In the pattern of life, living beings go through a cycle of living and dying to eventually breed new to start the cycle again. In various belief systems like Indian Religions, this phenomenon has been called Samsara, the physical and spiritual cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It is the function of nature itself and allows new creatures to manifest and live through every generation. Normally, this is a positive aspect of nature.
However, this trope is about cases where it isn't positive. This trope describes the circumstance in a story or setting where the overall cycle of life, death, and rebirth of new life ad infinitum is played as harmful and possibly malevolent towards those who are trapped in it. From a biological standpoint, the Food Chain or Circle of life can be presented as a horror show that chugs on for no other reason than to feed itself. In spiritual stories, this can likely be a case that something harmful is running the show. Some nasty being has gained the reins of The Lifestream. Some cosmic force is turning life into some pain-filled Resurrection/Death Loop. The Afterlife Express has a mad conductor where the passengers of life are doomed to suffer in Eternal Recurrence. Mother Nature or even God Almighty is actually a willing or apathetic sadist. Born-Again Immortality has become a sinister punishment. Whatever the case, the pattern that is living, dying, and being reborn to continue living and dying is not presented as a good thing in the slightest.
Often the trope can be used to describe when Nature Is Not Nice.
Warning: Spoilers will be unmarked ahead.
- Elizabeth goes through this trope in The Seven Deadly Sins, due to being afflicted with a durable curse by the Demon King as punishment for a rebellion in her first life, that causes the victim to reincarnate when they die and forget everything they did in their past lives only to unavoidably die in three days in some way or form once their memories return. Elizabeth has gone through this ordeal 108 times over in every new life she's reborn, and much of Meliodas' drive throughout the plot is to break the cycle.
- It's strongly implied this trope is true for Digimon cycle of Evolution as a whole in the series, and the reason the Big Bad Apocalymon exists in Digimon Adventure. Apocalymon was created from a combination of funneled data and negative emotions of all discarded Digimon from forgotten evolutions that suffered from the endless cycle of evolution, struggle, and destruction of Digimon, made to suffer endless sorrow and loneliness. As such, he wishes to destroy the Digital World because he feels it's too chaotic and end his own misery.
- Fate/kaleid liner PRISMA☆ILLYA 3rei! reveals an odd case of the trope that's combined with Grand Theft Me and Body Surf. The head of the Ainsworth family, Darius, perpetuates his life by using the body of the current "heir" born into the family to grant himself a new life after death, but each and every time he does so a part of himself is lost in the process. It starts with losing a scar and forgetting a very important event associated with it, and eventually reaches the point where there's barely anything of his original personality left with each rebirth.
- Dark Empire: One of the more (in)famous pieces of Star Wars Legends media. Set six years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Emperor Palpatine returns to reclaim his fractured Empire via the Force Power, Essence Transfer, allowing him to move into clone bodies of himself he had created during his reign. However, due to the immense power of the Dark Side corrupting the physical body added with the Force's rejection of cloning Force-Sensitives, the clones have an increasingly shorter and shorter lifespan each time Palpatine jumps body, forcing him to find alternate means of immortality. Crimson Empire reveals this was deliberately caused by Big Bad Wannabe Carnor Jax tainting the samples so Palpatine would eventually run out of bodies, thereby allowing himself to become Emperor.
- Darkseid has a power called the Omega Sanction, where he traps the victim in a never ending loop of progressively worse lives and progressively more painful and humiliating deaths in order to break their will. For example, when Mr. Miracle was trapped in the Omega Sanction, his reincarnation started with getting mugged and dying a painful death in the streets and only got worse from there.
- Knights of the Dinner Table: Played for Laughs in one strip, when everyone's characters but Sara's get killed. The party is too poor to afford to have Resurrection magic cast on them, so Dave decides he wants to be reincarnated against the advice of Bob and Brian. It turns out that the reincarnation table in Hackmaster is abysmally bad, and Dave's character ends up reincarnating as a maggot. Not even some sort of giant monster maggot the size of a human, but an ordinary maggot. He convinces Sara that her character stomping ON his character constitutes a Mercy Kill.
- The film adaptation of Neil Gaiman's comic story, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, features the "Parents" of the visiting creatures feeding on their "offspring". They birth them again when visiting another world. It is depicted as a brutal process, and the head of the group has decided that he wishes to end the cycle by taking all things into himself, then consuming himself, to create nothingness.
- Cylons in Battlestar Galactica are resurrected in clone bodies when they die. In "Scar", Athena explains that the process is quite traumatic, and attributes the brutality of the Cylon Raider nicknamed "Scar" to extreme mental trauma from having been killed repeatedly — one of those times being lobotomized by Starbuck so she could fly his "body" off a Death World she was shot down on.
- In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Agrajag is a being who has been killed hundreds of times, directly or indirectly, by Arthur Dent. Every time he dies, he is reincarnated, only to be eventually killed again. Through all of this, he is fully aware and rather contemptuous of the nature of his existence and repeated reincarnation.
