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Scrubbing Off the Trauma

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"He'd scrubbed and scrubbed, but it seemed to have no effect. Eventually he'd gone down to the dungeons and borrowed one of the torturer's wire brushes, and scrubbed and scrubbed with that, too. That had no effect, either. It made it worse. The harder he scrubbed, the more blood there was. He was afraid he might go mad..."

There are certain things that once you experience, you can never quite forget. The memory of it lingers, not just in your mind, but somehow in your body. A certain word or image can trigger the memory, fresh and vivid, and you can almost feel it all over again, your body seemingly experiencing it all anew. And when those feelings (of disgust, guilt, and trauma in particular), become too overwhelming, sometimes the only thing one can do is to try to physically wash the sensation away. Vigorously. Obsessively. Past the point of any good sense or reason.

This trope covers such instances. Often, characters who are burdened with the guilt of having killed someone (justified or not), will develop a habit of obsessively washing their hands, as if the blood they spilled is permanently staining said hands. For these guilty characters, this compulsion to scrub, like with Terrible Ticking, may be just the start of a Sanity Slippage, accompanied later by visions or hallucinations of blood on their hands.

Frequently, a character will encounter something so vile and so disgusting that the mere thought of it sends them rushing to a sink or shower. In these cases, this trope is most similar to Brain Bleach. A Neat Freak, germophobe, or hypochondriac, those most likely to already be paranoid about cleanliness, may have this reaction at even the most mundane of things, yet this trope is not just for them. A character who encounters a person's creepy and disturbing Porn Stash may be shown running to the bathroom to wash their hands, despite their hands not actually being dirty.

Then there's the Truth in Television depiction of those who've experienced something that violated their person, like sexual assault: such characters will often be shown in a Shower of Angst scrubbing themselves raw, trying to combat the feeling of possibly being Defiled Forever. Tropes Are Flexible, so while a character actually washing themselves is the standard, a character vigorously or compulsively scrubbing themselves clean via other means (hand sanitizer, sandpaper, acid, etc.) or washing the clothes on their person instead of their actual body would also count, so long as it's triggered by guilt, disgust, or trauma.

May be used to show how Murder Makes You Crazy. Frequently overlaps with a Villainous Breakdown, Heroic BSoD, or a general Freak Out. Macbeth is the likely Trope Codifier for the variation on guilt specifically, for which you can compare Being Evil Sucks, Bleed 'Em and Weep, Guilt-Induced Nightmare, and Haunting the Guilty.

As with all Sexual Harassment and Rape Tropes, No Real Life Examples, Please!


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Fushigi Yuugi, Miaka scrubs herself with a twig until she bleeds, trying to make herself "clean" again, after believing that Nakago raped her, and therefore she was no longer worthy of the title of Priestess of Suzaku...or Tamahome's love. He didn't; he just roughed her up a bit and let her come to her own conclusions when she came to, just as with Yui.
  • Inuyasha:
    • In episode 52, Inuyasha tried to clean his hands after he killed a bunch of bandits when his Superpowered Evil Side took over, but after each frantic scrubbing found he could still smell their blood.
    • Suikotsu when in his good persona will oftentimes be overcome by the desire to obsessively wash his hands for hours on end. It's implied to be a manifestation of his disgust at his own Superpowered Evil Side and the inner conflict he's going through.
  • Moriarty the Patriot: In The Final Problem, William tells Fred that his hands have seemed covered with blood since his first murder and that he never intended for them to get this stained, but he cannot wash it out. Once he's alone again, he's shown scrubbing his bare hands in a well, despite no blood being on them at all and wearing black gloves while he murders people.
  • Pluto: In Chapters 33 and 34, Hercules recalls seeing a shell-shocked robot after a battle, desperately trying to wash his hands under a broken water pipe, saying "It just won't come out."

    Comic Books 
  • Doomsday Clock: Rorschach II gets really annoyed with people touching him. He freaks out having touched Veidt, rushing to take a shower during which, he scratches his head furiously enough to draw blood.
  • Swamp Thing: "Love And Death" shows Abby scrubbing herself in the shower and later with a wire potato brush as she loses it after learning the Awful Truth behind why her husband has been acting very oddly as of late:
    "She ripped all of her clothes off, tearing them up. They were dirty. They'd touched her skin. She tried to burn them, but her hands were shaking and the matches kept going out. In truth, she was a little crazy by this time. It was the smell. She couldn't get rid of the smell. In the shower she used up all of the soap, the shampoo, the bubblebath, the perfume... the smell was still there. Have you ever burned an insect with a magnifying glass? Just once, long ago, when you were a kid and didn't know any better? There. You know it. You know the smell. When the soap wouldn't get rid of it, she went to the kitchen and fetched the wire brush that she used for scraping the potatoes... twenty minutes later she passed out. Twenty whole minutes. Even then she could still smell it. She could smell it in her dreams."

