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Lister: What did you see?
The Cat: Oh, just some gorgeous chunk of loveliness!

An artifact or entity appears different depending on the observer. It will reflect or emulate specific traits that depend on what the effect is meant to achieve (desire, fear, revulsion, covetousness), more than on the object itself or the observer's expectations. However, the observer's mind will usually play a role in what he or she sees. The object or entity will almost always have a "true form" that might be seen if the effect is dispelled.

When this is in play, if Bob casts a Glamour spell that is intended to make him irresistably attractive to everyone who sees him, Alice may see him as Orlando Bloom, while the Face Hugger sees him as Second Officer Kane. In the case of an Artifact of Attraction, instead of having an innate power to make people want it specifically, it may simply imitate every observer's most personally coveted object. Lord Voldemort will see it as the Philosopher's Stone, Gollum will see it as the One Ring, and so on.

This trope also applies in cases that aren't about desire or attraction. Perhaps the effect makes a monster terrifying, by explicitly Invoking Why Did It Have to Be Snakes? for whoever encounters it.

Note that an observer may or may not see anything remotely representative of the object in question, as the appearance-shifting effect is intended to convey a particular quality. It is the effect, not the object itself, that does the legwork of matching that quality to an observer.

Compare and contrast Appearance Is in the Eye of the Beholder, in which an observer typically sees something genuinely representative of the artifact or entity in question, but filtered through the observer's expectations or assumptions, especially if the thing doesn't have a "true form" to begin with. The observer is, in a way, seeing an honest representation of the thing in question; it's just not really the true form.

See also Empathic Shapeshifter, which is where the thing's form literally changes based on the observer; A Form You Are Comfortable With, which is when this happens specifically to avoid freaking out the observer (or just driving them insane); and Lie to the Beholder, which is a targeted form of Appearance Is in the Eye of the Beholder that causes only some observers to see the illusion. Despite the name, it has nothing to do with Taste the Rainbow.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • The Illusion Card from Cardcaptor Sakura has this effect, taking a form to each viewer depending on what frightens them the most or what they desire. For example, Sakura saw her mother, allowing the card to have a strong hold over her, while Tomoyo, anticlimactically, merely saw a food item because she was hungry.
  • Franken Fran: Fran is asked by the girls of a school to make their boyfriends less horny. She does so by creating a huge pheromone-emitting mass of flesh that causes any man to see a crowd of naked and horny women. Naturally, this works too well, with the boys spending every spare minute having sex with the thing, so the girlfriends complain to Fran. She shows them what she did, and the girls promptly start beating it up with anything at hand, to Fran's confusion.

    Comic Books 
  • Fantastic Four: Galactus appears as a member of whatever species looks at him, probably to Retcon his human appearance into the realm of plausibility.
  • New Mutants: Creating illusions of her target's greatest fear or desire is the signature mutant power of Mirage. She can't really control what they see, only whether she wants to attract or scare them with it.
  • Nodwick: Near the end of the print comic, the villains create a new type of undead called a 'Masque' and unleash it on the heroes. Anyone who looks at it see a deceased parental or mentor figure they trust implicitly (Rowan sees her father, Nodwick sees the old president of his union, Piffany sees the abbess at the Saintly Church where she was raised, and Arthax sees the archmage who first taught him wizardry) and are left unable to fight. Fortunately for our heroes, Rowan's pet dragon Orville either isn't fooled or sees one of his parents (his species of dragon is extremely territorial, and attack and kill even close family as adults) and responds by flambéing the undead monster.
  • The Sandman (1989):
    • Morpheus appears as a cat for cats or Bast and appears human for humans. Desire, on the other hand, works like the Apple of Discord naturally.
    • Morpheus has some control over this. He appears to the Martian as a horrible monster (because that is what their God of Dreams looks like) but then switches to a less frightening form.
    • In descriptions it's directly stated that Desire will look whatever you desire the most, whether that is man, woman or something else. Making it appear an attractive, androgynous human just helps the reader to keep track of the character.

