Dead Unicorn Trope

Don't feel bad — it never really existed.

A Dead Horse Trope, except it was never really a trope in the first place.

This sort of trope becomes well known from being twisted and played with but was never actually in wide use in its straight form. The Butler Did It and Ultra Super Death Gore Fest Chainsawer 3000 are two of the most well-known examples.

Related concepts:

  • Beam Me Up, Scotty!, where a commonly quoted statement never existed in that form.
  • Shallow Parody, where a work is spoofed for qualities that it doesn't actually have or are grossly inflated.
  • Windmill Political, where a political threat is rallied against which doesn't actually exist.
  • Newer Than They Think, where the original work(s) are thought of as containing examples of the tropes that were simply later derived from them.

A note for adding examples: Do not add examples to this index simply because you have personally never heard of them. Younger tropers should be especially careful of adding tropes that date back before their births: tropes such as the white wedding dress signifying virginity or the purported stupidity of Polish-Americans were real tropes at one point. Beware of your own small reference pool. Do not add examples just because they were never Truth in Television; they might still have been used seriously as tropes.

Do not confuse for a certain robotic unicorn. Or a Rainicorn.

Contrast Undead Horse Trope.


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  • Aliens Steal Cattle, which is a mashup of the ideas that aliens abduct people and mutilate cattle.
  • Likewise, Anal Probing is not actually a preoccupation in Real Life UFO abduction communities. Whitley Strieber described a recovered memory of it in his first nonfiction UFO book, Communion, whereupon it took on a life of its own. The idea of the hind-quarters, rather than the reproductive organs (and hence, potential genetic engineering connections in the literature, etc.) is due to the media having one thing on their minds far too much. And some think it's quite intentional, to get people to chuckle at what is actually rather terrifying stuff when you read the real stories: a supposedly advanced alien intelligence, behaving in ways reminiscent of Nazi doctors.
  • Zombies eating brains. It was not a part of Night of the Living Dead or any of the films that followed on it, until Return of the Living Dead — which was released in 1985, nearly two decades after Night, and was a much more comedic and less serious take on the zombie movie genre than its predecessors or most of its followers. Furthermore, it's almost impossible to find a movie where the zombies actually say "Braaaiiiins." This appears to be a conflation of two unrelated aspects of Romero's zombies: they eat human flesh, and the only way to kill them is to destroy their brains.
    • The Brains thing was a side effect of the writers of Return overthinking the science a bit— dead people, they reasoned, by definition can't produce their own new biochemicals and tissues. This justified the flesh-eating, but also meant that they'd need to consume the specific tissues they needed to maintain. They also would go after lungs when their ability to speak was breaking down and spines when theirs were broken and so on, the brains thing was just the one that stuck for whatever reason. In the actual film the justification is that brains somehow dull the pain they feel from decomposing.
  • The Butler Did It is the most well known example. It does appear in a couple old mystery novels, but is nowhere near as common as people unfamiliar with such novels seem to think. (You will find a somewhat sizable list of examples on our tropes page but almost all of these come from after the twist had already become falsely known as a cliche and are either parodying it, playing with it, or using its notoriety to make it a case of The Untwist.) The origin of the phrase was not a literal description but rather a summary of a far more common trope: Having an unimportant background character end up being the culprit. See here for more info. It might also have gained some lift from that one incident when a man, getting out of a The Mouse Trap showing (the play is famed for not having its ending be an open secret) and yelling in the street "It was the butler!"... while no butlers are even featured in the play.
  • Captain Space, Defender of Earth! is supposedly a parody of the kind of central character who appeared in the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, but that concept never really existed before the parody itself had become a trope.
  • Droit du Seigneur: It's unclear whether it was ever actually practiced by anybody in Real Life, but criticizing people for practicing it goes all the way back to The Epic of Gilgamesh.
  • Food Pills in science fiction. William Gibson mocked the idea in his story "The Gernsback Continuum," but it appears that food pills have always been used as satire or mockery, rather than being presented as something people might actually do in the future. In fact, the Ur Example seems to be from the Land of Oz series, where the pills are useful as field rations, but as for replacing regular meals... the one time their inventor tried to enforce that, he was thrown into a lake.
    • The 1930 sci-fi musical Just Imagine may be the source. It was a comedy, but it seemed to take food pills seriously. (The joke comes from the unfrozen protagonist getting used to eating them, not the food pills existing.)
    • Star Trek: The Original Series had one species that used food pills, but this was to show they were out of touch with the pleasurable aspects of life and emotions in general, and the Enterprise crew convinced an alien not to use them.
    • Save The Pearls uses food pills completely seriously, but that's probably among the least of that book's problems.
  • Here There Be Dragons: Not common on early maps: in fact, it's only found on the Lenox Globe (from the 1500s): HIC SVNT DRACONES is written on the coast of eastern Asia, probably in reference to komodo dragons. Roman and medieval cartographers usually wrote HIC SVNT LEONES ("Here are lions") on unexplored areas.
  • Once Upon a Time in the original fairy tales, though many of the Grimms' tales do.
  • Real Women Don't Wear Dresses: True femininity being seen as compromising a girl's character is a very real problem in real life but it hardly ever appears in fiction except when it's being used as An Aesop about how there's nothing wrong with femininity, hence why most of the examples are subversions and inversions.
  • The Sheet of Glass is an obstacle that commonly, but never seriously, appears in chase scenes.
  • Synchro-Vox was only ever used seriously in a few animated series during The Fifties and Sixties, notably Clutch Cargo and Space Angel. It was immediately discredited as an extreme form of Limited Animation, and was used only for comedic effect afterward.
  • Tinfoil Hat: How many actual conspiracy theorists do you know in real life who wear these? Probably the same number of conspiracy theorists in fiction who DON'T wear them.
  • Ultra Super Death Gore Fest Chainsawer 3000: Ultra-violent video games do exist, but anyone who has actually played games like the Grand Theft Auto series or other bloody games like the Fallout series know there is a lot more to them than senseless violence. Mortal Kombat kind of started the trope, but even it wasn't that violent of a game and the controversy was probably more due to the violence appearing more realistic due to the digitized images of real people being the characters, nor was it anywhere near as over the top as parodies of it were described as. Games like the Manhunt series and MadWorld do sort of fit the stereotype, but they also largely grew out in response to this trope and are parodies of video game violence as well. The only actually released examples of senselessly violent video games played straight is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre game for the Atari 2600, which next to no one bought.
  • Vampire Vords: A parody of Bela Lugosi's accent from his definitive performance of the Classical Movie Vampire in Dracula (1931)...except Lugosi never talked like that. While Lugosi did have a thick accent, he had no problem pronouncing his Ws correctly. And of course, no vampire talks like this unless they're 1) Dracula, or 2) supposed to come from the same Eastern European region.