- In So I'm a Spider, So What?, the Skill System is a divine spell which removed the souls of the world's population from the greater reincarnation cycle, ensuring they can only be reborn on this world. The Skills and Titles granted by the System are actually changes made to the soul; when an individual dies, the excess energy from those modifications is drained and the soul is then quickly reincarnated. The harvested energy is used to reverse damage done to the planet when humans and dragons drained its MA Energy, but the process is inefficient, slow, and primarily designed to entertain D by forcing billions of souls to live a video game. Unfortunately the inability to rest between reincarnations and the damage of repeated Skill harvesting is causing souls to wear out, with many on the verge of soul collapse.
- Dark Wave duo Deine Lakaien has a song "Reincarnation" based on this premise, with the lines:
Reincarnation, the torture will never end
Reincarnation, our bloody fate...
- In Buddhism, one of the main overall tenets is how the existence of living beings is a cycle of life, death, rebirth and endless suffering known as Samsara that that one should seek to escape altogether through the teachings of the Eight Fold Paths.
- Its predecessor Hinduism mandates the same, as release from Samsara, or Moksha, is considered the ultimate spiritual goal in Hinduism and an eternal bliss of freedom, but its traditions disagree on how to reach this state.
- A less overt but implicitly clear version of the trope is described in Christianity. According to the story of creation, entropy itself (referred to in-scripture as "Death") is a corruption of the natural state of things brought about by the first act of sin by Adam and Eve, removing mankind from its original place as a "Step Below Angels". As such, mankind was cursed to be born, live in healthy bodies for ~25 years if they weren't born with bad genes, and then spend another set of decades in the slowly-decaying husks of their mortal bodies until they just shut down one day, and for the vast majority of people, the suck doesn't stop there, either. A lot of the Laws of Moses requiring execution were created so people would only have but one sin on their souls, and therefore their inevitable Judgment would be lighter. The entirety of God's plan, from the foundation of Israel, to Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, to the Apocalypse, is to kill the endless cycles of Death and restore the universe to immortalized perfection. According to the stories, all of the cycles of death are meant to culminate into a seven-year-long Near-Villain Victory (the Tribulation, usually what people think of when they hear the word "apocalypse") followed by a day-long court battle (Judgment Day), a thousand years of peace, and a final war between the armies of God and the last traces of evil (Armageddon), then quite literal Lazy Sundays forever. Apparently it will all work out in the end, but it's a lot of work and unfathomable levels of suffering in-between with countless people and souls lost along the way.
- Planescape: This is the central tenant of the Dustmen faction, who believe that the cycle of life and death just perpetuates unending misery and thus seek to purge themselves of worldly desires in order to achieve "True Death," which will allegedly free them from it.
- In Warhammer 40,000, Chaos God Nurgle likes to do this to some mortals he "loves" more than the rest of his followers or enemies. When someone dies from Nurgle´s Rot, his favorite disease, a disgustingly putrid one-eyed daemon is born from the corrupted soul of the mortal, ready to serve the Lord of Decay forever.
- In Asura's Wrath, the Final Big Bad of the game is none other than Chakravartin, the one who controls the Wheel of Life and Death, Ruler of Naraka (aka Hell), and the creator of the Gohma and all the mystical life force energy called Mantra that the main characters use throughout the series. He continually destroys and rebirths planet Gaea to find a suitable successor to take it over after he leaves, harms trillions in the process without a care, and has implied to have done this a substantial amount of times with no success. Asura destroying him manages to break the cycle and allow life to develop peacefully.
- In Legacy of Kain, the cycle of Life and Death has been hijacked by the Elder God, a parasitic Eldritch Abomination that claims to have created the cycle of life and death as the hub of the great Cosmic Wheel to create souls to continually feeds its omnipotent power for eternity. As such, he hates Vampires (especially the protagonists) due to their immortal bodies and souls disrupting the cycle, depriving the Elder God of its meal, and tries any means possible to destroy them or manipulate them into destroying each other. Much of the game is spent trying to Screw Destiny and tell the Elder God where he can stick it.
- This is a recurring theme in the Xenoblade Chronicles series, to degrees of varying importance and severity:
- In Xenoblade Chronicles, it is revealed that Zanza, the God of the Bionis, has been continually feeding off the death and rebirthing life on Bionis to sustain his life and his godhood, sowing conflict to keep his creations from leaving and making everyone miserable for his own benefit. Naturally, the main characters are immediately set on destroying him when he reveals his true colors.
- In Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Blades go back to their Core Crystals whenever their Driver dies, meaning that they forget everything from their past life as a Blade. It's not inherently bad in some more cosmic sense like elsewhere in the series, but as a result of this, Blades are seen across the world as disposable property that can be abused, stolen, protested against, and destroyed despite being sentient beings with individual morality and beliefs who fear for their future and past lives. There's a wide variety of people who treat their Blades well, but the game doesn't shy away from showing the worst parts of human culture regarding blades, to the point where Zeke and Pandoria had to be taken in by Amalthus and turned into a Blade Eater combo to prevent Pandoria from becoming a victim of what's all but said to be Blade sex trafficking.
