As everybody knows, Heaven is above us. At the end of every individual's personal story, their soul (if they're lucky and believe in that sort of thing) will head on up into the sky to join the afterlife or what-have-you. So it's no surprise that many creators subtly invoke this idea by ending their stories with a character doing the same thing, but symbolically.
This can involve a literal Stairway to Heaven, but more often it's just a symbolic representation of redemption, escape, joining the outside world, relief after a long ordeal, or even new adventures yet to come. It's common for the audience not to be able to see exactly what the protagonist is walking into, perhaps because of a blinding light.
There might be another character left at the bottom of the stairs to melancholically watch them depart.
Like Climbing Climax, Climactic Elevator Ride and Journey to the Sky, it cites the feeling that Ultimate = Up, but unlike those tropes, where the ascent is mere prelude to a climax occurring in a high place, this trope is when the ascension is part of the Dénouement. If the ascension itself is difficult or fraught, and/or another scene occurs after it, it is likely not this trope. See Stairwell Chase and It's All Upstairs From Here.
A Sub-Trope of Hat-and-Coat Shot, this is a good way to signal to the audience that the protagonist's story is coming to a close. Close sister-trope to Off-into-the-Distance Ending; may overlap with Door-Closes Ending. Contrasted with Fly-at-the-Camera Ending, this trope is usually slow and measured, giving the audience and the character time to reflect on all they've just seen and done. Compare "Pan Up to the Sky" Ending and Flyaway Shot, when the camera does this instead of a character, and Winged Soul Flies Off at Death & Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence, when your body can't come along with you. Contrast Grand Staircase Entrance and Staircase Tumble, when a character comes down a staircase dramatically. See also Absurdly Long Stairway.
As this is an Ending Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.
- Death Note:
- Naomi Misora's death scene is shown as her walking away from Light and up a glowing staircase, at the top of which is a noose.
- Light Yagami succumbs to his fatal wounds while climbing up a flight of stairs. Notably, he only makes it half way before dying. This references how Ryuk mentioned earlier that he won't go to Heaven or Hell after his death thanks to using the Death Note.
- The second-to-last shot in the final Rebuild of Evangelion movie is of an adult Shinji and Mari holding hands as they run up the stairs at the exit of the train station, symbolizing that the cast can now move forward with their lives in this new timeline unimpeded by the Angels or their mental traumas.
- Care Bears: Big Wish Movie ends with the Care Bears taking off to the sky in their cloudmobiles for a road trip.
- Care Bears Journey To Joke A Lot ends with Funshine and the gang leaving Joke-A-Lot and ascending to the skies, heading for home.
- Curious George (2006) ends with George and the Man in the Yellow Hat accidentally blasting off in a rocket, symbolizing all the new adventures they're bound for.
- Despicable Me ends with Gru and the girls rising out of the auditorium on a balcony into the sky, where they look at the big full moon.
- In Turning Red, the end of the climax features Sun Yee carrying Mei up into the sky to symbolize the new era Mei has begun by embracing the panda.
- Cabin in the Sky shows Eddie Anderson and Ethyl Waters ascending a Stairway to Heaven to close the movie.
- Cuties has a Gainax Ending with the protagonist Amy ascending and floating away after skipping a rope with other kids, in a film that featured no fantastic elements up to that point.
- One of the final shots in Doctor Strange (2016) is the titular hero ascending the grand staircase within the Sanctum Sanctorum after saving the world.
- Ex Machina: After her ordeal with Caleb and her evil creator, Ava ascends the stairs out of the bunker house she was raised in and into the Outside World.
- In Girl, Interrupted, the last time we see Daisy she's ascending the stairs into a bright, white light.
- Grease ends with Danny and Sandy ascending to the sky in a flying car.
- Horse Girl ends with Sarah being levitated into the sky by a beam of light from an alien spaceship.
- Jacob's Ladder, whose name is an allusion to the Stairway to Heaven trope, ends with Jacob and his late son ascending the stairs in their home as Jacob passes away.
- Man of La Mancha has a framing device in which Miguel De Cervantes is telling the story while imprisoned in a dungeon. The film ends with him ascending the staircase out of the dungeon.
- Mary Poppins: The final shots of the movie are of Mary flying away with her umbrella, on to help the next family in need of a Magical Nanny.
- Neo shoots directly into the sky, Superman-style, after the climax of The Matrix.
- Monster High: The Movie ends with Draculaura levitating off the front staircase with Clawdeen and Frankie holding onto her as she rises.
- In Planet of the Apes (2001) the human astronaut, Leo, successfully escapes the future-Earth controlled by the Apes and crash-lands on the steps to the Lincoln Memorial. His apparent success turns to a nightmare, however, as the movie ends with him climbing the remaining steps, staring at the face of the statue, which is not Honest Abe, but is instead the very Ape General he had fled from the future: General Thade. Unlike other examples, the ascension does not lead to a "happy afterlife" in this case.
- In the final scene of Titanic (1997), Rose dreams that she is back on the titular vessel, restored to its original glory, with all the guests gathered around as she climbs the grand staircase one last time to where Jack is waiting for her.
- The Truman Show ends with the title character sailing to the edge of the world (literally: Truman is trapped in the world's largest Reality TV soundstage, after all), finding a staircase that leads up to the doorway out to the real world, and leaving—after taking his final bows, of course.
- Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory ends with Charlie, Wonka, and Grandpa Joe shooting into the sky in the Wonkavator and Wonka giving the factory to Charlie, the final shot of the film showing the Wonkavator still ascending.
- In the climax of the Black Mirror episode "Hang the DJ", the protagonists finally escape the mysterious compound they've been trapped in by climbing a long, long ladder up the exterior wall.
