Hans: Well — maybe they're the skulls of our enemies!
Erich: Maybe. But is that how it comes across? I mean, it doesn't say next to the skull, y'know, "Yeah, we killed him, but trust us, this guy was horrid"!
Hans: Well, no, but—
Erich: I mean, what do skulls make you think of? Death. Cannibals. Beheading. Erm... pirates...
Hans: (brightening) Pirates are fun!
Erich: I didn't say we weren't fun, but, fun or not, pirates are still the baddies. I just can't think of anything good about a skull!
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. This is particularly true for skulls: a human skull is made particularly off-putting by the facial structures still visible on it, leading to the instinctive attempts of the human mind to locate faces and thus people assigning expressions and emotions to the bare bone — the skull's trademark grin from beyond the grave. In this way, the visage of a human skull almost becomes the face of death itself. 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.
For obvious reasons, this kind of imagery is very commonly used by necromancers, The Grim Reaper, gods of death and the underworld and other "deathly" folks, and is likewise associated with places and events that have to do with death and the dead. More generally, skull and skeletal symbols commonly accompany evil, villainous or at least dangerous places and characters even if they have nothing in particular to do with death or necromancy.
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 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. Whether it's a barbarian warlord, a Supervillain, an Evil Overlord or The Emperor who decorates his home with skulls, or a Monster-Shaped Mountain inexplicably shaped like a human cranium, the message is always the same — this is someone or someplace you will want to avoid.
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. Characters alluding to the Day of The Dead and La Calavera Catrina also use a skeleton or calaca sugar skull motif.
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.
- Beware the Skull Base: a base or hideout contains crucial elements or is made of a skull.
- Calacas: a skeletal or sugar skull character or Skeletal Motif relating to La Calavera Catrina or to the Day of The Dead.
- 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.
- SkeleBot 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.
- 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.
- One Piece: This motif is played with 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.
- Batman, not surprisingly, has multiple examples:
- Black Terror: Long before the Punisher, the 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".
- Burlap: Bones, one of the members of Cottontail's gang, wears a skull mask.
- Judge Dredd:
- Members of the Special Judicial Squad wear helmets with skulls on them to strike fear in the hearts of corrupt Judges.
- The Omnicidal Maniac 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.
- Marvel Comics:
- The Red Skull is a psychotic Nazi whose face was twisted into a skull-like grimace by a chemical accident.
- Brock Rumlow, aka Crossbones, is a violent and sadistic henchman of the Red Skull's who wears a skull mask and a costume adorned with bone patterns.
- 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.
- Wonder Woman Vol 1: Even though it's already well established that Capt. Storm is a bloodthirsty pirate the treasure chest containing his loot has Jolly-Rodgers carved into the ends, just to give it a little more skeletal piratey shorthand.
- 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!"
- Hercules: Hades, 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.
- Pooh's Grand Adventure: After the main characters decipher Christopher Robin's honey-stained letter, they become convinced that he has been kidnapped by a monstrous "Skullosaurus" and taken away to a place known as "the Skull". This is represented by a giant skull symbol on Owl's map, and turns out to be a cave bearing a suspicious resemblance to a cranium once the gang actually gets there. In the end, it turns out that they had just misread a message saying Christopher Robin was off to school, and their fear made the cave appear a lot more monstrous than it really was.
- In Ratatouille, the 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.
- 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".
- In Toy Story, Sid (something closest to a "villain" in the movie) wears a skull T-shirt.
- Alien: The titular monsters have extremely skeletal appearances, with skull-like heads and skin stretched tight over their spines and ribs.
- In Cecil B. Demented, Raven wears an outfit with rainbow-colored bones down the front of it.
- King Kong: The horrifically dangerous island where Kong dwells alongside hordes of dinosaurs, giant insects and assorted meat-eating monsters is traditionally named Skull Island, and more often than not bears an improbable resemblance to a colossal human skull when seen from above.
- Mad Max: Fury Road: Immortan Joe's empire is represented by a flaming skull emblem. Joe's pale hue and breathing apparatus also personally makes him resemble a skeleton.
- In Major League Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn has a skull and crossbones on the nosepiece of the Nerd Glasses that he wears while pitching.
- Skyfall: The villain uses skulls as a sort of calling card, especially "Day of the Dead" style sugar skulls, which appear a lot in the taunting online messages he sends MI6. We later learn his face actually resembles a skull, with slightly melted cheekbones due to a failed suicide attempt with a poison capsule.
- Artemis Fowl: In The Lost Colony, one of the last warning signs put up by the demons to warn off anyone heading towards the dangerous crater of the island of Hybras is simply a bloody wolf skull on a pole.
- 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.
- Harry Potter: The Death Eaters 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.
- Irvine Welsh's novels feature skeleton imagery as a metaphor for heroin addiction (particularly the cover artwork).
- In the novel Rivers of London the badge of The Skeleton Army is an important clue in tracking the spectral serial killer.
- A former Nazi soldier turned mercenary has no qualms about invoking this trope in The Dogs of War.
Kurt Semmler was forty, and it was he who, in the early days back in the enclave, had devised the skull-and-crossbones motif that the mercenaries and their African trainees wore. It was also he who had cleared a five-mile sector of Federal soldiers by marking out the front line with stakes, each bearing the head of one of the previous day's Federal casualties. For a month after that his was the quietest sector of the campaign.
- On Red Dwarf, the Inquisitors' helmet. It's not quite shaped like a human skull, though.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, like the Spider-Skull Crawler, also carry this motif frequently, as do vehicles such as the Death's Head Armored Transport. The newer models of Power Armor can carry a lot more of the skeleton in their design, as do the newer models of body armor. Of course, they also have skele-bots.
