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Space Isolation Horror

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"In space, no one can hear you scream."
Tagline for Alien
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There are a number of challenges associated with surviving in outer space: the current human need for oxygen, water, food, waste management, heating, as well as space's lack of gravity, being unable to hear what is going on outside, and other issues all make space life a difficult proposition. Any Casual Interstellar Travel drive requires an hour to "warm up" and is the most fragile thing on the ship. A single pebble travelling sufficiently quickly could kill you, or at least destroy one of those important life-support systems; these systems are either very-high-maintenance or require the use of an AI to keep everything under control. If you were to send a Distress Call, the nearest help would be a week away. And the interior of your spacecraft is designed to look as cold, clunky, mechanical, and minimalistic as possible — it might as well be a flashy Haunted House.

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And that's when things are working correctly.

Now throw in a malevolent or malfunctioning AI that controls all of the above, or hostile aliens that you have never seen before trying to use you for breeding. But you can't go outside without taking on even more risks, such as getting a puncture in your space suit or the doors locking. Everyone but you has died, and realistically your problems cannot be solved by simply shooting them.

There aren't any other sentient beings within years of your location, but it doesn't matter since In Space Nobody Can Hear You Scream. Perhaps you can start an Apocalyptic Log so that when people do arrive, they know what you've been through and how to prevent the situation from happening again — it also allows you to talk to, and fill your days with, something, which might help prevent you from going mad from the isolation. Still, you will likely consider your slow, lonely death by maybe starvation, maybe suffocation, but probably not suicide as you don't even have the implements to end it all.

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You're alone, in the cold depths of space, without hope of even seeing another human or your home before you die. You may not know if you die, because space already looks like oblivion.

For story purposes (especially in the past when hard sci-fi wasn't prevalent based on lack of knowledge) the deep sea works just as well, since it has similar conditions for survival and similarly severe risks for going outside. In some ways it is worse, given how any people that could help are no more than a few miles away, but usually cannot be contacted.

Sub-Trope of Sci-Fi Horror. Compare Eerie Arctic Research Station and Eldritch Ocean Abyss for more terrestrial counterparts.

Functions by means of Enclosed Space and the Closed Circle. If the isolated people are instead focussing on their insignificance or the deep vastness of an unknowable universe, it's a Cosmic Horror Story — the two can overlap.


Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Partway through the original Gall Force, Luffy gives up her chance at getting back on the ship before it warps away, leaving her to drift endlessly through space. Subverted in a later entry in the series, where it's revealed her suit has a stasis feature; quite some time later, she's found by another ship, brought aboard, and awakened.
  • Jo Jos Bizarre Adventure Battle Tendency: In the final battle, Kars is launched into space by a volcanic eruption. His attempt to return to Earth by venting air from his body backfires when the moisture in the air freezes solid and he drifts even further away from Earth. Even worse, his immortal Ultimate Life Form body can survive even in the vacuum of space. After an indeterminate amount of time drifting alone in space, Kars' mind can't take it anymore and he simply stops thinking.
  • The first story Magnetic Rose in Memories shows this is Heinz's final fate as he is ejected into space while his ship and crew explode and his partner Miguel stays inside the ship and is brainwashed by the insane AI to think he is Carlos..
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, this happens to Trowa after Quatre accidentally blows up his mobile suit. He floats around in space for some time, but evidently gets rescued. It has a profound effect on him, causing him to go into a state of Trauma-Induced Amnesia and have flashbacks of cold and darkness.
  • Late into UQ Holder!, Karin is blasted into space as she tanks a spell meant for hrt comrades, sending her hurtling into the depths of space for 45 years. Since she's effectively completely immortal, she can't die and naturally being alone for that long really starts to get to her mentally, then she spots a sun that she's moving toward.... Luckily the protagonist Touta arrives to save her and she's spared the horror of being burned alive for a very long period of time.

