The dumbwaiter has been a fixture in Big, Fancy Houses for over a thousand years. A miniature elevator between the walls, it is designed for transporting food, laundry, and other objects between floors in a building when carrying them would be inconvenient. What it's not designed for is carrying people.
And yet, something about this small, mobile space is irresistible to characters in fiction. Maybe you're a curious youngster exploring the old mansion your family just moved into, maybe you're escaping from an enemy and there aren't any air ducts nearby, or maybe you just saw what looked like a tiny elevator and thought, "Hey, I bet I could fit in that thing!". Whatever the reason, you're contributing to the universal law that whenever a dumbwaiter appears in fiction, no matter its size, someone will take a ride in it.
Most modern dumbwaiters are motorized, but the ones appearing in fiction can usually be operated from within by pulling on a rope to hoist oneself up. Often justified by the character taking the ride being a child who is just barely small enough to fit inside. A Scare Dare may be involved, as these spaces (beyond being potentially dangerous, especially in old buildings) can easily induce Claustrophobia. Expect Cobwebs of Disuse.
Definitely do not try this one at home—as noted, dumbwaiters are not built for people.
Subtrope of Secret Path; Sister trope to Air-Vent Passageway, Chimney Entry, and Secret Underground Passage. Will often lead to a Secret Room in an Old, Dark House, Cool House, Haunted House, or Big Labyrinthine Building. Can often be used for an unconventional Elevator Escape. Unsurprisingly, it's easier to hit a Maximum Capacity Overload and cause Elevator Failure in one of these than in a full-size lift. Compare Mobile Maze. See also Artistic License – Engineering.
- Asylum (1972 Horror) has a variant in that the rider is not human, and justified given its small size. When the patients' dinners are sent up to the ward by dumbwaiter, Byron directs his robotic instrument of murder to sneak into the dumbwaiter, riding it down to the first floor where it can murder Dr. Rutherford.
- In the 1916 Charlie Chaplin film The Count, Mr. Chaplin hides in an unusually-large dumbwaiter just as the butler upstairs is summoning it. He gives one of the party guests quite a fright when he arrives on the upper floor.
- Cry Wolf (1947): Played for drama. Susan's husband Jim is supposedly dead, but Susan begins to think that her brother-in-law Mark, who is obviously up to something nefarious, may be holding Jim prisoner in his attic laboratory. When Susan finds out that Mark gets his meals sent to the lab by dumbwaiter, she hauls herself up. Her husband isn't there, but she overhears a suspicious conversation before she has to go back down via dumbwaiter, barely avoiding being caught.
- In Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, Michael Myers hides Charlie's body in the dumbwaiter. When his girlfriend, Sarah, finds the body, she's forced to get inside it and try to ride it down with his body, but Myers tampers with the dumbwaiter's rope, further incapacitating her. She makes it out of the dumbwaiter but Michael rides it down too, and kills her.
- In Home Alone 3, Alex uses a dumbwaiter to evade the terrorists who were looking for him. One of them realizes this was how he got outside the house from the attic after she and two of her cohorts realize too late the trampoline was a trap (the two men jumped into the trampoline, which caused them to get stuck in the frozen swimming pool) and tries it herself, but the moment the dumbwaiter reaches the attic, she falls down the shaft, because Alex removed the bottom shortly before escaping the house.
- Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom: Maisie Lockwood uses a dumbwaiter to maneuver around her family mansion and hide from the antagonist Eli Mills and later the hybrid dinosaur the Indoraptor.
- Pack Up Your Troubles: The cops have come to arrest Laurel and Hardy and seize the Heartwarming Orphan they've been looking after. Stan and Ollie attempt to escape by lowering the little girl out via dumbwaiter and following. Stan breaks the dumbwaiter, which results in Ollie falling all the way to the bottom.
- Ready or Not: The initial place Grace finds to hide is the dumbwaiter on the second floor, but she doesn't take a ride in it, just sits inside until she gets bored and climbs out again. Later she returns to the dumbwaiter, possibly to try to use it to escape the house, only to find one of the maids hiding in it. In the scuffle after the maid calls for help, the lift's button is pressed and she is crushed to death between the closing doors.
- Shoot 'Em Up: Donna makes a quick escape in a dumbwaiter during the penthouse shootout scene.
- The Three Stooges' short "Three Little Pigskins" has the boys try to escape a beating by taking a dumbwaiter into the basement. Hilarity Ensues when Curly goes down first, but fails to notice that the lift's floorboard gave out and broke off under his weight while he was sending it back up.
- Trouble Man has a variation. Instead of riding in the dumbwaiter, T pulls himself up the ropes of a disused dumbwaiter shaft.
- In Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, Christopher pulls himself up to Katharine's secret nursery, where he sees Aunt Roo singing to Katharine's skeleton. Later, he tries to do the same thing to rescue Katy from the nursery. Aunt Roo catches him and cuts the dumbwaiter ropes so they can't escape.
- Briefly mentioned in Young Frankenstein. Igor's explanation for how he got to Victor's secret laboratory is that he used the dumbwaiter.
