In recent years, TV series like Game of Thrones have gained notoriety for their habit of killing off characters in ways that few viewers could have seen coming. However, it’s important to remember that movies have been playing this particular game with audiences for a long time. Much like in real life, people die all the time in fictional stories but it’s the ones we don’t see coming that truly leave a lasting impression. We’ve collected 20 of our favorite shocking on-screen character deaths in cinema in the list below, which range from horrific to comedic, and everything in-between. After reading through the list, be sure to let us know in the comments if there are other memorable movie deaths we may have missed!
The Shawshank Redemption -Tommy
While the suicide of kind-hearted ex-con Brooks may be the saddest death scene in Frank Darabont’s 1994 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption, it isn’t as shocking or important to the film’s plot as the untimely death of young Shawshank inmate Tommy (Gil Bellows). A little over midway through the film, wrongfully incarcerated protagonist Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) takes Tommy under his wing and later discovers that Tommy shared a cell at another prison with the man who committed the crime Andy was imprisoned for.
Unfortunately, once the prison’s corrupt warden catches wind of the possibility that Andy — who is instrumental in the warden’s money laundering schemes — could be released and thus compromise his scheme, he has Tommy shot dead in cold blood. The loss of both Tommy and his best hope of freedom very nearly breaks Andy and represents the film’s lowest point.
Avengers: Age of Ultron – Quicksilver
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most successful movie franchises ever and one of the keys to its popularity is the way in which it ties together characters and storylines across many different movies. However, because the MCU’s success is tied so heavily to its characters, Marvel Studios has been hesitant to kill off major characters, which is no doubt a wise financial move (it’s kind of hard to keep making Captain America movies if Captain America is dead) but has resulted in making each new film have almost zero stakes. After all, it’s hard to worry about a character being in danger if we know that, at the end of the day, their lives aren’t actually in danger.
This is why the death of Quicksilver at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron was so shocking, since killing characters off is so unlike Marvel. Granted, Quicksilver was easily the most expendable hero in the group, since this was the first appearance of Aaron Taylor Johnson’s character (not counting the post-credits tag from Captain America: The Winter Soldier), so it’s not like Marvel took out one of their A-list assets or anything here. It was disappointing to then see Marvel go back to business as usual with their next team-up movie, as Captain America: Civil War seemed to go out of its way to not kill anybody, but for a brief moment in spring 2015, Marvel Studios surprised us all by pulling the trigger.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Superman
It’s debatable whether the climactic death scene in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is more stupid than shocking, but it was still surprising to see a modern blockbuster superhero film kill off one of its lead heroes before said franchise was even really established yet. Of course, if you read Superman Doomsday back in the ’90s, Superman’s death at then hands of behemoth villain Doomsday must have seemed like an inevitable conclusion, but the average film-goer was likely more than a little shocked to see Superman die on-screen.
Unfortunately, the film renders the entire thing essentially meaningless with its final shot of the dirt on top of Superman’s coffin levitating, signalling that the hero isn’t truly dead and gone, but for a brief moment, it looked like the DC Extended Universe would be going ahead without the Man of Steel and that would have been a truly ballsy move on the part of Warner Bros.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – Sword Guy
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an absolute classic and overflowing with memorable scenes, from the opening boulder chase to the shockingly gory Nazi face-melting at the end, but the scene that really surprises is the one that sees Indiana Jones gun down some guy who thought the adventure-seeking archaeologist would want to fight him in a sword duel. The scene itself is great, since it establishes that Indy isn’t afraid to be ruthless when the occasion calls for it, as well as his pragmatism, since he clearly realizes he would be no match for this guy in a fair fight.
But the best part of all is the story behind how the scene came about, as the script originally called for Indy to yank the swordsman’s weapon away using his whip. However, due to a bad case of food poisoning, Harrison Ford asked director Steven Spielberg if he could just “shoot the sucker” and the idea stuck, resulting in one of the best action set-piece fake-outs in movie history.
Zombieland – Bill Murray
Most of the deaths on this list have an element of tragedy, but it’s arguable that Bill Murray’s death scene in Zombieland, while played for laughs, is tragic for one simple reason: what kind of movie kills off Bill Murray?! Murray’s extended cameo in this 2009 zombie flick is easily the film’s best sequence, as it’s revealed that Murray — who plays himself — has survived the zombie apocalypse by disguising himself as a member of the walking dead. Ironically, this clever plan ends up becoming his undoing, as Murray proceeds to try and play a prank on Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus and ends up with a bullet for his troubles, leaving viewers in total disbelief. “Wait, did they just kill Bill Murray?” Yes, yes they did.