    Comic Books 
  • Paperinik New Adventures issue #19 "Absolute Zero" certainly dabbles in the genre. Urk, Lyla and Paperinik travel to the rings of Saturn to investigate the disappearance of two astronauts, finding that their ship was abducted by an enormous alien starship. While exploring, they find that the ship is completely empty, save for a mysterious "Guardian" who stalks them throughout the dark corridoors. It turns out that the ship belonged to Xerbian refugees who sought to warn Earth of the Evronian Empire, but were intercepted and the crew abducted. The Guardian suffered the A.I. equivelant of a mental breakdown and had been trying to replace the crew he failed to protect, starting with the astronauts. The imagery of the issue includes empty hallways, rows of cryogenic pods and two solitary pods containing unconscious astronauts.

    Films — Animation 
  • Implied in Disney's Lilo & Stitch as the fate of Experiment 626: he's to be taken by prison transport to a barren asteroid, and abandoned there. Perhaps the authorities forbid capital punishment, or the condemned is too indestructible to be executed. It's still marooning on a cold, lonely rock in the void of space.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: Millions of miles away from any help, two men and several frozen passengers and an artificial intelligence that is nowadays one of the Trope Codifiers for A.I. Is a Crapshoot.
  • Alien: The whole franchise is about people stuck in a Closed Circle, courtesy of being far away in space with little to no chance of people coming to the rescue at all (and if they do, it will take them weeks to months to get to you), with the titular hostile species lurking in the dark and dreary corners of the ship or the planet, trying to get you.
  • Event Horizon: A rescue mission in deep space that runs into a ship that is not only vile in terms of following No OSHA Compliance, but also because it's become a literal demon from Hell as a result of coming back from a dimension that should not be.
  • Gravity: The fact that it happens on Earth's orbit matters little — there is no way to contact anybody, there is very little air, there are very few options to escape, the roaming debris going at hundreds of miles per hour destroys everything that gets in the way, and sanity begins to slip under such stressful conditions. It's probably a quick death if you get hit with that debris, but it's in no way merciful.
  • Downplayed and discussed in Interstellar: Dr. Nikolai Romilly in one scene reveals to Cooper that he has no love whatsoever for being inside of the Endurance and the fact that a few inches of aluminum and titanium are all that is keeping him away from the endless, airless void of space and there's no sounds except for those of the life-support machinery doesn't helps him sleep. When he has to spend several years on his lonesome inside of the ship because of Time Dilation, the fact he spent most of it in cryo or focused on doing scientific work only barely kept him from Going Mad From The Isolation.
  • Moon: The protagonist is stuck on the far side of the Moon all by himself, with very little communication with the world and the claustrophobia starting to drive him loopy... this is before finding out just how horrifying the Corrupt Corporate Executive cabal he works for truly is (without going into spoilers, suffice to say he's more expendable that he expected to be).
  • Dr. "Bones" McCoy has a healthy fear of this, as he mentions in the beginning of Star Trek (2009). He goes on a lengthy diatribe of how dangerous it is to fly around in spaceships like shuttles and what may happen if they malfunction, how alien diseases are horrifying and how space in general is a collection of Death Worlds with an equally dangerous nothing in between them.
    Leonard "Bones" McCoy (to Kirk): Don't pander to me, kid. One tiny crack in the hull and our blood boils in thirteen seconds. Solar flare might crop up, cook us in our seats. And wait'll you're sitting pretty with a case of Andorian shingles, see if you're still so relaxed when your eyeballs are bleeding. Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.
  • Pandorum: A crewman awaking from suspended animation to find the ship he's on in dire straits, and trying to puzzle out exactly what the hell happened. Bonus points for occurring on a spaceship that landed in the ocean and sank, making it an example of both types.
  • Deep Blue Sea: A character mentions early in the film that "living underwater is like living in space, you don't get many mistakes." The bulk of the film involves genetically-engineered super-intelligent sharks systematically flooding the mostly-submerged research lab with the intent to damage the fences enough to escape, while chowing down on any of the humans they come across.
  • Rogue One: Discussed and played for a bit of Black Comedy. Jyn and Bodhi discuss the ramifications of the shield gate on Scarif being unexpectedly closed if they're caught:
    Bodhi: Then they shut the gate, and we're all annihilated in the cold, dark vacuum of space.
  • The Martian might take place on the surface of Mars rather than in space per se, but it still has all the trappings of this trope. NASA astronaut Mark Watney is marooned Robinsonade-style on a barren planet without a breathable atmosphere, one sufficiently serious equipment failure away from dying in a variety of unpleasant ways and with a very limited supply of food and other consumables. A rescue mission would take many, many months to reach him even if the rest of his crew and Mission Control didn't think he was dead, and the outpost's communications were irreparably trashed during the same accident that got him into this mess so he can't send a distress call. Oh, and he has nobody to talk to but his diary.
  • 1989 saw a surprising number of movies that were basically this but underwater — kind of an inversion of the Space Is an Ocean trope. The Abyss is the best-remembered, and probably the best in general, of the bunch, but there was also DeepStar Six, Lords of the Deep, and Leviathan (1989).
  • At the beginning of Avengers: Endgame, Stark and Nabula are on the Benatar, Starlord's spaceship, following the Snap when it breaks down and runs out of fuel, leaving them stranded light years away from a civilized star system. After they run out of food, Stark records a message, saying his goodbyes, though he mentions the possibility that since they're floating so far from Earth that the message may never be heard by anyone else. Luckily, Captain Marvel manages to find the Benatar and brings them back to Earth.

