Dead to Begin With
"This boy's name is Yusuke. He's 14 years old, and is supposed to be the hero of our story... but oddly enough, he's dead."Sometimes, the end of the road is only the beginning. Well, it is if the cast is Dead to Begin With. This trope covers stories set partially or wholly in the afterlife, a genre sometimes known as "Bangsian fantasy". Whether the characters are hanging in Fluffy Cloud Heaven, struggling to survive against hideous demons in a Fire and Brimstone Hell, ghosts stuck on the mortal world, mortals who are Trapped in Another World before their time, or whatever, they're here to answer the question "Now that we're dead, what do we do for an encore? Unless, of course, they have another question: "Whodunnit to Me, and how can I stop them from murdering anyone else?" Expect The Grim Reaper, either as a guest star or as one of the main characters. Compare Dead All Along and First Episode Resurrection. Characters who are Dead to Begin With may be susceptible to Ghost Amnesia. Not to be confused with Posthumous Character, which is a character who is dead when the story begins and is shown only in flashbacks. Or with Dead All Along, which is a plot twist. Or with You Are Already Dead. Not to be confused with My Death Is Only The Beginning, where an established character's death brings about a whole new set of machinations.
— YuYu Hakusho, episode 1
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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Anime and Manga
- Bleach, especially the Soul Society arc. The main character and most of his (initial) friends aren't dead, though.
- YuYu Hakusho starts with a boy. The boy's name is Yusuke. He's 14 years old, and is supposed to be the hero of the story, but oddly enough, he's dead. However he's not supposed to be, as he caught the universe by surprise with an unexpected Heroic Sacrifice. So he's being allowed to earn his way back to life.
- In Gantz, an alien sphere kidnaps the souls of people who have just died, gives them new cloned bodies, outfits them with futuristic battle suits and high-tech weaponry, and forces them to battle monsters and aliens that secretly live among humans. If the hunters are killed by their prey (which happens frequently), they stay dead unless other players pay the Gantz sphere to "resurrect" them by making new clones - again.
- In the first episode of Shakugan no Shana, Yuuji finds out that he's a Torch; a temporary replacement for the real Yuuji, who has been killed and consumed by a Rinne. Under normal circumstances, he would be erased from existence entirely once his flame burned out. However, he happened to carry a Treasure Tool within him called the 'Reiji Maigo'note , which replenishes his Power of Existence at every midnight, meaning that, even if his real self is dead, his Torch still carries on.
- Angel Beats! is set in the afterlife. A group of teenagers who died in shady or tragic circumstances now need to "fight" against an Absurdly Powerful Student Council and its President to rebel against God...
- The protagonist of Linebarrels of Iron who mysteriously awoke covered in blood halfway through the episode after a giant mecha landed on him is told that he's already dead at the end of the first episode.
- Fujiwara no Sai, one of the leads and the plot instigator of Hikaru no Go, has been dead for approximately a thousand years. He's only been really conscious for like twenty of them, though. He needs a host consciousness.
- Much of the cast of Haibane Renmei are suspected to be dead upon entering the town of Glie, in a form of purgatory.
- The first story and starting point of Higanbana No Saku Yoru Ni has the weak-willed Marie Moriya bullied by her classmates and raped by her homeroom teacher on a daily basis. After meeting a yōkai (the titular Higanbana), she tries to rebel against her teacher; it fails. Horribly. She is strangled to death and reduced to a pitiful sobbing ghost. However, when meeting again with her murderer and receiving a harsh lecture from him, she finally manages to kill him and become the yōkai Mesomeso.
- Menma in anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, whose ghost now lives with the boy who loved her and needs to fulfill some Ghostly Goals that she cannot remember before she can actually pass on.
- The titular character in Ryuugajou Nanana No Maizoukin is a ghost of a killed girl.
- The first line of Grave of the Fireflies, spoken by protagonist Seita, is "September 21st, 1945. That was the night I died." We learn that his younger sister is dead too before the opening credits roll.
