Created By: FrodoGoofballCoTV on April 1, 2011 Last Edited By: rmctagg09 on February 15, 2016
Troped

Skeleton Motif

Skeleton imagery makes anything darker

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Trope
DAN 004 wuz ere takin over ur druft


When you find a complete skeleton, it's a strong sign that its former owner is Deader Than Dead. Thus it's only natural that skeletons symbolize death, evil, and, well, scary things. So, to symbolize a character's darker side or to give them that "Dead Serious" (pun intended) edge, it's only natural to use imagery associated with bones, skeletons, or skulls.

This trope can take many forms. While some characters may use real bones, photographs, or detailed drawings of bones to construct their motif, something as subtle as a pattern on a T-shirt or a piece of jewelry that vaguely resembles a skull can be just as effective. Sometimes the writer chooses a skeletal appearance for a character to make them scarier, and sometimes the character will use skeletal imagery deliberately, perhaps to frighten enemies, or to make themselves seem edgier.

For "bad" characters in particular, a Big Bad, or a member of a Five-Bad Band or Quirky Miniboss Squad will use a Skeleton Motif for their own appearance or for that of their mooks. This is often done deliberately by a Card-Carrying Villain or a Harmless Villain looking for respect. Not surprisingly, this is especially common in franchises with Black and White Morality that make use of Dark Is Evil, or when the villains are Putting on the Reich.

On the other hand, many AntiHeroes also use a Skeleton Motif as part of a Dark Is Not Evil or Good Is Not Nice personna.

Typically, because Beauty Equals Goodness and Evil Is Cool, heroes with a Skeleton Motif usually have a normal or mostly normal face underneath their skeleton mask, while that's less true of villains.

Subtropes and closely related tropes:

Note: please put examples that fit one of the tropes above on the appropriate page rather than here.
  • Age Without Youth: an immortal character looks their age, often resembling a skeleton.
  • Bad with the Bone: a character uses a bone as a weapon.
  • Dem Bones: an undead creature made entirely of bone.
  • Desert Skull: Nothing better to immediately show the ominous imagery of dangerous deserts than by showing a skull (tends to be bovine) on the desert grounds.
  • Flaming Skulls: Because fire makes everything better - for a certain meaning of "better" in skulls' case.
  • Nothing but Skulls: A pile of skulls without other bones evoke horror and sense of danger.
  • Our Liches Are Different: a highly magical undead creature that retains the personality they had in life even as nothing but bits of a decaying skeleton remain; these creatures are usually very bad guys.
  • Skele Bot 9000: a robot looks like a skeleton.
  • Skeletons in the Coat Closet: a character wears real bones as part of their clothing.
  • Skull Cups: When skulls are turned into drinking cups. Those who own it are typically dark and have a thing for the macabre; if they're warriors, it's often the skull of the enemies he's slain, showing superiority.
  • Skull for a Head: a character's face or head looks like a skull, either due to disfigurement or supernatural phenomena.


Examples:

Anime and Manga:
  • From Berserk, the Skull Knight is a very good Anti-Hero example.
  • In Skull Man, the title character is a masked Type V Anti-Hero.
  • Bleach
    • Ichigo has always been a prime example of Dark Is Not Evil, as black clothes and flames have always been associated with his character. However, during the "Lost Substitute Shinigami" arc, Ichigo gains a new ability known as a "Fullbring", whose ultimate form is to cover his body in a skeleton-themed armor.
    • In the "Lost Substitute Shinigami" arc, Ginjou does a Face–Heel Turn and steals Ichigo's Fullbring powers, and he REALLY gets good use out of the imagery.
  • This motif is played with in One Piece in Chopper's past: while he's making a soup for his ill foster father, he's reading a book of kinds of mushrooms; he comes across one noted with skull and crossbones near it. He thinks that it's like the pirates' jolly rogers, i.e symbolizing their free spirit, so he tries to obtain it. Of course, unbeknownst to Chopper, said mushroom turns out to be poisonous (the true meaning of such skull symbol), but his father just chooses to eat the soup with it so he won't let Chopper down.

