The human skeleton is pretty tough. If you drink a lot of milk and get plenty of sunshine, your bones can grow to be stronger than concrete* By weight, anyway. A pound of bone is stronger than a pound of concrete, but only just.; shattering a bone requires a really, really strong hit, as in "crashing your car at 60 km/h"-strong. Did you know that crematoria actually grind bones because otherwise the fragments could be too big to fit in the urns?
But a lot of science fiction writers seem to think that the skeleton is absolutely impervious to any weapon. Hit 'em with Energy Weapons (especially Disintegrator Rays), fry 'em with electricity, dunk 'em in acid, all that will be left is a skeleton. If it's technology that does it, the resulting skeleton is usually bleach white like a medical grade demonstration. If magic, the resulting skeleton is normally old and dusty. The skeleton will also typically still be joined together perfectly, even if all the sinews and tissues that hold it together have been destroyed. Almost like it's some kind of prop or something.
Arguably, of course, the bones are the hardest and densest structures in the human body (the jaw and teeth especially) so it would make sense that the skeleton would be the last body part to be destroyed. Of course, when whatever substance that has disintegrated the rest of the body has also been known to destroy much tougher substances, it goes from being understandable to an expected Sci Fi trope.
Also occurs in fantasy settings.
The purpose of this trope, of course, is shock-effect rather than realism: i.e. to visibly communicate the fact that the person is really dead, since their simply disappearing wouldn't have nearly the same impact as seeing them instantly turned into The Grim Reaper's twin brother. Meanwhile, at the same time it's "cleaner" and less gruesome to show a person turned into a Halloween-type skeleton than the blood-and-gore of nastier deaths, while likewise being more devastating since it would obviously take more of an impact to strip someone to the bones than simply gouge the flesh. A variant of this trope is to have a person be reduced to a skeleton, let them stay like that for a few seconds, and then have the skeleton disintegrate or collapse.
Compare X-Ray Sparks, when someone's skeleton is briefly visible through their skin. Occasionally, that trope may cross over with this one.
This might be part of why people are Made of Iron. Also, compare Made of Plasticine; here, everything but the skeleton appears to be. See also Robotic Reveal.
Not to be confused with Shameful Strip, where a person is forcibly stripped to the skin, but is at least allowed to keep that.
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Anime & Manga
Kimba the White Lion: In the 2009 movie, there's a swarm of mechanical bugs that reduces some birds to bones in seconds; an unpleasant surprise to anybody who's watched the 1960's show. Justified, since the carnivorous bugs have no interest in eating bones, just the flesh.
Bleach: Barragan has an ability in his released form that will rot away all of the flesh, muscle, and organs of a person until all that is left are the bones.
It's implied that it keeps aging until the point where the bones would be gone as well, but it takes a LONG time for bones to decay.
In the anime, it's not just implied. When Soifon is hit in the arm, and summarily cuts it off to stop the decay from spreading, the bones turn to dust and vanish. This makes sense, since Barragan can age rocks and concrete into nothingness.
Inuyasha is fond of this trope. Many demons turn to bones when killed, and this is the fate of all of the Band of Seven.
Justified for the Band of Seven. They were resurrected by the power of the Shikon Jewel, and when they died their bodies simply reverted to what they were before; bones.
Lust's death in Fullmetal Alchemist sees her reduced to bones for a second, but seconds later the skeleton disintegrates too.
In Dragon Ball Z, one blast Piccolo fires at a remaining member of Nappa's Saibamen destroys it so thoroughly only the skeleton remains.
From Toriko this is Chiyo's favorite method of killing.
The unstoppable, Nigh Invulnerable Juggernaut has also survived being Stripped to the Bone, and magically regenerated. When they say "nothing can stop The Juggernaut", they apparently mean it.
Subverted in that D'Sparye could have actually destroyed the bones too, he was just too shocked stupid by the fact that Juggernaut was a skeleton and was still coming at him. Ultimately, Juggs would have still lost if not for the timely intervention of D'Sparyes sister, Spite.
