"So it wasn't Dwight after all. Looks like I'm the killer. You never expect that you're the killer. It's a great twist. Great twist."
A character (usually the main character, but sometimes sharing equal billing) is chasing or being chased by a killer or monster. A lot of people end up dead, but not this character, and in the end
we find out why: the 'hero' was the villain all along.
This can go one of two ways:
: The 'hero' is a willing killer or monster who has been trying to shift blame or tie up loose ends.
: The 'hero' somehow blacked out the murder(s)
and is as surprised
and horrified as the audience
to discover the truth
The Amnesiac Killer is the more common variation, primarily because it's easier to write, as the audience is taken through the same reveal as the character himself. The Secretive Killer is particularly hard to pull off with the main protagonist (a minor protagonist is more commonly used for this reason), since the audience is always told the story from their perspective. If the events are shown directly, maintaining the twist right until the end therefore runs the risk of either Out Of Character Moments
or losing focus on the character to conceal their real identity. A reliable method is to have the events (re)told through an Unreliable Narrator
In many cases, the Amnesiac Killer is essentially a Memory Gambit
told In Medias Res
. A Split Personality
is common. This trope could be the result of a Heel-Face Brainwashing
. In Speculative Fiction
, this may be due to a Superpowered Evil Side
or Enemy Within
When handled with care, it can be a powerful Twist Ending
. When tacked on just for the sake of surprising the audience
, however, it is likely that key events in the story will become illogical, or in the worst case, physically impossible
Compare Tomato in the Mirror
, in which the character finds out some other truth about who or what they are.
Not to be confused with The Killer Inside Me
Huge spoilers ahead
open/close all folders
Examples of Secretive Killer:
- Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
- Agatha Christie's Endless Night.
- The detective-narrator of William Weld's Mackerel by Moonlight. Well, sort of. He's actually innocent of the murder he's accused of, but the twist ending reveals that he's secretly the Russian mole that the villain blamed the murders on.
- James Patterson's novel The Lake House does this; the beginning of the book says that the events are being told by the characters and may be inaccurate, but you're likely to ignore it until The Reveal.
- Cat and Mouse by James Patterson. This case combines parts 1 and a bit of a part 2 as well.
- James Patterson's Beach Road. This trope was so skillfully done that if you aren't paying close attention, the end will throw you for a massive loop.
- Used in season four of Angel: Cordelia was the Big Bad masterminding the events of the first two thirds of the season.
- In one episode of Porridge, an elderly man in prison for murdering his wife years ago repeatedly protests his innocence. After eventually being granted a full pardon, he reveals he knows exactly what happened to the actual murderer: He killed him before being arrested for the wrong murder.
- In the Superstar episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer there is a monster running around attacking people. It turns out that it is a side effect of the spell Jonathan cast to become the Uber Cool Guy. Slightly subverted in that it was a separate entitiy.
- The song "Buenas Tardes Amigo" by Ween appears to be about a man seeking revenge against his brother's killer, but in the end it is revealed that he did the deed out of jealousy, pinned the blame on someone else who promptly fled, and is about to seal the deal by killing the man he framed.
- In the Vocaloid song "The Tailor Shop on Enbizaka", Sudou Kayo avoids mentioning that she was killing anyone by saying simply that someone was killed.
- In Betrayal at House on the Hill, the start of the Haunting reveals that one of the players is a traitor (with some exceptions - some scenarios have multiple traitors, or none, and in some the player character is killed off by the real villain who is then played by their player) who have either brought the others to the house for a sinister purpose or betrays them for other reasons. As the role of the traitor is decided by which Haunting scenario is played, which is decided the moment the Haunting starts, this will come as a surprise to everyone. You thought you were just snooping through an abandoned house? No, you're secretly part of a cannibal club and the people you brought are tonight's dinner, which you planned all along!
- Heavy Rain plays with this. Multiple hints suggest that Ethan Mars may or may not be one of the amnesiac variety, but that's a Red Herring. The real Origami Killer is Scott Shelby, a different player character who clearly knows he's the killer, but we don't find out until late in the game.
Examples of Amnesiac Killer:
Anime & Manga
- In Death Note, Light Yagami, who repeatedly insists that he is not the supernatural killer Kira, and does not remember being Kira, is Kira. Note however that this only applies during his Memory Gambit during the Yotsuba arc.
- Higurashi no Naku Koro ni:
- In the manga-only chapter Onisarashi-hen, viewpoint character Natsumi Kimiyoshi is responsible for the deaths of her family members, though she doesn't realize until the end due to Trauma-Induced Amnesia.
