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"The Earthman's walls are crude and literal, so that their existence is obtrusive and obvious - and there are always some who long to escape. The Aurorans' walls are immaterial and aren't even seen as walls, so that none can even conceive of escaping."
Giskard, The Robots of Dawn

A prison doesn't need to have four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. Why would you need those if the prisoner doesn't want to or know how to leave? After all, if you think you are free, no escape is possible. This is the Epiphanic Prison.

As the name implies, the only way to escape an Epiphanic Prison is to have an epiphany. The nature of the enlightenment varies. Sometimes it's self enlightenment, and understanding and mastering one's own fears lets one escape the Ontological Mystery. Sometimes it's understanding of one's surrounding, of why one is trapped, and thus what must be done to escape.

This often overlaps Lotus Eater Machine, Psychological Torment Zone and Tailor-Made Prison. Also see: Armor-Piercing Question and Orphean Rescue.

For a more literal construct, see also City in a Bottle.

Examples of Epiphanic Prison include:

Anime & Manga


  To know your sin is to have no sin.

  • The Animatrix has a story where a professional athlete nearly frees himself from the Matrix by becoming aware of the artificial state of the world around him while breaking the world record of the 100m dash. We think.

 Only the most exceptional people become aware of the Matrix. Most that learn it exists must possess a rare degree of intuition, sensitivity and a questioning nature.

However, very rarely, some gain this wisdom through wholly different means..

  • End of Evangelion, giving ultimate powers over creation to Shinji Ikari? Smooth move Rei...

 Shinji: Nobody wants me. So, everybody just die.

Rei: Then, what are those hands for?

Shinji: Nobody cares whether I exist or not... Nothing will change. So, everybody just die.

Rei: Then, what is that heart for?

    • The series itself features this twice. And only if you only believe in one epiphanic prison in the series finale, which had prisons within prisons.
      • It's been implied or even confirmed by the Series Director that the Universe itself is an "epiphanic prison". If he gets any crazier, he'll extend that concept to all Anime, Fiction, and possibly even Reality itself. No, he's not very mentally stable.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena. In one possible interpretation.
  • Paranoia Agent: The cardboard world that Ikari is trapped in near the end.
  • Angel Beats: Purgatory is only a prison if you let it become one. You have to just let it go if you want to move on.
  • In The Tatami Galaxy, the narrator is trapped in one.

Comic Books

  • Green Lantern
    • Green Lantern Rebirth #4 implied that the Green Lanterns go through this every time they put on their rings.
    • In Green Lantern Corps Annual #2, an imprisoned Sinestro plots to escape by telling stories of the failures of the Guardians and their Green Lanterns to the occupant of the cell next to his, the sapient sector 3600. Said sector is actually a god-like being only held in captivity by its belief in the infallibility of the Guardians who vanquished and imprisoned it long ago. Once Sinestro has convinced it of the fallibility of the Guardians, the being easily opens the cells.
  • V for Vendetta: In a philosophical rather than physical/literal sense, this happens to both Evey Hammond and Eric Finch, in Evey's case due to her long imprisonment by V, and in Finch's, after an acid trip.
  • Inverted in the Fantastic Four when Reed is trapped in Doctor Doom's armor. To get out, he has to learn to think like Doom, thus trapping himself much more profoundly.
  • During a brief tour of Hell in the The Sandman right before he quits and locks it up, Lucifer the Morningstar explains to Dream that Hell is an Epiphanic Prison for the damned. They are trapped in Hell because, deep down, they believe they deserve to be trapped there and that their souls belong to Lucifer. Lucifer denies this, claiming that he has no need for human souls, and that they belong only to themselves — they just hate owning up to it.
  • One issue of Miracleman centers around a spy working in a city called The City for some shadowy ill-defined government agency. They give her missions to relay information to other agents, who are identified using elaborate sign/countersign codes. She's also a double agent for another shadowy, ill-defined government agency who she leaks information to. Eventually she goes AWOL and decides to leave the city, at which point it's revealed that after Miracle Man appointed himself ruler of the entire world and united it under a one-world government, there was no more need for international espionage, and since a lot of ex-spies couldn't function unless they were spying and being secretive, he just stuck them all in one city, wiped their memories of him taking over, and hired 4 people as the leaders of various "agencies". Literally everyone in the city is spying on everyone else while pretending to have regular jobs. And since they technically do have regular jobs, The City still has a viable economy and can contribute to the world without threatening the stability of his government.


