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Skeleton Key
aka: Master Key

Q: You may find the keys useful. They open 90% of the world's locks.

A skeleton key (also known as a pass key) is a master key often used by locksmiths, that will open any lock in the set of locks for which it is made. In fiction, a skeleton key will open any lock or Locked Door, period, and will often be shaped like a skeleton, skull or bone (partly a Sight Gag and partly a visual clue as to the key's purpose). More realistic examples have a full keyring of them, one for each type of lock.

Subtrope of Cool Key. Compare Interchangeable Antimatter Keys (which this is one step up from). Not the same as a Skeleton Key Card (which is just jimmying the lock with a piece of plastic). For the supernatural power to open any lock, see Open And Shut.

Not to be confused with The Skeleton Key.

Examples

Anime & Manga
  • In Big O, Roger Smith has a device that looks like a key blank. When inserted into a lock, it will emerge as a perfect copy of that lock's key, which can then be used to open the lock. It is unclear whether it is reusable or if he has several.

Comics
  • Depictions of Batman's Utility Belt that listed its contents used to include a set of skeleton keys that could unlock 90% of known locks.
  • Tintin: Thomson and Thompson use a ring of skeleton keys in several books.
  • Aquaman and his Super Team in the New 52, the Others, have Joshua Cole, a.k.a. Operative, who has an Atlantean key that has the magic property of being able to unlock any lock.

Fan Fic

Film
  • Beetlejuice had Lydia get a skeleton key from a relative of the deceased couple.
  • The Matrix Reloaded doesn't have a master key, it has the Key Maker, a living embodiment of this trope: a humanoid sentient program with the ability to produce a key that unlocks any door or lock that he comes across in the virtual world, including system backdoors.
  • In Harold and Maude, Maude carries a skeleton key that she uses to drive off in whatever vehicle she chooses. (At one point they ride off on a cop's motorcycle.)
  • The Skeleton Key naturally involves a skeleton key that will open any door in the mansion where the protagonist has taken a job.
  • The Living Daylights has a set of these helpfully provided by Q to Bond early in the film. He uses it to escape out of a pair of handcuffs.
  • In The Stone Killer (1973) a police officer sees a car thief with a huge bunch of keys, and arrests him on suspicion.
  • Le Samourai. The Villain Protagonist is a Professional Killer who carries a huge ring of keys that enables him to steal any Citroën DS. Tension is created in one scene as he tests one key after another in an ignition as two patrolling police officers walk down the sidewalk towards him; the car starts before they get close enough to realise he's stealing it.
  • Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Ghost Dog has an electronic key that will start any vehicle; one of a number of homages to Le Samourai.

Literature

Live-Action TV
  • On Doctor Who, the Doctor's sonic screwdriver often acts as one of these. In the episode Carnival of Monsters, the Doctor complains that he can't open a non-electronic lock with the sonic screwdriver. Jo Grant responds by producing an impressive collection of skeleton keys. Also, the screwdriver doesn't do wood.
  • In the Scrubs episode "My Jerks," the Janitor is revealed to have made a key that works on everything. Said key is confiscated by Dr. Maddox.
  • In the "Master Key" pricing game on The Price Is Right the contestant tries to win prizes by picking keys to open a set of giant locks. One of the keys is the Master Key, which will open every lock and award every prize.

Tabletop RPG
  • Dungeons & Dragons has had several magical keys that could open any lock, such as the Key of Opening, the Silver Key of Portals and Skeleton Keys (I and II). Also worth noting is the spell Knock, which, when cast, immediately opens (or closes) most objects that can be opened (or closed): doors, chests, boxes, and so on. Amusingly, Knock can be keyed to a Wand for repeated casting, creating a limited-use "skeleton wand".
  • Shadowrun has several devices that can bypass electronic locks:
    • A maglock passkey can be used to open any maglock (magnetic lock) door. The higher the passkey's rating, the more likely it can open the lock.
    • The Neo-Anarchists' Guide to Real Life has devices that can do the same thing with keypads and cardreaders. The keypad sequencer feeds a keypad system a series of passcodes, and a passcard (AKA skeleton card) does the same with the cardreader it's inserted into.
  • The "Skeleton Key" is a character template in BESM Third Edition; they have the power to open the portals between worlds, and have the Dynamic Power (low-level, though) to open locks both physical and metaphysical, making them quite sought after by those who know of them. There's also a BESM artifact called the Janitor's Key Ring which can open any lock if the user simply tries enough keys from the key ring.

Theater
  • In the song, "With Cat-like Tread" from The Pirates of Penzance, one of the pirates' tools are their "skeletonic keys."

