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Hayley: "It's my life! You can't control me!" Stan: "Yes, I could. I could control you completely. Just by saying a secret combination of words, that no one in the world would ever utter."
Hello, Troper. Would you like to know about the Trigger Phrase? Good. Then just sit back and relax.
The Trigger Phrase is a post-hypnotic suggestion used primarily in Speculative Fiction
. The phrase can activate a Deep Cover Agent
or Manchurian Agent
, so hidden that the person may not even know they are an agent. The phrase can practically be anything, even a piece of music
. It's like a Brown Note
specifically programmed into an individual.
Are you feeling okay, Troper? Do you wish me to continue? Good.
The Trigger Phrase may also be used to activate latent physical prowess (or, to use the layman's terms, "asskicking"). A Berserk Button
that not even the characters themselves know about, used when situations are about to get dangerous
. Sometimes, it will help them remember something
Is everything alright, Troper? There is no need to go on. There is only one thing left to say about the Trigger Phrase. And that's this:
In each shadowy corner there lurketh a ghost.
Are you feeling relaxed, Troper? Good. There is something I need you to do...
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Anime and Manga
- Agents of the Schwarz organization from Mai-Otome are triggered when they receive a letter in a black envelope.
- Gwen Khan uses two on Melfina in Outlaw Star. "It was you who broke my Meissen plate" deactivates her, while "Breakfast is signaled with a silver spoon" undoes it.
- Ironically inverted in Gunsmith Cats. Mafia boss Goldy brainwashes her assassins into blind devotion with a designer drug named "Special K" that renders users highly susceptible to suggestion, so no phrase is needed. However, while she's working over heroine Rally Vincent, the latter manages an escape attempt while still under the drug's influence, during which she programs a trigger phrase into herself to counter Goldy's influence. The ironic part is that it's not a spoken phrase, but the distinctive sound of the trigger on her highly-customized personal pistol being pulled. How's that for a literal interpretation?
- One example forms the basis of the plot of Suehirogari's ero-manga TAG — the main character, her friends, and a large number of other victims are all given a post hypnotic suggestion by a gypsy fortune teller they visit: Whenever they are kissed by a naked woman, they find themselves stripping nude and staying that way until they can kiss another woman who is also affected by the hypnotic suggestions and pass on the condition. In other words, it's a hypnotically enforced game of tag where "it" has to stay naked. Until they do pass it on, their bodies won't let them even touch clothing despite themselves. This also means that the victim they kiss has to stay naked next...
- Done in chilling fashion in Noir, in which Chloe deploys Kirika's "True Noir" personality by saying "receive the final guidance" - and then shooting her.
- Mahou Sensei Negima! doesn't actually have this occur (yet), but when the cast are dealing with a Manchurian Agent in their midst, the team mercenary notes that they can't rule out the possibility of a Trigger Phrase.
- The Extended soldiers in Gundam SEED Destiny each possess a "Block Word" which is supposed to rein them in. However, in practice the phrases simply seemed to drive the Extendeds into a terrified frenzy. Also crosses over into The Password Is Always Swordfish, since the Alliance chose stupidly common words - "die/death" for Stella and "mother" for Auel (we never learn what Sting's is).
- An important part of the plot in Last Exile concerns the hunt for four of these, along with the girl they trigger.
- In Code Geass, Lelouch uses time-delay geass commands regularly, for various stimuli, including a speech he would later give, a series of motions in combat and a hand position.
- Anime-exclusive Ijuinn Kotaro of Rosario + Vampire has the magical ability to make anybody fall in love with him and obey him by uttering "Je t'aime!" ("I love you!" in French).
- Sayer of Yu-Gi-Oh 5Ds says "The entrance to the Underworld is on the witch's island" to Akiza, which unleashes the Black Rose Witch.
- Serenity: River is activated by a subliminal message in a Fruity Oaty Bar commercial, but is put to sleep by Simon saying "Eta kuram na smekh," Russian for "That's for chickens to laugh at" (i.e. "That's ridiculous.")
