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Dead-unicorn1

A Dead Horse Trope, except it was never really a trope in the first place.

This sort of trope becomes well known from being twisted and played with but was never actually in wide use in its straight form. The Butler Did It and Ultra Super Death Gore Fest Chainsawer 3000 are two of the most well-known examples.

See Beam Me Up, Scotty for a similar concept for quotations, where a commonly quoted statement never existed in that form. Also see Windmill Political, when this trope crosses over into politics.

Do not add examples to this index simply because you have personally never heard of them. Younger tropers should be especially careful of adding tropes that date back before their births: tropes such as the white wedding dress signifying virginity or the purported stupidity of Polish-Americans were real tropes at one point. Beware of your own small reference pool. Do not confuse for a certain robotic unicorn.

Examples of Dead Unicorn Trope include:
  • "Idyllic flying cars and robot maids" type of futures never really appeared in Science Fiction, though they did "world of the future" type books and magazine articles, unless you count The Jetsons.
  • The Butler Did It is the most well known example. It does appear in a couple old mystery novels, but is nowhere near as common as people unfamiliar with such novels seem to think. (You will find a somewhat sizeable list of examples on our tropes page but almost all of these come from after the twist had already become falsely known as a cliche and are either parodying it, playing with it, or using its notoriety to make it a case of The Untwist.) The origin of the phrase was not a literal description but rather a summary of a far more common trope: Having an unimportant background character end up being the culprit. See here for more info.
  • Aliens Steal Cattle, which is a mashup of the ideas that aliens abduct people and mutilate cattle.
  • Likewise, Anal Probing is not actually a preoccupation in Real Life UFO abduction communities. Whitley Strieber described a recovered memory of it in his first nonfiction UFO book, Communion, whereupon it took on a life of is own.
    • Dead Unicorn Trope indeed: the idea of the hind-quarters, rather than the reproductive organs (and hence, potential genetic engineering connections in the literature, etc.) is due to the media having one thing on their minds far too much. And some think it's quite intentional, to get people to chuckle at what is actually rather terrifying stuff when you read the real stories: a supposedly advanced alien intelligence, behaving in ways reminiscent of Nazi doctors.
  • Fairy Tales and their supposed idealism and inevitable happy endings are commonly mocked and "deconstructed," most people being unaware that the real stories were often violent, cynical and depressing. Something of a Cyclic Trope, since the original stories had such a grim tone, before being bowdlerized and Disneyfied because Children Are Innocent (which is in itself an example of this trope), causing the stories ended up in an Animation Age Ghetto, which left them filled with Fridge Logic and other ripe fodder for deconstruction.
    • And on the other end of the spectrum, the belief that all fairytales were "originally" gory grimdark horror stories before their Disneyfication. Some were gory by modern standards and there's a lot of Values Dissonance, but overall it's not as bad as many people make it out to be.
    • For some reason, knights in shining armor rescuing distressed damsels from dragons is commonly associated with fairytales, even though this is something that almost never happens.
    • Also, very few of them (the original ones) began with Once Upon a Time.[1]