Video Games
  • Alyx Vance appears to have an electronic one about half-way through HalfLife 2, which opens all doors in Nova Prospekt and can also hack Combine computer consoles.
  • Subversion: In World of Warcraft, the key to open the Scholomance door is called the Skeleton Key and has a skull-shaped bow, but otherwise is apparently just a normal key that opens one particular door.
    • Played straight, however, with the Skeleton Keys made by Blacksmiths which will open any lock up to a particular difficulty.
  • The Skeleton Key artifact, an unbreakable lockpick that fortifies your "security" skill, has appeared in every main game of The Elder Scrolls series so far, as an artifact primarily associated with the Daedric Prince Nocturnal:
    • In Arena, it is obtained in Valenwood or Sommerset that opens any non-magical lock once a day.
    • In Daggerfall, it is similar to the Arena version but can now open weak magic locks and also be worn as amulet for stats boost. It is obtained directly from Nocturnal by summoning her on a certain day.
    • In Morrowind, the Skeleton Key is given to you at the end of the Thieves Guild storyline. However, this time it isn't an artifact but a regular lockpick that has very, very good stats but only 50 uses.
    • In Oblivion you get a Skeleton Key as a reward for completing a side-quest for a statue of Nocturnal. In this case, the Skeleton Key is an unbreakable lockpick that greatly increases your lockpick skill; this allows players to simply press the button to automatically make an attempt over and over until the lock opens, allowing for any pickable locks to be bypassed entirely.
    • The Skeleton Key takes a level in badass story-wise in Skyrim. It can open any door, even doors that require multiple keys or puzzles to solve, doors that don't even have keyholes, and the doors within people that hide their inner potential. In-game it's "just" an unbreakable lockpick. Unfortunately, to finish the Thieves' Guild questline you have to return it to Nocturnal.
  • In Excelsior Phase One Lysandia, these are used to pick locks, instead of normal lockpicks.
  • The Keyblades of Kingdom Hearts fame can open or close any lock as one of their many abilities, it doesn't end with mundane locks either, but ethereal locks to hearts.
  • Mario Party 2 and 3 have Skeleton Keys
  • The Legend of Zelda: The first two Zelda games both had a key item that basically served as infinite keys for the remainder of the game. The sixth palace in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link couldn't be beaten without it.
  • One shows up in King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow — it not only opens any lock (which is useful in case Alex gets imprisoned), it's also shaped like a skeleton, and Alex has to steal it from a real skeleton.
  • Nethack has both a Skeleton Key and a Skeleton Key Card.
  • Kingdom of Loathing has a skeleton key that, like the page image, has skeleton imagery on it. It avoids being overpowered by snapping every once and a while.
  • In Deadly Premonition, York is given a master key for every police car in Greenvale.
  • In the adventure game The Last Express you can obtain a key that opens all the locks on the train, belonging to the conductor, and you can use it to sneak into other people's compartments and snoop around for information.
  • TaskMaker has Skeleton Keys that open any locked door. Its sequel, The Tomb of the TaskMaker, also has lock picks which can be used if the player is a Thief.
  • Dragon Quest III has three different skeleton keys, with the final incarnation being able to open any door. Or you could just use that spell.
  • Castlevania: Harmony Of Dissonance features a Lure Key that opens almost all the doors in the castle, to ease backtracking in the later parts of the game. There are two doors that it doesn't work on - MK's Bracelet opens one, and the Skull Key opens the other.
  • In Ultima V, the player can acquire Skull Keys which effortlessly open magically locked doors. (Oddly, since they can all be unlocked by the "Unlock Magic" spell anyway, magical doors are notably *less* secure than normally locked doors.)
  • The Binding of Isaac has one of these as a random power. It's the only Interchangeable Antimatter Key which isn't made of antimatter, so it sets your key count to the cap of 99.
  • The Master Key, one of the starting gifts in Dark Souls, can open several non-progression related doors that would otherwise require other keys to open.
  • Using the IDKFA cheat code on Doom gives the player (amongst other goodies) skeleton keys instead of the regular keycards, but these aren't Interchangeable Antimatter Keys either (other than losing them at the end of each level). In Doom 2 there are doors that can only be opened by these skeleton keys, but then they can obtained by means other than cheating.
  • Pokémon has several of these. In Pokémon Red and Blue and Yellow, there was a key card that, once obtained, unlocked all the doors in the Rocket Hideout. A similar key must be obtained in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl and Platinum to unlock all the doors at the Team Galactic building in Veilstone City.
    • In the same vein, Red and Blue also had Silph Company's Card Key, which unlocked all the doors in their building.
  • In Mailstrom on the ZX Spectrum, the least violent way for the postman protagonist to open pillar boxes is to use a skeleton key.
  • One level in The Matrix Path Of Neo has Neo saving a girl who was given a skeleton key by the Key Maker. In the end she uses it to help herself and Neo escape, then destroys it.
    Neo: You should keep that, it could come in handy.
    Girl: [Snapping the key]] No way, man, I've had enough of magic keys.

Webcomics
  • In Homestuck there is the Skeleton Key Badge that god tiers can earn. While it is just a badge it basically means those who have earned it are living skeleton keys who can unlock most everything just by trying.

Western Animation
  • The Simpsons, "This Little Wiggy": Chief Wiggum has a police master key that opens any door in Springfield. Bart and Ralph steal it and get up to mayhem.
  • The Fairly OddParents: Cosmo mentions in one episode that he once had a terrible job as a magic key, implied to be one of a skeleton nature.
  • In Danny Phantom, The Skeleton Key is a ghostly artifact that Vlad seeks out in The Million Dollar Ghost, and eventually leads to the events in Reign Storm when he uses it to release Pariah Dark.
  • In Gravity Falls, the President's Key can (allegedly) open any lock in America.

Real Life
  • Security guards will often have either a giant keyring or a single key designed to operate every door in a specific area, as will janitors, maintenance people, housekeeping, etc.
  • While jailed, Shane Baker made a copy of the master key using its images from a booklet that were handed out to all prisoners. The copy allowed him and his inmate Daniel Heiss to escape from the prison only to be recaptured some days later.

Single-Use ShieldVideo Game Items and InventorySkill Point Reset
Single Specimen SpeciesSpeculative Fiction TropesSkeletons in the Coat Closet
Single Malt VisionAction Adventure TropesSkeleton Key Card

alternative title(s): Pass Key; Master Key
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