The trope that launched a thousand Wild Mass Guesses (especially those for LOST), the Dying Dream is easily the most fashionable form of Shaggy Dog Story. The beginnings may be different - although these days they usually seem to start with a car crash - but each one ends in pretty much the same way, with the reveal that The Protagonist has been dead or dying all along, and that everything that has happened has been some kind of dream, or else a purgatorial cleansing of sins. The absolute end of the story may involve the protagonist entering Heaven, Hell, The Nothing After Death or just winking out of existence altogether, if the writer doesn't believe in an afterlife (or just wants to leave the question open).
Typically, the stories have protagonists going about what they believe to be their normal lives, but finding "reality" becoming increasingly unhinged, with demons, surreal elements and other oddities making them increasingly baffled and afraid.
Note that stories don't count if we know all along that the character is dead/dying, or if the dying dream bit only comes in at the end.
Compare Dead All Along and Dead to Begin With. May overlap with Schrödinger's Butterfly. Contrast Your Mind Makes It Real for the belief that dying in a dream kills you off for real.
WARNING: By definition there are major spoilers ahead.
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Anime and Manga
Get Backers: Babylon City was more virtual than expected & Ginji was dead the whole time.
At the end of the HentaiMangaAlice in Sexland, it is revealed that Alice broke her neck while fleeing from her oppressors at the very start - the entire realm of Sexland is her afterlife. (And it's explicitly single-occupant - she's the only "real" person there besides the Queen of Hearts, and one of them needs to be reincarnated.) Given that the whole story up until then has been a cheerful sexual adventure vaguely mimicking Carroll's classic book, it's a rather unsettling twist of genre.
An alternate ending to the manga Pretty Face has the entire story be just a dream before Rando dies in a coma. Thankfully it wasn't chosen as the true ending.
A short one in the manga of Battle Royale. Hirono Shimizu is delirious from an infected bullet wound and stops to drink at a well. She gets tipped in by Toshinori Oda, but rain begins to fall and raises the water allowing her to climb out and find her friends came back to her and there is a way to escape the island. Uh-uh, panel of Hirono's smiling face is followed by a panel of her deranged grin as she drowns in the blackness of the well.
A variation in the Zone Of The Enders anime: In Idolo, Radium starts to see the world around him as the chapel he planned to marry his just-killed fiancee Dolores (a.k.a. Dolly) in shortly before he dies. In Dolores, i, a not-so dead Radium begins to hallucinate again, imagining the Humongous Mecha battle between Hathor and Dolores (named after Dolly) as a fight between himself and James, who is piloting Dolores, in the same chapel. Dolores' AI appears in the chapel as a child-like version of Dolly, while his own frame's AI appears as an evil version of her. When he is mortally wounded, the real Dolores suddenly appears and embraces him, and when he finally passes on, he sees both Dolores and Viola (from the first game) waiting for him.
In the third season of Hell Girl, Yuzuki has actually been dead the whole time and the past few years have been an illusion, which she only discovers when evidence of her "life" starts disappearing. Oh, and Ai tells her.
Near the end of Gun X Sword, Ray is mortally wounded when the Claw's men gun him down. He wakes up in a rocking chair, on the porch of a house by the sea. His wife - long since killed by the Claw - asks him what he was dreaming about. They talk for a while before he joins her, and "Calling You" starts playing... There's no shame in crying.
Subverted in that this isn't how the show ends - It's All Just a Dream Ray has as he dies.
This is one of the most popular crazy theories in the Pokémon universe. Fans have speculated that Ash has been in a coma since the first episode after being struck by lightning.
In the last episode of Fate Zero, Kariya Matou staggers into the bug room, close to dying, and rescues Sakura, reuniting her with her sister Rin and mother, and both Rin and Sakura call him 'Daddy'... then cut to Sakura watching his dead body being eaten by the bugs.
The Invisibles has an issue called "Best Man Fall," which tells a man's life story in a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness structure. Only at the end of the story does the reader discover that the protagonist is an enemy soldier who is shot in the face by the hero in the first issue, and that everything we have seen is him having a flashback in the seconds before he dies.
One issue of Spider-Girl features Dying Dreams of both Normie Osborne (Harry's son) and The Kingpin. One survives, but you don't find out which until the next issue. It's Normie.
This was the original ending for DC Comic's short-lived Kinetic series, where a hemophiliac gains superpowers after being hit by a truck. The original ending was, described by the writer in a Wizard Magazine article later as, a Downer Ending because the original idea was the boy was killed by being hit by the truck and the whole series was his Dying Dream.
