The Ghost Ship Moment

The Ghost Ship Moment

Where dramatic irony goes to die.

On last week’s podcast, there was a passing reference to the “Ghost Ship Moment.” This is an idea I came up with back in 2003, while slogging through Ghost Ship on DVD. For those of you who aren’t diehard Julianna Margulies fans, this is a movie about a marine salvage team that finds a long-lost Italian ocean liner floating in the Bering Sea. They climb aboard and start poking around artfully rusted-out staterooms, and increasingly eerie things start happening. But somehow, the crew members refuse to accept that the boat is haunted, even after a bunch of them have died mysteriously.


Insert your own "I'm on a boat" joke here.

This scene takes place an hour and seven minutes into the film. That’s only 19 minutes before the end credits. And even at this late stage, only Julianna seems to know what every single person in the audience does: this Ship has Ghosts.

It was probably around this scene that it occurred to me that certain movies are divided into two parts: the part before the characters know what kind of movie they’re in, and the part after. The Ghost Ship Moment (or GSM), in its most basic formulation, is when the characters in a film learn what you know from the movie’s title. For instance:

  • Patrick Swayze looks over and sees his own lifeless body.
  • Elrond declares, “You shall be… the Fellowship of the Ring!”
  • Charlie discovers a Golden Ticket in his Wonka Bar, declaring he will visit the chocolate factory.
  • Sam Witwicky is chased by a police car that suddenly transforms into a robot.

That last one reveals a crucial point about the GSM: it’s based on the main character’s viewpoint. Transformers begins with a Decepticon attack on a military base, but it’s when our protagonist realizes there’s more than meets the eye that the GSM occurs. So the Ghost Ship Moment in Ghost Ship occurs at about 54 minutes. Julianna has already seen fleeting glimpses of a little girl, but she’s not 100% convinced she saw what she saw. This is where it becomes undeniable.

And all at once, Julianna knows she’s on a Ghost Ship.

In some movies, the GSM is basically the first frame. The very first thing we see in Star Wars is the big ship blasting away at the little ship. (In Return of the Jedi, the GSM is when a mysterious hooded figure walks into Jabba’s palace. In Empire, I’d say it’s when those imperial walkers start kicking ass and taking names, but that one’s debatable.) And movies with vaguer titles generally don’t have a GSM. For instance, The Phantom Menace. Or Eyes Wide Shut. If it were called The Orgy, then it would have a GSM. I’d say The Matrix doesn’t really have a GSM, because someone who hasn’t seen it has no way of knowing what the Matrix is. The GSM is when the protagonist’s knowledge catches up with the viewer’s knowledge. When you learn information together, it doesn’t count.

Not all Ghost Ship Moments are easy to pin down. In Batman Begins, is the GSM when Bruce Wayne reveals his superheroic plans to Alfred? Or is it when he appears in costume for the first time? Or is it the very first scene, since everything that happens to Bruce is part of Batman’s beginning?

Jaws is another interesting one. Roy Scheider suspects there’s a shark after the first victim. But maybe the real GSM is when Hooper arrives, inspects the body, and confirms there’s a Great White on the prowl. Or maybe that iconic dolly-zoom on Chief Brody as that little boy’s yellow raft is chomped up. That’s the moment where he’s sure what the movie is about.

42 Comments on “The Ghost Ship Moment”

  1. Mads Ejstrup #

    I think you are watering down the concept of the “Ghostship moment”, I know you invented the term, but of cause there has to be a moment when the characters in a movie understands what is going on. The best kinds of GSM is when it comes so late that the characters must be stupid, especially when the title of the movie already explains what is going on. Oh and better yet if a characters begins to explain what is going on as in every episode of X-files.

    I think aliens are abducting people

    I refuse to belive in such nonsense, even though aliens was involved in that last case.

    (25 min. later)
    Ok, I’m not saying aliens did it, but I am not not saying did it.

    (fade to black)


  2. Matthew Wrather #

    Great article, Matt. It’s nice to have a definitive resource from the creator himself for reference.

    I’d ask this, though: Is the GSM a feature of all narrative, or just bad narrative?

    That is to say, I think we need a way to distinguish between a Ghost Ship Moment, and, say, (pardon the screenwriting-seminar-hero’s-journey term) the end of the first act.

    I think it has to do with the implicit contract between a narrative and its audience. That is, can the story cash the checks the writers have written?

    When Elrond says “you shall be… the fellowship of the ring.” I think that’s more the ending of an act than a GSM, because I was promised an adventure story and they’ve had adventures, so the movie has made good on its promises.

    I’d distinguish this from, say, Sean Connery saying: “Gentlemen… welcome to The Rock” because that movie promised me ass-kicking on Alcatraz and until that point doesn’t begin to deliver.

    (Not to beat one of this site’s dead horses, but that’s why I don’t really buy your and Mark’s criticisms of Glee. I was promised a lightly snarky satire and talented kids doing musical numbers. I am given…lightly snarky satire and talented kids doing musical numbers. My cup is full.)


  3. fenzel #


    I think the GSM is tied to the movie’s title more than its structure, and it only works when the title tells the audience about something that is going to happen in the movie. Titles that are more open-ended or desciptive have weak GSMs at best. It stands out in movies better than in plays or books because movies more often have titles that say “Pay ten dollars, and this is what you will see,” and are more likely to really disappoint you if it’s not there.

    Like, nobody gives a crap whether there are any kites or running in The Kite Runner. But there damn well better be the ponymous Bikini Car Wash.

