It's rare for a main character (or even an important supporting character) to die at the end of a movie. It's somehow not as rare for a character to have been dead the entire time.
This legendary plot twist really shook nerves when M. Night Shyamalan masterfully delivered it in The Sixth Sense. It's been imitated many times since then—so many times, in fact, that modern audiences can smell it coming from a mile away.
It takes a master storyteller to pull this off well these days, but when it happens, it's one of the best moments to experience in cinema. Here are the best movies where a character was really dead the entire time.
15. The Uninvited (2009)
Directed by Charles Guard and Thomas Guard
Starring Emily Browning, Arielle Kebbel, Elizabeth Banks
Drama, Fantasy, Horror (1h 27m)
When her mother tragically dies, Anna (played by Emily Browning) attempts suicide and is sent to a mental institution for 10 months. She's discharged with no memory of the events, only violent nightmares that she believes to be messages from the afterlife.
Anna isn't the only one who thinks her new stepmother killed her real mother—as she's warned about in her dreams—to get her out of the way. Anna's sister Alex (played by Arielle Kebbel) agrees, too. The police don't believe them, so Alex kills the stepmother.
Anna explains the events to her father, who isn't panicking as much over the fact his new wife is dead in a dumpster as much as the fact Alex had died in a fire years ago... so, who is Anna seeing?
Turns out, Anna has schizophrenia/dissociative identity disorder and was imagining Alex the whole time. She's also the killer of a stepmother who isn't evil like in the fairy tales, but was a kind woman. Oops.
14. Warm Bodies (2013)
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich
Comedy, Horror, Romance (1h 38m)
Warm Bodies may not be the first movie to come to mind when thinking of the dead-all-along plotline, but hear me out!
R (played by Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie protagonist who's shuffling along in the world eight years after an apocalypse. So, by his very nature, he's a dead man walking. He even wonders aloud: "Why can't I connect with people? Oh, right. It's because I'm dead."
Although he has no heartbeat and he can't talk properly, R isn't a full-on "Boney" yet (who are basically like the highest level of zombie with zero human feelings remaining).
R is still able to feel emotions—usually the emotions of his victims while he eats them, which he feels bad about—and when he falls in love with a girl, he feels his pulse gradually returning.
Warm Bodies is different from the rest of the movies on this list, as director Jonathan Levine inverts the usual narrative completely. Rather than dying at the end of the movie, R is introduced to us as dead and then later resurrected at the end.
13. Silent Hill (2006)
Directed by Christophe Gans
Starring Radha Mitchell, Laurie Holden, Sean Bean
Horror, Mystery (2h 5m)
Most horror films revel in the big reveal, a grand finale that explains the seemingly unexplainable. It's a chance for filmmakers to show off their ability to hide narrative clues in plain sight, and it's arguably a measure of the script's intelligence.
Sometimes, though, we don't get a clear-cut answer. Vague endings can either come off as lazy or even more intelligent, especially if the director doesn't treat their audience like children by spoon-feeding exposition. In Silent Hill, directed by Christophe Gans, it's the latter.
Rose (played by Radha Mitchell) is desperate to cure her daughter's recurring nightmares, so she goes to the place where they're set—a town called Silent Hill—to find answers.
At the abandoned town, Rose ends up searching for more answers when her daughter disappears in a car crash on the way.
Fan theories suggest Silent Hill isn't just some creepy village that was evacuated in a fire, but purgatory itself—a limbo where Rose and her daughter's souls have been lost for the entire movie.
12. Jennifer's Body (2009)
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Starring Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Brody
Comedy, Horror (1h 42m)
Jennifer Check's body is just that—a body. A vessel with no Jennifer inside. Played by Megan Fox, Jennifer was once a popular high school girl in a toxic friendship with Anita (played by Amanda Seyfried). The toxic part came from Jennifer herself, who nicknames Anita "Needy."
At first, Needy doesn't notice that her controlling bestie is being unusually mean because she's always like that. Then, Jennifer starts killing people and throwing up black liquid...
Jennifer explains that she was used as sacrifice in an indie band's Satanic ritual—talk about a wild Saturday night!—and now she's possessed by a demon, turning her into a blood-sucking homicidal maniac.
When Needy kills the Jennifer demon, nobody else knows that Jennifer was already dead and her body was just being used, so Needy lands in an asylum for murder.
11. Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Starring Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Susanne Wuest
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 39m)
If there's one emotion that Goodnight Mommy nails right on the head, it's dread. Everything is slow and drawn out, as if the movie is shivering down its own spine.
The psychological horror takes place in an isolated lake house, where twin boys live with their single mother who's just had facial surgery and is covered in bandages. The fact that only bloodshot eyes peek out from her mummified face adds to her strange behavior.
