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Unwitting Test Subject

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A thinking subject (a human, sapient animal, etc.) is part of a scientific experiment and has no idea that they're being experimented on and has not explicitly consented to the experiment. Usually, in such stories, there is some surreal and alienating moment in which the subject (or audience) realizes this after The Reveal, an unmasking, or a series of clues in the story.

Unwitting experimental subjects are entities that embody the experience of being caught up in a maze like a rat, being a guinea pig for the scientific-industrial complex, and/or some mad scientist's eerie human experimentation, done for the sake of satisfying scientific curiosity. Subjects are unaware for a time that they're actively being creeped and experimented upon for a certain period of time. However, there could be copious amounts of unconscious subjects falling victim to Playing with Syringes or Strapped to an Operating Table, and maybe even the evoking of an Eye Scream. There's certainly overlap with They Would Cut You Up.

Experiments like this are carried out by The Conspiracy, an Ancient Conspiracy, The Syndicate, or The Government who have their own inscrutable motives. These bad boys might, in turn, have a Chessmaster who plans and runs it, making sure all the while that the unwitting subjects remain so. Sometimes one of the test subjects turns out to be working for the bad guys, in which case, the conspirator participates in a masquerade to keep their true intentions from the subject(s).

The difference between an Unwitting Test Subject and Tested on Humans is that with the latter some sort of weapon or destructive device is tested on a subject for show; for example, to humorous effect, just as a more or less random target to demonstrate how awesomely powerful a weapon is. A person who's a victim of Tested on Humans pretty quickly notices that they're the test subject, that is, the effects are immediate and plain to the subject/victim. Unwitting experimental subjects, in contrast, show up many times in the psychological horror or psychological thriller genres.

The experiment doesn't necessarily have to actually be shown to be an experiment. The story could be an Ontological Mystery, which the character is faced with after You All Meet in a Cell or You Wake Up in a Room. That is to say, the work might not have any visible scientists (to the audience or to the characters) who are performing the experiment, the purpose of the experiment may not be apparent or it may not be clear that it's an experiment at all. It could just be hinted at by various means (say, by the mathematical or vaguely scientific nature of the environment the characters find themselves in), or just implied in some clever way.

On the Older Than Feudalism level, this trope could be placed in the God testing Abraham and Job's faith arena. The trope has been active since the '30s mostly in sci-fi works but shows no signs of becoming discredited.

Contrast Professor Guinea Pig, compare Guinea Pig Family. May involve a Disposable Vagrant or Condemned Contestant and an Evilutionary Biologist. Will likely involve the subjects being Kidnapped for Experimentation. If the humans are seen as a vast philosophical computer simulation, then compare with the Wetware CPU.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Blood+: Saya seems to be suffering from anemia and frequently needs blood transfusions. She soon learns that she's a vampire and that her doctor is in on the secret government group that is observing her.
  • Hoshin Engi: Raishinshi's master specializes in creating new paope and implanted wings on his back while he was asleep to test them. This gave him some cool powers but also altered his appearance, something he is not too pleased with.
  • Soul Eater. One of the first things we learn about Dr. Franken Stein in the second volume is that he used to perform experiments on Spirit Albarn while the latter was asleep, without his finding out. This is later played for perverse humor when Stein asks Spirit if he noticed that he swapped his toes around.

    Comic Books 
  • Robin: When Strader Pharmaceuticals couldn't get approval to test their new Super Serum they started having it sold as a street drug and observing those who took it from afar instead. When it turned out to be a Psycho Serum that killed the users they decided to cut their losses by hiring unscrupulous mercenaries to kill those who hadn't died yet and the reporter who'd started to catch on and dispose of the bodies to prevent anything from being linked back to them.
  • Tintin: In Tintin And The Picaros, Professor Calculus comes up with a drug invented to cure alcoholism that makes alcohol taste disgusting. He secretly tests it on Captain Haddock, who doesn't take it well when he finds out later. The same drug is later used to sober up all the members of General Alcazar's resistance movement.

