This character has a container. It could be a closet, a trunk, a safe, a briefcase, even a locket. Whatever it is, it's always closed and locked. Someone casually wonders what's inside or asks if they can borrow it or put something inside. Actually, come to think of it, they've never seen it opened. Just what is in there anyway...?
The rest of the episode will be devoted to one or more characters trying every trick in the book to get the owner out of the area and/or steal the key and/or force open the lock. The more their attempts are thwarted, the more desperate they become to know what's inside. They are going to get this thing open and see what's inside if they have to kill themselves doing so!
What will it turn out to be? Most likely:
- No idea - we never get to see what the secret is.
- Nothing - it was empty all along, and the owner was just messing with everyone.
- Common twist: As soon as the disappointed treasure hunters leave, the owner reveals the secret compartment inside to the audience, which is where the secret is really hidden.
- Something only the owner finds unbearably humiliating and embarrassing but any normal person would find completely mundane. Upon seeing it, the Secret Chasers believe the only thing the owner should be ashamed of is having such a stupid secret.
- The Sealed Evil in a Can. Great, now you've doomed the world until the poor owner can stuff the thing back inside, and possibly killed yourself in the process.
- Something that reveals the true identity the owner was hiding. Why would he hide a copy of the famous Super Hero's iconic mask...? How could she have this picture unless... she's your real mother!
The one thing you can be sure it's not is every character's first guess: money or some treasure with a high monetary value. Too easy.
Runs on the appeal of Forbidden Fruit. Often overlaps with Worthless Treasure Twist. The closet version should not be confused with Secret Room (where the very existence of the closet would be a secret).
WARNING: Most if not all examples inherently contain details about a climactic reveal, so spoilers will be unmarked. Read ahead at your own risk.
- Attack on Titan: The Yeager basement, and finding out the secrets inside of it, was the driving force behind the entire series' plot for nearly 90 chapters (3 seasons of the anime adaptation), as its location within the Shiganshina district was lost when Titans overran the district and forced Eren, Mikasa, and Armin to flee. It isn't until years later, and after much sacrifice, that the trio, now serving under the Scout Regiment, were able to reclaim the district from the Titans, and after searching the basement, they uncover a trio of journals written by Eren's father. Each detailing and revealing the nature of the Titans, the survival of humanity elsewhere in the world, his life outside of Paradise, and many, many other secrets.
- In the Carl Barks comic "Gladstone's Secret," Donald, Scrooge, and the boys learn Gladstone has a secret safe he refuses to open for anybody. They assume it contains a Good Luck Charm that gives him his famous luck. They open the safe to find a single dime. A lucky dime? A #1 Dime like Scrooge's? Nope, the opposite - it's the payment he received on one day when he was desperately unlucky enough to resort to working, and he's been so ashamed of that day, he locked the coin up where no one could ever see it and find out. His family has the same reaction you just did.
- Pulp Fiction has the suitcase containing...something. It lights up and so do people's faces when they look into it.
- One of the poems in Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends is "What's in the Sack?", where a man carrying a giant sack on his shoulder laments that all anyone ever asks him is... The last line, addressed to the reader, is "Oh no. Not you, too!" (He doesn't tell us.)
- The trope is one of many gothic literary devices parodied in Northanger Abbey: while staying with the Tilneys in the titular house, Catherine is very much disturbed by a large, locked black cabinet in her room, and loses sleep ruminating over all the horrible things she imagines could be inside it. The next morning, she can bear it no longer, and very cautiously opens the cabinet... to reveal a laundry-list and a pile of old receipts.
- Are You Afraid of the Dark?: "The Tale of the Dangerous Soup" starts with the gang all confessing their worst fears. Tucker insists he's not afraid of anything, but he's very curious about what Frank is hiding in that box... When Frank finally offers to let him open it, he's too afraid and leaves. Only then does Frank open the box to reveal it contains "Exactly what Tucker's afraid of — nothing."
- The Big Bang Theory has an episode where Raj breaks his slightly ghoulish girlfriend's desk drawer by snooping in it. She forgives him, but gets back at him by asking if she has looked in her closet. When he assures her he hasn't, she snuggles into bed, leaving him staring nervously at the closet door.
- Doctor Who: Series 5's finale centered around a large box called the Pandorica, said to contain the single most dangerous individual in the entire universe as a prison to keep them from causing untold havoc throughout all of space and time (and somehow it is buried beneath Stonehenge of all places). The Doctor and Amy want to keep it from falling into the hands of the many alien species who want to open the Pandorica and release its inhabitant upon the universe. No one is inside the Pandorica at the time of this episode. The Pandorica was built for The Doctor, and the many alien species agree to a truce to seal The Doctor away within it. It turns out the Doctor is only trapped inside for all of four minutes, and Amy Pond is placed inside of it because she ends up being shot by an Auton and the Pandorica can stabilize her and keep her in stasis until it is reopened two thousand years later.
- Friends: "The One With the Secret Closet" is devoted to the newlywed Chandler's determination to see what's in the green closet in the background near the bathroom that Neat Freak Monica refuses to let him see. He can't contain his laughter when he finally gets the door open and sees a pile of cluttered junk. Monica is heartbroken he now knows she's not actually 100% neat and organized.
Chandler: Honey, I don't love you because you're organized. I love you in spite of that.
- Gilligan's Island: A locked briefcase with a United States government seal washes aboard the island one day, and the castaways are all excited to get it open so they can see the classified documents within, even having fantasies of playing international superspies. The sole holdout is the Professor, who argues that they should respect the government's secrets and keep the briefcase closed. After a whole episode of various hijinks involving stealing the briefcase from the Professor (and from each other) and trying to get the lock open, the Professor scolds them all for their behaviour, saying that it's just as well that nobody's been able to open the lock - and he pounds his fist on the briefcase for emphasis, causing it to spring open. The other castaways eagerly snatch the case and start reading the documents, only to find out that while they are classified military papers, they date back to World War II - historical secrets rather than current ones.