Comic Books:
  • Batman, not surprisingly, has multiple examples:
    • In Streets of Gotham, after being accidently disfigured, Judson Pierce decides to adapt Skeleton imagery as his symbol, and takes on the name "Skel".
    • The Jackies, Mooks for the evil organization Jackal. More of a parody example, as they are much less fearsome than their appearance would imply.
  • In the Marvel Universe, the Punisher is a vigilante who kidnaps, tortures and kills criminals. He wears a uniform/shirt with a skull insignia on the chest. It is deliberately done so that people aim for his better-armoured chest, rather than his head or joints.
  • Long before the Punisher, a Golden Age superhero called Black Terror wore a black costume with a skull and crossbones insignia. He also had a sidekick who wore a similar costume; together they were known as "Terror Twins". During The '80s Golden Age revival, the character was several time reimagined as a grim and gritty Anti-Hero under different aliases like "Terror", "Holy Terror" and even "Terrorist". He also appeared in Alan Moore's Tom Strong. He sometimes appears in more recent comics as well: e.g. in one comic series he was given a Race Lift and called himself "Blackest Terror".

Film Animated
  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad features a house party scene in which Brom Bones recounts to Ichabod Crane the legend of the Headless Horseman (and turning it into a musical number, natch). One of the party guests is a skeletal-looking fellow who sings the line, "And some don't even wear their skin!"
  • In Toy Story, Sid (something closest to a "villain" in the movie) wears a skull T-shirt.
  • In Ratatouille, food critic Anton Ego has a gaunt, skeletal appearance befitting his role as The Dreaded among restauranteurs. To bring the point home, his office is shaped like a coffin, and his typewriter resembles a skull.

Film Live Action
  • In Major League Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn has a skull and crossbones on the nosepiece of the Nerd Glasses that he wears while pitching.
  • In Cecil B. Demented, Raven wears an outfit with rainbow-colored bones down the front of it.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road: Immortan Joe's empire is resembled by a flaming skull emblem. Joe's pale hue and breathing apparatus also personally makes him resemble a skeleton.

Literature:
  • In the novel Rivers of London the badge of The Skeleton Army is an important clue in tracking the spectral serial killer.
  • Discworld's Death, being an anthropomorphic personification of, well, death, lives in a pocket dimension where nearly everything - furniture, tools, his house, etc. - has some kind of bone-and-skull motif to it. Things that aren't are usually something that was brought in from the real world.
  • Irvine Welsh's novels feature skeleton imagery as an metaphor for heroin addiction (particularly the cover artwork).
  • The Death Eaters from Harry Potter are often described as wearing skull-like masks, partly to cover their identity but also to scare the crap out of their targets. The "Dark Mark" that they leave as a calling card displays a glowing skull in the air with a snake-like tongue. The films didn't remove this entirely, but did make them resemble the KKK to a degree.

Live-Action TV
  • That Mitchell and Webb Look: Discussed in a sketch wherein two Nazi SS soldiers begin to notice that they're wearing uniforms with skulls on them. The junior one points out that he can't really think of any positive symbolism for a skull, and meekly asks if they're the baddies.
  • On Red Dwarf, the Inquisitors' helm. It's not quite shaped like a human skull, though.

Tabletop Games:
  • Warhammer 40K is full of skeletal imagery. Particularly with the Imperium of Man and even more so with worshippers of Khorne.
  • Rifts:
    • The Coalition States uses skull motifs for their body armour helmets, and some vehicles. Their giant robots also carry this motif frequently, and the newer powered armours can carry a lot more of the skeleton in their design; as do the newer model body armours. And of course they have Skele-bots.
    • When the Naruni came to Earth for the second time, skull and skeleton motifs appeared on some of their newer products.

