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Nothing but Skulls

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DM: Suddenly, a great rumbling shakes the caverns. The walls crack open, and thousands of skulls are released! [...]
Aragorn: Skulls? Like, only skulls?
DM: Yeah.
Aragorn: But that makes no sense!
DM: It's just a trap! Dungeons have them all the time.
Aragorn: I'm not calling the device into question. I'm questioning the payload. Thousands and thousands of skulls? How does that work, exactly? Was this a race of floating heads?

Piles of bones composed of... well... nothing but skulls. The rest of the bones vanish without explanation. It doesn't matter whether the victims were killed by ancient death traps, man-eating monsters or barbarian hordes; nothing remains but the skull.

There are good narrative and practical reasons for this. A human skull is instantly recognizable, making it a powerful symbol of death. Other bones do not carry the same emotive weight; few people could identify a human kneecap on sight, let alone associate it with atrocities.

It helps too that skulls stack up so neatly. Or perhaps it's the fact that skulls represent a one-to-one ratio of bones to corpses, giving an instant clue on how many lives must have (been) ended to produce this. While a given human has multiple of the majority of other bones (and the most visible exception, the spine, takes up a lot more room per victim). It's also what you're left with when you take heads as trophies and leave the rest on the battlefield.

Whatever the case, when warlords and writers want to evoke terror, they create gargantuan piles of Nothing But Skulls. And stand on them. It's an old trope, but still effective.

Skeletons in the Coat Closet is for when skulls and other bones are used as accessories and on clothing. Beware the Skull Base refers to when skulls and skeletal aesthetics contribute to the design of a sinister location, whether it be a natural skull or an artificial one. For skulls (usually animal ones) that are mostly seen alone, without the rest of the skeleton or other skulls, see Desert Skull and Sinister Deer Skull.

After reading this page, skull will no longer sound like a word.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, Badass Biker Mukuro Enjo uses a deck with skull-themed monsters, mostly skulls that are on fire.
  • Sengoku Basara: Demon King Nobunaga has a giant pile of skulls in his throne room. His throne, which has a skull motif, is sitting right on top of it. He even uses them as drinking cups.
  • Rurouni Kenshin: Hell is depicted as full of mountains of skulls; during Kenshin's Heroic BSoD, he imagines himself there as Shishio taunts him.
    • Shishio, Yumi, and Hoji are also depicted in this Hell shortly after their deaths, quite cheerful about it and setting off to conquer the place. This sequence is notably the only supernatural event in the series that cannot be put down to either 'Watsuki physics' or somebody hallucinating, because there's nobody to hallucinate; it's just the omniscient audience's perspective of these guys hanging out among the skulls.
  • In Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo Terminal Dogma is filled with skulls, and the giant bloated corpse of Lilith is on a hill of skulls. Not human skulls, giant Eva skulls. Thousands of them. Even further evidence that things went even worse during the 14 year Time Skip.

    Comic Books 
  • Smax: In Alan Moore's Top 10 spinoff miniseries, the lair to the den of the Dragon Morningbright is paved entirely with the skulls of children.
  • In Final Crisis, Shazam! finds Black Adam sitting on a small mound of skulls when he comes to recruit him to fight Darkseid.
  • Shakara: The Overlord is rather amused that the alien tribe he just exterminated had used the Shakaran artifact he was looking for as a place to commit ritual sacrifice in the hopes of warding him off (believing the Overlord to be an angry god), and covered it with a mountain of skulls.

