey is more psychological than physical, although it can also be both. However, it almost always involves a pre-set route such as a river to an unknown destination.
- Spoofed in the Slayers episode "Navigation! Invitation to Sairaag". Lina's gang is travelling on a raft by a river to an unfamiliar destination, they suffer from hunger and are relentlessly pursued by bandits and bounty hunters. Finally Lina has had enough and starts blasting around with her Dragon Slave spell, creating a new lake by the way.
- The main characters of The Abominable Snowman trek up into the Himalayas in search of the yeti, but find their infighting and bad decisions causing them at least as much trouble as the beasts.
- In the original Anaconda, a documentary crew travelling up the Amazon gets shanghaied into hunting a giant killer snake, and all but two of them die (along with the poacher who shanghaied them).
- Apocalypse Now (which Francis Ford Coppola based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness). The characters encounter increasingly primitive conditions the further upriver they go, to some extent becoming more primitive themselves.
- John Carter's, Dejah's, and Sola's river journey leads them to an important revelation, but also gets them ambushed by Warhoons.
- Werner Herzog
- Aguirre, the Wrath of God: the conquistadors ride several rafts expecting to find cities of gold to conquer. Instead, they slowly turn on each other, get picked off by hostile natives, and go insane. It ends with Aguirre giving a delusional diatribe to a colony of monkeys, the only things left to hear him.
- Fitzcarraldo. Kinski plays Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarraldo, who dragged a steamship overland just so he could build a new rubber plantation (not to mention an opera house!) on a previously unreachable river, regardless of the cost. Oh, and he was one of the founders of Manaus, Brazil, where you can still visit the opera house, still used for shows and cultural events today.
- Wings Of Hope, about Juliane Koepcke, who was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Amazon and walked for ten days out of the jungle - and then 30 years later, Herzog brings her back to retrace her steps. Oh, and
- Rescue Dawn, after Dieter escapes.
- Dead Man: The eponymous title character is taken to the "river made of waters".
- Black Robe: it's no spoiler to say the Jesuit priest goes native. Portrayed as a good thing.
- The Conquistador story arc of The Fountain (probably inspired by Aguirre)
- The African Queen is an amusing example - the actual film has the characters not going mad, and instead falling in love and defeating the Germans (what, you expected a spoiler for that? It was during The Hays Code, there was literally no legal way to have a Downer Ending, given the premise), but according to Katharine Hepburn's book, the making of the film took its cast and crew through the sort of arc this trope normally describes.
- The River Wild is about a family whitewater rafting trip that becomes an increasingly desperate fight for survival against a criminal who takes them hostage and becomes more and more unhinged.
- The movie Predator seems to have a similar aspect.
- There isn't a river but there is an Amazonian jungle and some really misguided and disturbed people in the film and novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord.
- In Rambo (the fourth movie), Christian missionaries hire/convince Rambo to take them up the river into Burma where they can help villagers with medical supplies, dental exams, and religion, but their journey is doomed from the start, beginning with Rambo killing a gunboat full of soldiers and ending with the village being raided and the missionaries being taken prisoner.
- The Revenant has many elements of it, though it's not a straight example.
- The 1983 movie Antarctica is based on a 1958 Japanese expedition: two dogs really survived by themselves for one full year in Antarctica and recognized their master when he came back: tough dogs.
- Subverted in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, when Capt. Sparrow flees upriver into the jungle in order to escape the Kraken. Sure, he encounters cannibals and dangerous voodoo gods, but he seems to be in his element nonetheless.
Gibbs: Let's put some distance between us and this island, and head out to open sea.
Sparrow: Yes to the first, yes to the second, but only insofar as we keep to the shallows as much as possible.
Gibbs: That seems a mite... contradictory, Cap'n.
- In Without a Paddle, the characters get lost, lose their boat and supplies, and are attacked and pursued by a bear and violent locals.
- In The Mosquito Coast, based on the novel of the same title by Paul Theroux, Harrison Ford is a Yankee inventor who takes his family to live in the jungle on the coast of Honduras. Their misfortunes culminate in a perilous river journey during which the inventor grows increasingly paranoid and finally winds up completely insane.
