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Van in Black
They're not always this subtle...

"How do you know they're watching us?"
"Because that pool cleaner's van has been parked out on the street for over four hours. No one's pool is that dirty."
Sandra Bennet, Heroes

That large, menacing black van pulling over on the other side of the street the moment you go inside. Maybe you dismissed it as paranoid speculation, just as The Man wanted you to but you should know what it means — They are watching you at this very moment from that very car. If Lampshaded there will be a honkin' big radar dish on top.

These vehicles provide a sense of foreboding mystery to the characters they follow and the audience. The vans appear in the background, and are viewed only from the outside. Unlike Spies in a Van, it's common that neither the audience nor The Protagonist ever find out who is in the vans, or what they are doing. Occasionally, both tropes can occur in the same series, if there are competing vans or if the organization operating them determines the heroes are not their enemy and invites them into The Masquerade.

If they're not only watching you but about to kick your ass, then the black van will be replaced by a black sedan or SUV with tinted windows - the Volga GAZ-21 and 24 and the Chevrolet Suburban, depending on the setting. An important distinction was that in Soviet times and places, black vehicles were entirely reserved for official government fleets while when a black Suburban is seen on American streets in real life, it is assumed to be in soccer-mom use.

See also Black Helicopter. The title is a pun on The Men in Black.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • The van in Runaways, although it's white and actually is fairly nondescript.
    Chase: Remember those two sniper dudes last year? When everyone in Virginia was looking for one white van? The cops couldn't find it 'cause every plumber and electrician and whatever drives one of these things. [..] That's why I asked my parents for one. I get in this bad boy, and I totally drop off The Man's radar.
  • Mooks driving around in a black van sedate Wallace and capture Esther in Sin City.
  • Clint Barton thinks he sees one outside his apartment window:
    Hawkeye: Is it just me, or does that van look like a van.
    Mockingbird: Even for you that makes no... Oh, wait yeah, that's definitely a van.

    Film 
  • In The Game, Michael Douglas finds himself being terrorized by various cars marked "CRS." One's a cabbie (Crown Royal Sedans), another a maintenance van (Cable Repair Services), etc.
  • The van used by the bank robbers in Inside Man.
  • The Zap 'Em Pest Control van in Men In Black ironically serves as transportation for a big bad bug. Somewhat Lampshaded because half of his spaceship stuck out of the back and top.
  • A scene in Oceans Eleven involved the team attempting to purchase a Van in Black. Hilarity Ensues.
  • In E.T. the Extraterrestrial, the government forces use a van with surveillance equipment to find E.T.
  • Played for laughs in Old School, when the protagonists use one of these to kidnap their fraternity pledges, complete with Metallica soundtrack.
  • Twister. The opposing storm chasers drive black vans/trucks, fitting their role in the story as the "bad guy" corporate sell-outs.
  • Karl Hallzemoff, the Hugos' transport van from Cars 2.
  • In a deliberate parody (just like every other trope invoked in the film), the heroes of the first Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! movie traveled in a car with the words "F.I.A. Unmarked Car Pool" painted on it.
  • In The President's Analyst, soon after a paranoid Dr. Schaefer flees his job by ingratiating himself to a family of tourists who take him to their home, there's a big service van with a 'TPC' logo on the side parked on their neighborhood street. It doesn't really merit any notice, but toward the movie's end we find out 'TPC' is The Phone Company, which has been tailing and finally abducting him.
  • Shoot 'em Up. After a Car Chase Smith's car is suddenly hit by a black van at the crossroads. Any belief that this might be an accident is dispelled when mooks stick their guns out the side doors. Then three more gunmen pop up in the sun roof.
  • Best Seller (1987) opens with a long sequence of the robbers driving through the streets of Los Angeles in a black van. However they're not trying to be inconspicuous at all, as the van is fitted with loudspeakers broadcasting political slogans.

