The Hunt For Fiction's First Twist Ending

We're going to say it probably involved spiders.
The Hunt For Fiction's First Twist Ending

According to many experts, the first movie to feature a twist ending was 2008's Saw V. Viewers who bought a ticket were expecting something interesting, but much of the runtime was instead taken up by DVD extras of previous films in the series. Also, there was some kind of twist ending about the murder traps, but it was lame and not worth remembering.

Of course, all those imaginary experts from the last paragraph are completely deluded; the twist ending started a bit before 2008. But anyone else who says they've tracked down the first ending is likely just as wrong.

The first cinematic twist ending is often said to be 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. We'll freely spoil the twist in the next sentence because we imagine that all of you interested in watching an hour-long silent German film have already heard how this particular famous movie ends. The main character, who has been investigating murders committed by the director of an asylum, is revealed to be a patient at an asylum, and most of the scenes were just his imagination. You've surely seen many movies and TV shows include this same twist, sometimes as a joke. You might say they're all imitating The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—but if that movie hadn't thought of this twist, someone else definitely still would have. 

We'll actually have a bit more to say about "all a dream" and "main character's insane" movies as we continue our plot twist coverage this week. But you already know that such twists are actually older than movies themselves. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ended with the character waking to reality 55 years before Caligari put the idea on the big screen. A Christmas Carol was another 20 years before that, and the ending wasn't even particularly original back then. It wasn't even the only 1840s Dickens Christmas novella to use that twist: He pulled that same trick in The Chimes

No, we have to go much further back if we want to find the first twist ending. One popular candidate for the world's first whodunit is "The Tale of the Murdered Woman," a story from the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. This story's so old we don't even know when it was first written. The first printed version goes back to a century or so before Dickens, but the story dates back to the 12th century, or possibly even the ninth century. "The Tale" ends with a surprise reveal of the murderer's identity; we'll tell it to you tomorrow, but only if you let us live. 

Go back another millennium or two, and you have the Old Testament, which contain some of the earliest stories many people know. You can find a few twist endings in there. Take the story of Samson, from which we get the famous quote "Everybody betray me, I'm fed up with this world." Following a series of riddling contests and encounters with duplicitous women, Samson has lost his hair and his super strength with it. You think he is defeated. But in a twist, God gives him one last burst of power, so he manages to knock down the pillars of a temple, killing everyone in it, including himself. The lesson of this story is that sometimes, Bible stories are fun. 

Even the Old Testament, however, was based on earlier myths. Samson's predecessor Heracles also died in a twist ending, and some say both are just ripoffs of Enkidu from the Epic of Gilgamesh. That's the oldest written story we have, and it does end with a twist, involving a magic herb and a snake. No, it's different from the story of Eden—here, the herb grants eternal life, and the snake prevents the man from eating it.

You're not going to find any story officially dated earlier than Gilgamesh. If we throw in oral tradition, though, we have Aboriginal myths going back almost another 10,000 years. Back then, people had so few preconceptions about what stories were that everything must have surprised them. The earliest myth therefore might have had a twist ending, even if the ending was just "And then spiders came." 

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Top image: Lions Gate Films, Lucas Cranach


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