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Moral Guardians really do not like kids seeing things like violence, torture, death, or creepy transformations straight up. So Animated Series tend to get around that by alluding to them. A shadow thrown by the events the Moral Guardians would not want showed directly is all the viewer gets to see. Sometimes there's a witness standing in the shadow looking shocked, horrified, disgusted, etc.
Sometimes it is a dodge for a live-action or other movie, because the imagination of the audience/viewer will do all the real work. Also, it is sometimes better to imply through shadowplay than to use an actual shot because the special effects will not be sufficient to uphold the Willing Suspension of Disbelief ... or it is simply too difficult to render safely with real actors. In Crime and Punishment Series, it is also useful as a way to keep the murderer's identity hidden.
Least frequently, it is a cue to the viewer and characters within the work that something is off about the person whose shadow we are viewing; a Living Shadow perhaps.
The trope is all but absent in literature, as the reader's imagination is doing all the work anyway.
- Used in Yu-Gi-Oh! during the flashback showing Malik receiving his tattoos. (That sounds less dark than it should--said "tattoos" are actually scars carved in with a red hot knife and he was ten years old at the time.) The dub version cut the scene entirely.
A Shadow Discretion Shot of Pegasus gaining the Millennium Eye, complete with his screams of agony, however, was not cut from the dub, though the blood was removed when we looked back at his face.
Also used in a flashback episode showing how Yuugi's grandfather found the Millenium Puzzle, when his companion betrays Yuugi's grandfather, shooting him and attempting to steal the Puzzle, the tomb's curses summon up an insect monster that dismembers and eats him, showing only the shadow of this happening (though we still get to hear it just fine)
- We also get to see the shadows of everybody at Kul Elna being boiled alive in gold while Bakura looks on in horror.
- The Movie opts for a black-on-red silhouette when Kaiba launches his first attack on Yami and his monster appears behind him - and drives its dagger right through him. The only other thing that can be seen is the life energy flowing out of him afterwards.
- Played with (like everything else) in an episode of Excel Saga, where Excel is driven to distraction by the silhouette of a Visual Kei artist, Key, playing a guitar on the other side of a curtain. Due to the positioning of the instrument and the enthusiasm of his playing, the resulting shadow makes him look like he's stroking a very large phallus.
- Dante does this to Patty in the first episode of Devil May Cry: The Animated Series, using a theatre backdrop while taking of the demons trying to kill her.
- In the finale of The Dresden Files: Welcome To The Jungle, we get to see the shadow of Moe the gorilla as he dismembers the hag who had been hurting Will. And what the shadow shows is still a little graphic.
- Used in Nosferatu, for the relatively subtle scene of Orlok ascending a staircase. Still, creepy as hell. Shortly after that, there's a somewhat less famous use of it when the shadow of his hand clutches Ellen's heart, causing her to pass out.
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) has a scene where a jail warden makes an example of an inmate who "didn't give us a good day's work" by taking him to a side room and whipping his bare back. The whipping is shown in shadow on a wall.
Parodied in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, when it's revealed that the shadow itself is what's being whipped.
- The Zombie Apocalypse film Land of the Dead has a particularly grisly scene wherein a zombie tears a victim's head off with such force that the spinal cord comes out of the body with it. This is only visible in shadow, presumably because it is difficult to render such an effect believably with special effects, and the film does not otherwise shy away from extremely gory shots.
- The original Night of the Living Dead has one of these, when zombified Karen hacks her mother with a garden trowel in the basement.
- The transformation of Kalibos from man to monster in Clash of the Titans is done with only his shadow. This was in the days before morphing, so the only way to show it inexpensively was to do an animated shadow.
- Spoofed in Tank Girl. The Rippers are known to be vicious, violent monsters. And the first time Tank and Jet lay eyes on them, the audience gets to see nothing more than their shadows. They turn out to be Kangaroo Men, basically gentle (if horny) unless they need to be vicious in a fight, or are provoked.
- Used in Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, to save the bride's lover's identity, although it's pretty obvious anyway.
