Death's Hourglass

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I told her I knew when I was going to die because my birth certificate had an expiration date on it.

It's one of mankind's oldest and most useless musings... "which will be the day I die, how much time do I still have?" In real life no one knows until it's too late. In fiction, some characters only need to check their clock.

The lifetime of a character has a physical manifestation, an object from which it's ticking, flowing or trickling ominously away. What discerns a Death's Hourglass from other "impending doom in 5,4,3" devices is that it is long-term and personal: It's a part of the character's life for more than a few action-filled hours, long enough to have an impact on the whole mood, usually by making it more tragic. Maybe everybody has one, maybe only one character has, but one Death's Hourglass only measures one person's time.

There are two distinct varieties of this:

One is fatalistic: It counts down the time to the hour, the bell tolls for Alice and it's over. Nothing to do about it, there's the end, exit Alice.

The other's message is the opposite: A deadline, the character has to win the game, defeat the villain, break the curse, or else... It urges the character to do something.

There are clocks, watches, withering flowers and other things that fill this function, but the most popular and oldest design is a running hourglass, which is so poetically symbolic. May overlap with When the Clock Strikes Twelve if the hourglass or bell is also counting down to midnight. Compare with Doomsday Clock, which is the fatalistic version of this on a global scale.

As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.

Examples of Death's Hourglass include:

Fatalistic[edit | hide | hide all]

Anime and Manga[edit | hide]

  • In Fist of the North Star, Rei was pierced in the Shinketsushuu power point by Raoh. When he was struck, Rei was given 72 hours to live. During his final days of life, Rei and his allies would fight Yuda. As the 3-day limit was about to take effect, Toki briefly counters it by giving Rei one more day by touching the Shinreidai power point.
  • In Death Note, everyone has a time at which they are destined to die. It's only visible to those with a Shinigami's eyes. However, using a death note allows you to kill people before their time and indirectly extend lives.
    • In an interesting subversion, Grim Reapers are encouraged to kill people before their time expires because that's how they extend their own lives.
  • Rosette's watch in Chrono Crusade shows how much of her soul she has left from her Deal with the Devil. The more Chrono uses her soul to power himself, the less the watch's face glows. (It looks almost like a glow-y pie chart.)
  • In Alice 19th, Frey's mentor Eric dies after literal bells ring twelve times.
  • The infected survivors in King of Thorn are all given thick bracelets with a small bar/screen on them before becoming Human Popsicles. The bar is normally white, but as the Medusa Virus inside them gets worse, it steadily turns black. Once the bar is totally black, the infectee doesn't have much longer before they petrify.
  • Illegal contractors in Pandora Hearts have a clock face on their chest, measuring how many times the can use their chain's power before they are pulled down into the abyss.
  • Mahoromatic: How many days before Mahoro completely shuts down is shown at the end of each episode. (Parodied in He Is My Master.)
  • The "On the Next..." preview of Fate/Zero shows how much time are left before the Holy Grail appears. Since Irisviel is the conduit for the grail and the manifestation will obliterate her personality, this effectively acts as her Death's Hourglass.

Film[edit | hide]

  • In Fritz Lang's film Der Mude Tod, Death has a candle representing each person and when the candle burns out the person dies. Whether this is an example of the fatalistic variety is ambiguous; Death gives the main character a chance to save three lives whose candles are about to go out, but in every case the protagonist fails, suggesting that perhaps it's impossible to defeat Death.
    • This is likely a reference to one of the lesser known fairy tale collected by The Brothers Grimm: In it, a poor man with a lot of children tries to find a godfather for his newest son by asking everyone he meets. After God and the Devil he meets Death which he decides on. The godfather grants the son knowledge which allows him to become a famous doctor, but after cheating Death one time too many over a princess' life, Death brings him into a cave full of candles. When each burns down the person connected to the flame dies. The son begs Death after being shown his own short candle to light another with the flame. Death agrees - but drops the candle before lighting the new one.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • The Death of the Discworld has shelves and shelves of most different hourglasses.
    • The Discworld's "lifetimers" aren't just clocks. If a person's hourglass is broken, they immediately die or go catatonic, and Death doesn't normally control the flow of timers. He is merely supposed to help a timer's owner pass on when the sand runs out. (Fiddling with timers is usually a bad idea, as several characters discover the hard way.) Even Death has an hourglass, but it has no sand and cannot be damaged.
    • Rincewind's hourglass is a particularly interesting one. It has a very odd shape and the sand within sometimes flows slower or even in reverse. Even Death himself doesn't know when Rincewind's life is going to end.
    • Death doesn't know when a lot of Discworld characters are going to die. It has to do with 'quantum' or something. In Thud!, Vimes is having a near-Death experience, which forces Death to have a near-Vimes experience. Fortunately, Death brought a book.
    • As the Hogfather, Death was able to reverse the flow of sand in the Match Girl's hourglass.

