Ya better watch how you talk Or where you walk Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk!
—Coolio, "Gangsta's Paradise"
Ah, the chalk (or more rarely, tape) outline to indicate where the murder victim once was.
The real life history of the practice is not as clear cut as most would think. The practice was originally never part of actual police procedure; after all, the standard explanation of needing to know where the body was after it is removed is laughable when taking photographs of crime scenes is standard practice. It seems to have come to be as a way of allowing the media in the inter-war years to film/photograph crime scenes without having to show the actual bodies. This practice died out as forensic evidence became more important and the media became less concerned about showing bodies.
This is not to say that the police never draw around a body in Real Life. In reality, police procedure almost never requires a chalk outline — chalk is impractical, prone to weather-related erosion, and contaminates the crime scene with a foreign substance, which seriously hampers an investigations or criminal proceedings at a later date. Not to mention that an outline wouldn't show anything useful about the body that a cursory visual examination wouldn't reveal. Therefore it is usually reserved for victims who are not dead and require immediate medical attention in places where contamination is less of a concern, most often road traffic incidents. Even if contamination is a concern, the police might note the location of the head with a cross or dot of chalk if they have to move the victims immediately.
Subversions and parodies are now the mainstay of this trope with all manner of strange visual gags involving confusingly shaped outlines, outlines in strange or impossible places or, quite popular, a corpse that has been shattered or dismembered having every part outlined individually. Nevertheless it does still turn up played straight whenever there is a desire not to show bodies, either for plot reasons or because of the intended air time of the program.
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
Played with in Yotsuba&!: when Yotsuba is playing with chalk, she decides to do a life-sized drawing of her dad's friend Jumbo. The result is a gigantic chalk outline that gives her friends pause on seeing it.
Played For Laughs (sort of) where this method is used on Humongous Mecha. Or to be more exact, the skeletal remains of failed Eva prototypes are arranged into their original form and outlined in chalk, even though many are deformed and/or missing several limbs. And it only appears in the original version of episode 23; all other versions have a skeleton pit.
NOT played for laughs in the same series with Naoko Akagi's death. We don't see how she died or who (if anyone) murdered her- just her outline and the splatter of her brains on the MAGI computer. It's implied that she jumped off herself after killing Rei-I, though.
Played for laughs again in the first Rebuild movie with a giant white outline on a hill clearly where some humongous humanoid landed with enough force to either flatten or move all the buildings out of the way.
Tape outline used on Detective Conan a few times such as the episode titled Which One's Reasoning Show.
Played with in Hidamari Sketch. Miyako drew a chalk outline of Hiro at where she passed out, despite Sae's objection over taste. Sae ended up envying Miyako though, as Miyako drew the outline in the style of Amedeo Modigliani...
At one point in Xxx HO Li C Yuuko has drooped from the heat, and her two assistants Maru and Moro have drawn an outline around her.
In the Black Rose Arc of Revolutionary Girl Utena, the dueling arena is covered with desks and scattered red outlines of bodies. The losers of these duels fall onto these outlines and pose to fit them. This is probably related to the origin of the Black Rose Seals: a hundred students burned to death in a building.
The Naked Gun films love to do strange things like this, like an outline in the water where a man drowned. Made even funnier when you realize that the tape outline is for a character who isn't actually dead, and who doesn't die at any point.
In the first Scary Movie, the Too Dumb to Live first victim trips into one of those and holds the pose for a few seconds before running away.
Parodied in Mr. Mom, where Jack Butler has a dream where he gets shot, then falls onto a chalk outline on the floor of his house. He opens his eyes again for a moment to notice that he's a little off-center from the chalk outline, scoots himself over, then passes out.
From Beyond. Wonderfully parodied after a scientist meddling in things he shouldn't accidentally summons a creature that bites off his head. Later, some characters return to the murder scene, where police have drawn a chalk outline with only a little nub (suggesting a bit of spine sticking out) where the neck and head should be.
Played for laughs in the new Pink Panther movie. "Isn't it strange that the dead man landed exactly in this chalk outline?"
Used for grim humor in the 1991 film Frankie and Johnnie, where a group of teenagers are using a chalk outline on the sidewalk for a game of coin-toss.
Justified in The Case Of The Toxic Spell Dump, a Magitek novel set on a parallel Earth, because the chalk is a mystical substance that's intended to preserve the integrity of psychic evidence. Likewise, crime-scene tape is enchanted to ward off tamperers or the curious from the site of an investigation.
Discworld has fun with this: first, they can and do draw outlines on the river Ankh; second, never let Nobby be the one to draw the outline as tobacco pipes, flowers and backgrounds detract from the gravity of the crime scene.
Going Postal: there is a mail-sorting machine made by Bloody Stupid Johnson that contains a wheel with a circumference exactly three times the diameter. There are chalk outlines of the pieces of someone who walked too close to it. Some of the outlines are very small indeed.
