You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
—Talking Heads, "Once In A Lifetime"
The characters are locked in, have no idea how they got there, why they're there, or how to get out, nor do they know exactly who is behind their predicament, if anyone. Welcome to an Ontological Mystery.
The main thrust of such stories is the investigation of the restricted environment in which the characters find themselves, with the goal of mastering it, revealing its secrets, and eventually escaping. Often those approaching the truth are sharply yanked back.
The genre is usually a metaphor for the unknowns and Big Questions of Real Life: what is my purpose, why are we here, what can be done to solve the unsolvable?
The Ontological Mystery is referred to as a Spooky Jamjar when set in Forum Roleplays. Here, it is used as a convenient scenario to force together dissimilar characters who would otherwise just leave the party, while also driving the plot.
May overlap with Small Secluded World, World Limited to the Plot, Alternate Universe, Planet of Hats, Adventure Towns or Lotus Eater Machine. Almost always employs Failure Is the Only Option and a veritable swarm of Schrodinger's Butterflies to obfuscate issues. There's usually a Nietzsche Wannabe in the cast.
See also the Quest for Identity, where the main character doesn't even know who he is. A subtrope of the Driving Question. The simpler versions are You Wake Up in a Room. Often spawns an Escape From the Crazy Place. Some are examples of Beautiful Void. Some fans may want it to Leave the Plot Threads Hanging. See also Send in the Search Team, when the characters do know how they got there, and now they need to find out what happened. May have an Amnesiac Hero.
A variation of Driving Question.
Compare Epiphanic Prison.
Anime & Manga
- Megazone 23
- The Big O, where the whole city is in this situation.
- Ergo Proxy has plenty of these, though only in individual episodes (e.g. 11, 14, 15, and 19)
- Haibane Renmei: the precise nature of the town of Glie is left mysterious throughout, and although there is a way for the Haibane to leave, it's never clear where they go or how, leading to speculation among fans that Glie is an allegory for Purgatory, or that it IS Purgatory.
- Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer
- Princess Tutu: Hints dropped in the first half and then part of the plot in the second half.
- Drifting Classroom
- Angel Beats!
- Ah! My Goddess
- In Gosick Kazuya and Victorique end up on a ship that's pretty mysterious. Although they DO know how they got there (from a ticket given to a dead woman they didn't want to let go to waste) in flashback scenes the original children sent to the ship 20 years earlier was very much an Ontological Mystery. For Victorique it's solving the mystery AGAIN in order to survive.
- Waking Life: The entire movie revolves around attempts by the protagonist to wake up from a possibly terminal dreamstate.
- Cube, its sequel Hypercube, and its prequel Cube Zero.
- Although in Cube Zero, at least one of them does know how they got in.
- Jim Henson's The Cube, unassociated with the above film series.
- Dark City: A textbook example.
- As is the Source Code.
- The first Saw movie. In later movies it is already established who is behind all of it, although the Ontological Mystery still applies to specific (groups of) characters.
- Groundhog Day
- Identity: All the guests are trapped in the motel during a bad rainstorm that knocked out the power lines, ensuring that no one can call for help. The ontological mystery part is, that everything is happening in the mind of a single person who suffers from multiple personality disorder (the ten guests all represent one personality).
- The Exterminating Angel
- The Fountain portrays existence on this earth as an ontological trap that can only be escaped through death. The protagonist refuses to accept this and, having eaten from the bark of the mythical tree of life at the fountain of youth, becomes doomed to outlive the rest of humanity, trapped in a spaceship on the edge of a dying star.
- Paycheck, which really isn't surprising since it's based on a Philip K. Dick short story (of the same name).
- Eden Log
- Pandorum, which bears more than a few similarities to Eden Log and Twelve Thirteen.
- Alien Cargo
- House of 9
- Mindhunters has definite shades of this. The characters do know why they're on a secluded island: as part of an FBI profiler training exercise. It doesn't take long before they're completely cut of from the outside world and it turns out that there's a killer amongst them who starts murdering them one by one.
- Memento has the protagonist (and the viewer) in a constant state of ontological mystery due to his ongoing amnesia.
- Exam has the characters at a job interview in which they are presented with a 'test' that turns out to be a blank sheet of paper. They have to work out what the problem is then solve it, and they're all rivals for a highly sought after job. If any of them leave the room, they lose the chance. It gets LOTS worse...
- Nine Dead. The protagonists all wake up in a cell chained to a wall. Their captor tells them that one of them will die every ten minutes unless they can tell him why they are there.
- Captivity, a 2007 thriller film starring Elisha Cuthbert.
- For Inception, one of the clues that you're in a dream is when you can't remember how you got to where you are.
- In the H.P. Lovecraft short-story "The Outsider" a man has lived his whole life in a dark castle beneath an all-enclosing forest that blocks out the sky. Yet, he feels strangely that he has not always been there...
- In William Sleator's House of Stairs, five teenagers wake up in the titular House of Stairs. It's a giant complex of interlocking stairs and platforms, but none of the stairs lead out, they only connect to other parts of the maze.
