the creature before me seemed to be made of blurred and faded blocks of color, watery chunks of red and blue and purple piled into a loose humanoid form. Teeth the shape of paint brushes, claws in the image of pencils. There was something to be said for being killed by a bad post-modern painting, but I wasn't sure what it was.
—Magical Girl Noir Quest fan work Deliverance
As much as they might scare some people, at least monsters, serial killers, and Primal Fears are scary in a comprehensible way. Menstruating chickens, giant spermatazoa, and a crying baby that looks like a cross between a giant penis and a cow fetus, on the other hand...
This is where Surreal Horror comes in. It's not just nightmare-inducing, it's nightmarish in a literal way, by being surreal, disjointed, dreamlike, and filled with bizarre imagery, usually saying goodbye to all logic and sanity in the process. In some cases, though, it might not always work.
This is likely the main reason clowns are scary.
It might be worth noting that not all Surreal Horror works are considered "horror" in the genre sense, but they're horrifying all the same.
Anime and Manga
- End of Evangelion: The second half, especially when the mass-production Evas become covered in bubbling, multiplying Rei-faces. The spectacle will likely leave you with the same look on your face as Shinji. There is a taste of it as early in the second episode, when Shinji sees the reflection of his Eva after a battle, half its skull showing through broken armor. A giant eyeball regenerates in the socket while he's watching, then it focuses on him. He passes out screaming. The reaction is understandable.
- Cat Soup is this combined with Grotesque Cute.
- The Eclipse (which took place in a nightmare realm called the Nexus) and The Qlippoth in Berserk.
- Serial Experiments Lain, especially episode 5.
- Mononoke has some very surreal moments.
- Paprika, especially later on in the movie.
- Also Paranoia Agent, from the same director of Paprika
- The series version of Vampire Princess Miyu has several episodes that easily fall into the surreal horror category, but as for the last story arc, two words: Chicken. Heads. And it is terrifying.
- Devilman has some moments of Surreal Horror. Like when a demon disguises itself as the water in Miki's bathtub, and attempts to drown her.
- Tsukishima of Bleach has abilities where he can manipulate the memories of anyone he wants. He does this to by inserting himself into Ichigo's life and brainwashing his sisters and friends to think he is their cousin/long-time friend. When Ichigo freaks out and attacks Tsukishima, they think Ichigo is the one who's the bad guy. He does this all without physically attacking or raising a hand against Ichigo.
- The Midnight Parasites, a 1972 Japanese animated short based on the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch with a weird psychedelic rock soundtrack.
- Pretty much every manga by Umezu Kazuo, notably The Drifting Classroom in which an entire elementary school is transported to a nightmarish After the End world, and Fourteen, in which a humanoid chicken (named George) is leading Nature's revenge against the industrialized humanity.
- The works of Junji Ito. Uzumaki and Gyo are what happens when he crosses it with Body Horror.
- The Witches' labyrinths in Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Most of which look like getting attacked by a cross between a Salvador Dali painting and the opening theme song to Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei.
- Mr. Arashis Amazing Freak Show and all of the works of Suehiro Maruo practically define this trope.
- Hieronymus Bosch, who might be the founder of Body Horror.
- A lot of Medieval depictions of hell could go under here too. Bosch's is definitely the strangest, but there's other ones too.
- Francis Bacon.
- Zdzislaw Beksinski's "Fantastic Period" between the '60s and '80s. He said he wanted his work to look like photographs of dreams, not necessarily anything horrific.
- H. R. Giger.
- Francisco Goya's "Black Period".
- Salvador Dali.
- Alfred Kubin (pre-Great War).
- For some reason, almost all art created by schizophrenics.
- Louis Wain, near the end of his life, he suffered from severe schizophrenia, so his comical drawings of cats in human situations transformed into disturbing pictures that hardly resembled cats at all.