- In Valhalla Rising the characters arrive in a mysterious land (The Americas apparently) via boat and subsequently fall to each and every one of these tropes ultimately leaving the now orphaned child standing on the edge of said river. Presumably wondering why he decided to get out of bed at all. This film is the purest incarnation of this trope.
- The 1996 documentary Seven Go Mad in Peru is a non-lethal version. No-one actually goes insane; they start off believing that Misery Builds Character but instead of becoming Fire-Forged Friends get plagued by insects, divided by Testosterone Poisoning, and disillusioned when the Closer to Earth tribes of the Amazon turn out to be walking around in jeans and trainers.
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (of course).
- Into the Wild is a partial example. The river is more of an obstacle than anything, and the kid is a Wide-Eyed Idealist who wants to go as far away from humanity as possible and is doomed from the outset. Instead of being trapped on a boat, he ends up trapped in a bus.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Subverted in that the river voyage appears indeed to be heading towards disaster, as Huck and Jim miss their turn towards freedom and are carried helplessly down the Big Muddy towards the slave markets of the Mississippi Delta, only to turn into a farce at the end.
- Midnight's Children: has one down the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh, in which all the characters go mad, and everyone but the main character die or kill themselves; the main character eventually recovers.
- The Lord of the Rings:
- Constantly subverted, as the characters explicitly go out of their way to avoid the rivers, roads, or even straight passages whenever possible, with the strong impression that something bad would happen to them if they followed the normally prescribed route.
- Although they do journey for a considerable distance down the Great River. Which was actually probably the safest non-Elvish part of the trip.
- During which they are tracked the whole way and shot at by arrows, Apocalypse Now style. We also see Boromir get more and more unstable en route (in the book, it's because of Aragorn's uncertainty about where they are going). Legolas noted that they had to get off the river; at that point they were just trying to outrace the enemy. When Boromir's madness broke up the Fellowship, he inadvertently saved the mission. (Ironically(?), Gandalf had planned to break up all along and send the decoy hobbits to Minas Tirith.)
- The first and third book of The Dark Tower series: although Roland is following The Path of the Beam instead of a river. The latter book is called The Waste Lands, and the path of the beam takes them down along a river that empties into a vast radioactive rift in the earth. Nuff said.
- In the Swan's War trilogy the heroes travel down the river and to adventure the whole first book. They actually do much good in the standard epic fantasy way, but a river spirit influences one of them and he never really recovers and dies one year later by what is implied to be suicide.
- The horror novel The Ruins by Scott Smith starts out with a group of twenty-somethings on vacation at the beach who decide to explore some old ruins inland. In The Movie, all but one of them die thanks to a sadistic, man-eating vine. In the book, they all die.
- There is a book called Who Is the River that is about two guys going up a river in South America. The point of the trip was to find a set of ruins and make their careers. It didn't work.
- In the Seventh Sword trilogy, there is only one river and this river connects all the cities of the world. Because the river symbolizes the power of the goddess that controls the planet, the river can flow in either direction and ships that travel on her waters may drop anchor in one location at night and mysteriously re-appear elsewhere by morning. Not only that, but the river is inhabited by flesh-eating fish that appear within seconds of someone entering the water.
- In the Shirl Henke novel The River Nymph, the male protagonist grows darker and darker in character as the titular riverboat goes ever farther up the Missouri River and into the wilderness of the American frontier.
- The journey of the City in The Inverted World. For over two hundred years, the massive mobile City has been pulling itself in pursuit of the optimum. It is a truly Sisyphean effort: even if the City reaches optimum, they cannot rest, because optimum is always moving. The City is doomed to struggle to move 1/10 a mile a day, every day, forever; an unending pursuit of the unattainable.
- And in the novel version, geography eventually renders the goal literally unattainable.
- The second expedition in the novel Water Music by T.C. Boyle about real-life Scottish adventurer Mungo Park and his search for the Niger. He found the river on his first expedition, but he came back for another expedition to find out where it ends.
- In Jasper Fforde's One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Thursday gets to go on a Genre Savvy one of these.
- In The Red Tent, Jacob crosses a fast river ahead of his family and servants, and has his famed vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder or staircase, as well as an alleged fight with one (which results in his thigh being dislocated.) He is shown to have a fever, and the other characters take his visions as delirium. This is an important point, as it is essentially where Jacob (fearful from his unexpected Vision Quest, and later jealous of his wealthy twin brother Esau) starts to listen to Simon and Levi's influence and become corrupt and greedy.
