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Undead Author
Jack Sparrow: It's the Pearl.
Prisoner: The Black Pearl! I've heard stories. She's been preying on ships and settlements for near ten years. Never leaves any survivors.
Jack Sparrow: No survivors? Then where do the stories come from, I wonder?

This happens whenever a character relates a story or an urban legend they've heard about some monster or location which never leaves anyone alive. Ten to one, it'll directly affect them later.

This of course raises the question of where the legend came from, if nobody has ever lived to talk about it? Perhaps the author was undead. Or the monster. Or both.

Compare Did You Die? No relation to Death of the Author. Apocalyptic Log is another possible explanation.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Gets a Lampshade Hanging in Mahou Sensei Negima! when Yue talked about the Deep Library after they fell into it during the Library Island Arc.
    Yue: Of course, no one who has seen the Library has lived and returned to tell the tale...
    Ku Fei: ... Then how does Yue know about it, aru?
  • It appears in an episode of Pokémon when James, not wanting to reveal his true childhood, tells the cast a flashback story about how, as a child, he ran away from home with his Growlithe, Growlie, only to freeze to death in the snow while his pet howled mournfully at the moon. While most of the characters are moved to tears, Misty, playing the Only Sane Man, responds that he obviously didn't die since he's telling the story, at which point James quickly falls back on Easy Amnesia ("I'm all mixed up!") as his answer.
  • In Claymore, the lampshade is hung upside-down when Ophelia claims that she doesn't have a nickname like the rest of the Claymores because she doesn't leave any survivors when she fights.
  • Averted in Cowboy Bebop, where Pierrot le Fou leaves almost no-one alive from his attacks, although the ones that do survive to tell the tale are eventually all hunted down and killed anyway.
    • He's so little known that Spike has no idea who the hell is attacking him.
  • Lampshaded in Naruto during the Fourth Shinobi War arc. The resurrected Pain / Nagato uses his ultimate Gravity Master move, which turns the surrounding area into a floating planetoid and crushes anyone in the vicinity.
    Naruto: He got me with this jutsu once! It's really bad, really bad! If you get caught in it, it's over!
    Itachi: Hey, Naruto...If it's a sure death, how come you're still alive?
    Naruto: O_O

    Comics 
  • Parodied in this Nodwick strip.
  • In The Cartoon History Of The Universe chapter on ancient India, there appears the Hindu parable of an atheist who spent his entire life inwardly repeating "There is no God" as a mantra. When he died, his soul was instantly unified with God, because, paradoxically, by denying God, he'd managed to keep the deity constantly in mind. The historian-narrator then asks, "Say, how'd anyone know what happened after the guy died?"

    Film 
  • Lampshaded in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, with regard to the Black Pearl. As it turns out, though the Black Pearl and its crew are indeed dangerous, they leave plenty of survivors in their wake.
  • Schindler's List has an example similar to the one above, with one character arguing the Nazis can't really be killing everyone. The context, though, makes this tragic irony rather than comedic irony.
  • In The Princess Bride, it is stated that the Dread Pirate Roberts "never [leaves] captives alive." One wonders why anyone would ever surrender to him.
    • In the book it's made clear this only applies if they fight, if they just hand over the valuables they can go. This was the whole point of building the reputation in the first place; a technique used sometimes by Real Life pirates.
    • And nobody has ever survived the Fire Swamp though they somehow all know its dangers, including the R.O.U.S.es
  • Specifically averted by Natural Born Killers in which the title characters always leave alive one witness to tell the tale. (This turns into a plot point at one stage of the story.)
  • The Goonies specifically had someone mention this with the legend of One-Eyed Willy. The main character gives a handwave and says he asked his dad the same thing; probably one person got away.
  • Averted in Inglourious Basterds; the titular Basterds always leave one Nazi Nat-zee alive to spread the word about them.note  But not before carving a Swastika into their foreheads, so even if they don't tell the story, other people will know it.
  • The Alien vs. Predator movie has the pyramid filled with hieroglyphs which include the details on how the ancient civilization ended. One wonders who was around to add those details, since all of the humans were dead and the Predators apparently abandoned it for thousands of years.
  • Lampshaded in Kick-Ass, where Kick-Ass/David tells the people in the audience who figured he wouldn't die at one point because he's still narrating to stop being a bunch of smartasses and lists several films with Posthumous Narration (which doesn't include this one).
  • Lampshaded in DEBS, where the four DEBS members are preparing to spy on Lucy Diamond. Apparently nobody has ever fought her and lived to talk about it. It turns out the various law enforcement agents sent to capture her died of various natural causes, including frostbite and ebola, as they tracked her to various secret hideouts around the world without taking adequate precautions against the natural dangers of the environments.
  • The Shrek special "Scared Shrekless" features the cast trying to outdo each other at ghost stories. The Gingerbread Man's story ends with him surrounded by a legion of zombie Yandere cookies (yeah). "And then they ATE ME!" Shrek and co. pose the obvious question and he cracks.