Video Games:
  • The Mortal Kombat franchise features multiple examples of skeletal imagery:
  • To show that Scarecrow is not fucking around anymore in Batman: Arkham Knight, he radically alter his appearance to resemble an undead soldier ready to spread fear into the world.
  • In MediEvil, the Kingdom of Gallowmere uses a skull as its symbol; it adorns its forces' shields and its former King Peregrine had his throne placed inside the mouth of a giant one.
  • Skullomania of Street Fighter EX wears a full body suit that has skeletons painted over his whole body. Subverted in that not only he's a hero, he's a clear-cut and rather silly one as well.
  • Ghost from Modern Warfare 2 has a skull painted on the lower half of his balaclava.
  • Blazblue Central Fiction: Hades Izanami is the Goddess of Death and she has a lot of bones forming her special logo. In her Exceed Accel her face also briefly turns into a skull with a Slasher Smile.
  • XCOM 2's cover depicts a Sectoid made of human skulls.
  • In Borderlands 2, the game's way of warning you about a seriously dangerous unit (typically one that is several levels higher than the player) by putting a skull next to their name and health bar. Loading screens outright encourage you to run if you come across one of these.
  • The Halo series has about three variations of the skull and crossbones theme for the highest Legendary difficulty:
    • The classic variation from the original trilogy and Halo: Reach is an Elite skull crossed with two swords behind a shield with the Marathon symbol.
    • Halo 3: ODST uses a human skull and suppressed SMGs behind the same shield.
    • Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians use a Promethean skull crossed by Energy Swords and a different shield.

Web Comics:
  • In Goblins, an alternate - universe Forgath is missing the lower part of his face, revealing the bones underneath, as the result of owning a "Ring of Undeath".
  • Kurloz from Homestuck, one of the most unambiguously evil characters in the story (and arguably the most evil troll of all), wears a sweatshirt with a skeleton torso on it.

Western Animation:
  • In The Simpsons, Bully Jimbo Jones wears a skull t-shirt.
  • Mighty Max is obsessed with this.
    • The Big Bad is Skullmaster who lives in Skull Mountain. In the finale he resurrects various villains from earlier in the series including a skull-faced cyborg, a skeletal cyclops, a giant flying skull and a big spider with a skull-like marking on its face.
    • For good measure, the toyline also included Skull Warrior, Skull Dungeon, Skull Crusher, a skull with a snake wrapped around it and a spaceship shaped like a wolf skull, along with Skullmaster's fortress (which looked like a skull).

Real Life:
  • During the "Golden Age of Piracy" in the late 1600's and early 1700's, pirates developed the skull and crossbones, called "Jolly Rogers", as their symbol to invoke crippling fear in their intended victims, because they hoped merchant ships would surrender without firing a shot.
  • When the Salvation Army was set up to combat public drunkenness and loose morals, opponents of the movement set up The Skeleton Army, whose members wore little dancing skeleton badges and patches, to follow the Salvos around, pelt them with refuse, beat them up, and generally cause trouble for them.
  • The Nazi SS had tiny skulls on their uniform insignia.
  • On Whale Wars, the Sea Shepherd organization's flag was clearly inspired by the skull and crossbones flag.
  • The Death Hussars, an important branch of Chilean liberation soldiers during the independence wars used skulls as motif. They acted more radical and aggressive toward the Spanish empire and used this trope to showcase that they would liberate Chile by all means necessary.
  • Poisonous chemical substances are often noted with a skull (crossbones optional) to denote its danger.

Community Feedback Replies: 67
  • April 1, 2011
    JohnDiFool
  • April 1, 2011
    CrypticMirror
    Real Life: When The salvation Army was set up to combat public drunkeness and loose morals, opponents of the movement set up The Skeleton Army, whose members wore little dancing skeleton badges and patches, to follow the Salvos around, pelt them with refuse, beat them up, and generally cause trouble for them.

    In the novel Rivers Of London the badge of The Skeleton Army is an important clue in tracking the spectral serial killer.
  • April 1, 2011
    SpiritOfSahara
    Sounds like Dark Is Evil or Obviously Evil (the latter even has an image of Skeletor).
  • April 1, 2011
    Jordan
    Think this is called Dem Bones.
  • April 2, 2011
    sgamer82
    Does this trope involve actual skeletons, a la Dem Bones, or just characters who appear skeletal as part of a theme, like the Terminator or Skeletor, but aren't actually undead themselves.
  • April 2, 2011
    SKJAM
    If it's "look skeletal as part of a theme",
    • Dr. Destiny of The DCU, who was blocked from being able to dream (and thus access his Reality Warper powers) for an unhealthy amount of time, making his face skull-like.

