Follow TV Tropes


Skeleton Crew

Go To

When our heroes explore the remains of an old and long since abandoned craft they may discover to their shock and surprise, as the light of their lamps fall upon the members of the craft's crew, that they are still dutifully manning their stations as skeletons or mummified corpses.

It may be the wreck of a sunken ship on the ocean bottom, a Japanese WWII submarine stranded on a lone island, a derelict drifting through the endless night of outer space, a small plane caught high above the ground in the trees of the jungle or may take many other forms. It will often be a military craft of some sort or other. This means that the crew will be clad in the recognizable remains of their uniforms. Pilots will still be strapped in their seats. The helmsman will still be at the wheel. The Captain will be at the center of The Bridge sitting in the captain's chair surrounded by his Bridge Bunnies as he was in life. Often he will be wearing a captain's hat and some spider webs for decorations.

When the heroes approach them from behind the life like poses, durable uniforms, and the back of the captain's chair can create the short-lived illusion that the crew is actually still alive before the ghastly truth is revealed. Recoiling in horror from that revelation, a clumsy hero might end up knocking over another crewman, who collapses from a life-like pose to a pile on the ground. In space, with everyone wearing spacesuits, the illusion can be especially vivid with only the skull inside the helmet giving it away.

The important distinction that defines and separates it from just finding a craft with some human remains in it is the fact that the dead crew is mostly found in the same places and poses that the would have been in life, showing few if any signs of having panicked or fought their fate. Either that, or they died too quickly to react.

It is also important to note that the crew in those cases is most definitely dead and not just mostly dead or undead. In the latter case, it's Dem Bones.

If the reveal provides a Jump Scare, see also Peek-a-Boo Corpse. If you're looking for the more figurative meaning of the term, that's under Crew of One or Critical Staffing Shortage.

If you're looking for the 1990s video game, click here, and if you're looing for the 1985 book by Stephen King, click here.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 


    Comic Books 
  • De Cape et de Crocs: The Flying Dutchman (actually a ship impaled on the rostrum of a monstrous ship) still has a crew of skeletons trapped in combative poses, as seen when Don Lope tries to fight one.
    Don Lope: What!? These dead men are- dead!

    Films — Animation 
  • The "B-17" segment in the Heavy Metal movie, before they were revealed to be zombies.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Avatar: The Way of Water, the Recombinant clone of Colonel Miles Quaritch finds the skeleton of the original Quaritch still inside his AMP Mini-Mecha.
  • Serenity: The bodies of the citizens/Pax test subjects on Miranda would technically count, since they pretty much just stopped everything they were doing, and lay down and died. The discovery seriously damaged Jayne's calm, and it's not hard to see why.
  • The fossilized pilot in the first Alien movie, aka the "Space Jockey".
  • The crashed drug-smuggling plane in the Colombian jungle in Romancing the Stone has the mummified corpses of two pilots still in their seats. Jack and Joan find refuge from the rain in the fuselage and raid the pilots' personal belongings for food and drink.
  • Averted in Sunshine when Capa finds the crew of the Icarus I, huddled together but burned to a crisp in the observation room.
  • Not on board a vessel of any kind, but the dead man in the Norwegian camp in The Thing (1982) arguably counts.
  • The dead guy in the partially sunken boat in Jaws.
  • The pirate ship in The Goonies is filled with skeletons of the former crew.
  • James and the Giant Peach: "A skellington! Jackpot!"
  • Jurassic Park series:
    • Jurassic Park: Arnold's arm in the power station. Nedry's skeleton also appears often in derived media and fanart, still strapped to his car.
    • The Lost World: Jurassic Park: The Big-Lipped Alligator Moment of the S.S. Venture arriving in San Diego with its crew in different states of crushing and dismemberment (in the script, this was supposed to be the work of raptors sneaking into the ship, but the explanation was cut out).
    • Jurassic Park III: The skeleton found hanging from a parachute on a tree. This is explained in the novelization as the result of him being stabbed by a branch on the fall.