- The original version of The Manchurian Candidate has both a Trigger Phrase ("Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?") and a Trigger Card: the Red Queen.
- The Lathe of Heaven. George Orr is hypnotized so his "effective" (reality changing) dreams can be controlled. The Trigger Phrase is "Antwerp."
- Telefon (1977). KGB sleeper agents in the U.S. were brainwashed via drug-induced hypnosis to forget their true identities and live as Americans until they heard a line from Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", followed by their Russian names. When they heard it, they would destroy a pre-programmed target and then kill themselves. The Trigger Phrase was:
"The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. Remember miles to go before you sleep."
- The technique is demonstrated for Charles Bronson's KGB protagonist using the phrase "Cleopatra says there will be snow from the west." This is the scene being spoofed in the first The Naked Gun movie (where the beeping of a watch was the trigger) when Vincent Ludwig's secretary tries to shoot Pahpshmir with an empty gun.
- The Ipcress File (1964). "Now listen to me. Shoot the traitor Ross." Fortunately Michael Caine's character was not in the brainwashing chamber long enough, so is able to 'distract' himself by striking his injured hand against the wall, then shooting the real Double Agent.
- In AI, speaking a trigger phrase will cause an android child to permanently and unconditionally love the speaker.
- Derek Zoolander will kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia when he hears the song Relax.
- "Constantinople" and "Madagascar" in The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion.
- The toggle for Hawkin’s fencing abilities in The Court Jester is a snap of the fingers. OK, not exactly a phrase, but if music counts…
- "Freeze!" and "Bullshit" in Now You See Me.
- In Dune, the Atreides slave gladiator who fought Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen received a post-hypnotic suggestion to have his muscles go slack when he heard the word "scum". The Bene Gesserit also do this to people they consider dangerous: one Trigger Phrase they use is "Uroshnor".
- "She is gone." Upon hearing that, Hayt is supposed to kill Paul. He refuses, awakening the memories of Duncan Idaho.
- "Secher Nbiw." Spoken by Leto II it causes Ghanima's self-induced mental 'dam' to break, restoring her correct memories and freeing her from the threat of possession.
- In Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Dirk hypnotizes Richard, and implants the suggestion that whenever he hears the phrase "my maiden aunt from Winnipeg" he should immediately take off all his clothes and jump in the nearest canal. It's a roundabout way of making a point about ghostly possession and free will.
- Dean Koontz novel Night Chills. People implanted with conditioning through subliminal hypnosis are activated when they hear the Trigger Phrase "I am the key." They then reply, "I am the lock."
- Koontz uses this again in False Memory. The villain has different trigger phrases for each person under his control, in the form of haiku. He speaks a line, the subject responds with the second line, then he gives the third line, followed by instructions.
- Robert A. Heinlein:
- Starship Troopers. Mobile Infantry troopers are given a post-hypnotic suggestion to go to sleep upon hearing the Trigger Phrase "Prepare to sleep, one, two, three."
- Citizen of the Galaxy. Thorby Baslim is hypnotically conditioned to memorize several different messages, so he can repeat each one to a specific starship captain. The man who conditioned him tested Thorby's recall of each message using the Trigger Phrase of the name of each captain and ship.
- In the book that is sometimes called the Take That to Starship Troopers, The Forever War has a hypnotic phrase that is used on the conscripts for their first battle, as the military command isn't confident that they will kill the enemy. It works too well, as the soldiers start blasting everything in sight.
- A B-plot in one of the X-Wing Series books is the presence of several brainwashed assassins throughout the New Republic: each has their own trigger phrase, all somewhat bizarre. "Wedge Antilles hops on one transparisteel leg" means "Kill Wedge Antilles," for instance. "The Wookiees are dancing in the parlor" means "Kill everyone between you and Admiral Ackbar, then kill him." Apparently the triggers are different for everyone. A later book has a man sent to deliver a message simply by his presence - he's been known to be in a secret prison for years - with a device implanted that floods him with poison, killing him instantly. The device is triggered when someone recognizes the man and says his name.