    Literature 
  • The Michael Moorcock sci-fi novel about escaping from a lunatic dying Earth, The Black Corridor, uses this trope repeatedly, in the isolation felt by a crew-member on the escape ship who is doing his twenty-five year solo stint at flying the ship, attending to emergencies, and seeing nobody dies in suspended animation. This gives him time to brood and go quietly insane.
  • Tom Godwin:
    • The short story "The Cold Equations" and its various adaptations could count as this: they are about a pilot of a small spacecraft with limited capabilities facing a difficult decision to space a human stowaway whose presence endangers his mission. The different adaptations feature somewhat different endings.
    • In "The Nothing Equation", a scientist named Green is left alone in a one-man observation bubble that has had catastrophic effects on his predecessors. Over time, he becomes paranoid as the realization weighs on him that it's just him in a relatively thin-skinned pod miles from anywhere with the "nothing" of space all around.
  • This happens briefly to Gully Foyle at the beginning of The Stars My Destination. The trauma of the experience is pivotal to his character development and his main motivation for the rest of the book.
  • An entire chapter of How to Survive a Horror Movie is devoted to teaching the reader how to survive the more common tropes of the genre if trapped in one.
    "This isn't science fiction. Strange new worlds aren't inhabited by talking monkeys or technologically gifted, sexy utopian women. They're cold, dark rocks harboring terrible secrets — secrets that gobble your crew up one by one."
  • Unlike the original live-action series, the first Red Dwarf novel plays the trope harrowingly straight when Lister first awakens from cryosleep to find out he's the trope namer for Everybody's Dead, Dave: Loneliness, Survivor Guilt and a side helping of existential angst send him into a long Heroic BSoD that is not the least bit Played for Laughs.
  • John Ringo touches on this briefly at the end of The Hot Gate. The humans and Rangora have just trashed each other's capital ships, and left thousands of survivors floating around in space, many of them in either space suits or escape pods, both of which have very limited air. And there are so many of them, that the rescue efforts won't get to many of them before that limited air supply is exhausted. So even though the news services can communicate with these people, they often do not because the people are panicking as they realize they will die floating in space all alone before they can be rescued.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Played straight in the Firefly episode "Out of Gas". The titular gas is oxygen, and running low (with a ship that is dead in the water) means sitting around waiting for a slow and painful death or, in a degree of scary that is hard to argue whether is lesser or higher, risking whoever finds you decides murdering you is more profitable (or more fun) than saving your life.
  • Star Trek: Voyager had a couple of episodes where Seven of Nine and/or the Doctor were the only crew members immune to the Negative Space Wedgie of the Week and thus had to command the ship by themselves for long periods of time when the rest of the crew hibernated in stasis pods or were under the mental control of aliens.
  • Subverted in Red Dwarf, where Lister's main reaction at looking out of the cabin porthole into the awesome and terrifying infinity of Deep Space is how bloody arse-achingly dull and boring it all gets after a while...
  • The Expanse uses this on the very first scene of the series, with Julie Mao waking up in a ship that is marooned in space, with failing power, communications that may or may not be working right, and eerily empty. And then it turns out that the reason why it's empty and losing power is because the protomolecule has eaten the whole crew and is syphoning juice from the reactor.
  • Black Mirror: The ultimate fate of Robert Daly in "USS Callister" — his mind is trapped in the game, unable to exit with all the controls disabled, in an inert spaceship cockpit floating through the infinite darkness of the deleted game, with nothing to do but rant and flail impotently at the controls. Given an offhand comment implying that time doesn't flow the same way in-game as it does in the real world, Daly might be stuck like that forever. Honestly, serves him right for how he treated those sentient game characters.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "The Lonely" is about a man stranded on an asteroid somewhere far from settled space, placed there to serve out a life sentence alone. A passing cargo hauler takes pity on him and leaves him with a female android, whose company he initially rejects before coming to accept it. At the end, his sentence is commuted, but the ship that came to pick him up can't take both him and the android, and he refuses to leave his only lifeline behind. The captain of the ship, with great reluctance (it's implied he's seen this before), shoots the android in the head, revealing "her" wiring, and tells the man, "All you're leaving behind is loneliness."