    Folklore 
  • Two mythological monsters, Medusa and the Basilisk, possessed magical auras that would kill anyone who looked at them (and, in some versions, anyone they looked at). Despite this they were often physically described in great detail in the legends. In the Medusa's case it could be argued that this was because looking at her reflection in a mirror wasn't lethal and someone could have seen only their reflection. But there is really no excuse for the Basilisk, who not only had a lethal reflection, but also breathed poison gas as a backup weapon (JK Rowling tweaked the Basilisk for the Harry Potter series so that indirect looks at it were nonlethal, but induced petrification).
    • It also helps in Harry Potter that they have a literal undead author in the case of Moaning Myrtle.
    • Actually, there is a lot of variation in the basilisk's appearance, ranging from a tiny eight-legged winged lizard with a chicken's head to a giant serpent with a feathered plume.
  • Scottish folklore says that anyone who hears the flowers of the Bluebell ringing will die immediately. Well, then who lived to tell about it?
    • Their deaf friends.
      • Similar story is told about unrooting mandrakes. The question remains: How would the deaf person even know there is a sound, let alone that it's the sound that is killing the other people?
      • Some variants state it's not quite the sound - the mandrake is bloodthirsty, and you can Balance Death's Books by tying a dog nearby.
  • This is an often-cited Fridge Logic issue with the old wives' tale that if you die in your dream, you'll die from the shock of it in your sleep and never wake up. If the people who die in their dreams never wake up, how does anybody know what they were dreaming about when they died?
    • There is even a Moon Logic Puzzle based on this. (Although the very fact that it is on this page reveals the solution, so I apologize to those of you who didn't get it immediately.)
  • Snopes.com has expressed bewilderment at people who send them that "My name is so-and-so, I am but three/Tonight my daddy murdered me" poem and ask if it's "real" or not.

    Literature 
  • Inverted in the Discworld book The Fifth Elephant: Carrot assures Gaspode that there have been no reports of wolves attacking humans unprovoked, and Gaspode reasons that this might be because no unprovoking human who did get attacked has ever returned to tell the tale.
    • And again in The Last Hero: Cohen and his Silver Horde realize they have been set up when the bard they dragged along asks who wrote the scrolls guiding them up the mountain of the gods if nobody has survived the journey.
  • Similarly inverted in The Paths of the Perambulator, when Jon-Tom narrowly avoids being killed by an explosive pinecone. When he protests that there are no such things on his (our) world, Mudge half convinces him that there could be, if anyone who encounters one dies and is written off as the victim of a mundane hiking accident.
  • Edgar Allan Poe was usually good about averting Undead Author. He even did it with The Pit And The Pendulum, though he had to resort to a Deus ex Machina.
  • Some biblical traditions hold that Moses wrote the entire Torah or Pentateuch... which invokes this trope when you realize that this means he narrated his own death in Deuteronomy 34.
    • Usually waved off by claiming that either this part was written by Joshua, or Moses in a God made trance.
  • Ambrose Bierce's The Stranger plays the trope straight, with deep emphasis on undead. A troop of Union soldiers on an exploration quest through Arizona is approached by a mysterious man who narrates the story of four previous explorers, Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw, George W. Kent, and Berry Davis, who committed suicide while besieged by Apaches in a cave rather than dying of thirst. When a listener scorns and curses him for abandoning his comrades in their death, the stranger does only tell again they were four of them who died, and disappears. With uncanny calm, the troop's Captain acknowledges that years before there had been found and buried the bodies of four men, mutilated by the Indians, and the storyteller had been just whom he said he was, Berry Davis, who even if shot again "couldn't have made him any deader".
  • In The Wheel of Time, perpetually-reincarnated heroine Birgitte tells Mat the story of how one of her past incarnations fought her way into the Tower of Ghenjei, home of the Snakes and Foxes, to make them cure her wounded lover. Mat asks how she got out, and she tells him that she didn't; she and her lover both got killed and that incarnation ended there. Nevertheless, she's surprised he's never heard the story before and Thom recalls a distorted version of it later, which is par for the course for the way legends and myths work in the series.
    • It's explained that the story resulted from someone asking the denizens what happened to her.
  • In Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman mentions how he was outraged at an account taught in Sunday School that told of a girl's dying thoughts. How did they know what she thought?
  • Many of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, considering his preference for first person and high protagonist mortality rate. Though Call of Cthulhu at least justified the account of the encounter with Great Cthulhu in that some of the sailors who delayed him managed to live long enough to write it down.
  • In Sara Shepard's series The Lying Game, (now with a somewhat similar TV adaptation), Sutton is literally this, having been murdered at the outset of the first book.
  • The Ugly Barnacle. If everyone died, then how did Patrick Star survive to tell the story? And how did his friend SpongeBob survive to hear it?