    Literature 
  • Also used in The Handmaid's Tale; usually the Eyes drive in black vans only notable by the insignia they have on the side.
  • One appeared in Johnny and the Bomb, though it was more of a limousine.
  • The short story "The Van on Atlantic Street" by Desmond Warzel. Though the van is white, it is in other respects an example of this trope.
  • In Anne Fine's Old Bones the main character is followed around by a van, and is receiving numerous hate calls. As his secretary is very bad at writing messages and as he is quite distracted, he doesn't really connect the dots until after his house is burnt down.
  • Parodied by Dave Barry in "The Columnist's Caper":
    Some 2,347 miles away in East Berlin, a man and a woman, walked briskly eastward on Volkswagenkindergarten-pumpernikelstrasse. Talking intently, they did not notice the sleek black Mercedes sedan, its windows tinted almost black, as it turned off Hamburgerfrankfurterwienerschnitzelstrasse and came toward them from behind, picking up speed until, traveling at 130 kilometers per microgram, it roared into a parked garbage truck.
    "Too much window tint," the woman said.

    Live Action TV 
  • The van driven by The A-Team.
  • This is how Sandra Bennet reveals her Hidden Badass in Heroes volume 4, by noticing that The Men in Black have been staking out their house long before her daughter does, and gives us the above page quote.
  • In the third season finale of Burn Notice, Michael tells Simon that he's seen a certain van circling the block and that it's probably an FBI vehicle watching them. When he goes to it it's actually just a regular van transporting alcohol. Michael just needed to get out of Simon's line of sight to use the delivery boy's phone to call Sam and Fiona.
  • Lampshaded with a vengeance in an early Castle episode:
    Castle, to an FBI Agent: I like your van. Very nondescript.
  • Frank's "Rape Van" from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
  • The private investigator in House also used an "ice cream truck" for spying purposes.
  • The conspiracy in Jekyll use a black van full of surveillance equipment to keep track of the protagonist — who makes a point of mentioning how inconspicuous it isn't. (Which may be the point, since — although the van isn't just a decoy — he turns out to also be under surveillance by several more genuinely inconspicuous methods.)
  • The Three Nemeseses in Buffy the Vampire Slayer have a black van, which is rather less stealthy after one has the idea of painting a Star Wars mural on the side.
  • Lampshaded in Leverage, where the heroic team of con-men are amused and astounded to find the FBI performing surveillance on a prominent mobster's home in a black van marked "Plumber." This is only the first sign of said FBI agents' affable incompetence.
  • In Little Mosque on the Prairie, when an agent of the Canadian Secret Service came to Mercy on holiday, the Muslim community got paranoid, and Baber noticed a delivery truck outside the Mosque. He claims it's a stakeout, and there are three agents there, one of them called "Sarge", and they're drinking coffee out of paper cups. At the end of the episode, the Secret Service really start surveillance on the Mosque there really are three agents there, drinking coffee out of paper cups, and one of them is called "Sarge"
  • Chuck has these on occasion.
    Casey: What is it with bad guys and vans?
  • Used in some Earth-centric episodes of Stargate SG-1, though it's an unusual example because it's Our Heroes in the black vans, as they work for The Government.
  • The X-Files. Inverted in "Dreamland" where The Men in Black travel in white 4WD's.
  • The SUV in Torchwood. In "Children of Earth" the bad guys have these; lampshaded when Ianto thinks a mysterious dark van is tailing him — it turns out to be delivering newspapers.
  • The Actives from Dollhouse were ferried to and from their engagements in black vans. In keeping with the surveillance van motif, the vans would remain nearby during the engagement so that handlers could monitor their assigned Active.
    • In "Echoes" a team of Actives programmed into believing they're NSA investigators are sent to a college campus. They pull up in a line of three black vans, no doubt to play into this trope for anyone watching.
    • Backfires in "Instinct" when Echo (programmed to believe she is a mother with child) notices the black van parked outside her house for the past week and assumes something sinister — her handler is unable to bring her in because Echo flees whenever she sees one.
  • Community - in Intro To Political Science, a female Secret Service agent investigates Abed as a potential threat during an upcoming vice-presidential visit, and the two hit it off. Duty prevents her from getting involved, but the end tag shows them on a date of sorts, as he watches a movie on tv, and she monitors and talks with him from a surveillance van outside his window.
  • The rumored "TV Detector" vans supposedly used by the Real Life BBC note  were invoked and parodied in ''Monty Python's Flying Circus',' by the man applying for a pet fish license, describing his experience with the "cat detector van from the Ministry of 'Owzinje'note ".
    • The "TV Detector" vans were Played With in the Doctor Who story "Remembrance of the Daleks, in which they actually held alien-detecting equipment (specifically, its occupants were looking for UF Os. They ended up finding the Imperial Dalek mothership flying above Earth's atmosphere).
  • In Arrested Development, surveillance vans have "Blendin" commercial markings; Blendin Moving and Storage, Blendin Catering, Blendin Electric, and Blendin Pet Grooming are all seen (the latter two apparently on left and right sides of the same van).