    Music 
  • The repeated line about Space is dark/And it's so endless/When you're lost it's so relentless from one of Michael Moorcock's books was later set to music by space-rockers Hawkwind, who also mined Moorcock's book for another bleak song on the same theme, "The Golden Void" (Golden Void/Speaks to me/Denying my reality/Lose my body, lose my mind/Solar wind, I flow like wine...)
  • Brave Saint Saturn's Saturn 5 Trilogy is about a spaceship that gets stuck in a geosynchronous orbit with the dark side of Saturn's moon Titan, leaving the crew trapped in the darkness of the planet's shadow for three years. Many of the lyrics are about the loneliness of space, especially Space Robot Five.
  • Spruke's "Music to Die Alone in Space to" is an electronic album designed to make the listener feel like they are an astronaut dying alone in space, complete with snippets of personalised voice overs and "Earth songs" through static set to slow, minor-key electronic and synth music. Tracks include "Adrift", "Void" and "Asphyxiation".
  • David Bowie's "Space Oddity" is an Apocalyptic Log in the form of an exchange between Ground Control and the astronaut Major Tom. The first portion is quite magnificent, but then Major Tom gives an ominous farewell right before his communication cuts out, and the song fades into a cacophonic Last Note Nightmare as we're left wondering just what happened to the poor guy.
  • The Butthole Surfers song "The Last Astronaut" is an astronaut reciting what he sees to Ground Control, set to discordant music. Where it falls into this trope is when the astronaut realizes something horrific - implied to be nuclear war - has just annihilated humanity, leaving him trapped in orbit with no one to contact and no way to get home.
    "Hello? My God! Is there anyone there? My God... all of them, huh?"

    Tabletop Games 
  • Alien the Roleplaying Game obviously falls into this, especially in "cinematic mode", where life is cheap and the characters are expected to be alone with the beast.
  • Dark Heresy is built to facilitate this type of story, following Interrogators of the Imperial Inquisition in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It really hammers home what a miserable place the Imperium is, on a level that the main game, with its focus on simple battles, cannot.
  • Mothership RPG by Tuesday Knight Games, follows a party of high strung teamsters, marines, scientists, and androids at the edge of space, with rules that expect your characters to be high stress and running out of oxygen. The module Dead Planet especially leaves your characters stranded with little hope of rescue in a system which disables hyperdrive, among other things.
  • In Starfinder, getting abandoned in space with no hope of rescue can cause your body to reanimate as a Marooned One, an undead bent of causing as much anguish as possible by getting other space travelers marooned like they were.
  • Stars Without Number can be used for this sort of scenario, with Xeno Terror Beast on the list of creatures in the bestiary.
  • Those Dark Places by Osprey Games leans harder into the industrial horror aspects. The threat is not a scary monster, but the simple fact that overstressed contractors working long hours in extremely dangerous conditions are quite likely to snap.

