WikEd fancyquotes.pngQuotesBug-silk.pngHeadscratchersIcons-mini-icon extension.gifPlaying WithUseful NotesMagnifier.pngAnalysisPhoto link.pngImage LinksHaiku-wide-icon.pngHaikuLaconic
File:PDVD 396.jpg

General Zod... now in RHOMBO-VISION.

Got a prisoner neither bars nor chains can hold? Flatten them down to two dimensions, and stick them in a picture. From such a prison there can be no escaping, theoretically. As an added bonus, these pictures also make great Soul Jars.

Life inside the picture can vary in many ways, starting with how much freedom the prisoner has.

  • Soul Jars - The soul is trapped in the painting, but the body is free to move around.
  • Suspended Animation - The prisoner is not aware of time passing, but is frozen in one moment
  • A living death - The prisoner is aware of time passing, but can't move inside the picture. Sometimes he can communicate with people in the real world.
  • Portal Picture - The picture is a gateway to another world, in which the prisoner is now trapped.

Generally, in the first two cases the prisoner does not age. With portal pictures they usually do, but in the third case both alternatives are reasonably common.

Methods of releasing the prisoner also vary. With cursed pictures, simply looking at them can release the captive, who gets replaced by the viewer. Pictures holding villains are a form of Sealed Evil in a Can, and the prisoners usually can only be freed by sinister rituals. Those holding heroes are more likely to respond to such things as the tears of a true love, or to require epic deeds to be done in the world within the painting.

While oil paintings are traditional, any kind of picture can be used. Another common variant is to use a mirror. With these, people looking in the mirror may see the prisoner in place of their reflection, or dimly superimposed on it.

If the person is forced to immobility, may become a case of And I Must Scream. This sort of trap has a strong possibility of being the work of a Mad Artist. Compare Crystal Prison.

The Harry Potter-style pictures, which are alive but aren't trapped people, are a borderline case.

Examples of Phantom Zone Picture include:


  • The anime Le Portrait de Petite Cossette is all about such a cursed portrait.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh!, people's souls were often trapped within playing cards. The card art looked much like paintings of said souls.
  • Nehelenia in Sailor Moon could trap people in mirrors.
  • In Mail (a supernatural detective thriller from the same author as "The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service"), the 12th chapter in the 2nd volume has a portrait of a terminally ill girl. When people learned about her condition, most of them took pity on her and would keep on trying to motivate her to live when all she really wanted was to die. Even after she died, the motivation from people was so strong that her spirit lived on, trapped within that portrait. Of course, her spirit manages to escape the portrait from time to time to attempt suicide...usually with the body of whoever happens to be close by...
  • In Naruto, Sai can do this.

Comic Books

  • In one Doom Patrol story, the heroes had to save the entire city of Paris from being trapped in a magic painting by the Brotherhood of Dada (who are based on an actual artistic movement.)
  • In All-Star Squadron #64, the Golden Age Superman villain Funny Face tries to trap Firebrand by transferring her into a cartoon drawing with the same device that he uses to transfer cartoon villain drawings into real people. Note that this was a Post-Crisis revision of a Superman story with the All-Star Squadron substituting for the non-existent Golden Age Superman.


  • In the first Superman movies, the Phantom Zone was portrayed in this manner, which is different from the comics.
  • In the Olson Twins vehicle Double, Double, Toil and Trouble, the major conflict of the plot is the Farmer twins' attempts to free their Aunt Sofia from a mirror she was trapped in by her twin. This is somewhere between the third and fourth versions of the trope.
  • Used to comedic effect in Gremlins II. A gremlin, which is manifested as lightning, is trapped on hold in the phone system.
  • Vigo the Carpathian used a painting of himself as a Soul Jar in the second Ghostbusters movie.


  • Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is an early example of the Soul Jar variant.
    • Graham Masterton's Family Portrait has an entire family of sociopaths using this method, named after Dorian Gray.
  • The Witches by Roald Dahl has an anecdote about a girl who was trapped in a picture by a witch. She was seen to age in the painting and moved around (but no one actually saw her move), eventually disappearing altogether. In the book she accepted an apple from a witch, in The Movie she was simply grabbed off the street, she was going to buy some milk in both instances.
  • The Golden Key (Melanie Rawn, Kate Elliott and Jennifer Roberson): A painter imprisons his first love(/cousin) in a Portal Picture, where time passes much more slowly.
  • Melanie Rawn uses the mirror variant in her solo Dragon Star books. Unfortunately, there's no way of removing the character from the mirror. Breaking it will only result in them being stuck in every single shard.
  • A prison mirror is the title concept in the Doctor Who Expanded Universe novel Martha In The Mirror. The Doctor makes a Continuity Nod to (television spoiler) what he did to Sister Of Mine at the end of "The Family of Blood".
    • The Eighth Doctor Adventures novel Demontage features a device that can trap people in paintings; if they remain there too long, they're trapped permanently.
  • This is strongly implied to be the fate of Fulgrim after his Demonic Possession, trapped in a picture of himself with an expression of horror forever as a greater demon has taken up permanent residence in his body and left the picture alone in the dark, where presumably nobody will ever find it or know what happened to the real Fulgrim.
  • Simon R. Green's The Bones of Haven has Messerschmann's Portrait, a painting that works as a magical booby-trap: if a person looks into it for too long, they end up trapped in the highly unpleasant landscape of the painting, from which they can only be released if someone else falls for the trap and takes their place. Someone who spends too long trapped in the portrait comes out no longer entirely human, and completely insane.
  • Same concept, different media: Crowley from Good Omens traps a hostile demon in the tape from his answering machine.
  • The Choose Your Own Adventure book The Vampire Express has, as a MacGuffin, a portrait of the titular vampires from when they were still human. It's kept in a special crate and is effective as a weapon against them .
  • Queen Etheldredda's portrait in Septimus Heap is used as a trap for the titular Queen and her pet.