- In Xenoblade Chronicles 3, the world itself is an example, as it's designed to be an endless loop of clones being born and killed to keep Moebius alive. The war between Keves and Agnus, flame clocks, Colony rankings and structures, everything exists to keep the world constantly repeating the same thing with the same people dying over and over and over again. Unlike Blades, humans rarely remember their past lives, but some, such as Eunie and Ashera, do, as some memories can slip through when people go back to their birthing pods. Ashera gets it the worst, remembering countless executions at the hands of past Consuls to the point where she has physical pain in her neck from what's implied to be past beheadings.
- In Final Fantasy X, the Unsent are a weird variation of undead in that they don't register as undead at all, essentially being immortals who never age past the point of their death and can still grow and change, as shown by Unsent party member Auron. Seymour Guado wants to end all life on Spira to turn all people into Unsent and put an end to the endless cycles of death brought by Sin (having never gotten over his mother's sacrifice into an Aeon).
- In Final Fantasy XIII-2, Yuel goes through this trope as the Farseer. As a Farseer, Yuel is a seeress, burdened with the power of prophecy and the knowledge of the exact time of her own death. In addition, her life span grows shorter with every vision of the future. She is forbidden from changing the timeline to save herself and dies at a young age, only to be born once more among the Farseer people. Each reincarnation has the same appearance and ability, and is given the name 'Yeul' to continue the cycle again, much to her conditioned acceptance and misery. The main motivation of the Big Bad Caius is to cause a Time Crash and break the cycle.
Caius Ballad: How many Yeuls have you met on this journey? The jewel of the Farseers is reincarnated without end, in every age. Think what that means! Her only purpose is to die, over and over!
- In Final Fantasy XIV, Minfilia goes through this after her Heroic Sacrifice. Following her demise to halt the Flood of Light, Minfilia became revered by the residents of the First as the Oracle of Light. Her time as the Word of Mother had made her an incorporeal being like the Ascians, allowing Minfilia to reluctantly reincarnate herself into numerous young girls. With each vessel's death, Minfilia resurfaces fifteen years later and takes over her current vessel to continue protecting the First, sacrifice herself, and then be reborn once again. This cycle drives the current incarnation to despair and even spiritually breaks her old protector Ranj'it who has spent decades raising and loving each the new Maiden as a father figure, only to watch them die again and again in pointless sacrifice.
- Arcanum's actual Big Bad wants an end to all life, seeing it as a useless and ludicrous ordeal of pain compared to the peace of death, having experienced both in his travels. He may have a point, as the spirits of the dead are usually unhappy to be recalled and later characters end up corroborating the notion that death is a much more preferable state to life.
- In the Dark Souls series, the whole world goes through endless cycles of death and rebirth with the fading and reigniting of the First Flame — or at least, it was supposed to. Instead, the very first Lord of Sunlight, Gwyn, feared the (natural) extinguishing of the First Flame (which gave him his godlike power) and the subsequent Age of Darkness so much, he committed the First Sin by artificially prolonging the first Age of Fire for so long, the cycle of rebirth became corrupted and broke, eventually leading to a state of the world seen in Dark Souls III, where it is neither bright, nor dark, but just an endless dead wasteland.
- Pillars of Eternity revolves around the Hollowborn plague — a disruption in the natural cycle of reincarnation that results in most babies being born without a soul and thus without an awareness of themselves or of their environment. Finding out why this happens is one of the overarching goals of the game. It turns out that the cult of Woedica has been "siphoning off" souls to empower their goddess in her bid to become the Top God, and at the end of the game, the Watcher is forced to decide what to do with the millions of souls thus captured by the cultists.
- Inverted in Kingdom of Loathing. Valhalla is incredibly boring (bland food, no adventures, etc), so they've set up a Bureau of Reincarnation so the players can go back to their endless cycle of rescuing the King as a different Splat this time. They even get to choose their Zodiac sign this go-around, which determines which New Game Plus area they can access.
- Catalyst: The cycle of reincarnation isn't as romantic as it looks: karma can be earned by doing great deeds, yes... but it can also be earned through mass-murder. Beings that amass karma in the thousands of units can spend the rest of eternity rebirthing as kings and indirectly getting their subjects killed to amass even more karma. Those that spend their entire lives doing simple, good deeds can only acquire a pittance of karma and usually have their memories wiped. Even worse, there are beings who control the cycle of karma, live outside it, and can weave it according to their whims.
- This is trope is Played With in Everyman HYBRID through repeated rebirth in repeating timelines. The Hybrid boys, along with a few others, are trapped in an endless loop of reincarnation and repeating timelines, dubbed by fans as the "Iteration Cycle". For most of the series, the boys don't seem to be aware of what's happening to them; the horror in this case comes from them not remembering their previous lives, and the surreal events that occur from them. It's played up more when the audience discovered a recording left by Patrick Andersen, describing his own experiences with the loops. Unlike the boys, he remembers everything.
- Played with in the "Food Chain" episode of Adventure Time, Finn and Jake are cursed by the Magic Man to experience the Food Chain of life from various perspectives and play out the Food Chain, suffering during each phase. In the end, Finn is enlightened by the experience and sings a song that describes the circle of life as not careless, but essentially harsh and endless.