- The Haunting of Hill House: The Crain family spend 26 years wondering about a red-painted door in the titular Haunted House that's impervious to all their attempts to open it. In the finale, they learn that the Red Room is the House's stomach — an Eldritch Location that assumed different forms to lure each of them into it unknowingly in their childhood.
- The Office (US): When Dwight goes on a business trip to Florida, he tells his co-workers not to open his treasure. When they learn he's staying in Florida, they open the box, finding a picture of all of them. They are touched, but then a "poisoned" dart shoots out, nearly hitting Creed.
- The main plot of the crossover game Street Fighter X Tekken is a strange and magic box called as the Pandora Box, which have undeveloped secrets and powers and can even bring desires come true to their keepers, the reason why fighters from both franchises go after it and even make unexpected teams to get the box.
- Terranigma: The game's plot is kicked off due to a door that "the elder said we should never open" and your character has the option of whether to try or not to try. Unfortunately, the game has to start and it quickly turns into a But Thou Must! kind of situation.
- Homestar Runner: In the short "Lookin at a Thing in a Bag", Strong Bad, Strong Mad, and The Cheat all stand around in the field looking into paper bags and chatting about how interesting the contents are. When Homestar asks to see, they insist the bags are for their eyes only. Naturally, the bags are completely empty—Strong Bad and his pals are just pretending so they can manipulate Homestar into buying them drinks.
- In The Amazing World of Gumball episode "The Box," the Wattersons get a box mailed to their doorstep by accident and all wonder what could be inside. Gumball imagines it as a Portal Gun which eventually mutates him, Nicole imagines it's full of money which sets off an homage to No Country for Old Men, Richard imagines it's a government device that will turn him into a super spy, Anais imagines it could be the catalyst for a Zombie Apocalypse and Darwin just thinks it's an empty box which could be fun by itself but he's cut off before he can sing about how. In the end the box is destroyed and they discover that it was meant for their Cranky Neighbor Mr Robinson, who explains (in unnecessarily descriptive detail) that the box contained a skin cream.
- Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: In "The Trouble with Scribbles", Bloo becomes enamored with opening a closet that he is told must never be opened. He does, and out comes a flood of "scribbles", nondescript imaginary friends created by babies. It's later mentioned that Frankie made the same mistake when she was little.
- Futurama: In "The Farnsworth Parabox", the Professor creates a mysterious box and orders it destroyed, entrusting Leela to guard it until then. Despite resisting the temptation at first, even leaving out a decoy box (full of tangled Christmas lights and unlabeled booze) for Fry and Bender to steal, Leela opens the box and discovers an alternate universe inside.
Fry: Whatever's in there, it's the only thing I've ever wanted!Zoidberg: In my experience, boxes are usually empty, or maybe with a little cheese stuck to the top. And one time, pepperoni. What a day that was! (shrieks) GIVE ME THE BOX!
- In one episode of Hey Arnold!, The Ghost tenant Mr. Smith receives a package when he's not home. Arnold spends all day protecting it from the other boarders until they tackle him and rip it apart with their bare hands to find... a picture of them all labeled "My Family."
- One episode of SpongeBob SquarePants is devoted to SpongeBob trying to figure out what Patrick is hiding in his "secret box." He's satisfied when he sees it just contains a piece of string... but leaves before Patrick pulls the string, which opens a secret compartment that contains an embarrassing photo of SpongeBob at the Christmas party.
- Robin and his team spend the Teen Titans episode "Revved Up" trying to get back a locked briefcase that's been stolen from Robin. We never see what's inside; the only clue is Robin saying it's useless to the thieves because "It's only valuable to me."
- Total Drama: In the second half of the Action episode "Full Metal Drama", the Gaffers are tasked with protecting a large chest from the Grips, with the Gaffers succeeding. However, when they go to open up the chest, it is revealed to be empty, much to the dismay of Duncan and Harold.
- Candace spends the entire episode "Knot My Problem" of Phineas and Ferb obsessed with a safe that her boyfriend Jeremy brought over for Phineas and Ferb to open. At the end of the episode, Buford busts it open to find that it contains a pencil Candace gave to Jeremy back in elementary school.
- In the Wander over Yonder episode "The Box," Wander is tasked with delivering a box without looking inside it, but his nature makes this quite troublesome for him. When he finally completes the delivery, the recipients reveal that the whole thing was a Secret Test of Character, but Sylvia won't have any of it, considering all that Wander was put through, so she aggressively persuades them to place some knick-knacks in it before showing Wander.
- In The Secret Show, there is a MacGuffin simply called The Secret Thing. The audience only ever sees the pipe-like container that its held in, but what it is, and why its so important is never revealed to the viewers. At least a couple episodes revolve around T.H.E.M. trying to steal it from U.Z.Z., almost inevitably with Victor trying to find out what The Secret Thing really is.
- In the Looney Tunes cartoon, Ain't That Ducky?, a baby duck is seen crying over a piece of paper, and, all through the short, Daffy and an unnamed hunter try to get it from him. In the end, they finally take it, and are broken up themselves by what's on it: The End.
- In a U.S. Acres episode of Garfield and Friends titled "The Thing in the Box," Bo gets a package with air holes in it, causing everyone to not only be overcome with curiosity of what's inside, but assume it contains some horrible monster. Turns out it was Nermal. Garfield didn't have enough postage to mail him to Abu Dhabi, so he sent him to the farm. The farm animals send Nermal back to Garfield.