  • In the Animal Crossing fanfic Diary of an Animal Crossing Psycho. There's one certain screenshot that should count...
  • In the Harry Potter fanfic Thirty Hs, Harry goes to Surf Ninja Moon X and hides in a castle "which had been many skulls arranged to resemble one large one. It had been poorly done, with the cheeks fading into an amateurishly executed jaw line."
  • The Flux of Mortal Things. The crew of Voyager are on a planet that recently experienced a genocidal interspecies war. B'Elanna Torres and Seven of Nine visit a local temple and find thousands of skulls piled there, not to mourn the dead but in celebration of it.
  • In the Discworld as envisioned by A.A. Pessimal, there is a Baba Yaga dwelling in solitude in a remote forest in the Discworld's Russia. In the last year of her life, an ex-pupil sends her a promising graduate of the Lancre school of witchcraft, a Rodinian girl sent there to learn the Turnwise way of witching and to improve her Morporkian. The BabaYaga glares horribly at the young witch, shows her the line of fenceposts with skulls, and flatly states there's a post over there with no skull on it, girl, so maybe you'll be useful for something. Vasilisa Budonova looks at the skulls, and remarks that unless her own skull turns out to be made of plastic with a Boffo label inside, she rather doubts that. And are those not the long leg bones of cows, rather than people?
    • And in Howondaland, just outside the Royal Kraal of the Zulu Empire, there is a man-made hill, testimony of the last time the Empire was ruled by a Paramount Queen. The hill is made of the stacked skulls of those executed by the Queen for various offences. At the present moment in the story, the Empire is set to be ruled by its next Queen. Crown Princess Ruth N'Kweze is a graduate Assassin. She intends to tell her people that she values quality over quantity. Therefore she does not rule out adding extra skulls to the Hill. But these will be in singles, not a hundred at a time. She will begin with the skull of her own brother, her rival for the Throne, just to make the point.

    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are nearly buried under an avalanche of Nothing But Skulls. (This scene only appears in the extended version, not the theatrical cut.) The writers comment on this, explaining that there were different rooms for each bone, and if Aragon, Legolas, and Gimli had been in a different part of the cave they would have been buried under a pile of femurs, or kneecaps, or something.
  • The catacombs under Venice in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had niches in the walls that contained only skulls, one to a niche. Justified in that the skull is the "densest" indicator of death, those niches were probably high-density tombs and crypts. The body may not reside there, but the skull and the soul are there.
  • The Golden Compass: Oxford College has skulls in niches.
  • Predator: In a subversion, the movie goes for nothing but skulls with the spinal cord still intact.
  • The Terminator: The opening 'Future War' segment features an apparent carpet of Nothing But Skulls, seemingly specifically so Skynet's mecha can symbolically crush them beneath their feet and treads as they engage Resistance troops in yet another bitter firefight. A Shout-Out to this can be found in the losing cinematics of Wing Commander III, with a Kilrathi foot in combat armor doing the crushing. A T-800 without flesh cover is seen crushing skulls with his foot in the similar opening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
  • Ghostbusters II, at least in terms of imagery. Viggo the Carpathian says, "On a mountain of skulls, in a castle of pain, I sat on a throne of blood." Also a Badass Boast or whatever.
  • In the opening scene of Muppet Treasure Island, there's a cavern full of skulls. They sing a line of "Shiver My Timbers".
  • In The Last Circus the crazed out main character takes his captive love interest to his hideout at the "Valley of the Fallen", which has catacombs with walls covered by masses of skulls. Valle de los Caídos is a real place, and reportedly it holds the remains of over 30,000 dead from both sides of the Spanish Civil War. However, the fallen of the Civil War were supposedly laid to rest in special tombs behind the chapels on the sides of the basilica, so it's very unlikely it looks as theatrical as the film suggests.
  • In Man of Steel, Clark ends up sinking into a pit of these (which represent what will remain of humanity after the Kyptonian takeover and terraformation) during Zod's Mind Probe.
  • In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Nebula and Gamora find a huge secret cave filled with countless alien skulls and remains that belong to all of Ego's sons who died for lacking his Celestial powers.
  • In the 1971 flick Graveyard Of Horror, the menacing creature leaves only the heads and a few larger bones left of its victims. The gravedigger who's concealing the creature cleans the heads and sells them to a local physician, who thinks they're old skulls stolen from graves.
  • In Frankenstein Island, there are human skulls scattered throughout the Amazon village (possibly as a warning given the first one the heroes come across is mounted on a stick outside the village) but no sign of the rest of the skeletons.