Subverted by DC's post-Zero Hour Legion of Super-Heroes: Toward the end of a particular arc, several characters are apparently killed and one of them is Stripped to the Bone. Following the climax of the arc, it's revealed that none of them were killed; it was all part of a Batman-Gambit, and the Stripped character was actually Invisible Kid exploiting his ability to turn parts of his body invisible while leaving other parts (in this case, his bones) visible.
Happens again by DC in 52. Booster Gold appears to have been Stripped to the Bone (well, and his costume) by a nuclear explosion, but it turn out that his surival was planned. Booster is alive and well, and faked the body by using his own dead body from the future.
Though it's yet to be shown happening to anyone, the voracious female faeries in Proof are said to be able to strip a person to the bone in seconds.
In No Hero, one of the heroes is killed with a chemical weapon specifically designed to dissolve flesh, leaving bone intact.
Dr. Jon Osterman's disintegration in Watchmen, where the skeleton's visibly the last part to go.
Slight variation in the film version as you see him stripped away layer by layer like an anatomy textbook...
And then reconstituted the same way, which looked pretty sweet.
Dan's Nuclear Nightmare is a variation of this, very similar to the Terminator II version.
A whole field of super-human bones is left in the wake of a nuclear explosion at the climax of Kingdom Come.
Practically everyone the Plutonian kills with his heat vision in Irredeemable leaves behind a charred, smoking skeleton. Also, one of the penultimate events that results in the Plutonian's Face-Heel Turn is when dozens of children are killed by an alien virus that liquefies soft tissue, animates their skeletal remains, and spreads through their screams.
Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #241. Several Russian scientists end up this way, mystifying Reed Richards. Explained later; the Big Bad has vast cosmic powers and just simply likes disposing of malcontents this way.
G.I. Joe Vs Transformers 2. A Kill Sat, invented by the good guys, blasts nukes into harmless puffs of machinery. However, when it hits Mercer, a good guy (oops), the flesh goes but the skeleton does not.
Happens a lot in the Hellboy comics, especially to evil supernatural creatures who are killed by sunlight, touching holy ground, etc.
In the Marvel mini-series Mys-Tech Wars, Nick Fury is captured by the villians and strapped to a device that is supposed to flay "skin from bone and soul from body." The end result is not pretty. Hard to believe, but he does get better.
Happens to Johnny Alpha at the end of The Final Solution, though the bones are not exactly bleached white and do collapse into a pile once the monster releases its grasp. However, the recent Death And Life Of Johnny Alpha has retconned this into something that Feral just said happened.
Rasputin has his flesh torn off as a result of his deal with the dark forces. He is forced to restore it with his phylactery.
Subverted during Rasputin's death scene. He melts down to the bone and writhers briefly, but he then decays further into dust.
Films — Live-Action
In the Silent Hill film, Red Pyramid (Pyramid Head) grabs a woman and tears off her clothes followed by the skin and flesh in one fluid motion.
In the 1980's made-for-TV movie The Day After, a nuclear war results people everywhere being incinerated into skeletons.
The opening scenes of Terminator 2: Judgment Day established that human skeletons can survive nuclear Armageddon, but not being stepped on by a T-800 chassis. Later in the movie, Sarah Connor's dream in the Mexican desert repeats the trope.
Sarah Connor's skeleton hangs on to that fence for dear life!
According to some scientists, that dream sequence was one of the most realistic depictions of what happens in a nuclear explosion. The main inaccuracy is that the skeleton vaporizes too, but after the softer material does.
That, or the bones, being the densest part of the body, are the first to be irradiated to incandescence.
In the original Godzilla (or Gojira), the device that ultimately defeated Godzilla skeletonized him, and pretty much every living thing in the general area.
In the campy 1980s flick Killer Klowns from Outer Space, a security guard is pummeled with pies by the clowns, reducing him to a steaming pile of ice cream (with a cherry on top!). Upon further inspection by the heroes, the pies were acidic: The guard's bony arm is found sticking out of the pile.
In the first Spider-Man film, the Green Goblin's Pumpkin Bombs can rip a concrete banister off a building, but when humans are subjected to it, they are blasted into bones. This might simply be that they are different types of bombs. (And said bones crumble shortly after appearing.)
