In fiction, population signs tend to be updated in real time, whether to reflect new additions, or more often, to reflect a murder spree. A frequent means of establishing a "dangerous Wild West town" setting is a shot of the town sign, with several crossed-out population numbers, indicating frequent reductions due to violent deaths and/or people moving out. A ghost town may be shown with a sign that clocks all the way down to zero that way, presumably updated by the last resident to leave.
A specific sub-trope will have a killer be nice enough to perform a community service and adjust the population sign just before or after he offs someone.
For the industrial/workplace version of this trope, see X Days Since.
- Parodied in a story of the Italian Western parody Pedrito el Drito: a man has just finished painting a population sign when he hears a bang and updates the population. Then a baby is delivered, and the sign has to be adjusted again. Then there's a new shooting... Then the baby turn out to be twins... Then quadruplets... Then the new father commits suicide because he can't support all of them... At last, the painter snaps and axes the sign into chips.
- In issue 2 of Six-Gun Gorilla Tango, a settlement in the Blister, has several crossed-out numbers on the "Welcome" sign on the edge of town, with the last one reading "32?" by the time Blue and the Gorilla get there. In issue 4, Psycho for Hire Auchenbran wipes out the population of the town for consorting with the protagonist, Blue-3425, and is seen writing a big red zero on the sign.
- In one Condorito story, set in the Wild West, a fairly typical gag is set right at the start with Condorito sniping some guy with his handgun and fixing the sign to read one less. At the end of the story, following an enormous shootout & bar brawl, he comes back to the sign, and after a few subtractions (left on the sign itself) arrives at a much smaller number.
- Population signs in Lucky Luke are occasionally represented as using movable digits, like on a scoreboard (in those cases, the sign usually displays "Population today"). There's also often a warning message like "Stranger, if your dice contain lead, you soon will".
- Rubine: After discovering a murder in a small town that has one such sign, Cowboy Cop Rubine crosses off the last digit and replaces it with one smaller.
- In Superman: Lois and Clark, the villain Blanque is introduced wiping out the small town of Rusty Ridge. When he passes by the town sign, which reads "Population: 3106", he pulls off the 3, 1, and 6 so it now reads "Population: 0".
- In the 2014 graphic novel adaptation of Jim Henson's sadly unproduced 1968 TV special The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow, someone paints the town's turkey population on the sign. At the opening, he's just finished updating the number when someone else drives in with crates loaded with even more turkeys, much to the sign painter's chagrin.
- In South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, at the beginning of "Hell Isn't Good", we see a sign for Heaven with the counter at only 2500, while a sign for Hell is in the millions and is rapidly increasing.
- In Zootopia, the sign for Bunnyburrow (shown in the page image) has a ticker that never stops going up. The fandom has its fun with it, sometimes treating it as accurate for laughs, or more often as a tourist trap with only the lesser numbers counting up and resetting periodically.
- The movie Oblivion (1994) (the 1994 B-Movie, not the 2013 one) establishes its Space Western credentials with a scene in which the bad guy moseys into town and adjusts the population sign to -1... with the blood of his latest victim.
- The population sign was updated several times in My Name Is Bruce, as more and more people were killed. At one point the guy painting the sign is killed and he uses his last moments to paint on the new number.
- This occurs in THX 1138. There was an "Officers in service" counter for robot policemen; after one was in a car crash, the number reduced by a tick.
- Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare reveals that whenever Freddy kills, he alters the Dream World version of the "Welcome to Springwood" sign to reflect the decreasing population.
- Smalltown, USA in The Muppets has a population sign which flips, seemingly by magic, to keep the population count accurate whenever the main characters enter or leave the town.
- The Postman: The Pineveiw town sign has a population number that has been repeatedly crossed out and re-written, going from 267 to 132 even before the town came to the attention of the Holinists.
- Played with in The Spoilers (1942). A prospector in a gold rush town is told that a hotel doesn't have any vacancies. Suddenly there's a gunshot from inside the hotel and a body rolls down the stairs. The hotel owner promptly sells the now-vacant room.
- Space Jam: A New Legacy: When LeBron arrives in Tune World, its welcome sign counts up to merely "2", as most of the Looney Tunes characters had moved on to other worlds with only Bugs Bunny left behind.
- Zygote involves a monster that can assimilate its victims into a Body of Bodies. It opens with shots of the Eerie Arctic Research Station while the following is spelt out.
FAR NORTH MINING OPERATION
CREW - 98
SURVIVORS - 2
- In Bored of the Rings, the village of Whee has a welcoming sign announcing its population as "96 and still growing!" with 1004 and 328 each crossed out before it.