- Zathura: Danny uses his home's dumbwaiter to hide from his brother, and later to move around the house without being seen by the Zorgons.
- In the novel Airborn protagonist Matt Cruse uses a dumbwaiter to move through the airship Aurora after it is hijacked by pirates.
- In the children's novel Araminta Spookie: My Haunted House, the title character discovers a dumbwaiter at the end of a Secret Path leading up to Secret Room. She knows how to use it because one of her house's kitchens also contains one, connecting it to the dining room, and she has amused herself by riding up and down in it.
- Daughter of Dragons, in the Liaden Universe series: The Korval family's house in the city has a dumbwaiter connecting the kitchen with the service entrance where supplies are brought into the house. Kareen recalls her young brother Daav playing in it when he was a boy, and at the end of the story she goes down in it herself to evade assassins searching the house (finding it much less fun for a full-grown woman who can barely squeeze into the space and knows how dangerous it is).
- Feet of Clay sees an Assassination Attempt on the Patrician. Taking over security at the Patrician's Palace, Vimes covers an avenue of approach to the city ruler's sickroom—the dumbwaiter—by having a heavily armed dwarf riding in it.
- The Finishing School Series: In Etiquette & Espionage, the first book of the series, the 'incident' that gets Sophronia Temminnick sent to a finishing school by her mother involves her riding inside a dumbwaiter in an attempt to eavesdrop on a meeting between her mother and a very important guest. It ends with her lying on the floor in her petticoats with India rubber wrapped around her feet and most of a trifle atop the head of the unfortunate Mrs Barnaclegoose.
- In the Goosebumps book The Headless Ghost, one of the ghosts was a rich Spoiled Brat in life who was addicted to ice cream that his butler would bring up to his bedroom through a dumbwaiter. One time, he greedily crawled inside after he got tired of waiting and immediately fell to his death.
- Harriet the Spy: Harriet breaks into the mansion of Agatha Plummer and gets caught hiding in her dumbwaiter. This is carried over to the film adaptation as well.
- An early Hercule Poirot story has the dumbwaiter considered as a way out for the murderer, as it had been used to bring dinner for three men that evening. In fact the murderer was the victim's manservant, who killed his employer then ordered three dinners to make it look as though the victim has received people that evening.
- In the Meg Langslow Mysteries book ''Owl's Well That Ends Well," Meg uses the old dumbwaiter in her new house to eavesdrop on the police investigation, as they're using her dining room for on-site interviews. Trouble comes when her nephew and a friend discover the shaft and end up jumping onto the top of the dumbwaiter, but in the end the boys are caught and she isn't. She makes use of this trick in at least one more book later.
- In The Missing Piece of Charlie O'Reilly, the New York Asylum for Orphaned Children had a dumbwaiter. Charlie's final memory as Kieran is of being trapped in the burning Asylum with his mother Brona. The two tried to escape by riding the dumbwaiter to a lower floor, only to find themselves trapped in the wine cellar. There's a hidden door behind a shelf that leads to the salt mine, but neither of them knows about it, so Kieran is killed when the first floor caves in.
- Nina Tanleven: In The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed, Nina resorts to hiding in the dumbwaiter when she thinks there's a prowler in Phoebe's house. In an effort to escape, she winds up bouncing up and down an inch or so to try and get it to go down, which results in the rope breaking and the dumbwaiter falling the rest of the way; thankfully, except for biting her tongue enough to draw blood, she's unharmed when it lands and is able to sneak out of the house.
- In the first book of The Spiderwick Chronicles, the Grace siblings find a dumbwaiter in the kitchen of their old family home and use it to try to chase an animal they can hear scrabbling in the walls. Because Mallory is too big to fit inside, Jared rides it and discovers a Secret Room containing mysterious riddles.
- Agent Carter. Howard Stark has to sneak into The Griffith hotel (because men aren't allowed), and is reluctant to try this trope.
Howard Stark: What if the chain snaps and I fall to my death?
Peggy: Don't worry, I'll never reveal that Howard Stark's dead body is lying rotting in the bottom of a dumbwaiter shaft.
- In Arrested Development, magician Tony Wonder hides in restaurant dumbwaiters in order to appear suddenly at dinner meetings. The effectiveness of this is lessened by the fact that he's usually covered in food scraps afterwards.
- On Cheers, in 10th-season finale "An Old-Fashioned Wedding", the dumbwaiter at the Gaines mansion gets quite a bit of usage when Woody and Kelly get married. First, Kelly hides in it since Woody's there and the ceremony hasn't started yet. Then the justice of the peace dies and they send him to the basement in it. When they try to bring him back up, he's gone. Now, Carla goes down the dumbwaiter to find him, only to get dropped. Both times she tries to come back up, she gets dropped again.
- The Doctor Who story "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" has Jago and Litefoot attempting to use a dumbwaiter to escape from Magnus Greel and his followers.
- The Haunting of Hill House: Theo and Luke discover a dumbwaiter in the house and decide to mess around in it. Luke ends up in a mysterious basement room and discovers a frightening creature.