- In the first arc Onikakushi-hen, the main character Keiichi realizes that people around him are acting crazy and people are dying... He gets increasingly afraid, and kills his two best friends under self-defense. It wasn't. He was just being paranoid and delusional.
- In Monster Inspector Lunge assumes this is Tenma's problem for pretty much the entire story because all the evidence he can find says Tenma is the killer.
- Most well-known in Cluedo/Clue, since the murderer could be any of the six Player Characters. Including yours, and you don't know if you did it or not (unless you've got your own card in your hand, or seen it in someone else's). And, as amusingly pointed out in Murphy's Rules, if you deduce that you are the killer, you win the game by denouncing yourself.
- Inverted in Alan Moore's Greyshirt comic, when a man finds himself with a bloody hammer and a dead woman, and no memory of either. He reads in the newspaper that the Hammer Killer has murdered eight people and flees the police as it must be him. But when Greyshirt and the police find him, they tell him he was the next victim: the Hammer Killer slipped while attacking him and broke her skull. Unfortunately, he has killed someone who tried to stop him, thinking he was a multiple murderer anyway.
- An issue of Cable & Deadpool featured our favorite merc investigating a murder in Providence, his buddy Cable's brand new Utopia, only to have the investigation end with a two-page spread of Deadpool saying, "Now the only question is... why did I kill this man?!" It eventually turned out Deadpool's healing factor was interpreting traumatic memories as damage and healing them over, leading to periodic blackouts.
- In Batman Two Faces Elseworlds, Bruce Wayne used a potion to transform into Batman who is the embodiment of all his good qualities. A mysterious killer who laughs started appearing and killing prostitutes and Batman chased after him. Only after investigation, it was discovered that he was the Laughing Killer who was the embodiment of all his bad characteristics.
- In The Boys, the Homelander believed he was suffering from this after receiving photos of himself performing heinous acts like baby eating. It's really his clone Black Noir trying to drive him insane so Noir can receive the order to kill him.
- The Number 23 - Jim Carrey's character murdered his cheating girlfriend and suffered a guilt induced nervous breakdown causing him to forget the whole affair. The titular book was written by Jim's character (who wrote the rough draft), and his doctor (who fictionalized the story).
- The film version of Secret Window - John Turturro's character does not exist; he is a schizophrenic hallucination undergone by Johnny Depp to commit acts (murder, arson) Depp could never consciously bring himself to do.
- Shrooms - There are no ghosts or wild killers and Lindsey Haun (probably) cannot see the future; the mushrooms have driven her violently insane and she is the one who kills everyone.
- Fight Club: Toward the end of both the novel and the movie, Tyler Durden and the unnamed protagonist are revealed as physically being the same person.
- Used in Hide and Seek.
- My Bloody Valentine 3D. The Split Personality of Jensen Ackles' character is the killer.
- In Dragonball Evolution, Goku finds out that the evil Oozaru, which he's spent most of the movie on a mission to defeat, is actually him. Somehow. Even though the Oozaru is supposed to be thousands of years old and Goku himself is only a teenager. It's not really explained.
- Identity - Our "hero" turns out to be one of a serial killer's alternate personalities, and all the deaths in the movie are of various personalities inside the killer's head.
- Haute Tension (also known as Switchblade Romance in the UK and High Tension in the U.S.) - The insane truck driver who ties up Marie's friend Alex and murders Alex's family... turns out the be Marie herself; the insane truck driver is her alternate personality. Alex, the film's true heroine, is abducted by Marie because of a suppressed lesbian attraction.
- Spoofed in Adaptation.: Donald's hackneyed script "The Three" has the twist that the killer, the detective, and the victim are all the same person. Charlie complains that it makes no sense, but it's a smash hit anyway.
- Gordon in Session 9. Also a Tomato in the Mirror.
- The Uninvited.
- Angel Heart detective Harry Angel is hired by Louis Cyphre to track down someone who skipped out on a deal with him, and is serious about it enough to kill to cover his tracks. After travelling to New Orleans to investigate and being framed for several murders Harry comes to the horrid revelation that he is the missing person, had sold his soul to the devil, who has set the whole thing up so that he will be executed by electric chair and then go to Hell, thus fulfilling his debt.
- Memento. The protagonist has frequent short term memory loss, and is trying to find the man who killed his wife. In the end, he accidentally killed his wife through an insulin overdose, and chose to preserve his sanity by rehearsing a story that it all happened to someone else, called Sammy Jankis. So now he chases criminals in revenge for an act he himself committed. Maybe.
- In Triangle, Jess, who winds up killing all other characters (including herself) in doppelganger form, and is eventually revealed to be continually reliving the same sequence of events because she's a) insane, b) dead, or c) both.