- Played for Laughs in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Greg's character arc in seasons 1 and 2 has him tackle his personal issues, accept that he wants to leave West Covina, and work towards that goal. When he is Put on a Bus in season two (leaving to go to business school in Atlanta), Rebecca rushes to see him off at the airport. They bid goodbye, and Greg is shown ascending an escalator to a blinding light, symbolizing his 'escape'.
- In the play within the play on Friends "The One With The Screamer", a ladder magically descends from above, and Joey's character grabs onto it to ascend into the waiting spaceship, leaving his love interest behind to — yes! — melancholically watch him depart, so that he can "Go to Blogon 7 in search of Alternative fuels." No blinding light, in this case, but the ladder is beautifully decorated with flashing Christmas lights.
- Played with in the season 5 finale of Grey's Anatomy. Izzie begins crashing due to complications from her surgery, and George does as well after being hit by a bus. As the other doctors try to revive them in different parts of the hospital, we cut to Izzie imagining herself getting on an elevator and going up. When the doors opens she finds George is already on the top floor. The following season it's revealed that Izzie was successfully revived, but George died.
- The end credits of each episode of A Prince Among Men is an example of this trope, depicting Gary Prince climbing up a ladder which spans the whole screen vertically.
- Subverted in the Sanctuary episode "Metamorphosis." Will is transforming into an abnormal and dreams of himself as a human ascending a staircase towards a bright light. He follows, only to find himself on top of one of the Sanctuary's towers, where he commits suicide.
- The Wire: Bubbles the heroin addict's storyline ends with him ascending the stairs from the basement of his sister's house to finally join his family for dinner after going clean.
- The Goes Wrong Show features a notable example of a Story Within a Story including this trope entirely accidentally, thanks to the ineptitude of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society. One of the plays they put on, "90 Degrees", features a deathbed scene where the children of an iced tea tycoon bid farewell to their dying father. It's supposed to be naturalistic, but thanks to an unfortunate misunderstanding on the part of the set-designers the set in question has been built at a 180 degree angle from the ground, meaning that everything that should be on the ground is now on the ceiling — including the bed the actor playing the father is lying in. It's filmed as if it were at a normal angle, however, with the end result being that when the father finally "dies", his actor is forced to let go of the bed and gravity does its work... but the way it's shot makes it look like the father is very suddenly yanked up into Heaven upon dying.
- Taylor Swift:
- In "White Horse", Swift uses ascending a stairwell as a metaphor for spending the rest of one's life with someone.
I'm not the one you'll sweep off her feet
Lead her up the stairwell
- Some of the final shots of the music video to "...Ready For It?" show her climbing a broken escalator into the light as her enemies burn behind her.
- In "White Horse", Swift uses ascending a stairwell as a metaphor for spending the rest of one's life with someone.
- In the climactic scene of the musical Cats, Grizabella ascends a glittering stairwell shrouded in mist, which is pretty explicitly a stairway to the cats' version of heaven.
- Elisabeth: The Takarazuka Revue versions end with Death and Elisabeth standing on a moving platform as it raises them above the stage.
- The King and I: At the end of the interpolated ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas," Little Eva dies and goes to the arms of Buddha. She is given wings and she climbs an onstage staircase through the clouds up to where Buddha is sitting, as the chorus sings "Praise to Buddha!"
- The Cave ends with the player character arriving back where they first entered the titular Cave, even though they were descending the whole game, and take a ladder to exit. They keep climbing, with the implication that if they didn't leave behind the object they came for in the first place it'll lead to a tragic outcome for them and everyone around them that's been hinted at throughout the game. If they did choose moral development over material gain, however, it follows the symbolism of leaving the epiphanic prison that is their worst impulses and temptations.
- Deadly Rooms of Death: This is the ending of The Second Sky and so of the whole series. The people of Dugandy descend into King Dugan's Dungeon so as to be safe when the world turns upside-down. After the Turning, they continue upward through the dungeon and the ruins of the Rooted Empire, eventually emerging on the world's other surface to begin their new lives.
- Diablo III ends with Tyrael creating a staircase of light and rising to take the place of Malthael as the Archangel of Wisdom after Diablo's defeat.
- GRIS: As the statue of Gris' mother opens the path for her, she walks up to the path of stars she has created, and goes on a long journey upward as both her and her mother's voices sing in the background, until she reaches the whiteness of a bright light, signfying heaven and indicating that she has redeemed herself from her anxieties at last.
- Little Nightmares:
- The main game ends with the small Kid Hero Six slowly ascending the massive main staircase of the terrifying structure the game takes place in into a blinding yellow light. The player is still in control of her for the first part of the climb, but about halfway up she passes a Point of No Return and makes her escape alone. All the Nomes she's interacted with appear at the bottom of the stairs to watch her leave.
- The first chapter of the DLC, "The Depths," ends with the Runaway Kid climbing a long set of stairs followed by a ladder to finally escape the deep, flooded belly of the Maw . . . only to be immediately captured by the Janitor. The climax of Chapter 2 is him riding up out of the Hideaway on a coal lift.
- Mario Party: Star Rush: The final mode that the player unlocks is the Challenge Tower, where the chosen character must climb to the top of a tower while avoiding Amps hidden on certain panels.
- At the end of Portal 2, Chell takes a very long elevator ride up out of the subterranean research facility she's been trapped in, catching glimpses of all the areas she's made it through, ending up on the surface in a beautiful wheat field, which is where the game ends.
- Silent Hill 2: Angela is last seen ascending a burning staircase to what is apparently a Self-Inflicted Hell.
- TowerClimb: You reach the top of the tower, kill the Final Boss, and behind the door to the end, you abruptly reach the credits screen, which has you do one last easy climb to the top.