- Inverted in The Discworld Almanack which has a village on the Sto Plains called Pop 247, because the sign saying "Fork's Bend" fell off and nobody did anything about it, so the remaining sign was accepted as the name. While the sign was, therefore, never removed, most of the population removed themselves.
- Likewise inverted in Joan Hess's Maggody novels, in which the tiny Arkansas town's "Pop. 755" never does get updated, despite a multitude of murders and at least two births. Protagonist Arly Hanks facetiously argues that it's always accurate by somebody's definition: it depends on whether or not you count drifters, woods-dwelling weirdos, family pets, and livestock as part of the population.
- In Battlestar Galactica (2003), the president of the colonies keeps a running tally of the number of humans left alive. Starting from the second season, the opening credits also show this number, updated week-to-week. The number is 50298 in the first episode and 39406 in the last one. Near the end of the first post-miniseries episode , there's a moving moment where the president's aide, amidst a flurry of other news and updates from the civilian fleet, informs her that a pregnant woman has given birth. Her face lights up with hope and delight as she takes a moment to savor adding one to the population/survivor tally on display in her make-shift office.
- Doom Patrol (2019): The population sign of Cloverton, Ohio reduces to zero when the whole town is sucked into a Pocket Dimension. It ticks back up to its original number when the town is spit back out of the dimension.
- In the Haven episode "Silent Night", the town of Haven's population sign keeps going down in real time as people get Ret-Gone one by one. It's down to two by the time Audrey Parker saves the day and reverses the effect.
- Goosebumps: The Chillogy three-parter features the miniature town of Karlsville, which draws people into it through various means. Whenever this happens, the population sign automatically changes.
- Paint Your Wagon uses this to show the decline of Rumson's population from 4000 to 6.
- At the Disney Theme Parks:
- Disneyland and Walt Disney World have population signs above the railway station at the foot of Main Street, which gets amended whenever a guest milestone is achieved.
- In front of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland is a sign showing the population number of the nearby towns, which reveals that the number of people has gone from 2,015 to just 38.
- Borderlands: The town of Fyrestone has a sign like this on the outskirts.
- Call of Duty: Most appearances of Nuketown have a population counter on the sign in the center. The population listed is how many players are currently in the lobby.
- Saints Row has a sign like this on the reverse cover. Because of the then-ongoing gang wars, the general cheapness of life in Stilwater, and the fact that this an open-world crime game, the population count for the Row alone is "TBD".
- There was also that incident in Looking for Group where Richard massacres an entire village, and on his way out, he crosses out the population counter on the sign, writing in a '0' instead. Using the blood of his victims as paint, obviously.
- At the start of the Looney Tunes short "Drip-Along Daffy", a gunshot is heard, the population sign goes down one number and a sign reading "Sheriff Wanted" pops up. Pan over to the cemetery, where the population (listed as all sheriffs) goes up one number.
- In Porkys Garden, a title card lists the town's population as 500. When a baby is heard crying, the number is crossed out and rewritten as 502 ("Mrs. Castlebottom just had twins").
- Inverted in the much later short Fistic Mystic, when Merlin the Magic Mouse and Second Banana enter the Western town Rattlesnake Gulch, with the population on the sign reading 206. But then two gunshots ring out offscreen and the number decreases to 204.
- In the first episode of Doug, the Bluffington population counter ticks over by four as the family drives past it.
Doug: Population: 20,001. I guess the "one" is me.
- In the Family Guy episode "To Love and Die in Dixie", an old man in a rocking chair paints over the population number for the town of Bumblescum, amending the number by adding the Griffins to it.
- In The Flintstones episode "Rip Van Flintstone", Fred wakes up after a 20-year nap and is shocked to find that Bedrock's population sign reads 30,000 instead of 2,000 like when he last saw it.
- The Shooting of Dan McFoo opens with a shot of the sign for Coldernell, Alaska, whose population sign decreases whenever a gunshot is heard.
- Star vs. the Forces of Evil: "Bon Bon the Birthday Clown" opens with a flashback to Echo Creek in the early 20th century, where the mayor forlornly adjusts the population sign from 15 to 14 after Bon Bon's death.
- Played with on a billboard in LA, listing the number of smoking deaths each year. It gets reset every January 1.
- A photograph of five air force officers who in 1957 volunteered to stand directly under a low yield nuclear airburst had a sign "Ground Zero. Population: 5." Contrary to what you might think, they actually survived so the population didn't alter until they left.