- Death Parade is about how dead people are judged as either fit for reincarnation or the void, by playing arcade games in a bar called Quindecim. The audience knows they're dead from the beginning, but the characters don't, and the mystery is learning about lives they left behind. The arbiters themselves are immortal, although they're made from the souls of those cast into the void, except for Onna, an actual human woman temporarily serving as an arbiter to test the system.
- Earth X features dead characters from the Marvel Universe fighting each other in the "Realm of the Dead". They're unaware of their deaths and believe those who are actually still alive are the dead ones. Little is done with this in the original, but Universe X is about the war to kill the personification of Death so that the deceased can build a heaven, while Paradise X is about the problems inherent in that heaven (and the search for the suffering living to find a new way to die). Yes, these are very odd books.
- This is part of the recruitment process for the titular Death Vigil, a group of undead knights protecting the world from Eldritch Abominations.
- Source engine / Garry's Mod machinima "Ghosts" is about someone shooting himself then going on a half hour trip.
- Considering that it takes place in Puella Afterlife, this trope applies to "Resonance Days" without question.
- A Yu-Gi-Oh! fanfic titled Being Dead Aint Easy. Joey Wheeler dies at the hands of a psychopath, taking a bullet meant for Kaiba. However, as his spirit heads towards the light, he... trips over his shoelaces? Stuck in the mortal world, he makes it his mission to haunt Kaiba. Hilarity Ensues for the next thirty chapters.
Film - Animation
- Corpse Bride has the titular character Emily. Before the events of the film, she was murdered on the night that she and the man she fell in love with were to elope together.
Film - Live Action
- In Topper, a married couple killed in a car wreck realize that they need to do a good deed to get into heaven. Comic hilarity ensues.
- A Matter of Life and Death (released in the States as Stairway to Heaven), where David Niven plays a World War II pilot who strikes up a romance with a female radio operator after a near-death experience, which becomes complicated when he is approached by an agent of Heaven who informs him he was supposed to have died.
- Twist ending of The Others. They thought their house was haunted, but they were the haunters. Their rage at discovering they are dead causes the hauntees to flee the house. Sounds comedic, but is a clever ending to a morbid film.
- In The Crow, the main character comes back from the dead to avenge his loved one's death.
- R, the main character of Warm Bodies wonders at the start of the movie why he doesn't eat better, why he doesn't stand straighter, and why he can't connect with the people around him. Then he remembers; it's because he's dead.
- Defending Your Life takes place in Judgment City, where the protagonist and the other deceased are assessed to determine if they are ready to Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence or if they need to go back and try again.
- What Dreams May Come, based on the novel, where Robin Williams plays a dead man who literally travels to Hell and back to save the soul of his wife after she commits suicide.
- Monkeybone is the tale of Stu, a cartoonist stuck in a world between life and death known as "Downtown", who has to stop his manic creation, the titular Monkeybone, from escaping to the mortal world as part of a plot to give the people of Earth chronic nightmares.
- In Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, the heroes spend most of the film as ghosts trying to stop evil robotic duplicates of themselves from messing up the timeline. Along the way, the duo travels to Heaven and Hell, and infamously play for their lives against Death in not just chess, but (when he turns out to be kind of a sore loser who demands rematch after rematch) also Twister, Battleship, and other games.
- The Brothers Lionheart, based on the novel.
- Tim Burton's Beetlejuice opens with the death of the two main characters, and revolves around their attempts to haunt their own house and navigate the afterlife's bureaucracy.
- The Sixth Sense. We all know the big twist there.
- This is also the Twist Ending of the 1962 cult horror film Carnival of Souls.
- Wristcutters: A Love Story takes place in a special purgatory for suicides.
- The 2003 Japanese film Sky High (not to be confused with the Disney film of the same name) was a prequel to the Sukai hai TV series (see below).
- Jacob's Ladder.
- Sleepy Hollow is a co-candidate for Trope Namer, along with A Christmas Carol, although neither of them is an example of this trope.
Masbath: Is he dead?Ichabod Crane: That's the problem. He was dead to begin with.
