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Ostentatious Secret

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"The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything."
Alfred Borden, The Prestige

So you want to have a secret. You may not even be sure what the secret is. You are pretty sure, though, that you want everyone to know that there is a secret. That you have. That everyone else doesn't have. Because it is yours. And you have it.

Sometimes ostentatious secrets are eventually revealed, and sometimes they stay that way forever. This can be just a Running Gag, or it can be source of dramatic tension as a MacGuffin. In fact, their primary use is as a MacGuffin, reserved for use in a B-Story, or possibly even a "C"-story, a narrative thread that is around just to build continuity.

One problem is that secrets tend to build up to a Secret Critical Mass. After this point, the obsession of others to discover the secret far outweighs any potential dramatic payoff from The Reveal, and it requires some extremely deft Playing with a Trope to avoid an Anti-Climax.

The Ancient Tradition and the Ancient Conspiracy are often ostentatious secrets: their existence can be widely known, and membership may also be, though it's less common.

Contrast the Open Secret and Everybody Knew Already, both where not only is the existence of the secret well-known, but everybody knows the secret itself.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In one The Kindaichi Case Files story, a woman carries around a small box that she coos over and talks to, treating it like a child. Subverted when she reveals she's an undercover cop, and the box holds her gun. Doubly subverted when she reveals that the box only held the gun that one time, and that she still has her REAL box.
  • In Slayers, the motives of Xellos are always a secret. In one manga chapter, two nobles have a secret box they keep sending back and forth to each other. It eventually turns out to contain a diary which they use to exchange shallow gossip.

    Comic Books 
  • In Asterix and the Olympic Games, Asterix and Getafix talk rather loudly next to the Romans about how they're not allowed to drink the magic potion sitting in the cauldron in a certain nearby shed whose door doesn't shut properly and isn't guarded by night, in order to trick the Romans into drinking the magic potion and thereby disqualifying themselves.
  • In The Dark Knight Returns, Ollie notes this to Bruce:
    Sure, you like to play it mysterious, but it's a loud kind of mysterious. Especially lately.

    Comic Strips 
  • Calvin and Hobbes, at the start of the first Get Rid Of Slimy girlS club arc:
    Calvin: Good news, Hobbes! I'm starting a secret club, and you can be in it!
    Hobbes: Oh, boy!
    Calvin: It'll be great! We'll think of secret names for ourselves, secret codes for our secret correspondence, a secret handshake... We'll have a secret club-house with a secret knock to get in, and we'll do big secretive things!
    Hobbes: Why all the secrecy?
    Calvin: People pay more attention to you when they think you're up to something.
    • In another strip, Calvin pulls this in Show and Tell. He loudly declares that he's not showing the class what he brought, and declares that it'll haunt them for the rest of their lives.
    • In the story arc where Calvin tries to live as a tiger, he reads in a book that tigers are secretive. Hobbes then brags that he knows a lot of secrets that he'll never tell, which drives Calvin crazy. Hobbes eventually gives Calvin a hint, which implies that his parents bought him at a flea market for a nickel.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The mysterious blue box in the David Lynch film Mulholland Dr., which has a matching blue key. It is shown to open once or twice, though the Mind Screw makes it hard to tell what if anything is going on.
  • The Prestige: Borden's cryptic comment in the page quote alludes to his own secret: He is an identical twin. Not very impressive on its own. The trick he uses it for? The Transported Man, wherein he appears to be teleported instantly across the stage. The trick works so well because no one knows the secret. Not even one twin's wife or the other's lover.
  • Marsellus Wallace's briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the contents of which are described as beautiful, are never known to the audience. Wild Mass Guessing ensues.
    • According to this article, it was originally just diamonds, but they decided that an ostentatious secret would be more interesting.
    • Another one involving Marsellus is the bandage on the back of his neck. Ving Rhames has a scar that they were unable to cover up with make-up, so they put a bandage on it instead. Of course, the bandage ends up standing out a lot more than the scar would have, and it's led people to think that it's meant to show the spot where his soul was ripped out, his soul being one of the guesses for the contents of the briefcase. It's a mystery as to why the cast even went through the trouble of covering it up, since it certainly wouldn't be unusual for a mobster to have scars.