    Film — Animation 
  • Ice Age: Continental Drift: The siren fish project an image of whatever the victim loves to lure them in: each of the heroes sees their love interest (real of imaginary, in Sid's case), Sid's grandma sees a Chippendales sloth with a Porn Stache, and Scrat, of course, sees his acorn. Cut to reality, where Scrat is now trying to bury the siren into the ground, blissfully unaware of what's really happening.
  • In the Neon Genesis Evangelion feature-length film The End of Evangelion, the multiple avatars of Rei/Lilith who appear to guide each individual human through the transition into Instrumentality have the ability to appear in the form of someone that individual loves. There are several shots of cast members getting a last look at/embrace from what appears to be someone they care for, right before bursting into LCL. There is one notable exception: Aoba Shigeru, the Air Guitar-playing Bridge Bunny who only sees a swarm of naked Reis and promptly freaks. The writers have said this was because Aoba was a nihilist who cared for no one.

  • In The Ancient One, there's a swamp with water that lures people in by smelling like their favorite things, but it's really an extremely dangerous pool of acid.
  • Arcia Chronicles: The primordial deities known as the "Great Dragon" and the "Great Eagle" can take on humanoid forms, but they cannot control their appearance. Instead, each person sees them wearing different faces familiar to themselves: specifically, the Great Eagle's human form always looks like his vis-a-vis' greatest pain, while the Great Dragon takes the shape of the greatest mystery in their lives. When Roman encounters them both in book four, the Great Eagle wears the face of his late father Asten, whom he both loved and respected, while the Great Dragon takes on the form of the wandering mage Uann, who mentored Roman in magic, set him on the path to save the world, and disappeared without a trace in book two.
  • Ciaphas Cain: During a raid on a Slaaneshi cult, the madam uses her magic to project an image the soldiers won't shoot at. Cain sees Amberley and is about to shoot another soldier in a jealous rage (also motivated by the soldier addressing "Amberley" by the wrong name, i.e., his own girlfriend's), but is distracted long enough for Jurgen to approach and his Anti-Magic effect to reveal the madam as a frumpy older woman, who Cain shoots on the spot.
    "Impersonating an Inquisitor is a capital offense."
  • Verra, a goddess from the Dragaera novels, sounds different to different people. When she speaks, each witness hears her say something that's relevant to them.
  • The second half of the Firekeeper series of novels gives us the Meddler, a godlike trickster. Lacking a corporeal body, he creates a form through the minds of those around him. The end result is that every person sees him differently. Most saw him as a local man. Others, such as Firekeeper's wolf partner Blind Seer, saw another wolf like himself.
  • In Harry Potter, the Love Potion Amortentia smells like all the smeller's favorite smells (Harry smells treacle tart, broomstick varnish, and Ginny's perfume, while Hermione smells like parchment, cut grass, and Ron's hair) and the polyjuice potion has a different consistency depending on who it turns you into (Crabbe and Goyle's looks like mud; Harry's is gold; we don't see what Bellatrix's looks like, but it apparently tastes terrible). In addition, Boggarts appear as one's worst fear, Dementors cause victims to experience their worst memories, and the Mirror of Erised reflects one's greatest desire. Yeah, Rowling loves this trope.
  • The Apple of Discord in the Illuminatus! appears to you as your heart's desire.
  • In the Incarnations of Immortality series, TV news reports in Purgatory customize themselves to the interests of whomever is watching them. Not simultaneously, though — two observers watching the same set at the same time see the same broadcast. While the channels are certainly subjective (the news includes interviews and crowd shots which didn't happen in the real world), nobody uses anybody else's set to watch the news, so the sets can just be pre-tuned rather than sensitive to the watcher.
  • The "Holy Grail" in The Mists of Avalon appears as a chalice which creates food — whichever food one person likes most.
  • Pretty Poison, a succubus from the Nightside novels, appears as everyone's hottest sexual fantasy come to life.
  • In the Photon novels, the nature of the contest between the Interstellar Alliance and the Arrians is eventually revealed to be a larger-scale version of a Cosmic Chess Game being played out between two beings from the previous universe whose battle had ended up destroying everything. The chess game played itself out as a reasonably non-violent way to ensure they didn't wind up breaking it all again. The appearance of these two beings, as revealed in the novel In Search of Mom? Just like the viewer, right down to gender.
  • In Weaveworld, the villain Shadwell, who considers himself the world's greatest salesman and schmoozer, is given an enchanted jacket by the sorceress Immacolata. The jacket can produce from its pockets the object most desired by whatever client Shadwell is trying to make a deal with.
  • Subverted in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The titular Wizard appears differently to each supplicant, depending on what will impress them most. However, Dorothy eventually finds that each appearance is an illusion using various special effects to ensure that no one guesses his true nature.
  • In the Worlds of Power novelization of Blaster Master, the Plutonium Boss uses the "worst fear" version. The image each player of the game sees is something they fear most.
  • The Lone Power from the Young Wizards series supposedly looks different to everyone. To Nita, he usually looked like a good looking but cruel red-haired man.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Subverted in Angel. The big bad, Jasmine, uses magic to make herself awesome in the eyes of others; otherwise, she appears as a gross slimy thing. Connor, supposedly a good guy, thinks there's nothing wrong with the gross slimy thing (he wasn't brainwashed) because that's what he grew up with. Gross.
  • In Babylon 5, the Vorlons look to any given person like their cultural equivalent of an angel. Londo, however, sees nothing at all — since his people, the Centauri, were fostered by the Shadows instead.
  • In the new Doctor Who series, psychic paper has whatever you're expecting written on it. This apparently works even on electronic locks.
  • Red Dwarf has Camille, a green blob who appears as a person's "perfect partner". For Kryten, Lister and Rimmer, she appears as a feminine counterpart to the viewer. For the Cat, she appears as... the Cat. The Psirens use a similar power to suck people's brains out with straws.
  • The Roseanne episode "Satan, Darling" has a Dream Sequence in which Roseanne meets the Devil's Advocate, who looks like her in red. It claims: "I take on whatever form your subconscious chooses to give me. I almost came as a hamburger."
  • Star Trek:
    • The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Perfect Mate" has a "gift" which is being transported to end a war. Said cargo turns out to be a deeply empathic metamorph who can become any man's ideal mate.
    • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, when Sisko and Dax first land on a "planet" inside the wormhole, it appears as a stormy, rocky wasteland to him and a beautiful, sunny glade to her.