    Stronger GSMs occur when the protagonist actively denies what we know is true because of the title of the movie. The device works because the title of a movie is a stronger guarantee than any other foreshadowing or expectation it sets up. So it’s a tension between the characters i


  4. fenzel #

    Sorry, hit submit early by accident.

    I was saying, there’s a metanarrative tension between the protagonists in the movie and the studio’s marketing department that is stronger than any other foreshadowing and expectation set up by the film, because we believe in how movies are sold to us much more than we believe in the movies themselves.

    And it definitely is more fun when the makes the big reveal to the audience before it makes the big reveal to the protagonists. Because we don’t want to wait until half the movie is over before we get to see any Ghost Shipping (incidentally, Ghost Ship has one of the most over-the-top, glorious opening sequences of any movie of its kind. I recommend it if only for the first five minutes).

    Like, who didn’t love Snakes on a Plane before they saw it, vs who came to love it only after they saw it, witholding judgement until that point? I suspect the second group is much smaller. We usually buy movies before we see them.

    But yeah, the rock is not a great example because the title doesn’t set up a clear enough expectation with the audience of specific goings on. But the GSM is definitely “Welcome to the Rock.”

    The proper reaction to a GSM is along the lines of “No shit, Sherlock!” Hopefully accompanied by excitement or laughter and a feeling of satisfaction that the movie has finally been made whole.

    I haven’t read Love in the Time of Cholera, but I hope there’s a lot of coughing and drinking of water early in it, and that halfway in, somebody says “Holy shit, I think everybody has cholera!”

    Except, you know, in Spanish.


  5. fenzel #

    Sorry, the Bikini Car Wash is eponymous, not ponymous.

    Or, you know, titular.



  6. Mads Ejstrup #

    Again I think, and the way you have all used it in podcast, that as wrather wrote, the GSM should be tied to the title as I tried to illustrate with my X-files “script”. However in a


  7. Mads Ejstrup #

    Sorry hit Submit.

    Again I think, and the way you have all used it in podcast, that as wrather wrote, the GSM should be tied to the title as I tried to illustrate with my X-files “script”. However in a
    true GSM moment Scully would say that they are indeed working on an X-file.

    I think for the most part the term sjould characterise bad screenwriting except for the times were it is used deliberatly for laughs as in Shaun of the Dead.


  8. Marty #

    I really enjoyed Ghost Ship, but I will admit the opening scene (and when it’s repeated in slo-mo ghost-flashback later) is really the only reason to watch it.


  9. seapants #

    ROCKY: Rocky knows he is rocky, he knows he is boxer. the only thing we know that Rocky doesn’t is he gets a one-in-a-million shot at the title. so is the GSM in ROCKY when he’s first asked to fight Apollo and initially turns it down, or when Mickey convinces him he needs to make the most of this “freak luck” situation?

    i vote for Mickey’s emotional visit to Rocky’s apartment as the GSM. mostly because burgess meredith is bad ass.


  10. Darin #

    I like the coinage and if I had to trace the lineage of GSM, I’d have to say Hitchcock. Once upon a time, before studios treated us like complete idiots and the American viewing audience would settle for complete shit…

    Hitchcock was constantly playing with the audience’s perception of the scene. Put a bomb under the coffee table and have two people talk next to it. Who know? Why did they / didn’t they? When was it going to go off? Then, shoot the sequence without a cut for as long as possible. That was suspense

    Nowadays, we have to beat the audience over the top of the head with the title, a trailer that gives away the entire movie, and a voyeuristic audience that feels empowered by the knowledge instead of engaged and on edge. Maybe, I’m being cynical, maybe the cost of production has lowered to the point where we can have considerable entries that one will actually succeed. I’m a bit ashamed that our culture even has a Ghost Ship moment.

    The GSM, to me, connotates some denseness on the part of the characters. The examples range from willing to believe to straight-up dense. But the example, Ghost Ship, and the way it was described by the Matt, suggest it took 62% of the film to either get through the script or for the actors to finally get it or both.


  11. Martin #

    In Star Wars, the GSM for Luke is when R2D2 projects the hologram of the princess asking for help. Before then he doesn’t have a clue about what is going on, or at least assumes he’s not part of it. Obi-Wan gets his moment when R2D2 replays the message. For Leia, it’s at the very start or even before the start of the movie.


  12. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Wrather – The Ghost Ship moment certainly CAN mark the end of Act 1. But it certainly doesn’t have to. For instance, take the “Welcome to Jurassic Park” moment. That’s very early in the film. I’m pretty sure Act 2 doesn’t begin until after the tour, when the power goes out and things start to unravel.

    Now think about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The GSM in that case is the scene where the guy’s heart is ripped out – when Indy discovers the temple. That’s smack in the middle of Act 2 (which I’d say begins after they arrive at Bangkok Palace).

    Now think about Return of the King. You could argue with this, but I’d say it’s the moment Aragorn shows up at Minas Tirith to save the day. That’s at the very end of Act 2, if not Act 3.


  13. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Wrather and Pete – Sorry guys, but the moment when Sean Connery says “Welcome to the Rock” is NOT the Ghost Ship Moment. Remember, the GSM is all about when the characters LEARN something we already know. So in the case of The Rock, I’d say it’s when they tell Nicolas Cage about the hostage crisis on Alcatraz.

    He gets a call while he’s making out with his girlfriend. “I’m sure it’s just a training exercise,” he grumbles. Then in the next scene he meets the guy from the West Wing on the tarmac, and looks into his eyes.