- The 2008 film Hide combines this with Tomato in the Mirror: The Villain Protagonist is the same person as the serial killer who abducted and has been torturing the protagonist's sister; when The Reveal is made, the protagonist kills his sister, then proceeds to torture his girlfriend in a Gory Discretion Shot. Then we learn that he's been Dead All Along and the entire movie was just one more rotation in a long loop of Purgatory where he kills his loved ones over and over again, ad-infinitum.
- In the 80s TV movie Blackout, Keith Carradine's character is in a car accident with another man, who dies. Keith loses his memory and is hideously disfigured. One of the two men is/was a serial killer, but no one, including Keith, knows which one. Until Keith starts having blackouts, dressing up in bondage gear, and trying to axe-murder his wife.
- At the end of Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows it is revealed that the three remaining main characters have been killing off their friends over the course of the movie, who they were hallucinating as evil people.
- The VERY historically inaccurate film of "The Boston Strangler" says this is the case with the killer, Albert De Salvo, and much of his time in custody is spent trying to get him to realise that there's another personality inside the gentle family man. This proves difficult, because he doesn't actually remember blacking out during the killings, and has false memories of what he was doing at the time. It should be noted that the real Albert De Salvo was never even suspected, much less diagnosed, with having any sort of Multiple Personality Disorder
- Homaged in the Wallace & Gromit film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: The duo spend the first half of it trying to find a monstrous rabbit-creature that's destroying everyone's prized gardens. Turns out it's Wallace after a science mishap has caused him to transform into said creature during nightfall.
- This is a popular interpretation of The Descent, with Sarah as the killer.
- Played with on a less grander scale in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge. Freddy kills Coach Schneider. The camera than pans back to Jesse looking at the dead body, covered in blood and wearing Freddy's killing glove. When Jesse sees the evidence and realizes that he is the killer, he freaks out. In a later scene, Freddy bursts out of Jesse's body and kills Jesse's friend Grady. Pan back to Jesse again covered in blood and wearing the glove. He curses at Freddy, who is still standing in the room, but when he throws the glove at Freddy it breaks the mirror that Jesse saw Freddy in, revealing that Jesse was only looking at a reflection of himself.
- The twist ending of Dressed to Kill reveals that the shrink was the murderer - unknown to himself due to a Split Personality disorder.
- Happens in The Thirteenth Floor where the hero has blackouts during which somebody else is taking over to go about his bad deeds.
- Subtly implied in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where Francis finds out his best friend Allan has been murdered shortly after finding a motive to kill him. The Twist Ending of the movie is mostly that the bulk of the film was Francis' insane recollections of the events leading to his imprisonment at a mental asylum, and he's populated the story with the other patients around him, but Allan is nowhere to be seen at the end, because he's still dead. The funny thing is that Francis never figures out that he's the real killer, and unless you pay careful attention to the subtext, neither will you.
- Stephen King's short story "Strawberry Spring", which appeared in the collection Night Shift.
- Stephen King's novella "Secret Window, Secret Garden". Later the Johnny Depp film adaptation.
- The novella may have been a case of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane. The Mississippi writer is a real person who died prior to the events in the book. His ghost may have done all the things the main writer did, or may have driven him to them, OR may not have been a ghost at all.
- Interestingly, the Jim Thompson novel The Killer Inside Me isn't an example of this trope, as it's told from the first-person perspective of a character who knowingly and admittedly is committing the murders in the story, and isn't hallucinating or hiding anything. Or is he?
- The Nothing Man by Jim Thompson: Inverted. It turns out the protagonist, who had thought he was killing people the entire time, invented all of it; every one of his "victims" either died of an accident, committed suicide, or survived. This probably wasn't the original ending he had in mind.
- Mariastella Cosentino in The Scent of the Night- throughout the book everyone is looking for Gargano, who stole a lot of money from some very angry people. Mariastella was in love with him and when he came to her for refuge, she shot him and blacked it out completely, so to her Gargano was still alive and missing, not dead and wrapped in plastic on her spare room bed.
- Michael Crichton's novel Sphere used a similar twist.
- The Erast Fandorin story Leviathan features an English aristocrat who accidentally killed his wife through dangerous driving, went insane as a result and has internalised the story: he recounts it as though it happened to someone else and turns violent when confronted with the truth. This isn't a major part of the story and is not a revelation to the other characters, but is to the reader.
- Oedipus Rex is a classic example of this trope.
