We've seen these types of movies before many, many times. It's a plot device used so frequently that we begrudge it almost wholeheartedly these days. You can fill in the blank in various ways, but the principle remains the same: the character has been ____ the whole time and wasn't really there. Some films use dead people; some use imaginary. Some make it a dream and some make the person seeing these imaginary people insane. It all boils down to the same trick. Since we can only believe what our eyes tell us, we, as the audience, are conned into believing that a character is real when it actually isn't. Now, we've all been tricked unfairly at times. Those are no fun, and the films that do that kind of thing are usually lambasted because of it. But some films do it right. These movies even lay out subtle hints, so that, upon a second watch, we see that it was fair, and we slap ourselves for not cluing in earlier.
Over time, we've become seasoned film fans. This trick has become more difficult to pull off successfully. But it's largely because of the films on this list that the "imaginary character" device has become so well-known. So, in honor of this device, we wanted to go through and look at the best and earliest hints that should have clued us in to the trick. These are the subtle hints that filmmakers included to tell us that the character is actually imaginary without waving a giant flag and giving it away. It's things like this that make rewatching films such a treat, turning them into little scavenger hunts that reward viewers for their dedication.
Here are the 15 Best Subtle Hints That a Movie Character Was Imaginary All Along.
15 Shutter Island
We're not about to claim that the twist at the end of Shutter Island–that of Teddy being the mental patient, Andrew Laedis, the entire time–is the most groundbreaking twist in film. We do think that the subtle details in the film, details that many neglect to notice on the first watch through, are incredible. Take the fire and water themes, for example. Every time we see fire, we hear lies and Teddy's invented version of events. We see hallucinations. This is because he lies to himself about fire, the method he used for killing his wife. Water, however, has a different effect. Since Andrew's wife drowned their children, he despises water. He's afraid of it. We rarely see water from his point of view even when it's in a drinking glass right in front of him. He totally blocks it out. He gets seasick, and he's miserable when in it. When it comes to the game the doctors are playing with him to try and pull him out of his psychosis, the hints are also significant. Take the early scene of Teddy and Chuck arriving at the hospital. The guard asks for their weapons and Chuck, the doctor in disguise, tries to take his gun from the holster but cannot do it cleanly. After fumbling with it, he just passes the whole thing, holster and all, showing that he is not a real cop. After that, when questioning the patients, observe the guards in the background. We get three camera angles, one facing Chuck, one facing Teddy, and one facing the prisoners. There are only guards behind Teddy and the prisoner, highlighting that they are both prisoners and Chuck is not.
14 Haute Tension
Haute Tension or High Tension is not the greatest of films, nor does it have the greatest of twists, but it works well in this list. Besides, it is loved in some circles of horror fans, so we're giving it some attention. The twist is like many other films. The big bad turns out to be protagonist. We get a surprise when that's revealed, but we really should have figured it out earlier. In fact, in the very beginning of the film, Marie, the protagonist, tells us the twist. The film starts with the end, so we can assume that everything that follows the opening scene is the tale of how we got to that final point. In the opening scene, we see an injured Marie running in the woods. She then wakes up and describes the dream, saying she was running from someone. When asked who "he" was, Marie answers, "It wasn't a guy. It was me… It was me running after me." That's the twist. We also hear Marie and her girlfriend talking about the fact that her girlfriend broke up with her last night and went out and slept with someone else. Marie then asks to drive. The next shot is of the big bad man in a truck getting fellatio from a severed head. The shot then cuts back to Marie's car. This time, she's driving and looking at her sleeping girlfriend. We can imagine that she's fantasizing about the very thing we just saw in that moment.
