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Skeleton Motif

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"Hans, have you noticed that our caps actually have little pictures of skulls on them? [...] What do skulls make you think of? Death, cannibals, beheading... ehm... pirates..."

When you find a complete skeleton, it's a strong sign that its former owner is Deader Than Dead. Thus it's only natural that skeletons symbolize death, evil, and, well, scary things. So, to symbolize a character's darker side or to give them that "Dead Serious" (pun intended) edge, it's only natural to use imagery associated with bones, skeletons, or skulls.

This trope can take many forms. While some characters may use real bones, photographs, or detailed drawings of bones to construct their motif, something as subtle as a pattern on a T-shirt or a piece of jewelry that vaguely resembles a skull can be just as effective. Sometimes the writer chooses a skeletal appearance for a character to make them scarier, and sometimes the character will use skeletal imagery deliberately, perhaps to frighten enemies, or to make themselves seem edgier.

For "bad" characters in particular, a Big Bad, or a member of a Five-Bad Band or Quirky Miniboss Squad will use a Skeleton Motif for their own appearance or for that of their mooks. This is often done deliberately by a Card-Carrying Villain or a Harmless Villain looking for respect. Not surprisingly, this is especially common in franchises with Black and White Morality that make use of Dark Is Evil, or when the villains are Putting on the Reich.

On the other hand, many AntiHeroes also use a Skeleton Motif as part of a Dark Is Not Evil or Good Is Not Nice persona.

Typically, because Beauty Equals Goodness and Evil Is Cool, heroes with a Skeleton Motif usually have a normal or mostly normal face underneath their skeleton mask, while that's less true of villains.

Sub Tropes and closely related tropes:

  • Age Without Youth: an immortal character looks their age, often resembling a skeleton.
  • Bad with the Bone: a character uses a bone as a weapon.
  • Dem Bones: an undead creature made entirely of bone.
  • Desert Skull: Nothing better to immediately show the ominous imagery of dangerous deserts than by showing a skull (tends to be bovine) on the desert grounds.
  • Flaming Skulls: Because fire makes everything better - for a certain meaning of "better" in skulls' case.
  • Hacked by a Pirate: Hackers love skulls, it seems.
  • Nothing but Skulls: A pile of skulls without other bones evoke horror and sense of danger.
  • Our Liches Are Different: a highly magical undead creature that retains the personality they had in life even as nothing but bits of a decaying skeleton remain; these creatures are usually very bad guys.
  • Skele Bot 9000: a robot looks like a skeleton.
  • Skeletons in the Coat Closet: a character wears real bones as part of their clothing.
  • Skull Cups: When skulls are turned into drinking cups. Those who own it are typically dark and have a thing for the macabre; if they're warriors, it's often the skull of the enemies he's slain, showing superiority.
  • Skull for a Head: a character's face or head looks like a skull, either due to disfigurement or supernatural phenomena.

Note: please put examples that fit one of the tropes above on the appropriate page rather than here.


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     Anime and Manga  

  • Bleach: Hollowfication is generally viewed as undesirable, with Hollows being human souls consumed by dark, negative instincts to hunt down and destroy other souls to empower themselves. Humans that have been born to survivors of Hollow attacks possess unique powers called "Fullbring", but live with the alien essence of the Hollow from whose power their Fullbring descend. In the "Lost Agent Arc", Ichigo is taught by Ginjo to activate his Fullbring, which covers his entire body in a skeleton-themed armour. Ginjo's plan is to helpfully nurture Ichigo's Fullbring so that he can steal the power for his own villainous ends. Like Ichigo, he is a substitute Soul Reaper with an inner Hollow, but when he manifests Ichigo's Fullbring, the skeletal armour becomes a better fit for him than it ever was for Ichigo. The manga's author has stated this is deliberate, as Ichigo's Fullbring was created with Ginjo's villainous appearance in mind.
  • This motif is played with in One Piece in Chopper's past: while he's making a soup for his ill foster father, he's reading a book of kinds of mushrooms; he comes across one noted with skull and crossbones near it. He thinks that it's like the pirates' jolly rogers, i.e symbolizing their free spirit, so he tries to obtain it. Of course, unbeknownst to Chopper, said mushroom turns out to be poisonous (the true meaning of such skull symbol), but his father just chooses to eat the soup with it so he won't let Chopper down.

