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Nothing but Skulls

"Disturbing, but tidy."

Piles of bones composed of... well... Nothing but Skulls. The rest of the bones vanish without explanation. It doesn't matter whether the victims were killed by ancient death traps, man-eating monsters or barbarian hordes; nothing remains but the skull.

There are good narrative and practical reasons for this. A human skull is instantly recognizable, making it a powerful symbol of death. Other bones do not carry the same emotive weight; few people could identify a human shoulder blade on sight.

It helps too that skulls stack up so neatly. Or perhaps it's the fact that skulls represent a one-to-one ratio of bones to corpses, while a given human has multiple of the majority of other bones (and the most visible exception, the spine, takes up a lot more room per victim).

It's also what you're left with when you take heads as trophies and leave the rest on the battlefield. Whatever the case, when warlords and writers want to evoke terror, they create gargantuan piles of Nothing But Skulls. And stand on them. It's an old trope, but still effective.

After reading this page, skull will no longer sound like a word.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Anime and Manga 
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, Badass Biker Mukruo Enjo uses a deck with skull-themed monsters, mostly skulls that are on fire.
  • Sengoku Basara: Demon King Nobunaga has a giant pile of skulls in his throne room. His throne, which has a skull motif, is sitting right on top of it. He even uses them as drinking cups.
  • Berserk: The road to the castle.
  • Rurouni Kenshin: Hell is depicted as full of mountains of skulls; during Kenshin's Heroic BSOD, he imagines himself there as Shishio taunts him.
    • Shishio, Yumi, and Hoji are also depicted in this Hell shortly after their deaths, quite cheerful about it and setting off to conquer the place. This sequence is notably the only supernatural event in the series that cannot be put down to either 'Watsuki physics' or somebody hallucinating, because there's nobody to hallucinate; it's just the omniscient audience's perspective of these guys hanging out among the skulls.

     Comic Books  

  • Smax: In Alan Moore's Top 10 spinoff miniseries, the lair to the den of the Dragon Morningbright is paved entirely with the skulls of children.
  • In Final Crisis, Shazam finds Black Adam sitting on a small mound of skulls when he comes to recruit him to fight Darkseid.

    Fanworks 

    Film 

  • In The Return of the King Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are nearly buried under an avalanche of Nothing But Skulls. The writers comment on this, explaining that there were different rooms for each bone, and if Aragon, Legolas, and Gimli had been in a different part of the cave they would have been buried under a pile of femurs, or kneecaps, or something.
  • In The Sponge Bob Square Pants Movie, SpongeBob and Patrick arrive at an ice-cream stand surrounded by skulls. (Turns out it's a trap set by an anglerfish.) Patrick at first appears to notice the skulls and shouts to SpongeBob as if to warn him... but turns out he's just asking for chocolate.
  • The catacombs under Venice in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had niches in the walls that contained only skulls, one to a niche. Justified in that the skull is the "densest" indicator of death, those niches were probably high-density tombs and crypts. The body may not reside there, but the skull and the soul are there.
  • His Dark Materials: Oxford College has skulls in niches.
  • Predator; In somewhat of a subversion, goes for nothing but skulls with the spinal cord still intact. Presumably they go for more on Ebay.
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day: The opening 'Future War' segment features an apparent carpet of Nothing But Skulls, seemingly specifically so Skynet's mecha can symbolically crush them beneath their feet and treads as they engage Resistance troops in yet another bitter firefight. A Shout-Out to this can be found in the losing cinematics of Wing Commander III, with a Kilrathi foot in combat armor doing the crushing.
  • Ghostbusters II, at least in terms of imagery. Viggo the Carpathian says, "On a mountain of skulls, in a castle of pain, I sat on a throne of blood." Also a Badass Boast or whatever.
  • In the opening scene of Muppet Treasure Island, there's a cavern full of skulls. They sing a line of "Shiver My Timbers".
  • In Man of Steel, Clark sinks into a pit of these during Zod's Mind Probe.

     Fine Arts  

  • ''The Apotheosis of War'' by 19th century Russian painter V. Vereshchagin is a marvelous example of this trope. The fact that the artist was born in a town called Cherepovets ("Skulltown" in Russian), which was named after an ancient pagan shrine, adds to the Rule of Cool.

    Literature 

  • Discworld
    • Parodied in Interesting Times when Cohen and his Silver Horde learn from a local that the claiming of the throne of the Agatean Empire is traditionally accompanied with "seas of blood" and/or "a mountain of skulls". The Horde eagerly begins quizzing exactly how many skulls this precisely means, and their informant gets testy: "I don't know how big a mountain! A lot of skulls!"
    • In The Last Hero, mention is also made of the now retired Pamdar the Witch Queen.
    "She runs a shop now. Pam's Pantry. Makes marmalade."
    "What? But she used to queen it on a throne atop a pile of skulls!"
    "I didn't say it was very good marmalade."
    • In Hogfather, the Tooth Fairy has a mountain of teeth.
    • In Night Watch, it's mentioned that the Temple of Small Gods sorts the bodies of the dead by what bone they are. The entrance of the tomb holds the skulls.
  • A bit of the Star Wars Expanded Universe mentions an artist who depicted Emperor Palpatine as sitting on a throne atop a mountain of skulls. He was executed.
  • The Dark Tower by Stephen King: The Crimson King has a throne made of skulls.
  • Gaunt's Ghosts, Blood Pact: A rumor circulates about a valley filled with millions of dusty skulls with the tops sawn off. To the point that it scares the crap out of hardened veterans of several wars, and even freaks out Gaunt himself a bit. Of course it helps that the entirety of the building they're camped in is thoroughly evil.
  • In The Night Angel Trilogy, there's a bridge in Khaliras made entirely out of skulls and magic. The only real point of the skulls is to intimidate and show where the bridge actually is (it's possible to cross it with the skulls gone). Did I mention this bridge crosses what appears to be a mile wide bottomless chasm, and is the only way into the castle?

