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When a scene ends with a character waking up, it wipes away the importance of whatever came before. How much is wiped away depends on the story. It could just be a scene or it could be a whole season of television (cough, Dallas, cough). While sometimes revealing a dream is an effective storytelling tool, it more often convinces audiences to quit the show in droves (cough, Dallas, cough).
Here are highs and lows of “it was all just a dream” revelations.
Oh, by the way — spoiler alert.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Within the Ambrose Bierce story (turned into a 1950s French short movie broadcast in the U.S. as an episode of "The Twilight Zone") you'll find the granddaddy of the “it’s all a dream” cut. A man is sentenced to death by hanging during the Civil War. As he’s suspended over a river, the rope snaps, allowing him to swim to freedom as bullets speed through the water. He reaches his wife, who greets him with outstretched arms. But before he can embrace her, he is back at the noose and the brief, lyrical vision of freedom is revealed as a dying man’s final dream.
The biggest clue that this movie isn't grounded in reality? For most of its running time, Tom Cruise is not preposterously handsome. Cruise actually spends much of the movie scarred from a car accident he suffered after dumping bone buddy Cameron Diaz for true love Penelope Cruz. Cruz and Cruise heal and love in the warm shadow of classic art and classic rock, but things increasingly seem artificial and strange. Eventually, Cruise learns he’s been in a medically induced coma — his experiences since the car crash have all been a lucid dream. He leaps off a skyscraper, faithful he will be beautiful again.
The Wizard of Oz
The filmmakers behind "The Wizard of Oz" fretted that American audiences were too smart to accept its whimsical fantasy world; they bookended their adaption of the Frank Baum book with black and white sequences in the “real world” to explain that Dorothy’s adventures in Oz were a dream.
Invaders From Mars
The 1950s sci-fi movie’s poster promises a “nightmarish answer to The Wizard of Oz." It’s not marketing hyperbole, but literal truth. The movie’s plot is a nightmare with an ending that echoes the 1939 film. A child wakes during a thunderstorm to see a flying saucer land and take over the minds adults in his town. After a conversation with the alien brain behind the Martian plot, the boy wakes up, only to have his relief cut short when — plot twist! — the UFO lands outside his house again.
Twilight Zone Episode “Midnight Sun”
The last residents of a New York City high rise struggle with the heat on an Earth that’s orbiting perilously close to the sun. After fending off looters and fighting over their dwindling supplies of food and water, the main character collapses while her oil paintings melt. She wakes to find it was all a dream but — DUN DUN DUN — the world is actually in eternal winter after moving away from the sun.
A Thief In the Night
Why care about a movie’s ending when the world could end any second? In this classic 1972 end-times movie, a girl wakes to a radio announcing the Rapture is underway. She struggles through a low budget, Christian folk rock-scored apocalypse until she wakes up suddenly in her bed. Her relief is fleeting; the radio reports the Rapture is still on.
When a showering Patrick Duffy turned and greeted Victoria Principal with a leering “good morning,” he wasn’t just saying hello. He was saying goodbye to a year of television and, very likely, a lot of frustrated fans. Duffy’s character, see, had died in a car accident the previous year. When he showed up soaking wet and smiling, it signaled that not only the car crash but also every single event of the previous season, was his TV wife's bad dream.
An American Werewolf in London
Evidently, your subconscious goes a little wobbly when you transform into a werewolf. This John Landis horror classic has a howler of a dream sequence where monster men in Nazi uniforms gun down the family of David Naughton’s character. After the main monster soldier slits his throat, Naughton wakes in a hospital bed. Seconds later, his nurse is stabbed to death by a mutant Nazi, jarring him awake for real — double dream!
In the 1994 Rob Reiner kiddie movie, a precocious child genius, played by the once and future Frodo Elijah Woods, divorces his parents after suffering a panic attack. After traversing the globe searching for suitable replacement parents, Wood wakes up to learn that everything that happened after his panic attack was a dream. The nightmare of sitting through this film was unfortunately very real, however.
"Jacob’s Ladder" starts during the Vietnam, where soldier Tim Robbins is wounded in combat. The film jumps to his experiences in New York in the 70s after the war, where he and his fellow vets struggle with bizarre hallucinations. As Robbins, now a postman, closes in on solving the mystery, his visions become more violent and monstrous. Then it’s revealed he was never a postman at all, and only dreamt that future from an army medical tent.
Married... with Children Episode “The Shoe Dick”
Infamously nasty 90s sitcom "Married… With Children" gleefully tore apart plot clichés its creators deemed dull or saccharine. They still resorted to one hoary “it was all a dream” reveal. At least they had the right motives: Co-star Katey Sagal's pregnancy had been written into the show, but her unfortunate miscarriage threw a wrench in the season's arc. To explain the would-be Bundy baby, Al Bundy dreamt up a life as a shoe private eye. When he woke up, both his shoe-themed gumshoe-ing and Peg’s pregnancy were fictional.
David Lynch’s 2001 movie is a deliberately elusive puzzle. One clue to its story occurs about halfway through when a sinister cowboy tells Naomi Watts’ character that it’s time to wake up. Until that moment, the movie has had an otherworldly tone and mounting sense of dread. Once Watts wakes from that dream world, the movie shift gears to a grimmer, grimier reality, with Watts having to deal with the consequences of dark actions hinted at symbolically in the dream.
Newhart, “The Last Newhart”
In the last moments of the season finale of "Newhart," star Bob Newhart woke up in bed next to his television wife Suzanne Pleshette, blowing the minds of avid television fans nationwide. Pleshette had acted alongside Newhart in his previous television show, Bob Newhart. The final scene revealed that every ridiculous moment with Larry, Darryl and Darryl, as well as everything else that had occurred in the eight seasons of “Newhart,” was a dream.
Life on Mars
In the 2006 BBC television series, a by-the-books modern day Manchester cop wakes up from a car accident 30 years in the past. Besides navigating wide lapels and classic Bowie tunes, he has to contend with disconcerting and random appearances by a strange little girl and mysterious voices. The series finale reveals he dreamt his 1970s experiences while in a coma, making all that police work a meaningless waste of time.