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A fairly common trope in the fantasy/science fiction/horror genre is the sudden absence of one's mouth and the inability to breathe and/or scream.

Off the top of my head:
Neo in The Matrix and Black Bolt in The Multiverse of Madness

A picture of Neo from the first Matrix movie, at the moment his mouth disappears. He looks visibly panicked. A picture from Blackbolt of the Marvel movie The Multiverse of Madness. He also lost his mouth and seems to be touching his face with his left hand to inspect it.

and I'm sure there are a dozen others.

Star Trek:

A character from Star Trek whose mouth disappeared. There are visible texts which says: "What would you do if you had the power of Q? I can think of a few people I'd do this to", referring to the mouth disappearance. Another character from Star Trek who seems to be wandering around by touching the walls. Unlike the other, this character's entire face disappeared.

What is the origin of this trope, in writing, but especially in film and televsion?

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    It seems the short story I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison might be related but from the synopsis it seems the idea here is a longer term thing and may be figurative? Aug 16, 2023 at 18:12
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    Another famous example is from the Twilight Zone movie; that was in the 1980s, but the segment was a remake of an episode from the original series - I don't know if that original episode had that scene. Aug 16, 2023 at 18:47
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    @Lexible: The Neelix one is by son of Q. The TOS one is by Charlie X. Aug 17, 2023 at 4:29
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    The ultimate origin of this trope is, I think, the human mind: having no mouth (or being unable to open your mouth) is a commonly reoccurring theme in many people’s real-world nightmares, and I would assume its recognisability is the real reason it’s become a trope. Aug 17, 2023 at 8:44
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    Both the Twilight Zone movie and the TOS "Charlie X" episode were based on/influenced by the 1961 Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life", which was itself based on an earlier SF short story (whose name and author I cannot remember now). I am not sure if either of those had the "No Mouth" trope though. Wait, I found it, the original was the SF short story "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby in 1053. Aug 17, 2023 at 14:54

2 Answers 2

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This probably originates from Harlan Ellison's short story (found in the collection of the same title), "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (first published in IF: Worlds of Fiction, March 1967). In this story, a small group of humans are captives of a malevolent "world computer" AI, kept underground and not permitted to die, never mind any other freedoms; they do what the computer says, go where they're told to go.

In a climactic scene, while they're being tortured with icy tunnels, one of them manages to break off a large icicle and stab another with it, then impale herself (I could be remembering this not quite right, but it's the right general plotline), and the narrator character picks up on it and does the same to the one remaining person -- but then can't manage to do himself in before the computer manages to stop him.

The closing part of the story bemoans his fate as the last remaining human, kept away from anything that might possibly be used as a weapon and tortured even more intensely, and "I have no mouth, and I must scream!" is the closing line.

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    Right, but like I said in my comment below the original question, this seems to be largely metaphorical. So I do believe this could be part of the genesis of the idea (people taking the title literally), but this answer doesn't say much about actual depiction in film. Aug 16, 2023 at 18:25
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    I always read it literally -- the Machine could modify them in many ways, had already made them unaging and could heal injuries that didn't kill pretty promptly. And no, it says nothing about the depiction in film; the first time I saw it on film (The Matrix) my thought was "someone reads Ellison!"
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Aug 16, 2023 at 18:35
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    @ThePopMachine in the story that is absolutely literally - the protagonist is physically transformed into a blob of jelly with vestigial limbs and without orifices, kept alive only by the whims of the Adaptive Manipulator (the evil computer antagonist in the story). Aug 16, 2023 at 19:33
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    @Andrew it is well documented that Ellison got the idea from a drawing of a doll with no mouth by his friend William Rotsler. I think the caption was also pointing out the doll had no mouth and couldn't scream - but I'd have to track it down on a fanzine site. Aug 16, 2023 at 20:17
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    Yeah, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is definitely meant to be read literally. This is not a philosophical story where humans ponder the prison of being human, this is played completely straight body horror. When the character says they have no mouth, they mean this entirely literally. The only philosophical part about it is the implication that the AI does this to the humans because this is effectively also how the humans created the AI - self-aware, but without form and with no other purpose than to suffer forever.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 17, 2023 at 7:17
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I think that when this trope appears, a key element of it is often that while person affected believes and is affected by disappearance, but that that the disappearance is, in some sense, not real. It could be via hypnotism or mind control (magical or scientific), but the victim becomes not literally unable to speak, but psychological unable, since they believe that their mouth no longer exists. (Occasionally it may actually go the other way—that the mouth really is gone, but nobody except the person affected can see it.)

In this spirit, I am going to offer up an example (although there's a pretty good chance it's not the earliest) of someone's mouth not actually vanishing, but rather being magically blocked, in a way that only the victim can perceive. This happens in the first version of Doctor Strange's origin story (in Strange Tales no. 115, dated December 1963). Baron Mordo puts fictional clamp on the (as-yet-untrained) Strange's mouth, to keep the hero from alerting the Ancient One of Mordo's treachery.

Strange Tales no. 115

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    But three of the four examples in the OP are literal and real: Wanda literally transformed Black Bolt, Q Jr. literally transformed Neelix, and Charlie Evans literally transformed the crewmember.
    – Idran
    Aug 17, 2023 at 15:02

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