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Happy Groundhog Day!: Exploring Time Loops

Groundhog Day is a folk custom across the United States and Canada that’s meant to predict when spring will arrive. People watch a groundhog come out of a hole (most famously Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania) and see what it does. Supposedly, if it sees its shadow, winter lasts for another six weeks, and if the weather’s too cloudy, we get an early spring.

Groundhog Day is also the name of a 1993 movie starring Bill Murray, in which his character is forced to repeat the same day over and over. But this wasn’t the first story or last story about a time loop. In fact, you can read books and short stories about this idea going back over a century! Here are some of the origins and examples of this subgenre.

About Time Loops

A time loop, sometimes called a causal loop, is an experience in which a character re-lives the same moment over and over.

In hopeful works (like Groundhog Day), a character can gradually change himself and the world around him. This can inspire change in the audience.

Some authors take the fatalistic approach and write a loop that can’t be changed. The characters are forced to suffer through the same events without the power to change them, whether or not they’re aware they’re in a loop. This prompts the audience to consider questions of free will, social structures, and more.


You can find the roots of time loops in mythologies dealing with reincarnation. In other myths, characters enduring repetitive punishments, like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill in Hades or Prometheus being eaten alive by eagles. These stories weren’t about bending time itself, but they show a perpetual struggle. Anyone stuck in a tedious school or job can relate.

We get closer to modern time loop stories with the philosophy of eternal recurrence. This theory, believed by some ancient Greek scholars, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many more, says that our world repeats itself for eternity, and we’re reliving the same experiences without knowing it.

Early Science Fiction

Time loops as we know them today started the twentieth century, but it was a slow start. The first major work in this subgenre was a 1915 Russian novel by P. D. Ouspensky called Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. In this book, heavily influenced by Nietzsche, Ivan Osokin realizes he’s lived his life before and struggles to change it. He soon realizes how hard it is for people to change their situations. This book was published during World War I, when Russia was as trapped in war as everyone else and everyone was trying to make sense of the situation.

During World War II (in 1941), American author Malcolm Jameson published “Doubled and Redoubled” in the pulp fantasy magazine Unknown. The main character here is cursed to relive what is supposedly a perfect day. Unfortunately for him, even the best actions can become tedious after a while, ruining experiences that should’ve been special, like a marriage proposal. The same is true for those of us living a normal timeline. If every day was a vacation, we’d get sick of it at some point, and we’d need a greater purpose in life.

Other stories trickled in slowly, at least until the 50’s, when science fiction got more popular.

Modern Science Fiction

Over the last few decades, time loops have gone from experimental fiction to the world of established tropes. When done well, a time loop can build drama and tension as characters struggle to get out of the loop or use to learn it to their advantage.

One of our early-modern examples is The Girl Who Leapt Through Time by Yasutaka Tsutsui – a novel that was originally serialized from 1965-1966. It’s had a few adaptations, but the story is best known by Western audiences from a 2006 anime film that has the same name and premise but different characters. The premise for both is that a high school girl gets the power to travel through time, gets stuck in a time loop, and has a romance while she’s there.

A 1973 short story by Richard A. Lupoff called “12:01 P.M.” has a New York City executive reliving the same hour and struggling to find someone who can break the loop. It bore enough similarities to Groundhog Day that when this movie came out, Lupoff tried to sue the creators before dropping the case.

The time loop subgenre has persisted over the decades, getting more and more known. One of the most popular to come out recently was Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 romance, The Time Traveler’s Wife. This story has a bunch of stable time loops where the time traveler, who moves through time randomly, always has to avoid his other selves. The woman he falls in love with and then marries has to deal with different versions of him appearing at different points in her life.

It’s impossible to talk about time travel without mentioning Doctor Who, a franchise built around an alien and his time traveling space ship. The show’s dealt with all imaginable time-related shenanigans, and they spill over into some novels, too. Festival of Death by Jonathan Morris (featuring the Fourth Doctor) has a group of aliens who use time loops to see where they messed up in their lives and then try again.

These are just some of the many stories that continue on with a faithful audience.


Many of our popular comics, most notably the DC and Marvel universes, are grounded in science fiction, so it was inevitable that time loops would enter the field. Characters started traveling in time early on, and time loops arrived after that. Comic books often feature popular characters trapped in these loops for certain issues or story arcs. For example, Superman relives Thanksgiving in a 1983 story, and in a couple 2017 issues of Justice League where the Flash is aware of a time loop happening around him and needs his team’s help to break the cycle.

Other stories, especially Japanese manga and light novels, have entire plots revolving around time loops. For instance, the movie Edge of Tomorrow is based on a light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka called All You Need is Kill. Here, a soldier fights an alien invasion in a time loop and gets a little better each time. There’s also a Dragon Ball spinoff called Dragon Ball: That Time I Got Reincarnated as Yamcha!, in which a fan is reincarnated as Yamcha and tries to make better decisions for him. Other manga time loop titles include Re:Zero, Summer Time Rendering, and The Tatami Galaxy.

Young Readers

As time loops became more recognized, they spread to younger audiences. Here, they address the struggles and worries of this new audience, like school and friends.

Young adult novels can use time loops to address bad teenage behavior, like Lauren Oliver’s 2010 novel Before I Fall. This book could be described as a mashup of Groundhog Day and Mean Girls. Vivian Vande Velde’s 2002 novel Heir Apparent has a girl who is trapped inside a repeating video game and uses this setting to learn from her mistakes.

Want some books for even younger readers? Kids can enjoy a story from bestselling author R.L. Stine. In his 2011 novel It’s the First Day of School…Forever!, the main character has to relive the same awful first day at school. (This is understandable, since lots of students feel trapped in school and at least mentally replay the most embarrassing moments.) Similarly, Todd Strasser’s Help! I’m Trapped… series has two time loop books, with one taking place at school and one at summer camp and the protagonist struggling to learn a lesson to end the problem.

Other Media Recommendations

This is a literature blog, but I’ll still share three of my favorite time loop stories:

  1. My first, and still one of my favorite time loops, was in the Stargate: SG-1 episode “Window of Opportunity” (2000). The loop is played for comedic and dramatic effect as the team’s two soldiers gradually accumulate the knowledge to solve the science problem that’s causing the loop. They spend some loops goofing off, doing things that everyone but them will forget, and others getting increasingly exhausted and frustrated with their predicament.
  2. Marvel’s Doctor Strange uses time loops in creative ways. This is foreshadowed in his titular 2016 movie by his watch being set to February 2 – Groundhog Day.
  3. In the video game Death and Taxes (2020), you play as a Grim Reaper making decisions about who in the world lives and dies, and once you get to the end of the storyline, you can reincarnate yourself and make different choices for a different ending.

Do you have any favorite time loop stories in any media? Let me know in the comments below.

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