    Fan Works 
  • Godzilla fanfiction Abraxas: After the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), Alan Jonah and his goons have hired displaced refugees from Moscow's destruction as manual labor at their new base in the Russian tundra, having lured the refugees in with the promises of shelter and job opportunities. Later, Jonah and several of his men start abducting the refugees for experimentation one-by-one, turning them into zombies infused with Ghidorah's DNA, which was most definitely not something the refugees signed up for.
  • Mega Man Zero/My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic crossover fanfiction Manehattan's Lone Guardian: Gray Ghost. Being a young foal at the time, she didn't realize that she was being kidnapped or injected with a drug intended to alter her physical state. Instead, she treated her time at the Zoological Institute as all fun and games. It's implied that she was more confused than anything else when she was rescued and reunited with her parents, and it takes more than thirty years before she finally learns the truth.
  • Start Again: The Conspiracy, without Goro Akechi working for them or access to Wakaba Isshiki's research in the new timeline, have resorted to drugging high schoolers and sending them to the Metaverse to learn more about it. One of their unwitting subjects just happens to be Ryuji who remembers the previous timeline as a Phantom Thief.
  • Throw Away Your Mask: While the six-year-old Mitsuru was somewhat aware of what was happening, she only knew she had "potential" and didn't understand what her grandfather was researching or what she was needed for.

  • Dr. Rajit Ratha in The Amazing Spider-Man has planned to use the newly developed cross-species serum at a veteran's hospital by passing it off as a vaccine, before Connors (as the Lizard) attacked him on the bridge out of Manhattan.
  • In Cube, six people from diverse backgrounds and with differing abilities find themselves in a vast mathematical and geometric maze that contains booby-traps. The very nature of the maze is left up for grabs, but it's hinted at that it's a scientific device, perhaps built by a government (or not), that serves no conceivable purpose, but maybe once did.
  • In the 2013 film Dark Skies, the two protagonists realize that aliens are using them (perhaps) as experimental subjects for creepily incomprehensible reasons.
  • Dark Waters: The company tested the chemical they thought was dangerous on workers by lacing it on cigarettes, but continues producing it and dumping it in the land even after those oblivious test subjects get sick.
  • The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, directed by Werner Herzog, is a semi-fictionalized account of the true story of a young boy who spent the first seventeen years of his life in a cellar without any human contact. He's fed, clothed, and bathed by a mysterious man in a black overcoat who drugs him in order to prevent any contact. It's suspected that this was part of an early rogue experiment in psychology.
  • The Kovak Box involves a scientist involved in a massive government conspiracy to control society through implants that induce people to commit suicide. It involves using unwitting human subjects in the preliminary phases to test whether social engineering can be reliably and efficiently achieved.
  • The Neanderthal Man: Before the eponymous Mad Scientist tests his devolution serum on himself, he tests it on his deaf-mute housekeeper, who only partly reverts and has no memory of being experimented on afterwards. Groves chalks the failure of the experiment up to "some incompatibility between my formula and the basic female constitution."
  • In Prometheus, the humans realize that the aliens were doing genetic manipulation experiments and probably were responsible for 'seeding' Earth with the DNA necessary for establishing the human species.
  • The sentient chimpanzee, Caesar, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is forced to come to terms with the fact that his entire reason for existing and being sentient was the result of an experiment carried out on his mother, who was terminated.
  • Scanners, directed by David Cronenberg, features a Super Breeding Program experiment performed by a pharmaceutical corporation on unwitting pregnant women with the goal of world domination. A drug, ostensibly for morning sickness, is administered in order to encourage the development of psychic abilities in their fetuses. The Reveal comes when the protagonist realizes that his own psychic abilities came about as the result of those experiments.