Averted in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: After drinking from the wrong Holy Grail, Walter Donovan decays completely, including his bones, which are smashed against the wall when Indy pushes him back.
In Pitch Black, one of the Imam's young companions gets trapped in a dark room with a swarm of juvenile winged aliens. By the time the others break in, all that's left are his clothes and bloody bones.
In the films Batman and Batman Returns, the total of two people who get electrocuted more or less leave behind their skeletons in whatever suits they were wearing at the time.
In the first film, the mobster gets incinerated into a charred black skeleton by the Joker's buzzer, but in the second film, a clean white skeleton is left behind that still has eyes and hair. Electricity just sort of does what it wants to in these flicks.
In the live action Super Mario Bros. movie, King Koopa's former lover Lena has her flesh instantly disintegrated and her skeleton blasted into the wall by dimensional radiation after she attempts to reunite a meteorite shard into the whole.
In Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, Matthew Patel's fireballs hit Crash and the Boys, killing all three in an instant, turning them into flaming skeletons for a second, before the bones turn to ash. "Mystical powers" indeed.
In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it's shown that Cybertronian weaponry does this to humans. Which makes sense, really, given that they're designed to damage giant, metallic beings; it's no surprise that they'd rip through soft tissue like nothing. Notably, the blast force also blows the skeletons apart, leading to a brief but gruesome shot of a NEST trooper's bones flying through the air as a Decepticon blasts him with his laser rifle.
In Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, a Blob knock-off, one man's arm is partially consumed by the titular monster, leaving only the bones of his forearm and hand. Later, Cal finishes the job, enveloping him entirely but not before dissolving the flesh of his face, leaving a visible skull as the man's last arm flails about. Evidently his brain was still functioning through all this.
Larry Niven's Known Space features a weapon called a strakakker, which fires a blizzard of glass needles that can turn its target into an instant skeleton.
Sometimes this is used to add an unsettling factor during a hero's attempt to salvage a vessel, or wandering through a Temple of Doom.
One of Clive Cussler's novels, Serpent, subverts the use of bones/their apparent indestructibility to add a creepiness to the scenery with Dirk Pitt remarking that "Despite the human tendency to want to picture the pilot strapped to their seats, nothing but their clothes and bone, that really by (roughly 50 years) time, the fish made sure there is nothing left".
In Neal Asher's The Skinner, the native alien life forms do not seem to like eating or otherwise decomposing bones, resulting in plenty of beautifully preserved and cleaned human skeletons around a pirate base abandoned for centuries.
In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero In Hell, Miranda recounts how her brother had used the Staff of Decay on soldiers, who were reduced first to their skeletons, then to nothing.
In Stephen King's Firestarter, when the heroine turns her immense pyrokinetic power on Big Bads, their flesh melts off their bones in a split-second, and their bones are probably blown to smithereens.
In the fourth book of Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet, the protagonist confronts her nemesis by referencing this.
I have seen sandstorms that could strip a man of flesh in seconds and blizzards that froze entire herds in their tracks. Next to that, you're only a man. I can deal with you.
In Robert Westall's Urn Burial, the Attock created harka, an engineered mould that infects and grows on living creatures, usually infecting females and young in the womb. It slowly eats away at the flesh and eventually even eats away the bones. It takes long enough on the skeleton that there a couple of collections of bones still held together with sinew and tendon in the People Jars on the Wawaka ship.
Since the same thing doesn't happen to Peter when his powers are taken means either Claire's version of Healing Factor has more Ontological Inertia than Adam's, or the writers just didn't think the visual through.
In Volume 5, Samuel gets the drop on Sylar by enveloping him in a concentrated sandstorm which flays him alive.This being Sylar, he's healed by the next scene.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when vampires are slain, their skeletons are often briefly visible before they entirely crumble into dust. This trope is played much straighter with the Master, an old and powerful vampire, whose flesh and clothes spectacularly evaporate as he dies, leaving behind a perfect, intact skeleton, suitable for resurrection. Buffy and gang fix that with a sledgehammer a few months later. One wonders why similarly old and powerful vampires (like Kakistos and the Turok-Han) don't leave behind similar keepsakes.