- The Priest's Tale from Hyperion is a lot like this: the journals of a man hiking out into the most deserted wilderness of an alien planet, only for things to get progressively more insane.
- The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux is about a Yankee inventor who relocates to the coast of Honduras, taking his wife and children along. Their experience in the jungle is a series of misfortunes and disasters, culminating in a perilous river journey during which the inventor grows increasingly paranoid and finally goes completely insane.
- In Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows", two men on a canoe trip down the Danube find themselves in the middle of a willow-infested swamp with a thin wall between them and Another Dimension.
- The seven Telmarine lords whom Caspian and his crew are seeking in The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader were sent to explore the seas, losing members to various enemies, traps, and temptations, until the last three fell into an enchanted sleep. An invoked example, as the usurper Miraz intentionally sent them on a doomed expedition to get rid of his brother's staunchest political supporters.
- Anna Pigeon: A small scale version happens to the crooks in Destroyer Angel. After they lose their map, their trek through the forest with their hostages to the rendezvous point takes days longer than it should, as none of them have any survival or navigation skills. They start to fall prey to paranoia and infighting, which is exacerbated by Anna who is following them and playing mind games to keep them off-balance.
- Parodied in The Goodies episode "The Lost Tribe".
- The series The River.
- I Shouldn't Be Alive had "Escape from the Amazon". Only two of the explorers were found.
- The 100: The expedition to the City of Light in season 2 is confronted to several obstacles, including landmines, giant mutant creatures, a sandstorm, brigands stealing their supplies and members considering abandoning the party. Eventually only Jaha and Murphy survive to the end.
- The Oregon Trail is the PC game version of this trope. Especially if you're doing a Let's Play and you leave the decision to popular vote, thanks to Super Drowning Skills.
"That's how I learned what it means to be an American. To embrace the pioneer spirit, shoot everything that moves, drown my family in a river, and die of starvation somewhere in the midwest."
- Let's Go Find El Dorado, paying homage to The Oregon Trail, combines the crossing of rivers and the catching of dysentery. If your wagon so much as touches water for more than a fraction of a second, your party members will get sick.
- Part two of Jeff Vogel's Exile series has a section where your party must cross over a series of underground waterfalls, each one taking away some of your food. Eventually, a really big waterfall will make you lose all your remaining food, forcing you to scavenge (usually fighting off monsters along the way) or face starvation. It's also worth mentioning that there are no shops or training available along the way, and no way to identify the items you find (and you probably won't have enough space to take everything you find). Oh, and the caverns you pass are full of dangerous monsters...
- The second level in the NES game of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an Unexpected Gameplay Change consisting of a vertical-scrolling river raft ride.
- Bank of the Wild River in Wario Land 3.
- Bridge Zone in the 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog.
- Zone 3 In Amagon is a rare Platform Game example. The hero must travel down a stream, jump logs and fend off creatures that jump out of the water, and of course, avoid falling into the river himself.
- Fallout: New Vegas's Honest Hearts expansion pack involves traveling to Zion National Park with a caravan company. Your party gets slaughtered by raiders immediately after entering the canyon.
- The Flame In The Flood is a roguelike survival game where a young girl and her dog travel down a flooded river dodging rapids, vicious wildlife, and other hazards while scrounging up supplies to stay alive.
- Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater has the River of Sorrow, where the protagonist Naked Snake has to walk up a stream and meets the dead Cobra Unit member The Sorrow, who summons ghosts of the soldiers he has killed throughout the game, provided the player actually killed them.
- Some levels in Super Mario World have a rapid current that is difficult for Mario to swim in. The idea of these levels is to stay out of the river and use platforms instead. The biggest examples are Yoshi's Island 4 and in particular Vanilla Secret 3, where he has to hop on jumping Dolphins while a Porcupuffer hunts him down in the river.
- The Crash Bandicoot games have quite a few River of N.Sanity levels:
- The levels "Upstream" and "Up The Creek" in Crash 1, where the titular hero has to traverse up a river, and of course, avoid falling in.