  • Bond Villain Stupidity is a Dead Unicorn Trope in regards to the tendency of the villains to explain their Evil Plan to James Bond and, thus, enabling him to foil it. In the movies Bond often figures out most of the scheme by himself, or occasionally the plot is about a MacGuffin whose value is spelled out early on in the movie. The villains do explain the plot often enough, just not 'till long after its clear he knows enough that it's irrelevant anyway- they are usually just explaining how they expect to benefit from what are otherwise acts of terrorism and mass murder. Occasionally Bond will overhear them explaining the plan to somebody else, and twice his Arch Enemy Blofeld played a Double Subversion when he Bond asked what he was up to and he refused to explain, then teased that the world will find out anyway (global ransom schemes both times- you kind of have to tell somebody in those cases, since that's how they work). The rest of the time the Big Bad is just clearing up some technical details for him, mostly to gloat about how much smarter their plan is than it already seems.
  • Many people believe that Indiana Jones-type adventurers were ubiquitous in film serials. But if you actually watch those old film serials, you'll find very few characters or situations reminiscent of Indiana Jones, since George Lucas based those films mainly on feature-length adventure films of the '30s and '40s, not serials.
  • Myth Busters, of all things, made reference to a Dead Unicorn Trope when tackling the (busted) myth that steel-toed boots could actually sever toes instead of protecting them. Adam commented about "samurai movies" where the tip of someone's boot would be cut off, except the toes are intact right behind where the tip was severed. This is actually a somewhat common comedy trope, but its appearance in a "samurai movie" is highly dubious at best (what with the characters wearing sandals and all).
    • Mythbusters does this a lot, actually, especially in recent seasons. Since almost all the more well-known myths have been tested over the course of the show's eight seasons, the show has used much more obscure ones to keep things going.
    • Since firing their folklorist, the show has been more about finding out what is possible than setting the record straight.
  • Speaking of Samurai, Japanese armor was never made of lacquered wood despite many claims to the contrary--it was usually various types of leather, iron, and eventually steel armor, with plenty of silk cording to tie it together.
  • At one point in the The Tough Guide to Fantasyland the author comments on a sort of gender-based Wacky Wayside Tribe plot/setting, in which while boys do one thing, girls get to bond with dragons. The thing is, that while there are books with female Dragon Rider characters (i.e. Pern), there doesn't seem to be any series in which that was an exclusively female activity- it's closer to exclusively male in the Pern books, and the Pit Dragon Chronicles likewise features males making that bond, and all of these books were written before the Guide was published.
    • Though the Pit Dragons Chronicles aren't particularly well-known, and the "bond" isn't to the same extent as the Pern books.
    • It is worth noting, however, that the author of the Tough Guide wrote it after reading umpteen Tolkien-esque, Tolkien-length novels as a judge in a contest. She was probably not referring to any published books when she wrote this.
  • In Doctor Who, not many of the Doctor's companions actually twisted an ankle, and very few were helpless screaming women.
    • The line about Daleks being unable to climb stairs was trotted out right up until their return in 2005, even though it was implicitly obvious they could in the 1960s and actually shown on screen in the 1980s.
  • The idea of The Igor comes from conflating Dr. Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant in the first movie, Fritz, and Ygor from the third and fourth movies -- a non-hunchbacked (though broken-necked, which caused him to carry one shoulder higher) schemer who wanted to reanimate the monster for his own personal gain. Neither of them were in the original book.
    • In the same way, the idea that Franky is a child-minded Gentle Giant. He was like this at the beginning of the books, but then he learned how to speak, and even began to question his own existence. The movie never got that far, but from that point on, everyone imitated the movie.
  • Country Music songs being about dogs and/or trucks. While they may be mentioned in passing, they're virtually never the primary topic.
    • Mocked by David Allan Coe on "You Never Even Called Me by My Name" in which he addresses the listener:

 Well a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song, and he told me it was the perfect country and western song.

I wrote him back a letter and told him it was not the perfect country and western song because it hadn't said anything at all about "Mama", or trains... or trucks... or prison... or gettin' drunk.

Well he sat down and wrote another verse to the song and he sent it to me. After readin' it I realized that my friend had written the perfect country and western song. And I felt obliged to include it on this album; the last verse goes like this here:

Well I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison

And I went to pick her up in the rain

But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck

She got run'd over by a damned ol' train

    • Similarly, there is a widespread view that country songs typically feature a slow, maudlin list of problems (my wife left me, my truck broke down, my dog died - we all know the old joke about what happens when you play a country song backwards.) While there are a few songs in existence that fit this description (e.g. "Things Have Gone to Pieces" and "These Days I Barely Get By", both recorded by George Jones), they are nowhere near as common as supposed. There is a kernel of truth in this stereotype in that country songs often deal with depressing, real-world subjects, but they are almost never structured in this manner.
      • There are, however, quite a few blues songs that follow that structure. Almost none of them start "I woke up this morning", though.
  • Ultra Super Death Gore Fest Chainsawer 3000: Ultra-violent video games do exist, but anyone who has actually played games like the Grand Theft Auto series or other bloody games like the Fallout series know there is a hell of a lot more to them than senseless violence. Mortal Kombat kind of started the trope, but even it wasn't that violent of a game and the controversy was probably more due to the violence appearing more realistic due to the digitized images of real people being the characters, nor was it anywhere near as over the top as parodies of it were described as. Games like the Manhunt series and MadWorld do sort of fit the stereotype, but they also largely grew out in response to this trope and are basically parodies of video game violence as well. The only real example of a senselessly violent video game played straight is a cancelled PS 1 game called Thrill Kill, which was cancelled exactly as the publisher felt it would wreck their reputation in releasing such a game. Which says it all really. And even Thrill Kill had plenty of tongue-in-cheek, a mythology, etc.
    • No More Heroes was about chopping people in half, lopping off their necks, and bathing in the blood fountain coming from their necks. And occasionally mowing the lawn. There wasn't much else too it than "senseless" killing. And people loved it.
    • And even Manhunt did not simply consist of one incredibly violent murder after another. More like one incredibly violent murder, then stalking around in the shadows for five minutes, then another incredibly violent murder.
      • Plus, Manhunt was a satire of violent games. Come on, the villain is an unseen force controlling the character's actions and making him do horrible things? The villain is the player.
      • Even MadWorld was considered a parody on how games like GTA are normally perceived. There was a reason why it was released on the Wii, anyway.
  • Pretty much anything related to Game Shows:
    • The "Guy Smiley" stereotype of game show hosts as always-smiling Large Hams who give a "slimy used-car salesman" vibe, crack awful jokes and wear loud, flashy suits. Most of the genre's greats were a bit goofy and loud at times, but even party animals like Gene Rayburn or slicker types like Wink Martindale or Monty Hall knew when to put on a serious demeanor. The "Guy Smiley" type host is basically an extreme Flanderization of the three aforementioned hosts, with a few traits thrown in just for comedy. Prolific host Bill Cullen was mellow, unattractive, kindly and self-deprecating, not to mention physically handicapped by polio. In other words, he was about as far from the "Guy Smiley" stereotype as possible.
    • The deep, melodramatic voice that most "parody" announcers have is almost entirely fabrication. Don Pardo had a deep, dramatic voice, but it was authoritative and exciting without being over-the-top. (That, and 99% of his game show career was before 1975.) In fact, most announcers sound absolutely nothing like that. Some were higher-voiced and commanding (Johnny Olson, Johnny Gilbert); others were much mellower (Gene Wood, Jack Clark, Charlie O'Donnell, John Harlan); and even when he was hamming it up, Rod Roddy was still high and nasal. Burton Richardson almost played this kind of voice straight for a while, but toned it down in time.
    • Cheap, chintzy sets that look like they were scavenged from a backwater cable access channel's news program. Sure, maybe in the olden days, back when TV was predominantly black and white, the sets weren't much to write home about, but they went all-out a lot earlier than many people think. You know that gigantic tic-tac-toe board on The Hollywood Squares? That thing first came to be in 1966. The sprawling, three-doors-and-a-turntable set of The Price Is Right? 1972. The massive contestant turntable on Match Game? 1973.
    • Having the audience shout the show's name in the intro. Wheel of Fortune is the only show that has ever done this (although the 1985 show Break the Bank did it when throwing to commercial). And even then, Wheel's shout is almost always pre-recorded.
  • The Trope Namer for The Dragon trope. Very rarely has the right hand man or most powerful underling of the Big Bad in works of fiction been an actual dragon.