- Sandman: The Corinthian has shades of this, where this trope meets the more reasonable horror trope of the Serial Killer. Guy who strips teenage boys to their underwear, ties them up, then cuts out their eyes to eat them? Freaky but not too out of place in a realistic setting. Immortal literal nightmare who's been doing this for about forty years running for his own amusement? Freakier. (And, of course, he has More Teeth Than the Osmond Family in his eye sockets in lieu of eyes. Yet he can still see. And he can eat things with them, like people's fingers if they try to take his shades. And if he eats someone's eyes that way he can see things they've seen.)
- The Grave-Robber's Daughter., and many of Richard Sala's other works.
- Every conversation about Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron will bring up David Lynch.
- Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. Throw Goth, Surreal Humor, Black Comedy and Surreal Horror in a blender and you get this. ...And Jhonen Vasquez's brain.
Films -- Live-Action
- Un Chien Andalou. Watch out for razors. It also contains elements of Surreal Humour, which arguably makes the atmosphere even more unsettling.
- The content of the video tape in The Ring is clearly a homage to this.
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: One of the main reasons this founding work is so creepy. The plot itself generally makes sense, but the set designs, costumes, and overall mood are very dreamlike and strange, even for a silent movie.
- As noted above, Eraserhead is absolute epitome of this trope. Also, Inland Empire. Other David Lynch movies (especially Lost Highway) also show signs of this. A few scenes in Mulholland Drive as well, particularly the Winkies scene and the scenes involving the old people. And practically all of Fire Walk With Me. This is pretty much the David Lynch trope.
- Carnival of Souls is another classic example.
- Jacob's Ladder, which turns out to be the protagonist's Dying Dream, slams back and forth between terrifying weirdness and mundane drama with the abruptness of getting hit over the back of the head with a brick.
- Tetsuo: The Iron Man is this combined with Body Horror.
- Begotten, a silent, black-and-white experimental film that opens with God disembowelling Himself. It just gets weirder from there.
- Several scenes from Angel Heart veer into this territory, most notably the infamous sex scene.
- David Cronenberg has been known to dabble in this, particularly with Videodrome and eXistenZ.
- The ending to the film Society. An incredibly bizarre exercise in Body Horror.
- In the Mouth of Madness.
- Antichrist. Those animals?
- Finnish director AJ Annila's Sauna. Its main antagonist is the titular piece of Sinister Architecture that feels far more sentient and malevolent than an immobile building rightfully should.
- The Beyond.
- Hausu. It's referred to by some as the Japanese Zardoz, for the utter Mind Screw.
- Pi. The entire movie is a Mind Screw.
- Donnie Darko starts with the protagonist waking up on a golf course, and it just gets weirder from there. Like, when a translucent worm thingy comes out of his chest, or when a movie screen implodes.
- And then there's Frank, a creepy guy dressed as a Hair-Raising Hare who saves Donnie from being killed, then proceeds to cryptically order him around.
- Altered States. Guy combines psychedelic drugs with sensory deprivation, and ends up turning into some weird creature from the beginning of the universe.
- Most of Dario Argento's films would qualify.
- All the films of Jan Svankmajer (Alice, Little Otik and Sileni, among others) may classify in this trope.
- The boat ride (click at your own risk) in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. "There's no earthly way of knowing...which direction we are going..." Even the cast didn't know Gene Wilder would be singing.
- Black Swan.
- The 1981 porno Nightdreams was an attempt to make porn that worked as legitimate art. Along the way, something went horribly wrong, and the final product was a bizarre, nightmarish, sick movie that is very disturbing and not the slightest bit arousing. Totally worth checking out.
- Event Horizon went in that direction, since it is about the thin line between our world and a dimension made entirely out of Chaotic Evil.
- The Shining. Are they ghosts, or hallucinations?
- Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is a strange arthouse-horror-sexploitation movie about a demon possessed bed that eats people by melting them with a pee-like substance. It gets way weirder, nonsensical, and trippier from there. And there's a guy who lives behind a painting that constantly talks to the bed with no response. A must see!
- Repulsion enters this territory once Carol's rape fantasies start.
- Hellraiser mixes this with ungodly amounts of Gorn and Body Horror.