13 Fight Club
Fight Club will always be one of the most important examples in this category. Revealing that Tyler Durden was a figment of the Narrator's imagination the entire time was a shock to many. In David Fincher fashion, there was an incredible attention to detail in this film, details that might have clued us in earlier if we were smarter and more observant. Some of the earliest tips were seen in subliminal flashes. Durden is spliced into various frames, even before we're introduced to him. Now, this device could be explained away after we learn that Durden works as a projectionist and inserts flashes of graphic images into the films he cuts at the theater. Maybe he cut the film we are watching. It wasn't the most clear-cut hint, but others are undeniable, such as the phone booth that Durden calls the Narrator in, the one that reads "No Incoming Calls." There's also the car accident. Although it's rather late into the film, we see Durden driving a car and the Narrator is in the passenger seat. After the accident, Durden gets out of the passenger seat and pulls the Narrator out of the driver side. The switch tells us who was really driving.
Identity is a neat little film that many people have forgotten about, but it works well for this list because there are really two identity mysteries. The first is revealed about halfway through, when we learn that a serial killer, Malcolm, suffers from dissociative identity disorder and each of his personalities are the main characters in the film. OK, cool. Now, the big mystery is finding out who the true serial killer personality is. By this point, however, the point in which the audience starts trying to solve the mystery, the film had already hidden some clever hints about the killer's identity. At the beginning of the film, we learned that the killer witnessed tragic events as a child. Also, at the beginning, when we first met Timmy, one of the personalities, we learn that the little boy is a mute. His stepfather says that he stopped talking when something bad happened to him. Now, you could argue that each of the characters in the film represent a major piece of the killer's past, but Timmy represents the moment the man changed from boy to killer. We should have guessed the answer right there, but we didn't even know we were in a guessing game at that point.
11 The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense is probably the only other film that could rival Fight Club as the biggest example of this category. Learning that Malcolm was dead the entire time was a twist for the ages and one that few saw coming. If you look closely, though, the signs are there. They just happen to have multiple outs and could be interpreted in a variety of ways. The one major clue, outside of the fact that Malcolm never interacts with anyone but Cole, comes when Cole is in the hospital and tells Malcolm that he sees dead people. It's here that Cole says, "They don't know they're dead." The camera, at this moment, is trained on Malcolm. It's painfully obvious after the first watch, but, when watching it for the first time, we've already bought in that Malcolm is alive. There's also the line spoken by Malcolm's wife about objects that are imprinted on after a person dies. We can interpret this as the wife speaking about herself, having been imprinted by the dead Malcolm.
10 The Machinist
The Machinist doesn't necessarily hide the fact that Ivan, the mysterious character who randomly appears in Trevor Reznik's life, is imaginary. At least, the fact that Ivan is imaginary isn't necessarily the point. It's why he's there that's more important. So, the point of Ivan is that he is the physical representation of Reznik's guilt for having killed a little boy. As Reznik's guilt grows and becomes more convoluted, so too does Ivan. The big hint here is seen when Reznik is shown reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. Later, when Reznik is driving down Route 666, we catch a glimpse of the words "Crime and Punishment." This immediately encourages us to think about these stories. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is the tale of a man trying to overcome his extreme guilt. The Idiot is about a Christ-like figure suffering from mental illness who is drawn into a web of crime and passion. There's also a figure who represents his opposite in the story who commits a serious crime. Then, there's Dostoyevsky's The Double, which isn't explicitly referenced in The Machinist but is a very similar story to the film. This one is about doppelgängers who have extremely opposing personalities, much like we see in Ivan and Reznik. In many ways, The Machinist is a combination of these Dostoyevsky stories.
9 Donnie Darko
While we know right away that Frank is a figment of Donnie's imagination in Donnie Darko, the big mystery in the film is what the character has to do with the story. This mystery is the one we're interested in highlighting and one that has an answer hinted at early and often in the film. So, we know that Frank runs over Gretchen and that Donnie shoots Frank in the end. In the most basic sense, that's how Frank plays into the primary plot. In the beginning of the film, Donnie wakes up on the side of the road and starts biking home. When he gets into town, we see a sign that reads: Middlesex Halloween Carnival – Sponsored by Middlesex M.A.D.D. (Mother's Against Drunk Drivers). Now, there's no indication that Frank was drinking, but he was going to "get beer." All the elements of the climax are here: a Halloween carnival (bunny suit), drunk driving, and mothers. Gretchen is notably raised by a single mother. Later, right after Donnie sees the sign, he wrote stating, "Frank was here went to get beer." He sees through a wormhole and gets a vision. One of the clips in this vision is from the video game OutRun, specifically a red car spinning out. You'll remember that it's Frank's red car spinning out and hitting Gretchen.