    Live Action Television 

  • Doctor Who uses a "mundane hiking accident" variant in "Silence in the Library" for maximum Paranoia Fuel. The Vashta Nerada exist on every planet; the reason we never hear about them is because they exist in dark and isolated places, and, well, you know how people go missing in the woods...
    The Doctor: Almost every species in the universe has an irrational fear of the dark, but they're wrong, because it's not irrational. It's Vashta Nerada.
  • Apart from the obvious, literal example of many characters (who do indeed occasionally narrate) being vampires, Vampire Diaries features a somewhat surprising example as Elena reads one of the diaries of her ancestor Jonathan, as he actually states how he saw who killed him. It's explained by the existence of the Gilbert Protection Rings, of which Jonathan was the first wearer, which revive anyone killed by the supernatural.

    Music 
  • The singer of Like A Boss is asked to describe an average day. Apparently an average day consists of chopping his balls off, crashing into the Sun and dying.

    Video Games 
  • In Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon Marth decides to proceed on a quest deemed suicidal, noting that these rumors couldn't be entirely true because of this.
  • Brought up in Persona 3, when the heroes hear a ghost story about a deadly curse that befalls anyone who stays too late after school. They immediately realize that, if everyone it's ever happened to dies, as the story claims, then nobody would've ever found out about it. While there's a grain of truth to the idea that the school can become dangerous at night, the details of the story turn out to be an urban myth.
  • In Fallout 2, Harold the sort-of ghoul tells several stories about himself that end with 'Everybody died'. One of your chat options is 'How did you survive?' He always answers "Didn't! Got killed!"
  • In Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, most of the events of the game are framed by Guybrush telling the story to Elaine, and at one point it appears that Guybrush has died, upon which Elaine remarks that he couldn't have died since he's right there relating it to her.
  • In Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Keiichi points out Oiishi's use of this trope when he tells a story about how the old demons of Hinamizawa demanded a mother feed herself to one of them in exchange for curing her son and when she ran away the demons (with the other villagers' help) caught and ate them both. Oiishi counters that a lot of old stories are like that.
  • Addressed in Interactive Fiction game Spider And Web. Most of the game is framed by the captured spy PC telling the story to an interrogator. If the PC gets themselves killed, the interrogator will interrupt: "And then you died?", forcing the PC to backtrack.
  • In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, whenever the narrating Prince dies and the player decides to continue, he will say "That's not what happened" or a similar phrase.
  • Averted in Mass Effect where the last dozen Protheans who survived the Reaper genocide dedicated their lives to sabotage the Reaper plans for the next extermination cycle, giving their successors a fighting chance against the next Reaper invasion. Their efforts culminated in Vigil, a VI set up to tell the next sentient races about the Prothean's ultimate fate.

    Web Comics 
  • Black Mage pointed it out early in 8-Bit Theater - if the Armor of Invincibility is said to be hidden in The Cave Of No Return, how can it be the Cave Of No Return? Somebody must've gotten out of there to spread the word that the Armor of Invincibility is there...
  • In GastroPhobia, Phobia tells Gastro a story of an adventure that ends with her death, including a "Some say that on certain nights you can still hear my voice..." stinger.
  • Miya in A Loonatic's Tale tells Dr. Qubert the tragic story of her, a young orphan girl, in issue 4: Talking To Myself. After an unkind and high-class vampire (probably one of the Cruors) hits her with a rock and tells her to get a job, her cat dies, then, exhausted and starving, she lays down on the ground, utters her final words ("God bless us, everyone"), and dies. Forever.
    Qubert: Oh no! You poor thing! *beat**beat* Wait.

    Western Animation 
  • Parodied in The Simpsons; Groundskeeper Willie tells a story about a miner's strike he was involved in which ended with a cave-in, and concludes his narrative "Nobody made it out alive - not even Willie."
    • And again where Grandpa recollects falling off the Murderhorn - "You'll die out there - just like I did. I fell 8,000 feet onto a pile of jagged rocks. 'Course folks were tougher in those days. I was jitterbuggin' that very night!"
    • Averted to Homer's surprise when reading a wilderness survival story.
    Homer: [reading] Then I heard the sound that all Arctic explorers dread... the pitiless bark of the sea lion! [gasp] He'll be killed!
    Marge: Homer, he obviously got out alive if he wrote the article.
    Homer: Don't be so... [flips ahead] Oh, you're right.
  • The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron has Jimmy pointing out the Fridge Logic of an urban legend about a theme park, questioning how Nick could know the kids' final words if they were never heard from again.
  • Parodied in the Dilbert cartoon where a story of a co-worker killing an entire field hockey team and not leaving survivors was learned from reading it on her website.

    Web Original 

    Real Life 
  • Fans of Citizen Kane have gone to great lengths to reconcile the Fridge Logic of how Kane's last word, spoken as he died all alone, could be known to the man investigating why he'd said "Rosebud".


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