Stories and Genres:

    Anime and Manga 
  • The concept—even on this very website—that Neon Genesis Evangelion is a deconstruction of the mecha genre. In reality, many of the ideas present in it were being dismantled almost as soon as the genre was in its infancy. The Ace Pilot with an inferiority complex (Tetsuya of Great Mazinger fame), a strained relationship between father and son (Mazinger again, as well as the original Mobile Suit Gundam), the Assimilation Plot ending (Space Runaway Ideon)... even the Fifth Angel's design comes from another series. LCL-like substances and sexualized suits were featured in the 80s and early 90s with Mazinsaga and Hades Project Zeorymer. Even the limited operating time of the Eva is less a deconstruction and more a reference to various Ultraman shows, of which Anno is a massive fan. The 90s were an extremely experimental time for the mecha genre, with fantasy stories such as Escaflowne, wuxia stories such as Giant Robo, and franchise retools as seen with G Gundam. If anything, Evangelion with all of its similar elements was a loveletter to the old works, Not a Deconstruction.
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex refers to this in-universe with the series' subtitle, defining it as one or more copycat activities (any activities, presumably) mimicking an original that doesn't exist.

  • The so-called cliche of Clark Kent changing to Superman in phone booths comes entirely from TWO straight uses in the Superman Theatrical Cartoons of the 1940s. A use of this trope in the comic books of the same period had Superman note how difficult it is to change costume in a phone booth, meaning this was deconstructed even when it was new. Parodies and homages sprung up soon afterward, but in the comics Superman would more often change costume in a deserted storeroom or alleyway, and in the George Reeves television series he NEVER used a phone booth at all. Later uses of the phone booth costume change outside of parody are all done with winks, nods, or other acknowledgements of the 'cliche'. Brian Cronin sets the record straight in his 'Comic Book Legends Revealed' blog here.
    • Also worth noting is that in the 1940s, telephone booths were made of wood with no glass panels. Clark Kent would never consider changing in a glass phone booth (which all parodies use) because everybody would be able to see him change.
    • Superman: the Movie actually pokes fun at this trope as well. Clark is looking for a place to change, notices a phone kiosk (not a booth as such; only the phone is sheltered from the elements), and gives it a strange look before "changing" thanks to a revolving door. This particular trope is so well known that its inclusion as a gag in the movie was guaranteed to get audiences to laugh.
  • The idea of Batman being a grim, brooding Crazy-Prepared semi-madman is both an inversion and a subversion of this trope. The Batman of the 40's was a bit of a homicidal maniac, but the Batman we've all come to know and love was more or less a straight-laced Boring Invincible Hero. The Batman that most people remember was the Silver Age version, who often got involved in silly situations, and the Super-Friends version who couldn't be called "grim" "brooding" or "dark at all. It was probably the 1986 graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns that really brought Batman's darkness to the fore, and since that was one of the stories that inspired Tim Burton's 1989 film, that's the version that is popularly thought of nowadays.