    Fine Arts 
  • ''The Apotheosis of War'' by 19th century Russian painter V. Vereshchagin is a marvelous example of this trope. The fact that the artist was born in a town called Cherepovets ("Skulltown" in Russian), which was named after an ancient pagan shrine, adds to the Rule of Cool.

  • Guy Savile's novel The Afrika Reich deals with what was likely to happen had the Germans won WW2. Historical documents suggest Nazi Germany would have demanded restoration of its former African colonies as war reparations. Savile suggests they would have gone beyond this and demanded additional African colonies from Britain, France and Belgium, occupying ceded territory as part of the drive for lebensraum. Savile's novel sets put an Africa where, with collaboration from sympathetic Afrikaaners, once the death camps had dealt with the "Jewish question", they would have continued in business dealing with the next category of undesirable untermensch - Black Africans. The psychopathic governor of a German colony in Africa has his SS troops' parade-ground paved with negro skulls...
  • The Dark Tower by Stephen King: The Crimson King has a throne made of skulls.
  • Discworld
    • Parodied in Interesting Times when Cohen and his Silver Horde learn from a local that the claiming of the throne of the Agatean Empire is traditionally accompanied with "seas of blood" and/or "a mountain of skulls". The Horde eagerly begins quizzing exactly how many skulls this precisely means(because skulls don't stack well), and their informant gets testy: "I don't know how big a mountain! A lot of skulls!"
    • In The Last Hero, mention is also made of the now retired Pamdar the Witch Queen.
    "She runs a shop now. Pam's Pantry. Makes marmalade."
    "What? But she used to queen it on a throne atop a pile of skulls!"
    "I didn't say it was very good marmalade."
    • In Night Watch, it's mentioned that the Temple of Small Gods sorts the bodies of the dead by what bone they are. The entrance of the tomb holds the skulls. Truth in Television for many ossuaries.
    If some of the religions were right and there really was bodily resurrection one day, Fred mused, there was going to be an awful lot of confusion and general milling about.
  • Gaunt's Ghosts, Blood Pact: A rumor circulates about a valley filled with millions of dusty skulls with the tops sawn off. To the point that it scares the crap out of hardened veterans of several wars, and even freaks out Gaunt himself a bit. Of course it helps that the entirety of the building they're camped in is thoroughly evil.
  • In The Night Angel Trilogy, there's a bridge in Khaliras made entirely out of skulls and magic. The only real point of the skulls is to intimidate and show where the bridge actually is (it's possible to cross it with the skulls gone). Did I mention this bridge crosses what appears to be a mile wide bottomless chasm, and is the only way into the castle?
  • In The Odessa File, a Holocaust survivor reacalls in his memoirs a conversation he had with a British officer after his concentration camp had been liberated. The officer tells him that if he had gone through the Holocaust, what he would have done as soon as got healthy again was make a pyramid of skulls: not of the victims of the camps, but of those who had put them there.
  • A bit of the Star Wars Expanded Universe mentions an artist who depicted Emperor Palpatine as sitting on a throne atop a mountain of skulls. He was executed.

    Live Action TV 
  • Doctor Who:
    • Episode 2 of the first serial, "An Unearthly Child", was called "The Cave Of Skulls", and it featured a cave full of skulls.
    • "The Wedding of River Song", which featured a crypt full of living skulls, leftovers from the process of creating Headless Monks.
    • In "Heaven Sent", the Doctor makes a High-Dive Escape from the castle into the ocean, only to discover that the seabed is covered in nothing but skulls. The viewer later learns that the skulls are all his, the only remaining piece of him after he disintegrates himself to teleport in a new clone, that have piled up over thousands and eventually billions of years.
  • In the MST3K episode "Cave Dwellers" there's a giant snake pit with lots and lots of skulls. "Oh look, anal-retentive snakes, they lined up the skulls!"
  • Played with in The Mandalorian. The title character goes to find his fellow Mandalorians in their hidden base and is shocked to find a pile of their helmets, which you would have to kill a Mandalorian to remove. Rather than a Monument of Humiliation and Defeat by Imperial troops, it turns out the helmets have been gathered up by the Armorer from the dead Mandalorians, so they can be melted down and reforged.