  • Isaac Asimov
    • "Breeds There a Man...?" A brilliant physicist comes to believe that aliens are conducting experiments with civilizations all over the universe, and ours is close to a point where measures are being taken to shut it down.
    • In "Jokester", it is discovered that humor is a psychological study tool imposed from without by extraterrestrials studying mankind.
  • A major plot point of the Confederation of Valor novels. In Valor's Trial it turns out that a war has been started and encouraged as a sociological experiment by extraterrestrials.
  • In The Expanse novel Leviathan Wakes, Protogen's experiment with the protomolecule involves staging a spaceship accident at the Eros asteroid station and using hired thugs to goad all civilians on the station into radiation shelters to hide from the supposed massive radiation leak when in fact they'll be served massive doses of radiation to turn them into protomolecule fodder.
  • In Mikhail Bulgakov's satirical novel Heart of a Dog (1925), a street dog (in many ways, a Disposable Vagrant) is taken in by a surgeon who implants him with human glands to learn of the effects. He learns to speak and takes on human qualities - mostly the negative ones. While the dog is objectively not sentient before the operation, because of the characteristically human way the thoughts of the dog are presented to the reader, he could be considered sentient. However, throughout, it's fairly clear that the dog does not know that he's part of an experiment at first.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The central revelation in the story is that Earth's purpose is an experiment/computer program from extraterrestrials in order to determine the meaning of life.
  • House of Stairs, a young-adult science-fiction novel by William Sleator features a group of children with fundamentally differing and conflicting personalities inexplicably imprisoned in a surrealistic environment, which calls to mind an experimental labyrinth, who are subjected to various trials. It's revealed at the end that a totalitarian government is testing a psychologist's theories about conditioning. The experiment is a "failure" because two of the children were prepared to starve to death rather than obey a conditioning stimulus.
  • Jurassic Park provides some backstory for InGen's chief rival company, BioSyn, in which they used a village of Chilean farmers as guinea pigs for an experimental rabies vaccine, using a form of the virus that had been turned into an inhaled pathogen. They got away with it because it happened on foreign soil, so the American government couldn't prosecute them, and the Chilean government had other problems at the time to keep them from raising a fuss.
  • The Perfect Run: This was basically the Alchemist's entire thing. More specifically, she intentionally allowed for the creation of Psychos to see if bi-colored powers might be more useful than mono-colored ones. She did not warn anyone ahead of time that taking more than one elixir would drive you insane.
  • Worm:
    • It's revealed late in the story that the existence of parahumans is an experiment by extraterrestrial Entities. By giving different variations of powers to humans, the Entities can effectively crowd-source different strategies and techniques for their own use.
    • Cauldron has made Brockton Bay the focus on an experiment on the viability of transitioning a modern city into a parahuman-ruled feudal state.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon and Amy (who are scientists) perform a series of intelligence tests on Leonard (who is also a scientist) and Penny (who isn't). When the test subjects find out what's been happening, they are extremely angry with their so-called best friends. However, the issue is then sidelined by the much bigger issue of Howard's mother's sudden death.
  • Kamen Rider Build: Early in the show, it's revealed that the protagonist Kiryu Sento was experimented on by the secret organization Faust (resulting in his Identity Amnesia), who allowed him to escape while stealing the show's Transformation Trinkets, which they created as military prototypes; even as he fights Monsters of the Week, Faust is gathering data in order to improve and refine the tech so they can create a literal army of Kamen Riders.
  • In the NCIS episode "Double Blind", a Navy cook is being followed and doesn't know why. It turns out he signed up for a study on the effects of Big Brother on people's lives, then forgot about it entirely after suffering a concussion.
  • The Outer Limits (1963):
    • Episode and remake of "A Feasibility Study". A random neighborhood from a typical suburban town is transported to an alien planet in order to determine whether the inhabitants are suitable for the environment because they need suitable slaves compatible with the aliens' planet.
    • Episode "Nightmare". A group of United Earth troops is captured by the alien Ebons and subjected to interrogation using physical and psychological torture. At the end, it turns out to be a cooperative study between the Earth and Ebon governments to determine how well human troops can withstand punishment without breaking.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
    • In "Where Silence Has Lease", the Enterprise is investigating a "hole" in space when it's suddenly swallowed by said hole. Subsequent attempts to navigate away from it end up getting them nowhere, before they're beset by phantom ships with Alien Geometries. After exits start randomly popping up and disappearing, they realize that some sort of intelligence is testing their reactions to stimuli, which turns out to be an amoral Cosmic Entity calling itself "Nagilum", who intends to kill off a large part of the crew to investigate death.
    • In "Allegiance", Captain Picard suddenly finds himself locked in a room with random people, representing an experimental subject group, whose interpersonal reactions are being tested. After much ado, they finally realize that their responses to certain stimuli are being tested in some psychological behavior experiment by a group of Hive Mind aliens inclined to scientific curiosity—and one of them is in on it.
    • In "Schisms", weird things start to happen on the Enterprise: Riker can't get a good night's sleep, there's a bacterial infection in Geordi's neural implants, Data's internal chronometer shows 90 missing minutes, several people are having panic reactions to ordinary objects, and there's a subspace rift in a cargo bay. Eventually the affected personnel get together and piece together their memories. In a chilling scene, they realize that each of them has been kidnapped into another universe, Strapped to an Operating Table and subjected to medical experimentation while they slept.
  • Star Trek: Voyager episode "Scientific Method". The characters' bodies are being manipulated and monitored without their knowledge by invisible aliens who are desperate to achieve medical knowledge at any cost. There are unexplained injuries and death, and it's up to one of the crew-members to alert the others without alerting the alien observers who are constantly present (Invisible to Normals) that they are on to them, which would result in the experimenters taking punitive action.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • The Far Side. Two researchers reveal to the nerdy-looking dictator of a small country that it was all a sociological experiment, that his name is really Edward Belcher, and it's time to go home.