  • Gimli's discovery of his kin's demise in the Mines of Moria in The Lord of the Rings. He even gets a tear-jerker reaction.
  • The city under the lake in Bridge of Birds.
  • Discworld:
    • In the climax of Thud!, the well-preserved remains of the ancient troll king and dwarf king are found in this way, playing a friendly game of Thud as they awaited death, proving that they came to Koom Valley not to wage war, but to broker peace.
    • In the prologue for Going Postal, it's mentioned that sunken ships with skeletons of crewmen stuck in the rigging or lashed to the wheel are found drifting on currents in the deepest parts of the ocean.
  • In the Myst novel The Book of Atrus, the main character encounters remains throughout the fallen city of D'ni, most notably a group of skeletons found chained to a table for unexplained reasons.
  • In Dracula, the ship that transports the Count to Whitby runs into the docks with its crew missing and the captain's decomposed body lashed to the wheel by his hands, while holding a crucifix.
  • The Animorphs wander into a whole collection of ships with skeleton crews when they find the Nartec city and its macabre museum.
  • The Ghost Ship in the sequel to the children's book The Castle in the Attic is manned by one of these. It also houses...other things.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Space: 1999 episode "The Testament of Arkadia" had a cave with skeletons seated around a table.
    • "The Immunity Syndrome" plays straight the 'turn the captain's chair round to reveal the corpse' trope.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series
    • "The Omega Glory". The crew of the starship Exeter was completely dehydrated and reduced to powder. Several of the bridge crew's uniforms are still seated in or sprawled over their duty stations.
    • "The Naked Time". The body of the station engineer was found seated at a desk wearing protective clothing.
  • Played with in the first episode of Red Dwarf, in which Dave finds that everybody in the crew is dead and turned to small piles of white powder...which are mostly still at their duty stations. An ignorant Lister tastes several of them.
    • Also done with actual skeletons in the episodes "Kryten" and "DNA".
  • Doctor Who:
  • Westworld: After the hosts rebel, they kill a maintenance group and prop their bodies against a vehicle to lure in guests.
  • Fort Boyard: A few challenges have skeletons adorning the scenery, such as the Underwater Cell (with a prison guard and a prisoner), the Phone Booth, the entrance to Gagarine, the Ghost Train or Tata Fouras. In the dark Labyrinth challenge, the string which the contestant has to follow passes through the ribs of a skeleton, so they feel it.
  • The Crystal Maze: Some skeletons appear in the games rooms, especially in the Aztec zone. Notable examples are:
    • "The sacred tomb" in series 2.
    • "Dead man's chest", also in series 2, to which a skeleton is clinging. One contestant roughly pulled the skeleton away, causing Richard to mutter about him having no respect for the dead.
    • In the children's special in series 5, Ed had the following advice to the youngest contestant, causing her to do an Eye Take.
      Ed: Did you see the skeleton? That's what happens to you if you get locked in.


    Print Media 
  • The National Lampoon had a Bruce Mc Call-created brochure for The Hindenburg, illustrated with scenes of travel on the airship, with the entire crew depicted as skeletons.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons module X2 Castle Amber. One room had skeletons standing around: they were frozen in place by the magical effect that killed them.

    Video Games 
  • The ruins, marketplace, and courtyards in Aporia: Beyond the Valley are full of intact skeletons in various poses. Some appear to have carried on normal daily activities — eating dinner, manning market stalls, tending plants — right up to their last moment, while others clutch equally-skeletal children in their arms or lie, still clutching pickaxes and hammers, in front of the sealed doorways to shelters that they'd tried (and failed) to penetrate.
  • A crew of flaming spirits and skeletons man the Ghost Ship of Dragon Quest III, along with the odd demon and monster. This is largely played for tragedy, as these lost souls are trapped on board for eternity... save for one whom you can free by taking a trinket back to the ghost of his lost love, allowing them to reunite and move on.
  • Pirate Hunter have a stage where the titular hero battles a haunted ship whose crew are skeletons, including a skeletal pirate as the boss. They appear to be the Undead Counterpart of the flesh-and-blood human pirates from earlier stages.
  • One of Stellaris' Guardian encounters is the Automated Dreadnought, a titan-class vessel that has been on a computer-directed patrol of a single system for millions of years. If you manage to disable it in combat, your boarding parties find the mummified remains of its crew, still at their stations.