Notably, the skeletons appearing for a second didn't start occurring until the third season when the show's budget increased. Since Angel shared Buffy's budget from the get-go, it managed to have the "skeleton" effect right from its start.
Some of the Kromagg weapons in Sliders leave behind a crumbling skeleton. Shame, considering their preference for human eyes.
In the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Maledictus", a murder victim is dissolved down to her bones in her own bathtub using a large amount of lye. The killer is later shown tossing the bones out of a cardboard box and into the river.
The Necrons of Warhammer 40,000 make extensive use of gauss weapons, firing green lightning that strip away the target, layer by molecular layer, often to the bone. The basic version employed by Necron grunts is even called the Gauss Flayer. A subversion, technically, as there is so much power even in the infantry versions to instantly vaporise enemy infantry.
Dark Eldar beastmasters have flocks of Razorwings, alien birds with extremely sharp beaks and wingtips, that can strip a man to the bone in seconds. Much like the Hellboy tooth fairies, they eat bones and tear off the flesh to get to them. Dark Eldar also have a piece of arcane wargear called the Casket of Cleansing, which releases a swarm of invisible creatures that strip the flesh off their target's bones (they leave the brain intact, though, so the unfortunate victim can be aware of his final moments for as long as possible).
In GURPS, the advantage Unbreakable Bones will cause this if the character's body is completely destroyed.
The page picture comes from the card Disintegrate, and the trend continues with Carbonize, older versions of Incinerate, and the list goes on. You tend to see this more in Black and Red cards, they being the colors of death and destruction, respectively. However, White gets in on the action as well, being the color of "God will look after his own" and all. Behold, the infamous Wrath of God.
In the Dungeons & Dragons source book Fiendish Codex: Hordes of the Abyss, there's a table suggesting various death throes to empasize the demon's chaotic nature. One of these is to have the skeleton rip free from the demon's flesh, take a few steps, then disentigrates
In Diablo III, powerful attacks can do this to a target, especially if they have a "wind" or "force" motif like the Wizard's Wave of Force spell or the Monk's Deadly Reach technique. The "Opressor" demon also has this as its normal death animation.
New Super Mario Bros. features the series' Big Bad Bowser falling into lava and being skeletonized (which is depicted in surprisingly horrific detail for this series). Later on, you get to fight Bowser's animated skeletal remains. Though he eventually recovers later on with a little help from Bowser Jr.
Mario will be reduced to a skeleton if you are killed by electricity in Super Mario Galaxy.
So did the Lost Vikings from Blizzard's SNES puzzle classic, ...well, The Lost Vikings.
Crocomire in Super Metroid suffers this upon being knocked into a pit of acid. His remains then knock open a spiked wall, allowing you to proceed further into Norfair.
Unreal Tournament 2004 sported the Link Gun, a plasma rifle that has a long stream of plasma for an alternative fire. Death by this plasma stream resulted in its victim being reduced to a skeleton. Another skeletonizing weapon in the same game was the Ion Cannon, an orbital Satellite that fired a gigantic purple beam of death, unsurprisingly, reducing victims of it to skeletons, the downside of it was that it had to be "painted" onto an enemy with the Ion Painter, which took quite a lot of time to do so.
Additionally, certain hazards in maps (such as lava and acid) can and will skeletonize you if you accidentally take a dip.
The Ray Gun weapons in Another World reduce anyone hit by them(which can be either the player or enemies) into a skeleton that explodes after a few seconds
Several characters in the Mortal Kombat series have fatalities that can do this, such as Scorpion (who breathes fire) or Reptile (who vomits acid). This also happens in the Dead Pool stage fatality from Mortal Kombat II, in which the opponent is knocked into a pool of acid.
Sheeva's has to be the cruelest: she tears your flesh off.
In one of his DC crossover fatalities, Raiden uses his electric powers to burn off all the opponent's flesh, leaving behind their smoking skeleton.