     Comic Books  

  • Batman, not surprisingly, has multiple examples:
    • In Streets of Gotham, after being accidentally disfigured, Judson Pierce decides to adapt skeleton imagery as his symbol, and takes on the name "Skel".
    • The Jackies, Mooks for the evil organization Jackal. More of a parody example, as they are much less fearsome than their appearance would imply.
  • In the Marvel Universe, the Punisher is a vigilante who kidnaps, tortures and kills criminals. He wears a uniform/shirt with a skull insignia on the chest. It is deliberately done so that people aim for his better-armoured chest, rather than his head or joints.
  • Long before the Punisher, a Golden Age superhero called Black Terror wore a black costume with a skull and crossbones insignia. He also had a sidekick who wore a similar costume; together they were known as "Terror Twins". During The '80s Golden Age revival, the character was several time reimagined as a grim and gritty Anti-Hero under different aliases like "Terror", "Holy Terror" and even "Terrorist". He also appeared in Alan Moore's Tom Strong. He sometimes appears in more recent comics as well: e.g. in one comic series he was given a Race Lift and called himself "Blackest Terror".
  • Judge Dredd:
    • Members of the Special Judicial Squad wear helmets with skulls on them to strike fear in the hearts of corrupt Judges.
    • Judge Death's badge is a fanged skull.
    • When Judge Grice and the rest of his escaped comrades take over the city, he declares himself Chief Judge and starts to wear a modified version of the chest eagle with a skull symbol on top of it.

     Films — Animated  

  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad features a house party scene in which Brom Bones recounts to Ichabod Crane the legend of the Headless Horseman (and turning it into a musical number, natch). One of the party guests is a skeletal-looking fellow who sings the line, "And some don't even wear their skin!"
  • In Toy Story, Sid (something closest to a "villain" in the movie) wears a skull T-shirt.
  • In Ratatouille, food critic Anton Ego has a gaunt, skeletal appearance befitting his role as The Dreaded among restauranteurs. To bring the point home, his office is shaped like a coffin, and his typewriter resembles a skull.
  • Hades from Hercules, being the Lord of the Underworld, takes this motif and runs with it. The clasp of his toga is in the shape of a skull, his lair is skull-shaped, he gives baby Hercules a pacifier made of bones, there are tiny skulls on the bubbles on the potion to make Hercules mortal, and so on.
  • On Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, when the Queen dips the apple in the Sleeping Death potion, the potion dripping from it forms a skull, "a symbol of what lies within".

     Films — Live-Action  

  • In Major League Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn has a skull and crossbones on the nosepiece of the Nerd Glasses that he wears while pitching.
  • In Cecil B. Demented, Raven wears an outfit with rainbow-colored bones down the front of it.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road: Immortan Joe's empire is resembled by a flaming skull emblem. Joe's pale hue and breathing apparatus also personally makes him resemble a skeleton.


  • In the novel Rivers of London the badge of The Skeleton Army is an important clue in tracking the spectral serial killer.
  • Discworld's Death, being an anthropomorphic personification of, well, death, lives in a pocket dimension where nearly everything - furniture, tools, his house, etc. - has some kind of bone-and-skull motif to it. Things that aren't are usually something that was brought in from the real world.
  • Irvine Welsh's novels feature skeleton imagery as an metaphor for heroin addiction (particularly the cover artwork).
  • The Death Eaters from Harry Potter are often described as wearing skull-like masks, partly to cover their identity but also to scare the crap out of their targets. The "Dark Mark" that they leave as a calling card displays a glowing skull in the air with a snake-like tongue. The films didn't remove this entirely, but did make them resemble the KKK to a degree.

     Live Action TV  

  • That Mitchell and Webb Look: Discussed in a sketch where two Nazi SS soldiers begin to notice that they're wearing uniforms with skulls on them. The junior one points out that he can't really think of any positive symbolism for a skull, and meekly asks if they're the baddies.
  • On Red Dwarf, the Inquisitors' helmet. It's not quite shaped like a human skull, though.

  • John Entwistle of The Who would sometimes wear a black-and-white leather outfit with a skeleton on it, most famously worn at their 1970 Isle Of Wight festival appearance. In later years, he would have a skeleton hand decorating his guitar strap.

  • The Cool Kids Table game Here We Gooooo! has Princess Crania and the skull kingdom, naturally.

     Tabletop Games  

  • Warhammer 40,000 is full of skeletal imagery. Particularly with the Imperium of Man and even more so with worshippers of Khorne.
  • Rifts:
    • The Coalition States uses skull motifs for their body armour helmets, and some vehicles. Because of this, Coalition soldiers are commonly referred to as "Dead Boys." Their giant robots also carry this motif frequently, and the newer powered armours can carry a lot more of the skeleton in their design; as do the newer model body armours. And of course they have Skele-bots.
    • When the Naruni came to Earth for the second time, skull and skeleton motifs appeared on some of their newer products.

