According to some folklore, the last thing a person sees before death remains stored in their eyes and can be recovered with the appropriate use of Applied Phlebotinum. Often used to help catch their killer. Subtrope of Interrogating the Dead.
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Anime & Manga
- Used in an episode of the Astro Boy anime (both the 1960s and 1980s series). The victim in this case is a robot, which makes the whole thing somewhat more plausible, but the folklore about being able to do it with humans is explicitly referred to.
- There was a story in the Black Jack manga about a girl who receives an eye transplant from a murder victim who seems to be seeing visions of the last thing the eye's original owner saw. When Black Jack consults a specialist about whether it's possible for an eye to store an image that way, the man bursts out laughing and says that it happens in science fiction all the time, but This Is Reality. (Though naturally he's wrong about that.)
- Used to absolutely chilling effect in the appropriately-titled "Mermaid's Gaze" story of Rumiko Takahashi's Mermaid Saga.
- An atypical example from Berserk in that it does not involve death. Guts's right eye was blinded when it got clawed out by a demon, during the horrific ordeal of being forced to witness the vicious and brutal rape of his lover Casca at the hands of his now demonic best friend Griffith during the Eclipse. Being the last vision that his right eye would see and the primary motivation of his revenge, Guts recalls on this event in order to remind himself of how much he hates the man who took everything from him.
- A one-shot device in the Cowboy Bebop episode "Sympathy for the Devil" plays out the "eyes of the victim" trick, although the victim in this case is only brain-dead.
- Abiru Kobushi from Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei has a green left eye as the result of a cornea transplant. Said cornea comes from the victim of a car accident, and Abiru claims she can see the last thing the donor saw : the license plate of the killer car. It's later revealed that the victim was actually a young girl named An Akagi, AKA Kafuka Fuura.
- In The Brave and the Bold #188-189, during a team-up between Batman and Rose and Thorn, Batman comments that seeing the image of a killer in a dead man's eyes is myth, but nonetheless checks. Sure enough, he sees an image of the killer frozen in the victim's eye. No explanation is ever given.
- In The Sandman, the Second Corinthian references the legend. He knows how to view the images — by eating the eyes.
- Trese. Harshly subverted in the very first case of the very first issue, in that the uncooperative interviewee was still alive when Trese harvested the eyeball. It's okay, their kind are really creepy.
- Appears as an Exaggerated Trope in the Marvel Comics Original Sin Crisis Crossover series, where The Watcher's eyes store and can transmit everything he has ever observed with his nigh-omniscience. This becomes important after he is killed and the eyes are used to involuntarily force characters to learn each others' secrets, leading to a cascade of Retconned revelations.
- A minor Marvel character, Terror Inc. (aka Shreck), can access the visual memory of any person whose eyes he grafts to his own body using his broader ability to forcibly take An Arm and a Leg and exploit Organ Autonomy.
Films — Live-Action
- One of the gadgets in Wild Wild West is a device that projects the last thing the dead person saw by mounting the head on a projector. The belief is called "Retinal Terminus Theory". The image is also inverted when projected, as a reference to the fact that the eye lens flips the image that then hits the retina (i.e. everything we see is upside-down, but our brain interprets it as right-side-up), despite the fact that the lens should be flipping the image the right way for the projection.
Jim West: That. Is a man's. Heaaaaaaaaaad.
- Used in the 1936 film The Invisible Ray to determine who killed Sir Francis. This is how the cast learns of Dr. Rukh's quest for mad vengeance.
- The Soviet Sherlock Holmes series mention it. Holmes says he conducted some experiments, and can tell it's complete rubbish.
- In Barb Wire, one of the pieces of Applied Phlebotinum used by the bad guys is a device that enables them to see the last few minutes of a dead guy's vision. Stupidly, they try to use this on a blind guy and are surprised when it shows them nothing.
- Hoping to identify the killer, the police in Four Flies on Grey Velvet take a picture from a victim's retina. What she saw were four flies which actually helps the lead identify the killer as the flies were actually his wife's necklece.
- In the Discworld novel Feet of Clay, the city watch are able to to see the eyes that were the last thing the murder victim saw. Unfortunately for convenient cases, that person wasn't the killer.
- In the Lord Darcy story "The Eyes Have It", the limits and flaws of this technique form the core of the story - the image that Master Sean recovers is a subjective image that isn't a very good objective representation of the killer, which is just as well, as it allows them to avoid the scandal that would have arisen if the fact that the Count tried to rape his sister, who then shot him in self-defense had gotten out to the general public.
- In Artemis Fowl #2, there's the retimager, which reads the imprints left on the eyeball of whatever that person has seen. In this case, it's used as an interrogation tool on living people.
- The Dresden Files explicitly dismisses the retinal image theory as largely mythical, though it does feature other ways of Interrogating the Dead.