It's also parodied in Making Money by Vimes speculating that Lipwig will be "found lyin' in chalk", as if the chalk outline appears around murder victims on its own.
In an eerie variant, the crime scene in Thud! was marked with glow-in-the-dark chalk made from ground-up luminous wurms.
Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, in an early novel in his Cool & Lam series about a pair of private detectives, may have been the first to mention this in fiction. (The Wikipedia entry for Cool and Lam gives the full citation.)
You Only Live Twice. James Bond is somewhat shocked over an incident where Japanese police insisted in drawing outlines around the victims of a road accident, and complaining when the victims moved.
My Wife and Kids . In the "moving on out" sitcom, Junior has his own flat in a run-down town . A Chalkout Outline is visible on the pavement and Kadie (too little to understand) want to have someone draw her outline with chalk too.
Jess draws one up with matching police tape in front of Taylor's market as a prank on Gilmore Girls. It puts the whole town (mostly Taylor) in a tizzy. Lorelai later comments that the town is so dull, they have a phony murder instead of a real one.
The X-Files. Played for dark laughs when a victim has their head shoved into liquid nitrogen and is then thrown to the ground. The chalk outline of the body is perfectly normal until it gets to the head... which is a bunch of little dots.
It was used in teeny-bopper Nickelodeon series iCarly, where a tape outline is seen on the floor of a rundown motel implied to be in a very Bad Neighborhood.
In the "Cola Myths" segment of MythBusters, this is referenced when they're testing cola's ability to clean up blood (OK, but not that spectacular), including mention that chalk outlines are not used in the real world as they are in fiction.
Parodied by Channel 5 (in the UK) sponsorship adverts for the Kia Sportage which are shown during crime dramas. In them generic Police Procedural scenes are played out. This includes one where a car stops next to an outline and two people get out to look at it... which then gets up and steals the car.
The Colbert Report has a chalk outline on the floor of the studio where Stephen Colbert fell and broke his wrist.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer once inadvertently sat down in a victim outline (taped to the seat of a railway coach where a vampire massacre had happened).
Spoofed in the miniseries The 10th Kingdom: after Sally Peep is murdered, the location of her body is outlined in chalk, including her shepherd's crook. The Novelizationlampshades this by having Tony reflect in his thoughts: "They were nothing if not thorough."
Family Matters - Carl "Cheapskate" Winslow didn't want to shell out $3000 for new living room furniture, so he bought a bunch of stuff from the police impound for about $300. Not only did it included a carpet with a tape outline of a body, it also included a lamp with bullet holes in the lampshade. Everything was uniformly garish - think "pimp" crossed with a velvet Elvis.
In an episode of Friends as Chandler is preparing to move in with Monica, she shows with a square outline on the floor to mark where she intends to put his special chair.
Chandler: Oh my God, someone's killed Squareman.
Police Squad! played it straight, then spoofed it by drawing an Egyptian-style outline.
Kamen Rider Double: Ryu is seen looking over a crime seen filled with these in the opening sequence — though, they seem to be using lengths of rope instead of chalk.
On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, egotistical newscaster Ted Baxter couldn't decide on a new promotional photo, so he asked Murray, the acerbic newswriter:
Ted: What kind of picture would you like to see of me?
Murray: How about a chalk outline on the floor?
Doctor Who used this for some very dark humour in "The Deadly Assassin", where a Time Lord corpse is marked out with an outline that is basically useless, because his Gallifreyan robes and collar completely obscured whatever position he'd been in.
In Not the Nine O'Clock News, one sketch shows a detective arriving on a crime scene exclaiming something like 'Bloody Hell!'. A uniformed officer informs him 'we think the motive was jealousy, sir...' Cue a shot of a chalk outline of a man with a huge penis.
The Avengers parodies this by having a man get shot and then fall precisely into a pre-drawn chalk outline.
Played straight on Heroes when Claire's roommate apparently commits suicide by jumping out of her window. Claire suspects a murder and tests it by jumping out the window herself. When she lands on the chalk outline, she concludes that she was wrong.
Referenced in Red Dwarf: Lister says he used to be fat as a kid, but started losing weight after his similarly fat grandmother was killed by a truck, "...and the chalk outline guy had to go back to the car for a second piece of chalk. I thought, 'I don't want to end up like that — a double-chalker!'"
Averted in Hannibal: when Abigail Hobbes finds the bloodstain marking the spot where her mother died, she says she was expecting a chalk outline. Will bluntly explains that they only do that if the victim is still alive.
Played stright in the Fringe episode "Of Human Action." A policeman falls to his death from the top of a multi-storey car park, and next time you see the ground, there is a chalk outline on it.
The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office Gift Shop uses one of these as a logo on some items. One of their early big sellers was a black beach towel with a near-life-sized white outline.
Dave Carrol's first viral "United Breaks Guitars" video has a chalk outline of his broken guitar while crime scene investigators carry it away.