     Live Action TV  
  • In the MST3K episode "Cave Dwellers" there's a giant snake pit with lots and lots of skulls. "Oh look, anal-retentive snakes, they lined up the skulls!"
  • Episode 2 of the first Doctor Who serial An Unearthly Child was called The Cave Of Skulls, it featured a Cave full of Skulls.
    • More recently, we have "The Wedding of River Song", which featured a crypt full of living skulls, leftovers from the process of creating Headless Monks.

    Pinball 
  • True to the band, the Metallica pinball game has lots of scary-looking skulls all over the place.
  • In Haunted House, most of the remains seen consist of nothing but various skulls.

     Tabletop Games  
  • Warhammer 40,000: The skull is a very common motif in this game, particularly the in the Imperium, which more often than not uses representations of skulls rather than the real thing. Chaos forces uses this motif somewhat less (for the most part), although they will use actual skulls more often.
    • "Skulls for the Skull Throne!"
    • Chaos worshippers like building altars out of them or wearing them on trophy racks, while the Imperium has flying skull-robots and buildings with skulls of the dead in shrines on the walls.
    • The Space Marines' Power Armor is usually decorated with skulls made of solid gold, and occasionally real skulls as well.
    • One of the most recognizable emblems of the Imperium is a skull. Sometimes with wings.
    • And a Chaos Titan is once depicted with a necklace of skulls. Providing how humongous the thing is you could guess how many skulls that would take.
    • Skulltaker, one of the Blood God's more dangerous servants, wears a cloak made of the skulls of his fallen opponents. His table top miniature has no less than 137 skulls modeled on it.
    • This is a classic basing technique to make power-armored Khorne Lords stand out from the rank-and-file. Simply clip skulls off of Chaos trophy racks, arrange in a pile, and mount a miniature on top.
    • The Orkz are fond of taking skulls as trophies, much like the followers of Khorne. Expect to see at least one skull decorating a Warboss and-or his entourage.
      • As are the Dark Eldar. The special character Kheradruakh the Decapitator has thousands of skulls from various races lining the walls of his lair, all positioned carefully so their gaze converges on a central point where he sits. Creepy.
    • This is a common dig or in-joke on certain forums regarding certain models in the overall Games Workshop range gaining more and more skulls. Case in point...
    • The aptly named Khorne Lord of Skulls model has so many skulls on it that according to an interview in White Dwarf, the sculptor lost count somewhere after 200. It has several different components that, in-universe, are basically metal frames used to hold skulls in place.
  • The Dungeons & Dragons Greyhawk campaign setting features the Empire of Iuz. The capital city's main road is paved with skulls of Iuz's enemies. It stretches for over a hundred miles to the north of the capital, to the first petty fief Iuz took over. It's also being expanded towards the southeast to the city of Molag, more than doubling its length.
    • The Greyhawk cosmology/Planescape campaign features (or once featured) the Pillar of Skulls on Baator, composed of the skulls of those who hid knowledge from another, and as a result the person they hid it from died.
  • The Coalition States fromRifts uses a skull motif for everything in its armed forces, from rank and unit insignias to body armor and Powered Armor helmets, to the front of troop transports, helicopters and battletanks, to their Humongous Mecha (both humanoid and spider-walkers), and of course their skelebots.
  • The Yu-Gi-Oh! monster Ryu Kokki is a giant demon made entirely out of human skulls.