  • In Aeon Natum Engel, one of the first thing the therapists teach you on how to do deal with the nightmare caused by witnessing the unspeakable horrors is to employ this belief to your own nightmares.


  • Groundhog Day. The character must find self-enlightenment to finally escape the day. In the original script, the actual condition was getting the girl. However, he had to come to self-enlightenment to get the girl anyway, so...
  • The Matrix has an Inside a Computer System version of this trope.
    • Kind of reversed, actually - you only realise how it was a prison once you've already gotten free. Usually.
      • And invoked even further with the revelations of the the second film. Those in Zion believed themselves free of machine control, and thus were unable to escape the repeating cycles of destruction the machines had created until the Oracle and Neo (both aware of the "prison" by the end) forced a new outcome.
  • In What About Bob, Bob thinks that his therapist has put him in one of these. In reality, he's been tied up by ropes and left next to a ridiculous amount of black powder on a short fuse . . . since his therapist can no longer stand him.
  • In What Dreams May Come, this is the condition for both leaving Earth following his death and for escaping Hell.
  • Wesley Gibson in Wanted lives a crappy life working for a terrible boss, suffering his girlfriend cheating on him with his best friend, and he takes pills to cope with a heart problem. Then a secret society of assassins shows him that the "heart problem" is really his body going winding up for Bullet Time and he's destined to be a huge badass.
  • The Truman Show overlaps this with its own trope, Truman Show Plot, in that Truman doesn't realize he's been living his entire life trapped in a giant dome-shaped TV set and lied to by the people around him to prevent his desire to ever leave his hometown. The show's creator stages events that give Truman phobias and a general fear of the outside world. In the end Truman realizes that these fears are the only thing really keeping him in his prison. If he stops being afraid and really tries to leave, the only way they can stop him is to actually kill him.
  • For Inception, limbo is a very real version of this trope. Is it possible to get out of limbo? Not even the director knows...
  • In THX 1138, the title character is imprisoned in a vast, featureless white room along with a number of others. As it turns out, the doors were unlocked the whole time, everyone was just too passive to check. Later, one of the prisoners who escaped with THX voluntarily returns to the white room because he found the world outside too overwhelming.


  • In the novel Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of The World by Haruki Murakami, the "End of the World" sections take place in a walled town which the narrator must escape in order to reconnect the pieces of his mind before it shuts down completely. He escapes but turns back at the last minute, effectively committing suicide.
  • The Iron Man novel The Armor Trap has Tony Stark trapped in a virtual reality; once he realizes the nature of his prison, he's able to use his ability to interface with computers to hack an emergency signal to War Machine, who rescues him.
  • In Sartre's No Exit, Existential Hell is implied to work this way, but the point is that the characters are so flawed that they will never come to the conclusion themselves (or, more accurately, if you could come to the epiphany yourself you probably wouldn't be there), especially when they collectively hold each other as well as themselves back simultaneously.
  • Sort of used in The MedStar Duology. Padawan Bariss Offee is assigned to a fetid swamp of a world to assist the doctors there; they work on the clones who fight the droids over the bota supply that only grows on this planet. This is supposed to be Bariss's Trial before she can become a knight, which puzzles her. The Trials and whether or not they are standardized is never explained, but just being assigned like this isn't typical. Her Trials don't even involve combat. Any fighting she does is purely because various threats stray into where the field hospital is. At the end of the two books, having undergone Character Development, overcome an addiction to bota, gained and lost friends, and participating in the evacuation as both sides realized that the bota was mutating and becoming ineffective, she realized that her Trial had ended when she recognized that she was a Knight. ...Or something like that. She's a Knight by Revenge of the Sith, anyway.
  • Played with in Otherland, specifically in the case of Paul Jonas, an amnesiac inhabitant of the virtual reality worlds who is, at first, unaware that he's in a simulation. As the story evolves, he manages to regain his memories a little at a time, eventually remembering exactly who he is and how he got there... at which point the realization strikes that he's really a virtual copy of the real Paul Jonas. This realization causes him to cross the Despair Event Horizon, thanks to Cloning Blues, but also gives him the resolve to perform a Heroic Sacrifice which allows the real people trapped in Otherland with him to survive. After everything gets resolved, the heroes then awaken his real self.
  • One of the three key themes in James Joyce's Dubliners is "paralysis": the characters are doomed to stay captive in their unfulfilling lives, because they are mentally unable to contemplate how life can be different.
  • In David Brin and Gregory Benford's Heart Of The Comet, Virginia the computer wiz has her brain uploaded to the AI core she's been trying to create sentience in because her body is too badly injured to live. The "space" in the computer seems too small to fit her mind into it, until she works out a different way of looking at it and arranging herself.
  • The poem To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace. Not really a straight example in that he actually is in a very real prison, and stays there, but the "epiphany" part is what sets his mind free. At any rate, the first two lines of the last stanza are possibly the Ur Example.

 Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.

  • Arguably, hell itself in Niven and Pournelle's Inferno.
  • Referenced in the Discworld novel Small Gods: an Omnian says "we have no word for 'slave'." An Ephebian retorts: "I imagine that a fish has no word for 'water'."
    • Also in from Interesting Times: "something worse than whips".
  • Narnia: In The Last Battle, Calormenes imprison Dwarfs in the Stable. Dwarfs eat rotten turnips and such-like stable detritus. When Aslan triumphs, the Dwarfs are in a beautiful country eating a feast. Being StrawAtheists, they believe they are still in the stable.
  • The Great Divorce portrayed Hell as a very effective version of this: due to a lot of Ignored Epiphany and Redemption Rejection, the vast majority of the damned the author sees truly are incapable of escaping and therefore trapped in Hell for all eternity.
  • The Riftwar Cycle by Raymond E. Feist: The first level of teaching for potential Great Ones in Tsuranuanni is an Epiphanic Prison.
  • Vorkosigan Saga: According to Miles, this is what the Cetagandans were trying to create with their Dagoola IV prison camp in The Borders of Infinity:

 "It's the Cetagandans' plan to break you, and then return you to your world like little innoculated infections, counseling surrender to your people.

"When this is killed," [Miles] touched her forehead, oh so lightly, "then the Cetagandans have nothing more to fear from this," one finger on her bicep, "and you will all go free. To a world whose horizon will encircle you just like this dome, and just as inescapably."

  • According to R. Giskard Relentov in The Robots of Dawn, this is why Earthmen, not Spacers, are destined to settle the galaxy - they at least know that they are trapped.
  • In The Cat Who Sniffed Glue, wealthy parents Nigel and Margret Finch have their twin sons David and Harvey in one of these. They addicted the boys to a life of luxury, then give them just enough of an allowance to let them keep living the good life--as long as they do everything that their parents tell them to do.
  • In The Chronicles of Prydain, Prince Gwydion is held by Achren in what he calls a prison of the soul. He escapes by having an epiphany which causes it to become a Cardboard Prison that can no longer hold him.
  • In Guardians of Ga'Hoole the hagsfiends' descendants are held in the Crystal Palace, kept in by keeping them so pampered that their feathers grow so long that they cannot fly, and they don't care about the outside.
  • In The Wheel of Time this is Ishamael's motivation for serving the Dark Lord: the Wheel has no beginning and no ending, meaning that his soul is bound to be reborn at each turning of the Wheel and fight the same fight again and again. If the Dark Lord wins, tough, he will break the Wheel and remake the world to his image, breaking the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