    • Just created in Batman: Streets of Gotham, a character is rendered skeletal-looking by poisoning, and adopts the nickname "Skel".
  • April 2, 2011
    TwoGunAngel
    The Skull Knight is a very good Anti Hero example from Berserk.
  • June 27, 2011
    randomsurfer
    In Major League Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn has a skull and crossbones on the nosepiece of the Nerd Glasses that he wears while pitching.
  • June 28, 2011
    SKJAM
    Mook example: The Jackies from Ratman, who work for the evil organization Jackal. More of a parody example, as they are much less fearsome than their appearance would imply.
  • June 28, 2011
    ArtisticPlatypus
    This is related to Dem Bones, Skeletons In The Coat Closet and Bad With The Bone, but it's a separate trope. Dark Is Evil and Obviously Evil are supertropes to this.

    Fascinating.. This trope seems quite basic, but nothing on the Skeletal Tropes index covers it.
  • June 28, 2011
    arromdee
    Nazi skull symbols are an example of using skulls to indicate death, not to indicate evil. Even Nazis didn't consider themselves to be evil, and since most real life people don't, finding real life examples will be hard.
  • June 28, 2011
    Cuchulainn
    Raven's outfit at the end of Cecil B Demented has rainbow-colored bones down the front of it.
  • June 28, 2011
    X2X
    Havik from Mortal Kombat: Deception is Ambiguously Human in that the lower part of his face (starting at the nose) is ripped off, revealing his skeletal structure. He's not evil, though, just chaotic (he hails from Chaosrealm, after all).
  • June 28, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    Circa 1955, Disney's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (told and sung by Bing Crosby) has a house party scene in which Brom Bones recounts to Ichabod Crane the legend of the Headless Horseman (and turning it into a musical number, natch). One of the party guests is a skeletal-looking fellow who sings the line, "And some don't even wear their skin!"
  • June 29, 2011
    ArtisticPlatypus
    Image suggestion. Pothole to Penny Arcade if you're going to use it.
  • June 29, 2011
    X2X
    Oh, I forgot another example from Mortal Kombat: Scorpion is a spectre. As such, his real face (the one under his mask) is a skull, sometimes one that is ablaze. Depending on your views, he's either a Type IV/Type V Antihero or a Type I Antivillain.
  • June 29, 2011
    SKJAM
    Another antihero type: Skull Man.
  • September 20, 2011
    KingZeal
    • Ichigo of Bleach has always been a prime example of Dark Is Not Evil, as black clothes and flames have always been associated with his character. However, during the "Lost Substitute Shinigami" arc, Ichigo gains a new ability known as a "Fullbring", whose ultimate form is to cover his body in a skeleton-themed armor.
      • Later in the same arc, Ginjou does a Face Heel Turn and steals those powers, and then he REALLY gets good use out of the imagery.
  • September 20, 2011
    Bisected8
    Warhammer 40 K is full of this. Particularly with the Imperium of Man and even more so with worshippers of Khorne.
  • September 20, 2011
    KingZeal
    • Ghost Rider is one of the best examples in Marvel.

    • He Man has Skeletor as the dark and sinister nemesis of the eponymous hero.

