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Fatal MacGuffin

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Sometimes the MacGuffin everyone has been searching for turns to be more (or less) than it seems. And sometimes it is better to lose the race to obtain it. Especially when possessing the MacGuffin turns out to have fatal consequences.

This can play out in several different ways. Sometimes, the hero will be about to obtain the object, only to have the villain snatch it away from him, and pay the price. At other times, there may have been a cryptic warning about the cost of achieving the MacGuffin. In this case, expect the hero to decipher its meaning just before the villain finds the item. A pragmatic hero might keep his mouth shut up and let the villain seal his own fate. A more noble hero will attempt to warn the villain, only for the villain to assume he is trying Reverse Psychology, and take the item anyway.

Often a case of Be Careful What You Wish For.

Compare with Unholy Holy Sword where the weapons can bring disastrous consequences to the wielders if they're unfit to use them. See also Phlebotinum-Handling Equipment for ways to handle the MacGuffin safely.

As this is a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.


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    Indiana Jones 
Indiana Jones has this as a recurring theme. The MacGuffin of the Week is nearly always lethal for whoever ends up with it. This is seen in all four movies, video games, comic books and even the prequel TV series. Each has a MacGuffin everyone (including Jones) is after which in the end turns out to be an Artifact of Doom.

Comic Books

  • The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones:
    • In #12, the Ismaili assassin have temporarily disposed of Indy and his allies and attempt to seize the Fourth Nail (the fourth nail forged for the crucifixion of Jesus, and intended to be driven through his heart, but stolen by a gypsy) from its gypsy guardian. She tells them "Then take it. For I, too, am certain that you will receive precisely what is coming to you!" The assassins seize the nail from the altar and all of the lights go out. By the time Indy and his friends arrive, the four assassins are dead—each one with a spike through the heart—and the nail is back on the altar. Indy decides to leave it there.
    • In #21, the villain breaks through a door hidden in an Abandoned Mine in an attempt to obtain the Philosopher's Stone which he thinks lies on the other side. Instead, a strange eldritch energy leaks out and consumes him.

Films — Live-Action

  • At the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazis take Jones and Marion to an area where the Ark will be opened and tie them to a post to observe. Dressed as an Israelite kohen gadol, Belloq performs a ceremonial opening of the Ark by invoking a standard Sabbath prayer, and finds it full of sand, possibly all that is left of the Ten Commandments. As Jones warns Marion to keep her eyes shut, spirits emerge from the Ark, eventually revealing themselves to be angels of death. Flames then form above the opened Ark and bolts of energy shoot through the gathered Nazi soldiers, killing them all. In the extreme heat, Dietrich's head shrivels up; all the flesh on Toht's face melts off his skull; and Belloq's head explodes. Flames then engulf and vaporize the remains of the doomed assembly, save for Jones and Marion, in a whirlwind of fire before the Ark seals itself shut.
  • The Sankara stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are not lethal to most people, but Mola Ram discovers that their sacred touch burns him, which causes him to plummet to his doom when he tries to catch one while hanging off a cliff. Indy himself gives up the stone to the village that originally owned it rather than returning it to a museum for his "fortune and glory."
  • In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the Holy Grail does in fact grant eternal (or at least much extended) life, and healing for the sick and wounded. However, as a test of character, it's kept in a room full of wildly varied cups and those on a grail quest must choose one among them and drink from it. Choosing poorly will result in the drinker aging several thousand years in a few seconds and decaying away into dust. Also, any attempt at removing the true Grail from the premises will result in an earthquake that will make it impossible to leave the place the grail is kept. Elsa plummets to her death when she refuses to give up trying to retrieve the grail. Indy almost suffers the same fate, but is saved when his father, whose life has been spent pursuing the grail, tells him to let it go.
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has knowledge as the treasure of the ancient kingdom. Indy just does what the skull wants and returns it to its fellows. Spalko asks to be given everything they know. It ends... poorly... for her. The kingdom is also full of the regular kind of treasure, but it ends up being just as lethal for Mac, the only one who takes any of it.
Video Games
  • In Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, it's discovered that Atlantis not only exists but contains a machine that will allegedly turn humans into living gods. The machine doesn't work, and Atlantis is littered with the horribly mutated remains of people who learned this the hard way. Klaus Kerner, The Dragon, throws himself into a pool of lava after the machine turns him into a stunted Minotaur-like creature, and the Big Bad Hans Ubermann turns into some sort of energy being but promptly dissipates into nothingness. Indy can suffer this fate in a bad ending if the player is unsuccessful in goading Ubermann into using the machine on himself instead of using Indy as a guinea pig.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Infinity Stones from Marvel Cinematic Universe often have this in spades:
    • Captain America: The First Avenger: The Tesseract is too hot to touch with your bare hands and if it feels you are a bad person, it can have devestating effects as seen when the Red Skull picked it up.
    • Thor: The Dark World: The Aether inhabits Jane Foster and slowly kills her. It's shown that you have to be a very powerful person to use it as Malekith eventually harnesses the Stone.
    • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): The Orb's energy is so intense that anyone who tries to hold it in their bare hands ends up getting vaporised. Ronan is able to work around this by embedding the stone in his hammer, providing a safe medium to channel its powers into himself.
    • Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers End Game: The Soul Stone is safe to touch but first, you have to sacrifice someone you love, making it unsafe for them.
      • When the Infinity Stones are all gathered together into the Infinity Gauntlet, the process is dangerous enough that even Thanos has trouble containing the energy and nearly kills himself using the Stones more than once. Later, the Hulk uses the Gauntlet and almost loses his arm. Unfortunately, Tony Stark does not survive his usage of the Gauntlet.

