Seeking media with a "mystery zone" trope

Maybe you all can help me out here… For a research project, I’m looking for media that uses a “mystery zone” trope as a central (or at least notable) plot point. These could be books, movies, fictional podcasts, short stories, games, etc. Ideally, characters venture into the mystery zone and return either changed or with some type of artifact (good or bad). Here are some examples:

  • Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky brothers (novel): The Stalker collects artifacts from the zone and sells them on the black market. This is an excellent book.
  • Stalker (film): Loose adaptation of Roadside Picnic
  • Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer: Includes Annihilation, which was adapted into a film.
  • Annihilation (film): Natalie Portman explores a zone and finds Slim Goodbody. Adapted from the Southern Reach Trilogy.
  • Hinterlands, by William Gibson (short story): Anomaly in space teleports astronauts to an unknown place.
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (game): Based on either Roadside Picnic or the Stalker film, loosely.
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky (game): Prequel to the above.
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (game): Sequel to Shadow of Chernobyl.
  • Metro 2033 (novel): Fan fiction based on the Roadside Picnic world, but at some indeterminate point in the future, and mostly underground.
  • Metro 2033 (game): Based on the book.
  • Other Metro… books and games
  • Interstellar (movie): Funky robots and Matthew McConaughey explore a worm hole.
  • FTL (short film): Astronaut goes faster than light. Have a look/see if you haven’t seen it.
  • The Expanse books and show kind of deal with this early on.

Many of these are derived from Roadside Picnic, in some regard. I haven’t played all of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Metro games: just Shadow of Chernobyl and Metro 2033 (which I read). Do the other games/books have the mystery of the zone as a central part of the story?

What else can you think of that uses this trope?

Bowman travelling through the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey sort of fits your criteria.

Aren’t most single-dungeon roguelikes like that, in a way?

I also like some subversions like the original Fallout, where the mistery zone is not something you go into or inside of - it’s the outside. I suppose a movie like Netflix’s (blurred because it’s kind of a spoiler) I Am Mother would qualify as that too. Maybe The Matrix too, in a way?

If I think of anything else I’ll post here…

Many Star Trek episodes would also qualify, I suppose. Especially the ST:TNG episode called “The Inner Light”, or the ST:DS9 pilot.

Heart of Darkness (if you stretch the definition) could fit too.

As for something closer to what you are looking for: Gateway, the Frederick Pohl novel (it has sequels too, but I haven’t read them). An asteroid full of ships nobody really understands is found and fortune hunters go into those ships and flip the controls randomly. Sometimes they discover amazing riches, sometimes they never go back, sometimes the trip takes so long they die of starvation before the ship coming back.

Shin Megami Tensei Strange Journey is about the exploration of such a zone too.

How spoilery do you want recommendations? I’ll avoid them here, but I’ll expand on the suggested plots if you aren’t familiar with these.

  • The first thing that springs to mind is the 1962 episode of Twilight Zone titled, Little Girl Lost.

Ever since CBS created their All Access streaming service they pulled the show off Netflix & Prime, so it might be harder for you to watch, but here’s a Wikipedia article about it:

  • I would also recommend you read the short story by Stephen King, The Jaunt.

  • Plus, who can forget (NSFW. Gore.) Event Horizon (does it count if the people don’t return but a possessed space ship does)?

Frozen 2?

Yeah, I was going to suggest this one as borderline too.

Oh geez, I forgot a couple great ones. DOOM 2016 and DOOM Eternal both have scientists/corporations that enter a hell dimension in order to exploit it as an energy source (demonic energy powered by souls). Bad things happen, things like demon invasions, possessions, and cyborg-human-demon hybrids.

Gah! That makes me think of Stargate, too! I never watched the series – were they good?

I thought about that, but at this point, I’m more interested in “everything here is normal but WTF is that zone?!!?” type of stuff vs. generalized “we’re stuck in this zone because apocalypse, let’s go out into the ruined world” into which The Last of Us also would fit.

Thanks for the suggestions! Keep them coming!

There are two interactive fiction games based on Gateway, btw. It’s actually how I heard of it.

The World in X-Men.

The old Lucasarts adventure game The Dig comes to mind, too. It’s evidently based on an old Amazing Stories episode.

There have been Bermuda Triangle movies…

Good point! I’ll have so see which of those are particularly relevant.

Also, the old novel Eon, by Greg Bear, comes to mind.

For defection type stories, decadent west is forbidden zone. See also Colditz! The zone is the outside world :)

I read that as defecation type stories at first and… 😖

Try here:

Awesome, thanks!

Not narrative fiction, but rather role-playing game worlds in Dungeons and Dragons: Wild magic zones in the Forgotten Realms and the Mournlands in Eberron. In the Mournlands in particular the mystery of “How did this place where the laws of reality are different become this way?” is a major theme. (Especially as there’s no definitive canonical answer to it, so the players can’t just look it up on the Internet.)

There are also a zillion planes of existence in D&D that can work as mystery zones if the DM wants them to. E.g. the party sets off a trap in a wizard’s tower and ends up in a world of giant gears and talking geometry, and eventually learn they’re in the plane of Mechanus. Or the party camps on a misty night and wakes up to find themselves in a world of vampires and werewolves and eventually learn they’re in Ravenloft. Etc.

Of course, the DM can instead have an NPC say, “For your next mission, you need to go to Mechanus, the Plane of Order,” in which case it’s not really a mystery zone.

Returning to narrative fiction, the mystery zone as a narrative strategy goes back way before Roadside Picnic. Take e.g. the novel The Time Machine (1895) where the time traveler ends up in a mysterious dystopian world of Morlocks and Eloi and only gradually pieces together what happened. Contrast that mystery zone approach with utopian works like Looking Backward (1888) where the time traveler is literally given a tour of the future by a helpful guide, who explains everything up front.

If you’re interested in Roadside Picnic, check out Flatland (1884), which is the original “mundane people have their minds blown by beings from another dimension” story, except … well, you’ll see.