- At the end of 'Monster' by Diana Hoh, the protagonist disovers that she is in fact the monster who has been attacking her fellow students, due to a science experiment that went wrong, causing her to transform into a monster and have no recollection of the attacks. A very surprising twist, as she never even suspected herself. Also a theme in another of Diane Hoh's books, 'The Night Walker,' in which Quinn suspects that she is attacking people while sleepwalking. It turns out she isn't, the real culprit is trying to frame her for it.
- Ted Dekker's Thr3e, where the protagonist, villain, and love interest are all split personalities of the same person.
- Ironically, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "The Killer in Me" is not an example of this trope. The earlier episode "Sleeper" however has Spike as a Manchurian Agent under the control of the First, killing and then having no memory of having done so.
- The Angel episode "Somnambulist" at first appears to be an example of this trope, but it turns out that Angel is having dreams as a result of his connection to one of his vampire progeny, who is the actual murderer. This does make Angel indirectly responsible.
- Davis of Smallville, who turns out to be the human form of General Zod's pet project, aka Doomsday.
- One murderer in Criminal Minds didn't seem to realize he was a killer until the BAU themselves showed him proof. In this case, though, it's made abundantly clear to the viewers that he's the killer from very early on, so it's only a shock to him. This leads a rather bizarre and intense interrogation scene where the BAU keep showing him more and more evidence that he did it and he keeps refusing to believe it...until it all comes back to him.
- In the Beyond Belief Fact Or Fiction? segment "Malibu Cop," the titular detective discovers that he himself is the murderer he is searching for. He committed the crime while sleepwalking. Supposedly this story was "Fact."
- Subverted in an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, "Consumed" , where a sleepwalking cop (who has a rather mean personality while doing so) is the suspect, but it's quickly established that he wouldn't have been able to commit the murders since his sleepwalking self couldn't use a gun. It turns out that his neighbour had been manipulating him (and preventing him getting treatment) so she could use him as a fall guy.
- In season 6 of Dexter, Professor Gellar is a split personality of Travis Marshal after he killed the real one. This is one of the less effective uses of the trope, as the stretched-out one-season story arcs of Dexter meant that much of the audience already saw this coming a mile off when the signs were becoming too obvious.
- The TV movie In The Shadow Of Evil is about a cop who develops amnesia while on the case of a serial killer whose pattern indicates he will kill again in a month. Towards the end of the month he has regained enough of his memory to realise he's investigating himself and switches from Amnesiac Killer to Secretive Killer.
- The X-Files:
- In the episode "Chimera", Ellen Adderly was horrified as anybody with the murders of first her friend and later her rival in their community. At one point she believed she was about to be attacked by the stringy-haired creature she saw in the mirror. It was found out that she suffers from Split Personality and her aggression was how she dealt with her husband's cheating on her.
- The copycat killer in "Grotesque" was a leading investigator of the original case. As a part of the team he was chasing himself. Did he know? Maybe, as he specifically requested Mulder who he believed is the only one who could crack the case. However, he seems genuinely appalled and distrustful when Mulder reveals to him that it is him who they are chasing. In addition, as the original Serial Killer, he claims that he was possessed by a demonic force. A classic Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane of The X-Files.
- In Once Upon a Time, Little Red Riding hood was told to stay inside whenever the full moon was out, because a gigantic wolf was stalking around the village. It turns out she IS the werewolf, and her Granny was trying to protect the other villagers by keeping her inside. Red Riding Hood of course had no idea it was her, and often snuck out anyways, causing gruesome murders every so often.
- The Star Trek: Voyager episode Repression follows Tuvok as he tries to find out who has been secretly assaulting crewmembers and rendering them comatose. It turns out to be Tuvok himself, having recently been brainwashed by a transmission hidden within a message from his son. None of the victims die, fortunately, but instead end up brainwashed themselves as part of a conspiracy by a disgruntled former Maquis to take over Voyager.
- Krayzie Bone's song Don't Know Why. Krayzie essentially blanks out after killing his ex employer but don't remember doing it. He wakes up in a grave yard covered in blood. Of course things get worse for him when cops show up at his front door more or less confirming his fear..
- Arnold Schoenberg's song-cycle/single-role opera Erwartung (Expectation) — In a forest, an amnesic woman looks desperately for her lover. She finds his bloodied body and cries out for help. Her memory gradually falls into place — she has killed the man for his infidelity.
- Sort of: Part of one of the oldest known Twist Ending: In Oedipus Rex, the main character spends the play trying to find the murderer of the previous king. At the end, somebody makes him realize he (unknowingly) killed him. It only goes down from there...
