"Stop it, stop it, turn them off! I can't control it! I can't be all of them, not all at once!"Shapeshifters are showoffs. Even the insidious infiltrators like to use their abilities to inspire awe and fear. It's no surprise then that dying is no exception. When a shapeshifter bites the dust they have a veritable swan song of shape shifting as they slide through every single shape they've stolen throughout the episode or movie. Much like the life flashing before your eyes thing, may be considered a realistic survival reflex. It'll also happen if their powers are short circuited, they're critically injured or KO'd. After their swan song they'll settle into their original form and body, often to the surprise of everyone else, especially if said form isn't human. Someone will usually go "This Was His True Form", and look suitably mournful if it was a friend they lost to The Virus. If the purpose of the swan song is to inform the audience who the shapeshifter posed as (and that they were, in fact, a shapeshifter) this becomes a case of Viewers Are Morons. In shows aimed towards kids or ones where the shapeshifter is especially smart, expect the shapeshifter to possibly survive, thus rendering this trope a bit confusing as the viewer wonders why there's the equivalent of death convulsions going on for a character who will later turn out to be fine. A special case of Super Power Meltdown. May happen to a Clipped Wing Angel. See also Shapeshifter Mashup. No Immortal Inertia is similar but for immortals.
— Clayface, Batman: The Animated Series
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Anime & Manga
- In the Ranma ½ anime, one-shot villain Copycat Ken's breakdown resembles this.
- In Kinnikuman, this is how the Choujin King 100 Ton is defeated. 100 Ton uses cue cards in order to take different shapes, but when Kinnikuman throws all of the cards into the ring, 100 Ton starts to reflexively transform into every form at once, making his body unstable enough for his opponent, Terryman, to strike a crucial, finishing blow.
- The comic book series Runaways does this with the Skrull Xavin a couple of times when we're getting to know him/her, although it's a case of short-circuiting (probably the Skrull equivalent of going into shock or throwing up from pain or whatnot), not actual death.
Films — Animation
Films — Live-Action
- In X-Men, when Mystique is stabbed, even though she survives.
- Even worse in X2: X-Men United, when Cerebro-2 almost kills her (and every other mutant on earth). She survives again, of course.
- X-Men: First Class: Invoked when Darwin's body goes through one state after another to adapt to Shaw's energy cherry-bomb about to go off inside him. His body ultimately gives out. Or did it...? The comic book version of Darwin survived having his entire body destroyed, and eventually generated a new one.
- Downplayed in X-Men: Apocalypse. As she is being throttled by Apocalypse, Mystique's scales flutter in waves down her body. Yet again, she survives.
- An interesting non-magical example occurs in Tropic Thunder with the dedicated method actor Kirk Lazarus briefly playing previous roles before reverting to his original identity.
- The Dummy Dopant from Kamen Rider x Kamen Rider W & Decade: Movie Wars 2010 goes through these before entering its true form. These include a priest, another Dopant, a pop idol singer, Shotaro's deceased mentor, and said mentor's alter-ego, Kamen Rider Skull.
- In Animorphs, this reflex could actually save your life, as shapeshifting regenerates your body. In a more specific example, Rachel has an "allergic reaction" to the crocodile morph, and blacks out, morphing from creature to creature without "demorphing" human in between, something normally not possible for morphers. Downplayed in that the end result wasn't fatal, just incredibly unpleasant.
- Discworld: The monster in Moving Pictures has just been a giant woman carrying a screaming ape to the top of the tallest building in the city (what's wrong with this picture?). When it falls, it changes into several different things on the way down, trying to find a form that can survive the fall. Unfortunately, as the narration notes, the only thing that could make that kind of fall is a corpse.
- Deltora Quest: Ols, the Shadow Lord's shapeshifting spies, do this as they die.
- Stephen King's It culminates in a psychic battle between Bill and Pennywise based on an ancient ritual of dominance. The monster cycles wildly through all his horrifying faces in a futile attempt to escape.
- Dean Koontz' Shadowfires features this—at the end, the regenerating, mutating villain shifts through a variety of forms as his metabolism burns out. His accelerated metabolism consumes him, leaving a pile of goo. (Koontz likes to do this to regenerating characters.)
- A story in The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury may be the Trope Maker, if not the Ur-Example: the title character of "The Martian" appears to whoever sees him as a lost loved one. When he's surrounded by a crowd of people, who all need to see somebody different, the results are not pleasant.
- In The Silmarillion, Sauron is caught in a headlock by the hound Huan, and flips through several forms in an attempt to escape. He fails, and only escapes by shedding his body.
- The defensive version occurs in Galaxy of Fear: Ghost of the Jedi, as a villainous Shi'ido is too injured to shapeshift properly. He's not actually dead.
In a desperate attempt to save himself, the Shi'ido was shapeshifting into every form he could think of. But nothing could save him. With a wordless cry, Gog fell away from the ladder and Tash watched his gray form shrink into the void.