    “This isn’t a training exercise, is it?”
    “No Dr. Goodspeed, it isn’t.”

    I’d say THAT’S the GSM. Because the next time we see Nicolas Cage, he knows there’s a hostage crisis on the Rock. From here on out, he knows everything we know.


  14. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @seapants – I’d say in Rocky, the GSM is when he’s OFFERED the chance to fight Apollo. The GSM is usually a moment when a character either is given information, or comes up with an idea. Rocky may not make his decision to fight the fight immediately, but receiving the offer is his GSM.

    @a lot of people – I’m not saying the GSM is inherently bad. It’s just dramatic irony, and no one is going to say dramatic irony is bad. It CAN be bad, in cases where characters just seem annoyingly dense. But in Psycho, Vera Miles doesn’t realize she’s dealing with a psycho until she turns around that chair in the basement, about 5 minutes before the end. That’s an insanely delayed GSM, and it’s awesome.

    @Martin – I don’t think the “Help me Obi-Wan” message is the GSM. How does the title “Star Wars” lead us to expect that? We didn’t even know the princess had RECORDED a message. Just because an event starts out the story doesn’t make it a GSM.

    Keep in mind, the GSM is largely determined by the TITLE of the movie, not its structure. In “The Last Starfighter,” the GSM is when Alex finds out that all the other Starfighters are dead. Now if you changed the title to “Starfighter,” the GSM would be when Alex is taken into space and told he’s going to be a Starfighter (about 45 minutes earlier).


  15. Sheely #

    @Mlawski- I can’t believe that I read this whole post without thinking of that sketch. Scooped!

    I’m so sick and tired of all these Star Wars.


  16. Matthew Wrather #


    Well, so, this is my next question — Where do you draw the line with the information you assume the audience has? Mainly the title, as you say. The poster? The ads? The buzz?

    The examples from Jurassic Park are good illustrations here, because everybody knew that the dinosaurs were going to get out. That’s what they paid ten bucks ($7.50 then) to see. But how did they know? Not the title or poster…

    I guess what I’m asking is what are legitimate sources of information to tee up a GSM?

    Oh, also, I’d like to submit for approval the Training Exercise Corollary to the general Ghost Ship Moment theorem, to wit: The line “This isn’t a training exercise, is it?” always sets up a Ghost Ship Moment.

    Also, Matt, would you agree that the earlier the GSM comes the better the movie is?


  17. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Wrather – Well, it’s not an exact science. You have to make a judgment call about what the audience knows (I think that’s part of the fun). And of course, there’s no way EVERYONE in the audience is on the same page, so it’s totally possible to have different GSMs for different viewers. If this bothers you, you can just use the movie title, which at least makes it consistent. But let me point out that breaking a movie into Acts is often a judgment call. Analyzing any piece of art is subjective.

    I would NOT agree that the Ghost Ship moment should come as early as possible. There are lots of movies where the buildup to the Ghost Ship moment is completely enjoyable. Take Aliens, for example. The GSM is when the marines are attacked by aliens – that’s the thing WE know is going to happen, and they don’t really expect. That doesn’t happen until about an HOUR into the film. But I would never say Aliens would be so much better if the creatures showed up in the first ten minutes.

    Same thing with slasher films. The buildup to the GSM is a crucial part of the design, not an annoying flaw. The teens are driving through the scary woods. Their car breaks down. They find a creepy old mansion. They split up to explore. A couple people are killed, but the main character doesn’t know it yet. This is one of the PLEASURES of the genre. Now if the GSM is delayed and delayed, that’s annoying. But I certainly wouldn’t say it should come as soon as is humanly possible. Nothing wrong with suspense.

    Oh, here’s a great counter-example: Miracle, the hockey movie. I would say the GSM comes about two minutes before the end, when the United States beats the Russians. We KNOW this is going to happen. The title gives it away. But all through the movie, people are saying, “It’s impossible, we can’t beat them, we’re just kidding ourselves.” It’s a classic GSM, when the audience knows something big the characters don’t. But in this case, the dramatic irony isn’t resolved until the very end. And it’s not a bad thing. It works fine in that case.

    So no, I don’t think the GSM should come early. Each movie is different.


  18. Caroline Loy #

    Would you say the GSM of “The Shining” is when they first arrive at the hotel, and Scatman Crothers explains what “Shining” is to Danny, since that is the title concept?

    Or would it be the scene where Wendy discovers the “All work and no play makes Jack and dull boy” manuscript, as that’s when she finally catches up with us on the “there’s something seriously wrong with your husband” thing?

    Or is it when Danny first big-wheels into the ghost girls, since that’s when a character gets confirmation that the joint is seriously haunted.

    When Grady explains to Jack that he “has always been there” and needs to get his murder spree on?

    The final shot, with the photo of Jack at the hotel years ago?

    Does The Shining even HAVE a GSM? Can it have several?


    • perich OTI Staff #

      @Caroline: I’d be content to say that The Shining doesn’t have a nailed-down GSM. There are several moments that could be it – my vote is for when Danny’s triking through the hall and runs into the ghost twins – but all they really do is hint.

      In fact, thinking about it further, that’s a hallmark of Kubrick movies. If a GSM is when the characters figure out what the audience already knew, Kubrick movies are tricky, because usually neither the characters nor the audience ever figure out the full extent of what’s going on. What would the GSM be in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or Eyes Wide Shut?