    Mythology and Religion 
  • The Russian tales of the Baba Yaga emphasise that she guards her remote forest home with a fence made out of the skulls and bones of those who have displeased her. The skulls are sentient and act as her sentinels; when she needs light to see by, the old witch can even command the eyes of the skulls to glow and put out beams of light. note 

  • True to the band, the Metallica pinball game has lots of scary-looking skulls all over the place.
  • In Haunted House, most of the remains seen consist of nothing but various skulls.
  • The Phantom of the Opera has a pile of skulls in the upper-left corner of the playfield.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000: The skull is a very common motif in this game, particularly the in the Imperium, which more often than not uses representations of skulls rather than the real thing. Chaos forces uses this motif somewhat less (for the most part), although they will use actual skulls more often.
    • "Skulls for the Skull Throne!"
    • Chaos worshippers like building altars out of them or wearing them on trophy racks, while the Imperium has flying skull-robots and buildings with skulls of the dead in shrines on the walls.
    • The Space Marines' Power Armor is usually decorated with skulls made of solid gold, and occasionally real skulls as well.
    • One of the most recognizable emblems of the Imperium is a skull. Sometimes with wings.
    • And a Chaos Titan is once depicted with a necklace of skulls. Providing how humongous the thing is you could guess how many skulls that would take.
    • Skulltaker, one of the Blood God's more dangerous servants, wears a cloak made of the skulls of his fallen opponents. His table top miniature has no less than 137 skulls modeled on it.
    • This is a classic basing technique to make power-armored Khorne Lords stand out from the rank-and-file. Simply clip skulls off of Chaos trophy racks, arrange in a pile, and mount a miniature on top.
    • The Orkz are fond of taking skulls as trophies, much like the followers of Khorne. Expect to see at least one skull decorating a Warboss and-or his entourage.
      • As are the Dark Eldar. The special character Kheradruakh the Decapitator has thousands of skulls from various races lining the walls of his lair, all positioned carefully so their gaze converges on a central point where he sits. Creepy.
    • This is a common dig or in-joke on certain forums regarding certain models in the overall Games Workshop range gaining more and more skulls. Case in point...
    • The aptly named Khorne Lord of Skulls model has so many skulls on it that according to an interview in White Dwarf, the sculptor lost count somewhere after 200. It has several different components that, in-universe, are basically metal frames used to hold skulls in place.
    • And now, there's a kit that's literally nothing but skulls (of multiple species and variations, though the grand majority are human).
  • The Dungeons & Dragons Greyhawk campaign setting features the Empire of Iuz. The capital city's main road is paved with skulls of Iuz's enemies. It stretches for over a hundred miles to the north of the capital, to the first petty fief Iuz took over. It's also being expanded towards the southeast to the city of Molag, more than doubling its length.
    • The Greyhawk cosmology/Planescape campaign features (or once featured) the Pillar of Skulls on Baator, composed of the skulls of those who hid knowledge from another, and as a result the person they hid it from died.
  • The Coalition States from Rifts uses a skull motif for everything in its armed forces, from rank and unit insignias to body armor and Powered Armor helmets, to the front of troop transports, helicopters and battletanks, to their Humongous Mecha (both humanoid and spider-walkers), and of course their skelebots.
  • The Yu-Gi-Oh! monster Ryu Kokki is a giant demon made entirely out of human skulls.