- Subverted in Beowulf. We see Wealthow's reaction as Grendel's shadow appears to be tearing a man in half. Then we see the real thing, and yes, he's definitely tearing a man in half.
- Subverted for comic effect in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. As Robin woos Maid Marian, their shadows fall on a screen which the Merry Men are all watching. At a high point in the action, Robin's sword tilts at a suggestive angle on his belt, causing the company to break into spontaneous applause.
- In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Cesare knifes Allan to death, completely in shadow. This has got to be the first ever use in a movie.
- Used meta-wise in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace where we see the foreshadowing whose outcome we already know.
- 300 has foreshadowing with shadows. In the village that was destroyed by a Persian scouting party, a young girl walks out of the smoke and tells the Spartans who attacked the village before dying as well. Watch her shadow that precedes her just before she's actually seen; it clearly has the shape of a Persian Immortal.
- Kung Fu Hustle features an excellent shadow discretion shot for the Musical Assassin. We see various things getting mysteriously sliced in half in time with the music, first little things seen directly, then shadow discretion shots, leading up to a character being suddenly beheaded.
- In The Last Emperor, a character's the Empress's chauffeur brains were blown out in silhouette. The same thing happened to an Israeli soldier in an Israeli movie about the '80s Lebanon war (I forget the name, but it was made around 1992).
- In Jason Takes Manhattan when Jason kills a construction worker by smashing a wrench over his head, this is shown in shadows but not his blood splattering all over the wall.
- In the first of The Mummy Trilogy movies, Anck Su Namun's suicide is done this way, so we just see the silhouette lifting the knife and striking. Likewise, the Mummy's absorption of one of the doomed Americans is done with shadows only. And the destruction of Anck Su Namun's animated corpse is shown entirely in shadow.
- Used in The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy. Zaphod's second head is cut off behind a curtain, and the viewer just sees silhouettes and hears the sound of the surgical instruments and Zaphod pleading and...
- Subverted in The Sorcerers Apprentice in the mop shoutout scene. The camera cuts back to reveal that he keeps missing, despite what you saw in the shadow.
- This is how Gone with the Wind got around strict Hays Code prohibitions on pregnancy references, by staging the childbirth scene entirely in silhouettes.
- Parodied in Hot Shots Part Deux, where President Benson and Saddam Hussein's shadows are shown fencing against each other, and then Benson and Saddam walk by in the foreground, drinking Gatorade and toweling off their foreheads.
- In the film version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when Fawkes uses his claws to tear out the Basilisk's eyes, they only show the shadows. Justified in that the film was only rated PG, so there would have been plenty of children watching.
- In The Princess and the Frog Big Daddy is scolding young Charlotte, and it looks like she's about to get a spanking for being so spoiled -- but he inverts the trope by producing a then-puppy Stella.
- At the conclusion of the 2003 Willard, a limping Ben's shadow comes into view on the shade of an upstairs window, only to be attacked by the shadow of an enraged Willard.
- Inverted in the second and third Austin Powers movies where perfectly innocuous actions seen in silhouette are mistaken for something horrifyingly perverse.
- A possible literature example occurs in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. The story is told from Bella's first-person POV, so all the action is usually described through her own eyes. But when Bree is executed by the Voluturi, Bella closes her eyes, so can only describe the sounds of a vampire being dismembered.
- In Red Dwarf the despair squid is showed only in shadow. Of course, this was almost certainly shown because they couldn't afford a squid special effect.
- In the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life", Dan's transformation into a jack-in-the-box by Anthony is depicted with a shadow.
- In the Granada TV version of The Adventure of the Naval Treaty, the fight between Holmes and Joseph Harrison (where Holmes gets knifed across the knuckles) is shown in distorted shadows.
- Used in Kamen Rider OOO for Maki's One-Winged Angel transformation into Giru. Said shadow still shows quite a bit of Body Horror.
- In Warcraft 3, Arthas stabbing his father was shown this way.