    • Jack Skellington's dark and morbid appearance, particularly in contrast to Christmas Town, is one of the main themes of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
  • September 20, 2011
    FrodoGoofballCoTV
    ^One thing we need to discuss: should we include characters that clearly overlap Skull for a Head, etc. if the purpose of the skull is to invoke this trope?
  • September 21, 2011
    TonyG
    Toy Story: Sid wears a skull T-shirt.
  • September 21, 2011
    randomsurfer
    The Simpsons: Bully Jimbo Jones wears a skull t-shirt.
  • October 9, 2011
    troacctid
    I think the "Just skulls as a motif or Skull For A Head but not the rest of the skeleton" is a subtrope.
  • January 25, 2012
    KTera
    Ghost from Modern Warfare 2 has a skull painted on the lower half of his balaclava.
  • June 12, 2013
    notafraid
    IrvineWelsh's novels feature skeleton imagery as an metaphor for heroin addiction (particularly the cover artwork).
  • June 12, 2013
    ClockStopping
    • Kurloz from Homestuck, one of the most unambiguously evil characters in the story (and arguably the most evil troll of all), wears a sweatshirt with a skeleton torso on it.
  • August 15, 2015
    MarqFJA
    Bump. Is this ever going to be finished?
  • August 16, 2015
    Arivne
    Comic Books
    • In the Marvel Universe, the Punisher is a vigilante who kidnaps, tortures and kills criminals. He wears a uniform/shirt with a skull insignia on the chest.
  • August 17, 2015
    Morgenthaler
    Subtrope of Obviously Evil.

  • August 24, 2015
    Nemmington
    • Mighty Max is obsessed with this. The Big Bad is Skullmaster who lives in Skull Mountain. In the finale he resurrects various villains from earlier in the series including a skull-faced cyborg, a skeletal cyclops, a giant flying skull and a big spider with a skull-like marking on its face.
      • For good measure, the toyline also included Skull Warrior, Skull Dungeon, Skull Crusher, a skull with a snake wrapped around it and a spaceship shaped like a wolf skull, along with Skullmaster's fortress (which looked like a skull).
  • October 10, 2015
    Morgenthaler
    Bump.
  • October 10, 2015
    DAN004
    Note:

    Example
    • Skullomania of Street Fighter EX wears a full body suit that has skeletons painted over his whole body. Subverted in that not only he's a hero, he's a clear-cut and rather silly one as well.
  • October 10, 2015
    TonyG
    In Ratatouille, food critic Anton Ego has a gaunt, skeletal appearance befitting his role as The Dreaded among restauranteurs. To bring the point home, his office is shaped like a coffin, and his typewriter resembles a skull.
  • October 10, 2015
    Rjinswand
    Comic Books
    • Long before the Punisher, a Golden Age superhero called Black Terror wore a black costume with a skull and crossbones insignia. He also had a sidekick who wore a similar costume; together they were known as "Terror Twins". During The Eighties Golden Age revival, the character was several time reimagined as a grim and gritty Anti Hero under different aliases like "Terror", "Holy Terror" and even "Terrorist". He also appeared in Alan Moore's Tom Strong. He sometimes appears in more recent comics as well: e.g. in one comic series he was given a Race Lift and called himself "Blackest Terror".
  • October 14, 2015
    erforce
    Video Game
    • In Medi Evil, the Kingdom of Gallowmere uses a skull as its symbol; it adorns its forces' shields and its former King Peregrine had his throne placed inside the mouth of a giant one.
  • October 14, 2015
    Rjinswand
    Related to Scary Impractical Armor (subtrope?)

    See also Nothing But Skulls.
  • October 14, 2015
    Loekman3
    • To show that Scarecrow is not fucking around anymore in Batman Arkham Knight, he radically alter his appearance to resemble an undead soldier ready to spread fear into the world.
  • October 14, 2015
    lakingsif
    also for somewhere in there: Skull Cups
  • October 14, 2015
    ZuTheSkunk
    • Discworld's Death, being an anthropomorphic personification of, well, death, lives in a pocket dimension where nearly everything - furniture, tools, his house, etc. - has some kind of bone-and-skull motif to it. Things that aren't are usually something that was brought in from the real world.
  • October 14, 2015
    GiorgioDaneri
    • The Death Hussars, an important branch of Chilean liberation soldiers during the independence wars used skulls as motif. They acted more radical and aggressive toward the Spanish empire and used this trope to showcase that they would liberate Chile by all means necessary.
  • October 14, 2015
    DAN004
    I don't think the OP is there.
  • October 15, 2015
    Snicka
    Many Pirate ships had flags with a skull motif (often referred to as "the Jolly Roger"), to make the ship more intimidating.
  • October 15, 2015
    DAN004
    ^ already there.