    Fan Works 
  • Done rather melodramatically in The Chong Sheng Trilogy, a Avatar: The Last Airbender fanfic. When Jet dies in Katara's arms, she snaps and uses actual blood as bending fluid to kill several enemies before Sokka has to snap her out of her insanity. When Katara realizes what she's done she screams and goes catatonic until late that night, when she leaps into a dangerously rushing river and tries to scrub away her sins. Zuko has to rush in to rescue her before she drowns or is swept away.
  • Eight Mercenaries and a Toddler: Spy, a few hours after Sniper is shot in front of him starts panicking about how Sniper's blood just won't come off: "It wasn't coming off. It wasn't coming off, and it was going to stain, just like Lawrence's blood had, because that hadn't come off either, but he had gone hours and hours and hours before he had realized that Lawrence's blood was still on his hands, and it had stained his skin so deeply that no matter how hard he scrubbed and lathered it wouldn't come off—it wasn't coming off, it wasn't coming off and there was nothing he could do—"
  • In Ghosts of the Past, Harry has a horrific incident of this during a Shower of Angst, related to the sexual abuse he underwent at Belova's hands after he relives the incident. He wears through flannel, a brush, and most of a wire scrubbing pad before being stopped.
  • In Incarnation of Legends, while being attacked by terrorists at a concert in Altena, Bell immediately thrusts one of his sword through one of the culprit's shoulders, but can't bring himself to kill him. After the ordeal is suppressed by the Odin Familia, Bell finds that no matter how much he cleans his sword and hands, the blood didn't seem to come off, showing just how haunted by his murder of the man holding Haruhime captive.
  • Mutant Storm: After Harry kills (Lucius and Bellatrix) and another person with his bare hands, he spends about an hour sitting in a shower making washing motions with his hands...
  • My Master Ed: Slave Seven, through she doesn't participate in any murders, has to clean up after Roshan disposes of anyone who knows too much, and as a result often feels like her hands are stained with blood and has a compulsive need to wash them.
  • The Power of the Equinox: After Pinkie Pie's idea to use Dimmed Star's Ink in a non-destructive way leads to the latter becoming possessed and nearly killing her, Pinkie secludes herself in the bathroom to wash herself of the Ink she was covered in. The trauma causes her to vigorously wash herself over and over again and she later does it again by using rainwater.
  • Scar Tissue: After her Mind Rape Asuka always took long baths. As stated in chapter 11:
    She took long baths; she had always taken her time to make sure she looked her best, but ever since the 15th, Asuka remained for at least an hour in the bathroom, trying in vain to clean off the dirt in her own soul.
  • Team 8: Naruto is seen scrubbing his hands practically raw when coping with killing his first enemy and thinking he's a monster.
  • Traveler: Downplayed. Ash scrubs himself too hard after a battle with Team Rocket, feeling dirty due to a comment by Steven's Claydol that he "had some Ariados on his face".

  • Parodied in Batman Returns, by Catwoman: "The thought of busting Batman makes me feel all...dirty. I think I'll give myself a bath right here." Then - being a cat-person - she proceeds to lick herself!
  • Bully: Bobby obsessively washes his hands after any sexual encounter with a female in disgust, driving home his closeted homosexuality.
  • Departures: Daigo goes crazy scrubbing himself at the public bath after his traumatic first day on the job as a mortician.
  • The Machinist: Reznik is constantly seen washing his hands with bleach and lye. It turns out he once killed a young boy and has repressed the memory.
  • In Man in the Attic, Slade compulsively washes his hands in the Thames after each of the Ripper murders.
  • Pet: After killing Nate, Seth takes a long, rough shower, and later washes his hands compulsively after a police detective questions him.
  • Throne of Blood: Lady Asaji is shown having gone mad with guilt at having manipulated her husband Washizu into committing crimes and the murder of Lord Tsuzuki, sitting in a trance, trying to wash imaginary blood off her hands. Considering this is a direct adaptation of Macbeth, the parallels are very, very intentional.
  • Tower of London (1962): After murdering his brother the Duke of Clearance, Richard furiously washes the blood off his hands. When his brother Edward IV dies, Richard kisses him on the forehead and then sees Clarence's blood on Edward's forehead, which Clarence's ghost mockingly refers to as 'the mark of Cain'.