- Issola: A couple of people our hero considered completely indestructible have gone missing. Not even Sethra Lavode, who very much deserves her Shrouded in Myth status, can find them by herself. She, does, however, know how to get Vlad there, and he arrives to find his two incredibly Badass friends stuck in apparently unbreakable, seamless chains in an empty room with no exits that appears to be on another planet. The plot hinges on figuring out how the hell the bad guys managed it, and why.
- Minotavr (Minotaur), a Russian novel.
- The Helmet of Horror by Victor Pelevin. Several people wake up in rooms connected only by a chat-like computer system; each room opens into some sort of labyrinth. Some labyrinths are real, some metaphorical, and one is accessible only through dreams.
- In the Dungeon series, beings from all times and spaces are brought to a nine-leveled artificial prison called the Dungeon. At no point in the series is the Dungeon's origins, masters or purpose made clear, only speculated on.
- Ilium by Dan Simmons comes close, even though it spans three planets rather than a room. The mystery is just what has happened between our time and this imaginary far future to make the latter so bizarre. For a start, where did all those Greek gods using advanced technology and living on Mars come from? The characters on Earth in particular take their condition as a mystery to be solved and try to escape the definite confines that are set upon them even as they are able to teleport around the world freely.
- The Trial by Franz Kafka
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.
- And he never does find out what he's supposed to have done, either.
- Also by Kafka, The Castle. A surveyor is summoned to the town surrounding a tremendous castle of Obstructive Beaurocrats, and nobody is sure why; the hero thinks he knows who he needs to talk to so he can find out, but first he has to get an appointment with the undersecretary and convince him to give him an appointment with the regular secretary...and so on. He is also inexplicably appointed two childish assistants that mostly just make fun of him. The book was never finished, so it's not clear if there ever was an ending.
- The Maze Runner has the main protagonists trapped in a maze. The sequel, The Scorch Trials, is about them trapped in the deserts of a future Earth.
- Both Buffy and Angel did this in one episode each: "Tabula Rasa" for Buffy and "Spin The Bottle" for Angel. In both cases, a spell intended to affect memories went wrong and resulted in the entire main cast losing their memories. In "Tabula Rasa", they got complete Identity Amnesia. In "Spin The Bottle", they got Identity Amnesia removing all memories since their teenage years, which still complicated things because they each spent their teenage years very differently. Especially the 200-year-old vampire. In both cases, there were many logical but amusingly wrong deductions made about what was going on before they managed to undo the spell.
- The Langoliers
- 1977's Fantastic Journey
- Land of the Lost
- The Prisoner
- Life On Mars
- Star Trek: The Original Series had several episodes based on or employing this subgenre:
- The original pilot, "The Cage"
- "The Empath"
- "The Mark of Gideon"
- Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- "Remember Me"
- "Cause and Effect"
- "The Next Phase"
- "Frame of Mind"
- Stargate Atlantis: "Tabula Rasa"
- The Avengers: "The House That Jack Built"
- The Twilight Zone: "Five Characters in Search of an Exit", "Stopover in a Quiet Town," and the pilot episode "Where is Everybody?".
- Doctor Who, "Bad Wolf", where the Doctor and Rose participate in a Deadly Game Show.
- And "The Mind Robber" from the classic series.
- "The God Complex" with a nightmarish hotel that has a room for everyone, is a very straight example. The Doctor even lampshades it.
The Doctor: Big day for a fan of walls!
- Day Break
- In 1969 NBC aired an hour long teleplay about a man trapped in a cube, wondering what was real and what wasn't. It was written and directed by Jim Henson of all people in a very un-Muppety not-played-for-laughs kind of way.
- Nowhere Man - Of the Loss of Identity variety.
- Persons Unknown
- The Outer Limits: "The Probe", the last episode of the original series.
- Tower Prep
See full list: Category:Spooky Jamjars
This is a common setting for forum roleplays, called a Spooky Jamjar in that context. So common that it's really a whole genre.
- Ruby Quest, an interactive, multiplayer story, as played on 4chan.
- The Strangerhood uses this as its main point combined with a hint of Laser-Guided Amnesia.
- No Exit, probably one of the most famous examples.
- Waiting for Godot
- Endgame also, with a Just Before the End flavor to it.
- Six Characters in Search of an Author is Luigi Pirandello's way of making the theater itself into an Ontological Mystery.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Repeatedly discussed by the titular characters
- Part of the premise of Bionicle. Although the characters themselves don't ask questions relating to how they, a bunch of sentient cyborgs, came to be living a primitive lifestyle on a tropical island, Word of God has stated that this was a major source of the series' appeal in the early years, as the viewer would be curious as to how this situation came about. The Matoran were unaware that they were suffering from mass amnesia, so they were just as surprised as the viewers were when their origins were slowly revealed over the next few years of storyline.
- An entire genre of web games, the "escape-the-room game", is based on this, with the player being trapped in a room and having to search the whole place for items in order to get out. It typically starts with some Easy Amnesia to explain why the player doesn't know how they got into the room. Examples include Crimson Room and its sequel Viridian Room, and Mystery of Time and Space.