  • Dave Barry Slept Here, Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 on his secret plan to end The Vietnam War, "but of course he couldn't tell the voters what it was, because then it couldn't have been a secret plan." Immediately upon being elected, Nixon has the secret peace plan buried to protect the national security, though he could have had it dug up and implemented at any time.
  • A running question in Emma Lathen's novels about banker/amateur detective John Putnam Thatcher is what's in that tin box in his secretary's desk? Thatcher is too much the gentleman to peek when Miss Corsa is elsewhere, but that doesn't interfere with his attempts to deduce the solution.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Formed the focus of an episode of Dharma & Greg. Greg has a locked mystery box and Dharma is torn between her curiosity at wanting to know what's inside and her love for Greg, whose trust she doesn't want to betray. Greg realizes that the box is driving Dharma nuts, so he first gives Dharma the key, so she can decide for herself whether to invade his privacy. This drives Dharma even crazier, so Greg empties it and puts the stuff away in their apartment without telling Dharma what was in there. At the end of the episode, Dharma is sitting on the couch in their apartment and concludes that she is in the box! Very Zen. Or something.
  • Felicity used this with Felicity's witchy roommate Meghan, who made a big issue of no one having permission to look in her locked box. In this case the box was used as a running gag and its contents were never revealed, although there was a Formula-Breaking Episode styled after The Twilight Zone (1959) in which it was intimated that all the series regulars were actually trapped in a magical universe within the box.

  • This is apparently one of Odin's powers. As Neil Gaiman put it in American Gods: "And I know an 18th charm & that charm I can tell to no man, for a secret that nobody knows but you is the most powerful thing of all."
    • Also, whatever Odin whispered in his son Baldur's ear as he, Baldur, lay on his funeral pyre. Odin would use that secret to best Vafthrudnir in a Riddle Contest.

    Video Games 

  • In The Order of the Stick, the unnamed and unidentified "Monster in the Darkness" is a living Ostentatious Secret. The main villain of the series keeps him shrouded in darkness, despite its constant objections. He is kept shrouded in order to keep him a secret before his final climactic confrontation with the heroes — he's even been held back from fighting them (despite apparently being extremely powerful) because revealing himself at that point in time wouldn't have been narratively climactic enough.

    Web Original 
  • Survival of the Fittest character Alice Jones has her backpack as an Ostentatious Secret. What's inside? The severed head of Guy Rapide, her almost-boyfriend. Not so much her wanting everybody to know about it than it being extremely obvious that she's keeping something in her pack.
    'Boxer' Carvalho: (uneasily) What's in there?
    Alice Jones: (smiles) ...It's a secret.

    Western Animation 
  • A meta-example for Gargoyles is whatever Titania whispers to Fox at the end of "The Gathering". Creator Greg Weisman has said that he wants to keep it secret in case he ever gets to make the series again and use it, but admits that it's not as great as people are probably hoping.
  • Spongebob Squarepants, "The Secret Box": SpongeBob tests his friendship with Patrick to the limits when he tries to learn the contents of Patrick's "secret box", and eventually resorts to sneaking into Pat's house in the dead of night. It turns out to be... a string. After SpongeBob leaves, it turns out that pulling the string opens a secret compartment, with an embarrassing photo of SpongeBob in it, specifically from the Christmas party (which is actually one of the guesses Spongebob made at the contents of the box)..
  • Robin's incredibly important stolen briefcase in Teen Titans is revealed to contain _____________.

    Real Life 
  • In general, intelligence agencies seems to have a bit of a fetish for prominent architecture. The CIA has the George Bush Center, the NSA has that sinister black monolith at Fort Meade (Which is engraved with a variety of messages encrypted by different methods. One of the messages is only known by two people, the man who invented the algorithm and the man who chose the message to encrypt and engraved it on the monolith), MI6 has 85 Vauxhall Cross, GCHQ has that doughnut-shaped building in Cheltenham, the NKVD and KGB has the Lubyanka Building in Moscow. All together, it does project a vague "come at me, bro" attitude to their enemies.
    • Though apparently, in the case of British intelligence services at least, the only reason that they haven't moved is that they haven't found anywhere that's both large enough and anonymous enough to suit their purposes. Which is very believable, since MI5 didn't officially exist until 1989, GCHQ and MI6 until 1994, and none of them came out of the shadows by choice.

Alternative Title(s): Meghan Box