  • In Animorphs, Cassie is disgusted and horrified by all that she's done and the deaths that she's responsible for. In one book, after ripping out a Hork Bajir's throat with her teeth while in wolf morph and finding a piece of flesh still lodged between her teeth after demorphing, Cassie brushes her teeth until her gums bleed.
  • The Hungarian Ballad of Agnes by János Arany tells the story of a woman who has her lover stab her husband in his sleep, and afterward, she spends day after day at the river, trying to wash the (imaginary) bloodstain out of the sheet, though said sheet has already been reduced to a handful of ragged cloth from all the scrubbing. Even when she's taken to court, she just keeps saying she has to go back to her washing; the judges take pity on her and decide her own guilt is punishment enough.
    Mistress Agnes in the streamlet
    Washeth still her ragged sheet;
    Downward are the cover’s remnants
    Carried by the current fleet.
  • This trope appears twice in book II of The Faerie Queene.
    • Canto II begins with Guyon attempting to guiltily clean his hands of the blood of the couple he failed to save from poisoning and death, only for none of the blood to come off.
    • Canto VII: The ghost of Pontius Pilate is trapped in the river Cocytus forever failing to wash his hands clean of Christ's blood.
  • Robert Harris' Fatherland has a disturbingly understandable version. Xavier, a former U-Boat captain, finds out that some of the uniform clothing he was issued while in the service was manufactured from the hair of Holocaust victims. He describes not feeling clean after bathing repeatedly for days; more justified than most given the close physical contact involved...
  • Early in The Magician King, Eliot mentions his first meeting with Julia at a spa, during which she had taken to obsessively taking steam baths - often at such high temperatures that nobody else could stand to be in the same room. Eliot speculates that she was trying to cleanse herself of something she can't remove, but the reason why doesn't become apparent until the end: Julia had taken part in the summoning of a goddess, only to get the attention of Renard the Fox, who brutally murdered all but one of Julia's friends - and then raped Julia herself in exchange for sparing her one remaining friend.
  • In Mila 18, which is based on true events in German-occupied Warsaw, Poland during WWII, one of the Nazi leaders is constantly bathing. At least one of the more astute people around him is aware he is trying to wash away his guilt in the slaughter of Polish Jews.
  • Near the end of Mix Beer With Liquor And You Will Get Sicker, Corbin scrubs blood off his floor that has gotten there when he'd mistook a person in his house for a burglar and brutally hit him over the head, only to discover afterwards that it was actually a friend looking after him. Said guy has survived the incident, but still got a pretty nasty injury out of it, and Corbin works himself into a guilt loop and keeps cleaning the spot even though the blood is long gone. He doesn't even realize that his hands have gone sore and blistering from the work.
  • In The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne Boleyn takes an extremely hot bath and rubs her skin raw the morning after she takes a potion from a witch to induce a miscarriage. She believes the baby to be dead, but probably still harbors guilt on the off chance that it may have been alive and the male heir she needed to bear to secure her position as Queen.
  • Redeeming Love: When she first begins to see that Michael is a genuinely good man, Angel feels that because of her past as a prostitute, she is unworthy of him; she plunges into a river and frantically begins trying to make herself feel clean. Michael eventually finds her rubbing her skin raw with gravel and sobbing.
  • Reign of the Seven Spellblades: Early in chapter 2 (the end of episode 1 of the anime), Oliver catches a topless Nanao bathing her upper half in a fountain. She explains she's ritually cleansing herself of the blood from her last war.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: After Francie's attack, she begs her parents to help her because she can still feel where it touched her thigh. Her father pours acid over the spot, leaving a permanent scar but Francie is happy to have it rather than the feelings or dirtiness left by her ordeal.
  • Parodied in Wyrd Sisters (naturally, since it's a parody of Macbeth) where Duke Felmet becomes so obsessed with washing the metaphorical blood from his hand after killing King Verence, he tries scrubbing it with a wire brush, among other things. (It's implicit his measures ensure that his hand will always have blood on it, just not the victim's anymore.) At one point he's even seen with a cheese grater and bandages on his hand. The parody starts to turn very dark, though, when towards the end the narration describes "the remnant of his right hand," culminating in him falling to his death because he no longer has any (working) fingers with which to grab on to a wall.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Arrow: When the Dark Archer murders Frank Chen, Moira feels great guilt in knowing that she was responsible for framing him. She starts trying to feverishly rub the blood stains off her hands.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Bad Girls" ends with Faith desperately trying to scrub Finch's blood off of her hands and clothes after killing him in a sign of her guilt and Sanity Slippage.
  • CSI: NY: A nurse on her way home from work in "Commuted Sentences" happens upon a man who has been stabbed multiple times and stops to try and help him. Upon realizing that he's actually her recently acquitted rapist, she runs home screaming and immediately starts washing her hands. When that doesn't get his blood off fast enough, she jumps in the shower to scrub herself vigorously... and that's where the detectives find and arrest her.
  • Dark (2017):
    • Claudia desperately tries to wash off the blood from her hands after the not-so-accidental death of her father.
    • In season 3, after Jonas gets killed, Martha desperately tries to wash his blood off her hands. It leads to her cutting her blood-stained hair as well.
  • Kamen Rider 555: Masato Kusaka obsessively cleans his hands because after being traumatized, having witnessed the massacre of his classmates and was killed himself. They got better.
  • Lost: In "...In Translation", Jin furiously scrubs Byung Han's blood from his hands after beating the man, breaking down over what he has done.
  • Luke Cage (2016): In "The Creator," Contract killer Shades is so shaken by the Rum Punch Massacre that his boss and lover Mariah orchestrates that it leads to him trying to wash non-existent blood off his hands. He eventually turns himself over to Misty and says he'll even testify against Mariah in a full Heel–Face Turn.
  • M*A*S*H: In the haunting episode "Heal Thyself," the camp's talented and charismatic new surgeon, a veteran of a front-line aid station, has a complete mental breakdown during a particularly long and gruesome O.R. session that stretches across a couple of days. They find him crouched down in Col. Potter's tent, doing the Thousand-Yard Stare, and compulsively scrubbing his hands to wipe off the imaginary blood that he is convinced they are still coated in.