     Video Games  

  • The Mortal Kombat franchise features multiple examples of skeletal imagery:
    • Scorpion is a spectre. As such, he has a Skull for a Head underneath his mask.
    • In Mortal Kombat: Deception, Havik is an Ambiguously Human character who is missing the lower part of his face (starting at the nose) which was apparently ripped off, revealing his skeletal structure. He's not evil, though, just chaotic (he hails from Chaosrealm, after all).
  • To show that Scarecrow is not fucking around anymore in Batman: Arkham Knight, he radically alter his appearance to resemble an undead soldier ready to spread fear into the world.
  • In MediEvil, the Kingdom of Gallowmere uses a skull as its symbol; it adorns its forces' shields and its former King Peregrine had his throne placed inside the mouth of a giant one.
  • Street Fighter: The Shadaloo symbol used by Vega/M. Bison is a skull with wings on the sides.
  • Skullomania of Street Fighter EX wears a full body suit that has skeletons painted over his whole body. Subverted in that not only he's a hero, he's a clear-cut and rather silly one as well.
  • Ghost from Modern Warfare 2 has a skull painted on the lower half of his balaclava.
  • Blazblue Central Fiction: Hades Izanami is the Goddess of Death and she has a lot of bones forming her special logo. In her Exceed Accel her face also briefly turns into a skull with a Slasher Smile.
  • XCOM 2's cover depicts a Sectoid made of human skulls.
  • In Borderlands 2, the game's way of warning you about a seriously dangerous unit (typically one that is several levels higher than the player) by putting a skull next to their name and health bar. Loading screens outright encourage you to run if you come across one of these.
  • Halo:
    • The series has about three variations of the skull and crossbones theme for the highest Legendary difficulty:
      • The classic variation from the original trilogy and Halo: Reach is an Elite skull crossed with two swords behind a shield with the Marathon symbol.
      • Halo 3: ODST uses a human skull and suppressed SMGs behind the same shield.
      • Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians use a Promethean skull crossed by Energy Swords and a different shield.
    • Emile from Reach has a skull carved into his helmet's faceplate.
  • Pokémon Sun and Moon: This is Team Skull's motif, although they're more heavily influenced by gangs.
  • Mega Man (Classic): Dr. Wily is famous for having the skull motif, whether in his Wily Machines, his endgame castles, or just skull sigils/ornaments in the levels. The 4th game doesn't have it much due to the villain being Dr. Cossack... except for one of the bosses, Skull Man, a robot with this motif. It also gives a hint of Wily's involvement in this game, i.e being the guy behind Cossack.


  • In Goblins, an alternate - universe Forgath is missing the lower part of his face, revealing the bones underneath, as the result of owning a "Ring of Undeath".
  • Kurloz from Homestuck, one of the most unambiguously evil characters in the story (and arguably the most evil troll of all), wears a sweatshirt with a skeleton torso on it.
  • Han of Charby the Vampirate has a glowing blue skeletal arm and hand.

     Western Animation  

  • In The Simpsons, Bully Jimbo Jones wears a skull t-shirt.
  • Mighty Max is obsessed with this.
    • The Big Bad is Skullmaster who lives in Skull Mountain. In the finale he resurrects various villains from earlier in the series including a skull-faced cyborg, a skeletal cyclops, a giant flying skull and a big spider with a skull-like marking on its face.
    • For good measure, the toyline also included Skull Warrior, Skull Dungeon, Skull Crusher, a skull with a snake wrapped around it and a spaceship shaped like a wolf skull, along with Skullmaster's fortress (which looked like a skull).

     Real Life  

  • During the "Golden Age of Piracy" in the late 1600's and early 1700's, pirates developed the skull and crossbones, called "Jolly Rogers", as their symbol to invoke crippling fear in their intended victims, because they hoped merchant ships would surrender without firing a shot.
  • When the Salvation Army was set up to combat public drunkenness and loose morals, opponents of the movement set up The Skeleton Army, whose members wore little dancing skeleton badges and patches, to follow the Salvos around, pelt them with refuse, beat them up, and generally cause trouble for them.
  • The Nazi SS had tiny skulls on their uniform insignia, which were based off an older Prussian tradition of using headwear with skull symbols in the Hussar regiments.
  • On Whale Wars, the Sea Shepherd organization's flag was clearly inspired by the skull and crossbones flag.
  • The Death Hussars, an important branch of Chilean liberation soldiers during the Independence Wars used skulls as motif. They acted more radical and aggressive toward the Spanish Empire and used this trope to showcase that they would liberate Chile by all means necessary.
  • Poisonous chemical substances are often noted with a skull (crossbones optional) to denote its danger.