  • The idea of The Igor comes from conflating Dr. Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant in the first movie (Fritz) and Ygor from the third and fourth movies — a non-hunchbacked (though broken-necked, which caused him to carry one shoulder higher) schemer who wanted to reanimate the monster for his own personal gain. Neither of them were in the original book— although after seeing Young Frankenstein one gets the feeling that if Igor didn't exist it would be necessary to invent him.
    • In the same way, the idea that Franky is a child-minded Gentle Giant. He was like this at the beginning of the book, but then he learned how to speak, and began to question his own existence. The movie never got that far, but from that point on, everyone imitated the movie.
  • Some pornographic films advertise that they do not use the missionary position, as everyone is tired of that because it is so common. However, the missionary position is actually avoided for the fairly obvious reason that it's difficult to see the woman's "assets" if the actors are smooshed against each other (for the same reason, reverse cowgirl, rear-entry, and anal are far more popular in porn than in real life). Also, during the missionary position it's easier to see the man than the woman, which is exactly what porn aimed at straight men (which the majority is) wants to avoid. Using it would actually be a subversion.
  • The notion that characters in The Western wear hats that are Color-Coded for Your Convenience is taken from children's shows. As a rule, serious Westerns never followed this convention.
  • During the heyday of the "quirky indie" style of movie, parodies and jokes about it often included barbs about them always featuring a guy hooking up with a gorgeous girl far out of his league. But while this is a common sitcom trope, it doesn't describe these movies too well, usually featuring a more down to Earth, cute Moe type as the female lead with the male usually being the equivalent, a guy who doesn't mean the conventional standards of handsome but few would consider Jim Carrey, Michael Cera or Paul Dano to be actually unattractive (or Joseph Gordon-Levitt...) It tends to be more about the social (not socioeconomic) status of the characters. They aren't cool enough.
  • Pop culture zombie tropes have almost nothing to do with the African/Caribbean legends—in these traditions zombies are corpses resurrected by magicians to be slaves. These zombies will not attack you (unless, presumably, their masters order them to) and can't "spread" their condition to you. The threat of becoming a zombie is scary, but the idea that the zombies themselves hurt people has no basis in folklore. Likely it's a misappropriation of Ghouls in legend, undead who would, sure enough, eat people. In fact, at no point in Night of the Living Dead is the word "zombie" spoken, but "ghoul" is (the ending credits does list "featured zombies" though). The fans ran with zombies, though, and the term stuck as the film spawned an entire genre.
    • Similar to this is 'Voodoo Dolls' which are actually taken from the western folk magic practice of Poppets, using dolls as standins when hexing someone. In Real Life Vodun, the dolls are actually used for healing.
  • Many parodies and pastiches of Jason Voorhees, villain of the Friday the 13th films, show him wielding a chainsaw, even though his favorite weapon in the movies is just a machete. Indeed, he has never used a chainsaw for any purpose — the closest he came was using a circular saw once (and interestingly, a chainsaw is used against him in the second movie). Most likely, his attributes are being mixed up, intentionally or otherwise, with those of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • The popular belief that the word cards for silent movies constantly employed Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness. While occasionally words might pop up that aren't commonly used anymore, most silent films were very visually-driven, kept the dialog very simple, and only used word cards to move the plot along.
  • All parodies of/homages to Film Noir have moody jazz scores, but the real classic Noirs from the 1940s had the typical orchestral scores of that period of Hollywood music. It was the late 50s-early 60s TV shows inspired by Film Noir (like Peter Gunn) that used jazz. This article explains it in detail.