Jacob's Ladder is probably the best known example of this trope, and stars Tim Robbins as a Vietnam vet who eventually discovers that he never made it out of 'Nam and that the demons he keeps seeing are just stripping him of his worldly cares.
Carnival of Souls predates Jacob's Ladder, however, as does the Oscar-winning French short An Occurrence at Owl Creek, based on the short story by Ambrose Bierce.
Dead End reveals that the family all died in a car accident and are in some kind of purgatory.
Menace II Society. At the end of the film, Caine is thinking about his life as he lies there dying, and it's at this point that we realize (if you consider this interpretation of the film) that the ENTIRE film we've just seen has been Caine's life passing before his eyes, as he lies dying.
At the end of Waking Life, the protagonist wonders whether the reason he can't wake up is because he's dead. The ending leaves this question unanswered.
November has Courtney Cox's character reliving the same things over and over in order to get her to give up her worldly cares.
The Life Before Her Eyes (well what did you expect with that title?)
One interpretation of the ending of 28 Days Later is that the final scenes are one of these for the main character. Another interpretation is that the entire movie is one of these for the main character.
One of the interpretations of Vanilla Sky is that David really inflicted fatal injuries upon himself and was placed in cryogenic lucid dream for the past 150 years, dreaming of Sofia.
Likewise, in Repo Men, something like this happens to Remy himself about halfway through the story.
All That Jazz is all about the idea that death and show business go together like peanut butter and jelly, so it's no surprise when it whips one of these out for the final number. Alternatively, like many movies on this list, the entire thing might count.
Rob Zombie's commentary for House of 1000 Corpses suggests that the Hope Spot finale when the heroine escapes from Doctor Satan's lair by killing his axe-wielding minion and makes it to a road, only to be recaptured by Spaulding and Otis was really just a dying dream.
Also, Rob Zombie confirmed the ending of Halloween II 2009's director's cut is this for Laurie.
The original Total Recall (1990) already has enough of the it was all a dream theories going around, but some go as far as to say that the entire film was part of a dying brain embolism Arnold is having while in the "Rekall" machine.
A popular interpretation for the ending of Taxi Driver. Roger Ebert noted that it was too good of an ending to be true.
The Disney live-action TV movie Young Harry Houdini: While young Houdini tries to escape a locked box as part of an act, some hostile thugs throw the box off of a cliff to prove the act is fake. Houdini appears unharmed at the cliff's edge, whereupon the magic show's resident (supposedly mute) Magical Native American informs him he possesses magic powers. At the film's end, Houdini wakes up convalescing in bed, having been in a coma for weeks after being thrown down the cliff, and the native man is revealed to be mute because his tongue was cut out.
Someone's Knocking at the Door (2009). All but one of the protagonist's friends have fatally overdosed on the drugs he shared with them when they snuck into a file storage room in their med school, the serial killing couple who've been murdering his friends are old psych patients from a file he was reading, and the cops who questioned him after the first murder are actually doctors who are in the process of failing to resuscitate him.
The biggest part of 13 Seconds takes place in the 13 seconds it takes for the main character to die of a heroin overdose, while an angel tries to get him to turn to God before it's too late.
One interpretation of Donnie Darko is that the whole movie is Donnie's dream as he lies dying in his bedroom at the very start of the movie.
In Passion Play, Nate (Mickey Rourke) is seen flying into the sky with Lily (Megan Fox). They fly over the site where Nate was taken to be killed (he was saved by a band of Native Americans) at the beginning of the movie. Nate looks down and sees himself in the valley on the ground, dead, while his assassin leaves in his car. It leaves us with the feeling that the whole movie was a dying man's dream and now he's being taken to heaven by Lily.
The movie Sublime plays with this and combines it with Your Mind Makes It Real, as it turns out everything was a dream he had during a coma. When he finally realises this he jumps out of the window and turns it into his dying dream.
One interpretation of the last 15 minutes of Hedwig And The Angry Inch, because it has no dialogue, is that Hedwig died in the crash and the rest is a dying dream.
Older Than Television: Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) has a man who has been sentenced to death by hanging escaping his execution and running back to his family - only for his neck to break at the very end, revealing that it was in his head all along. The story was later made into a short film, which won the 1962 Palme d'Or for Best Short Subject and became a Twilight Zone episode.