- An especially horrifying example in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shunned House". As the monster (a sort of vampire that feeds off its victims' life energy rather than blood) dies, it displays the faces of its victims, ending with the narrator's beloved uncle, who had tried to help him destroy it.
- The Twilight Zone episode "The Four Of Us Are Dying," a man who can alter his face to look like someone else's goes through a convulsive process of his face taking on the shape of each one he impersonated as he lies dying from a gunshot.
- A few variants in Heroes:
- When a real shapeshifter shows up, it still doesn't happen, handily enough for Sylar, whose form he'd taken before dying.
- In a season finale, Peter uses his own copied shapeshifting power to overload Sylar's, causing him to shift through all the forms he had taken. This distracts Sylar long enough for Peter to jam an elephant tranquilizer syringe into his throat. Also a Crowning Moment of Awesome.
- At the end of Roswell's first season, the protagonists used alien technology to heal a shape-shifting associate, who promptly exhibited this trope.
- Inverted in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the First Evil's (re-)introduction as as a Big Bad starts with a shapeshifting rundown of past archvillains. In the finale, the First slinks away unseen when its plan starts to go bad, and is never heard from again.
- In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode The Undead, the evil shapeshifting witch comes to the sattelite to threaten Mike and the bots. Unfortunately, she seems to be suffering from some severe indigestion, resulting in this trope. She gets stuck in the form of a bottle of bleach.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
- Odo kills another shape-shifter, who reverts back to his gelatinous being before dying.
- Averted In-universe. In the episode "Shadowplay" a girl tells Odo, a shape-shifter himself, a fairy tale she learned where a local Guile Hero met a villainous shape-shifter, who was happy to show off. Each time, he was asked to change shape, he would gladly do so. Finally, the fairy tale's hero points out that he's only done big (scary) forms, and asks if he's skilled enough to do something small like a loaf of bread. The shape-shifter does so, and Odo interrupts the story by predicting that the hero then gobbled him up and then pointing out the shape-shifter in the story wasn't very smart to fall for such an obvious trick.
- Averted in Supernatural. If you kill a doppelganger, they will stay in their last form. This becomes a plot point several times.
- Happens to Everyman in The Flash (2014) when he is injected with a serum that nullifies his abilities. Interestingly, he ends up stopping as Iris West rather than his original appearance. Then again, he later admits that he can't even remember his original appearance.
- A mental version occurs in the season 3 finale of Agents Of Shield where it is Subverted. The team attempts to kill Hive by subjecting him to a machine which dredges up hidden memories, causing him to become lost in the personas of his past victims. However, they are unable to finish him off, and he has enough of his mind left to carry out the remainder of his plans.
Myths & Religion
- Similarly, the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, where Janet, pregnant with Tam Lin's child, must drag him from the procession of fairies taking him to his doom, and hold on to him as he shapeshifts, until he turned into a burning coal, at which point he could be dropped into a well to return him to human. It makes more sense in poetry.
- A recurring villain in a series of published Eberron adventures has something akin to this happening to him near the end of the last module; Grasp of the Emerald Claw. Garrow, a changeling cleric who has been dogging the party to retrieve the Macguffin starts to lose control to said Macguffin (which is now sentient), causing him to shift through the various guises he's used to fool the party: a vampire, a half-elf airship captain, a dumpy-looking woman and a few others that he would've used before ever learning of the party. This happens at the start of his last meeting with the party (at least in published material).
- In the Ravenloft setting, the doppelganger darklord Sodo is cursed to be in a permanent state of this trope.
- Polymorphine, a drug in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, induces this by default. The Callidus assassins train themselves over a lifetime to use it for proper shapeshifting.
- In the original Mortal Kombat, defeating the final boss Shang Tsung — who has the ability to become any other character and use his or her moves — results in his effectively shedding all the characters' forms before he dies. It's less a song than a curtain call though, as each character separates from his body (with name announced) and combusts. This also happens to Shao Kahn in MK3 and its updates, except Kahn isn't a shapeshifter like Tsung.
- He plays it straight in the opening to Shaolin Monks though. Every time Liu Kang hits him near the end of the fight, he transforms into another character, looking disoriented the whole time, as though it's a survival reflex as described on the top of the page.
- Happens to a shapeshifting hench in the Tex Murphy game Under A Killing Moon, except the guy starts out in his own form and ends up as a gooey blob.
- In Metroid: Fusion, the SA-X starts to do this... but doesn't quite finish, becoming a One-Winged Angel instead.
- In Metroid Prime 3, Gandrayda shifts through the forms of various other bosses as well as copying Samus herself as you fight her, and her Shapeshifter Swan Song rapidly cycles through the various other boss forms before lingering on Samus's own form as it is (Suit upgrades and all) for a good long moment. This leads to a particularly striking moment with the real Samus, by this point badly corrupted by glowy blue Phazon energy, standing victorious over the image of her own uncorrupted self in the midst of her death throes. Samus is pretty much affected by this nightmarish death, she looks away and does nothing to stop Dark Samus from absorbing Gandrayda
- When the shapeshifting boss Shadow is defeated in Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, it shifts rapidly through its three forms before burning away.