  19. Hazbaz #

    On another point about The Lord of the Rings. It could be argued that the GSM for the over-arching title: Lord of the Rings doesn’t get resolved until near the very end of the third movie. Throughtout, the audience have been assuming the Sauron is the titular Lord, but (SPOILER) as Gollum and Frodo fight in the volcano, isn’t that where the title gets decided?


  20. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Hazbaz – The Ghost Ship Moment can NEVER show the audience anything they don’t already know is coming. The GSM shows the CHARACTERS something the audience knew before the movie even started. (Zombies will attack. Bruce Wayne will become Batman. There is some sort of code in the works of Da Vinci.) So in the Lord of the Rings, the GSM is probably the scene when Gandalf tells Frodo that his ring is the Ring of Power. That’s the Big Thing that WE know, and he doesn’t.


  21. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Caroline – The Shining is a tricky one. In general, the GSM works better with simpler movies. In Snakes on a Plane, the GSM is when Sam learns there are motherfucking snakes on his motherfucking plane.

    If I had to pick one for The Shining, maybe it’s the twins on the tricycle. The one thing the audience knows going into the movie is that it’s a horror movie, right? It’s scary. So when the first scary thing happens, that’s the GSM. (IF you accept the kid is the main character. If you argue that Shelley Duval is the main character, then it’s probably “All work and no play.” That’s when SHE knows for a fact she’s in a horror movie.)

    I thought about the scene where Scatman explains what the Shining actually is. But here’s the trick: the audience has no way of knowing what the title means. It’s very different than “Snakes on a Plane,” or “Ghost Ship.” “The Shining” is a mysterious title, and there’s no way the average viewer knows what it means before Scatman tells us. And if there’s no dramatic irony, it’s not a GSM. So I’m going to say the explanation of the Shining is NOT a GSM, even though it’s the title.


  22. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Perich – Whether 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut have GSMs depends on what you assume the viewers know.

    For instance, didn’t most people who see Eyes Wide Shut know that it sort of centered on a crazy orgy party? Then you COULD argue that the GSM is when Tom Cruise’s musician friend first tells him about the sex party. But I’d say this is a weak GSM at best.

    And don’t most people who see 2001 know that it is (at least partially) about a homicidal computer? So the moment halfway through when the astronauts realize the computer is their enemy could be the GSM. But once again, that’s weak.


  23. Genevieve #

    Would you say, then, that the GSM changes with the age and ubiquity of a movie? I mean, maybe anyone watching Eyes Wide Shut *now* knows that it’s about a “crazy orgy party,” but I certainly had no clue when I went to see it opening weekend. I don’t remember much about the trailers; maybe I didn’t watch enough television (although I doubt that) – but I think, over time, the amount that it’s assumed any given audience knows about a movie varies. This is even true on a larger scale, in that we have expectations that are as effective as knowledge, about genres, eras, and even specific directors or actors, which are often only available with hindsight.


  24. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Genevieve – I would say that in RARE cases, the GSM can change over time. Good example is Soylent Green. EVERYONE now knows that it’s made out of people. That probably wasn’t the case on opening weekend.

    Here’s another good example of a GSM that has emerged over time. In King Kong, I would say when they first see King Kong is a GSM. “OMG, there’s a big monkey on this island!”

    BUT… don’t we also know eventually he’ll be climbing the Empire State Building? Isn’t that a hugely iconic things that millions of people who have never seen the movie know is in there? So isn’t it also a GSM when he first sees the Empire State Building? We KNOW it’s coming eventually, but none of the characters do.


  25. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Hey, here’s another GSM I thought of today. In the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, we’re straight-up told they will commit suicide. There’s no doubt about it. So I’d say Romeo and Juliet has at least two GSMs:
    1. They see each other for the first time.
    2. They commit suicide.
    These are things we KNOW are coming, but the characters don’t. So that can be an example of a GSM that comes VERY late in the story, but still works beautifully.


  26. stokes #

    Obviously this is belinkie’s concept, so I yield authority to him. But I feel like for a GSM to be really, I dunno, *satisfying*, the thing that the character learns has to be something that they find preposterous. Horror movies and scifi are perfect for this, because hey, ships in general? Don’t have ghosts. So no matter how much crazy nonsense you see, you have a strong incentive not to believe that there are ghosts on the ship. Jurassic Park works pretty well too. Everyone is going along thinking “Oh, there can’t be *dinosaurs* on this island!” And then, suddenly…

    This needn’t be supernatural, necessarily. I haven’t actually seen the movie “Unfaithful,” but I bet there’s a great GSM in it when the husband finally realizes that his wife has been messing around.


  27. Valatan #

    What is the GSM for Hedwig and the Angry Inch? There, the irony is kind of reversed. Hedwig and the band are well aware of why they named their band that–it’s the audiences’ task to go and figure out the story behind Hedwig’s life in order to get there.


  28. Valatan #

    While we’re on gay-themed movies, what about Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? You could say it’s the moment when they rent the bus and say ‘I dub thee, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’, but that seems really unsatisfying. All the audience of that movie really knew was that they were getting a travel movie involving drag queens.

    So, is it when the drag queens first appear on screen, near the beginning of the film? Or when they find out that they have to travel across Australia for a show?


  29. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Stokes –

    I don’t disagree with you. In my post, I sort of allude to the concept of Class A Ghost Ship Moments, which is where something truly ridiculous is going on. “2012” (that John Cusack end of the world movie) will be a textbook example. I promise you, it will take a half hour for John Cusack to realize, “My God, it’s the end of the world!” And speaking of upcoming movies, “Where the Wild Things Are” is going to have a textbook GSM too: “Wowzers, there are Wild Things in this place!”

