The ‘dead all along’ storyline is one that is used abundantly in the world of cinema. When done properly, a protagonist’s death can come as a huge shock to the viewer. For this it is necessary for the audience to be so engaged in what’s going on in front of them that they overlook the clues being left behind. Other movies (like a few listed here) do not try to hide it as much (if at all), prompting the audience into reaching a ‘dead all along’ conclusion early on.
What many of these films portray is the notion that people are unwilling to accept the fact that they can no longer be in a loved one’s world. Whether dead or alive, most of these characters are unable to accept their fate, preferring to ignore a truth that is right in front of them. Similarly, the viewer can also get swept up into this sea of denial.
This collection of 15 Movies Where The Main Character Was Dead All Along will of course contain SPOILERS, so please don’t read on if you’re not ready to hear the truth!
15. The Uninvited
The Uninvited tells the story of Anna, a troubled young woman who is released from the psychiatric unit where she was placed after her mother died in a fire. Anna is introduced to her father’s new girlfriend, Rachel, who had not so coincidentally been her mother’s nurse. Anna and her sister Alex begin to pick up clues which suggest that Rachel killed their mother. Not only this, but Anna’s haunting dreams and hallucinations seem to be trying to warn her of something.
After Rachel drugs Anna, Alex stabs and kills her. It’s not until it’s far too late that Anna finds out that her sister is actually dead, as both her and their mother were killed in the fire — which was actually caused by Anna, upon discovering that her father and Rachel were having an affair. Anna looks down to see that it is not her sister’s hand she is holding, but the bloody knife she used to kill Rachel; she’d been imagining Alex all along.
On the one hand, the blame lies with the father for having failed to communicate more with his daughter. But honestly, who knows whether or not Anna would have done it anyway. Either way, she should have really double checked that gasoline tank!
14. Carnival of Souls
Carnival of Souls is considered the original ‘dead all along’ movie. It follows the story of Mary, who manages to survive after herself and two other women are in a car crash.
After moving to Utah, Mary starts having strange apparitions, including one of a creepy looking man who follows her all the time. Mary also finds herself drawn to a pavilion which was once used for a carnival, and she dreams of the creepy man and other ghost-like people dancing in there to eerie music. One day after a terrifying dream, Mary decides to go the pavilion, where she discovers the man dancing there with a ghostly version of herself. Naturally, she runs away, but the carnival goers chase after her and Mary is outnumbered. At the end of the movie, all three bodies are found, including Mary’s, indicating that she was dead all along.
Although this movie remains open to interpretation, Mary is clearly deeply affected by guilt (although the actual cause for her guilt is never revealed), and she feels a strange connection to the carnival, which may or may not symbolize hell or evil.
13. Vanilla Sky
Vanilla Sky plays with the concept of ‘ignorance is bliss’. David is tempted into a car by Julianna (his “f*** buddy“) despite falling for Sofia, a woman he met the night before. Due to his complete disregard for Julianna’s feelings, she becomes unhinged and crashes the car, killing herself and permanently disfiguring his face.
Once an overly confident young man, he becomes isolated from the world and Sofia. But, in a complete turn of events, Sofia comes back to him and the doctor’s tell him they can fix his face.
As the film develops, the seemingly perfect yet haunted world of David reveals itself to be a fictional one created by his own mind after he signed himself up for Life Extension (a program that prolongs life and gives people what they want in the form of a lucid dream). At the end, he learns that he had taken his own life, as he had been unable to deal with the pain the accident had caused him.
The idea that the protagonist and Sofia never got to finish what they had started is as heart wrenching to a viewer as it is to David. In the end, David chooses to go back to being alive, opting for a real life over a painless one.
12. The Others
This movie highlights the loneliness felt by the mother who not only has to deal with the death of her husband, but also with the illness plaguing her children, which causes them to have an aversion to sunlight. The darkness surrounding the family is intensified by the presence of other beings in their home.
In a surprising twist, they learn that they are actually the ones doing the haunting. The mother had killed the children and then herself some time ago when she couldn’t cope with the isolation she felt.