  • Fairy Tales and their supposed idealism and inevitable happy endings are commonly mocked and "deconstructed," most people being unaware that the real stories were often violent, cynical and depressing. Something of a Cyclic Trope, since the original stories had such a grim tone, before being bowdlerized and Disneyfied because Children Are Innocent (which is in itself an example of this trope), causing the stories to end up in an Animation Age Ghetto, which left them filled with Fridge Logic and other ripe fodder for deconstruction.
    • And on the other end of the spectrum, the belief that all fairytales were "originally" gory grimdark horror stories before their Disneyfication. Some were gory by modern standards and there's a lot of Values Dissonance, but overall it's not as bad as many people make it out to be.
    • One of the most egregious examples of a Dead Unicorn Trope via Disneyfication is True Love's Kiss. Fairy Tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs did originally involve romance and kissing, but not as their central focus or Deus ex Machina. In the Grimms' version of Sleeping Beauty, the title character and her kingdom do awaken after the prince kisses her, but the kiss is not what breaks the spell—they awaken simply because the hundred years of sleep designated by the spell are over that day; the prince just happens to be in the right place at the right time. In the original proto-version of Sleeping Beauty, the princess awakened after the prince "made love" to her, she gave birth to children, and one of them sucked the poisoned needle out of her thumb. And in the original version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White awoke from her enchanted sleep after the Prince accidentally dropped her coffin, dislodging the chunk of poisoned apple stuck in her throat. There was always kissing in Fairy Tales, but the power of the kiss has been inflated via Disneyfication and the words "true love" added.
    • For some reason, knights in shining armor rescuing distressed damsels from dragons is commonly associated with fairytales, even though this is something that almost never happensnote . In fact, one of the most famous chivalric romances has a female knight who rescues at least one distressed gentleman.
  • At one point in the The Tough Guide to Fantasyland the author comments on a sort of gender-based Wacky Wayside Tribe plot/setting, in which while boys do one thing, girls get to bond with dragons. The thing is, that while there are books with female Dragon Rider characters (i.e. Dragonriders of Pern), there doesn't seem to be any series in which that was an exclusively female activity—it's closer to exclusively male in the Pern booksnote , and the Pit Dragon Chronicles likewise features males making that bond, and all of these books were written before the Guide was published. It is worth noting, however, that the author of the Tough Guide wrote it after reading umpteen Tolkien-esque, Tolkien-length novels as a judge in a contest. She was probably not referring to any published books when she wrote this.
  • Many of the entries in Roger Ebert's Movie Glossary could qualify as Dead Unicorns. Particularly the idea of being able to hide in a St. Patrick's Day parade at any time of the year. Also, Fruit Cart!

    Live-Action TV 
  • MythBusters made reference to one when tackling the (busted) myth that steel-toed boots could actually sever toes instead of protecting them. Adam commented about "samurai movies" where the tip of someone's boot would be cut off, except the toes are intact right behind where the tip was severed. This is actually a somewhat common comedy trope, but its appearance in a "samurai movie" is highly dubious at best (what with the characters wearing sandals and all).
    • Mythbusters does this a lot, actually, especially in recent seasons. Since almost all the more well-known myths have been tested over the course of the show's eight seasons, the show has used much more obscure ones to keep things going.
    • Since firing their folklorist, the show has been more about finding out what is possible than setting the record straight.
  • Speaking of Samurai, Japanese armor was never made of lacquered wood despite many claims to the contrary—it was usually various types of leather, iron, and eventually steel armor, with plenty of silk cording to tie it together.
    • Or, to put it another way, there was such a thing as wood-crafted ceremonial armor, but mistaking it for the real thing is akin to thinking that European knights rode into battle in ruffled collars and ring-covered hands.
  • Doctor Who:
    • Not many of the Doctor's companions actually twisted an ankle, and very few were helpless screaming women. In fact, Susan is the only one that comes to mind, and she did both. And even Susan shared the TARDIS with another female companion, Barbara, a strong-willed teacher who Minored In Ass Kicking.
    • Mel was introduced as something of a "homage" to the companions of the 1960s's, but came off more like Joahn Nathan Turner's version of a B-Movie Scream Queen. The sole female companion didn't become the norm until the 1970's.
    • The line about Daleks being unable to climb stairs was trotted out right up until their return in 2005, even though it was implicitly obvious they could in the 1960s and actually shown on screen in the 1980s. (To be fair, in their first appearance they die if they lose direct contact with their special metal floor, but we see Daleks wandering around comfortably on Earth in their second TV story.)
      • In fact in the Daleks' second appearance (in the Dalek Book) they were shown flying with transpolar discs.
  • Anything related to Game Shows:
    • The "Guy Smiley" stereotype of game show hosts as always-smiling Large Hams who give a "slimy used-car salesman" vibe, crack awful jokes and wear loud, flashy suits. Most of the genre's greats were a bit goofy and loud at times, but even party animals like Gene Rayburn or slicker types like Wink Martindale or Monty Hall knew when to put on a serious demeanor. The "Guy Smiley" type host is an extreme Flanderization of the three aforementioned hosts, with a few traits thrown in just for comedy. Prolific host Bill Cullen was mellow, unattractive, kindly, self-deprecating, and physically handicapped by polio — in other words, about as far from the "Guy Smiley" stereotype as possible. But that image is so ingrained in the American consciousness that it inspires things like this ... talk about Truth In Television.
    • The deep, melodramatic voice that most "parody" announcers have is almost entirely fabrication. Don Pardo had a deep, dramatic voice, but it was authoritative and exciting without being over-the-top, in addition to sporting an obvious New England accent. (That, and 99% of his game show career was before 1975.) In fact, most announcers sound absolutely nothing like that. Some were higher-voiced and commanding (Johnny Olson, Johnny Gilbert); others were much mellower (Gene Wood, Jack Clark, Charlie O'Donnell, John Harlan); and when he was hamming it up, Rod Roddy was still high and nasal. Burton Richardson almost played this kind of voice straight for a while.
    • Cheap, chintzy sets that look like they were scavenged from a backwater cable access channel's news program. Sure, maybe in the olden days, back when TV was predominantly black and white, the sets weren't much to write home about, but they went all-out a lot earlier than many people think. You know that gigantic tic-tac-toe board on The Hollywood Squares? That thing first came to be in 1966. The sprawling, three-doors-and-a-turntable set of The Price Is Right? 1972. The massive contestant turntable on Match Game? 1973. That one probably came about due more to the budgets of the sources of the parodies. It's much harder to justify a flashy set when it's only going to be used for one episode of a three-camera sitcom.
    • Having the audience shout the show's name in the intro. Wheel of Fortune is the only show that has ever done this (although the 1985 show Break the Bank did it when throwing to commercial), and even then, Wheel's chant has been the same pre-recorded one on all but a handful of occasions.