- Prototype: "Three weeks ago, someone released a lethal virus in Penn Station. I woke up in a morgue..." This is part of the opening narration by Villain Protagonist Alex Mercer. Guess who released the virus? Played with; Throughout the game, the virus is established to be sentient. The protagonist is not Alex Mercer; it's the virus itself using his body and identifying as him. And yes, the virus itself is deeply disgusted by Alex's actions. Not a Subversion since Alex already knows the (massive, by the way) spoiler by the time he finds out what happened, so it never seems like it's going to be played straight.
- The Suffering: Ties that Bind: At the end of the game, it is revealed that Blackmore is really Torque's alter-ego.
- Amnesia: The Dark Descent: Daniel tortured criminals to perform a ritual to protect himself from the shadow, and doesn't realise how many people Alexander gave him to torture were actually innocent until he murders an innocent girl.
- In Max Payne 2 The Fall Of Max Payne, the show within a game Address Unknown ends like this: The protagonist, who spent the entire show looking for the murderer of his family, a man named John Mirra, realizes that he was the killer after he sees the killer's face staring back at him in a bathroom mirror. This, incidentally, may mean the whole purpose of the show was to set up a truly terrible pun which is lampshaded by some mooks you hear discussing the show: he solves the mystery in the bathroom (as in, the john) by looking into the mirror... Also a Tomato in the Mirror.
- In the indie adventure game Downfall (2009), the protagonist, Joe, realizes that the entire game has been subterfuge for his shotgun-toting rampage through his own apartment building. In true Silent Hill fashion, all of the monsters were innocent tenants, and Joe's damsel in distress, Ivy, is long dead. A police detective pops up in the game's finale to inform us that, no, we're not really in a hotel, and "Ivy" is just some lookalike whom Joe kidnapped and killed.
- In Xenogears when we find out that Id, an Ax-Crazy fighter is really another personality of Fei, combining this trope with Enemy Within.
- Inverted in Tsukihime, where Shiki sees himself walking around the city at night and killing people when he should be sleeping, and fears that this trope is in effect. Actually, he's watching the experiences of the real killer SHIKI, with whom he shares a spiritual link. Although he really DOES have a killing impulse and a killer in him, but it only targets non-humans.
- In the Chzo Mythos, this is heavily implied in the second game with Player Character Malcolm. He's definitely a Tomato in the Mirror in that he killed his father to get on the spaceship initially, sure - but since we're playing from his perspective, who's to say he wasn't the one possessed by The Welder all along? This is referenced in the special edition commentary, though never clarified.
- In Silent Hill 2, James goes to the town of Silent Hill in order to determine whether or not his wife — who died three years ago of an unnamed illness — is still alive after receiving a letter from her. In reality, he smothered her with a pillow days before, may have her in the trunk of his car, and repressed the memory of it ever happening. The town of Silent Hill forces him to realize this truth. Depending on the endings, it's either this or a Mercy Kill
- Part of the backstory of Siegfried in the Soul Series. He swears to avenge his father's murder. Guess who did it..
- Heavy Rain sets this up fairly early on with Ethan Mars, who has periods where he blacks out then wakes up with an origami figure in his hand. It's a blatant Red Herring. However, the real Origami Killer, Scott Shelby, still is an example of this trope, but is a Secretive Killer Unreliable Narrator instead. This unfortunately leaves Fridge Logic about how Ethan had a piece of origami in his hand after a blackout that happened to occur when he son was kidnapped. According to Word of God, this was supposed to be due to a psychic connection between Scott and Ethan that was DummiedOut of the game.
- In Twisted Metal: Black, Preacher believes that he is the victim of Demonic Possession after an exorcism, with the "demon" driving him to kill. When he wins, he finds out that there was no demon and that he was Evil All Along. This leads him to jump off a building in regret.
- In Knights of the Old Republic it is revealed about halfway through the game that the main character is a mind-wiped Darth Revan being manipulated by the Jedi Council. Also counts as a Tomato in the Mirror.
- In-universe in Unwinder's Tall Comics strip 91: the twist ending of Sonty Mick's short story "The Murderer in the House". He didn't know he was the killer because he had a brain problem.
- Played with in this SMBC Theater, Homicide Detective. Guess who the murderer is!
- SpongeBob SquarePants
- Patrick Star parodies this trope. He was trying to find who made a clam cry, and finally found it was... himself. Complete with, "It's the perfect crime!" Spongebob did it, though. Except he didn't. It Makes Sense in Context.
- Parodied in the episode where Spongebob becomes a hall monitor: he begins hunting down a maniac that has been terrorizing the town, unaware that the "maniac" actually refers to him doing his antics of the episode. Leads to a bizarre scene where Patrick is using a walky-talky to report on the maniac's occasion and somehow, Spongebob just can't run away from him!