    Theme Parks 

    Video Games 
  • The Legend of Zelda series:
  • Kabuki Z has an underground crypt, which is carpeted with bones and skulls everywhere.
  • King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow: The Lord of the Dead was surrounded by a gigantic pile of bones, made up almost entirely of skulls, as shown in this screenshot.
  • Heroes of Might and Magic: In one version, the Necromancer city can build a 'Pyramid of Skulls', which looks somewhat garish, but boosts your weekly production of Skeletons significantly.
  • Some of the regular Might and Magic games have Bone Piles, which include Bone Pile of Weakness, Bone Pile of Death, Bone Pile of Disease, and so on. Touching one inflicts the condition labeled, but a rare few have valuable items hidden inside.
  • Myth: The Myrkridia, horrible lycanthropic monsters from Bungie's series of games, make the skulls of their victims into platforms that rise thirty feet high and then are adorned with the Myrkridian standard. The precision with which the skulls are fitted is said to be maddening to behold.
  • In StarCraft, the Zerg victory results screen shows a Hydralisk atop a pile of skulls.
  • World of Warcraft: In several locations such as war zones or Scourge installations, there are usually many skulls strewn about. Others bones are also visible but but skulls outnumber them all. Some good old pile of skulls can also be found around ritual circles and similar locations.
  • Diablo II
    • Piles of skulls sometimes appears as treasure caches to be looted.
    • Diablo's Chaos Sanctuary is littered with skulls.
    • Plus you can slot some of them into equipment for added bonuses!
  • Castlevania
    • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night: There are two rooms in in which the floor is made entirely of skulls, and there are huge piles of them in the background. The boss fought in this room is a giant floating ball of corpses that was hiding in said skulls before you entered, and in the upside-down castle version of that room, you face Galamoth.
    • Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance: Almost the entire Skeleton Den area, which is just an immense catacombs. With, appropriately, lots of skulls used as a building material (along with other bones and non-bone materials).
    • Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia: The Skeleton Cave. According to the game, the bony fiends themselves created this unholy place by ransacking a nearby cementery and using the bones to built this temple of the dead.
  • In Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, there are Secret Projects playing the same role as Wonders do in Civilization. The cinematic for one of them, "Dream Twister", involves (among other nasty things) a photo of a pile of skulls.
  • Brütal Legend has a mountain of skulls as the first level of the game.
  • Team Fortress Classic: In a crossover with Ludicrous Gibs, a mod made it so that not only did the body spawn more bones than was physically possible, all of them were skulls.
  • Mother 3: The giant snake pit has piles of nothing but skulls.
  • The Pillar of Skulls (see above under Tabletop Games) is visited in Planescape: Torment.
  • Cave areas in Adventure Island III and IV contain several piles of human skulls.
  • Shields with human skulls are a very common wall decoration in human homes in Albion. Locals are quick to point out that they are old family heirlooms.
  • The Addams Family for the NES has the Bone Room, which is mostly skulls with some Stock Femur Bones floating around.
  • The second level of Ghouls and Ghosts (the one with the windmills) has, after getting past the Stone Turtles and the quicksand, enormous stacks of skulls that are being used as projectiles by the Legions of Hell. Note that there's a burning village nearby in the background.
  • In Getsu Fuma Den, an improbable proportion of the overworld terrain is made of or covered with skulls. Other bones can be seen, but skulls are predominant.
  • Clive Barker's Undying: The Skull Storm spell pulls human skulls out of the earth and launches them like explosive missiles.
  • Two levels in Jitsu Squad, Castle Hellstorm and Realm of Rogue, are carpeted with skulls all over the place. With a bunch of skull towers and some extra skulls hanging from walls.
  • In Mortal Kombat, both Shang Tsung and Quan Chi have ranged attacks that involve shooting flaming magical skulls from their hands.
  • Downplayed in Mega Man 4, with Skull Man's territory. All of the walls and floors/platforms are made of bones (or more likely, metallic girders that are made to look like bones), but they are all straight-line bones like the ones from the leg. No big rows of skulls. The closest they come is a species of mook that looks like a whole skeleton, and a few whole dinosaur skeletons in the walls of the background. Then Mega Man confronts Skull Man himself, and the trope is in much fuller play, when Skull Man not only resembles a skeleton, but surrounds himself with a deflector shield of four skulls that revolve around him.
  • In the Psygnosis game Ballistix, the playing field is walled in by skulls on all four sides.
  • Darkest Dungeon has a ridiculous number of skulls around the place. There are some proper skeletons (a lot of proper skeletons, actually), but there are also, for example, some backdrops in the Ruins that have a bunch of skulls just sitting there. And Darkest Dungeon 2 has even more, most notably in the Tangle, which goes so far as to have about half the path your coach is going down full of skulls poking up out of the mud.
  • In some sections of the NES Predator game, there are lots and lots of alien skulls in the background without any other bone.
  • Lords of Exile has numerous places where piles of skulls are littered. One such location is the area with the first boss.