    Video Games 
  • System Shock is an early FPS taking place on a space station taken over a murderous A.I., Shodan.
  • System Shock 2 is likely the Trope Codifier for the genre in the modern video game space, a semi-non-linear first-person Survival Horror game in which you wake up on a spaceship whose security systems have gone berserk and whose crew have all either been killed or transformed into murderous mutants.
  • A key part of the horror of the Dead Space series is that, aside from a voice in his helmet, Isaac is utterly alone against various nightmarish monstrosities, in a situation with no chance of escape or rescue. This is particularly pronounced when you enter the vacuum of space - Space Is Noisy is strongly averted, leaving you drifting inches from disaster, reliant solely on your eyes to see any threats.
  • Deliberately, the entire Metroid franchise is an example of this trope. The developers of the first game stated that it was their intention to make the player feel trapped and alone in a very hostile and alien world. The visuals and audio work to built the atmosphere of isolation. One of the series' main villains, Ridley, was even named as a Shout-Out to Ridley Scott, who popularized this subgenre with Alien.
    • Metroid Prime 3 was even criticized by some fans for not having enough of this, and feeling too much like conventional Space Opera — too many characters, too much easy travel, and just too wide a scope.
  • Axiom Verge is an other-dimensional version, with many of the H.R. Giger-esque art styles, haunting music, and a deliberate homage to lots of Metroid's style and gameplay.
  • The third Don't Escape game takes place on a spaceship whose crew have all been horribly murdered save the protagonist, who starts the game about to be jettisoned out the airlock. Since he murdered them while possessed by a sentient crystal, it was trying to kill him before he could solve the mystery and warn the incoming rescue ship. Unlike most examples, the ship actually seems quite pleasant to live in.
  • The Breach: The game apparently takes inspiration from every space horror franchise from Event Horizon to Space Hulk, so naturally it takes place on a derelict space ship whose crew are either dead, zombified, or fused with insectoid lifeforms. And as the game progresses the ship starts merging with the alternate dimension responsible for everything.
  • Subnautica leaves you stranded on an ocean planet full of large, terrifying sea monsters who want to eat you.
  • In Live A Live, the Far Future scenario takes place entirely on board a spaceship whose crew members are getting horribly killed one by one in various ways.
  • In Observation, you wake up a crippled space station at least 746 million miles away from home with no idea how you got there and where the rest of the crew has gone.
  • The title Alien: Isolation says it all. The player gets stranded on a vast but abandoned and barely functioning space station, trying to stay alive with hostile androids and a killer xenomorph roaming around.
  • Spirits Of Xanadu is a minimalist Retraux indie first-person Survival Horror game published by Nightdive Studios. Inspired by Solaris and System Shock 2, you're an investigator investigating an adrift exploration ship whose crew has vanished. The scope of the game is relatively small (the ship is about the size of a rather large house), but the gameplay is highly polished.
  • Syndrome is an indie first-person Survival Horror game by Camel 101. It takes heavy influence from System Shock 2, Dead Space, and Alien: Isolation and has you waking up with partial amnesia on a derelict spaceship overrun with killer cyborgs.
  • Solarix is a Turkish-developed first person stealth horror game taking place on an abandoned mining colony and later the colony's interstellar spaceship; you've awakened from cryosleep to find almost everyone else has been killed by a deadly virus; the only survivors are murderous zombie-like "Anomaly" mutants and a few squads of desperate soldiers who shoot anyone else (namely you) on sight.
  • The Ghostship series are Steam indie First-Person Shooter Survival Horror games set on an abandoned ghostship that has been taken over by insect aliens and zombies. They're mostly known for being highly non-linear with you being able to explore the entire ship from the start of the game, and for being incredibly janky due to being made by a single self-taught programmer as a passion project.
  • Phantaruk is a stealth-focused Survival Horror game very reminiscent of Amnesia: The Dark Descent in which you wake up alone on an adrift clone-production ship and are pursued by a mutant creature called Phantaruk.
  • Dispatcher is a very indie-jank first-person maze game by a single Eastern European developer, in which you're a crew member trying to escape a grid-based maze spaceship while avoiding a giant frog mutant and zombies. It apparently was received poorly and is no longer available for sale on Steam.