The boys naturally conclude that their mother is an evil imposter hiding beneath a mask. But it's a red herring! The woman really is their mother. So, why is she acting weird and hostile?
The woman isn't just grief-stricken by the death of her son—yeah, one of the sons was dead all along, which is enough to make any mother contrary—but angry at his brother for being the one to cause it.
After accidentally shooting his brother before the events of the movie, young Elias (played by Elias Schwarz) hallucinates his twin out of denial and grief, twisting his perceptions of his mother. This moment of anagnorisis, however, does not prevent a tragic ending...
10. Source Code (2011)
Directed by Duncan Jones
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
Action, Drama, Mystery (1h 33m)
From the viewer's perspective, Captain Colter Stevens—who's tasked with tracking down the bomber on a Chicago commuter train—is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. But whenever Colter catches glimpses of himself in windows, there's an entirely different man staring back at him.
As it turns out, Duncan Jones's sci-fi disaster thriller takes place across alternate realities in which the ex-Army pilot is repeatedly sent back to an eight-minute-long simulation on board the train, working from inside the body of another passenger.
When his consciousness isn't inside the simulation, Colter sits in a gloomy cockpit, talking to the Air Force via video feed. They're vague on the details of his mission and how he came to be here, until it's revealed that Colter himself actually died in action two months ago.
9. The Lovely Bones (2009)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Saoirse Ronan
Drama, Fantasy, Thriller (2h 15m)
Everybody knows Peter Jackson for his landmark trilogy The Lord of the Rings, but he's done a handful of other films, too—like The Lovely Bones, which imbues the familiar real world with fantasy elements.
Saoirse Ronan plays 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who finds herself caught in the "In-Between." Having been brutally murdered by a serial killer, Susie can't quite make it to the afterlife until she finishes her business on Earth, urging her family to let her go.
Although The Lovely Bones isn't one of Jackson's most acclaimed films, the book it's based on won multiple awards for its original and tender story. For all its dazzling scenery and sentimentality, at the heart of The Lovely Bones is a tale of tragedy and grief.
Ronan gives a strong performance of a girl on the threshold of worlds, watching her past life go on from behind a glass screen.
8. Dead Again (1991)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 47m)
Kenneth Branagh is like a modern-day Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock, infusing his sophisticated melodramas with a natural flair for theatrics. This is no surprise, considering the director/actor comes from a background in the Royal Shakespeare Company!
Branagh's then-wife Emma Thompson stars alongside him in his neo-noir romance thriller Dead Again, written by Scott Frank.
Dead Again is brimming with mystery, deception, and intrigue as it switches between the black-and-white world of the 1940s and the colorful modern world of 1990s Los Angeles. At the core of this film are hypnosis and merged souls.
When a mute woman (played by Emma Thompson) turns up at an orphanage with amnesia, Mike (played by Kenneth Branagh) takes her to see a hypnotist.
The eccentric antiques dealer uses past-life regression to tap into the woman's lost memories, but finds himself probing around the mind of a woman who died in 1948.
7. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Fantasy, Mystery, Romance (2h 16m)
Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise teamed up to bring us this genre-blending, plot-twisting psychological thriller. In Vanilla Sky, reality is shaken up into a surreal mixture of science fiction, romance, and crime drama, starring Cruise as wealthy playboy David Aames.
Although David begins the movie by throwing parties in his Manhattan apartment, director Crowe suddenly puts us in a police cell where David sits masked and accused of murder.
The creepy mask is just one of many questions thrown at us in Vanilla Sky, but the bigger twist lies at the end of the movie when we incoherently jump between dreams, reality, and flashbacks.
When David begins to lose his grip on what's real—and his girlfriend keeps switching between actresses—a "tech support" man shows up, explaining how he's in a lucid dream of his own making.
How come it's such a nightmare if David's in charge of it? Well, the subconscious is a tricky thing, and his past trauma and guilt cause his simulated reality to crumble after living in it for the last 150 years.
6. Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello
Drama, Horror, Mystery (1h 53m)
Jacob's Ladder opens to American infantry in Vietnam, who come under attack and are blinded by smoke. We then cut to a dingy New York City Subway train, where Jacob (played by Tim Robbins) awakens from his nightmare. But how did he get from Vietnam to New York?
Director Adrian Lyne slowly fills in some of the blanks throughout the movie, but the picture is never exactly clear.
Plagued by strange visions and dreams, Jacob's mundane life is turned upside-down as he catches glimpses of demons no one else can see. And when an ex-Army buddy calls Jacob up, it turns out they've both been seeing these creepy, faceless figures.