    Professional Wrestling 
  • This is how Samoa Joe disappeared when he was abducted by ninjas.

    Video Games 

    Webcomics 

    Web Original 
  • In KateModern, a black van is the preferred mode of transport of the sinister Watcher.
  • In LG 15 The Resistance, black vans are used by villain groups LifesBlood Labs and the Order, mainly for the purpose of kidnapping.
  • 4chan calls it a party van. Sounds fun!

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons:
    • In the episode Bart the Murderer, a government agency surveillance team is hiding out in a florist van. The florist's name: Flowers By Irene.
    • Earlier, Marge had noticed a pizza van that had been parked outside the Simpsons's house for days. After Marge asks 'How long does it take to deliver a Pizza?' it zooms off to be replaced by the van above.
    • Parodied again with similar vans labeled CIA, FBI, and ATF, which here stand for "Chinese Intelligence Agency", "French Bureau of Investigation", and "A-Team of Finland".
    • In one episode Homer is sent into the Kwik-E-Mart with a hidden camera by the Channel 6 news team, which is monitoring him from a van parked out front, with "Ordinary Van" painted on the outside.
  • Crocker in The Fairly OddParents used a fairy tracking van disguised as an ice cream truck at least once. This proved horribly ineffective since he was immediately mobbed by kids. To drive them away, he converted the van into a spinach truck... and was immediately mobbed by sailors instead.
  • Jonny Quest TOS episode "The Quetong Missile Mystery". When the Quests drive away from their ship, we see a van with surveillance equipment inside that was keeping an eye on them. It drives off after them when they leave. It was sent by General Fong to keep watch on them.
  • Superfriends 1973/74 episode "The Balloon People". Dr. Noah Tall uses his spy van the "Snoop Wagon" to perform surveillance before he attempts to kidnap the Balloonians.

    Real Life 
  • The "Black Ravens" (GAZ M vans) in which Stalin's NKVD agents moved around.
  • The legendary black Volga of Polish urban legends (not a van but a sedan) serve the same purpose.
    • A 1990s article in a British magazine tested a metallic-tan GAZ-21 Volga; it was remarked that the car had originally been black and had to be repainted due to black Volgas' association with the KGB.
  • The Chaika was a car that looked like a sinister black Checker cab and was reserved for important operations. However, the Chaika was more often used as a limousine for the Party top brass, which is something you don't mess with but not immediately dangerous.
  • More often than not, Real Life surveillance vans are white since that's by far the most common color for commercial vans (being the easiest color for non-surveillance fleet users to put their logo in vinyl tape on dozens/hundreds of).
  • There are persistent rumours that The BBC once operated -and perhaps still does operate- a fleet of these equipped with sophisticated electronic equipment that could detect an active cathode ray tube in order to catch people who hadn't paid their television license. Evidence gathered by this technology has never been produced in court, and nobody seems to know how these devices could actually work, so the whole story is widely believed to be a complete fabrication to encourage compliance. Magical telly-detectors or not, TV license vans parked outside houses are a common scare tactic.
  • The United States Secret Service uses black Chevrolet Suburbans (or similar vehicles) with tinted windows in the Presidential motorcade, as do many other U.S. government agencies like the FBI.

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