"The Hogfather gives presents. There's no greater present than a future."

    • He does the same thing for the title character in Mort, and is able to add to the sand in a young girl's hourglass in Reaper Man, by sacrificing the sand in his own glass (not the one above; he's been given a new one as a "retirement present").
    • It is explicitly stated that this is a mortal ability - many do it all the time, without even realizing. Death, under normal circumstances, cannot truly extend someone's life.
    • In fact he doesn't add sand to anyone's life timers. In Reaper Man, it doesn't count because he wasn't Death at the time and could act as a human would to save lives. In Hogfather he isn't Death either, he's filling in for the Hogfather, who's job isn't to let people die, see above quote. In Mort, he doesn't give Mort more time, he turns the hourglass over. He doubles his lifespan, at the cost that now Mort knows exactly how long he has to live.
    • Elsewhere in Discworld, the witch Miss Treason from the Tiffany Aching subseries cultivates a rumor that she only stays alive because she keeps a clunky iron clock wound up and ticking.
  • From the Children of the Lamp series by P.B. Kerr, in one of the books titled The Blue Djinn of Babylon, the titular Blue Djinn measures her remaining lifespan by means of an extremely large hour glass.
  • Dragons in Raymond Feist's Midkemia novels instinctively know the exact moment of their death for their entire lives.
  • In Stephen King's Insomnia, when a person's aura turns black, it's time for the Reapers to come.
  • The short story The Last Leaf by O. Henry: a seriously-ill girl believes that her life will end as the ivy outside her window sheds its last leaf. She gets better, of course.
  • Thomas Mann's version of Doctor Faustus has the Devil (probably) taunt the damned character with this concept. In their conversation an earlier book Melancholia is credited as the Trope Codifier.

Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Londo Mollari, in Babylon 5. From the first season we know that Centauri have prophetic dreams about their own deaths, that they know where and when they are going to die.In Londo's case his dream has him as an old man, twenty years from now (2258) with his hands at G'Kar's throat and vice-versa. He is very fatalistic about it. Said dream is a recurring sequence through the years. He indeed dies in 2278, although the context is slightly different than he'd originally expected, as he wanted G'Kar to kill him to end his life under the control of the Drakh and to give Sheridan time to escape.
    • There's another person in the series who fits in the trope even better: John Sheridan after dying in Z'ha'dum gains limited amount of life-force from Lorien, and from then on knows exactly how long he is going to live barring accidents or violence.
  • Although it's a clock instead of an hourglass, there is an episode of The Twilight Zone which revolves around the premise of a man who thinks his grandfather clock will expire when he dies and vice versa.
  • On Dead Like Me, the Grim Reapers had post-its showing a person's exact location and time of death. Also serves as an Or Else example, as they had to 'reap' the person's 'soul' before the stated time or else said soul became trapped in the corpse.
    • They could reap it later-the deadline is more of a professional courtesy thing, because if a soul is reaped after death, the soul has to experience whatever the corpse experiences between death and reaping.
  • An old Lost in Space episode featured an alien merchant who owned "time tapes" - big reel to reel tapes that measured out a person's time. When the tape ran out, bye bye.

Music[edit | hide]

  • Nickelback's video for "Savin' Me", although it's not completely fatalistic. The protagonist is saved from stepping in front of a bus and gets a weird form of Stat-O-Vision, seeing timers counting down over the heads of people around him. At one point, he sees the numbers go to 0 above someone being wheeled into an ambulance. At the end, he spots a woman whose timer is about to run out and saves her from an accident; he walks away, task completed, while she experiences the Stat-O-Vision instead.

Mythology[edit | hide]

  • The Grim Reaper is usually shown with an hourglass for everyone that shows how long they live.
  • Older Than Feudalism: From Greek myth, there are the Moirai, the Fate sisters, who measure out people's lifespans on their threads.
  • There's a Greek myth about Meleager, who was prophesied to live only until a log in the fire had burned down. His mother promptly snatched it out and extinguished it, and he kept on living until years later... when he murdered his two uncles in a fight, and his mother threw that log back in the fire. (Nobody does dysfunctional families like Greek mythology.)