- During a plan to assassinate a roomful of German generals having a meeting in a hotel via exploding centerpieces on Hogan's Heroes, the crew learns from a spy that the meeting was actually to give the generals the plans for the defense of France in preparation for an Allied invasion. The spy, after learning of the plan, leaves his copy in the dining room after it had been cleared out so the Heroes can steal it. This meant LeBeau had to ride the dumbwaiter back up to the room (he'd done so earlier to try and disarm the bombs, but a pair of guards foiled his attempt). He makes it back just before the bombs go off, though a dejected Carter notes the bombs went off one minute later than he planned.
- In the Apple TV+ series Home Before Dark episode "Dark Rooms", Hilde and her friends Donnie and Spoon sneak inside a kitchen dumbwaiter to go down into the basement while investigating Wott Management at the Catherine Higgins House.
- On Laverne & Shirley, Lenny & Squiggy get in trouble with Mrs. Babish when they ride the building's dumbwaiter playing "Coal Miner".
- In the MacGyver (1985) episode "Fire & Ice", Mac sneaks into a consulate pretending to be a kitchen hand carrying a box of vegetables, then climbs into the kitchen's dumbwaiter to reach the upper level.
- In Betrayal at House on the Hill dumbwaiters can allow characters to move between different floors of the mansion.
- Call of Cthulhu supplement The Asylum And Other Tales, adventure "The Auction". The House of Ausperg has several dumbwaiters that go from the second floor preparation rooms down to the basement vaults in which auction items are stored. After a pack of ghouls breaks into the vaults to steal an item, courageous investigators can choose to use one of the dumbwaiters to go down to the basement instead of using the stairs.
- In 101 Dalmatians: Escape from DeVil Manor, two dalmatian puppies, Patches and Whizzer, can ride in a dumbwaiter to every floor in the titular mansion, although the attic level has to be unblocked from the other side, first.
- In Scott Adam's Adventure series of role playing games, specifically the second series called The Count, the player can access Dracula's castle though a dumbwaiter.
- At one point in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs you are forced to climb into a mechanical dumbwaiter used for transporting corrosive chemicals to ride to the lower level when the doors are found to be locked. Something sabotages the elevator halfway down, and you fall the rest of the way.
- In Curses, some parts of the house must be reached via the dumbwaiter. It leads from the attic to the cellar, and a passageway halfway up the shaft leads to the garden.
- In Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out!, the only way for Larry to get to Shamara's penthouse suite is to stuff himself into the dumbwaiter while in the kitchen and ride up. Being Larry, he almost always manages to close the door on his hand or nose first.
- Little Nightmares: Justified because the Player Characters are small children in a world of massive Monstrous Humanoids.
- In the main game, Six finds a dumbwaiter in the kitchen and rides in it up to the meat freezer.
- In the second chapter of the DLC, the Runaway Kid rides between floors in a dumbwaiter apparently intended for coal and then has to use it to transport three Nomes back down with him.
- Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon: In mission A-4 of Gloomy Manor, Luigi uses a dumbwaiter to get from the kitchen to the dining room to capture a Boo hiding in there.
- In Pajama Sam in No Need To Hide When It's Dark Outside, there's a sentient dumbwaiter in Darkness's House that leads from the laboratory to the kitchen and vice-versa. Sam can ride the dumbwaiter up from the lab to the kitchen, but if he tries to ride it down to the lab, the dumbwaiter will prevent him from doing so. In the path where Sam's mask is hidden under a sentient table that dances when it doesn't see Sam, Sam needs to use a short-term invisibility potion on himself. However, the only way quick enough to get up to the living room, which is right next door to the kitchen, is by riding the dumbwaiter.
- Trivia Murder Party 2 (part of The Jackbox Party Pack 6) uses this for its "Dumb Waiters" mini-game. Participants must secretly choose whether to board either the left or right dumbwaiter; if everybody gets into the same one, they're all spared. If not, however, the host will drop everyone on the heavier side to their doom.
- In Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, climbing into the dumbwaiter in the kitchen of the Ocean House Hotel is the only way to get to its upper floors.
- In Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? (1997), the level based on The American Revolution has the crook hiding in Thomas Jefferson's dumbwaiter. Or as your Exposition Fairy puts it, "the dummy was waiting in the dumbwaiter."
- One story in the Darwin Awards involves two guys who decide to take a ride in a dumbwaiter. Unfortunately, they both squeeze in at the same time, and their combined weight sends them falling to their deaths. Then their buddy sticks his head in the shaft and gets killed by the counterweight.
- Littlest Pet Shop (2012): Blythe and occasionally the pets use a dumbwaiter to travel from Blythe's upper room to the downstairs playroom at the eponymous shop.
- Looney Tunes:
- In "Daffy Dilly", Daffy Duck is trying to evade the butler of a millionaire. At one point he tries to escape in the dumb waiter, but the butler is somehow waiting for him on every floor, even shooting at him with a rifle that obliterates the dumb waiter, so Daffy has to climb the rope to the top floor, where the butler is waiting for him.
- "Catty Cornered" also saw Sylvester use a dumb-waiter, to take Tweety with him as the cops were storming the digs Rocky and Mugsy were using as a hideaway.