- Crash 2 expands on the concept with the levels "Hang Eight", "Plant Food", and "Air Crash" which are much more action oriented and dangerous, as Crash has to rely on a jet board to get up the stream, all while avoiding mines and deadly whirlpools.
- At one point in the Taz-Mania Licensed Game for the Sega Genesis, Taz has to travel across two rivers, one headed to the left, and another headed to the right, with a waterfall in the middle. He has to navigate the river by hopping across boulders and logs that slowly sink, and since the controls aren't always responsive, he sometimes ends up landing in the water. If he stays on a boulder too long, an alligator will pop up and attack him, and if he loses all his health, he sinks into the water. Is it any wonder Taz hates water?
- In The Gamer's Alliance, Alent's infamous Threshold district is an urban version of this trope. Most people who enter it go gradually insane the longer they spend in there (and the deeper they walk into it), eventually ending up mad or dead. The very air, ground, buildings and narrow, labyrinthine and twisting alleys seem to be alive and hostile to any non-native, and the shadows play with trespassers' minds with sometimes fatal consequences. It later turns out that the people living in Threshold are in fact disguised demons whose chaotic powers have warped the district to suit their needs. The horrible visions which trespassers experience turn out to be manifestations of their own inner darkness and emotions which have been triggered by the demonic auras in the area.
Javan: The truth is that the only real darkness in this place is the darkness you bring in it yourself. Every sin, every repressed memory, every stray fear and blind rage. Everything people want to ignore about themselves. What's in here was always there, it's just a bit more... insistent in its existence in Threshold.
- The topic of the Counter Monkey episode Never Get On The Boat. Spoony advises player characters to never get on the boat, or if they absolutely have to, then at least prepare for the inevitable ambush.
- Sir Ernest Shackleton's Real Life expedition to the Antarctic. However, everyone survived and Shackleton was forced to travel the last leg by himself, over sheer cliffs because they crash landed on the wrong side of the island of South Georgia, the only source of possible help for 5,000 miles in any direction.
- When Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen raced to be the first expedition to reach the south pole, Scott's expedition found the Norwegian flag waiting for them. Then Scott's entire team died from exposure on the way back.
- Several Real Life expeditions into Darkest Africa inspired this trope, most notably Emin Bey's expedition to Equatoria, a vast and inaccessible swamp on the headwaters of the Nile. (A German-Jewish geographer who had been appointed Bey of the Turkish Empire, he claimed the region for either England, Egypt, or Germany, it's not clear which.)
- In November 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan led a delegation of aides, journalists, and concerned relatives to investigate conditions at the Peoples Temple's "Jonestown" settlement in Guyana. It ended with members of the Temple murdering Ryan and about a dozen of his party on an airstrip shortly before the mass poisonings at Jonestown.
- Donald Crowhurst was a British businessman who entered the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, in which he was expected to complete a non-stop circumnavigation of the world single-handedly. Crowhurst, who was in deep financial trouble, entered the race in hopes of winning the cash prize. Unfortunately, he encountered difficulty early in the voyage and began reporting false positions. The pressure between completing the race and solving his financial woes, or letting his deception be exposed, gradually eroded his mental state as evidenced by his increasingly rambling logbooks. It is believed that he eventually committed suicide by throwing himself in the ocean.
- After "discovering" Dr. Livingstone (who was doing just fine without him), the "journalist" Henry M. Stanley made a name for himself penetrating the headwaters of the Congo in the service of King Leopold of Belgium, executing uncooperative natives along the way, and claiming the Congo basin for Leopold's personal rubber fiefdom. His expedition is what inspired Conrad to write his book, after it came out what Leopold's men were actually doing in Stanleyville.
- Also Stanley's expedition to rescue the above-mentioned Emin.
- There were many, many doomed voyages into the interior of Australia, filled with some of the harshest desert known to man and landscape utterly foreign to Europeans. One notable mention was Charles Sturt, who nearly died multiple times and even took a boat with him to settle the debate about whether Australia had an inland sea. Many Australian explorers barely came back alive and others died miserable lonely deaths. Surviving comfortably in the outback is perfectly possible, but they were too proud to ask survival tips from the natives (didn't help that Europeans and native Australians were prone to not understanding each other even when they had words in common- their worldviews were impossibly mismatched on many points). Ironically, there was an inland sea... once. Stuart and his fellows were just about 100 million years too late.
