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Threaten All to Find One

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"I want the name of the filthy little boy who put down the sugar! Step forward! Own up! Confess!"
— The matron of Roald Dahl, in his autobiography Boy

A trope often seen in schools, and occasionally in workplaces and hostage situations. One person has done something wrong, but the authority figure does not know who is responsible. Because this is too grave to ignore, an entire group is interrogated, and often made to wait in silence until somebody confesses to the crime, or reveals who did it, with a threat that if nobody owns up by a certain time, the whole group will suffer. Expect to hear phrases such as "Who did this?", "You know who you are", or "I invite the culprit to step forward". A less reasonable authority figure will demand that the suspect owns up in front of everybody else, there and then; somebody more reasonable will invite them to confess in private. The Stool Pigeon will often be desperate to identify the culprit and may be seen being nudged or threatened. This situation can form a Sadistic Choice or Prisoner's Dilemma for the culprit or witnesses. This situation can be a test of solidarity within the group and can lead to one person Taking the Heat to protect the others.

There is some Truth in Television to this, although in schools, this practice is frowned upon nowadays (Thus, its use will typically be seen in an Unintentional Period Piece). The reality is more often a downplayed version of the trope: a group is gathered together for an appeal for a confession, often with the threat of punishment for the culprit, but no consequences are threatened for the whole group.

In Spanish media, this phenomenon is known as Fuenteovejuna due to associations with the eponymous comedic play by Lope de Vega — its most iconic scene is when the villagers refuse to reveal the murderer's identity to the royal magistrate out of solidarity.

Compare I Will Punish Your Friend for Your Failure, which is when the authority figure knows who the guilty party is, but also knows punishing them directly will not be as effective as forcing them to watch innocent people suffer for their actions. See also Shared Fate Ultimatum. Compare and contrast I Am Spartacus, in which everybody confesses to hide the culprit's identity.

Note: Real Life examples should be limited to historical examples only, and not examples of existing conflicts or situations.


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  • One of the stand-up routines of Peter Kay focuses on his childhood in a Catholic school run by humourless nuns. One such nun, an irascible Irishwoman called Sister Sledge (yes, really), called out the kids for a recent prank:
    Peter: (as Sister Sledge) Somebody's thrown a shatter-proof ruler at Carol Farrel! It hit her just there! (points at a spot just above his eye) If it had been an inch lower, it would have been instant death! When I find out who it is, I'll take them by the ear, and I'll bang them in front of everybody! (as his childhood self) I don't think you will.

    Comic Books 
  • Maus: After Anja is very nearly caught meeting with Vladek by one of the Kapos at Auschwitz-Birkenau, said Kapo forces her entire barrack to suffer beatings and overwork unless she steps forward. None of the other women rat her out, luckily, despite the brutality they are subsequently subjected to.
  • In the last issue of Dan Slott's Spider-Man / Human Torch mini-series, a crime boss named Carmine Villanova made hostages out of a high-school assembly where Johnny Storm was addressing the students(and Peter Parker happened to be a teacher), in order to kill one student, the son of a district attorney, for revenge against his own son dying in prison after the DA convicted him . He threatened to have all the students in the hall killed if the Torch so much as twitched. Fortunately the Torch was able to give Peter a distraction so he could take out the main gunman with a web-shot, and the two heroes were able to make short work out of the rest.