- The Woman Who Powders Herself, an insane black and white short from the 70s that features lots of animation effects and disfigurements.
- Ken Russell's Gothic.
- The works of Shozin Fukui, such as 964 Pinocchio (1991) and Rubber's Lover (1996) depict surreal horror in a manner similar to Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
- H.P. Lovecraft
- House of Leaves
- This is the reason some people find Alice in Wonderland to be nightmarish rather than amusing.
- Tim Waggoner does this a lot. Picking Up Courtney is a good short-form example.
- Again Alfred Kubin with his The Other Side.
- Thomas Ligotti.
- Stephen King's From a Buick 8 has as the theme that there are some things you just can't understand and sometimes you'll never have answers. Also, the things that come out of the Buick's trunk make you feel like you're being raped. They're not even malicious, but their bizarre nature horrifies everyone who sees them.
- The Third Policeman is a nightmarishly surreal novel by Irish author Flann O'Brien (think James Stephens meets House of Leaves while being dictated to by Salvador Dali) and after reading you'll probably never look at a bicycle in the same way again...
- Various scenes from Twin Peaks (again by David Lynch), including the dream at the end of episode 2, the Black Lodge scenes in the finale, and every scene with Killer BOB.
- The Danish TV series The Kingdom (Riget), which is set in a hospital and involves such things as the birth of a fully-grown man with way too long legs, and a doctor having the cancerous liver of another man transplanted into his own body For Science! and as a trophy.
- The British series Sapphire and Steel, while nominally SF, is also deeply unsettling in the fashion of a good ghost story—little or nothing is explained in any detail, which tends to enhance the dream-logic feel of the show.
- The Prisoner.
- Garth Marenghi's Darkplace has some comically absurd horrors, like Skipper the Eyechild.
- American Horror Story.
- Neutral Milk Hotel's lyrics fall here pretty often. Especially "A Baby for Pree" and "Two-Headed Boy".
- A lot of Tom Waits' stuff.
- Revolution #9 by The Beatles has this effect on some people.
- As do some of Pink Floyd's early instrumentals, particularly "A Saucerful Of Secrets", "Main Theme", and "Sysyphus".
- You can definitely count also Careful With That Axe, Eugene.
- Rush's "Cygnus X-1", which also overlaps with Cosmic Horror.
- The Residents. Oh dear god the Residents. An avant-garde music group formed in the 1960's who have managed to stay anonymous throughout their whole career. Here's a taste.
- The Eagles' Hotel California. It sounds really cheery, until you listen carefully to the lyrics. Listening carefully, you'll realize that the Hotel California is supposed to be a very bad place, but exactly what it is has led to guesses from a mental hospital to a house of heroin addicts to Hell. "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
- Lio often resembles a Victorian morality fable, but more random. Go fishing? The fish are fighting back, and ready to eat you! Ignore the warning not to go sledding on a particular hill? There's a monster hiding under the snow at the bottom! Naturally, the emphasis here tends to be on the brutal death awaiting those who make the wrong choice.
- The week-long Garfield Story Arc where he wakes up one morning and finds his home inexplicably empty and decrepit, as though no one has lived there for years, and images of the people he knows fade away into nothingness as he approaches them. Yeah, Jim Davis was really going for Something Completely Different in those strips.
Tabletop Roleplaying Games
- The game Normality embodies this trope, as it lacks a dice mechanic and largely consists of furious ranting at a world gone wrong.
- In Deadlands, players may have to run through a session or two of this if they die and come back harrowed or travel through the Hunting Grounds.
- Changeling: The Lost has Arcadia, domains of The Others. The other Dark Worlds in the New World of Darkness pale compared to it, simply due to its sheer variety and absurdity.
- Exalted: The entirety of the Wyld. Mortals entering it will be unmade, but the Exalts might have a slight chance of surviving with both their mind and body intact.
- In JAGS Wonderland, Chessboard One has elements of this. The Chessboards below it are this.
- Rule of Rose
- The Silent Hill series sometimes drifts into this, particularly the nightmare hospital from 3 and its infamous mirror room... Silent Hill 4 also has an infamous hospital room.