The Third Policeman is another oldish example - it was written by Flann O'Brien in 1940 (but not published until 1967), and its protagonist is forced to walk through the same nightmarish dreamscape over and over as punishment for killing a man for his money. On literally the penultimate page, his accomplice joins him.
The novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce is a stream-of-consciousness ramble that could be about anything, even a dying man's thoughts circling around the same ideas over and over and over and oh bugger it's all starting
Lucille Fletcher's short story, "The Hitch-Hiker". Adapted into three different radio plays for three different shows, each written and starring Orson Welles. The Twilight Zone adaptation changed the protagonist's gender to a woman.
This trope's lightly touched on in the last chapter of The War of the Worlds, as the narrator finds himself haunted by the idea that the Martian defeat and humanity's recovery is his own hallucination, and that the city around him is really still in ruins. That most of the happy ending only started after the narrator had gone temporarily insane makes this Downer Ending interpretation eerily plausible.
An unusual version of this is found in Greg Egan's "Transition Dream". A man's brain is scanned and transferred to a computer. The end result is an exact copy, as though the man's mind had been instantaneously transferred from brain to computer. But the mind is conscious of the transfer, and realizes that all its dreamlike experiences of the process must be annihilated before it can be identical to the original brain scan. The real twist, though, is that the end of the story calls into question whether he even really is being transferred to a computer, or if he's just plain dying and the whole brain-scan thing is a hallucination born of denial.
Pretty much all of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant may or may not be this - the First Chronicle involves three separate serious accidents for Covenant, each of which he survives; the second, he dies, and in the Last Chronicle, it appears that Linden has been shot and killed on Earth.
Philip K. Dick's Ubik is all about this (twice, with the second one showing up at the very end — compare the screenplay if you get the chance), while The Divine Invasion averts (or perhaps inverts) it very effectively.
The final scene of Lois Lowry's The Giver has provoked speculation that Jonas is having one while he freezes to death. However, the clues are intentionally vague.
Laura and the Silver Wolf has this as alternate interpretation. (And canonically, it is also this, though not only this as the heroine lives on in Ice-Land.)
Jasper Fforde's "One of our Thursdays is missing" brings an unusual aversion: the fictional Thursday Next spends most of the story looking for the real Thursday, who has gone missing, and finally wanders into the part of the Book World occupied by the disreputable "Psychological Thriller" genre. The inhabitants try to unsettle her with all the usual tricks (suggesting that she actually is the real Thursday with memory loss, etc.), but she will have none of it, saying "Don't even think of trying to Owlcreek me!"
An Elegy For The Still Living explodes into full dream state by the end of the first chapter, but it isn't until later on that the second half of the trope gets fulfilled.
A variation appears in the short story The Black Coat by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. A girl wakes up in the wilderness, not knowing who she is. A scary trucker gives her a lift to a dank apartment where a woman drops ominous hints about where they are. She eventually pieces together that it's an in-between state caused by her committing suicide. As it happens she's still in the process, and manages to save herself.
John Ringo said that at one point he was tempted to make the entirety of the Paladin Of Shadows series be the dying dream of the protagonist as he died of hypothermia and anoxia while hidden in the nose wheel well of the airplane he snuck aboard in Ghost. He joked that what made him not take that route was that many of his readers (especially of this series) tend to be well armed.
Live Action TV
Promoted to Glory was a British TV movie about a recovering alcoholic who goes to work at a Salvation Army and falls in love with a woman he meets there. At the end, he is revealed to be a homeless man who has been knocked down by a bus.
Life On Mars was revealed in the end to be the dream of Sam Tyler as he lies in a coma. In the final episode he finally wakes up, but realises that he preferred his imaginary world to the real one and jumps off a building. In the final seconds before he hits the ground, he re-enters the dream world, where he apparently remains indefinitely (NB, this is a bit of a borderline case, since he apparently wakes up from the dream world for a bit. Still, eh?)
In Ashes to Ashes, Alex finds out that Sam died in a car crash shortly before she arrived. She hypothesizes that the time he spent in the "dream world" was actually the amount to time it took for him to die after he hit the ground in the real world, and that her time in the same world could be a few seconds in the real world between her getting shot and actually dying.
The Comic Strip Presents episode "Les Dogs" has a man crashing his car at the very start of the episode; he then goes to a surreal wedding where he seduces the bride. Just as they are about to have sex, her eyes turn into headlights - there is a screeching sound and the film cuts to black.