  • The Bible:
    • In the Book of Genesis, in a forerunner to the Milgram experiment, God runs an experiment to determine the extent of Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on an altar. At the last second, though, God sends an angel who says (paraphrased), "Whoa, dude, that's okay. Just checking." Since God already promised to bless Isaac and his descendants, the New Testament suggests Abraham already knew it was just a test and Isaac would be fine.
    • In the Book of Job, God makes a bet with Satan that Job won't waver in his faith. In an interesting study with perhaps one of the most controversial yet unquestionable Institutional Human Study Review Board approvals ever, God gives permission for Satan to run through a series of physical and psychological tortures to test Job's behavioral response.

  • Miss Evers' Boys is a stageplay by David Feldschuh about the infamous Tuskegee experiment (1932$1972), in which poor, African-American sharecroppers in Alabama were used by the government to study the long-term progression of untreated syphilis without them being told they suffered from it. It's told from the perspective of the nurse who worked on the study.

    Video Games 
  • In Bloodborne, the Healing Church centers around the practice of Blood Ministration, a panacea of sorts that involves blood transfusion. What the citizens of Yharnam don't know, but the Church does, is that the Old Blood they use is connected, in some unclear way, to the Great Ones, and the Church's founders were Mad Scientists that wished to study its effects (and ultimately use to ascend to the level of the Great Ones). Blood Ministration thus serves both to cement their control over the city and a way to get people to use the stuff for them. Side effects of Old Blood use include going nuts and transforming into a werewolf, a connection which the Church covers up.
  • In the Fallout franchise, residents of hundreds of separate subterranean bunkers, called 'vaults,' were unwittingly subjected to various large-scale (controlled) experiments, locked in and monitored closely. For example, in one vault, the residents were divided up into a red and blue group just to observe the long-term effects of that social division. Most of the Vaults' residents predictably came to unfortunate ends. Then again, (to quote Penny Arcade) "the Vaults were never meant to save anyone."

    Visual Novels 
  • In Double Homework, all of the students, plus Ms. Walsh, are unaware that they are all being used as part of a sex experiment conducted by Dr. Mosely. Dennis, suspecting something weird, manages to sniff out the truth, and the protagonist manages to glean some information from him. He doesn’t tell that many other people, but enough information leaks out for Dr. Mosely to brand them all “liabilities.”
  • Higurashi: When They Cry: Satoko thinks she has to go to the Irie Clinic frequently to get shots and treatment for a nutrients research project. The truth is that she's a test subject for the Hinamizawa Syndrome treatment that Dr. Irie is researching in hopes of fully curing Satoko one day. Without the injections, Satoko would go back to Level Five in a short period of time, but she doesn't know any of this.