- Frank in Ghost Town.
- The film (as the book) The Lovely Bones starts with the murder of the main character and mostly follows her watching her family from heaven.
- Nick in R.I.P.D., actually the entire Rest In Peace Department, and the things they're trying to protect the living from.
- All human characters in Eagles Gathered, since it's set in the underworld.
- Haunter: Lisa and her family are spirits who are stuck in some Purgatory-like state because the evil spirit who killed them won't let them leave the house.
- The term "Bangsian fantasy" comes from the works of early 20th-century author John Kendrick Bangs, whose Associated Shades series conjectured on the afterlives of famous dead people.
- Ray Bradbury's famous short story "Mars is Heaven" played on this, with a Karmic Twist Ending.
- Janet Morris and several other SF writers created the Heroes In Hell series, a dozen books chronicling the post-mortem exploits of everyone from Gilgamesh to Yuri Andropov. Since many of the writers were military-SF specialists, the deceased characters spent lots of time shooting at each other with contemporary army hardware.
- Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld books start with the main cast dead.
- Richard Matheson's novel What Dreams May Come
- In A Christmas Carol, we must remember that Jacob Marley was "dead to begin with". The narrator stresses the importance of the reader remembering this, because the story won't seem as special if the reader forgets.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
- The main characters of The Brothers Lionheart die about 10 minutes in. Turns out that the afterlife (Nangijala) is very much like life, to the point of having their own after-afterlife (Nangilima). The story ends there, or they might end up in the after-after-afterlife.
- Ubik by Philip K. Dick is all about this.
- The Wish List by Eoin Colfer is about a girl who is exactly 50% good and 50% evil, so she's sent back to Earth when she dies and has to do good deeds in order to try to get into heaven (mostly by helping the old man she was robbing when she died complete the titular wish list).
- Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin — Liz is hit by a car at the beginning. She wakes up on a boat not knowing where she is. She is going to Elsewhere (a.k.a. Heaven), where you age backwards until you are a baby and then you are reincarnated.
- Everlost by Neal Shustermann — Nick and Allie die when their respective cars collide. They become Afterlights, which is when the souls of children (ages 5-15) don't get to where they were going, because they lack the sense of direction needed. Afterlights roam the earth until the end of time, but they can be sucked into the center on the earth when they stand on living ground.
- Variant in Discworld: The Nac mac Feegle believe that this world is their Valhalla, thus explaining their riotous behaviour as they've already got to paradisenote . In Reaper Man, Windle Poons' storyline concerns his posthumous experiences as a zombie.
- A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin begins with the protagonist waking up two years after his death.
- Inverted in a child story Land of Oblivion: the protagonists are pretty much alive, but they are Trapped in Another World, where everybody else they encounter is actually a dead person from our world.
- In The Dresden Files book Ghost Story, Harry has been shot down by a lone gunman and must solve his own murder.
- All human characters except the narrator in The Great Divorce.
- The great majority of the characters in Paul Kelly's War Beyond the Veil series, beginning with The Lost Brigade.
- Quite a few characters of The Brief History of the Dead, living in The City.
- The Lovely Bones starts with the murder of the main character, and the book mostly follows her watching her family from heaven.
- The main plot of The Night's Dawn Trilogy kicks off when dead people start possessing the living, with a few of them becoming relatively prominent characters.
- In The Chuck Palahniuk novel, Damned, starts off with Madison "Maddy" Spencer finding herself in Hell after her death. The novel focus her on trying figure out why she's in Hell and make the best of it.
- The Zombie Knight is a Web Serial Novel which starts this way. It opens with the protagonist meeting a grim reaper and realizing he has no body, not even a ghostly one.
- Of Breakable Things begins with the main character Alex's death. The book is then about the afterlife.
- Geoph Essex's Lovely Assistant: though it's not fully revealed until halfway through the book (despite plenty of hints for the observant and/or knowledgeable), the first paragraph of the first scene where the protagonist is introduced is actually the precise moment of her death. It works out pretty well for Jenny, though.