    Web Animation 

    Web Videos 
  • In the Oxventure, this comes into play in the episode "Ship Happens". Upon realising that they have thirty people onboard the Joyful Damnation for a bachelor party / "stag-do" and need to sail said vessel, Dob uses his Artifact of Doom to summon the skeletons of Efelfrith's Chosen to serve as the sailors. In response to the party's protests (since the skeletons previously murdered quite a few people), he defends this choice by insisting that they can all rest, because have a literal skeleton crew.

    Western Animation 
  • Played for laughs in Madagascar. When Alex asks the lemurs where the people are, they point to the skeleton of a parachutist hanging from a tree. Later we see the lemurs gathering in the wreck of a plane, with some skeletons still in their seats- and Julien even interacts with one as if he were still alive.
  • Looney Tunes: The Beans short "The Phantom Ship."
  • The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror story, "The HΩmega Man", has Homer walk into a bomb shelter where the town gets nuked while he is inside. He walks out to town where everyone has been skeletonized and still in their living poses, but being the idiot he is he doesn't realize everyone is dead until much later. He spends the early part of the episode casually interacting with several skeletons, causing them to break apart. It isn't until he sees a newspaper saying a bomb was headed towards the town does he realize the truth.
  • The Venture Brothers: Brock and Dean investigate the wreckage of a plane that crashed in the compound, and Dean spots the charred bones in the cockpit.
    Dean: Brock! I think I figured out why the plane crashed - there were skeletons driving it!
  • In an episode of Men in Black: The Series the group discover that an alien posing as an intergalactic police officer is a murderer, when they discover hundreds of alien skeletons in his ship. Make even creepier by L's comment:
    L: I don't think he is a vegetarian.

    Real Life 
  • Pompeii and Herculaneum, except most "skeletons" are in realistic panicking and/or cowering positions. Said "skeletons" are just empty spots in hardened volcanic ash. The bodies themselves have crumbled into dust centuries ago.
  • The "shadows" of people burned on the walls of buildings in Hiroshima after the dropping of the first atomic bomb might be a good Atomic-Age version of this trope.
  • The crew of the H.L. Hunley fit this trope she sank for the third and last time. Warren Lasch (chairman of the Friends of the Hunley organization) commented, "We half-expected them to be piled up under the hatches trying to get out, but there they were, still at their stations." One possible explanation for this is that when Hunley's torpedo went off, the blast (only twenty feet away) transferred through the water and Hunley's relatively flexible hull into the cabin, killing everyone instantly from the pressure.
  • Helios Airways 522 suffered a cabin depressurization that killed everyone onboard about 20 minutes after takeoff. The plane continued flying on autopilot until it run out of fuel and crashed, three hours later.
    • A Learjet 35 with two pilots and four passengers, including professional golfer Payne Stewart, failed to make radio contact with Air Traffic Control 14 minutes after takeoff and continued on its initial heading. Fighter jets sent to investigate reported the cockpit windows obscured, and the plane continued on autopilot until it ran out of fuel. It is also believed that a loss of cabin pressure killed everybody onboard.
  • Adrift sailing boats with skeletons show up on the Japanese coast sometimes. They are believed to be North Korean ships that tried to defect to Japan or - most likely - ships that strayed further than they should, due to North Korean waters being depleted from overfishing, and couldn't make the trip back.
  • In 1968, the Spanish fishing ship Fausto was found adrift on the Atlantic Ocean with a mummified body in the engine room. It had gone missing two months earlier while covering a short route in the Canary Islands.