    The more complicated the movie’s concept, the murkier the GSM. Which brings me to…

    @Valatan – I haven’t seen Hedwig, and I don’t really know what it’s about. So for me, there’s no GSM. And if you’re saying the band knows what their name means while the audience doesn’t, there is no GSM, period. The GSM is all about the audience knowing more than the characters.

    As for Priscilla, it all depends on what the trailers gave away. The title itself isn’t clear. But if the movie was marketed as a road trip movie, then yes, the moment they say, “Let’s go on a road trip” is the GSM. The first time the characters are revealed as drag queens CANNOT be the GSM, because THEY KNOW THEY’RE DRAG QUEENS.

    On a similar note, I made an error in the post when I suggested that Star Wars began with a GSM, with the big ship chasing the little ship. What I was forgetting was, this battle was no surprise to anyone in the galaxy – they’d been at war for a long time. Just because something happens that you knew was coming (a Star War) doesn’t make it a GSM. The key is, did the CHARACTERS know it was coming. (“Attack of the Clones” DOES have a GSM, late in the film, because Obi-Wan and Anakin certainly didn’t expect attacking clones when the movie began.)

    This thing is like Othello – a minute to learn, a lifetime to master.


  30. Marc #

    I think that a GSM can only occur when the audience knows something is happening, but one or all of the main characters do not know. Then there is a reveal to the character(s).
    I don’t think it has anything to do with the title, it could, but not always.
    I think you have to be careful in identifying a GSM, as something simply being revealed to a character is not a GSM.

    Some films reveal things slowly thus having no GSM and are like a discovery for both character and audience, for example, Unbreakable.

    Also you can’t identify something as a GSM because you know it’s going to happen because you’ve seen the movie before or know what it’s about.

    I submit into evidence Star Trek 2.

    (SPOILER TASTIC ALERT – For this and others)

    The title gives away the idea of Khan’s Wrath. Okay, it’s going to happen from the title, but the GSM has nothing to do with it.

    When Checkov and Captain Tyrell find the wreakage of the Botany Bay on the planet that is NOT a GSM as they find out something bad at the same time as the audience, but also the audience may not know what the reference is anyway.

    ST2’s GSM is when the Reliant fires on the Enterprise when she has her shields down, because we have already seen Khan on the Reliant but Kirk and crew have no idea who is on the Reliant.
    This isn’t down to any stupidity on Kirk’s part, it’s just that he doesn’t suspect that his old advisary is comanding the Reliant.

    Take for an additional example, The Sixth Sense. When Bruce Willis realises he’s dead, that is NOT a GSM either. It’s revealed to the audience and character at the same time. You might have had suspisions, I didn’t, but it had never actually been revealed.

    GSM’s are created by the writer, to give the audience information that the characters don’t have then to be revealed to them later. You can’t just say things like Rocky being offered a fight is a GSM. It’s not.

    Okay a more complex one from 2001.
    Things start going bad on board the Discovery. Bowman and Poole just investigate. Although there are things pointing to HAL going a bit nuts, there is no specific information for you to get hold of and say ‘Look out Dave, HAL’s gone schitzoid’. Bowman realises there is something up and talks to Poole in the pod making sure thay cannot be over heared, but HAL lipreads them. You as the audience are given the information there that HAL knows they are ploting to shut him down. When they come out, they think everything is okay and HAL knows nothing.
    While outside, HAL sends Poole out into space, and Bowman chases after him. Then when he comes back, HAL will not open the pod bay doors and he has to get in another way.

    Is the GSM when Poole gets shot into space by HAL?
    It is when HAL won’t open the doors for Bowman?
    Is there a GSM there at all? I would say not as there is no huge reveal to characters, just a growing suspision that then gets proved right.



  31. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Marc – You and I are in almost complete agreement. The Wrath of Kahn is a great example. (Although personally, I’d say the GSM is not when the Reliant FIRES on the Enterprise, but when Kahn appears on the viewscreen. That’s when Kirk knows who he’s dealing with.)

    The Sixth Sense is also a good example. A twist is NOT a GSM. In fact, by definition, a GSM should NOT surprise the viewer. If you didn’t know it was coming, it’s not a GSM. (If there is a GSM in the Sixth Sense, it’s the late scene where the kid finally tells Bruce Willis he sees dead people. That counts if you say Bruce is clearly the main character.)

    Where we disagree seems to be, you don’t think information you get from outside the actual film itself should count. For instance, you say there’s no GSM in Rocky, because the writer has no intention of letting the audience know in advance what the story is about. But I’d say the writer’s intentions are irrelevent. The large majority of viewers know that this is a movie about a nobody boxer who gets to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. When Rocky learns that too, it’s the GSM.

    The thing about your definition is it seems to exclude a lot of movies I think have strong GSMs. For instance, Jurassic Park. The audience never sees the dinosaurs until Alan Grant does. (There’s an attack at the beginning, but you never see what’s doing the attacking.) You would argue that since the writers have not revealed the dinosaurs to the audience, there’s no GSM. But I’d say that everyone KNOWS there will be dinosaurs, just like everyone who went to Snakes on a Plane knows there will be snakes on that plane. Saying the first movie doesn’t have a GSM and the second movies does seems a little nitpicky. (Although I think we could maybe classify GSMs in two ways – movies in which the audience is shown something explicitly, and movies in which the audience can be safely assumed to know the premise before it begins.)