- Kirney Slane uses a trigger phrase to load the backup memory of her astromech droid, Tonin, which she had wiped shortly before her infiltration. (The phrase is the full definition of Tonin's name.) This is part of an inverse Memory Gambit, and one that Slane hadn't really liked doing to Tonin; it's implied that Tonin doesn't mind too much (and may have consented to this treatment to begin with).
- In Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, the school has a hypnotist guidance counselor who cures people of whatever it is they've been sent to him for, but also implants an unrelated trigger phrase just For the Evulz. In the chapter "A Story with a Disappointing Ending," Paul gets sent to him for pulling Leslie's pigtails and is hypnotized into thinking they're deadly rattlesnakes... and also that when she says the word "pencil" her ears will turn into delicious candy which he must try to eat. He's snapped out of it and sent back to class, and the hypnotism successfully prevents him from pulling Leslie's pigtails. Then she breaks her pencil. She two classmates have a whole discussion about it without using the word "pencil," even though Paul interjects twice asking what they're talking about. Several chapters later, the class is dropping objects out the window to prove that everything falls at the same speed, including a pencil sharpener. Because everyone's been saying "pencil sharpener" throughout the chapter, you think nothing of it at the end when Leslie does...
- In The Miserable Mill, part of A Series of Unfortunate Events the word "Lucky" is used as a trigger to the point of parody, since the good guys catch onto it and both sides flip Klaus back and forth in obeying their commands. The word "Inordinate" deactivates the state.
- The eleventh book of The Dresden Files, Turn Coat, features one of the antagonists using the Trigger Phrase "The end is nigh." to take control of several Wardens and members of the White Council of Wizards.
- In the YA novel The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Jenna was, after a nearly fatal car accident, placed into an artificial body with a reconstructed "brain" made of computer chips, which was programmed with a trigger phrase as a "suggestion" to use in case anything went wrong: "Go to your room, Jenna." If said, this phrase would cause Jenna to automatically walk to her room, whether she wanted to or not - though she learns to resist it eventually.
- In James Swallow's Warhammer 40,000 short story "The Returned", the Doom Eagles fear that Tarikus, even pure of taint in mind and body, might still have taint in his soul, which might be triggered by a phrase.
- Becomes very important late in the Honor Harrington series, though with Trigger conditions rather than phrases. The control affected by the nano-tech is so complete that it can convince the personal bodyguard of an Andermani Royal to kill the man he's guarding, to convince a Manticoran flag lieutenant to kill his flag officer, and convince a man to commit suicide by Mach 2 impact into a cliff-wall while in his air-car.
- In the Emily Rodda novel Rowan and the Keeper of the Crystal, it is revealed in the end that Doss had been brainwashed by the Zebak years previously, the trigger phrase being the words that officially made him Keeper of the Crystal. He got better.
- In the book The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake, the gang hires a specialist (a hypnotist) to plant the phrase "Afghanistan banana stand" in the mind of a bank employee. Later, one of the gang enters the bank and says this, and the employee helps them to retrieve the eponymous gem.
- Used in The Stand, Glen telling Tom "it's time" as in 'time to go West', after hypnotizing him earlier.
Live Action TV
- One episode of Get Smart, where the agent is Max and the trigger is "Checkmate." Max is meant to challenge his target, The Chief, to a chess game and then shoot him when he loses (given that Max is too incompetent to win). Unfortunately Max dithers so much during the game, that when he finally does lose an exasperated KAOS Double Agent in the room shouts "Checkmate!" in delight, and gets shot instead.
- The follow up joke in the epilogue is that even after Smart realizes this manipulation at the end of the story, The Chief finds out the hard way that Smart is still reflexively shooting at any one saying "Checkmate," and Smart has to sheepishly explain that a bad habit is hard to break.
- In another episode, Hymie is reprogramed to shoot Max when he asks for the check. But Max asks for it in Spanish, and when Hymie translates for the girl with them (saying "check" in English), he promptly shoots himself.
- Dollhouse: Activates: "There are three flowers in a vase. The third flower is green." Deactivates: "There are three flowers in a vase. The third flower is yellow."