Scream – Drew Barrymore
Although the franchise became almost a parody of itself near the end, the original Scream is still widely considered to be a classic in the horror genre for the way it subverted and played with genre conventions. The film starred a number of up-and-comers, including Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Rose McGowan, and Matthew Lillard, but its most popular star (other than Courtney Cox) was Drew Barrymore and the film heavily marketed her as the star.
The film opens with Barrymore’s character alone in her house, when she receives a phone call with a mysterious voice on the other end. After toying with her for awhile, the man on the phone reveals himself to be the film’s killer, Ghostface, who terrorizes Barrymore and eventually forces her to flee the house. We assume that she’ll get away, since she’s the film’s star, but the scene ends with Ghostface gutting his victim. Suddenly, the film’s supposed star is dead and the audience’s expectations are completely subverted in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a trick Scream would be able to play again, but it definitely worked out perfectly the first time.
Pan’s Labyrinth – Ofelia
Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark, twisted fairy tale full of imaginative imagery and shocking, all too realistic depictions of violence, culminating in a truly unsettling final act. Having already lost her mother, the film’s protagonist Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is left to protect her new baby brother from her stepfather Vidal, a sadistic officer in the Spanish Falange dictatorship. Ofelia takes her brother into the labyrinth, but refuses to harm her brother after being told that the blood of an innocent will open a portal to the underworld. Her virtue is rewarded with a bullet, as Vidal fatally shoots her after taking the baby from her arms.
Although Vidal is killed himself not long afterward, that’s hardly any consolation given the shocking events that immediately precede it. The ending is bittersweet, as Ofelia is reunited with her mother, revealed to be the queen of the underworld, but it’s not everyday you see a film kill off its lead protagonist and a child one at that!
The Dark Knight – Rachel Dawes
While Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is renowned for offering a dark, gritty, and realistic take on Batman, there are very few major character deaths across all three films. However, using death sparingly as a device ultimately paid off, particularly in The Dark Knight and the tragic death of Bruce Wayne’s friend / love interest Rachel Dawes. Used as a pawn in the Joker’s plan to dismantle Batman, the villain gives the Caped Crusader the choice between rescuing Rachel or Harvey Dent, who are strapped to explosives at separate locations in Gotham City. Batman makes the choice to rescue Rachel and in a shocking twist for both himself and viewers, discovers that the Joker has tricked him and given him Harvey’s address instead.
We then hear Rachel trying to reassure Harvey over radio that everything is going to be okay, until she’s cutoff mid-sentence by the bomb going off, incinerating her in an instant. Rachel’s death not only pushes Harvey over the edge into madness, but strikes a serious personal blow against Bruce, to the point where we discover in the next film, The Dark Knight Rises, that he’s given up being Batman for nearly a decade primarily because he’s still haunted by this one moment where he was unable to save someone he cares about.
The Green Mile – John Coffey
Frank Darabont’s second Stephen King adaptation to appear on this list — and coincidentally, one that’s also set in prison — The Green Mile tells the tragically uplifting tale of death row inmate John Coffey, a gigantic man with a big heart and mysterious powers who, we later learn, was falsely imprisoned for a crime he didn’t’ commit. Coffey’s friendship with the prison guards who oversee ‘the Green Mile’ forms the heart of the film, which makes the fact that they are powerless to save the man’s life all the more heartbreaking. Just as you think some last minute revelation will spare Coffey from the electric chair, he’s being strapped in and put to death.
Ultimately, Coffey is able to improve the lives of those around him before he dies, particularly Tom Hanks’ lead guard Paul Edgecomb, who we later learn has been blessed with an unnaturally long life thanks to Coffey’s powers, but it’s still tragic to know that an innocent man was sentenced to death for a heinous act he actively tried to stop.
Psycho – Marion Crane
Even if you’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological horror classic Psycho, you’re probably familiar with its central twist. The stabbing death of Marion Crane in the Bates Motel shower is arguably the most popular on-screen murder in cinematic history and even though it is no longer shocking because of what a significant pop cultural moment it was, at the time of Psycho’s release, it most definitely was. Hitchcock’s twist was so effective primarily because audiences of the day couldn’t possibly have seen Marion Crane’s death coming.