    Web Video 
  • Just like in the source material, If the Emperor Had a Text-to-Speech Device has the Imperium, and in particular the Emperor, being obsessed with skulls. However, in one of the Q&A sessions, he gets asked about this, and his response is oddly heartwarming:
    It is to show that even in its barest form humanity is beautiful. Have you seen how majestically my cranium curves between my parietals? It is amazing, and something that binds us all together.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Buffalo skulls were high in phosphorus and were bought up by fertilizer and explosive factories. They were piled in a giant mound before being shipped off.
  • Skull Tower of Niš. A tower made of the skulls (of the Serb soldiers defeated in a battle that was fought near the place during a major uprising) and stone blocks by Turkish commanders to discourage Serbs from another revolution.
    • By the way, discouragement? It failed. Serbs rose again couple years after that, and actually got to be represented by one of their own.
    • The tower is now a national monument. Also the rebels weren't just defeated, they blew themselves and many of the Turks up.
  • The Aztecs and their neighbours routinely displayed skulls on special racks
  • Assyrian armies piled up pyramids of skulls.
  • The Mongols were also quite fond of this as a form of psychological warfare. Timur reputedly built a pyramid out of 90,000 skulls outside of the city of Dehli to coax the city's surrender.
  • Catacombs and ossuaries (where bones are taken after they've been in a grave for a respectable amount of time to free up graveyard space), they're stored by bone type and size, not by owner, because it's a more efficient use of space.
    • In the Paris Catacombs, while there are all kinds of bones, skulls are carefully set in front of the piles to keep them from collapsing, or just for making fun shapes (there's a pattern of skulls in shape of a heart for example in one bone-pile.) The quick impression of the place comes close to the trope, even though careful scrutiny quickly proves it false.
    • Sedlec Ossuary.
    • In Portugal, the Chapel of Bones has wall decorated with nothing but skulls.
  • Memorials and museums for the Rwandan Genocide have... very neat stacks of skulls. A hell of a lot of them. There are a few reasons for this, the first being of course that skulls are small, easily stackable, and represent one clear death each, thus having a huge emotional impact. The second being that the large scale systematic mutilation of the victims and use of explosives in small confined areas (like churches) left it rather difficult to determine which bone belonged to whom, and it would be impossible to piece together every one of the thousands of skeletons.
  • Pol Pot is famed for his love of this trope. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum has shelves of the skulls of his victims.
    • Which The Onion then played with by saying that Cambodia was planning to switch to a skull-based economy, "which will be a fantastic boom to the world economy once they actually produce any goods or provide services."
  • This political cartoon of United States President Zachary Taylor, or possibly General Winfield Scott (it's debated). At any rate the cartoon is an attack on the Whig Party, the skulls and sword referring to the Mexican-American War in which both Taylor and Scott fought, and the "one qualification" being bloodthirstiness.
  • Allegedly, an archeologist had managed to discover the nest of a monster called the Piasa ("man-eating bird") and found that it was filled entirely with human skulls and other bones. Trying to dig through them and find the floor of the nest proved futile. The fact that the nest was conveniently destroyed the next day, however, makes it possible that this story was fabricated.
  • It's not unusual for skulls, human or otherwise, to wind up on top when loose bones are washed downstream by running water and deposited all in a pile. There's nothing contrived or supernatural about this: air trapped in the sinus cavities simply makes them lighter for their volume than most other skeletal parts, and heads tend to come loose from the rest of the bodies early in the decomposition process, besides.


Video Example(s):


On the path to Shell City

Spongebob and Patrick obliviously drive into field piled with countless fish skulls.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / NothingButSkulls

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