- The company logo for Darkling Room shows a bare-headed man's silhouette standing in a doorway; his shadow, cast on the floor by the light from the door, is wearing a hat. Similar hats are worn by the evil ghosts of the Ager brothers in Darkling's game, The Lost Crown: A Ghost-Hunting Adventure.
- Breath of Fire IV (or more properly, the Japanese Playstation release) provides a rare example that can also be considered to be a Gory Discretion Shot--specifically, the depiction of Fou-lu decapitating Soniel. The scene was depicted entirely via a fade to black-on-red silhouette (with normal scenes before and after; the Gory Discretion Shot bit involves "shadow blood" being shown in the decapitation.
- This scene is also notable because, despite its Bowdlerisation via Japanese conventions of Shadow Discretion Shot and Gory Discretion Shot, the scene was still Bowdlerised in its entirely from both international releases for Playstation and all releases for Windows (which were only released in Europe and Asia--yes, including Japan, whose Windows port of Breath of Fire IV had all of the international versions' censorship). This and the example from Yu-Gi-Oh mentioned above are the only two examples this troper knows of where an already censored scene was completely censored.
- The Comic Book Adaptation of Breath of Fire IV ended up completely subverting the tropes in question via ramping up the violence and gore Up to Eleven and depicting the scene (in what was already a Bloodier and Gorier adaptation) in what is easily the bloodiest scene in the entire manga--apparently as a very deliberate Take That to the international censorship.
- Dragon Quest VIII - Dhoulmagus repeatedly murders people by running them through with a long magical staff, and this trope comes into play each time this happens.
- Call of Duty World at War: The opening scene shows a Japanese officer torturing an American POW, but if you turn on the mature content filter the camera will be fixed on their shadows, the scene actually becomes a lot more scary when you can't tell what he's doing.
- Happens several times in the horror-sci-fi Adventure Game I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, when a particularly awful event is happening, such as a merciless stabbing, a rape or a wolf attack.
- Subverted in this Girls With Slingshots strip.
- Neilen the elemental changeling combines a couple kinds of discretion shot including the shadow in this Dominic Deegan comic page.
- The Habeas Jennifer's Corpus page of Hijinks Ensue uses one.
- In Blip, Lucifer did this until he was revealed. Turns out that he's Bishonen. In the strip before Hester met him, Atlantes (and his snake) had discretion shots.
- Classic Disney Shorts uses this trope.
- In "The Cactus Kid," a relatively serious gunfight between Mickey and Pegleg Pete takes place in the dark, with flashes of light illuminating their silhouettes.
- In "The Gorilla Mystery," Beppo the Gorilla is often seen only in shadow, though here the effect makes him more menacing rather than less.
- Lampshaded in "The Mad Doctor," when Dr. XXX approaches Pluto with a scary-looking knife. Their shadows on the wall mimic the action... until Dr. XXX attacks Pluto's shadow, cutting it rather than the actual Pluto in half.
- Particularly common in Disney films, as a way of dramatically portraying the Disney Villain Death.
- When the hyenas turn on Scar in The Lion King, the implied pack leaping on him to tear him apart is rendered in shadow, with a quick pan upwards and a roaring curtain of flame to hide the scene.
- The Little Mermaid: When Ursula undertook her transformation to her Giant Monster form, we got a silhouette of her laughing with her head thrown back and her tentacles waving. However, with Ariel's painful transformation from mermaid to human, in which her tail is literally torn in two, they only darkened the lighting a bit. If you lighten the screen on your monitor during her transformation, you can see plenty.
- Tarzan: In the final battle between Tarzan and Clayton, the latter is more interested in killing Tarzan with a machete than paying attention to the vines and their fall from the treetops, despite Tarzan's efforts to warn him. Tarzan lands safely on the ground and looks away. Then there's a lightning flash and the audience gets to see, rendered in shadow, that Clayton accidentally hanged himself on the vines.
Though it just may be a blink and you'll miss it sort of deal. The shadow itself appears for only a brief second right on a tree in a dark background, and you'll more likely to be focused on Tarzan himself rather than the background where the shadow appears.