- The Chronicles of Narnia novel The Last Battle. At the end of the book the protagonists find out that they died in a train crash near the beginning of the book, so their entire adventure in Narnia occurred after their deaths.
- Heck Where The Bad Kids Go is Exactly What It Says on the Tin. Two siblings, Milton and Marlo, die and are sent to the afterlife. Turns out that people too young for the real H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks are sent to a junior (but no less torturous) version called Heck. There they stay for eternity or until they turn eighteen, whichever comes first.
- E.E. Hales' Chariot of Fire is set in an updated version of Dante's Inferno, and follows the posthumous adventures of a British railway man tasked with building a railway between the Circles.
- Niven and Pournelle's Inferno is all set after the protagonists's death.
Live Action TV
- Dead Like Me never goes into the afterlife per se, but all the main characters are Grim Reapers... sort of. They collect the souls of the dead and send them to whatever it is that's after life. In the meantime, they have to work for a living, so to speak, like normal people and attend to their reaper duties before they can die for real.
- The Japanese television series Sukai hai (known as Sky High in English) starred Yumiko Shaku Izuko, the Guardian of the Gate to the afterlife who helped victims of violent death decide whether to forgive and be reincarnated, or return to earth and take revenge, thereby damning themselves to Hell. It spawned a big screen prequel.
- The Odyssey starts with the main character falling into a coma. Although he's not dead, he's completely disconnected from reality in a comatose dream world.
- Brimstone involves a deceased cop making a Deal with the Devil to catch 113 souls that had escaped from hell.
- The Lexx crew were the first living people ever to stumble across the human afterlife — a twin planet system tucked away in the bleakest part of a sparsely populated universe — and spent a whole season trapped in its orbit.
- The Buffyverse tends to combine this with Death Is a Slap on the Wrist, due to the sheer number of characters whose deaths did not prevent them from continuing on. Spike (among others) hangs a lampshade on this one.
- Being Human (US):
- Sally starts off dead and confused about how she died. As the story progresses, she eventually finds out how she died, as well as a few perks of being a ghost.
- As was the case with Annie, from the British version of the show. In various episodes, Annie also would meet people who were already dead. Usually these people were introduced to teach Annie some skill regarding her ghost state. One episode also had a zombie girl, who was dead but still stuck in a rotting body.
- The Vampire Diaries has Emily, the witch.
- A Norwegian children's television show called Uhu! ("Boo!") is set in a mostly abandoned house near a town. Its inhabitants are all ghosts who are trying to fulfill one last objective in life - given to them in person by a resident Oracle - before being allowed to move on to the afterlife. The main characters are all stuck in the house, being unable to solve their task for various reasons. These tasks include a chef who is unable to bake a certain type of cake, a constantly frowning woman who has to smile genuinely at least once, and a guy who is supposed to hang up a painting but is too lazy and busy screwing around to want to leave. Tasks given to other ghosts are usually resolved in the same episode they appear, though. Meanwhile, Polter is a ghost with a unique mission: He may only leave once he has seen all the other ghosts through their tasks.
- The Haunted Hathaways: The shows premise is about a single mother and her daughters living in a home already habited by the ghosts of a single father and his boys.
- Series/Sherlock has an unusual variant. In The Sign Of Three, John's old commander, Major Sholto, has been stabbed before the episode starts. It's not until he undoes the belt of his military uniform (which is stopping the wound from bleeding) that he will die. Then he doesn't.
- White Wolf visited this trope a few times: in Wraith: The Oblivion, the characters were ghosts, stuck in the Underworld until they Transcended or fell to Oblivion. In Orpheus, the PCs were members of the Orpheus Group, a corporation that discovered ghosts were real, and that living people could project themselves into their world - and being a corporation, naturally tried to make a profit out of it. It... didn't work out.
- And then there's the Geist The Sin Eaters, where the characters die, then get better.
- In Exalted, the Underworld is a place anyone can visit, though the majority of the natives are ghosts. Campaigns set in the Underworld are an explicit option.