Live Action TV

  • Heroes: Matt traps Sylar in one of these in Volume 5, though he more intended for it to be an actual prison, as he never meant for Sylar to get out. However, when Peter forces himself into the dream to save Sylar, the two, after YEARS of quarreling, eventually make peace and are able to tear down the literal wall keeping them from waking up.
  • An episode of Life dealt with a murder in a college where an experiment about prison was being conducted. The professor told the guards to do whatever it takes to break the prisoners so they resorted to physical and psychological torture. The object is to get the students to act like prisoners. There's no need for locks, bars or even guards. When one of the students killed one of the guards, you could say it worked.
    • Actually an adaptation of a real-life psychological experiment. Except in this one, the "guards" aren't told to be cruel. They just become that way because they're playing the role of guards. Much scarier.
  • The Doctor Who episodes "The Long Game", "Bad Wolf" and "The Parting of the Ways" do this with the whole population of Earth, and eventually the Doctor and Co. too.

 The Editor: Well, now. There's an interesting point. Is a slave a slave if he doesn't know he's enslaved?

The Doctor: Yes.

The Editor: Aw. I was hoping for a philosophical debate. Is that all I'm going to get? "Yes"?

The Doctor: Yes.

  • The Cube. The Man eventually figures out that he needs an Epiphany to escape, but it proves to be pointless.
  • The djinn of Supernatural "grant wishes" by imprisoning a person in a dream of whatever they wished for. You can bust out by killing yourself.


  • In the Janelle Monae song "Many Moons", the singer seems to suggest that the audience is in such a trap ("You're free but in your mind, your freedom's in a bind...").
  • The Hotel California. "You can check out any time you like/but you can never leave"
    • Also by The Eagles, from their song "Already Gone"; "So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains /And we never even know we have the key."

Tabletop Games

  • The ultimate goal in Wraith: The Oblivion is to Transcend, i.e. to conquer one's own darkest nature, in order to lose one's 'fetters' and Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence.
  • Another White Wolf game, Promethean: The Created, has shades of this. The Prometheans suffer and desperately want to be human. But how? What is it really, to be human? How can these cowardly, weak creatures be worthy of their beautiful souls? How can you earn a soul?
  • Since White Wolf loves this trope... Epiphanic prison is almost literally the condition of the entire human race in Mage: The Ascension. Mages can change Reality, but they have a hard time doing it because most people don't believe Reality can be changed. If everyone on Earth Awakened and realized that they have the power to, together, literally do anything.
  • Mage: The Awakening: White Wolf is at it again! You can actually do this twice. Once, when you Awaken and realise that the entire reality is a prison of the demiurge-like Exarchs. Two, after the Awakening you can conquer the prison of reality and Ascend to the Supernal Realms.
  • Ravenloft: The Darklords are trapped in their Ironic Hell as punishment for their monstrous deeds. The term for such deeds in Ravenloft is "Act of Ultimate Darkness", a near-perfect blend of hypocrisy, depravity, cruelty, and selfishness. The clincher, though, is absolute refusal to acknowledge that what they did was wrong. Indeed, that's part of The Punishment for darklords-that if they worked up the moral strength to admit that what they have done is inexcusable and that they reaped what they sowed, their curse would be moot. But the thing is, if they were capable of admitting they were wrong, they wouldn't be here in the first place. And, surprise, surprise! While originally a TSR setting and currently in the hands of Wizards of the Coast, due to an apparent desire to own every example of this trope in gaming, Ravenloft was owned for all of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 by White Wolf.


  • Planescape: Torment. The Nameless One must find the answer to the question "What can Change the Nature of a Man?" to find out about his past and escape his endless cycle of rebirth.
  • Legacy of Kain: Defiance - At the climax of the game one of the main characters realizes that Nosgoth itself is essentially one giant epiphanic prison, the wheel of fate ruled by the elder god. "All the conflict and strife throughout history, all the fear and hatred, served but one purpose - to keep my master's Wheel turning. All souls were prisoners, trapped in the pointless round of existence, leading distracted, blunted lives until death returned them - always in ignorance - to the Wheel." And having made that epiphany, Raziel knows he alone has the means to correct it...
  • Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner revolves entirely around this concept, especially the one based on Hinduism (see Real Life examples). It even continues after the main character have reached the true world in the sequel.
  • In Umineko no Naku Koro ni the "Meta-World" (where the witches play) might be one of these.
  • the Airship in Rule of Rose is very much one of these, as it mixes together Jennifer's most traumatic experiences and memories together, while forcing her to face them to move forward.

