Buena Vista Pictures
There’s something a little funny about them that you can’t quite put your finger on – because you physically can’t put a finger on them. They’re always cold to the touch. They can’t seem to keep their appointments and keep forgetting where they have to be most of the time, because they wind up back at home anyway. They wear the same outfit almost every day, which is weird, but hey, who’s judging? And, oh my god, they’ve been dead the whole time.
For many a horror character, and for some in dramas in between, the reveal that they’ve actually been dead the entire movie is a frightening prospect. There were plans! Lives to be lived! But nope, it’s eternity chained to whatever sweater you were wearing when it went down and constantly chatting with Haley Joel Osment instead.
It’s a boundless trope with excellent examples, and of course, spoilers. As a bonus, we’ll look at how the trailers played with the twist.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Mary (Candace Hilligoss) is a nice, polite girl who plays the organ and engages in some nice, polite drag racing from time to time. This is the 60s; anything goes. Though her car plunges over a bridge during a nighttime race, it’s no worry – Mary miraculously survives the crash (ain’t that something?) and goes on to her new gig playing creepy church organ music in a sleepy little town near the Great Salt Lake.
But why is there a disturbing ghoul (Herk Harvey) following her around, and why does she suddenly become invisible for brief periods of time? Her pretty hymns keep turning into eerie proto-Danny Elfman tunes and nobody’s doing anything about it! She keeps getting drawn to the mysterious town pavilion, where the ghoul and his cavalcade of fiendish friends dance the day and night away.
And of course, among the motley crew is a pale version of Mary herself. We see rescue crews pulling her car from the water underneath the bridge with her body still inside, because you see, Mary didn’t survive that crash after all. Moral of the story: don’t drag race, kids. You’ll be forced to dance in an eternal carnival of hell and debauchery. And we wouldn’t want that.
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)
This 1965 horror anthology works a little differently from the normal “surprise! ghost!” device, but it employs it just as beautifully. Here we have five different short horror films within one gruesome package – Werewolf, Creeping Vine, Voodoo, Disembodied Hand and Vampire – packed with thrills and chills and B-monsters for days.
The five stories are bound together by a frame, in which five men board a train carriage in London and meet the endlessly spooky Doctor Schreck (Peter Cushing) – whose name is German for “terror,” didn’t you know? During this ride to Bradley, the good doctor takes out a pack of tarot cards, which he calls his House of Horrors, and reveals the destinies of his five new friends.
It’s the setup for rolling out the five shorts, which each reveal a monstrous reality. But in the epilogue we learn the truth. Doctor Terror tells the five men that the only way to escape their fates is to die first. Well joke’s on you, doc – they’ve already died, the train was in a horrific crash. By the way, that doctor was Death Itself. Perhaps this is a lesson in never getting advice from creepy doctors. Maybe get a second opinion on that death thing? Did anyone actually see his degree?
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Vietnam was a hell of a time, and for Jacob (Tim Robbins), things were made even worse by the fact that he just woke up in New York City in 1975 with no real recollection of how he arrived there after getting bayoneted in the jungle. Jacob is plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks pertaining to both his time in service, and to the death of his young son, Gabe (Macaulay Culkin), who passed before Jacob left for the war. He is not the only one with hallucinations; his surviving platoon-mates are in the same situation.
The plot thickens when Jacob is approached by a scientist who claims to have worked with the Army in Saigon – creating a drug that causes deep, primal aggression, dubbed “The Ladder.” And you know who got small doses of The Ladder besides animal test subjects, right? Jacob’s unit. We discover that Jacob’s been wandering the streets of NYC deceased when his son appears at the bottom of his stairwell.
Did you catch the subtle nod that Gabe = Gabriel? Little Gabe the angel takes his father up the stairs and into the light and the end of the tunnel. He was killed by that Ladder-fueled bayoneting, his body shown lying in an Army tent.
Now exactly how many people in NYC are actually ghosts, do you think? Like, if you had to guess.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The mother of all “He was dead?? what!?” films.
M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 horror classic follows a troubled young boy (Haley Joel Osment, so precious and not yet hanging out with walruses) who possessed the ability to speak to and see the dead. Because that’s absolutely not okay, he sees a psychologist (Bruce Willis) to cope with the terrifying phenomenon and lead as normal a life as possible. A few spewing heads and tearful reunions with grandma later, the psychologist thinks his work here is done – but this is Shyamalan territory and we’re not getting out twist-free.