- Countdown by Access Software (released in around 1991) opens with the protagonist waking up in a mental asylum without memory
- Myst is probably one of the most famous examples of this. Interestingly, the rest of the series avoids the trope except for End of Ages.
- Only because you know where (if not who) you are from the first game.
- The 7th Guest
Ego: How did I get here? I remember...nothing.
- Portal, a unique all-puzzle Gaiden Game for Half-Life.
- Neku in The World Ends With You, and technically any Player who bet their memories on winning the Reapers' Game.
- 5 days a Stranger from the Chzo Mythos series.
- Twelve Thirteen by the same author.
- Planescape: Torment can be seen as an example of what happens when someone makes a 50+ hour epic out of this trope.
- The Neverhood begins with our hero Klaymen trapped in a room (see above) with no information, and goes from there.
- eXperience112 (The Experiment in America), the player is trapped in a control room with no memory how he got there. Notable in that you do not leave the room - you use its controls to manipulate another character into solving puzzles for you.
- In Eternal Sonata, Frederick Chopin views all of the events that transpire in the game as nothing more than a dying dream. Finding out whether or not that's true is a major element to the story.
- The white chamber: You wake up in a coffin on a space station. You can leave, but you'll die of asphyxiation.
- Theresia for the DS fits this perfectly, with the main character slowly regaining her memories throughout the game, and the house is filled with deadly traps.
- Silent Hill 4: The Room - the only chapter in the series in which the protagonist didn't willingly enter.
- This style is one of the oldest computer games: Adventure, originally copyright 1973; Adventures in 4 dimensions, originally copyright 1979, updated in the early 90's; and The Count which was originally written for the TRS-80, which was only sold from 1977 to 1981.
- The beginning of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask certainly qualifies. Link is sent into a parallel world after being transformed into a Deku Shrub and finds himself in the middle of a strange town, unable to escape because there are guards in every exit blocking his path. He needs to find out exactly where he is, what is going on and how to return to normal in three in-game days' time before the world ends. Afterwards, the game starts to play like a regular Legend of Zelda game.
- The prologue of Amnesia the Dark Descent. The rest of the game is about rediscovering your past identity and past actions. Which are far from pleasant.
- The goal in Rule of Rose is to learn of Jennifer's past and come in terms with it, making it a straight example of this trope.
- Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors: You wake up in an early 20th century 3rd class cabin, in a flooding ship, actually, a recreation of a flooding ship, and must escape in under 9 hours when the floodgates reopen and the ship does its submarine impression.
- Sub Machine, a point-and-click adventure series has, since 2005, captivated audiences with its infinite layers of complexities and strange dimention-warping room-escape-esque games.
- Even when in a literally infinite open space, you still cannot escape.
- In ATLUS' game Catherine every one of the sheep in the Nightmare World start off completely oblivious, including Vincent. Many conversations on the landings involve trying to discover who the rumored witch is, why they are there, and whether or not there even is an exit. The only sure exit from these nightmares is death. The trials themselves are highly symbolic of maturity, dealing with Vincent's unwillingness to take responsibility.
- The main characters of Level Up! are a girl with no backstory, and a guy with no memories. Who lands on her fence.
- Fragile Dreams is a variation of this. The game is basically "the last man on earth went outside."
- The Ends has as a central plot element the question of whether the inhabitants really exist or are simply living out a self-inflicted hell created when they blew themselves up in a nuclear apocalypse.
- Blank It takes place entirely in this scenario, with the two main characters appearing unexplainably in a blank white void.
- Problem Sleuth starts off in a rather simple locked room version of this, but rapidly grows to encompass an imaginary universe, demonic mafia kingpins and a army of courtesan angels. In the end however, the main character goal is to escape the office building they start off mysteriously trapped in and reach the streets of the real world.
- Homestuck: A young boy starts a multiplayer video game and finds himself and his house are suddenly Trapped in Another World, while back on Earth meteors are destroying civilisation. That's only the beginning, however...
- Voices starts out as this.
- A Beginner's Guide to the End of the Universe
- Superego has ten individuals trapped in an Abandoned Hospital in the middle of an abyss, and they have to work together to somehow get out.
- Twelve Ounce Mouse (Possibly... who really knows what that show is about?!?)
- As near as can be said with any certainty, the character Mouse himself almost definitely realizes he is one personally when memories of appears to be a wife and family prompt him to reflect that he really doesn't remember anything from his own past much before the series.
- In My Life as a Teenage Robot, the "Enclosure of Doom" episode starts with Jenny and Killgore regaining consciousness inside a high-tech structure, complete with Death Course, with no idea how they got there. It turns out they're trapped inside Armagedroid, Killgore's Humongous Mecha.
- The plot of the 2007 The Simpsons episode "Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind". Homer spends the episode trying to regain his memories of the previous night. Invoked Trope because Homer accidentally learned about a surprise party the town was holding for him, and asked Moe to concoct a Gargle Blaster that would un-spoil the surprise for him.