Metal Slug 3 combines this with Beauty Is Never Tarnished: if Marco or Tarma get hit with the giant snails' acidic vomit in level 4, they will be reduced to skeletons and melt, but if Eri or Fio get hit, we only see their clothes melt off before they turn into a puddle of slime...
In F.E.A.R., Alma's psionic attacks tend to do this to her victims: the bodies are almost completely liquefacted, but the bones remain intact. A less supernatural, more sci-fi example is when someone is killed by the Type-7 Particle Weapon, the game's equivalent to a Sniper Rifle: all matter in the corpse but the bones will vaporize, leaving behind a charred skeleton.
In Resident Evil 4, if Leon is finished off by a Novistador (or hit at all by a flying one), they will use acid to strip the flesh off of his face. In some countries' versions of the game, this will also happen when Dr. Salvador or the sisters manage to hit with their chainsaws, rather than the alternative.
If Guybrush tries returning to LeChuck's ship as a ghost, Elaine will repeatedly spray root beer at our hero and force him back into the Crossroads, making it pure horror.
In the NES version of Dragons Lair, many enemies and obstacles (and DOORS!) do this to Dirk regardless of the HP meter. Also, in the Game Over screen of the original laserdisc.
And in Dragon's Lair II, in Level 6, if Dirk dies at the flesh melting gas at some parts, Dirk will have his every part of his flesh melted, reducing Dirk to a skeleton which does not crumble. In the same level, at one part, if Dirk fails to slice the spider... the spider eats the flesh of Dirk's arm, with Dirk's Oh Crap expression on his face. Level 7 also had Monster Daphne putting Dirk in her lips and removes the flesh of Dirk, leaving Dirk reduced to a skeleton.
In some scenes in Brain Dead 13 when Lance gets... in a squicky manner... reduced to a skeletal pile of bones, like getting doused in acid, or getting pulled apart from his skin in a two-way manner by Fritz! Of course, being as Badass Normal and Genre Savvy as our hero is, he revives from being a pile of bones, back to being flesh and blood.
In the opening cinematic of Drakengard we get a closeup as one of the imperial solider is burned alive and turning into a skeleton which also burn up soon after.
In Fable II, delivering the death blow to a human opponent with the shock spell leaves behind a charred skeleton.
In Bio Shock Infinite, killing an enemy with the Devil's Kiss or Shock Jockey Vigors will result in this happening, followed by the bones falling apart and crumbling to ash. In the case of Shock Jockey, it also causes their heads to explode first. The Devil's Kiss aftereffect can also be applied to your melee attacks through an equippable piece of gear.
This happens in the iOS game Fun Run, to any of the victims of the lightning attack.
In Rusty and Co., Cube's victims appear like this, suspended inside him, until he finishes digesting the bones.
A rather disturbing episode of Ren and Stimpy features an insane Ren dropping Stimpy's precious already-dead mouse toy into a vat of acid. It skeletonizes, and then the skeleton dissolves, as Stimpy looks on in horror.
In another episode, Stimpy buys a super powerful vacuum cleaner; as he turns it on, Ren happens to be standing in front of it. He tries to escape and clings to the rug, it ends up ripping off his skin and sucking out his organs; now a skeleton, he attempts to save his brain before being sucked inside.
In the direct-to-video animated film Doctor Strange: Sorceror Supreme, the final creature that appears before Dormammu's return is the Wing Mouth, a massive flock of small creatures with huge fangs and tiny wings. Individually, they're easy to destroy, but together, they can skeletonize a full-grown human within seconds. They devour several civilians and sorcerers before being defeated.
In one Treehouse of Horror episode, Bart and Lisa are being chased by Itchy and Scratchy. Bart gets hit with a blast of piranhas from a firehose, stripping everything from the neck down to the bone. Afterwards, he muses "Ooh, that's gonna hurt in the morning." He gets better, BTW.
Piranhas have the potential to do this to meat carcasses in mere moments. However, they have to be isolated and starved first to get this kind of reaction; they do not naturally, as depicted in fiction, behave like a ravenous swarm.
A caustic base will break down living soft tissue at least as quickly as an equivalent acid, but will do little or nothing to the bones.