    Fan Works 
  • Harry Is a Dragon, and That's OK: When no one admits to talking in class, Professor Umbridge punishes Conal the centaur for not telling her who it was, "saying that she wasn't going to let people defend their friends from punishment like that because it wouldn't be fair." The other students, however, suspect that no one was talking, and she just wanted an excuse to target him for not being human.
  • Scarlet Lady: In one episode, Chloe gets upset that the father of her nemesis Marinette is teaching a lesson to their home economics class about baking, so she calls the fire department. Even though she's the obvious guilty party, the principal Damocles won't blame anyone unless someone 'fesses up. When Chloe stays silent, he punishes everyone...except Chloe, who threatens to call her father.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In the French film Cest La Vie 1990, a group of children are banished from using a club's playground equipment, and from winning prizes there, because they are not members of the club. Overnight, the club is burned to the ground. As they are the prime suspects, the children are made to swear that they did not burn the club, and are later seen Writing Lines saying "I must learn to respect other people's property".
  • At the start of Full Metal Jacket, Private "Joker" says something comical poking fun at the drill instructor while Sergeant Hartman is doing the Drill Sergeant Nasty routine on the other side of the barracks. A furious Hartman storms over and demands to know who said the line, threatening to punish all of the recruits for it, although it's not until he starts picking on another recruit, "Cowboy", that Joker speaks up and confesses.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: In part 2, Snape does this as a pre-emptive move, after Harry has been sighted in Hogsmeade. He warns the assembled students of punishments if anyone attempts to aid Harry, or if anyone fails to declare any knowledge of this. This is Played for Laughs, as Harry himself then appears in the school.
  • Major Payne: The titular character questions his cadets whoever is responsible for hiring a biker to threaten and getting blood on his lip. He threatens them all that they will be facing brutal training full of fun and adventure. Cadet Stone confesses that he is responsible and acted alone without others involvement and for the previous failed attempts to get rid of Payne. Payne acknowledges his leadership ability and promotes him to squad leader.
  • Rogue One: After a message about a vulnerability in the Death Star gets leaked, the Director of the project, Orson Krennic, gathers all the engineers and demands to know which of them sent that message. Meanwhile, the head engineer Galen Erso is kept to the side, as if Krennic thinks he's above suspicion. When no one confesses, Krennic declares, "Very well, I'll consider it a group effort," and orders his retinue of Death Troopers to take aim. At that point, Galen steps into the line of fire and admits he was the one who leaked the message and asks that the others be spared. Krennic puts his hand on Galen's shoulder, pulls him away from the rest of the group—and tells his troopers to open fire on the rest of the engineers anyway.
  • Schindler's List: In one scene, Concentration Camp Commandant Amon Goeth demands to know who among the Jewish Prisoners stole and killed a chicken belonging to the guards. When no one confesses, he shoots one of them dead, with the obvious implication that he will continue to shoot prisoners one-by-one until someone confesses to the theft. A young boy in the group then steps forward crying, to which Goeth accuses him of being responsible. The boy denies it, and Goeth then infers he knows who did it, and asks him who killed the chicken. The boy then points to the man who Goeth just killed, shouting "HIM!" Apparently it worked, and Schindler then has the boy work in his factory under him, safe from Goeth and the Nazis. note 
  • Initially inverted in Spartacus. When the slave revolt is put down, the Romans offer to spare all the captives except the leader Spartacus, who they will kill to Make an Example of Them. All they need is for someone to point out which one is Spartacus. The slaves, out of loyalty to their leader, refuse to give him up, and they all start proclaiming that they're Spartacus. At this point, all Roman patience runs out and they follow through on this trope, killing everyone.
  • Violent Night: When Mr. Scrooge and his men discover that the vault containing the Lightstones’ fortune is empty, he threatens to kill the hostages at random until they tell him where the money is. He’s only stopped from making good on his threat when it’s pointed out that he could end up killing the one person who knows.