He’s a ghost too, killed after a former, disgruntled patient sought revenge and shot him one evening – shown at the beginning of the film. Listen, if they patient you’re treating can see dead people, remain suspicious about yourself.
The Others (2001)
Nicole Kidman and her two children have a very old, very beautiful and very haunted mansion that she is not happy about attempting to cleanse of its spirits. She just wants to tidy up the house, maybe have sex with her totally not strange and foreboding WWII soldier husband (Christopher Eccleston) and do some light reading in her servants’ book of the dead. Ohhhhh. So they’re not kindly eccentric folk who just happen to keep portraits of dead loved ones around. They’re dead.
But wait, there’s more! Grace (Kidman) has been grumbling about the spirits messing with her property, and her (dead) servants have been dropping hints left and right that sometimes the worlds of the living and the dead mix together, sometimes people aren’t ready to see things that are right in front of them, sometimes Grace and her children are 100% dead because Grace is a crazy lady.
Consumed by grief for her husband, missing in the war, Grace smothered the children with a pillow and then turned a gun on herself. When she “awoke” the next morning, she heard the kids laughing and just assumed it was a divine miracle, as you do. Those “spirits” and their odd ways that she’s been obsessed with the entire film are actually the living occupants of the house, who are just trying to enjoy their haunted mansion in peace. Sorry, you’re stuck with her.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
It’s not a necessarily unique trope, the evil stepmother who makes life less than magical for her new husband’s kids. However, the stepmother in question, Eun-joo (Jung-ah Yum) is just a darker shade of mean than the average new mommy. Soo-Mi (Su-jeong Lim) has spent some time at a mental hospital, and is returning home to be with her family, specifically her beloved sister Soo-Yeon (Geun-Young Moon).
However, things are a little spookier around the house than she remembered, and dear old stepmom is noticing as well. It’s easy to blame things on the crazy stepkid, but Soo-Mi isn’t making birds sporadically die or bruising her sister’s arms. Although she’s cruel, the stepmother isn’t either. Soo-Mi is experiencing hallucinations and is direly psychologically disturbed. All of the abuse between her stepmother and Soo-Yeon is imagined – because Soo-Yeon is dead, and this stepmother is a manifestation of her mind; the real one has been in a different part of the house minding her own business.
What really happened to Soo-Yeon is unfathomably tragic. As seen in flashbacks, the girls’ mother hangs herself in Soo-Yeon’s wardrobe after a tense dinner with the newlyweds. Soo-Yeon finds her in the closet, which collapses on top of her, slowly crushing her underneath its weight. Her cries for help are ignored by the stepmother and unheard by everyone else in the house, including Soo-Mi.
Go hug your siblings and your stepmothers right now and verify they’re real, please.
Silent Hill (2006)
Rule number one: always keep track of your kids, especially when you’re near scary ghost towns filled with monsters and witch hunts. Please, people. This is basic paranormal parenting after calling the Ghostbusters when your baby gets kidnapped to fulfill the destiny of Vigo the Carpathian.
In Silent Hill, Rose (Radha Mitchell) decides to humor her daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) by taking her to Silent Hill, the place that she screams about during her night terrors.
That was clearly a mistake, because as she quickly discovers, her adopted daughter (seriously, where did they adopt her?) is actually the incarnated innocence of the rage-and-hatred filled girl who now controls the dimension where Silent Hill falls. Alessa was put up for ritual sacrifice years ago and survived, and is now making everyone in the town pay for their misdeeds. Two words: Pyramid Head. Sharon is the innocence left in Alessa, and she was able to escape the town and bring good will back to the land. Yeah, not really.
After a rousing time attempting to fight off the industrial creatures and fireproof whims of an evil third grader, Rose and her daughter are the only non-casualties finally escaping Silent Hill’s awful, foggy dimension. But as they realize when they get home to suburbia, this isn’t so; Rose’s husband (Sean Bean) is chilling on the couch, unaware that his ghost wife and ghost daughter have arrived home from hell in their ghost SUV. His reality is a sunny day in the suburbs, while they still see smoke and ash falling from the sky.
Truly, though, the most shocking reveal in this film is the fact that the only person left standing alive at the end is Sean Bean.