- Dollhouse has a few of these. Most used is simply "would you like to go for your treatment?" or "it's time for your treatment" which is said to an engaged Active by their handler. This immediately makes the Active stop what they are doing and go with their handler back to the Dollhouse to be mind-wiped. Played for Laughs in a Deleted Scene where Ballard tries using the phrase to stop November, who's been programmed as a tough Bounty Hunter.
Ballard: You need therapy.
(November slugs him in the face)
Boyd: Treatment. You need a "treatment".
- Also often used is "It's going to be okay...", to which the Actives reply "... now that you're here." This gets them to relax and trust their handler.
- The Odd Couple: "The fault lies not with the stars but with ourselves" made Oscar neat, and a finger-snap made him back to normal.
- In Big Wolf on Campus, Tommy is brainwashed by the Evil Werewolf Syndicate to obey any command preceded by two specific, secret words. Due to a badly-timed minion interruption, those words end up being "Pizza's here." (Yes, hilarity does ensue.)
- Nowhere Man. The episode "Marathon" used "It's a lovely day" or "It's a nice day" (it's been a while since I saw it) spoken over the telephone to activate a Manchurian Agent killer.
- Blake's 7. The location of Star One is revealed by saying the phrase "A fool knows everything and nothing" (the co-ordinates were implanted in the mind of the Charl's Fool).
- In season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike's trigger is a song his mother used to sing when he was a child, the English folk song "Early One Morning".
- A telepathically delivered Trigger Phrase revealed Talia Winters as a sleeper assassin in Babylon 5.
- In the Due South episode "Seeing Is Believing", Fraser hypnotizes most of the other main characters in order to reconcile their accounts of a murder. He takes the opportunity to give trigger phrases to both Ray and Inspector Thatcher, making Ray apologize when he says "cauliflower" and Thatcher agree with him when he says "eggplant".
- In one episode of MacGyver, Pete gets brainwashed into shooting whoever utters the trigger phrase "From the bottom of my heart, I salute you". The Big Bad wanted to use him to kill a visiting dignitary (who was scheduled to give a speech containing that phrase at a dinner Pete would be attending). Need I put under a spoiler that MacGyver foiled the plan in the last minute? No, no I don't.
- In one episode of The New Adventures Of Beans Baxter, Beans is given the task of babysitting a robot, which becomes an unstoppable killing machine when it hears its trigger phrase. The phrase was designed to be the least likely thing for a person to say ("M. I. N. D. Mood"), but Beans had a dental appointment earlier and his mouth was numbed-up. When his girlfriend asked him if he was in the mood to make out, his slurred answer just happened to match the robot's trigger phrase.
- In the Hyperdrive episode "Convoy", the trigger word that puts Henderson under the control of the Scrane is "horrage", defined by them as the combination of hope and courage.
- Played for Laughs in Night Court. Bull Shannon is due to appear on a game show but is nervous, so his friends hypnotise him so he will remain calm when he hears a Trigger Phrase which is...unfortunately the lecherous DA Dan Fielding choses that moment to say "I want to be your love slave!" to an attractive prison officer. Ironically Bull handles the game show quite well but Dan, not realising this, rushes onto the stage and shouts "Bull, I want to be your love slave!" on live television. At a press conference Dan excuses his actions by saying he was kidnapped and brainwashed by Soviet agents.
- Used in an episode of Cheers, where it turns out that Frasier has implanted some in Lilith. "Tambourine" causes her to strip, and "tractor" makes her sing.
- In Liberty Meadows, Brandy demonstrates a trigger on Leslie. With a snap of her fingers, he puts the rehab-breaking Dean in a headlock. "SLEEPER HOLD! DAAAAAH!"
- Modesty Blaise: The phrase 'Rip Van Winkle' is used to put a millionaire into a trance as part of The Con in "The Girl from the Future".
- A Mind Cleansed character in Dark Heresy has the innate weakness of a trigger phrase. Notably, this isn't just a phrase - there's too much risk of outside forces learning it and using it against the Inquisition. The phrase must be delivered either telepathically or at a specific frequency to activate the latent programming.