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • The Sims 2 had the Grim Reaper, who'd had an hourglass only if your sim died of old age.
  • Shin Megami Tensei Devil Survivor gives you the Death Clock. It's a number that appears above a person's head and shows how many more days they are destined to live. Thwart a significant event involving some demons, and the number on the death clock goes up.
  • An unusual example comes up in Star Control 2. One of the Melnorme you encounter posesses a device called MetaChron, which predicts its own destruction. It extends to its owner, though, considering that he keeps it in his spaceship (to be more precise, under his pillow). While having no relation to the plot by itself, the conversation about it hints that you are on a Timed Mission.

Web Comics[edit | hide]

  • Death in Death and The Maiden has one so he can travel in time. It becomes the MacGuffin in the sequel when it gets stolen, prompting Death to get a replacement: a wrist watch.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • All Dogs Go to Heaven - every dog has a clock representing their lives (in heaven): it's suggested these are countdown clocks, though it's never actually said. When Charlie returns to life, he is immortal as long as his clock keeps working, which is similar but not identical to the trope.
    • There's also the fact that interfering with the natural progression of his life in such a manner gets him banned from returning to Heaven when he finally dies. He sees what happens
  • |Hercules had the Fate sisters, and their strings of fate.
  • The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy has a room of life hourglasses. And if you flip it upside down, it de-ages you to child, then fetus, then nothing. If it's broken, the person immediately disappears.
    • Even the Grim Reaper himself has one, albeit much larger and filled with black sand, but we get to see him as a kid in some episodes so it makes more sense than one would think.
      • Also, possibly due to Achievements in Ignorance, complete idiot Billy manages to flip over Grim's giant hourglass, quickly de-aging him into oblivion.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • Execution, if you don't escape a prison by the time it's scheduled, then you're dead.
  • The website http://www.tombclock.com. You enter some basic information about yourself (age, height, weight, living environment, etc.) and, using some unknown algorithm, the site will calculate the exact date of your death.

Or else...[edit | hide]

Anime and Manga[edit | hide]

  • In D.Gray-man Yu Kanda possesses a similar glassed flower. Nothing is known about it, not how he acquired it, if it's reverseable, what happens when all the petals have fallen nor who's time it even counts. It's almost Fanon though, that it counts down Kanda's lifetime and belongs to a curse.
    • Recent chapters show that Kanda has had hallucinations of lotus flowers for many years, and that they have been a red herring all along. The thing that actually shows his lifespan appears to be a tattoo.
  • One Ranma 1/2 story has Shampoo slowly being turned into a cat while a bell slowly tolls. She must get Ranma to kiss her before it finishes or she'll be stuck as a cat forever.
    • In another story, Akane's body is reduced to a living, but motionless doll by the power of the Kinjakan. If they can't restore her with pure Jusenkyo water before her eyes close completely, she dies. They do, but Ranma was just barely able to get the water up to her through equal amounts of skill and miracles.
  • In Saint Seiya, there is a clock tower in Athena's Sanctuary that measures time with bright blue flames blazing over the symbols of the Twelve Zodiac Houses. It is ignited twice. The first time is when the Bronze Saints invade the Sanctuary and must save Athena's life before all the flames wink out. The second time is when the Gold and Bronze Saints must prevent Hades' Specters from invading Athena's Sanctuary for twelve hours, which is the maximum time on Earth allotted to the newly-risen dead.
    • Also, Shaka keeps a Buddhist rosary with 108 beads. Each time a Specter is killed, a bead turns dark. He uses this to thoroughly freak out the Specters that arrive at the House of Virgo.
  • Umineko no Naku Koro ni has a clock that appears in between scenes that serves both this purpose and allowing the audience to figure out the time orientation of different scenes (sometimes, the clock goes a tiny bit backwards).
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!: After losing to Yami Malik in the Battle City Finals, Mai is trapped in an hourglass by the former where she will die if her captor isn't defeated in a duel within the next 24 hours.

Film[edit | hide]

Klytus: You have until the sands...run up.
 

