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"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."
In many stories, there are some experiences that are so horribly mind-shattering that the usual result is stark raving madness. This is the signature characteristic of an Eldritch Abomination and one of the central tropes of the Cosmic Horror Story genre, but other things can cause it as well, such as prolonged torture or learning Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
There is generally a distinction between things that happen to the mind because of experience and things that are done to the brain. This trope is the former. Thus, insanity caused by drugs or a specific, quasi-magical effect (like a Brown Note) doesn't qualify. Contrast those things with the Shoggoths, who strain people's sanity in spite of never having that as a stated special ability — the thought of them is just that horrible. Confronting a Creature From Beyond The Stars or a Thing That Should Not Exist will lead either to psychological regression into denial, or insanity when the cognitive dissonance becomes too great. H.P. Lovecraft was fond of these; his stories abound with creatures from regions of space where the known laws of nature do not apply, and geometries that violate the laws of physics.
This almost could have been Truth in Television, insofar as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a real mental illness, but a character who Goes Mad From the Revelation usually is portrayed in a more generic insanity, often resembling Freak Outs, catatonia, schizophrenia or most commonly, psychotic mania with Laughing Mad. Sometimes, if you whack someone with the "insane stick" enough times, they'll get Bored with Insanity.
The main inspiration for this trope is the work of H.P. Lovecraft, whose story The Call of Cthulhu is the Trope Namer. Occurs in most of his work and a good deal of Lovecraft-inspired work that use Mad Gods and Eldritch Abominations, indeed Cthulhu-inspired RPGs often make this a game mechanic. Will be absent from stories where you can punch out Cthulhu. Mostly.
The extreme form of a Freak-Out. May take the form of a Heroic BSOD where the thing isn't going to start working again. If the whole nature of the universe is opened to you because of your velocity, this is Ludicrous Speed.
Anime and Manga
- Sasuke. He went nuts after Madara told him what Itachi's true intentions were.
- Also, Deidara. He gets pretty unhinged when he realizes that Itachi's Sharingan is more artful than his bombs.
- Casca in Berserk goes insane during the Eclipse after a harrowing Break the Cutie ordeal that involves being branded for sacrifice, losing everyone in the Hawks to things out of pure nightmare, getting stripped naked and almost getting tentacle raped by demons, and then getting brutally raped by Femto, her former commander turned demon king (and, because of said newly-born demon king status, is inflicting utterly excruciating agony on her through her Brand all the while that he's doing this to her), right in front of the man she loved. As Guts is held down and Forced to Watch it happen.
- It speaks volumes about Berserk that the following words are being typed: And then? It Got Worse.
- A few characters in Higurashi no Naku Koro ni arguably experience this, most definitely Keiichi and Shmion.
- Suzu in Peacemaker Kurogane becomes Axe Crazy and a Depraved Homosexual after finding his beloved master dead, and being raped by an old man.
- The reason Schwarzwald from The Big O goes mad and decides to destroy Paradigm City is because he figures out the show's Ontological Mystery (or at least part of it... it's a big mystery).
- Sensui from Yu Yu Hakusho definitely saw some things he shouldn't have, that broke his brain... literally. However, the madness was aided and abetted by the Chapter Black tape.
- Ralph Werec of Soukou no Strain went from perfect soldier to traitorous Omnicidal Maniac when he saw that his people had created the Humongous Mecha he was piloting by killing harmless little alien girls for their Psychic Powers. However, though his reaction is understandable, when one of the sort-of-survivors shows Sara the story in a vision, she keeps her own sanity. Mind you, Ralph also got sucked into a dimensional rift that gave him terminal cancer directly after said vision.
- Definitely happens to Shinji in The End Of Evangelion when the ritual to awaken Lilith/Rei Ayanami reduces him to a fit of shrieking omnicidal insanity. It didn't help that he had just seen Asuka's torn-apart remains only about a minute earlier.
- More or less every single Tipharian in Battle Angel Alita that learns "the secret of Tiphares" (Tipharians undergo a special ceremony at the age of nineteen. During this ceremony, the brain of the Tipharian is replaced with a computer chip) is driven insane. Most commit suicide.
- Alita is a citizen of Tiphares thanks to Desty Nova. Heroic BSOD time!
- In Fantastic Children, scientist Dr. Radcliffe became obsessed with unraveling the mystery of the Children of Befort. Needless to say, the more he found out, the madder he went. He could have been saved a lot of suffering if he knew that his theory was actually as far from the truth as you could get.