  • Adrian Mole: A downplayed example in Growing Pains. The headmaster Mr Scruton summons the entire school and demands to know who defaced the portrait of Margaret Thatcher in his office, with Mustache Vandalism, and writing "three million unemployed" on her. He rants that defacing the greatest leader the country has ever known is a terrible crime, and when the culprit is found, they will immediately be expelled. His eyes bulge out so far that some of the first-years start to cry, and then the whole school is made to have handwriting tests. Soon after this, the teacher Miss Elf resigns, implying that she is the culprit.
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: When the schoolmaster Mr Dobbins discovers his torn book, he demands to know who did it, then starts to ask each child in turn. It is not known if there would have been consequences for the class, because Tom falsely confesses to doing it himself, to protect Becky.
  • In Un bon petit diable, written by the Countess de Ségur, after the numerous pranks that Charles did in Fairy's Hall, Old Nick tells his pupils that, until someone confesses, there will be no more recess and three whippings each day. Charles confesses and manages to escape the nine days in a cell and the whippings promised to the culprit.
  • In his autobiography Boy, Roald Dahl describes an incident at school when a boy sprinkles sugar all over the dormitory corridor floor, to make the Matron's footsteps crunch as she patrols the corridor. The boys know who did it, but out of solidarity, they all keep quiet. The entire school is herded into the corridor, and when nobody owns up, all the boys are made to hand in the keys to their tuck boxes note  until the end of term.
  • Digging To Australia: Jennifer's teacher Miss Clarke accuses somebody of stealing money from her desk, and makes the class sit in silence until the culprit owns up. During this time, Jennifer muses on truth and lies, as she has recently been subjected to a massive lie at home. When the lesson ends, Miss Clarke surprisingly says that they will forget the matter for now, causing Jennifer to wonder if she discovered that she had not actually lost the money after all.
  • In one of the Jeremy James children's books, this is played with in "A Present from Timothy". With great reluctance, Timothy gives Jeremy James a birthday present of a torch/compass/magnifying glass, saying that he should have had it, rather than Jeremy James. Near the end of the party, this gadget disappears, and Jeremy James immediately suspects that Timothy has stolen it from the sideboard. To avoid embarrassing Timothy, Jeremy James's mother lines up all the children, tells them to close their eyes, and wish very hard that the gadget comes back. She tells them that if anyone opens their eyes, they will lose their prizes, sweets and presents; and if the gadget does not come back, they will all empty their pockets, in case the gadget accidentally fell into one. The gadget does indeed come back. Jeremy James is certain that Timothy is guilty, but keeps quiet, on pain of losing his prizes, sweets, and presents.
  • Magic Shop: In Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, Jeremy's art teacher Mr. Kravitz is a generally nasty person, to the point where when he's talking about the rules for the spring art contest and what he doesn't want to see, like anything fantasy-like. Jeremy ends up feeling nothing but pure anger towards him, which his dragon Tiamat picks up on, resulting in her breathing fire on Mr. Kravitz's shoe, felt by him but unseen by anyone but Jeremy and one of his other classmates. Afterwards, when Mr. Kravitz demands to know who gave him the hotfoot and nobody responds, he retaliates by banning the entire class from participating in the art contest until one of them does confess. When Jeremy eventually does, though without saying how, Mr. Kravitz lifts the ban for everyone but Jeremy.
  • molesworth: This is Headmaster Grimes' standard threat when "some boy" has broken the rules. Unless that boy confesses the whole school will be given detention/made to dig the vegetable garden.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: In Fire & Blood, King Jaehaerys Targaryen's Master of Coin, Rego Draz, is murdered in the streets of Flea Bottom. Jaehaerys rides forth to recover his body and furiously proclaims to the watching peasants that if they do not give up the names of Rego's killers, their tongues will be sliced out. A young girl leads him to a winesink where one of the killers is found with a whore in his lap and Rego's jeweled rings on his fingers, and he soon gives up the names of the other killers under torture.
  • In Who Wet My Pants, Ruben doesn't notice that he has wet his pants (from taking a nap with his hand in a fish tank) and thinks that one of his friends did it. Since he was about to give everyone donuts, and doesn't believe the friends when they say they didn't do it, he decides that "nobody gets donuts until I get answers".