- The Emperors New Groove: The trope is spoofed. You hear Yzma's evil laughter, see her glowing eyes and a roiling mass of smoke, which clears to reveal she's a tiny little kitten.
- Mickey Mouse hacking the enchanted broom to bits in Fantasia is done this way. As originally planned, we were to have seen this moment played out right in front of the camera. It was restaged in silhouette specifically to make it less scary.
- Bambi: The fight between Bambi and Ronno is staged largely in silhouette. One shot has their shadows cast over a frightened Faline. That would also count as a Battle Discretion Shot.
- Beauty and the Beast: for the first third of the movie, the Beast is seen only in shadows, saving his big reveal to when Belle first sees him. The scene of him taking Maurice away to the dungeon is done with his shadow over the servants.
- Dumbo: The ringmaster explaining the Pyramid of Pachyderms act and the clowns celebrating after the show are both shown as shadows seen from inside the tents. Also, the DeliveryStorks at the opening and the roustabouts setting up the big top in the rain.
- Let's not forget the nightmare-inducing donkey transformation scene in Pinocchio.
- Aladdin has one as the genie-empowered Jafar turns from banishing Aladdin to advance on Jasmine and her father.
- Disney gives us a live action example in the 1993 version of The Three Musketeers, when Captain Rochefort skewers a hapless thief in the Bastille's dungeons.
- Mushu uses the Shadow Discretion Shot in Mulan to pull off the image of an intimidating fierce dragon, until we see he's just a little guy.
- Batman: The Animated Series uses this trope liberally:
- There is a sequence wherein a Mad Scientist is experimenting on/torturing Selina Kyle's cat, Isis. All we see is the shadow of the man with the needle, and the shadow of Isis attempting to escape.
- "Robin's Reckoning" part one. The deaths of Dick Grayson's parents, the Flying Graysons. The viewer sees their shadows reaching for each other, then the shot changes to the severed rope, and finally Bruce Wayne's horrified face.
- "Almost Got 'Im" has Killer Croc suddenly stand up and speak in Batman's voice. After he throws Joker across the room, everyone looks at Croc in astonishment. A swinging lamp casts him into shadow for a second; during that second, before the light swings back, the shadow is Batman rather than Croc, indicating he's been disguised as Croc the whole time.
- The page image comes from "Feat of Clay". Matt Hagen's desperate attempt to steal Roland Daggett's Renuyu (a salve that temporarily turns a person's skin into something malleable like clay) after his supply was cut ends poorly when Daggett catches him in the act. His goons attempt to drown Hagen in Renuyu. This backfires when the overdose transforms Hagen into the shapeshifting menace Clayface.
- The Spectacular Spider-Man AnimatedSeries subverts this; we get Gwen and Martha staring in horror at the shadow indicating Dr. Curt Connors is turning into the Lizard, but then they bring the camera around to show the rest of the transformation.
- Spoofed in Avatar: The Last Airbender. An ominous shadow falls across the floor. Aang, Katara and Sokka hide, fearing that it's an enemy firebender. It turns out to be the first appearance of Momo the lemur.
They also quite literally invert the trope in "The Storm". We get a bright light discretion shot, due to Ozai's firebending move to scar Zuko at the Agni Kai. The viewer sees the firelight playing on the faces of the crowd, plus Iroh's reaction of horror and dismay between the smiles of Zhao and some kid we've never seen before. What the viewer hears is another story.
- El Tigre the Adventures of Manny Rivera: White Pantera and Puma Loco turn into monsters after eating fake Guacamole De Los Angeles and we only see their shadows deforming. It's a couple shots later when Manny and Frida return when we see what they've turned into.
- Yin Yang Yo: Coop the chicken transforms into Evil!Coop, and we see the shadow of the scrawny chicken falling across the titular siblings before the transformation completes.
- Lilo And Stitch: In "Frenchfry", the titular creature cooks addictively tasty meals. Lilo, Stitch and Pleakley partake so much that they become literally big and round. Pleakley continues consuming, and when Lilo returns home, we get a shot of his shadow on the door they're trying to come in through. Then we see he's ballooned four or five times his normal size, as part of the Anvilicious lesson about eating right.