Max's happy ending in the first season finale of Dark Angel turned out to be a Dying Dream as a result of her being shot in the heart by her clone. Don't worry, she got better.
The Freddy's Nightmares episode "It's a Miserable Life". Half the episode is from one character's point of view, the other half from another's.
Despite popular culture's recurring belief, this does not occur on Lost. The Series Finaledoes reveal that the season 6 "flashsideways timeline" is actually an afterlife created when all of the survivors died; they subsequently proceed to remember everything that happened to them while alive and then "move on" together. However, everything that happened during the course of the show ACTUALLY HAPPENED, a massive point missed by many casual viewers and even some critics.
In the short-lived 1997 TV series Gun, the first episode had one of these on the part of the main character.
The horror anthology The Hunger opened its second season with one in "Sanctuary". Eddie Falco is on the run for the murder of Mad Artist Julian Priest's agent and asks the reclusive Julian (David Bowie) for help; Priest decides to make him the subject of an especially grisly piece of performance art. The Reveal is that this is Julian's deathdream. Eddie is actually a manifestation of Julian's regret over living long enough to have lost his touch as a artist, modeled on a rival who committed suicide back in The Seventies and thus cemented his reputation without risking the career downturn Julian did. In truth, Julian — driven 'round the bend by outrage and shunning for his increasingly grotesque work — killed his agent and then turned himself into his last work of art, resulting in a slow death. He becomes a ghost who dwells in the abandoned prison that became his home in life, and the narrator who introduces and closes each subsequent episode.
A somewhat complicated one in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Barge of the Dead". It initially seems that B'elana Torres brings a cursed Klingon artifact in the wake of her shuttle after passing through a nebula. The episode progresses in this way for about twenty minutes until things turn really weird and B'elanna wakes up on the Barge of the Dead - a mythological ship which ferries the dishonored dead to the Klingon version of hell, and is told that she in fact died in the nebula and she had witnessed only "the dream before dying." Except she eventually wakes up on Voyager to find that, although her shuttle was damaged, she had survived and both dreams were just hallucinations brought on oxygen deprivation. Except, she becomes convinced that she really was on the barge of the dead, and that she needs to go back to rescue her mother (which she does by inducing yet another Dying Dream).
The Heroes episode "Cold Snap": Matt uses his telepathy to give Daphne a "storybook ending" in Paris as she lay dying in a hospital bed. Episode writer Bryan Fuller said this was an homage to the Twilight Zone episode An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (based on the Ambrose Bierce short story of the same name).
The music video for GROUPLOVE's "Colours"
The plot of the concept album Beethoven's Last Night by Trans-Siberian Orchestra can easily be interpreted this way.
The narrator of Procol Harum's "The Dead Man's Dream" has a macabre dream while he's dying... and then dies. (The song was supposedly so dark and creepy that veteran DJ John Peel refused to play it.)
The video for Cage the Elephant's "Shake Me Down" features a man living through memories of his childhood. The end reveals that the man has died in his sleep, and his memories were his final dream.
The country and western song Green Green Grass of Home. The protagonist is waken up to be taken to be executed.
iamamiwhoami's video for "20101104" depicts a double suicide, who some believe to be the "real world" bodies of the mandragora and the "bearded" man from the previous videos. Another theory is that they represent Jonna Lee and Claes Björklund, the artists behind the Anonymous Band, "killing" or leaving behind their past careers to become fully immersed in only their iamamiwhoami project.
A famous Hallowe'en Garfield story showed that the rest of the series is a hallucination experienced by the title character as he starved to death in an empty house. Word Of God says otherwise, but people obviously insist it's the case, undoubtedly because True Art Is Angsty.
Changeling The Lost features a "horoscope" of dreams drafted up by a member of the Autumn Court, with each type of dream associated with a planet. The Pluto Dreams are the last dream a person has as they lay dying and their brain shuts down; they're usually filled with revelation, which makes catching one extremely difficult but rather worth while. Of course, some particularly foolhardy Autumn courtiers will attempt to ride a Pluto Dream the "easy" way...
The entire game of Velvet Assassin is the Dying Dream of Violette Summers, a young British secret agent during WWII who is dying in a hospital. The surreal, disjointed game missions are actually her memories, and there's even a disturbing "morphine mode" where, if Violette becomes too agitated remembering her missions, a nurse will inject her with morphine and time will slow down in the game world, allowing Violette to escape or come to terms with whatever is frightening her.