8 The Usual Suspects
When it comes to The Usual Suspects, there are a few little hints that help point out the true identity of the mysterious Keyser Söze earlier than the final reveal. There's the gold lighter and the gold watch that both Soze and Verbal Kint have, but both are only visible near the end, and the watch is nearly impossible to see on Soze. The one true hint and amazing detail is found in the character names. The name Keyser Soze can be roughly translated from Turkish to English to mean Verbal King. Now that's awfully close to Verbal Kint isn't it? The word soze is very close to the Turkish word sözel, which means verbal. Then, there's Keyser, which is pronounced the same way as Kaiser, a word derived from the Greek word Caesar. Kaiser was the title given to the "King of the Romans," a German king title for many years.
7 The Others
Anyone who made the connection between The Others and the Henry James story, The Turn of the Screw, may not have been blown away by the twist at the end of the film, but there is a lot to like about The Others aside from the twist. One of the greatest things about this film is in the subtle details that guide you toward the answer. The best, in our opinion, is the whole deal with the curtains. Rather than make a lame excuse to have everything all gloomy and dark, which is the tradition in haunted house films, The Others creates a medical condition in the characters that ensures that it will always be dark. The children are unable to have direct sunlight touch their skin or they could die. Quite literally, the children, like the audience, must be kept in the dark. Ironically, it's only when they see the light that they realize they're dead; again, much like the audience. Another subtle hint comes closer to the end when Anne, the little girl, was playing with the puppet. You'll remember this as one of the most iconic scenes in the film. Look at the puppet Anne is playing with/controlling. It's an elderly woman foreshadowing Anne controlling the old woman medium later on.
6 Secret Window
The film Secret Window came at a time when this type of twist was still firmly placed in our memory banks. For that reason, and maybe that reason alone, it was received rather poorly. The hints that point out the protagonist's duality or bipolarity are quite good, though, beginning right after the opening credits. If anything, they might be a bit heavy-handed, but we enjoy them. As soon as the credits finish rolling, the camera points at a mirror that shows the protagonist's reflection. The camera then travels through it. We think this is just a cool camera trick, but it signals to the audience that their eyes are now seeing the other side of the mirror, seeing what the protagonist sees and not what is necessarily true. It's only when the camera travels back through the mirror later on that the twist is revealed. But, there's plenty more than that. It's when Johnny Depp's character, the protagonist, opens the door to see Shooter standing there. Again, this is at the very beginning. The dog comes outside as well, but he doesn't sniff, look at, or even acknowledge Shooter. Anyone with a dog likely noticed this right away as an anomaly.
5 A Tale Of Two Sisters
Even though The Uninvited might have butchered the experience of watching the original South Korean thriller, A Tale of Two Sisters still stands up as one of the better films in this genre. The film is about two sisters who have returned home from a stint in a psychiatric hospital. Their family has a dark and unraveling secret, and there are still many unresolved issues in the household. The big twist is that the father and one of the daughters were the only real characters in the film. The other sister and the evil step-mother we see were just mental creations of the daughter. Now, there's still a great movie here even if you know this twist. This is because the incredible hints that the girl is imagining most things are placed throughout from the very beginning. Some of the best are when we hear the doctor ask the girl, "Who do you think you are?" Later, each of the women mysteriously get synchronized period cycles. We tell ourselves that this is possible, so we ignore the truth that they are all the same girl. The stepmother also takes medication after every meal, which makes her seem mysterious. Only later do we realize that this was just the protagonist taking her medication all along. Then, there's the luggage. When the father takes the two girls' luggage out of the car, you might notice that there isn't that much, especially not for two people. Then, when we're in the protagonists' room, we can see every piece of luggage that the dad took out of the car were accounted for, as if the sister had none of her own.