Web Original

  • A plot point in Hitherby Dragons is that people can be seperated from the world by a question they cannot answer. Of the few times these do get answered, the answer is usually along the lines of "the question isn't that important".
  • Website Prison Planet blatantly invokes this.

Web Comics

  • Jack has the residents of Hell, all of whom are stuck there until 1) they realize that what they did to get condemned there was bad and wrong, and manage to admit this to themselves, and 2) ask for forgiveness. After that, it's a matter of working to the point where the angels keeping an eye on things down there are willing to say that you've earned the chance to reincarnate and try again.

    Hell likes to throw curve balls sometimes. At least two of the residents that we've seen so far have either no memory of what they did that got them condemned to Hell — or no memory at all, prior to ending up in Hell. In both cases, it's noted that this kind of screws the individual over. It's also implied, though, that Hell itself may be a Genius Loci that acts as a sadistic jailer. In Jack's case, this was self-inflicted. At the moment of his death, he pleaded with God to erase his memories.
    • What makes it even more of a downer is that we meet more than one or two people who are in Hell, and know exactly, specifically why they are there, and what it would entail to get out. Just one of two problems: 1, they feel they deserve to go unforgiven and suffer forever, or 2, the reason they believe themselves to be in hell is wrong, becoming something of a spiritual wild goose chase.
  • Dominic Deegan gives this treatment to Hell as well. If damned souls are able to acknowledge their sins in life and own up to their past mistakes, their souls explode and return to the Life Stream.

Western Animation

  • In Xiaolin Showdown, an Enemy Mime traps our heroes in an imaginary prison...until they realize they can simply imagine a doorknob to escape.

Real Life

  • Certain Hindu philosophies believe the world to be this. They believe the world is one great 'maya', an illusion to distract us from the enlightenment which can only be found within oneself.
  • The concept of reincarnation, particularly those in Buddhist and Tao philosophy. The self, Buddha said, was distinct from the soul. Death is the destruction of the self, not the soul, which could then be reborn as any animal, as there was no real fundamental difference between animal and man. All were trapped in an endless cycle of Karma. The body and the senses were an illusion, we are in reality just a stream of consciousness, which may eventually break the cycle by attaining 'Moksha', enlightenment.
  • Gnosticism is basically something along the lines of this trope. The general gist of it is that the universe wasn't created by God but Her misguided offspring, the Demiurge. Human souls are trapped in the material world and must, through mystical experience, learn the right secrets (hence "gnosis", "knowledge") that will get them past the Archons after they die, so that they can ascend to the higher, spiritual reality where the true God resides and souls originate.
  • Plato gave us the idea of the world being a cave in which we see shadows dancing on the wall and think they're the reality; only those who turn around and see outside the cave can escape, and when they try to explain things to the people still inside the cave, generally the people still inside the cave think they're nuts. CS Lewis also used this illustration to good effect in some of his theological writings and in the creation of Narnia.
  • The concept of learned helplessness is a real-life form of this. Basically, when an animal is hurt but prevented from escaping, it will learn it cannot escape. Then, even when the barriers which prevented from escaping are removed, it will still not escape as it has learned that it can't.
  • Wilhelm Reich — guru to a few, crackpot to everyone else — believed that a sinister force called the Emotional Plague has put humanity in "the trap". Everyone yearns to leave the trap, but no one dares make a move for the exit, which is supposed to be obvious to everyone entrapped within. There's ... a lot of sexuality and anxiety involved.
  • The feeling of clinical depression, and the epiphany that comes from having overcome it, is a very accurate description of this trope.
  • Cattle guards. Especially the ones that are just painted on the road.