  • Some pornographic films advertise that they do not use the missionary position, as everyone is tired of that because it is so common. However, the missionary position is actually avoided for the fairly obvious reason that it's difficult to see the woman's "assets" if the actors are smooshed against each other (for the same reason, reverse cowgirl, rear-entry, and anal are far more popular in porn than in real life). Using it would actually be a subversion.
    • Also, during the missionary position it's easier to see the man than the woman, which is exactly what porn[2] wants to avoid.
  • Cardboard Boxes, Fruit Carts and the Sheet of Glass are obstacles that commonly, but never seriously, appear in chase scenes.
    • Probably true with sheets of glass, but boxes and especially fruit stands appear in many action movie car chases in movies of the 70s and 80s.
  • The stereotype of the typical JRPG protagonist as being an angsty, spikey-haired teenager swinging a sword with its own zip code. The character the stereotype is based on, Cloud Strife, doesn't even hit all the points, since Cloud is twenty-one.
    • They may be taking bits of both him and Squall Leonhart, who isn't spiky-haired, but is much angstier and 17.
    • The ur-example characters arguably still aren't as bad as the stereotype. They both start out as pure nineties anti-heroes, are revealed as classic ineffectual anti-heroes, and then grow into actual heroes.
    • Not to mention numerous other stereotypes about JRPGs that are largely based on exaggerations or mischaracterizations of Final Fantasy (And mostly VII and VIII at that)... ignoring not only the fact that many of these weren't actually true of Final Fantasy, but that it's not actually a particularly typical representative of the genre. To what degree there is a typical representative of the genre -- it's actually very diverse, especially when you take into account all the ones that never came to the US because they were "Too weird" -- Dragon Quest would have to be it, as it has done much less to stray from the initial conventions than most of its offspring.
    • One of the most common is saying every RPG is set exclusively in pseudo-medieval Europe (or a Fantasy Counterpart Culure of Europe). While it's indeed a "default" setting for JRPGs, there were already plenty of exceptions in the NES era, like Shin Megami Tensei, MOTHER, the obscure Lagrange Point or, for a non-NES example, Phantasy Star. In fact, one of the mosr popular JRPG series ever is Pokémon, which is about as un-medieval as it gets.
    • About half of the stereotypical JRPG protagonist characteristics come from Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty, which wasn't even an RPG.
  • The notion that characters in The Western wear hats that are Color Coded for Your Convenience is taken from children's shows. As a rule, serious Westerns never followed this convention.
  • The line "Here be dragons" was not common on early maps: in fact, it's only found on the Lenox Globe (from the 1500s): HIC SVNT DRACONES is written on the coast of eastern Asia, probably in reference to komodo dragons. Roman and medieval cartographers usually wrote HIC SVNT LEONES ("Here are lions") on unexplored areas.
  • A once commonly joked about aspect of Emo music before the term hit the mainstream was the supposed tendency of bands to cry on stage, but despite the many jokes about this and some parodies of it there are no reliable reports of of any bands actually doing this.
  • During the heyday of the "quirky indie" style of movie, parodies and jokes about it often included barbs about them always featuring a guy hooking up with a gorgeous girl far out of his league. But while this is a common sitcom trope, it doesn't describe these movies too well, usually featuring a more down to Earth, cute Moe type as the female lead with the male usually being the equivalent, a guy who doesn't mean the conventional standards of handsome but few would consider Jim Carrey, Michael Cera or Paul Dano to be actually unattractive (not to mention Joseph Gordon-Levitt...)
    • It tends to be more about the social (not socioeconomic, mind you) status of the characters. They aren't cool enough.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the Dastardly Whiplash character archetype is not a parody of stock silent film villains. The only silent film work that contains a character similar at all is the serial The Perils of Pauline, and in it the character is quite different from any later parodies. As Dudley Do-Right was a parody of Pauline in many ways, this led to the misconception that such a character was very common throughout all silent films.
  • The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Cliches, some of which are worded on way too specific detail (For example, the very first one). There are some spot-on ones though (Like The next one).
  • The so-called cliche of Clark Kent changing to Superman in phone booths comes entirely from TWO straight uses in the Superman Theatrical Cartoons of the 1940s. A use of this trope in the comic books of the same period had Superman note how difficult it is to change costume in a phone booth, meaning this was deconstructed even when it was new. Parodies and homages sprung up soon afterward, but in the comics Superman would more often change costume in a deserted storeroom or alleyway, and in the George Reeves television series he NEVER used a phone booth at all. Later uses of the phone booth costume change outside of parody are all done with winks, nods, or other acknowledgements of the 'cliche'. Brian Cronin sets the record straight in his 'Comic Book Legends Revealed' blog here.
  • Synchro Vox was only ever used seriously in a few animated series during The Fifties and Sixties, notably Clutch Cargo and Space Angel. It was immediately discredited as an extreme form of Limited Animation, and was used only for comedic effect afterward.
  • Zombies eating brains. It was not a part of Night of the Living Dead or any of the films that followed on it, until Return of the Living Dead -- which was released in 1985, nearly two decades after Night, and was a much more comedic and less serious take on the zombie movie genre than its predecessors or most of its followers. Furthermore, it's almost impossible to find a movie where the zombies actually say "Braaaiiiins."