A lyric from Coolio's "Gangster's Paradise" goes "You betta watch how ya talking/ And where ya walking/ Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk."
The Mars Volta song "Televators" has a lyric "Mark these words/ One day this chalk outline will circle this city."
In Billy Talent's "Tears Into Wine": "You never gave yourself a chance to shine/ Your destination's a chalk outline/ And when you get to the gates you'll be denied".
Used by Three Days Grace in a song of the same name as a simile to an ended relationship: "You left me here like a chalk outline on the sidewalk, waiting for the rain to wash away."
The comedian had a bit in his act where he described a wild party where a drunk trying to act like he's not drunk antagonizes Officer Mitchell by saying "If I lay down, will you draw my picture with that chalk you carry?"
In another, he suggests that a good way to keep solicitors away from your door is to draw a chalk outline on your driveway, and scatter religious pamphlets about it.
Jerry Seinfeld talks about chalk outlines in a routine: "I think the lowest position in the police force you can get is chalk outline guy. The guy who wanted to be a sketch artist but couldn't draw too well."
Eddie Izzard has a joke about Captain Transvestite, an ineffective superhero. He spends so long putting make-up on as part of his outfit change that the person he's supposed to rescue is dead by the time he gets there, but at least he can use his lipstick to draw a line around the body.
John Mulaney contemplates how crime-solving was done in the days before DNA analysis. One of the lines from the theoretical investigation officer is: "Mmm, look for clues! I'll tell ya what we'll do, We'll draw chalk around where the body is, so that way we'll know where it was."
An old Dragon article about realistic falling damage referenced the outlines of wizard and familiar, chalked on the cobblestones by the Greyhawk police, to illustrate how smaller creatures will strike the ground with less force (same speednote less speed. Smaller creatures have a lower terminal velocity because they have a higher surface area/weight ratio, while the density is presumably the same; this is why a mouse can survive being dropped off the Empire State Building according to legend, less kinetic energy).
One can be found in the original Deus Ex on the New York level, although it serves no storyline purpose, but merely a way to highlight how bad the world of 2052 really is.
Some Grand Theft Auto games have dead people fade into this so the game does not have to have mountains of dead bodies on screen.
The Ace Attorney games, being crime-and-punishment adventure games, use this occasionally. It's parodied several times, too. For example, one body falls out of a safe, and an outline is drawn across the safe boundary. Your companion is convinced that he died when the safe door crushed him.
The first part of the TV World in Persona 4 is littered with these outlines.
In City of Heroes, although it's never actually shown, one NPC in Pocket D does remark, "Oh, the chalk lines? Yeah, Back Alley Brawler had a few too many one night."
It should also be noted that Back Alley Brawler is a hero and that the entire zone is supposed to be a non-combat area, even watched over by an, in universe, virtual god of the realm. Take that for what you will.
There are some chalk outlines at the bottom of the ski slope, although they're all in rather odd positions, so these probably represent certain supers who came in a little too fast.
Gangsters: Whenever you kill somebody, their bodies become chalk outline.
You are expected to do this in Police Quest. Or at least part IV.
Though narration from the floppy disk version states that this is not actually done in real life (it still lets you do it). Only a certain piece of evidence found near a body is supposed to be marked (to draw attention to it so that it will be collected by the other investigators). The CD version doesn't include this bit and awards points for outlining the body without comment.
Guitar Hero II has one painted on the stage in the Harmonix Arena directly below your character - fittingly, you can only see it when you fail the current song.
Batman: Arkham City has a pair - Hugo Strange draws them in Crime Alley to mark the place where Bruce Wayne's parents fell on the night they were murdered. He also leaves flowers and a mocking tape recording for Bruce to find, since he knows that he's Batman. Classy.
In Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, a bandit steals your coins in the prologue, and you can track him to his house to take them back. In the English version the bandit's house is full of random garbage, bugs, and squalor. In the Japanese version, there's a an outline of a Toad on the floor surrounded by dried blood. Did I mention this was a Mario game?
In Homestuck, Terezi draws "a pointless chalk outline around the body, as is standard protocol" when investigating Tavros' murder. She misses the left arm.
Beavis And Butthead: One episode revolved around the title duo walking into a recently vacated crime scene that had one of these. Butthead had been pressing Beavis's Berserk Button during the whole episode and after a fight, ends up lying exactly inside the outline as Beavis stands over him with the murder weapon.
In the Halloween episode of King of the Hill, Hank is setting up his horror house with Dale playing the body — complete with his trademark cigarette. After he gets up, Bill remarks that it looked like he died with his tongue sticking out.
Repomies' office in Pasila has one of them, but nobody points it out or questions it in any way.
Legion Of Superheroes has this in the Second Season where Timber Wolf is going through a Clear My Name scenario (accompanied by Chameleon Boy and Phantom Girl), when they arrive at the crime scene on Heisenberg-7, a chalk outline of his father's body is seen on the stage.