- Space Pirate Mito: Masatsuki Nenga goes totally batshit insane when he comes to the realisation that his "Justice" is nothing more than a tool of oppression (one that has no issue shooting down a "mob" of villagers, men, women and children) used by a pretender to the throne. This leads to about two episodes worth of him screaming "I AM JUSTICE!" at the top of his lungs whilst firing his gun like the lunatic he is. This would be fine all in all, but the guy doesn't look older than 12.
- Big Bad Millions Knives from Trigun has this as his manga origin story. (In the anime he just decided Humans Are Bastards for semi-logical if not terribly extreme reasons, and then went Evil Plan on them and his brother. In the manga, he was a sweet boy who snapped after discovering the Awful Truth--that there had been an 'Independent Plant' born before him and his brother, and the crew had studied her right to death.
- Notably, if you didn't already know who was going to grow up to be the villain, it would look like Knives handled it better than Vash. They both locked themselves in and attempted to starve to death together, but after Rem broke in and saved them it was Vash who did the Creepy Laugh and Humans Are Bastards and hysteria, and Knives seemed...perfectly okay. He saved his freak-out until after he'd set up all the colony ships to crash.
- Digimon Adventure 02: Certainly not the only factor in his descent, but his visit to the Dark Ocean a perpetually dark realm, populated by various Lovecraftian horrors and where Love and Hope are a foreign concept, was definitely the Straw that Broke the Camel's Back for Ken Ichijoji. One look at his expression in that scene is enough to convince you that this kid just went off the deep end.
- On Moonphase, Kouhei experiences temporary madness after his new power lets him see Hazuki's true form, after which he temporarily becomes a trembling wreck who screams like a madman every time he sees her, he eventually gets over it though.
- In Chrono Crusade, Aion has a tenuous grasp on his sanity after he's Mind Raped by Pandaemonium and discovers the Awful Truth of his origins.
- Approximately 2/3 of the people who complete Friend's VR, which purportedly reveals his face, are Driven to Suicide. It's not his face.
- Towards the end of Gankutsuou Heloïse Villefort, who seems perfectly normal in her first appearances, is revealed to actually be a murderous woman who's out of touch with reality. When her husband tells her to her face that she's just a murderous Bitch in Sheep's Clothing, and reveals that he knows she's been trying to kill him and their daughter Heloise collapses to the floor, finally giving into her insanity. Her husband then has her committed to an insane asylum for the rest of her life.
- Perfect Blue: In the anime's denouement, Rumi is permanently delusional and institutionalized.
- Most of the characters in the visual novel Saya no Uta are absolutely nuts by the time any of the three endings are over. Ryouko Tanbou, Fuminori's doctor, particularly suffers. After witnessing the reality of Dr. Ougai's experiments more than a year before the story, she's a classic case of paranoia who through her own intelligence has kept her paranoia carefully hidden in every day interactions.
- Occurs to one of the astronomers in Hellstar Remina when he realizes that Remina's a sentient Planet Eater...and it's headed for Earth.
- Russia from Axis Powers Hetalia. This trope is played totally straight with him during the Bloody Sunday strip, in which he snaps and starts to mow down his own people on the grounds that, basically, "they're not really Russians if they don't love me".
- In the Halo Legends segment Homecoming a few of the escaped Spartans find out they've been replaced with clones leading a few to commit suicide.
- Happens to Sayaka Miki, and Mami Tomoe from the third alternate timeline in Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Sayaka starts losing it as she realizes that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, and ends up becoming the witch known as Oktavia Von Seckendorff since she brought hope to others only to lose herself to despair; the third Mami goes insane with grief after the Sayaka of her continuity also becomes Oktavia and is killed by Homura, since she cannot handle the Awful Truth that being a Puella Magi means; she kills Kyouko and gets ready to kill Homura, so Madoka has to Mercy Kill her.
- In Fullmetal Alchemist, it's strongly implied, and possibly outright stated, that the experience of going through the Gate is so "awful" that even if you did manage to survive through the pain of whatever it took from you, you could wind up a vegetable.
- School Days's Kotonoha and Sekai. Both are dumped by a Jerkass Makoto Ito and have realized that he's also screwed around with their best friends. Kotonoha's eyes turn dark around the later half of the anime.
- In Monster after Nina recovers all of her memories and realizes that the memories her evil twin brother Johan thinks are his are really hers (it's complicated), she nearly commits suicide. Thankfully Dr. Tenma intervenes just in time to avert a potentially HUGE Tear Jerker.
- Apparently, this is what happened to Kaafai in Haou Airen when Hakuron raped his new friend Kurumi in front of him.
- Also sorta invoked by Reilan in her Thanatos Gambit, in which she first sets up Kurumi for gangrape, and then verbally provokes Hakuron into killing her - all to break Kurumi's mind further. It almost worked.
