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 many 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 that they can no longer be in a loved one’s life. 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. Consequently, the viewer also gets swept up in 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 psychiatric patient Anna. When Anna is released from hospital, having been placed there after her mother’s death, she is precariously introduced to her father’s new girlfriend Rachel. As the film progresses, Anna and her sister Alex begin to pick up clues that suggest Rachel murdered their mother. Not only this, but Anna’s haunting dreams and hallucinations seem to be trying to warn her of something.
Their suspicion gets so out of control that Alex feels obliged to put an end to Rachel’s life. It is much too late when Anna finds out that Alex is actually dead, as both her sister and mother were killed in the fire — a fire that was instigated by Anna upon discovering Rachel and her father having sex. 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.
14. Carnival of Souls
Carnival of Souls is considered the original ‘dead all along’ movie. It follows the story of Mary, the sole survivor of a car crash involving herself and two other women.
After moving to Utah, Mary starts having strange apparitions, including one of a very sinister looking man. Mary also finds herself drawn to a pavilion, a former carnival venue located by the sea. One day, after a terrifying dream, Mary decides to go the pavilion. Here, she discovers the man dancing to eerie music 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 had died in the car accident.
13. Vanilla Sky
Vanilla Sky plays with the concept of ‘ignorance is bliss’. Protagonist David is tempted into a car by his “f*** buddy” Julianna despite supposedly falling for Sofia. Due to his complete disregard for Julianna’s feelings, she becomes unhinged and crashes the car. Julianna dies and David is left with a disfigured face.
Once an overly confident young man, David becomes isolated from the world and Sofia. But in a complete turn of events, Sofia comes back to him and the doctors tell him that 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 up for Life Extension (a program that prolongs life and gives people what they want in the form of a ‘lucid dream’). David is actually dead and living inside his own imagination.
The revelation that David and Sofia never got to finish what was started is as heart wrenching to a viewer as it is to David. In the end, David opts for a real life over a painless one and chooses to go back to the regular world.
12. The Others
Grace is tortured by loneliness; her husband is at war and their children are afflicted with a strange illness that causes them to have an aversion to sunlight. The real and psychological darkness surrounding the family is intensified by the presence of other beings inside their home: a husband, a wife, an old lady and a child.
In a surprising twist, they learn that they are the ones doing the haunting. Grace had killed her children and then herself some time ago when she couldn’t cope with her own misery and solitude.
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 infested with guilt after falsely accusing 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, Bryony’s older sister, goes to London to become a nurse. 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 as a way to bring the couple together in a fictional world (because their love was so unfairly torn apart 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 concerning Silent Hill.
When Sharon has nightmares about a place called Silent Hill, Rose, her adoptive mother, decides to take her there. But just as they are about to reach Silent Hill, Rose loses control of the wheel and loses consciousness. She wakes up alone and afraid. As she ventures through Silent Hill in search of her daughter, every so often the sombre town turns into a dark and twisted purgatory.
When they eventually manage to escape, the darkness that pervades Silent Hill seems to follow them all the way to an empty house; Rose’s husband isn’t there. It’s been hypothesised that both mother and daughter are in fact dead, having been killed in the car crash at the beginning of the film. This theory is backed up by the fact that Silent Hill resides in some kind of limbo dimension.
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). However, 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 at the end of the film, when we see their stepmother being killed by their mother’s ghost, 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. Nevertheless, after the funeral, her devastated boyfriend Zach is over the moon to find her hiding inside her parent’s house. Beth appears to have come back to life.
As the story develops, Zach is saddened to discover that Beth is actually a zombie. Beth’s zombie traits become more and more excessive as she goes from having demented fits off rage to eating a man alive. In fact, Zach notices there are other people with the same characteristics (imagine a bonkers version of The Returned).
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 takes Susie from her family, as well as prevents her from having future memories and experiences. From the afterlife, Susie watches as her family attempt to recover from her disappearance and presumed death.
When Susie 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 trapped her in. It is not until she sees the killer taking a bath next to a bloody sink containing her bracelet that she realizes she is no longer alive.
6. Goodnight Mommy
Twins Elias and Lucas in a remote house with their mother. Having just underdone facial surgery, their mother’s face is covered with bandages and the boys find it difficult to bond with her; she seems different somehow.
The twins begin to believe that their mother is an imposter and their paranoia prompts them into acting cruelly towards her. Their distrust of her builds up so much that they threaten to burn her alive if she doesn’t confess. When the anguished woman tells Elias that his brother Lucas is dead and that it isn’t his fault, Elias goes ahead with it anyway, believing that his real mother would be able to see Lucas. Elias cannot accept the truth.
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 horrific fire breaks out killing a fair few of the townsfolk. But instead of going home, Jennifer decides to carry on partying 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 later on 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 more similarities than differences 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 is ambiguous enough, but the director’s version emphasizes the idea that the events taking place, including Donnie’s apparent hallucinations, are 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 debate. Much like Neo in 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 doesn’t exist, but is something his mind concocted to deal with his own demons as he lies dying under a tent in Vietnam. Again, this is never fully explained.
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 favourite 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, 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 her fate.
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 will likely 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 of suspense. There are two main conflicts 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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