Crumbling Castles of Doom
May 5, 2011 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Where did this common Fantasy/horror/sci-fi convention come from?

There's this phenomenon in movies and literature where a structure, like a castle or palace or fort or whatever immediately begins to self-destruct once an evil or malevolent force / monster / character is killed or otherwise vanquished. There are examples of this too numerous to list, but, for example: Conan the Destroyer, when he defeats the mirror monster, Krull, Return of the King, The Simpsons Tree House of Horror, etc.

So, my questions is this: does anyone know where this convention was started? And why is it so relatively common?
posted by doogan nash to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The earliest one I can think of is the very end of Poltergeist, and I know that at least the Treehouse of Horror one is a pretty obvious reference to that movie.

I'm not sure what makes you think this was in Return of the King. Barad-Dur falls over and then The Eye explodes, but that's as close as it gets.
posted by Plutor at 3:02 PM on May 5, 2011

Best answer: TvTropes to the rescue (or not, depending if you wanted to get anything else done today).
Why is this useful, apart from topping the Final Battle with an exciting escape scene to safety (after which you can directly cut to the happy end celebrations?) Think about it. The Big Bad has had a massive base, with several valuable gadgets, and many remaining lesser minions. You definitely do not want to drag out the story by having the hero deal with them one by one too, and much less to put his hands on something that could change the status quo. Better just blow it all up. And best of all, once you do actually make it out alive, you get the immensely satisfying shot of the hero looking on as the Supervillain Lair goes bye-bye in spectacular fashion.
They cite Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher as the original "Collapsing Lair", which seems a little dubious.
posted by lantius at 3:03 PM on May 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Sorry, I misunderstood the trope you were talking about. I was thinking too specific.
posted by Plutor at 3:05 PM on May 5, 2011

Response by poster: Plutor: What I am thinking of is Barad-Dur falling over. Not quite the same, but it popped into my head as a structure being destroyed once.
posted by doogan nash at 3:06 PM on May 5, 2011

Well, in the Lord of the Rings, isn't it just that Gollum falls (or was he pushed?!) into the Fire, taking the One Ring with him - the Ring into which the Dark Lord, Sauron, had poured a significant amount of his power and general evilness. The mountain/volcano erupts, taking Barad-Dur out, too.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 3:10 PM on May 5, 2011

Seems like an instance of "the well-being of the land is tied to the ruler" which is at least as old as the Fisher King and probably much older.
posted by Zed at 3:11 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You want to reach back even further. The biblical stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho and Babel are all destroyed by God in an effort to root out bad stuff. There's a trope of "destroying the city in order to save it" that seems to be a precursor to "we defeated X, and now his city/lair has been destroyed in the process."

These are old, old story tropes having to do with Apollonian and Dionysian metaphors, where Apollo stands for goodness and order, and when the evil (the chaotic, Dionysian element) is destroyed, order is restored.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:17 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You can always count on TvTropes: Load-Bearing Boss.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 3:23 PM on May 5, 2011

TVTropes has another related page that links the lair's collapse with the death of the enemy: they were a Load-Bearing Boss.

That page cites an example from Le Morte d'Arthur (published 1485):
And when Balin saw that spear, he gat it in his hand and turned him to King Pellam, and smote him passingly sore with that spear, that King Pellam fell down in a swoon, and therewith the castle roof and walls brake and fell to the earth, and Balin fell down so that he might not stir foot nor hand. And so the most part of the castle, that was fallen down through that dolorous stroke, lay upon Pellam and Balin three days.
posted by Paragon at 3:25 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was going to say Fall of the House of Usher before even looking at TV Tropes
From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "House of Usher."
posted by empath at 3:29 PM on May 5, 2011

Here's another early example:
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[e] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
posted by empath at 3:33 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Greek gods loved destroying the cities of "bad guys". Salmoneus was the first one I could think of, though there are many others. From Apollodorus, book 1:

"Salmoneus at first dwelt in Thessaly, but afterwards he came to Elis and there founded a city. And being arrogant and wishful to put himself on an equality with Zeus, he was punished for his impiety; for he said that he was himself Zeus, and he took away the sacrifices of the god and ordered them to be offered to himself; and by dragging dried hides, with bronze kettles, at his chariot, he said that he thundered, and by flinging lighted torches at the sky he said that he lightened. But Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt, and wiped out the city he had founded with all its inhabitants."
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:25 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

For a (possibly) real example, try Nikola Zrinski's trick at the end of the famous Battle of Szigetvár. It's said that when he was down to his last 600 knights, he made a last heroic speech ("Let us go out from this burning place into the open and stand up to our enemies!"), led them out to die in a final charge against the Turks... and lit the powder magazine beneath the castle on his way out, killing three thousand of the enemy when they spilled inside to plunder it.
posted by vorfeed at 10:06 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Half-serious cautionary warning about TVTropes: It's the Doritos of the Internet. You can't click just one.
posted by Heretical at 10:38 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

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