- The 7th life of Garfield: His 9 Lives has this during the final shots of a Painful Transformation (though doesn't reduce the horror considering what is shown and the overall tension of the segment).
- This is used in the Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers episode "Song of the Night 'n Dale" when Dale pokes Su Lin's rear end.
- Used in The Land Before Time when Sharptooth bites a chunk of flesh off of Littlefoot's mom's back.
- Used in Danny Phantom where in an alternate future, Danny's last image is that of his killer, seen in shadows to the viewers.
- American Dragon Jake Long plays it for laughs, as Principal Rotwood makes the horrifying announcement to the class that there will now be mid-midterms. He leans into the shot and onto Jake's desk at the end of it.
- In Invader Zim when he used a robotic hand to rip out his former friend Keef's eyes and replace them with robotic ones.
- Justice League Unlimited - In the episode wherein Batman is dreaming a different life courtesy of the Lotus Eater Machine plant, we get direct shots of Thomas Wayne kicking Joe Chill's ass. When the mercy gets pulled loose by Wonder Woman and the fantasy gives way to reality, Bruce's mind remembers how this scene really ended, and the view changes to just shadows as Chill overtakes Thomas and fires on him, returning Batman to the agonized reality that he lost his parents as a small boy.
- In Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, when The Joker attacks Arthur Reeves and injects him with Joker Venom with a needle, the injection is shown in shadows.
- Parodied in Rocko's Modern Life when Rocko with an insane look on his face appears to murder Heffer with a hammer, as it turns out he's using it to hit his vacuum cleaner, and another episode when Beverly Bighead appears to murder Ed, as it turns out it was a clay sculpture.
- Re Boot: Kilobyte kills a guardian, and we see her shadow fade in and out as she is drained of energy.
- The Simpsons:
- In "Last Exit to Springfield", when Lisa sees herself in the mirror after having the orthodontic appliance put on and laughs maniacally (spoofing the Joker's scene in the 1989 Batman movie), her shadow is shown on the wall.
- Also parodied at the end of "Two Dozen and One Greyhounds"; Mr. Burns makes millions off the dogs he got from Homer turning them into racing dogs. Marge come down into the basement as we see a silhouette that appears to be Homer who has hung himself. Turns out he's clinging from the rafters batting the light-on-a-string to make himself feel better.
- In "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge", Marge suspects that Becky is going to kill her. When she can't get to sleep one night, she is startled by the door opening. She sees Becky's shadow holding a gun, but she's only returning Marge's hairdryer. She also returns her brush, which casts a shadow of a knife.
- In "Cape Feare" when Bart is trying to sleep in the boat house he sees a menacing shadowy figure holding a knife, it turns out to be Homer offering him a brownie while shouting.
- The Teen Titans episode "Crash" uses one Played for Laughs. Gizmo refuses to help the virus-infected Cyborg until Raven pulls off her hood...the shadow implies what Gizmo sees is some sort of Lovecraftian horror. Gizmo agrees to help rather than be subjected to it again.
- In the King of the Hill episode "Ser-punt" when Dale and the two "exterminators" beat Joshua the snake to death is rendered in shadows.
- The ending of the Porky Pig cartoon "One Meat Brawl" has shadow figures of Porky, his dog and the groundhog they're hunting in a massive fight. Turns out, they're casting shadows with their hands so nobody actually gets hurt.
- Done in Hot Wheels Battle Force 5 when Krytus impales Zemerik.
- MADTV parody Pokemon Park has a shadow discretion shot of a Pikachu eating one of the hapless workers.
- Prince's performance at Super Bowl XLI was intentionally done behind a curtain or sheet. The Moral Guardians still took umbrage over how phallic the performance appeared. This was, however, a Prince performance, and therefore rather watered down. In addition, the man is playing a guitar. It's difficult to impossible to avoid a phallic representation in such an instance. This could be considered an inversion of the trope, because the shadow made the phallic imagery more blatant.