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 our picks for the best movies where a character was really dead the entire time. Of course, spoiler warning!
10. Source Code (2011)
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' 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 died in action two months ago.
9. The Lovely Bones (2009)
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 starling performance of a girl on the threshold of worlds, watching her past life go on from behind a glass screen.
8. Dead Again (1991)
Kenneth Branagh is like a modern 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 is 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)
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)
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 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)
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 suffering 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)
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 the 2001 novel by Ian McEwan, the movie tells the story of Robbie (played by James McAvoy) and Cecilia (played by Keira Knightley) through the eyes of Cecilia's younger sister, Briony.
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 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)
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)
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 returning 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)
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.