- The first white explorers to take a boat down the Grand Canyon: Half of them died.
- Deliverance was based on the author's real-life experiences rafting in Appalachia. Massively inverted in that the locals were incredibly helpful, and were excited to hear he was writing a book about the area!
- Apropos of a related trope, the Donner Party is worth mentioning. Basically, a group of pioneers set out for California, ended up snowbound in the Sierra Nevada, and resorted to cannibalism, eating the corpses of those who died.
- The first Western voyage up the Mekong River in Southeast Asia was pretty difficult, partly because the river isn't actually navigable up most of its length, and partly because most of the crew repeatedly caught tropical diseases.
- The ill-fated Narvaez expedition of would-be Spanish conquistadors in the 1520s. Despite suffering from serious food and supply shortages and a near shipwreck prior to even leaving their base on the island of Cuba, and drifting over a thousand miles away from their intended destination, the expedition's leaders decided to go a-conquering anyway - with predictable results. Amazingly, after being stranded in the wilderness of what is now western Florida, enduring another series of shipwrecks on a few homemade rafts and being captured by a dozen or so successive groups of Native Americans, 4 of the expedition's original 300 members managed to wash up on the Texas shore and walk over 1700 miles to Spanish-occupied Mexico. Almost too surreal to be believed, but check out the whole story on That Other Wiki
- The real life Lope de Aguirre who mutinied against his leaders during an expedition to find Eldorado (in itself a goal that fulfills this trope), and then led the soldiers and Native American slaves left alive on a hundred day march through the jungle to capture the main Spanish settlements in Venezuela, Panama, and Peru. At first relatively successful, the Spanish army offered free pardons to any of Aguirre's soldiers who would desert, at which they all did, leaving him to die.
- Yermak Timofeevich, the Russian Cossack ataman and the first Russian to conquer Siberia, found it somewhat less than welcoming. He died escaping a clash with the natives, falling off a boat (into a river, yeah) and drowning due to his heavy plate armor. However, Yermak's quest was followed on by other Cossack atamans, and in the middle of the 17th century Russians reached the Pacific coast.
- Quite in the lines of Lope de Aguirre in terms of tough luck (not so much in insanity) is Juan Díaz de Solís. He discovered the "Fresh Sea": Río de la Plata, an estuary so big it looks like a sea. They thought that it may be a good idea to go upriver, set their feet on the land and see if that pesky Eldorado was there. He didn't find it, and what he did find instead were hostile natives who killed him and his escort in full view of all the men aboard. Taking good notice, his second-in-command decided that it was about time to go back to Spain.
- Remember Werner Herzog, from the Film section? While filming Fitzcarraldo (mentioned above), he decided that the best way to capture the madness of moving a 300-ton steamship overland from one river to another in the middle of the jungle... was to actually move a 300-ton steamship overland from one river to another. There's a reason that film is also listed under the Troubled Production trope.
- Captain Sir John Franklin's Arctic expedition in 1845. All Arctic voyages are hazardous, but Franklin's crew had an additional problem; several of the men developed lead poisoning, which impaired their judgement and made them more susceptible to disease.
- Another arctic example: Andree's attempt to fly a balloon to the North Pole in 1897. Not only did they underestimate the difficulties of flying a balloon across a sub-zero wasteland, but they had virtually no knowledge of how to survive in the Arctic after crashing and having to walk back to dry land - on ice that floated northwards. Somehow they managed to survive for three months, despite almost walking in place, before they succumbed just as they reached a remote island; they weren't found until 33 years later.
- In 1291, the Vivaldi brothers set out from Genoa in two galleys filled with provisions, trade goods, and a missionary or two. Their intent was to bypass the Venetian monopoly on the overland trade with India and China; it's unclear whether they planned to circumnavigate Africa like the Portuguese would in the mid-1400s, or head west and pull a Christopher Columbus two centuries early. What is known is that after passing Cape Nun on the southern coast of Morocco, they were never seen again (although rumors persisted up to Columbus's time that they made it to the tropics before being captured by one of the local West African kingdoms).