- In Warhammer 40,000, the Witch Hunters faction possesses a unit called an "Arco-Flagellant". These are convicted heretics who undergo severe cyber-reconstruction and psycho-conditioning to make them insane killing machines. However, they are also equipped with pacifier helms that project soothing images and hymns into their brains... at least until the trigger word is spoken. Then they kill everything in sight.
- BioShock has the most famous gaming example in recent gaming: "Would you kindly?", used to compel the Player Character to do anything.
- One of the antagonists, Andrew Ryan, uses it to chilling effect in one cutscene. After you make it past his final defences he reveals that Fontaine has been controlling your actions all along. He demonstrates by controlling you like a dog, telling you to sit, stand, so on. Then, he hands you his golf club and commands you to kill him, wanting to 'choose' the terms of his own death rather than 'obey' Fontaine. Why he didn't just command you to run away or kill yourself is another matter...
- Because when he found out you were a hypnotically controlled assassin, he also learned you were his son. He says as much as "Now that I know who you are, I can't kill you." He was hoping he could convince you to break your programming, rather than beating your own father to death with a putter.
- Fontaine does just that when you escape him, although Jack's mental conditioning has been weakened by Tenenbaum, so it doesn't work.
- Also "Code Yellow", which is meant to stop your heart.
- A variation of this shows up in Bioshock Infinite, where the notes CAGE summon the Songbird.
- A variation in the Interactive Fiction story Spider And Web: the trigger words "tango" (on) and "waltz" (off) are used to activate a special device the protagonist holds. When you realise that you previously attached an acid capsule to the chair you are now bound in. When the Big Bad, who is interrogating you, asks you if you have any last words, you casually reply: "Tango." The acid dissolves your bonds, releasing you, and you then proceed to deck him, rob him blind, and escape.
- In Fallout 3, one quest features an escaped android who can be rebooted with a trigger phrase.
- And then there's President Eden. Saying "Priority Override, Authorization code 420-03-20-9" will reset him to factory defaults (same happens if you trick him into realizing he's in a logical loop) and activates his self-destruct sequence.
- Also, according to a computer log in Vault 92, the phrase "Sanity is not statistical" was used to pacify the people driven mad by the Vault's white noise experiments. The problems start when the "crazies" start resisting the command.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, the robot ED-E has two hidden recordings from the scientist who built him, which are activated when it hears people talking about the Enclave or the Brotherhood of Steel.
- Used in Tales of the Abyss. "When I give you the order, you will open every fon slot in your body and unleash a hyperresonance. The Trigger Phrase will be 'Foolish replica Luke'."
- Two of the bosses from Deus Ex can be defeated simply by uttering the words Flatlander Woman and Laputan Machine, respectively.
I am not a mach-
- In Manhunt 2, the main character is rendered unconscious by a quote from The Tempest: "What seest thou else in the dark backward and abysm of time?"
- Wing Commander III: "Heart of the Tiger" is both the enemy's nickname for you and the trigger-phrase for their sleeper agent.
- In Tomb Raider Underworld Natla can control the Thralls & the Doppelganger of Lara with the phrase "Okh Eshivar".
- In the "Lara's Shadow" DLC when Natla orders the Doppelganger to kill itself after killing Lara the Doppelganger is visibly displeased, but has no choice but to obey. Fortunately, Lara learns the Command Phrase in time to stop the Doppelganger just as its about to kill her.
- Upon questioning it & realising that the Doppelganger would act just like her if it was free to do so, Lara orders it to ignore all commands from that moment on. Upon returning to & destroying the machine that was reviving Natla, the trapped Natla attempts to use the phrase to get the Doppelganger to save her but Lara's Order has made her immune. The Doppelganger just watches as the increasingly frantic & desperate Natla drowns in the leaking fluid from the machine.
- Presidential Candidate John McCain in Something Awful's The McCain Ascendancy by Robert Ludlum
- In Sluggy Freelance, Oasis seems to be triggered by an image instead of a phrase. When she sees the HeretiCorp logo, she immediately goes into "Override B-1" and kills all HeretiCorp employees in the area. (One wonders why, after several years of this, the company hasn't just picked a different logo.)