  • Interstellar Pig: Zig-zagged regarding the titular artifact, which multiple alien species are competing to possess. It's initially believed that everyone but the owner will be destroyed when the game ends, but the Piggy later admits that it has a habit of accidentally destroying its owner's planet when it "hiccups". Ultimately revealed that both stories are lies spread by the Piggy, a harmless recording device, to keep exposing it to new experiences from new owners.
  • The treasure in Riptide is said to be under a curse that kills anyone who tries to retrieve it. Turns out that the main "centerpiece" of the treasure is in fact highly radioactive.
  • Skin Game has Harry Dresden help Nicodemus raid the Vault of Hades; to get there requires passing through several guarding Gates. And... one of the gates apparently requires one of the party members to be sacrificed. (While the actual lock can be turned [only] by a ghost/spirit, the 'sacrifice' also seems to be an important part, since Nicodemus made it part of his plan, and he's The Chessmaster.)

    Live-Action TV 
  • Angel: One of the 5th season's episodes "A Hole in the World" concerns a sarcophagus which contains the essence of a ancient demon called Illyria who once ruled part of the Earth centuries ago, and is successfully resurrected in the body of Fred Burkle with the help of Knox one of her worshippers whose affection for Fred results in him choosing her as the only one "worthy" of serving as a vessel to his goddess.
  • Doctor Who episode "The Five Doctors": Borusa uses the Coronet to prevent the Doctors' companions from interfering while he speaks to Rassilon. An image of Rassilon appears above the tomb and offers Borusa his ring as the key to immortality. The other Doctors try to stop Borusa, but the First Doctor tells them to hold off. Borusa dons the Ring, but then shortly disappears, becoming living stone that is part of Rassilon's tomb. The First Doctor realised what fate the tomb's writing foretold: immortality, but at a cost.

    Myths & Religion 
  • The Holy Grail turned out to be this in the Arthurian legends, as when Sir Galahad drank from it, he Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence. Unlike most examples of this trope, this is actually seen as a good thing and proof of Galahad's purity.

    Video Games 
  • Glomar's Heart in Alpha Prime is the goal of the villains and the cause of multiple disasters. While not initially there to retrieve the heart himself, the hero gets caught up in the chase. His friend determines that the Heart reacts explosively poorly if you try to seal it away from its environment, leading to the first disaster, and the hero discerns that the Heart's risk to humans is a result of it essentially making true whatever you are thinking when you touch it. The hero uses this against the villain by lying to him about its danger, and exploits it himself to retrieve it safely, although he's immediately betrayed and killed as a result (though the Sequel Hook makes the true nature of his choice ambiguous).
  • Assassin's Creed Rogue turns the trope on its head. At the end of the first act, protagonist Shay Cormack discovers that the MacGuffins being sought by the Brotherhood cause nothing but disaster. He spends the rest of the game trying to stop the Brotherhood from acquiring any more of them.
  • Bravely Second: The Sword of the Brave is this to anyone that tries to wield it. Yew tried to obtain it, but his older brother Denys aka Kaiser Oblivion tried to stop him, resulting in the sword cutting off the latter's right arm and later being disowned by his family.
  • In each of the routes of Fate/stay night, the Holy Grail turns out to be more trouble than it's worth, as not only does it consume the Servant that touches it, it has been corrupted by Angra Mainyu since the third Grail War. Appropriately, the Grail is dismantled or outright destroyed at the end of each of the three routes.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines has The Ankaran Sarcophagus, which a lot of Kindred believe contains an Antediluvian, one of the clan founders. As a result, every faction in LA wants to get their hands on it, whether to use said Antediluvian for their own purposes, or to keep it from waking up and triggering Gehenna. While you are repeatedly told not to open it, you can, though you'll quickly regret it, because your mentor, Jack, has rigged it with a bunch of C4, causing it to explode when opened. The Antediluvian, on the other hand, is just the mummy of an ancient Mesopotamian king.

    Web Animation 
  • Overly Sarcastic Productions: Trope Talk series, "Macguffins" episode discussed this kind of MacGuffin. Called "Instakill Macguffins", here at 7:04:
    Instantly kills whoever messes with it.
    Again, usually villains-only
    Kind of a basic karmic punishment
    Renders the whole race for the Macguffin retroactively pointless


Video Example(s):


The Opening of the Ark

As in the scriptures, The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark is an inherently dangerous artifact. Indy and Marion aren't killed by it because Indy remembers the Bible saying not to look upon the open Ark. Those Wacky Nazis aren't so lucky, and pay the price in nightmarish fashion for their greed and arrogance.

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Example of:

Main / HolyIsNotSafe

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