    Yo, guess I'm gonna grab this.
  • January 16, 2016
    DAN004
    Examples added.

    In accordance to the use of this in medical professions and jolly rogers, I changed the focus slightly (i.e it's no longer character-focused).
  • January 16, 2016
    KTera
  • January 23, 2016
    Morgenthaler
    • Mad Max Fury Road: Immortan Joe's empire is resembled by a flaming skull emblem. Joe's pale hue and breathing apparatus also personally makes him resemble a skeleton.
  • January 23, 2016
    captainmarkle
    More examples:

    Literature

    Video Games
    • In Borderlands 2, the game's way of warning you about a seriously dangerous unit (typically one that is several levels higher than the player) by putting a skull next to their name and health bar. Loading screens outright encourage you to run if you come across one of these.

    Web Original

    ADDITIONS/EDITS:
    • With the punisher entry, I think it's worth mentioning that the skull is deliberately done so that people aim for his better-armoured chest, rather than his head or joints.
    • Warhammer 40k also has the Necrons, an ancient race of robots that are technically designed to resemble skeletons. I don't feel a second bullet point is necessary; can we merge that in?

  • January 23, 2016
    N1KF
  • January 23, 2016
    captainmarkle
    • the internet is terrible and my first dozen attempts at posting appeared to fail, please don't judge me*
  • February 2, 2016
    captainmarkle
    Bump.
  • February 2, 2016
    KingZeal
    Man this has been open for four years. This is way past Just Launch It Already territory.
  • February 2, 2016
    DAN004
    Indices?
  • February 3, 2016
    captainmarkle
    Can we please add the examples I gave a little further up?
  • February 3, 2016
    shadowbeast
    • Rifts:
      • The Coalition States uses skull motifs for their body armour helmets, and some vehicles. Their giant robots also carry this motif frequently, and the newer powered armours can carry a lot more of the skeleton in their design; as do the newer model body armours. And of course they have Skele-bots.
      • When the Naruni came to Earth for the second time, skull and skeleton motifs appeared on some of their newer products.

    Live-action TV:
    • On Red Dwarf, the Inquisitors' helm. It's not quite shaped like a human skull, though.
  • February 3, 2016
    robinjohnson
    Corrected an "its" (possessive its has no apostrophe.)
  • February 4, 2016
    Morgenthaler
  • February 12, 2016
    captainmarkle
    Bump, you still working on this DAN 004?
  • February 12, 2016
    astrokitty
    This looks launchable. Should we do so soon?
  • February 12, 2016
    DAN004
    I don't mind if somebody launches this in my place.
  • February 13, 2016
    Koveras
    • The signature armor of the Darkwraith Covenant in Dark Souls I is covered in skeletal motifs, such as a ribcage drawn on the chestplate and a skull on the helmet. The covenant itself exists solely to endlessly invade and murder other players, so their appearance is always bad news.
  • February 13, 2016
    DAN004
    ^ that fits more in Skeletons In The Coat Closet.
  • February 14, 2016
    Arivne
  • February 14, 2016
    captainmarkle
    ^^ @DAN: Respectfully, Skeletons In The Coat Closet seems to apply more for actual bones. The implication I got was that the bones in this case were drawn on.
  • February 14, 2016
    rmctagg09
    • The Halo series has about three variations of the skull and crossbones theme for the highest Legendary difficulty:
      • The classic variation from the original trilogy and Halo Reach is an Elite skull crossed with two swords behind a shield with the Marathon symbol.
      • Halo 3 ODST uses a human skull and suppressed SMGs behind the same shield.
      • Halo 4 and Halo 5 Guardians use a Promethean skull crossed by Energy Swords and a different shield.
  • February 14, 2016
    DAN004
    ^^ good, you're making yourself clear.
  • February 15, 2016
    Koveras
    They are, indeed, drawn on the armor. Here is a picture.

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=kr5lfxvhd6f7mrtjp8w7d9j1