- Defeating Wilfre in Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter will cause this to happen to him.
- A more mundane version in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies: the phantom, during his Villainous Breakdown, starts tearing off every single mask he has in an effort to find what his true face is, as he had spent so long impersonating others that he forgot his own identity. Just as he finally makes it to the last one, he's shot by a sniper, and collapses out of sight before anyone can see what he looks like.
- In this video of "The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku" from Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA, the title character can be seen cycling through various "modules" (costumes) as she's being deleted.
- In Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, before you fight King Boo, he is seen rapidly morphing into various characters.
- A survived example: Ariel in Drow Tales, having a high sorcery ability that lets her shapeshift, cycles back through several people she imitated as she tries to control herself enough to close the gaping wound resulting from Kalki slashing off her arm at the shoulder.
- The introductory episode for Clayface in Batman: The Animated Series, "Feat of Clay", had Bats trick him into entering a room filled with TVs showing all the roles he'd played over the years (he'd been an actor). He started convulsing and turning into them at random (see the quote above); as he smashed the TVs, he was electrocuted. However, at the end it turns out the whole thing was an act, or at least the dying part, and Clayface survived, making this a subversion. Clayface inadvertently clued in Batman to this, because he couldn't resist making an aside about having wished for a death scene that good in his movies.
- Happened to Chameleon in the Spider-Man: The Animated Series. In this case, it was his belt malfunctioning after Spider-Man attacked him, as he needed the technology to shapeshift.
- Happened in Futurama to Alcazar, a shapeshifter who used his powers to juggle several different women in simultaneous relationships, including Leela. Being confronted by all of them at once leads to him rapidly changing his appearance to appeal to each one (and to them beating the crap out of him so bad he starts to mix up aspects of the different forms before giving up and showing his true form of that of a dog-sized cricket).
- Happens to Bowser in The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, after Iggy and Lemmy/Hip and Hop build him an amulet that endows real-world mushrooms, flowers, etc. with the powers of those from the game. He goes a little crazy, mixing and matching Powerups (a fiery orange Bowser in a Kuribo shoe...and raccoon tail), and when he's defeated, the amulet malfunctions, causing him to blink through several different forms (raccoon, frog suit, orange (fire powerups on the NES made you a lot more orange!)) and odd mixings before finally rocketing him into a manhole.
- X-Men: Evolution: Sort of happens to Rogue near the end of "Self-Possessed" during her Superpower Meltdown, but she does survive.
- In an episode of Darkwing Duck, the villain, who is a Chameleon, goes through one of these when she is exposed to warm temperatures and her metabolism speed up, resulting in her turning into an actual chameleon.
- Minor superhero Chameleon of The Tick suffers a mild form of this when he accidentally tries to conceal himself on some plaid curtains.
- Happens to Static Shock villain Omnifarious when he uses the gas that gave various people superpowers (including Virgil) to try to destroy his father's company HQ. The dose turned out to be too heavy and caused him to mutate like mad and turn into stone.
- The Terminator 2 example above was spoofed in a "Treehouse of Horror" episode of The Simpsons, where Groundskeeper Willie as Freddy Krueger turns into many things at once, after having been trapped in quicksand and desperately trying to get out.
- Minor example: In the ReBoot episode Painted Windows, Bob uses Paint of all things to remove Hexadecimal's mask. He then gets a Hannibal Lecture from all of Hexadecimal's faces as she starts to overload.
- In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic's Season 4 finale, Tirek goes through this as he is depowered by the Mane Six's Rainbow Power super laser.
- In Steven Universe, Gems are a race of living jewels who create human-looking bodies around themselves to see, hear, speak, move around, etc. If their human forms are mortally damaged, they dissolve the forms back into their gems to regenerate, and once they're ready to be used again, they regenerate them with a new design. They quickly cycle through their past regenerations as silhouettes while doing so before settling on the newest one. In addition, in the episode "An Indirect Kiss", Amethyst's gem is cracked. It's a potentially fatal injury that the late Rose Quartz had the ability to heal. As the crack worsens, she has trouble keeping her physical form together◊ and speaks backwards.
- Gravity Falls:
- In the episode "Into the Bunker", Dipper, Wendy, Soos, and Mabel fight a shapeshifter and eventually push it back into the freezing chamber where it was originally contained. It turns into a flame to try to avoid freezing and tries to use large, muscular forms to break out, making it seem to fit the "survival reflex" variety. Also, when it finally freezes, it turns into Dipper and screams in agony in order to taunt and intimidate him.
- Bill Cipher, the Big Bad of the series gets one during the Grand Finale. When he's being erased while inside Stan's mind, he starts glitching up and changes between multiple different forms, each of which are arguably more horrifying than his Shapeshifter Default Form, although retaining his triangle/pyramid motif.
- In one episode of Sym-Bionic Titan where the Monster of the Week is a shapeshifting ghost, during the climatic battle with Titan, it morphs through all the forms it took on with each punch from Titan before eventually exploding.