    • Similar to Aliens Steal Cattle, this appears to be a conflation of two unrelated aspects of Romero's zombies: they eat human flesh, and the only way to kill them is to destroy their brains.
    • It's also worth noting that pop culture zombie tropes have almost nothing to do with the African/Caribbean legends--in these traditions zombies are corpses resurrected by magicians to be slaves. These zombies will not attack you (unless their masters happen to order them to, I guess) and can't "spread" their condition to you. The threat of becoming a zombie is scary, but the idea that the zombies themselves hurt people is all Hollywood. Likely it's a misappropriation of Ghouls in legend, undead who would, sure enough, eat people.
    • Similar to this is 'Voodoo dolls' which are actually taken from the western folk magic practice of Poppets, using dolls as standins when hexing someone.
  • Many parodies and pastiches of Jason Voorhees, villain of the Friday the 13 th films, show him wielding a chainsaw, even though his favorite weapon in the movies is just a machete. Indeed, he has never used a chainsaw for any purpose -- the closest he came was using a circular saw once (and interestingly, a chainsaw is used against him in the second movie). Most likely, his attributes are being mixed up, intentionally or otherwise, with those of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • Satanism in rock and metal music is an odd example that might qualify as a Undead Unicorn Trope, or at least did at one point. Black Sabbath was the first band notable for Satanic imagery in their music, but the members were actually using it to represent evil and what was wrong, not promoting it (which failed to get across to Moral Guardians.) Some bands like Coven and Venom that later did this did so in a joking manner specifically just to provoke Moral Guardians and obviously did not really worship (or even believe in) Satan. However the Black Metal scene of the late 80s/early 90s in Norway did in fact feature a few theistic Satanists and serious promotion of it. That was still the minority though (in fact, even other black metal bands complained about how they were being lumped in with the minority of Satanists) and most bands doing it were still just looking for shock value. Today it's unlikely to either see it played completely straight or even just played for shock value, any band using Satanic imagery will do so only jokingly as a means to mock previous bands using it, not to irritate Moral Guardians as it is no longer taken seriously.
    • Though of course modern bands whose members are in fact theistic Satanists do pop up from time to time. It would nevertheless be fair to say that the popularity of Satanism in rock and metal music has been (and is) grossly overstated.
  • After R. Kelly wrote a "hip-hopera", Disney started parodying it in SEVERAL shows, before any other "serious" examples had surfaced.
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex refers to this in-universe with the series' subtitle, defining it as one or more copycat activities (any activities, presumably) mimicking an original that doesn't exist.
  • Food Pills in science fiction. William Gibson mocked the idea in his story "The Gernsback Continuum," but it appears that food pills have always been used as satire or mockery, rather than being presented as something people might actually do in the future.
    • The 1930 sci-fi musical Just Imagine may be the source. It was a comedy, but it seemed to take food pills seriously. (The joke comes from the unfrozen protagonist getting used to eating them, not the food pills existing.)
  • The popular belief that the word cards for silent movies constantly employed Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness. While occasionally words might pop up that aren't commonly used anymore, most silent films were very visually-driven, kept the dialog very simple, and only used word cards to move the plot along.
  • Blackmail Is Such an Ugly Word: If you look through the example list, you'll find most of the examples are followed by either "appropriate, but ugly" or "I much prefer [insert random word like "cheeseburger"]".
  • Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality devotes an entire chapter to debunking the idea that you can only Transfigure whole objects as wholes, i.e. "you couldn't Transfigure half a match into a needle, you had to Transfigure the whole thing." Using his knowledge that there are no "solid" objects since everything is made of atoms, Harry manages to prove that partial Transfiguration is not impossible, to the amazement of Dumbledore and McGonagall. The thing is, this rule never existed in the actual Harry Potter books and partial Transfigurations happened all the time (mostly being failed full transfigurations). And in the same chapter, Harry briefly tries and fails to debunk the idea that you can't conjure objects out of thin air, something which also happens all the time in the actual series. And yes, it's justified in-universe by the fact that it's an Alternate Universe Fic, but out-of-universe it's still subverting a trope which didn't exist in the first place.
  • Most online parodies of Double Dragon depict Abobo talking in Hulk Speak, despite the fact that the only time he ever did talk that way was in Battletoads & Double Dragon, a non-canon crossover which got Machine Gun Willy's name wrong and had a made-up villain in the form of the "Shadow Boss" (which was actually Jimmy Lee's title in the first NES game).
  • Myspeld Rokband, to an extent. While there were a few straight uses, it was (and still is) definitely parodied a lot more often then it was used straight.

Notes

  1. Many of the Grimms' tales do, though.
  2. porn aimed at straight men, that is
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