Throughout the entire movie, she is in denial because she can’t accept what she did to her children, and the audience, distracted by the “ghosts”, are compelled to go along with her delusional state of mind.
This adaptation of Ian McEwan’s beloved metafiction novel tells the story of Bryony, a woman afflicted with the guilt of having falsely accused her older sister’s lover, Robbie, of raping their cousin. Atonement explores the way a child interprets the actions of adults, and how fear, inexperience, and even bitterness can impact the way they choose to perceive things. Robbie is incarcerated for four years before joining the army, and Cecilia, her sister, becomes a nurse in London. Against the odds, Cecilia and Robbie manage to reunite some time later.
Nonetheless, the consolation their reunion brings us is quickly demolished when Bryony, as an older woman, admits to having concocted this scene for her novel named Atonement, as a way to bring the couple together in a fictional world after their love was destroyed in the real one.
10. Silent Hill
This is a rather complex movie to talk about. For one, the ending is not entirely clear so to say they were dead all along is only adhering to one of the many theories which surround Silent Hill.
When Sharon has nightmares regarding a place called Silent Hill, her adoptive mother, Rose, decides to take her there. After a crash caused by them trying to get away from a police woman (who is evidently trying to stop them from entering Silent Hill), the mother wakes up to find that she has entered a strange and empty place that every so often transforms into a dark and twisted purgatory. Sharon is gone, and as she attempts to track down her daughter, it becomes clear that Sharon has a connection with a girl who was burnt alive by a cult some thirty odd years ago.
When she eventually finds Sharon and is able to escape, the darkness that pervaded Silent Hill seems to follow them. When they get home, Rose’s husband is not there, but in the real world, he is. One theory suggests that both Rose and Sharon are dead, either due to the car crash which happens early on in the movie, or from having walked into the strange, limbo-like town in the first place.
9. A Tale of Two Sisters
The Uninvited (mentioned at the top) was actually based on this Korean film. The plot for A Tale of Two Sisters is very similar to the American remake, however in this version, Su-Mi is not a killer (like Anna) and as well as seeing her dead sister, Su-Yeon, she also hallucinates her stepmother doing terrible things to her. In reality, Su-Mi suffers from disassociative identity disorder and, taking on her stepmother’s identity, is only harming herself.
Although Su-Mi never caused the death of her mother and sister, she still feels responsible for Su-Yeon’s passing after unknowingly leaving her to die (Su-Yeon was crushed under a closet after finding her mother’s hung corpse). The fault lies mostly with the stepmother who, upon seeing what took place, assumed the crushed person was their mother and left her for dead.
Another difference is that the door remains open as to whether some of Su-Mi’s visions were real or not. This is made especially apparent when right at the end of the film, we see their stepmother being killed by the ghost of their mother, hinting that not everything was a figment of Su-Mi’s imagination.
8. Life After Beth
Okay, so the female protagonist, Beth, is in fact dead at the start of the movie. However, after the funeral, her devastated boyfriend Zach finds her hiding in her parent’s house, and he concludes that Beth has come back to life.
As the story develops, it quickly becomes clear that Beth is really a zombie. Her zombie traits become more and more excessive, as she goes from having demented fits of rage to eating a man alive. In fact, Zach notices other people with the same characteristics (imagine a bonkers version of The Returned).
The story here underlines the need people have to hold on. A zombie girlfriend is a tricky thing to cope with by anyone’s standards but Zach’s memories of her prevent him from letting go.
7. The Lovely Bones
Peter Jackson’s 2007 supernatural drama The Lovely Bones not only covers the healing process after losing a loved one, but also explores the emotions of the deceased themselves. When Susie Salmon is raped and murdered at 14 years of age, the killer not only takes Susie from her family, but also takes away her future memories and experiences. From the afterlife, she watches her family attempt to recover from her disappearance and presumed death.
When Susie initially passes away, she does not accept her death straightaway, and continues to roam the living world in the belief that she has escaped the den her murderer attempted to trap her in. It is not until she sees the killer taking a bath next to a bloody sink with her bracelet in it that she realizes she is actually dead.