     Video Games  

  • The Legend of Zelda series:
  • King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow: The Lord of the Dead was surrounded by a gigantic pile of bones, made up almost entirely of skulls, as shown in this screenshot.
  • Heroes of Might and Magic: In one version, the Necromancer city can build a 'Pyramid of Skulls', which looks somewhat garish, but boosts your weekly production of Skeletons significantly.
  • Myth: The Myrkridia, horrible lycanthropic monsters from Bungie's series of games, make the skulls of their victims into platforms that rise thirty feet high and then are adorned with the Myrkridian standard. The precision with which the skulls are fitted is said to be maddening to behold.
  • In StarCraft, the Zerg victory results screen shows a Hydralisk atop a pile of skulls.
  • World of Warcraft: In several locations such as war zones or Scourge installations, there are usually many skulls strewn about. Others bones are also visible but but skulls outnumber them all. Some good old pile of skulls can also be found around ritual circles and similar locations.
  • Diablo II
    • Piles of skulls sometimes appears as treasure caches to be looted.
    • Diablo's Chaos Sanctuary is littered with skulls.
    • Plus you can slot some of them into equipment for added bonuses!
  • Castlevania
    • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night: There are two rooms in in which the floor is made entirely of skulls, and there are huge piles of them in the background. The boss fought in this room is a giant floating ball of corpses that was hiding in said skulls before you entered, and in the upside-down castle version of that room, you face Galamoth.
    • Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance: Almost the entire Skeleton Den area, which is just an immense catacombs. With, appropriately, lots of skulls used as a building material (along with other bones and non-bone materials).
    • Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia: The Skeleton Cave. According to the game, the bony fiends themselves created this unholy place by ransacking a nearby cementery and using the bones to built this temple of the dead.
  • In Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, there are Secret Projects playing the same role as Wonders do in Civilization. The cinematic for one of them, "Dream Twister", involves (among other nasty things) a photo of a pile of skulls.
  • Brutal Legend has a mountain of skulls as the first level of the game.
  • Team Fortress Classic: In a crossover with Ludicrous Gibs, a mod made it so that not only did the body spawn more bones than was physically possible, all of them were skulls.
  • Mother 3: The giant snake pit has piles of nothing but skulls.
  • The Pillar of Skulls (see above under Tabletop Games) is visited in Planescape: Torment.
  • Cave areas in Adventure Island III and IV contain several piles of human skulls.
  • Shields with human skulls are a very common wall decoration in human homes in Albion. Locals are quick to point out that they are old family heirlooms.
  • In a few Might and Magic games, you can find piles of skulls in some dungeons, labeled with names like "Skull Pile of Disease", "Skull Pile of Poison", and "Skull Pile of Death". Most of the time, it's a good idea not to go near them as they do exactly what their names say they do to whoever touches one, but a few of them do have valuable things inside.
  • The Addams Family for the NES has the Bone Room, which is mostly skulls with some Stock Femur Bones floating around.
  • The second level of Ghouls and Ghosts (the one with the windmills) has, after getting past the Stone Turtles and the quicksand, enormous stacks of skulls that are being used as projectiles by the Legions of Hell. Note that there's a burning village nearby in the background.
  • In Getsu Fuma Den, an improbable proportion of the overworld terrain is made of or covered with skulls. Other bones can be seen, but skulls are predominant.
  • Clive Barker's Undying: The Skull Storm spell pulls human skulls out of the earth and launches them like explosive missiles.
  • In Mortal Kombat, both Shang Tsung and Quan Chi have ranged attacks that involve shooting flaming magical skulls from their hands.

    Webcomics 

     Western Animation  

     Real Life  

  • Buffalo skulls were high in phosphorus and were bought up by fertilizer and explosive factories. They were piled in a giant mound before being shipped off.
  • Skull Tower of Niš. A tower made of the skulls (of the Serb soldiers defeated in a battle that was fought near the place during a major uprising) and stone blocks by Turkish commanders to discourage Serbs from another revolution.
    • By the way, discouragement? It failed. Serbs rose again couple years after that, and actually got to be represented by one of their own.
    • The tower is now a national monument. Also the rebels weren't just defeated, they blew themselves and many of the Turks up.
  • The Aztecs and their neighbours routinely displayed skulls on special racks
  • Assyrian armies piled up pyramids of skulls.
  • The Mongols were also quite fond of this as a form of psychological warfare. Timur reputedly built a pyramid out of 90,000 skulls outside of the city of Dehli to coax the city's surrender.
  • Catacombs and ossuaries (where bones are taken after they've been in a grave for a respectable amount of time to free up graveyard space), they're stored by bone type and size, not by owner, because it's a more efficient use of space.
    • In the Paris Catacombs, while there are all kinds of bones, skulls are carefully set in front of the piles to keep them from collapsing, or just for making fun shapes (there's a pattern of skulls in shape of a heart for example in one bone-pile.) The quick impression of the place comes close to the trope, even though careful scrutiny quickly proves it false.
    • Sedlec Ossuary.
    • In Portugal, the Chapel of Bones has wall decorated with nothing but skulls.
  • Memorials and museums for the Rwandan Genocide have... very neat stacks of skulls. A hell of a lot of them. There are a few reasons for this, the first being of course that skulls are small, easily stackable, and represent one clear death each, thus having a huge emotional impact. The second being that the large scale systematic mutilation of the victims and use of explosives in small confined areas (like churches) left it rather difficult to determine which bone belonged to whom, and it would be impossible to piece together every one of the thousands of skeletons.
  • Pol Pot is famed for his love of this trope. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum has shelves of the skulls of his victims.
    • Which The Onion then played with by saying that Cambodia was planning to switch to a skull-based economy, "which will be a fantastic boom to the world economy once they actually produce any good or provide services."
  • This political cartoon of United States President Zachary Taylor, or possibly General Winfield Scott (it's debated). At any rate the cartoon is an attack on the Whig Party, the skulls and sword referring to the Mexican-American War in which both Taylor and Scott fought, and the "one qualification" being bloodthirstiness.


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