- If you think humongous mecha don't have an eldritch abomination of their own, you'd be wrong. The original Marvel run of the Transformers featured Unicron, a planet eating physical god disguised as a giant robotic planet. His appearance in that run of the comics causes Brainstorm, an otherwise quiet, sensible, and reasonable Autobot who is looked up to by the others as a paragon of forethought and planning, to utterly lose it and simply start babbling a rapid fire “No!” while trying to shoot the planet sized monstrosity with a dinky laser pistol doesn't end well for him. For comparison, it's a bit like if you were suddenly attacked by Satan if he were the size of the Earth; the realization that the threat is real and the monster has a form far outside what
you were ready to deal with could break even the most level headed individual.
- And then it happens to Shockwave, as well, who for the first time ever can't figure out what he's seeing, and just stands and stares at what's happening. He has to rely on Starscream for help.
- Apparently the case with Galvatron II. Being empowered by Unicron is what drove him insane. The inverse seems to happen toward the end of the marvel comic series. Galvatron runs into Megatron, flies into a rage and begins to mercilessly beat him. But then he has the sudden realization that he’s trying to kill himself. And that causes Galvatron to regain at least some of his sanity.
- From The Sandman: "Not knowing everything is all that makes it okay sometimes." May explain why Delight became Delirium.
Particularly in her little speech in Season of Mists (I think), when she snaps at Desire for belittling her, and says that she knows things, things that not even Destiny (who knows everything) knows.
- The Joker is like this at least some portrayals, more so than most Batman villains. More than one interpretation (including the 1989 movie) has shown him bursting into maniacal laughter after seeing his chemically-disfigured reflection for the first time. His fellow Rogues Gallery members are listed alongside him under Freak-Out.
- For instance, The Killing Joke. Possibly subverted by Commissioner Gordon's resistance to Joker's attempts to drive him (no pun intended) batshit crazy in the same graphic novel.
- The Comedian appears to go medium-mad when he stumbles on the secret island prior to the events of Watchmen, although his behaviour (breaking in to the home of an ex-villain whom "he knew wouldn't understand," weeping uncontrollably, and expressing remorse for all the horrible things he's done which nonetheless pale in comparison to the plot he's uncovered) may be attributable more to a massive attack of conscience and ethical sensitivity, thus arguably making him more, not less, sane. A more straightforward example from this work would be Rorschach's Despair Event Horizon, upon discovery of a little girl's butchered remains, which transforms him from a relatively rational crimefighter into a pathologically obsessed Nietzsche Wannabe intent on imposing his own brutal, uncompromising justice on what he sees as an uncaring, meaningless world.
- Dr Manhattan also deserves a mention, having been through something very like the Total Perspective Vortex and then acquired the power of God. He doesn't exactly go mad, but he certainly wasn't the same person after his experience.
- In an issue of The Fall of Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep reveals his true form to the inhabitants of a biker bar: by the time he's left, everyone in the bar is sporting Milky White Eyes and catatonic with shock, except for the bartender, who is busily setting himself on fire.
- Cy has had the dubious honour of Going Mad From The Revelation twice in the same series. The first bout of insanity occurs when Nyarlathotep whispers his true name in his ear; after spending the rest of the evening and the next morning in shock, and attempting to commit suicide, Cy finally descends into catatonia for the next year. The second time is some time after Cy's recovery, when he manages to save the world by sending Nyarlathotep back to the court of Azathoth; unfortunately, he manages to catch a glimpse of its main occupant. Cy doesn't survive this next brush with insanity.
- In Spanish comic-book Mortadelo Y Filemon , the title characters are tortured by their boss with an LP of Spanish blockbuster songs (apparently repeated ad infinitum). Thy are driven mad, and other characters talk about the cruelty.
- In Captain Britain, the precognitive Cobweb goes mad when she makes the mistake of looking into the very near future, which has just been invaded by a cybernetic nightmare from another dimension and is steadily being dominated by an insane reality-warping Prime Minister by the name of Mad Jim Jaspers. Naturally, after puking her guts out and mumbling a few garbled prophecies, she tries to swallow her tongue.
- Captain Britain himself had his own brush with this trope when he was first confronted with a supernatural occurrence he couldn't dismiss or explain away - in this case, extradimensional beings contacting him in the middle of a Trans-Atlantic flight. He promptly freaked out and jumped out of the plane. Note that at this point in time, Brian got his powers from an amulet and scepter given to him by Merlin and Arthur. (Yes, them). This has been retconned at some point to Brian getting his brains rattled by a psychic attack and jumping to protect the plane's passengers (At this point he couldn't fly yet).
- According to Shattered Glass