- It's not just the logo; she attempted to kill Riff when Torg blurted that he worked for hC. Her off-trigger was the words, "I quit," which hC mooks immediately and emphatically used.
- Skin Horse's Unity has the trigger phrase "blueberry waffles" to make her stop fighting, because that tends to be rather more difficult than getting her to start.
- Barats And Bereta once hypnotized each other into doing crazy things when a specific trigger phrase was used. The only way to be un-hypnotized was to utter a trigger phrase that no one would ever say. That last Bieber song wasn't half bad.
- G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero: In "There's No Place Like Springfield", "Frogs in winter" made Shipwreck recite the formula for a chemical compound that turns water into an explosive.
- In a variant from Back at the Barnyard, Otis is accidentally hypnotized to try and kill the Farmer every time he hears a bell ring.
- American Dad!: The trigger phrase that Stan Smith used to make his daughter into a Tykebomb is something that no-one would ever say accidentally... "I'm getting fed up with this orgasm!"
- It backfires, though. Stan's boss reveals that every subject turned on his or her handler. And, if the phrase isn't uttered again within a week, they stay in that state, until they kill said handler.
- This was actually a Call Back to another episode, when Stan tried to use the word "rhubarb" to hypnotize Hayley, but to his confusion it didn't work. Steve, however, had suddenly turned into a zombie.
- Family Guy has the similar "Boy, that Italian family at the next table sure is quiet." It works on both Adam West and Meg, but whoever Meg calls to check in with just tells her to shut up.
- In Futurama episode War Is the H-Word, Bender is fitted with a bomb that will explode when he says the word "ass," which in a reversal from the norm is specifically selected as the word he says most often. At the end Dr. Farnsworth tries to defuse the bomb but can't and instead resets it so it will be detonated by the word Bender is least likely to say - which Bender immediately tries to guess.
- It takes at least three tries.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender had "The Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai."
- In Batman Beyond, a doctor specializing in robotic prosthetics was forced by a gang to give them weaponized versions. He secretly put a trigger phrase in the limb's coding, which would make them fall apart. Batman figured it out at the end battle ("April Moon", after the favorite song of the doctor's wife), and defeats the gang.
- In an episode of Pinky and the Brain, a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo of then-head of Warner Brothers Television Jamie Kellner had one of these given to him as a hypnotic anesthetic. The word "repugnant" worked as an on-off switch; shame it was Brain's Catch Phrase after becoming a stand-up comedian...
- And thanks to some Executive Meddling, it makes you wonder if any fans ever tried yelling it at him in real life.
- Inspector Gadget has an episode featuring a MAD plot that uses a Trigger Phrase to hypnotize contestants on a game show (including Gadget himself at one point) to do Dr. Claw's bidding with the phrase "Going my way?"
- Young Justice has two trigger phrases. First is "Red Sun," used by Lex Luthor as an immediate fail-safe to stop Superboy from acting belligerent during a shady dealing between the two. Should he choose to attack his manipulator... Luthor can leave him catatonic for hours on end. It's the result of mental brainwashing by CADMUS while being grown as a Living MacGuffin clone of Superman as insurance in case he suffered from insanity. However, it also raises suspicion he might be a Manchurian Agent. Eventually, this is proved wrong, and Miss Martian uses her own mental prowess to wipe out the subliminal trigger.
- In an episode of The Simpsons, Sideshow Bob hypnotizes Bart to kill Krusty during Krusty's live retirement special. His trigger is a line in Krusty's speech, "I've never had such a great audience."
- In the Jimmy Neutron special "Operation: Jet Fusion" Beautiful Gorgeous hypnotised Jet Fusion so he would kill whoever said the phrase "I have the ring", her target being Jimmy who was the ring bearer. Libby, who was playing the church organ, broke the hypnotic trance by having everyone say the phrase in a Crowd Song.
We are all of us—all of us mad.
There, Troper. You may go now.