    And the thing is, even by YOUR definition, there IS still a GSM in Rocky. Because WE get to see Apollo come up with his plan and select the particular boxer. If your definition is, “the audience knows something is happening, but one or all of the main characters do not know,” then Rocky qualifies.

    The only difference between your and my definitions is, I’m arguing that GSMs are established by your expectations BEFORE THE MOVIE STARTS, and you feel like they EMERGE DURING THE MOVIE, as we are given info. In the Wrath of Kahn, the GSM emerges when Kahn appears to Chekov. It’s RESOLVED when he appears to Kirk. In a horror movie, the GSM emerges when the killer first appears. It’s resolved when the main character realizes there is a killer out there. In Rocky, the GSM emerges when Apollo selects Rocky. It’s resolved when Rocky is told about the opportunity. Does this sum up your position?


  32. Marc #

    @Matthew – Yes this is exactlly what I mean. Sorry, been a long time since I saw Rocky and yes that is a GSM then.

    I see what you are saying about outside influence on the movie. I guess I’m trying to evaluate whether to take just the film as is for all the information you have as a viewer. These days, the marketing & trailers seem just as important at establishing the film in your mind as to what is going to happen.
    I guess cause I write anyway, I’m coming from the point of view that the story is all that maters, and the audiences expectations are not really setup for a GSM, but I am now not sure.

    Yes Snakes on a Plane is a huge GSM for all the characters, but is it when the first snake appears and kills someone or after that event? Hmmmm….

    With ST2, I think there are actually 2 GSMs. The actual attack because Kirk is merrily on his way to investigate problems, had some garbled communications and a few odd things, but nothing that makes him know.
    They meet the Reliant ‘It’s one of ours, everything it pretty normal.’ BANG!!! ‘No it isn’t!!!!’

    Then the viewscreen reveal is another, I just thought it through again, because we’ve established during an earlier conversation with Khan, Chekov & Tyrell that Khan tried to murder Kirk and is an old enemy.
    I was going to say that the viewscreen reveal could only be one if you were a ST fan, but the narative of the film essablishes who Khan is anyway.

    It does make me wonder if a GSM even has to be a synergy between audience and character. If you have some earlier knowledge about it then, it can happen, but if you don’t know, then it’s just something happening to the character. No GSM.

    I guess it’s also possible for some people during the course of the film to work out there is something afoot and some not too then when it is revealed to the character some people will get the GSM and others will not.


    How about this one in 12 Monkeys.

    (Seriously, don’t read this if you’ve not seem 12 Monkeys it will ruin it)

    Bruce Wills constantly has flashbacks from his childhood about a man being gunned down in front of him.
    You get towards the end of the movie and he slowly puts on a particular diguise. At that point, the audience suddenlly realises whats going on but Bruce doesn’t, the GSM emerges. Bruce’s character hits the deck in front of his child self, GSM resolves.

    I don’t think I’m done with this yet.



  33. Gab #

    Re: Shakepseare

    I’d argue that the GSM in _R&J_ is the Prince’s speech at the end, when the families LEARN about the suicides and such. The two main characters don’t discover that they commit suicide, they plan it out themselves and do it. Juliet’s actual suicide isn’t a GSM for Romeo because he offs himself before she wakes up, ergo he dies without knowing the truth (in the original version- we’re ignoring Bas Lurman, here) (although that change did bring a whole new dynamic to the end…); and her killing herself upon finding him is just an event, and it isn’t based on irony- he’s really dead. I suppose her discovering him DEAD as opposed to waiting (and breathing) could be a GSM, but it’s kind of pushing it for me: I don’t really think it’s ironic, it’s just uber sad (or tragic, haha). But I’m also iffy on whether any of that counts as a GSM because I feel like there is still a back-and-forth in the definitions ^up there^ between whether it has to be a main character experiencing it or not for it to count. If it must be a main character, I’d say _R&J_ has none, nor do a lot of Shakespeare’s other tragedies. Like _Othello_- I’d argue the main character isn’t Othello but Iago, and he (duh) knows full well what’s going on as he’s manipulating everybody. The dramatic irony in _Othello_ comes into play (HAH!) at the end when the survivors figure out his plot- so does it still count as GSM? Or _Julius Caesar_, which is about Brutus, but the dramatic irony centers around the title- supporting- character because he insists on going out, even though he was warned about the Ides of March and his wife had scary scary dreams and such. The GSM there is, “Et tu Brute?” (basically- as soon as he realizes they’re about to stab him). Point is, Willie sometimes puts the dramatic irony in the lap(s) of supporting characters, so do those instances still count as GSMs? And no, I’m not saying it’s always that way- _King Lear_, _The Merchant of Venice_, the dramatic irony does center around the main character. Others, too. E.g. every time there is gender bending.

    BUT BUT BUT!!! His histories, they were contextualized back then the way _Miracle_ was for its own contemporaries, right? _Miracle_ was about a widely publicized event that everybody knew the outcome of, and the elite and intended audiences of Willie’s histories would have at least had a vague idea of how things would go down because they were about former British monarchs. I think this ties into the question of how much the audience knows and from what. The audiences of _Miracle_ and _Henry the VIII_ didn’t know the plot because of the titles, but because the plots had already happened IRL around them (to an extent). And really, Willie’s histories and _Miracle_ are kind of iffy for me in that those don’t really involve dramatic irony, per say, so much as just a general knowledge of how the events are going to unfold.

    And no, I’m not an expert on Shakespeare- I’ve just read the complete works over the course of hs and college, so some are fresher in my mind than others. As such, any debunking of my ramblings is welcome and appreciated.