- Pyramid Head's appearance is also a visual example of Surreal Horror. Hell, most of the monsters are, but Pyramid Head takes it the furthest.
- American McGee's Alice
- Yume Nikki. Sure, it's a dream, and dreams are weird, but how many people have whole worlds in their head full of bloody eyeballs?
- In Eternal Darkness the Surreal Horror angle runs rampant, especially once your sanity meter runs low. The whole thing is just one big screwed up wide awake nightmare.
- Mondo Medicals and its sequel, Mondo Agency, could be seen as more benign (or not) examples of this trope.
- While much of EarthBound is surreal and trippy, its endgame heads straight into this trope. Mother 3's famous removed unused enemy backgrounds even more so.
- The Path
- The Orz from Star Control 2 are your friendly neighborhood aliens, who look a bit like large parrotfish, and, due to their language being too alien for the Translator Microbes to manage, they also speak in Engrish. And remember: never, EVER ask them what happened to the Androsynth.
- When it isn't a tactical shooter, F.E.A.R. goes for this. One of the highlights of the first game was an extended sequence where you couldn't be sure if the man taunting you was a hallucination or in the room with you, and doors you were trying to flee through seemed to move away from you. It ended with a dive into a pool of blood that left you standing beneath a gore-soaked ceiling. In the first expansion to F.E.A.R, there was a very memorable sequence where the player tries to open a door at the end of a hallway. Finding it locked, you turn around to see that the hallway you had just came down had transformed into the entrance way to an asylum.
- Entering one room and finding it empty, save for an operating chair and a door on the end. Go through that, and find TWO operating chairs. Repeat until blood starts appearing and the increasingly large volume of chairs start getting attached to the walls and the ceiling, as the walls start to progressively cave in. Hmm.
- Survival Crisis Z looks like a standard Zombie Apocalypse at first, but the observant player will notice something... odd about these undead. (For instance, they giggle as they attack.) The farther you get, the crazier it gets.
- The Penumbra series. Starts off as a fairly normal horror scenario of the PC going into a abandoned mine full of savage wildlife to find his father, then you end up in the Elaborate Underground Base of a ancient conspiracy, dodging sentient virus infected zombies, and in the final game you're solving puzzles in a weird mash of all the locations in the first two games, while the PA system begs you not to finish the game so that she won't be alone, and dead supporting characters rant inanely at you.
- Killer7, a technicolor acid nightmare of a video game.
- Drakengard sneaks up on the player, beginning as a dark Medieval European Fantasy that just happens to have weird references to "the Watchers" sprinkled in. The standard ending mostly avoids the trope, but each unlockable alternate ending gets successively more unhinged, till by the fourth there are giant demonic babies falling from the sky.
- Catherine. Never have the consequences of infidelity looked quite so nightmarish.
- The game Eversion is a very happy example of this.
- All of Our Friends Are Dead is a particularly hellish example of this.
- Shadows of the Damned drifts toward this frequently, with content that's as disturbing as it is nonsensical. Somewhere between goats being a source of light and finding out strawberries are made of ground-up tongues, you either learn to just roll with it, or give up.
- Sentinel Returns has been described as "the most terrifying E-rated game ever made". It is set in a surreal, dark, chequered landscape where you play as a robot with the mission to absorb monstrous creatures of flesh and metal called Sentinels before they absorb you, by teleporting to gradually higher altitudes. The landscapes feature trees that look like spermatozoa and breathing boulders with a sphincter on the top. This is the introduction. And the soundtrack has been composed by John Carpenter. By the way, if you're expecting explanation for anything about the game to come from anywhere, you're going to be disappointed.
- I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
- The Binding of Isaac, a deranged tale of a little boy, whose brutally abusive mother intends to sacrifice him to God. Filled with Body Horror, Big Creepy-Crawlies, disturbingly Freudian imagery, and Toilet Humor.
