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Let The Past Burn
Sometimes, a house or other building is central to a story. Usually it is the residence of the protagonist or antagonist. It may have a significant history, either special or sinister. It may even carry a family curse. By living there, a character may be unknowingly tying themselves to the past, or to their old ways.
Then that building is burnt down, destroying those memories of the past with it.
The huge material loss suffered by the owner of the house is generally peripheral to the story, with the real point of the trope being that the fire symbolizes letting go of the things from the past that were tied to the house, and being able to finally embrace the future.
One or more characters, dead or alive, may be burnt along with the house. A villainous or deranged character who lights such a fire is likely to perish in this way - perhaps with the hero trying unsuccessfully to save them.
This trope is almost always an Ending Trope
, as it gives an effective close to the story and symbolically lays the past to rest. Tends toward a Bittersweet Ending
. It is used particularly in Gothic Literature
Simply having a previously unmentioned or unimportant house burn down is not sufficient for this trope. Examples should make clear the value of the building and/or the significance of the fire, to avoid being considered a Zero-Context Example
Related to, but distinct from, Kill It with Fire
and Fire Purifies
, which are about fire as a weapon for killing. Also related to Burn Baby Burn
, which is about burning smaller significant objects. See also It's All Junk
. Destroy the Abusive Home
is a subtrope of this which has a character destroying the home or other place where they or a loved one were put through hell.
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Anime & Manga
- The Elric Brothers' Origins Arc in Fullmetal Alchemist ends with them burning their late mother's home where they grew up before they go out on a quest to get back Al's body (which was lost in an attempt to resurrect their mom in that very house). They say it's so they won't ever be tempted to turn back from the goal they've set. Hohenheim says its more like a child trying to burn the evidence of their soiled bedsheets after wetting the bed.
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Jojo's house burning down marks the end of the first arc of the first part of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, and the Genre Shift from Glamorous Manly Elizabethan Melodrama to Glamorous Manly Supernatural Horror-Adventure.
- This type of ending was used at least more than once in the 1988 anime Grimms Fairy Tale Classics. The Bluebeard episode ended this way, and Hansel & Gretel had the witch's house get struck by lightning and burn down, and the kids reunited with their father the next day.
- At almost-not-quite the end of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Alfred burns down Wayne Manor so that nobody can look through it for evidence or clues after Batman's identity as Bruce Wayne is revealed to the public while faking his death.
- Batman Rogues Gallery member Black Mask burnt down his family's mansion to disassociate himself from his former identity as Roman Sionis.
- Prince of Persia: The Graphic Novel ends its 9th-century storyline with the usurper burning down the royal palace with himself rather than surrender it to Prince Guiv. Much of the 13th-century storyline is set in the ruins of this palace.
- In the final Punisher Max arc "Homeless", after the death of Frank, Nick Fury takes a flamethrower to the house where the Castle family used to live and where Frank had been staying during the events of the arc. By doing so he hopes to put an end to the tragedy that made The Punisher once and for all.
- Eric Draven burns down his old house during the events of The Crow just before going out on his Roaring Rampage of Revenge against Dollar Bill and his gang.
- Done at the end of Whats Eating Gilbert Grape. The protagonists light the house on fire to burn along with their deceased morbidly obese mother who is on the top floor, as this is the only way to dispose of her body without public humiliation. In this case the fire symbolises protection.
- The James Bond film Skyfall has the titular manor burning down during the ending battle (with, of course, lots of explosions and such). This is very symbolic, as Bond has linked it throughout the movie with his childhood, and certain... psychological baggage he's carried with him from there.
- In Batman Begins, the film's Darkest Hour is when Ra's al Ghul incapacitates Bruce Wayne, then sets Wayne Manor on fire and leaves Bruce to die there. Continuing his father's legacy (in this case, making Gotham a better, safer city) is one of Bruce's major motivations. Bruce is convinced at that moment that he's completely ruined Dad's legacy, and the destruction of his father's house is a very concrete representation of that.
- In What About Bob?, Dr. Leo Marvin's lakeside vacation house in New Hampshire is a symbol of his financial success at the cost of strained relationships with just about everyone. (His daughter calls the trip there "another vacation that isn't a vacation", and his neighbors—the Gutmans—hate Dr. Marvin because they were saving up to buy that house.) At the end, Dr. Marvin tries to kill Bob with explosives, but ends up burning down the house instead. This is the straw that finally breaks Dr. Marvin, and in the next scene he's more or less catatonic. And in the next scene, Bob unintentionally shocks Dr. Marvin back into full consciousness. Whether or not Dr. Marvin learned anything from the ordeal is an open question.
- Office Space: Milton burns down the Initech building in revenge for the company's shabby treatment of him, in the process destroying Peter's letter of confession about embezzling money from the company. Everyone just assumes the arsonist was also the embezzler (and he does end up with the money in any case), and Peter gets off scot-free... and finds a new job in the field of construction, where one of his projects is cleaning up the remains of the building.
- The ending of Citizen Kane is a loose example, differing only in that the whole house isn't burnt.
- In Time Bandits, the family home burns down at the end. Shortly after the parents pick up the rock of evil that was found in the wreckage and both disintegrate, leaving the boy an orphan.
- Braindead ends this way, presumably destroying the remaining zombies.
- Django Unchained: Ends with Django and his wife leaving an exploding slave plantation, on horseback determined to live a free life.
- In the film Andersonville after the defeat of the Raiders their base was burned, symbolic of the end of their reign of terror.
- Forrest Gump eventually does Jenny a favor by having her abusive home demolished.
- At the end of Psycho IV: The Beginning, Norman Bates burns down his mother's old house, the place where all his unhappiness began. In a variation, he is nearly trapped inside, signifying his own difficulty in escaping his past.