Janet Leigh, who played Marion, was a popular actress at the time and marketed as the film’s star, so most viewers naturally assumed she was the film’s protagonist. Instead, they not only got an intense, visually-arresting horror scene but one that effectively turned the tables on everyone’s expectations and signaled that Janet Leigh was actually playing a supporting role. The bait-and-switch would go onto be adapted by many different movies and TV shows — a good modern example would be the death of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones — but Hitchcock popularized it first with Psycho.
Serenity – Wash
Even more than a decade after its release, it’s still no small wonder that Joss Whedon’s 2005 sci fi film even exists. A continuation of Whedon’s short-lived cult TV series Firefly, Serenity brings back the entire ensemble cast for one last space-smuggling adventure and for the most part, succeeds in finishing the story Whedon began in Firefly. What’s interesting about Serenity though is that it’s a film almost at odds with fan expectations, in the sense that at the time of its release, there was still hope that Whedon would go on to tell more stories in the Firefly universe. Unfortunately, this never came to pass but you would think that Whedon was somehow aware that this would be his final crack at this story, given that the film kills off two of the franchise’s main characters.
The death of Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) midway through the film isn’t all that surprising given that the character plays a minor role in the film and never really seemed like he was truly part of the crew anyway, but the sudden death of Alan Tudyk’s lovable pilot Wash during the third act is a totally out-of-left-field jaw-dropper. This is a death that still doesn’t sit well with some Firefly fans, primarily because Wash being dead kind of limits his ability to be in any potential sequels, but it’s hard to deny that seeing Wash get impaled in his pilot’s seat wasn’t a shocking moment that effectively altered the tone of Serenity’s climax.
The Lion King – Mufasa
Many Disney movies have dark undertones but very few of them depict outright on-screen murder. After all, these are children’s movies! The Lion King — widely considered to be one of Disney’s very best animated films — is full of upbeat songs, colorful characters, and beautiful animation, but it also contains an absolute gut-punch of a character death. We’re talking, of course, about the might lion king Mufasa, who is tricked and then murdered by his treacherous brother Scar. Worst of all, Scar pins the murder on Mufasa’s son Simba and banishes the young cub from his home and takes it for himself.
Granted, we probably should have seen this one coming given that The Lion King is basically a retelling of Hamlet with talking animals, but it’s not like there are many kids out there capable of making this connection. As it is, this is a character death that scarred (pun intended) a whole generation of kids who grew up watching this movie and no Disney movie has quite been able to match the tragedy and impact of Mufasa’s death.
Deep Blue Sea – Russell Franklin
Deep Blue Sea isn’t a cinematic classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a pretty entertaining movie that puts its own unique spin on the “killer shark” genre popularized by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Undoubtedly, the film’s biggest star is Samuel L. Jackson, who takes it upon himself to lead the surviving members of his research group to safety after their underwater research station is essentially taken over by genetically-enhances sharks (the plot sure sounds ridiculous when you phrase it like that, doesn’t it?).
Not very long into their escape, Jackson’s character starts giving his team a rousing speech about how those motherf—ing sharks aren’t going to beat them. Unfortunately, he delivers this speech right in front of an open water source and a shark promptly pops up and eats him whole, mid-speech. It’s arguably Samuel L. Jackson’s best on-screen death to date and one that shocks on every level.
Children of Men – Julian Taylor
Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopic thriller about a world gone mad following two decades of human infertility makes for a harrowing viewing experience right from the opening scene, when the film’s protagonist Theo Faron (Clive Owen) narrowly escapes being blown up by a bomb set off in a coffee shop. However, it isn’t until a little later in the film that Children of Men delivers its most shocking scene. After joining up with an immigrants’ rights group led by his estranged wife Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo agrees to help them acquire transit papers for a young refugee named Kee (who is later revealed to be with child). While travelling to the coast, the group’s car is ambushed by an armed gang and Julian is brutally gunned down in the crossfire. It’s a truly affecting scene not only because of the way Cuaron chooses to shoot from inside the car (and in a single continuous take, no less) but because Moore was billed as the film’s female lead.
Se7en – Tracy Mills
David Fincher’s unnerving 1995 crime thriller features one of cinema’s most unsettling fictional serial killers in John Doe, brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey, but it isn’t until the film’s third act that we actually get to see detectives David Mills and William Somerset (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, respectively) actually interact with the man they’ve been trying to catch. In a truly remarkable display of tension-building, Fincher allows the realization to slowly dawn on the audience that John Doe has murdered Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose head has been sitting in the trunk of a car the whole time the two detectives have been interrogating their suspect. The gut punch of the head being discovered by Somerset is effective enough, but the way Se7en then ties the swift murder of John Doe at the hands of Tracy’s husband into its thematic underpinning effectively makes this one of the most memorable, unsettling twist endings in cinema.