    Live-Action TV 
  • Brides of Christ: The girls receive a lesson about sex, and a box is provided for them to ask questions anonymously. Soon after this, Sister Agnes storms in, demanding to know who left these "disgusting" questions. She tells the class that if nobody owns up, the science trip will be cancelled, and she will question the girls one by one. Rosemary confesses privately and is banned from going on the trip.
    Mother Superior: (reading Rosemary's questions) "Does the Holy Father get erections?" "If a boy ejaculates in the swimming pool, might I get pregnant?"
  • In the second season of Cobra Kai, some students from the new Cobra Kai dojo ransack and vandalize Daniel's dojo, including stealing the Medal of Honor that was awarded to Daniel's deceased mentor Mr. Miyagi. Johnny Lawrence punishes his entire dojo by making them do high-intensity exercises, stating he'll only stop when someone confesses to being responsible.
  • El internado: Las Cumbres: After the students throw a wild party while the faculty is out, Evil Principal Mara punishes them all by forcing them to stand out in the yard for hours under the rain until somebody confesses. Adèle, who didn't even get to attend, breaks down and gives up Amaia, but other students pull a reverse I Am Spartacus and start calling out the wrong names on purpose. As for Adèle, the other students make her regret telling on Amaia.
  • Grange Hill: There are many scenes like this when a teacher demands a confession from a class, or the whole school. One such scene in series 2 comes after a fire in the school, and the headmaster invites anyone who knows anything to step forward. He then performs a similar exercise with the first-year boys only, with the lesser charge of being behind the stage during lessons, again inviting them to step forward, or being subjected to a Police Lineup by the caretaker who caught them.
  • Judge John Deed: In the episode about a reality TV show similar to Big Brother, a journalist in court takes a photo of an expert witness. When this photo is on the front pages the following morning, John makes all the journalists hand in their camera phones, demands a confession, and when none is forthcoming, jails them all for contempt. The third time he asks them, the culprit does confess.
    Judge John Deed: Ready to reveal who took the photographs? (very long pause) Well, it can't be much hardship for you to spend a night in the cells, as you've been sent there by (quoting them) "a fanatical judge who's out of control".
  • Downplayed in some episodes of MasterChef. Gordon Ramsay will, instead of naming the bottom two/three cooks of the night, say something to the effect of "you know who you are" to make them step forward.
  • This is done in Malcolm in the Middle, in which Lois finds her dress burned and in the toilet. So in order to try and get the kids to confess, she punishes them all until one comes forward. In a twist, the culprit was actually Hal - so the boys were telling the truth.
  • Red Dwarf: In "Krytie TV", Warden Ackerman demands that whoever stole his glass eye returns it to him, or else all Canary (the group of prisoners who volunteered for dangerous missions) privileges will be suspended for a month.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series: Downplayed in "The Trouble With Tribbles". Kirk has ordered that there be no hostilities between his crew and the Klingons at Deep Space Station K-7, as they do not want an incident that would give the Klingons claim to Sherman's Planet. However, a fight broke out in a bar on the station, and Kirk has assembled all of the crew, asking various people, like Chekov, who threw the first punch. When no one answers him, he tells them they're confined to quarters until he gets the answer. But he stops Scotty from leaving. As the commanding officer charged with keeping the peace at the time, Scotty will have no choice but to answer when Kirk asks him which of the crew threw the first punch. Scotty sheepishly reveals that it was him, as the Klingons had called the Enterprise a "Garbage Scow". Kirk confines Scotty to quarters, which the Engineer is delighted to hear, as he can catch up on his technical journals.

    Religion & Mythology 
  • The Talmud refers at one place to "the slain of Lod", which is actually Laodicea on the Lycus. Rashi gives the backstory to these people: a non-Jewish girl was killed, and the leaders suspected the Jews. They threatened to kill off all the Jews in the city if no one admitted the crime. Two innocent people, brothers named Lulianos and Paphos, claimed responsibility for the crime, thereby saving the rest of the Jewish community.

    Video Games 
  • Deltarune: When Alphys wants to write the assignment on the board, she discovers there is no chalk, and very awkwardly threatens to get everyone in class in trouble if nobody speaks up about the missing chalk. Noelle suggests there might be some chalk in the supply closet. It is then discovered that Susie has eaten all the chalk.
  • At the beginning of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the Inquisitorius learns about a Jedi presence on Brakka but doesn't know who it is, only where they were. To compensate, they line up the group of scrappers Cal happens to be with, inform them of the Jedi in their ranks, and says they will start executing them one by one unless someone exposes the Jedi to them, or the Jedi reveals themself. This trope is then immediately downplayed when Prauf starts giving a speech against the inquisitors, getting himself killed as the first victim and prompting Cal to retaliate, exposing himself.