- Maxis's User Created Content game Spore has a subculture among the creators known as UBD, which lives for Surreal and Body Horror, making bizarre, twisted versions of just about any animal, plant, body part (no, not that one), or object you can imagine, as well as a few you thankfully can't imagine. The morbid puns they use for names don't help. Neither does the fact that all of SPORE's hardcoded character animations are goofily exaggerated.
- LSD Dream Emulator is a cult Playstation game in which you explore colorful and quirky dreams, with a lot of randomly generated content. The more dreams you play through, the stranger and more deranged things get.
- The Half-Life mod Cry of Fear features this to some extent throughout but a few "nightmare sequences" use this to even greater effect, the start of one is signified by Alien Geometries and/or hallways and rooms coated in blood.
- In the subway behind the brick wall is an excellent example, after some hallways using Alien Geometry you drop down into a maze covered in blood and full of impossibly tall people bound up in bags with twitching heads that look like they've had their grey-matter squeezed out. All of them are hanging from the ceiling like cattle in a butcher factory and constantly moving around. Touching one results in instant death and the soundtrack does not make things any more pleasant.
- Ao Oni is a distinctly Japanese example of this.
- The white chamber is filled with surreal horror and sudden shifts to a Dark World.
- The Chzo Mythos is particularly noted for its heavy surreal horror.
- David Firth often uses this trope, particularly in Salad Fingers and Spoilsbury Toast Boy.
- CassieIsWatching (an infamous Lonelygirl15 fan created ARG.)
- Marble Hornets, especially the videos made by totheark. A lot of Slendy stories, actually, especially once Sanity Slippage sets in. After all, it's a freaking terrifying meme/artificial Urban Legend where the primary figure is... a tall guy in a suit with no face.
- Cyriak's animations apply a power drill to the Mind Screw.
- Almost everything made by "Somebody" of Newgrounds. Especially his animations "Puppy Whirl" & "Ghost Eater".
- The animated sequences in Pink Floyd's The Wall.
- Superjail. A good portion of Adult Swim shows in general could probably qualify.
- Aqua Teen Hunger Force. It's usually Surreal Humor but occasionally it crosses the line into whacked out nightmares.
- Some episodes of Courage the Cowardly Dog feature this. Nothing gives you nightmares quite like watching a distorted trumpet with a creepy adult's face whisper "you're not perfect."
- RETUUUUURN THE SLAAAAB!
- Not a farmer...
- Thankfully, the show also includes enough Nightmare Retardant to keep you laughing.
- Yellow Submarine at least borders on this trope.
- Fantastic Planet, especially the animals - like the one that traps prey in a cage-like appendage and violently shakes it to death.
- In the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "Nightmares and Daydreams", most of Aang's nightmares (and later, hallucinations) are merely funny. However, his last nightmare before he decides to avoid sleep altogether (leading to the hallucinations) is downright terrifying, even making Momo (the funny sidekick) creepy.
- Zuko's Nightmare Sequence in the episode "The Earth King."
- Dumbo's "Pink Elephants On Parade" sequence could be argued this: giant, colorful elephants with holes for eyes stomping each other and turning into dozens of smaller elephants.
- The paraphernalia wagon sequence from Halloween Is Grinch Night. Starts about 2 minutes in. Have fun.
- The Forest of Still Life in We Are the Strange. Toys and strange machines are scattered haphazardly all around, and then, we're introduced to a rather unnerving stopmotion Creepy Child with a doll's head.
- Svetlonos (The Torchbearer). Made by Václav Svankmajer, the son of the surrealist Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. It combines Greek Mythology and Steampunk with a Nightmarish dose of LSD...
- The collective animation project Hopital Brut (French for "Gross Hospital") has something to do with horrific experiments at the eponymous hospital, including lobotomies that entail the complete obliteration of the rest of the head. It's best not viewed by the faint of heart or the sound of mind.
- Coonskin is a really trippy blaxploitation satire from the man who brought you Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic. Highlights include demons ripping out a man's eyeballs, among other things. Truly worth checking out.
- Adventure Time drifts into this sometimes, particularly the episode "No One Can Hear You" where a deer is depicted with human hands.