    Mythology and Religion 
  • The Bible:
    • Versed in the Book of Jeremiah as God's condemnation of Israel's behavior: "For though you wash yourself with lye, and use much soap, Yet your iniquity is marked before Me." (Jer 2:22)
    • In The Four Gospels, Pontius Pilate washes his hands after sentencing Jesus to death, to assuage his guilt. Church tradition claims that after he was exiled from his post, he spent his retirement ritually cleaning his hands in the snow over and over and over again.

  • Roulette Rampage: Banri explains that after he killed Boa Hoa to keep her quiet after she walks in on him committing the murder in Chapter 1, he went straight to the bathroom and scrubbed his hands raw.

  • Macbeth: Lady Macbeth, long after she had washed her hands dripping with Duncan's blood, continued to be preoccupied with hand-washing. So great was her sense of guilt that no amount of water and the ritual incantation of "Out, damned spot! Out, I say" could restore her peace of mind or ability to sleep.
  • Implied to be the reason Blanche takes so many baths in A Streetcar Named Desire. She wants to wash away her past.

    Video Games 
  • In Dragon Quest VI, there's a town that thrives due to their rejuvenating water, which, shortly after you arrive, turns blood red. Investigation reveals that a woman is trying to clean the blood off her sword at the water's source, consumed with guilt because she believes she killed her lover. You have to find him Not Quite Dead, but she'll be cleaning her sword until you do.
  • Grand Chase Dimensional Chaser: In one part of Grandiel’s memory, Baldinar’s attendant mentioned that there were times Baldinar just washed his hands all day as a result of having to kill many civilians and his own lover for The Needs of the Many.

  • Housepets!: Discussed when Peanut Breaks the Fourth Wall during an imagination scene that parodies Macbeth.
    Peanut: The washing of hands while sleepwalking indicates profound guilt. Not surprising given how much embarrassing fanfiction she tends to write.
    Grape: (throws "screwball" placard she was holding at him) OUT, D-WORDED SPOT!!!
  • Also appears in Oglaf on page 4 of "Shaft" where Ivan is desperately trying to wash off the blood of the monster he accidentally killed.
  • An early Something*Positive strip has PeeJee innocently wandering into a game store where the resident nerds immediately start picturing her naked. Cut to her washing and washing, unable to get the feeling of creepiness off her skin.

    Web Original 
  • Homestar Runner: Mentioned by Strong Bad when he and Homestar Runner are bemoaning the fact that The Cheat and Marzipan are going on a date.
    Homestar Runner: Mainly, I just want to keep 'em from making out.
    Strong Bad: Ewww! The disgust! It won't wash off!
  • Todd in the Shadows, while discussing Flo Rida's "Whistle", points out that with the Double Entendre, the obscenely catchy little whistle is actually Flo Rida's orgasm. Immediately afterwards, he vanishes up to the bathroom, accompanied by a scrubbing sound and cries of "GET IT OFF ME!"

    Western Animation 
  • Used humorously in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "The Last Laugh". The Joker dumps a load of smelly garbage on top of Batman during their battle; afterwards, Bruce remarks that he still feels soiled after taking several showers.
  • Family Guy: In "Quagmire's Dad", after Brian realizes that the woman he slept with was Ida, Quagmire's post-transition father, he screams with Stewie in horror and disgust and is next shown in the shower, frantically scrubbing every inch of himself clean.
  • The Simpsons: Used humorously in "Guess Who's Coming to Criticize Dinner" when Homer became a food critic and was criticized by his editor for an inept review. Lisa finds him in the bathtub repeatedly scrubbing himself and babbling: "Still not clean! Stink of failure still on me!"


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Out Damned Spot


Quagmire's Dad

After finding out that the woman he slept with at the Marriott was Ida Quagmire, Quagmire's father post-transition, Brian goes into the shower and cleanses himself from feeling dirty after the ordeal.

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