- Used in Shatterglass, the last book of Tamora Pierce's "The Circle Opens" Quartet. The detective Nomasdina casts a spell over dead victims to show him the last thing they saw. Unfortunately, the killer always struck from behind, so this was never actually useful.
- In The Demolished Man, the police announce they're going to use this technique to discover the murderer. Their actual motive is to flush out the scientist who was the murderer's Unwitting Pawn.
- In the novella Skulls by Tim Marquitz, the protagonist, by staring into the eyesockets of one of the titular skulls, sees what the deceased saw at the moment of his or her death.
- The novel The Alienist by Caleb Carr plays this straight, as it's set in the late 19th century. In fact, taking shots of the eyes of a victim is considered more scientific than fingerprinting. It doesn't work.
- Referenced in the Hawk & Fisher novel The God Killer, although averted in this particular investigation because the victim's head was missing.
- At the climax of Rudyard Kipling's horror story "At the End of the Passage", a friend of the dead man tries this. What he sees in the dead man's eyes is so horrifying that he destroys the film before his companions (and us, alas) can see it.
- In John Bellairs' The Eyes of the Killer Robot, an Evil Sorcerer discovered a way to build a Magitek robot powered by a human being's eyes. When he decided to put it into practice, he had a grisly idea: what if the last thing a person's eyes sees are himself/herself? He murdered a man and made sure the last thing the guy saw was his own reflection. When he implanted the victim's eyes into the robot, the robot somehow took on the appearance of the dead man.
- In He Lover of Death, a serial killer punctured eyes of his victims to defy this trope. Erast Fandorin told the cop that it is a superstition. Then Fandorin understood that the cop is the killer because he stopped to puncture the eyes.
- In season 5 of Babylon 5, the frequencies of energy weapons used in a series of mystery attacks are discovered burned into victims' retinas.
- In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Timeless", one of the show's numerous Bad Futures showed the crew buried in ice. The Doctor extracts the eyepiece from Seven of Nine's body and uses it to pinpoint exactly when she died. The eye's still attached, too. Y'know, for kids!
- In an episode of Beyond Belief Fact Or Fiction, one story was about a woman who couldn't stop looking at this one guy in a bar. He abducted the woman, demanding to know if she was a cop. The man was eventually arrested and the woman was saved. She later learns that the woman he murdered was the same woman whose transplanted corneas she received. (The implication here was that she couldn't stop staring at the guy because her transplanted eyes recognized him. This was doubly silly because a cornea doesn't actually receive light; it just acts as a lens.)
- In the second episode of Fringe, Walter Bishop does exactly that to help the FBI find the serial killer.
- In Crossing Jordan, Dr. Macy claims he has a machine which does exactly this in order to trick/blackmail some violent thugs into letting him go. He's totally lying, of course.
- Doctor Who:
- In "The Ark In Space", the Doctor specifically mentions this myth while trying to figure out the life cycle of a now-dead parasitic wasp alien. He retrieves the membrane of its eye and uses some Applied Phlebotinum and Psychic Powers to project the alien's dying point of view onto a viewscreen. Notably, the view he gets isn't just a snapshot, but an extended sequence of memory like a film that the other characters can watch and comment on.
- "The Time of Angels" and "Flesh and Stone" have a variation. Staring at an Angel for too long eventually creates an image of an Angel, which is also an Angel, inside your eye. As you can imagine, this is fatal.
- In "The Crimson Horror" the Doctor says this is rubbish, but it can happen under certain chemical conditions. Which happen to him.
- In the pilot episode of the Robocop show, Robo used this to discover that Cray Mallardo was the person killing vagrants. He had to do a lot of processing on the image to get something clear enough to identify what he was looking at.
- Once on The Ricky Gervais Show, Risky and Steve convinced Karl that scientists had discovered that crabs dream and devised a way to extract the pictures that were somehow recorded on the insides of their eyes.
- One of the Giovanni powers in Vampire: The Masquerade allowed a vampire to do this.
- Corax, wereravens in Werewolf: The Apocalypse, can see the last moments before a person's death by eating their eyeballs. Specifically, they can see it from either a negative (violence, gore, pain) or positive (whodunit, what was happening around them, etc.) perspective depending on WHICH eye they eat. The negative perspective is stated to be generally more stressful, traumatic, and confusing for the Wereraven, but players are advised that favoring only one perspective can/should/will lead to undesirable long-term side effects for their character.
- In Los Angeles 2035, some mutants withe the right Psy + mutation can look a dead in the eyes and watch the lasts moments of his life. It is noted that post-mortem eye mutilation gets more and more common since the Police started employing mutants.
- British detectives trying to solve the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888 actually attempted this, photographing the eyes of the victims in the hope that they would find an image of the killer. Needless to say, they did not.