- When the Naruni came to Earth for the second time, skull and skeleton motifs appeared on some of their newer products.
- Warhammer gets a lot of mileage out of this.
- Warhammer 40,000 is likewise full of skeletal imagery:
- The Imperium of Man, a bloated, oppressive, warmongering regime distinguished chiefly by its pervasive blind zealotry and rampant xenophobia and by the horrid living conditions of the faceless masses of its citizens, makes extensive use of skull iconography. Almost every Imperial ship, building and set of Power Armor of any importance can be expected to be lavishly decorated with gilded skulls.
- Khorne, the god of war, slaughter and general disorganized bloodshed, sits on a throne made out of every skull his followers have claimed in his name.
- Batman: Arkham Knight: To show that Scarecrow is not fucking around anymore, he radically alters his appearance to resemble an undead soldier ready to spread fear into the world.
- 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.
- 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.
- Digimon: Skulls show up repeatedly as decorations, accessories, markings and tattoos on Digimon based on sinister, demonic, monstrous or simply thuggish themes and beings. More overt examples exist in the form of Digimon with the Skull- suffix before their names, such as the skeletal SkullGreymon, which are typically evil or corrupt versions of their prior selves.
- Fallout 4: Deathskull radscorpions, the most dangerous and powerful variant of radscorpions in the wastelands, are distinguished by a white, skull-shaped mark around their eyes.
- Gigantic: Ezren Ghal, a soul-stealing magician, wears a robe resembling a very elongated skull and has a skull emblem on his chest. His lantern is also shaped like an elongated skull.
- 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.
- The series has about three variations of the skull and crossbones theme for the highest Legendary difficulty:
- The Legend of Zelda: A Skulltula's armored carapace closely resembles a human skull, with the skulltula's actual head located in the "skull's" mouth.
- 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.
- 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.
- Modern Warfare 2: Ghost has a skull painted on the lower half of his balaclava.
- 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).
- In stark contrast to Overwatch's more heroic-looking logo, Blackwatch's logo resembles an animal skull with a dagger in the center. It symbolizes Blackwatch's willingness to engage in morally questionable actions.
- The Los Muertos gang makes heavy use of skull symbolism, and its members often paint their faces with stylized skull visages. Sombra, who worked with Los Muertos in her youth, is also associated with calavera skull icons.
- Duskull, besides including the word "skull" in its name, also has a face resembling a bleached skull with a single glowing red eye peering from behind the sockets. While not outright evil, it's decidedly sinister — its Pokédex entries describe it as relentlessly stalking hapless humans and Pokémon through the night, and stealing away misbehaving children.
- Pokémon Sun and Moon: This is Team Skull's motif, although they're more heavily influenced by gangs.
- Soul Calibur VI: Ivy Valentine wears a bulky shoulder-plate with a skull bolted on it.
- In Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter, the "Slots-O-Death" slot machine that has a skull & crossbones as one of its symbols. Hitting a jackpot with three of these results in the death of the player by Disintegrator Ray.
- Street Fighter:
- The New Order: Last Days of Europe:
- The Siberian Black Army is the most prominent example of this trope, with them emblazing a large skull and crossbones in their black flag that, if not for the red Hammer and Sickle in the top left corner and the text reading "Long Live Anarchy" in the bottom, could easily be mistaken for a pirate flag. A skull is also often used as the Black Army's insignia and its coat-of-arms. This is a case of Dark Is Not Evil, as the Siberian Black Army is one of the (relatively) more morally-upstanding factions in the Russian Anarchy if they don't get couped by Ivan Stepanov and his clique of power-hungry rebellious generals. Their use of this aesthetic is also a Justified Trope, as they style themselves after Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary Nestor Makhno, whose brand of anarchism associated itself with black flags and skull iconographies, as noted in the Real Life folder.
- The Ural League is another heroic example. While their flag and symbol involves a black skull and they have truly brutal and spartan training standards, the Ural League's primary goal is to protect those who are unable to protect themselves from those willing to hurt them.
- The Dirlewanger Brigade is a more traditional evil example. Using a simple skull as their flag, the Dirlewanger Brigade is led by marooned Nazi officer and serial rapist Oskar Dirlewanger and his fellow Nazi soldiers who regularly Rape, Pillage, and Burn their helpless victims across the Russian wastes.
- XCOM 2's cover depicts a Sectoid made of human skulls.
- Dreamscape: Ghost Melinda can create massive skulls of darkness. They also have Eye Beams and fire breath.
- 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".
- Homestuck: Kurloz, 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.
- Charby the Vampirate: Han has a glowing blue skeletal arm and hand.
- 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).
- In The Simpsons, Bully Jimbo Jones wears a skull t-shirt.
- 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.
- Multiple anarchist movements during the Russian Civil War had skeleton symbolisms and flew black flags with skulls and crossbones on them. Two notable examples include Makhnovia◊ in Ukraine and the Soviet Republic of Naissar◊ in Estonianote . Although still eclipsed by the more popular red-and-black flag, the jolly roger still remains a fairly popular symbol for modern-day anarchism.
- 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 their danger.
- Death's head hawk moths are a group of moth species notable for having a pattern on their backs reminiscent of a human skull. This, despite the fact that the moths are perfectly harmless animals, has led them to developing a reputation as dangerous and supernatural creatures associated with death, evil and bad luck. The scientific names for the three species of death's head hawk moths — Acherontia atropos, A. styx and A. lachesis — are all inspired by Greek myths associated with death. Atropos and Lachesis were two of the Fates who decided when mortals would die and how long they would live, while the Styx and Acheron were two of the rivers of the underworld.