- Plus, all those vampire characters are also somewhat slightly dead too.
- Lost Souls and Spookshow were also small press rpgs where the PCs were ghosts.
- Dead Inside has the option of starting play as a ghost in the Spirit World, or even a zombi.
- Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition had a setting book called Ghostwalk about a world with a very different relationship to the afterlife than a normal D&D world, such that you could continue play as a ghost after you died or even start as a ghost.
- Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit offered the infamous hypothesis that "Hell is other people". Turns out it's actually more of a tacky hotel.
- Grim Fandango takes place in an afterlife based on the Día de los Muertos, Aztec mythology, and Film Noir. Oddly, it works.
- In Valkyrie Profile 1 and 2, most of the cast become playable once they've died, as their doomed plots led their souls getting rescued by the titular valkyries and becoming the their einherjar.
- The game Shadow Of Destiny (also known as Shadow Of Memories) begins with the murder of the protagonist. He is resurrected and sent back in time, only to die many, many more times before he can discover who is trying to kill him and why.
- In the first level of Geist, your character is parted from his body and spends almost the remainder of the game as a body-snatching ghost. But his actual body isn't dead yet, so he can find a way to get it back. He doesn't learn that for a while, though.
- The Nameless One of Planescape: Torment is very much dead to begin with. Several times over. The exact timeline is very difficult to say, but the clues in the game implies that he's been dying repeatedly for up to a few thousand years (it suggests that he knew Lum the Mad) by the point in time that the game begins.
- In The World Ends with You you start off dead, and are playing "The Reapers Game" to come back to life. Initially, the developers make this look like a case of Never Say "Die", making it that much more shocking.
- In The 7th Guest, you start off knowing that everyone in the game has died, and you have to piece together the clues to find out what happened and why. This is more complicated than it sounds, since you are the titular seventh guest, you are also dead, and only by completing the game can you save yourself from damnation, because your soul was sold.
- Yuyuko Saigyouji from Touhou. The protagonists have to figure out a way to stop her in her own home turf — The Afterlife (sort of).
- Painkiller. You die in a car accident and then hunt demons in purgatory and hell. With shotguns and stuff. And a gun that shoots shurikens and lightning.
- World of Warcraft, if you roll a Forsaken Undead and/or Death Knight. Your death occurs before you begin playing. If you play a Forsaken Death Knight, you died 2 times. Once as a human, then as a Forsaken.
- Knights in the Nightmare, and how. With the exception of the protagonist, death is a requirement to be recruited; hell, it would be easier to list cast members who aren't dead when you meet them.
- In The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, the bad guys remove Zelda's soul from her body; most people can't see her soul and her body is lifeless. The plan is to then house a monster's spirit in her body and thus control Hyrule.
- The protagonist of Revenant.
- The Revenant mod for Neverwinter Nights and the Dark Avenger mod for Neverwinter Nights 2 both revolve around the deceased player character trying to work out the circumstances surrounding his/her death.
- Sissel from Ghost Trick. And Ray, who we first meet as a ghost possessing a lamp. And Yomiel.
- Ash in Phantom Brave. All of the other Player Mooks are dead to begin with too, since Marona's ability is to see and recruit ghosts to her side.
- In Rule of Rose the entire cast, including your beloved Canine Companion are Dead to Begin With, and the purpose of the entire plot is for the protagonist Jennifer to come in terms with it.
- In the first Legacy of Kain game, Kain is murdered in the first playable scene, and spends the rest of the series as a vampire. In Soul Reaver, Raziel had been killed, brought back as a vampire, and then killed again before the game itself actually begins.
- In Dark Souls, the player character died some time before the start of the game, but because they are marked with the Dark Ring, they come back to life every time they are killed.
- Limbo heavily implies, but never outright states this. You had to end up in Limbo somehow, right?
- In Turgor, the player starts off as a lingering spirit stuck in The Void and spends the whole game trying to avoid absolute death.