One ending of Silent Hill 1 - a game that is truly as open to multiple interpretations as any novel or film - has a clip after the credits showing the protagonist in his crashed car, apparently dead - suggesting that the whole thing is a dying dream.
Retroactive aversion, as Silent Hill 3 shows that he survived, just long enough to being up Heather and then take a giant knife to the chest
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories seems to follow the same ending. Albeit, with an unforeseen twist. In every ending, Harry is having a dying dream... 18 years after he actually died. And despite it being a dying dream, he's apparently really able to interact with real, living people. And it was all in Cheryl's mind. We'll just leave the Wild Mass Guessing to you.
Eternal Sonata is set in a fantasy world created in the mind of the composer Chopin, who is dying.
Tech Romancer has a particularly dirty example: in the "Wise Duck" storyline (about The Squad in a Humongous Mecha,) the New Meat Arvin discovers that his unit has been given orders to destroy a nearby village, and is not happy about it. The player is given the choice to have Arvin follow his commander's orders, or continue to to protest. If he protests, the entire unit finds itself in a bizarre Planet Of The Apes-type world where they have to save the remnants of Humanity from rampaging Super Robots. In the end, however, you find out that it's all Arvin's Dying Dream: He was shot by his commanding officer for disobeying orders. Ironically, had you had gone along, the unit would have deserted, eventually turning on their commanders, and taking on the monster responsible for the whole war. Apparently, the choice is a Secret Test of Character, to see if Arvin can be trusted.
Reversed in the visual novel Little Busters by KEY (of Clannad fame)— but no less bitter, at that.
The scenario of the PC game Weird Dreams. Work your way through various fantastic scenarios trying to prevent them from just being part of a Dying Dream.
Primal: The heroine is the spirit of a girl lying critically injured in a hospital ICU. Averted in that her injuries were caused by an obviously demonic form in the real world. While it still all may be a dying dream, there's some evidence for a supernatural explanation.
Serves as the final twist in the text-based adventure game Shade. No, you're not about to leave your apartment for a trip to a rave in the desert; you've already wandered away from the rave in a drug-induced haze, and are dying of heatstroke and dehydration. Then it gets really weird.
Saber's (a.k.a. King Arthur's story in Fate/stay night (her only ending): while dying after the Battle of Camlann, she makes a pact with the world to allow her to atone for her perceived failure as a king. As a Heroic Spirit, she gets to participate in at least two Holy Grail Wars, finally returning to her time after their conclusion. Of course, her "afterlife" really did take place in a distant future but for her time, it was but a beautiful Dying Dream.
Shiki in Tsukihime experiences a long Dying Dream in Ciel's True Ending, which serves as a foreshadowing of the Far Side of the Moon routes. Fortunately, he survives, in no small degree thanks to his actions within said dream.
Also all of the 'sequel' Kagetsu Tohya. Subverted in that it's not Shiki's Dying Dream, but Len's.
One theory is the the whole of Utsuki's phase from Kuon was just a Dying Dream after she is killed by her sister.
Revealed in Final Fantasy XI, Wings of the Goddess : The Vana'diel you know ? Turns out to be a lie : the good guys never actually win the Crystal War, and the war is still ongoing. Oh, and this reality is trying to consume the dream you live in, because if it don't, it will disappear.
The flash game Alight (in dreams) is this, potentially. Depending on the ending, of course; it actually takes effort to reach the Downer Ending, but it's also the way to the happiest—but still a little sad—ending.
Possibly the upcoming Driver: San Francisco, which takes place with Tanner in a coma.
Certain events in Spec Ops The Line imply that the entire game may be this for Walker. The developers have essentially gone Shrug of God over it, implying but never confirming.
Near Death Experiences have been reported by tens of thousands of people. NDEs usually have a journey through a tunnel into light, a life review, a meeting with dead family and friends, a glimpse of Heaven, and then a painful return to the physical body. The exact details of the experience and how it affects the rest of their lives varies from person to person, and YMMV on whether they're real, or the result of oxygen deprivation.
George Orwell, in a notebook kept during his final illness, wrote about "Death Dreams": "Sometimes of the sea or the sea shore but more often of enormous, splendid buildings or streets or ships, in which I often lose my way, but always with a peculiar feeling of happiness and of walking in sunlight. Unquestionably all these buildings, etc. mean death - I am almost aware of this even in the dream..." He did not believe in an afterlife, and wondered why death, which he wasn't afraid to think about while awake, had to be represented as something else in a dream.