  • Country Music songs being about dogs and/or trucks. While they may be mentioned in passing, they're virtually never the primary topic.
    • Mocked by David Allan Coe on "You Never Even Called Me by My Name" in which he addresses the listener:
    Well a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song, and he told me it was the perfect country and western song.
    I wrote him back a letter and told him it was not the perfect country and western song because it hadn't said anything at all about "Mama", or trains... or trucks... or prison... or gettin' drunk.
    Well he sat down and wrote another verse to the song and he sent it to me. After readin' it I realized that my friend had written the perfect country and western song. And I felt obliged to include it on this album; the last verse goes like this here:
    Well I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
    And I went to pick her up in the rain
    But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
    She got run'd over by a damned ol' train
    • Similarly, there is a widespread view that country songs typically feature a slow, maudlin list of problems (my wife left me, my truck broke down, my dog died - we all know the old joke about what happens when you play a country song backwards.) While there are a few songs in existence that fit this description (e.g. "Things Have Gone to Pieces" and "These Days I Barely Get By", both recorded by George Jones), they are nowhere near as common as supposed. There is a kernel of truth in this stereotype in that country songs often deal with depressing, real-world subjects, but they are almost never structured in this manner.
      • There are, however, quite a few blues songs that follow that structure. Almost none of them start "I woke up this morning", though.note 
    • The real Dead Horse Trope in country music was "cheating songs". By the 1970s you started hearing songs about cheating songs, and by the 1980s they pretty much disappeared.
    • Interestingly, the wave of party-themed "bro-country" songs in The New Tens seems to have turned "country songs about trucks" into an actual trope, as many such songs take place in a truck bed or on a tailgate, or at least mention it prominently.
  • A once commonly joked about aspect of Emo music before the term hit the mainstream was the supposed tendency of bands to cry on stage, but despite the many jokes about this and some parodies of it there are no reliable reports of any bands actually doing this.

    Video Games 
  • The stereotype of the typical JRPG protagonist as being an angsty, spikey-haired teenager swinging a sword with its own zip code. The character the stereotype is supposed to be based on, Cloud Strife, doesn't even hit all the points, since Cloud is twenty-one and, in the actual game, Cloud was far less angsty than many fans seem to believe.
    • This perception takes bits of both him and Squall Leonhart, who isn't spiky-haired nor carries a BFS, but is much angstier and 17 years old. In any case, main characters that actually fit the complete stereotype are almost non-existent in the entire genre. Even those who come close are few and far in between.
  • The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Clichés, some of which are worded on way too specific detail (For example, the very first one). There are some spot-on ones though (Like The next one).
  • From Yume Nikki, the Vomit-Chan meme. At no point in the game does Madotsuki ever throw up; the piece of fanart that inspired this meme was entirely the invention of a guro artist.