- Near the end of the 1997 TV film of The Woman in White, Marian accidentally knocks over a lamp and sets fire to the church where her father was buried, trapping and killing Glyde and Sir Percival.
- Mr Rochester's first wife sets his house ablaze at the end of Jane Eyre - and the shame of his dark secret (her existence) is burned along with it.
- Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca ends with the Creepy Housekeeper Mrs Danvers going over the edge and setting Manderley on fire. All that symbolically remains of Rebecca is burned down along with the house. In some adaptations Mrs Danvers also burns.
- Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Fall of the House of Usher" ends this way, and the curse of the Usher family is brought to closure through the destruction of the house, as well as the protagonist's love interest.
- Tobacco Road ends with the squalid house burning down with Jeeter and Ada and everything they had, from a fire set by Jeeter to clear out the fields for planting. This was dropped from the play.
- At the end of Monstrous Regiment, the Boarding School of Horrors is burned down by two of those who'd been through it.
- Toward the end of the Warrior Cats book Rising Storm, a dry summer and young humans messing around results in a forest fire, badly burning ThunderClan's territory, including their camp. Three of the Clan are killed in the fire, and while they do return, it takes a long time to recover and rebuild.
- The haunted hotel in The Shining burns up and dissolves into nothingness.
Live Action TV
- The second season of The Walking Dead ends with the barn of walkers being burned during the attack on the farm.
- The prison, which is the main base for the group from the beginning of Season 3, burns down during the battle in the Season 4 mid-season finale, and the group are separated as they are forced to flee.
- In-universe example: in Just Shoot Me! this is how Dennis' student film The Burning House ends.
- An episode of Arrested Development ends with Michael and his son, George Michael burning down the family banana stand while they watched as a means of putting the days where they miserably had to work there behind. Their father is not pleased because he had hidden a secret stock of cash in there and the two of them failed to find it.
- M*A*S*H: Psychiatrist Sidney Freeman convinces Col. Potter to let the camp make a bonfire, burning many non-essential items which represent the stifling Army lifestyle. "You have to let them go crazy once in a while to keep from going crazy." Freeman himself tosses his fatigues into the blaze.
- Coincidentally, just before the final episode was filmed the MASH set burned down.
- In Boardwalk Empire, when Nucky's father's ill health forces him to move out of the house his son grew up in, it's given away for free to one of Nucky's associates who's starting a family. The man is incredibly grateful and has the place renovated, but when Nucky visits the place to see if a new paint job will help him forget the years of brutal abuse his father gave him, he douses the empty house in turpentine and throws in a match, handing a wad of cash to the astonished new owner as he walks away.
- In the season 3 finale of Nikita, Division (the central location of the show up to that point) is destroyed.
- Following the death of her last surviving family member in The Vampire Diaries Elena Gilbert burns down their family home, describing how the various items she destroys belonged to the various loved ones she had lost. It's less a matter of the past no longer controlling her and more her grief that she longer has anything remaining of her past life. She even leaves Jeremy's body to burn in the fire, planning to use "death by tragic fire" as a more plausible explanation than the real cause.
- In the backstory of the Doctor Who episode "Ghost Light", Ace, mourning the death of her best friend in a fire, burned a local haunted mansion to the ground. She's less than pleased to find that the Doctor has taken her back in time to that same mansion to find out why it frightened her so.
- The plot of Lucius is set in motion by a character performing satanic rituals in the basement of Dante Manor, which results in Lucius' soul becoming the property of the devil and him murdering the inhabitants of the house. During the final level, Lucius burns Dante Manor to the ground, along with the last of his victims, his father Charles.
- In Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II, the Ghost of House Felldane asks you to destroy Firewind Manor, in order to hide the evidence of the depravity his descendants have succumbed to. Serendipitously, the manor burns to the ground not long after during a dragon attack, fulfilling the ghost's wishes.
- At the end of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, Johnny and his fellow gang members burn down the gang's clubhouse. Considering that they've just killed the gang leader Billy for attempting to turn states' evidence, it can be seen as a symbol of the gang dissolving for good.
- BioShock 1: When the government threatened to nationalize a forest he owned, Andrew Ryan burned it down. This was part of his motivation for planning to secede from the world.
- At the end of 5 Days a Stranger, the mansion as well as the recently re-animated body of the then-unnamed DeFoe child is burnt down, freeing those that had been trapped within. Except for AJ and Philip Harty, who were dead before the fire started.
- In one of The 11th Hour's three endings, Stauf Mansion burns to the ground, which unfortunately also results in the death of Robin.
- Umineko: When They Cry: It's revealed that a huge stockpile of hidden explosives were used at the end of the second day of the Ushiromiya murder mystery which creates a huge crater on the island and destroys their mansion, the family members, and any evidence with it. Episode 4 and episode 8 of the visual novel suggest that it would be much better to forget about the incident, and let the hype, driven by the media, die so that relatives of people who died can move on.
- In The Simpsons episode "Grandpa vs Sexual Inadequacy", Homer and Abe begin arguing after visiting the farmhouse where they lived before moving to Springfield. They resolve the feud at the end of the episode, as the farmhouse burns to the ground.
- In another episode where Homer decides to stop going to church his house burns down and Springfieldianites of various religions help him out: his next door neighbor Ned (Chirstian) pulls him from the burning fire while volunteer firemen Krusty (Jewish) and Apu ("Miscellaneous") put the fire out. This convinces Homer to start attending church again.
- In the Superjail! third season finale, the Warden manages to burn down his entire prison to the ground with Jared, Ash, and others inside.
- In the fourth season finale of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Tirek destroys the Golden Oaks Library, Twilight Sparkle's residence and main repository of knowledge. Word of God says a Season 5 episode will focus on Twilight lamenting the loss of the library.