Star Wars – Obi-Wan Kenobi
We debated whether to put Han Solo’s death from Star War: The Force Awakens here instead, but since that movie regurgitates many of the same narrative beats as the original Star Wars, we had to go with the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Pretty much everything about the original Star Wars took audiences by surprise, as no one predicted that George Lucas’ weird sci-fi indie film would become a cultural phenomenon and one of the most lucrative franchises of all time.
The film itself follows a fairly standard hero’s journey, as young Luke Skywalker leaves his humble home behind to discover his greater destiny, thanks in large part to the encouragement of his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, wonderfully played by Alec Guinness. The film’s third act kicks off with an epic escape from the Death Star, where Obi-Wan encounters his old student-turned-enemy Darth Vader. The two engage in a lightsaber duel and just before it looks like Obi-Wan might escape, the old Jedi Knight lays down his arms and lets Vader strike him down while Luke watches helplessly from afar.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – Spock
Considered by many fans to still be the undisputed king of Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan improves upon its predecessor, the slow and plodding Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in just about every way. The biggest change is giving the Enterprise crew a truly remarkable villain to face off against in the form of Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically-altered human who first appeared in the The Original Series episode “Space Seed.”
In the film, Khan seeks revenge on Captain Kirk (William Shatner) for abandoning him and his people on a “dead planet” and strikes a deeply personal blow against the captain by taking out his most trusted crew member. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) nobly sacrifices himself so that his friends may survive, leading to one of the most shocking deaths in sci fi movie history. Although he would be resurrected in the very next film, thus robbing this sacrifice of its finality, it was still a painful moment to witness for fans of these characters and remains arguably the most significant plot twist in Star Trek history.
Pulp Fiction – Vincent Vega
Really, you could put include a scene from almost any Quentin Tarantino film on this list, as the director is known for killing off his characters in sudden bursts of violence. If we had to choose one Tarantino death that shocked us more than any other though, we’d have to go with John Travolta’s character from Pulp Fiction, if only because it’s a perfect blend of the darkly comedic. The film contains a running joke about how Travolta’s hit man Vincent Vega should never go to the bathroom because “when he does, bad things happen.” It all comes full circle when Vega uses the bathroom in the house belonging to Butch (Bruce Willis), who is actually his intended target. Vega forgets to bring his gun into the bathroom with him and when he exits, he finds Butch with gun in-hand, waiting to blow him away.
While subsequent Tarantino films have had more elaborately staged death scenes (the explosive bar shootout from Inglorious Basterds springs to mind) but it’s important to remember that Tarantino was proving himself as a filmmaker with Pulp Fiction and audiences weren’t yet in tune with his particular brand of filmmaking. Thus, killing off a big name star like Travolta in such a way was a significant moment that signaled Tarantino as a cinematic force to be reckoned with.
Alien – Kane
The chestburster scene from Ridley Scott’s horror sci-fi masterpiece Alien is a pop cultural touchstone at this point, but audiences were completely unprepared for it back in 1979. The scene itself is a masterclass in slow-build tension, as John Hurt’s Kane thinks he just has a case of indigestion, but it doesn’t take long for the rest of his crew members to realize that his affliction is something much worse. After writhing in pain on a table in the ship’s medical bay, Kane gives birth to a baby Xenomorph, which bursts from his chest in a bloody display of body horror, scaring the crap out of the crew and viewers alike, and killing Kane in the process. This death scene effectively doubles as an origin scene, as this is the first time we see the titular alien on-screen and only later do we see just how terrifyingly dangerous it will become when fully grown.
The Departed – Everyone
Martin Scorsese has never been shy about brutally offing his characters, but his 2006 Internal Affairs remake The Departed is on another level entirely when it comes to shocking on-screen deaths. While the sudden headshot execution of undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is arguably the most surprising and tragic of The Departed’s many on-screen deaths, the film as a whole goes out of its way to kill off the majority of its cast. Martin Sheen’s police captain (and Costigan’s most trusted ally) gets callously thrown off a building about halfway through and even Anthony Anderson’s good cop Trooper Brown gets a bullet in the film’s high bodycount climax. Their deaths are ultimately avenged by Mark Wahlberg’s Dignam when he executes crooked cop Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) right before the credits roll, but there aren’t many film’s that rival Scorsese’s in terms of sending viewers a loud and clear message that none of its characters are safe.