    And that’s all I have for now… Yup.


  34. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Marc – Re: Snakes on a Plane, with any horror movie, you have to pay extra close attention to what the MAIN CHARACTER knows. There will almost certainly be minor characters that get killed off early, and these don’t count towards the GSM. The GSM is the moment when SAMUEL L. JACKSON realizes, “Damn, there are snakes on my mother@#$@ing plane.”

    I definitely understand where you’re coming from, wanting to look at the movie in a vacuum, as if there’s no posters, no trailers, no DVD packaging to give the central premise away. But sadly, being completely spoiler-free isn’t an option in a lot of cases. My girlfriend says that when she say T2, she honestly didn’t know Arnold was a good guy until he started protecting John Connor, but she’s an exception.

    @Gab – You, madam, are raising some excellent points. I’m gonna address ’em in two parts.

    Re: Romeo and Juliet, the issue is, “Can a GSM be something a character DECIDES, not something a character LEARNS.” It is totally true that in almost all the examples cited, the character realizes something about their situation (“The world really is going to end in 2012!”), and that’s the GSM. But… I’d say in Ghostbusters, when Bill Murray proposes, “Hey, let’s go into business for ourselves,” that’s a GSM. Everyone in the audience knew the movie was about people who fight ghosts. When they embark on this plan, it’s the GSM.

    Another example: in Weekend At Bernie’s, the two guys go to their boss’s house to discover him dead. The GSM is a little later, when one of them proposes, “Why don’t we just pretend he didn’t die!”

    Or in Fight Club, the GSM is when Brad Pitt says, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” Once again, a character comes up with an IDEA, not gains knowledge about his situation.

    I realize I’m maybe expanding the definition, but I feel okay about this. The GSM is all about the audience knowing more than the characters. So if you know the character is going to make a momentous decision or have a life-changing idea, that’s fair game.

    So I’m still maintaining that R&J has a GSM. I say MIGHT, because now I’m thinking that maybe in cases where the audience receives partial information it might not count. For instance, American Beauty reveals at the very beginning that its main character will die. So theoretically, Kevin Spacey dying is the GSM. And yet, I feel like it violates the spirit of the thing. We don’t know HOW and WHY he will die, which is clearly the mystery a lot of the movie hinges on. So Lester’s death isn’t a GSM, so much as a revelation. It completes the plot, not tells the characters what we already know. (And of course, Kevin Spacey never really LEARNS he’s going to die – he just dies.)

    And let’s go back to Fight Club – the first thing we see in Brad Pitt holding Ed Norton at gunpoint. Theoretically, this establishes a GSM for the rest of the film, which works its way back (forward) to this scene. But the scene is so cryptic that it doesn’t reveal much. It’s a tease. Similarly, we know the relationship in Romeo and Juliet is going to end poorly. But we don’t know HOW. So Shakespeare isn’t exactly giving the game away when he foretells their deaths.

    And in a similar category, I don’t think the Shawshank Redemption has a GSM. Yes, we know someone is going to be “redeemed.” But we don’t know how, so this hint of how the movie is going to end doesn’t reach the level of GSM. It’s a hint, not specific knowledge about the plot.

    So I don’t know, I’m on the fence. A part of me says that WE know Romeo and Juliet are in a tragedy, they don’t. When Romeo goes to buy the poison, that’s a GSM – he makes a decision to do what we knew from the beginning he was going to do. But another part of me says that if there is a GSM, it’s them meeting and falling in love. Everything after that, we can only guess at, even if we know part of how it ends.

    Of course, I’ll remind everybody here that the GSM is really about horror movies, big dumb action movies, sci-fi movies, etc. Movies that are about something unlikely that the characters never in a million years expect will happen to them. I enjoy trying to apply the concept to other movies. But it’s not unexpected that things becomes murky when you go into radically different genres.


  35. Marc #

    @Matthew – I totally agree that this is really only about horror movies. I used ST2 as my example because I’ve always felt like it had the same style as a slasher flick.
    Case in point, being the bit where they are sneaking around the station, Bones sees a rat, backs away, turns around and BANG!!! bloody hand in the face. Only ST movie to get a 15 cert.

    I’m sure there must be a term for a moment in a narative where the character finds out something that the reader/audience has knowledge before but I wouldn’t always call those a GSM.

    Take for example every episode of Columbo. You, the audience, knows at the start who did it, Columbo proves it or works it out over the course of the show.
    Is it a GSM when he works it out? I don’t think so.



  36. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Marc – Okay, I’ve got an exciting new possible definition for the GSM! I think this could be onto something.

    “The Ghost Ship Moment is when the main character of the movie realizes what genre he/she is in.”

    Horror is the easy example. When the pretty girl realizes there’s a killer on the loose, that’s the GSM.

    In Columbo, there is no GSM, because Columbo is a detective. He EXPECTS to be in a mystery. On the other hand, a lot of Murder She Wrote involves Jessica stumbling into a murder investigation. Those ARE GSMs, because even though it ALWAYS HAPPENS, it’s always a surprise when she has a mystery to solve.

    So by this new definition, Miracle does NOT have a Ghost Ship Moment, because the players know they’re in a sports movie to begin with. They don’t know the ending that we know, but the genre is never in doubt.

    Jurassic Park’s GSM is when the dinosaurs ESCAPE, because that’s when the characters know they’re going to be in an action-adventure film.

    Spider-man’s GSM is when he first starts to fight crime, because that’s when he knows he’s in a superhero film.