4 Black Swan
Most people see the beauty in the film Black Swan, but few really dig into the twist. It's likely that this is because the twist, if we can call it that, is kind of inconsequential. Whether Nina was imagining Lily doing many of those things or not, the message in the film is still the same. We're still seeing Nina grow and mature into something more, the whole thing with Lily is just another way of showing this. Still, there are some great subtleties in the film that point out this arc early on. Now, it's easy to see that Nina is childlike and naive. As she explores the role of the Black Swan, she becomes more daring and adult-like. The hints that point this out are in the names. The word nina means girl in Spanish, derived from nino, which can mean boy or child. There's also the old Slavic word Ninati, which means dreamer, highlighting Nina's tendencies to dream and imagine. Then, there's the name Lily. Lily is symbolic at funerals for signifying a purification through death, a reclamation of innocence through death, just as Nina experiences when she finally "becomes" Lily or the black swan. There's some irony here too because Lily portrayed the darker version of Nina, and lilies are meant to symbolize innocence and purity.
The parlor scene in Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, Psycho, the scene in which Norman Bates brings Marion Crane some food tells us everything we need to know about the film. It really is one of the great scenes in cinema. The way the camera angles tell us how to feel, how the score shifts with the energy in the room. It also tells us a lot about the twists in the film. First, we have stuffed birds, which showcase the elimination of movement. Birds represent freedom and flight but in this room, they are perched and frozen in one place forever. Compare that to Marion Crane, a woman on the run who wishes to be anywhere else. It's almost as if Norman is threatened by this. He will ensure that this woman who has piqued his interest will not be able to go anywhere. For Norman Bates, we also learn a great deal in this scene. Although Norman passes off his own illness and experiences onto his mother, he has very personal reactions to the talk of illness and madhouses. He then gives us the big hint about his mother, saying, "She's as harmless as one of those stuffed birds." Turns out, he was being literal.
2 A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind has many of these little subtle details. But the best of all or at least the most obvious hint of all is when Charles brings the little girl, Marcee, to visit John at the campus he's working at. Once we've seen the big reveal, we learn that both Charles and Marcee are imaginary characters. This is hinted at as Charles and John walk and talk. While they jabber on, Marcee runs off to play in the grass. Now, considering that John Nash has been working on a theory related to the movement of birds, it's very interesting that as Marcee runs through the group of birds, none of them move. She's even waving her arms and shouting as if to encourage them to fly upwards but they don't react to her at all. It's a wonder we didn't all recognize that she and Charles were simply inventions of John's at that moment.
1 The Shining
Even though we don't necessarily have the room here to explore all the subtle hints and details in The Shining, we wanted to at least introduce the discussion. Some of the big questions at the end of this movie relate to imaginary-type characters: how has Jack "always been the caretaker?" Who is Delbert Grady? What's with the little girls? Well, we have to acknowledge that many point to a Stanley Kubrick interview in which he suggests that there is some reincarnation going on. At least, he said it appears that way. We don't necessarily buy the actual reincarnation theory, if only because there doesn't seem to be any legitimate evidence of that in the film. We do, however, accept that a type of figurative reincarnation is at the heart of The Shining.
Many have noticed and discussed the presence of Native Americans imagery in the film. We believe these are just some of the many connections to the history of violence and its cyclical nature, whether it be genocide, physical, or s*xual violence. Pay attention to the names and stories given in the film. Notice how they change slightly? Names, dates, and places all change in small ways but the violence at the core of the story stays the same. We see this in Charles Grady and Delbert Grady, both murderers of their families. Some see them as the same person, but they're actually not. Aside from the difference in names, Charles has daughters aged 8 and 10, while Delbert appears to have had twins. There's also the story of when Jack hurt Danny. Wendy says it happened five months ago, but Jack says it happened five years ago. Whether or not these incidences are different, doesn't change the fact that the violence is recurring. Jack is always the caretaker because Jack is not a specific person. He is a type of person. Hell, we might all have a little Jack inside us. The violence is inescapable. It's in the fabric of the country, passed down from generation to generation. The Overlook Hotel happens to bring out the evil side of its guests.
Sources: Wikipedia; IMDB; Youtube