  • Dominic Deegan: When the Infernomancer was searching for Archmage Miranda Deegan, he broke into her magic academy, and killed three of the students. He took out the eye of a fourth, Nimmel, who caved and told him where she was to keep him from killing more students.

    Web Video 
  • Scootertrix the Abridged: In the episode "Snowdrop the Abridged", someone pranks Princess Celestia by dyeing her mane and tail pink. So Celestia gathers all her suspects (who are all children, bizarrely) and threatens to punish them all if the culprit doesn't confess. Then the blind filly Snowdrop has the misfortune of arriving late and asking what she missed, so Celestia immediately fixates on her as the prime suspect. Fortunately, the more level-headed Princess Luna recognizes how stupid all this is, and convinces Celestia not to punish anyone.

    Western Animation 
  • Angela Anaconda: In one episode, a tray is thrown in the trash by mistake - so the entire class is held in the lunch detention until the culprit comes forth. Angela takes the fall specifically because nobody else will come forth since she can handle the punishment. However, Nanette Manoir (who actually did it - albeit out of carlessness) doesn't like that Angela receives such positive attention from the class and decides to try and ensure that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.
  • The Loud House: In "Sleuth or Consequences", the toilet is clogged, and Lynn Sr. doesn't know who did it, so he grounds all his children until one of them fesses up. Lincoln, who wants to go to a convention, and Lucy, the only sister who doesn't suspect him (due to him having clogged it several times before) investigate to see who did it.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: "The Hearthswarming Club" has the Young 6 held over after a prank causes a huge mess at the school, and told to clean the common areas where the mess is. Twilight says they'll be held until someone confesses, and she, Spike, and Rainbow Dash call each one individually to ask them about their involvement and/or knowledge of the prank. The students begin to describe their various Hearth's Warming celebrations, but they also begin to fight among themselves, fearful they'll miss their families and celebrations if the guilty party doesn't come forward. Upset at how the fighting doesn't go along with the spirit of the holiday, Gallus, the gryphon, explains that it was him because he has no family to return to and just wanted to spend a bit of time with his friends before they left. Twilight overhears this and thanks him for his confession, then tells him he'll still need to stay over the holiday. The others offer to stay as well so that Gallus won't be alone during the holiday season.
  • The Real Ghostbusters: In one episode, the Ghostbusters are accidentally signed up for a game show run by a literal demon named Dib Devlin. Naturally, their souls, and lives, are on the line. During one round, Dib puts the Ghostbusters on a roulette wheel and tells them that he knows one of them has a secret, and that he's willing to bet that the person who has that secret is so ashamed of it that he'd let his friends die and take it to his grave, but that the wheel will stop if the person with the secret confesses. Each Ghostbuster confesses something, which Dib says is not the secret, until...
    Ray: OkayIadmititSlimeratehalfacookieandgotslimeallovertheotherhalfandbyaccidentwithoutthinkingaboutitI... I ate it.
  • Displayed in an episode of Recess. A food fight happens in the cafeteria, causing the entire student body to be held in for Lunch Detention until Ms. Finster finds out who started it. Surprisingly, Gus (who knew Randall started it) is the only one who didn't say who did it - because he was afraid of being seen as a tattler. So he only told one kid to get it off his chest... and proceeded to tell everyone else.

    Real Life 
  • Under the Frankpledge system, if the culprit of a crime was not delivered to the authorities then the adult non-exempt residents (meaning those above 12 and not priests) of the tithing were to pay a fine.
  • In Tokugawa Japan, Gonin Gumi were groups of households who were held liable if criminals weren't delivered.


Video Example(s):


Goeth Interrogates Prisoners

Commandant Goeth interrogates a group of Jewish Prisoners to find out which of them killed his chicken. He then shoots one dead, fully intending to shoot more of them one-by-one until someone confesses.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / ThreatenAllToFindOne

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