    Web Original 
  • Creepy Pastas:
    • Lost Cosmonaut is about a woman who goes into space before Yuri Gagarin. She finds a "muttnik" capsule with half of a child's body orbiting it. When she threatens to tell, Mission Control blasts her into a higher orbit to starve or suffocate.
    • In From the Cold has the protagonist alone in a moon base after the other astronaut died in an airlock malfunction. The dead astronaut tries to get back in...
    • One has an experimental FTL engine fail, and the crew goes insane, eventually dying until the automatic return kicks in.
    • In Thaw, sometime in the distant future, a man wakes up from his cryonic suspension onboard a spaceship, only to find himself only partially dethawed and trapped in his capsule, which seems to have failed. Then, he notices that the ship is on emergency lighting, and even that seems to be failing. THEN he notices that the other capsules in the room have also failed and either contains decayed corpses or blood splatters like someone bashed their heads open from the inside. Realizing that some sort of disaster has befallen the ship, he suddenly notices that they are still in orbit around Earth, having never left... except this Earth has a giant glacier of a new ice age covering most of the northern hemisphere, and no signs of human cities anywhere...
    • In I Was an Astronaut and I Experienced Something Terrifying, the narrator has someone knock on the door of his capsule. He and his copilot are the only living things within several million miles...
      • In some versions, "It" masquerades as his copilot, who begs him not to open the airlock.
    • In The Lonely Stars, the protagonist and his space station is thrown back 1500 years in time by a Negative Space Wedgie. The story ends just as he begins to succumb to Space Madness.
  • The Magnus Archives features the crew of the Daedalus Space Station, described in episodes 57, 106, and 135. The expedition was funded to put the three man crew through a series of psychological tests about fear and isolation while in space, only for supernatural occurrences to begin to occur. Carter Chilcott spent between 3-6 months utterly without human contact, while Jan Kilbride had an encounter with some vast thing during a space walk. As for Manuela Dominguez, she was experimenting on a secret fourth crewmember, using a mixture of science and the occult to create the focus for a Ritual known as the Dark Sun, to blot out all light from existence.
  • Wolf 359 has "Mayday", a Bottle Episode where Eiffel gets launched into space in Lovelace's ship. The ship sustained heavy damage in the explosion that launched him away from the Hephaestus, leaving the engines completely non-functional as he drifts off into space, with only radio static and hallucinations of his crewmates for company. He keeps himself alive by repeatedly cryogenically freezing himself and using his one functional engine to turn slightly every 72 hours, which would get him close enough to the Hermes-station to radio them for help. It's not until months into his trip that he realizes that it would take him about 6000 years to get close enough to the Hermes, at which point his cryo-pod breaks down due to lack of water. Fortunately, his final radio broadcast gets picked up by the Urania, and he gets rescued by SI5 and returned to the Hephaestus.

    Real Life 
  • The astronauts on Apollo 13 discovered midway to the moon that a malfunction had occurred, requiring them to return to Earth immediately, through a terrifyingly narrow re-entry window. If the re-entry attempt had gone wrong, the astronauts would have been either burned alive or stranded in space.
  • Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov almost met a sticky end during the first-ever spacewalk. His suit ballooned and became rigid, making any movement almost impossible. His body started to rise to alarming temperatures, flooding his suit with sweat up to his knees. After several minutes outside the capsule, he attempted to re-enter the detachable airlock. He found that he could only enter headfirst by pulling his suit's umbilical cord. Alexei became stuck sideways in the process and was forced to partially decompress his suit to fully enter the airlock (risking the bends). A suicide pill was built into his suit, in case he failed to make it back inside the spacecraft.

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