- LeChuck from the Monkey Island series died before the events of the first game, and returned as a ghost pirate... then as a zombie pirate... then as a demon pirate... then as a pirate god.
- All the Prinny characters in the Disgaea series. Prinnies are human souls that did something bad in their previous life and must work in the Netherworld to pay off their sins. Most notable example is Fuka in Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, who kept her human body. She has no idea that she is really dead even while other characters keep telling it to her over and over again. She thinks her appearance in the Netherworld is All Just a Dream.
- The player character in Avenging Spirit gets shot to death in the opening cutscene. Fortunately, his ghost can Body Surf.
- All the characters in the first Digital Devil Saga except Sera and Angel are artificial intelligences who are partially composed of the data (or souls) of people who died in the real world. Some characters gradually remember their past lives and sometimes even the circumstances of their deaths. They're almost invariably unpleasant.
- In Don't Look Back (2014), a game based on the opera Orfeo (itself based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth) it quickly becomes apparent that this is what's going on - when you spot a snake you remember being bitten by one and it becomes clear that you're playing as Euridice.
- Simon from Cry of Fear: the Hole's first ending. He committed suicide, and the dark, monster infested mine tunnels that he is now lost in is his own personal hell.
- Bit from Hacknet died two weeks before the game begins. The reason for his untimely demise is not revealed until shortly before the game's end.
- Muertitos revolved primarily around four kids living on a planet full of deceased souls, where death is a lot like life, only more so, and everyone's been turned into assorted creatures from mythology and folklore.
- Slightly Damned's Rhea Snaketail suffers from this; she gets better. Kind of. She doesn't seem particularly upset by this for very long though. "Whatever. I'm getting used to dying". When she died, her marginally negative karma got her sent to the boring-but-harmless Ring of the Slightly Damned, which is where she met her ally Buwaro.
- Unsounded: Duane died after succumbing to his wounds in a vain attempt to defend his daughter from Crescian assassins. Six years later, he's one of the protagonists of the story, albeit an interesting subversion of a typical zombie or a typical lich.
- DDG starts with Zip's arrival in the afterlife as a gameshow contestant. Genderbending hilarity ensued.
- Mnemesis plays with this and Ghost Amnesia.
- During the intermission of Homestuck featuring the Midnight Crew versus The Felt, the Felt members Crowbar, Matchsticks, and Quarters have already been killed by the Midnight Crew. Due to the various time and space manipulating powers of the Felt, however, Crowbar still winds up fighting Spades.
- Jade's Grandpa and Aradia were both killed before the story began. However, due to Weird Time Shit and ghost-hood, Grandpa was able to save John from some monsters and pick up his granddaughter's dead body, while Aradia becomes one of the most important characters in the troll's session and later comes back to life and ascends to godhood. Jake's dream-self was similarly killed before the start of Act 6.
- All of the pre-scratch trolls are ghosts by the time we meet them.
- Jack has this as the central premise. All the recurring characters are dead, and the comic takes place mostly in hell.
- Demon Candy Parallel can be considered this since it takes place in Hell, but Johnathan isn't dead, but would have been if he wasn't turned into an incubus.
- Dusk Till Dawn starts with the protagonist being murdered and going to Fluffy Cloud Heaven (sortof)
- Thistil Mistil Kistil starts off with Coal entering the afterlife and, since he died in battle, he doesn't seem unhappy about it.
- The entirety of Hell(p) takes place in Hell, so every human character is dead from the start. Made quite obvious due to people retaining any physical injury that killed them forever. Whether demons are alive or not is unclear.
- Brightsiders begins with the main character having been killed, and digging herself out of her grave some time later. And then things get really weird.
- The podcast audio drama Afterlives (original web page gone, but the episodes can be found on the 19 Nocturne Boulevard site) starts off with the main character, Matthew, discovering that he's died and ended up in an afterlife not unlike a slave camp. Together with a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits from various times and cultures, and led by a renegade angel named Dave, he escapes and goes traveling in between the various afterlives in search of the "right" one.