  • Logan's Run had a "life clock" crystal embedded in the palm of each citizens in the dystopian domed city. The crystal blinks ominously when the wearer reaches the age at which (s)he will be terminated (21 in the book, 30 in the movie).
  • Labyrinth had one in the form of the clock with 13 numbers. Sarah had 13 hours in order to get through the labyrinth, get to the castle, and get her baby brother or else he'd be turned into a goblin. Understandably if she failed she'd probably be sent home to try to explain what happened to her brother...
  • In In Time, everyone has a personal death clock. However, time is used as currency, and thus can be extended. The poor race against the clock every day, while the world's richest people are effectively immortal.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Discworld again: in Reaper Man Death is laid off by the Auditors of Reality and is given a small hourglass with a few weeks of life in the world. He demonstrates that people can "live on borrowed time" by sharing his hourglass with a little girl whose life was at risk, and later someone else repays the favor at just the right moment.
  • In Piers Anthony's On a Pale Horse, the Incarnation of Death carries an hourglass that shows how long he has to collect his next client's soul. Subverted in that Death can actually postpone a given death briefly if his schedule demands it, although Fate will intercede if he delays things too long.
    • Make that a snazzy black watch; even an Anthropomorphic Personification has to keep up with the times.
    • Time, naturally, is the one to bear an hourglass, but among its many powers is the ability to freeze time and thus prevent death. It never actually measures out lifespans, though book seven in the series states that each grain of sand within it does correspond to a human life.
    • In For The Love Of Evil, Lucifer torments Parry by telling him the exact time of his death.
  • In the Left Behind book Kingdom Come: While lacking the actual timepiece, citizens of the Millennial Kingdom know that "naturals" who stay unbelievers by the time they reach 100 will instantly die and go to Hell. The only way for "naturals" to avoid this fate is to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The Other Light faction sees God Is Evil because of this and has prepared for that contingency by having their teachings passed down to the next generation of its converts so that the generation that gets to confront God and Jesus by the end of the Millennium will be "assured victory" when Satan is released. Unfortunately for them, it didn't go as they hoped.

Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

Music Videos[edit | hide]

  • The music video for Nickelback's "Savin' Me" begins with a twitchy-looking man saving a well-dressed man from walking in front of a car. Soon, the well-dressed man sees what the twitchy man saw—numbers over everyone's heads, counting down (and, in one case, winking out.) The end of the video confirms that those whose lives have been saved get their numbers reset, though they can't see their own numbers.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Who can forget the original Prince of Persia?[context?]
  • When characters (well, the ones called "Players") in The World Ends With You receive a mission, they get numerical timers superimposed on their hands. If one pair doesn't complete the mission in time, they all get erased. (You, on the other hand, can Take Your Time.) At the end of the game, you find out that the Conductor also has a timer on his hand, albeit a longer one, and it runs out before he can finish.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass has the titular hourglass, protecting Link from the temple's curse. But only as long as it sun-ray-charged sands keep falling. Once the hourglass runs out, Link's life force is drained, which usually results in a Game Over when you're stuck to deep in the temple. Also, in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, there's the on-screen clock, aided by the fact that the Moon is coming down slowly and it's visible from almost everywhere in the game's world. The on-screen clock eventually changes into a countdown in the game's last six minutes.
  • Final Fantasy games often include enemies that cast a Death Countdown spell which will instantly kill a cursed character if the battle is not over before the counter reaches zero. Failing any other option, this can often be delayed if the character is re-cursed, so the countdown is reset.
    • Also appears in the story of Final Fantasy XIII, where the cursed l'Cie are branded with a mark that not only identifies them as having been chosen by the fal'Cie, but also indicates how long they have to fulfill their Focus before transforming into horrifying Cie'th monsters.
      • Similar to the Kingdom Hearts example below, Eidolons and bosses will cast Doom on the party leader either immediately, or if the battle drags on for a long time. Only difference; the Doom Counter cannot be stopped with magic - the only way to extend it is to change the battle settings.
  • "Kingdom Hearts" has the Grim Reaper who casts 'doom' on each on your party members one at a time, which consists of a glowing number appearing over thier head and counting down. When it reaches 0 they are KO'd. Permanently. Fortunately you can use any stop spell to delay the countdown.
  • Ghost Trick has this when you go back in time to prevent a person's death. Unique in that it only applies when Sissel goes back in time, and it only lasts four minutes, though you can increase the time left through actions that delay the death or eliminate it altogether (The ultimate goal) by preventing the death. In game it serves as a time limit to solve the puzzle.

Web Comics[edit | hide]

  • Homestuck often shows countdown clocks of this nature.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • The flower in the glass with its dropping petals of from Disney's Beauty and the Beast showed how long the Beast had before the curse was unbreakable, ending at his 21st birthday.
  • In Aladdin, Jafar uses the "Sands of Time" to discover the one person (Aladdin) who can retrieve the lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Later, he imprisons Jasmine in the lower half of a giant hourglass, where she is in danger of suffocation due to the sand falling on her.