  • Neokosmos: Tye, Z, and Iris are aware that they're test subjects, having been raised on a space station and all, but none of them are sure what the experiment actually is, and their alien caretakers aren't too keen on explaining. They suspect that it has something to do with being the last surviving humans in the galaxy, but the truth is more complicated. For starters, they're not the only humans. The experiment was focused on human interactions through isolation, with at least three test groups in different segments of the station: the Level 1 kids are raised together in a community, the Level 2 kids (Tye, Z, Iris, and likely others before them) communicate with each other digitally, but never meet in person, while the Level 3 kids (most of whom exhibited Psychic Powers) are raised in complete isolation.
  • unOrdinary:
    • EMBER is testing ability amplifying drugs by plying vengeful people in low-tier towns and communities with them, observing their reign of chaos and the eventual horrific side effects of withdrawal.
    • Spectre drugs high-tier ability users to remove their ability, then forces them to work for them in order to get treatments to restore their ability. Except those treatments turn out to only allow for temporary ability restoration making them have to come back again and again despite initial promises and they force their victim-recruits to be unconscious and unaware for the overnight procedures so the full extent of what they're doing to them is unclear.

    Western Animation 
  • Batman Beyond':
    • "Epilogue", the Fully Absorbed Finale in Justice League Unlimited, reveals that the genetic material of Terry's father Warren was secretly genetically altered by Cadmus as a part of Project Batman Beyond: replicate the conditions that led to Bruce Wayne becoming Batman. Warren thought it was a flu shot, and it's implied that Terry's parents divorced because he thought his wife was unfaithful since neither Terry nor Matt resemble him. Terry had initially blamed Bruce for the deed and planned to hang up his suit until he confronted Amanda Waller herself about the truth.

    Real Life 
  • From the 1950s up to the late '60s, the US government carried out large-scale experiments in psychological interrogation and conditioning sometimes involving powerful psychoactive drugs on unwilling and unwitting populations. Operation Midnight Climax, for example, involved the CIA recruiting prostitutes who would dose their clients, who were observed behind a one-way mirror, with LSD on whom sexual blackmail techniques would be tested.
  • The US government also carried out experiments to determine the effects of radiation on the human body. Schoolchildren's milk and prisoners' testicles were irradiated all to see what the effects might be without them having been told.
    • A related test was Project 4.1, which involved studying the effects of fallout from the Castle Bravo nuclear test on the residents of the Marshall islands.
  • The US government (yes, they were fans of this for a while) also once tested Sarin (a toxic nerve gas) on a British soldier under the auspices that it was cold medicine. He died almost immediately. There were also plans to test VX-based chemical weapons on Australian troops during what was allegedly a training exercise. They couldn't convince Australia to let them do it though.
  • Another one by the US government: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment was a notorious real-life example of Withholding the Cure in order to study the effects of the disease on a black population. The subjects of the experiment were told they would receive free medical care but instead received useless treatments instead of those that had been shown to work, with the rationale that it was For Science!.
  • Some of the nastiest and most infamous experiments in history were done by Nazi Germany on concentration camp prisoners, including the medical experiments done by the notoriously sadistic Dr. Josef Mengele. Examples include studying the effects of death by exposure, and many bizarre experiments on twins (such as killing one with boiling water and the other with freezing water) that seem so cruel and pointless they appear to be more For the Evulz than anything.
  • Similar experiments were carried out by fellow Axis member Imperial Japan, especially the infamous Unit 731, that included vivisection on humans.
  • Ironically, the USSR never experimented on civilians or conscripted troops on anything even remotely near US scale. However, the Soviet Union had a notorious program that tested the efficacy of various poisons and toxins on condemned prisoners as well.
  • Allegedly, North Korea still performs unethical experiments in the Nazi and Soviet vein on prisoners in its many work camps.
  • Various language deprivation experiments were carried out by powerful leaders throughout history on unwitting children in order to ascertain the natural language. The Greek historian Herodotus in Histories famously describes one in which children were deprived of all external speech by the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I (664-610 BC). He concluded that the natural language sounded like Phrygian, a language spoken in what would be today's Turkey.
  • The research team that developed the first birth control pill chose to conduct tests in Puerto Rico, thus turning 200 women into guinea pigs for a pill that contained ten times the hormone dosage of modern pills. These women were extremely poorly educated, and their only other option for birth control was sterilization. They were not informed of potential risks, just that the pills prevented pregnancy. The side effects reported (dizziness, nausea, blood clots) were dismissed as the women were deemed unreliable and the implications of discovering the pill outweighed the side effects they reported.