    Video Games 
  • In Catherine, the titular character appears to everyone she seduces as their ideal dream girl.
  • In the obscure 1990s PC game Commander Blood, the much-coveted Ondoyants appear as sexually attractive to everyone.
  • It's possible that the Shadow Thurible in Don't Starve, as well as the literal Nightmare Fuel that fuels it, has this affect on the player characters. However, while the Thurible smells like different things that most likely attract the different characters, the raw Fuel seems to have different properties of things that may frighten them.
  • Grandia II features berries that taste like whatever the eater most fondly remembers eating.
  • Hinted at in an overhead conversation in Mass Effect 2. A human, a turian, and a salarian at a bachelor party are watching an asari stripper, and each one finds a different part of her attractive.
  • The monsters of Silent Hill appear as appropriate dark reflections of a person's psyche.
  • In Stardew Valley, stardrops taste different for everyone. For the player, it's whatever they have set as their favorite thing.


    Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation:
    • SCP-056 always changes itself into a "better" version of whatever is viewing it, to the point that they can't even find out its natural form via remote observation because it just turns into a more expensive camera.
    • SCP-959 appears as whatever would distress the viewer the most. He's a really nice guy.
  • The Slender Man Mythos: The original concept of Slender Man had his face look different to everyone, with him only appearing as The Blank in photographs due to Glamour Failure. However, the faceless version of him ended up proving so iconic that it just became his regular appearance.

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of Pinky and the Brain, the titular mice are placed into a sophisticated maze, including a room with a hologram meant to distract them by showing them whatever they most wanted to see. After unsuccessfully trying to find a secret area of the maze and coming full circle, Pinky states that what he most wants to see is a map of the maze, causing one to appear in front of them.
  • The Ren & Stimpy Show: In the episode "Marooned", a giant alien tentacle monster appears to Ren as a female chihuahua in order to trap him. To Stimpy, the tentacle appears as a bag of kitty litter, so he looks perplexed when Ren starts to caress it and talk romantically to it.