    Romeo and Juliet’s GSM is when Romeo learns Juliet is dead (fake dead) and resolves to kill himself. (Or MAYBE when he kills Tybalt, because that’s when the love story starts to turn bad, right?)

    In The Rock, the GSM is when Nicolas Cage learns there’s a hostage crisis, because that’s when he realizes there’s an action movie going down.

    However, under this new definition, some of my examples in the post wouldn’t apply. I’m going to have to think about this.


  37. stokes OTI Staff #

    I think the revised definition could work very well, especially if you have a pretty flexible definition of genre. If you consider Kaiju movies a distinct genre, then there’s usually a big honkin’ Ghost Ship Moment where the main character is first confronted with Rodan, or Gamera, or MechaGodzilla, or what-have-you. In pornography, you have to have a moment where the main character realizes that he/she is about to have sex with everyone and everything in the room.

    However, this does raise the hilarious – and by hilarious, I mean deeply uncomfortable – possibility of locating a Ghost Ship Moment in a holocaust movie. “Wait, they’re going to put us in CAMPS?” And this in turn points to a potential weakness of the new system, because the GSM in Schindler’s List is not the moment when the main character realizes he’s in a holocaust movie, it’s the moment when he makes eye contact with Ben Kingsley, and says “You know, I should make some sort of… some sort of list…” The moment in a movie where the main characters catch up with the title of the movie has a very specific flavor, and deserves to have a label. Maybe we need to distinguish between a “weak” and a “strong” GSMs, the idea being that every film has a weak GSM, even if it’s at the very start of the film, but only films like Ghost Ship or Snakes on a Plane (or, say, Don’t Tell Mom – The Babysitter’s Dead) have strong GSMs too. Cases where the weak and strong GSM don’t fall at the same point would probably be very interesting, if any exist.

    We could also posit a theoretical anti-GSM, in which information provided by the title of the movie turns out to be patently incorrect. Like if you had a movie called “Murder – in Space!” where it turns out that all the astronauts actually died of natural causes.


  38. Jason Santo #

    First (and probably unnecessarily), this is my first time visiting this site, and I’ve been here for an hour or more reading not only some terrific articles, but also some wildly thoughtful and entertaining comments. I began to believe the Internet truly was nothing but vitriolic in-fighting, cynicism and complete, utter stupidity (see: IMDB message boards). Now this is happening. And I may be in love with all of you.

    On the topic of GSM: Love the simplest definition! The main character catches up with what the audience understands is an obvious truth. This allows for the “genre awareness clause” as well as titular acknowledgement and situational discovery! Admittedly, this more broad definition would hinge considerably on an assumption of what the audience *should* know going into a movie.

    One of the earlier examples is illustrative: In “The Shining” we know this is a horror film. That’s pretty much a given regardless of how much you know about the story. So the CLASS A GSM would be the first moment the lead characters realize they’re in a horror story. That moment is debatable, but I think Danny on the tricycle with the two girls gives brings you a solid GSM if you consider him the lead.

    But what it you know “The Shining” is a ghost story? Well, Danny’s still works as a GSM. But if you consider Wendy the lead, hers truly would have to be when she’s running all about the Overlook and seeing the ghosts. (Because even when Danny is injured by the scary woman, she’s still thinking of a practical solution: 1.) There’s a crazy lady in the hotel and 2.) Jack did it!)

    So the difficulty does arise when you try to ascertain what the expectations of the audience should be, unless you set up all GSM’s as an equation.

    1.) If “The Shining” is a horror movie, Wendy’s GSM is when Danny is injured. She comes to the understanding the audience has had from the beginning

    2.) If “The Shining” is a ghost story, Wendy’s GSM is damn near the very end of the picture.

    As stated many times, the more “formulaic” the screenplay, the easier a concrete GSM. In “Mannequin”, your expectations are managed early on to expect a mannequin to come to life – if not by the title/trailers, then by the plot itself. When Kim Catrell starts yapping incessantly, McCarthy reaches the audiences level of understanding.

    I do believe there are different classes of GSMs and I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s further definition of the term. But again, I’m hoping the root is kept simple: “The main character catches up with what the audience understands is an obvious truth.”


  39. Jack Hare #

    The authors of the massive ‘Encyclopedia of Fantasy’ return frequently to the theme of the Moment of Recognition, ‘the point at which the protagonists recognize their story and their place in it’, as a central focus of their overall theory on the nature of the fantasy story.

    As such, they identify the Moment of Recognition in a great variety of narratives (getting examples from the book would require digging it out of a stack of boxes right now, but I certainly recall the authors’ fondness for the Moment of Recognition). Do you suppose the Ghost Ship Moment should encompass only ham-fisted or clumsy versions of the trope, or appearances in pop narratives, or is GSM just a good catchier name for the general Moment of Recognition?


  40. sasskwatch #

    Hm. I would argue that the GSM (as opposed to the Moment of Recognition) does not and cannot always require the main character to understand their place in the story. Example: A horror movie’s “final girl” understands at last that she is in a horror movie. If she simultaneously realizes that she is the final girl (and is therefore in no danger of dying), then there is no more enjoyment to be had from watching the movie.

    I think it’s something of a rectangle/square situation. It is possible for a Moment of Recognition to be a GSM; however, not all GSMs are Moments of Recognition.

    I’m still confused about whether there can be multiple GSMs in a single movie. If there is more than one main character (R+J, The Shining), do they each have a GSM? If the title has a lot of information in it (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), is it a GSM each time the character figures part of it out?


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