Jacob is repeatedly told he's already dead, wheeled down flights of stairs to an underground asylum where demons inject his brain. So, is he in hell? If so, how come he can return to his normal life in Brooklyn where his girlfriend awaits? The answer is... complex.
5. The Others (2001)
Directed by Alejandro Amenábar
Starring Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 44m)
Alejandro Amenábar's gothic horror The Others takes an already original plot twist and turns it inside out.
The Others starts out like any haunted house movie: a troubled family moves into a remote house where strange events begin to occur. Ghostly visitors, dead family members, ominous voices... the usual stuff.
Nicole Kidman stars as the head of the family, whose husband passed away in the war and is left alone with her children who suffer with unnamed photosensitive diseases.
Set in 1945, the family hires three new servants to keep the house in order. Thinking they're responsible for the bizarre occurrences, the housekeepers are eventually banished—and then the kids find their headstones in a nearby cemetery.
Does that mean the servants were dead all along? It's actually deeper than that, and you'll have to watch to figure it out.
4. Atonement (2007)
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Brenda Blethyn
Drama, Mystery, Romance (2h 3m)
The classic story of a young couple torn apart by war is given an even more tragic makeover in Joe Wright's dreamy romance drama Atonement.
Based on Ian McEwan's 2001 novel, we see the story of Robbie (played by James McAvoy) and Cecilia (played by Keira Knightley) through the eyes of Cecilia's younger sister, Briony (played by Saoirse Ronan).
Set in an upper-class English household in 1935, Robbie and Cecilia defy social norms by having an affair across ranks. When Briony catches the couple together, she assumes Robbie the houseboy is forcing himself on her. And when Briony's cousin goes missing, she blames Robbie.
Four years later, Robbie is sent off to the Battle of France as a grim alternative to prison. A chance meeting between Robbie and Cecilia reaffirms their love for each other, but he must leave again to serve.
Briony tries to work off her guilt as a nurse, slipping off to write about the whole thing in a novel. It's only when she's older and successfully published that we find out the happy ending Robbie and Cecilia get in her book (and film) was completely made up.
3. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Directed by Herk Harvey
Starring Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger
Horror, Mystery (1h 18m)
Herk Harvey's one and only feature film was an independent horror, shot with guerrilla filmmaking techniques that made it a flop upon release but a hailed cult classic in retrospect.
Carnival of Souls influenced many filmmakers today (like David Lynch) who praise the film's foreboding atmosphere. The black-and-white movie takes place in Salt Lake City, to which Mary Henry (played by Candace Hilligoss) moves following a car accident.
Mary resurfaces from a muddy river three hours after crashing, unable to remember how she survived. Eerie organ music floods the radio and Mary is overcome with visions of a scary pale man. She finds herself drawn to an abandoned pavilion that she's forbidden to enter.
And things only get weirder when Mary finds herself invisible to the rest of the world for sudden chunks of time. Mary's fellow lodger believes she's losing her mind, and she's fired from her church job for "sacrilege." Why? You'll have to watch the ending to find out.
2. Donnie Darko (2001)
Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell
Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi (1h 53m)
It's been debated whether or not Donnie (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) was dead throughout Donnie Darko. But for the purpose of this list, we're going to say he was!
One of the reasons why Donnie Darko has such a cult following is because of its complex use of time and its ambiguous ending that comes from its circular narrative, which returns back to the very first scene of a jet engine crashing into Donnie's room.
Although he survived the first time around, he's killed in the second version, making us wonder which one was real—and whether he's stuck in an inevitable time loop.
Donnie already has a pretty weird life before all this happens: he commits crimes while sleepwalking and suffers from daylight hallucinations as a byproduct of schizophrenia.
Not to mention that Donnie has a giant demonic rabbit as his imaginary friend. It's called Frank and it tells Donnie that the world will end in exactly 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.
Richard Kelly's psychological sci-fi movie plays with our sense of time while exploring themes of fate and mental illness in surreal ways.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (1h 47m)
The Sixth Sense is a bit of a catch-22 movie for modern audiences. To fully enjoy and appreciate it, you have to watch it without knowing the big plot twist—but the reason it's so famous is because of its plot twist, so you probably already know what it is.
When Haley Joel Osment famously whispers "I see dead people," it's a massive hint to what's hidden in plain sight all along: that the protagonist he's talking to is actually dead.
Bruce Willis stars as the protagonist Malcolm, who works as a child psychologist in Philadelphia. When one of his patients commits suicide, Malcolm is desperate to make amends by saving another child: a nine-year-old tormented by hallucinations of the walking dead.
The Sixth Sense was nominated for six Academy Awards and came in as the second highest-grossing film of the year, solidifying Shyamalan's horror trademarks and affinity for surprise endings.