Basically, when a perfectly mundane or simplistic name is used for dramatic and sinister effect. When the writers don't want to invoke Doomy Dooms of Doom, this makes a nice substitute. Something about a realistic name brings the plot closer to home and if done properly, is scarier than Spiky Cliffs of Evil Soul-Crushing Damnation. (Often, if the name is taken out of context, it wouldn't sound scary at all.) This trope is also the reason you ought to watch out for anyone named "John Smith". Unless he has a blue box. No, especially if he has a blue box. Compare Tom the Dark Lord, a version specific to people, and Trouble Entendre.
Examples:Multiple Anima & Manga
- Higurashi: When They Cry translates to 'When the Cicadas Cry', which essentially holds the implication of 'in a hot summer day', while still holding a vague hint of menace, since the Japanese word 'naku' has the same double meaning as the English 'cry'. Unfortunately the English translation went with much more unambigiously creepy title, When They Cry - mostly because large parts of the Western world don't have that sort of cicada, meaning the implications fall completely flat.
- In The Matrix, the Agents all have extremely common names, including Brown and Smith. The good guys, on the other hand, have What Do You Mean, It's Not Symbolic? handles like Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, etc.
- The Men in Black as a general rule have extremely mundane names.
- Jonathan Doe in Se7en is a psychotic Theme Serial Killer.
- District 9.
- The Strangers of Dark City all go by names involving Mr. and a simple everyday word, e.g. Mr. Hand, Mr. Quick, Mr. Book.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You, there! Sinister-looking warlock! What is your name? "There are those who call me... 'Tim'."
- Room 101 in George Orwell's 1984.
- In Carpe Jugulum of Discworld, all the cool vampires opt for mundane names, and one vampire mentions that the witch Agnes (Agnes actually is her real name) is wonderfully clever for coming up with her name. This is less for ominous effect than comedy, inverting people's attempts to give themselves cooler names (especially if they're into vampires and the like.) Particularly apt, since Agnes Nitt's pseudonym of Perdita X Dream ("The X stands for 'someone with a really cool and interesting middle name'" — X Makes Anything Cool).
- The name James Bond was specifically picked by Ian Fleming to be as mundane as possible, having been lifted off an ornithologist's book. It's now fallen victim to the One Mario Limit nowadays.
- In the HBO series True Blood, one of the main characters is a vampire named Bill Compton, and Sookie is surprised that he has such a boring name.
- In the TV series American Gothic, Sarah Vowell chooses the Goth name 'Becky' because it is the scariest name she can think of.
- The X-Files has The Syndicate, which is the show's Omniscient Council of Vagueness, and things associated with it sometimes.
- Criminal Minds does this with some episode names: "Jones", "Lucky", "Mosley Lane", etc.
- The villain in the Cold Case episode "The Road" claims his name is "John Smith." The fandom generally agrees he's the single most evil person ever seen on the show.
- In the TV adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers won World War II and conquered America, the most senior Nazi in New York is Obergruppenführer John Smith.
- The Bruce Springsteen song "Nebraska" is sung from the perspective of a Serial Killer awaiting execution. The only time Nebraska is even mentioned in the song is that one of his crimes took place in Lincoln, Nebraska.
- Half-Life 2: City 17 and the Combine themselves.
- The Resident Evil series sees The End of the World as We Know It, courtesy of the Umbrella Corporation.
- The chief Republic spy agency in Star Wars: The Old Republic is the prosaically-named "Special Information Service", which sounds about as dry as the Government Accountability Office or countless other tell-the-Senators-the-facts bureaus. (This is in stark contrast to their nemeses, the no-nonsense Imperial Intelligence.) The in-game codex entry suggests that, every so often, the Republic espionage community gets in some scandal or another and reinvents itself with an even-more-innocuous name to avoid people thinking of them as a danger.
- Steven Universe has a place on Earth where aliens called Gems drain the life from the environment to make more of themselves. It is implied to have almost caused The End of the World as We Know It and started a war that lasted a thousand years. They call it "Kindergarten".
- The Manhattan Project, the development of the most devastatingly powerful class of weaponry the world has ever seen.