6. Goodnight Mommy
Elias and Lucas live in an isolated house with their mother, who has just undergone some sort of facial surgery. Her face is covered with bandages throughout, and the boys find it difficult to bond with her, not only because they can’t see her, but because she seems different somehow.
They begin to believe that she is actually someone else, and their paranoia prompts them into doing cruel things to her despite of her many pleas. Their distrust of her builds up so much that they threaten to burn her to death. When the anguished woman tells Elias that his brother Lucas is dead and that it isn’t his fault, Elias (or Elias as Lucas) goes ahead with it anyway, believing that his real mother would be able to see Lucas. The audience is aware of the truth, but it seems Elias cannot come to terms with it. At the end of the film, we see him reunite with an imaginary mother and brother, both of whom are actually dead.
5. Jennifer’s Body
When Jennifer, a popular high school girl, and Needy, a not so popular high school girl, go to a show, a fire breaks out, killing many of the townsfolk. Instead of going home, Jennifer decides to stay out with the band. To Needy’s dismay, the Jennifer that comes back is no longer the one she knew. The new Jennifer possesses a level of callousness and inhibition that greatly surpasses the Jennifer of old. As the film progresses, Needy comes to learn that her friend’s body is possessed by an evil, flesh-eating demon after having been sacrificed by the band members she left with on the night of the fire.
What becomes apparent to the audience is that Jennifer and Needy’s friendship was not a particularly healthy one from the start (for one thing, she called her Needy), and that there are clear parallels between the demonic Jennifer and the real one. Neither is really BFF material.
4. Donnie Darko
Due to their being two versions of Donnie Darko, the director’s cut and the theatrical cut, there has been much speculation concerning the ending of this movie and what it all means. The theatrical cut alone was ambiguous enough, but the director’s version emphasized the idea that the events taking place, including Donnie’s apparent hallucinations, were all down to time travel and the clashing of two different universes. We know, it baffles us too!
Unfortunately, no matter which interpretation you choose to believe (and there are several), Donnie is most likely dead in all of them. All the events that take place after he meets Frank the rabbit for the first time are either set in a different universe, a dream, or are simply an offshoot of his mental health condition. And those are just some of the theories!
3. Jacob’s Ladder
The ending of Jacob’s Ladder is very much one that is open to interpretation. Much like Neo inside the Matrix, there is something not quite right about Jacob’s world. Apparitions of grotesque creatures along with his own memories send him down a road plagued with guilt and self-loathing.
Not until the end does the audience realize that the world Jacob is in is not actually real, but something that his mind has created to deal with his own demons as he lies dying under a tent in Vietnam. Again, all this is open to interpretation. The film deals with many themes (the Vietnam War, death, religion, etc.), so there are many holes you can go down in regards to the meaning of it all. Jacob does appear to have gotten lost down his own rabbit hole, however.
No, this isn’t the one with JLaw and Chris Pratt! This is more or less one of those movies that resides in the Land of Films Forgotten. Nevertheless, it fits in nicely with our ‘dead all along’ theme, and who knows, you might thank us for having introduced you to your new favorite Anne Hathaway movie.
In this movie, well, pretty much everyone is dead. What starts off as a thriller in which psychotherapist Claire (played by Hathaway) attempts to treat a group of plane crash survivors that bring up more questions than answers as to what happened that day, ends up being a rather tame story about a group of people who haven’t yet come to terms with their own death. Claire is also dead (she was in the plane too), but in the end, she finds solace in the truth and is able to accept what has happened to her.
1. The Sixth Sense
You knew this was coming because, as we all know, this is the ultimate ‘dead all along’ film. This was one of the most talked about horror movies for a very long time, and it likely will remain so for years to come.
When child psychologist Malcolm Crowe meets Cole, a boy who sees dead people, the audience are immediately distracted by the boy’s disturbing visions and the negative impact they have on his life. Needless to say that for many, it came as a huge shock when Dr. Crowe was revealed to be dead as well, and therefore, only visible to Cole.
With this movie, Shyamalan proved himself to be a master at suspense. There are two parallel storylines within this film, but one of them (the story concerning Dr. Crowe coming to terms with his own death) is not unveiled until the very end.
What other films featured a protagonist that was dead the whole time? Let us know in the comments.
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