Live Action TV

  • Port Charles, after its Supernatural Soap Opera Retool, had an arc about one of Allison's ancestors being trapped in a painting until she could be posthumously cleared of a centuries-old murder.
  • In the Doctor Who story "The Family of Blood", the mirror variant was the fate of Sister of Mine.
    • And then there are those drawings made by that Creepy Child in Fear Her.
    • Lots of people get trapped in paintings in the Sarah Jane adventure Mona Lisa's Revenge.
    • Done first in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors as a means of capturing said Doctors, The Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith.
  • Power Rangers SPD: Alien criminals are basically turned into playing cards.
  • This trope is named for the visual effect used to depict people trapped in the Phantom Zone in Smallville.
  • Used both in Charmed episode 3 season 2 The Painted World, and in episode 7 season 8 The Lost Picture Show.
  • Lewis Carroll's mirror turns out to be one of these in Warehouse 13.
  • Sapphire and Steel - Assignment 1 features Sapphire almost being killed by Roundhead soldiers while stuck in a painting, and Assignment 4 is mostly about people who belong in photographs being taken out of them and people who don't belong in photographs being taken into them.

Tabletop Games


  • In Bionicle, Teridax does this to Miserix by forcing him to shapeshift into a Picasso-type picture, combined with a Mind Rape that convinces Miserix that he's dead and unable to move. He gets better.

Video Games

  • The SNES RPG Illusion of Gaia had the insane artist Ishtar, who trapped people in their own portraits. By the time Will makes it to his studio, he finds that the artist has painted a self-portrait, thus committing himself to the same fate but leaving Will with the instructions and method of how to rescue Kara from a similar fate.
    • Similarly, another game by the same studio, Soul Blazer, featured a scientist trapped in his own painting (A type 4), an abstract piece titled "The World of Evil." A couple of his town models had also been made into portals, but no one particular was trapped in them.
  • In the early Myst games, a carefully-rewritten Linking Book will become one of these (a "Trap Book"). Later games, starting with Exile and formally established in Revelation, Retcon this into Prison Ages - sort of like Type Four, but there's no actual picture in which the prisoner is visible, and they're basically ordinary Ages in which there is no Linking Book back.
  • Happens to Mario and numerous ghosts in Luigi's Mansion, although in Mario's case he is in a Soul Jar.
  • Super Mario 64 uses the fourth type extensively, however, Mario is never trapped. Bowser used the paintings as zones to control the Stars that powered Peach's castle.
  • For her Desperation Attack in Magical Battle Arena, Sakura Kinomoto uses her Star Wand on her opponent and seals them inside a Sakura Card.
  • A Sidequest in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion requires you to rescue an artist who inadvertently trapped himself in one of his paintings via the use of a magical brush.
  • "Nooooo! Not into the pit! It buuuurns!!!"
    • "Aargh! The chains! Nooooo! You haven't seen the last of me!"
  • Luxord from Kingdom Hearts can imprison people within cards or dice.
  • The Castlevania game Dracula X: Rondo of Blood has a phantom painting that flies around a room. If the player touches it, they become instantly trapped in the painting itself. The man in the painting then rips you apart, and you fall to the ground in many two-dimensional paper-like pieces.

Western Animation

  • WITCH had an episode where the artist was trapped in his own painting by the Big Bad. It lead to a Trapped in TV Land style plot. It had a great scene where the heroes, fleeing mooks by rafting down a river, run aground on canvas and have to paint more river. Also had a standoff where Will threatened to drop the MacGuffin into paint thinner.
  • The Smurfs had an episode where Painter obtained a vial of liquid from an evil wizard, which improved his paintings but trapped whatever he painted in the picture.
  • The Double Dragon animated series: If a villain screws up once too many, the Shadow Master will make him part of his mural, trapped as stone and half merged into the wall. Previous victims are still seen there.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode where Spongebob creates an evil drawing of himself with a magic pencil, he defeats the doodle by slamming it between a book, causing it to become just an illustration on the page.
  • At the end of one Challenge of the Superfriends episode, Green Lantern captures Lex Luthor by turning him into a hundred-dollar bill. He is now flat and green.

 Green Lantern: If it's money you want, Luthor, try this on for size! (zaps him with his ring)

  • Robot Chicken parodies this in a quick sketch in which an explorer takes a polaroid of a native, trapping him in the photo.
  • Looney Tunes regularly inverted this trope, with characters jumping in and our of paintings and running around inside them