15 Cunning Red Herring Examples in TV and Film
Surprise is one of the most important elements in movies and tv. Knowing how to write a killer plot twist is an important skill in your writer’s tool box. And in screenwriting, a red herring can serve as a great way of delivering such a plot twist.
A red herring is something that is used to divert attention from the truth.
In literature and cinema, a red herring is supposed to distract and mislead audiences so that there’s a surprising twist that audiences didn’t see coming.
A red herring is the writer’s equivalent of a magician’s trick. It’s the waving of one hand to distract, whilst the other hand does the real work.
Let’s take a look at 15 red herring examples in tv and film to prove their power and effectiveness.
#1 – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Red herring examples are plentiful throughout much of Tarantino’s work. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood makes major use of one.
Sharon Tate and the infamous Manson murders serve as a major backdrop for the film. Audiences who know the reality behind this story know where this is all heading.
- Despite audience expectations, the meat of the story is about the fall of (fictional) characters Rick Dalton, a somewhat washed up actor, and his friend/driver/stunt double, Cliff Booth.
- 1960s Hollywood and its history mostly serves as context, with Sharon Tate’s story and character a part of that.
Opinions differ on Tarantino’s bold choice to essentially make the Sharon Tate/Manson plot a red herring.
The Tate murders and their notoriety are used to lure the audience into a certain expectation of what will happen, only to ultimately, shockingly, subvert it.
#2 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Much of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban revolves around Sirius Black, the first wizard in known history to escape the prison of Azkaban.
- Shown as a menacing murderer focused on hunting down the one responsible for his imprisonment, the audience is led to believe Black is the villain of the story.
- Similar assumptions are shared by many in the wizarding world and fears of Sirius Black are seemingly confirmed in various conversations with Professor McGonagall, Mr. Weasley, and others.
Towards the end of the film though, we learn Sirius is actually an ally and has been framed for murder. The real villain is Peter Pettigrew, hidden in plain sight as Ron’s pet rat.
#3 – Inception
Inception is a movie which constantly leads the audience on.
- The final scene of the movie is ambiguous, making it unclear whether Cobb is living in the real world or simply in a dream.
- There’s no specific tells and Mal’s old totem doesn’t outright tell us either.
- In reality, the totem falls over and in dreams it spins forever. Cobb doesn’t stay to see the result and simply joins his kids in the garden.
Christopher Nolan doesn’t shed light on this either, insisting that the reality or lack thereof of Cobb’s reunion with his kids isn’t what matters. Rather, Cobb’s ability to stop caring about what’s reality or not is.
In its own way, this in itself is a red herring, disallowing viewers to ever truly understand the movie’s meaning and Cobb’s fate. Whether it’s a dream or not doesn’t matter, it’s Cobb’s peace of mind that matters.
#4 – Saw
Any fan of Saw (or horror generally) knows to expect the unexpected. Well, that precedent was set in this first movie with its classic red herring example.
- The movie basically revolves around Lawrence and Adam, two men who wake up to discover themselves chained inside a horrifying bathroom and part of Jigsaw’s game.
- Considering the former was once suspected to be Jigsaw and the latter is a corrupt journalist spying on Lawrence, the viewer is immediately led to be suspicious of both Jigsaw’s victims.
- Late into the movie, it is revealed that Zep Hindle, an orderly at Lawrence’s hospital is Jigsaw.
After being beaten to death by Adam, though, we learn the reveal was a red herring. The real Jigsaw was the “corpse” laying in the middle of the room and is revealed to be John Kramer, Lawrence’s cancer patient.
It turns out, their antagonist was in front of them the whole time.
#5 – Psycho
Anybody who watches Hitchcock films knows that he loves red herrings. Psycho really shows that off.
The classic psychological horror follows Marion Crane, a woman who stole $40,000 dollars, until her untimely death at the Bates Motel.
- The skittish proprietor of the motel ultimately cleans up the crime scene (including unknowingly getting rid of the stolen money).
- But misfortune seems to befall him regardless of his efforts with investigations and more murder occurring before the end of the film.
Where are the red herrings in all this? Well, practically everywhere.
- One of the main red herrings is actually the movie’s use of violins, which constantly feature and build up, implying that something sinister is coming.
- Typically though, no twist or major plot development happens when they play. In the end, they are mostly used to distract and build up the audience’s suspense.
Of course, the other main red herring lies in Norman’s mother.
- Presented by the movie and Norman as always sitting by the window, constantly uncooperative, and ever-controlling of her son, audiences fully expect her to be the psycho.
- In reality, she was a distraction tool. Norman was really “Mother” and the killer the whole time.
#6 – The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense is defined by a great third act plot twist. And a red herring is crucial in getting to said plot twist.
- Overall, the film’s main focus lies on Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist and his young patient, Cole Sear.
- Cole has the unique ability to see and communicate with dead people.
- Malcolm takes on the case trying to soothe his guilt over a recent patient’s suicide.
- Even though he desperately wants to help the boy, Malcolm considers dropping the case thinking that Cole is simply delusional.
- After hearing an audiotape of a ghost begging for help, he becomes convinced that Cole’s ability is actually a gift that can be used to help those with unfinished business.
The red herring? Malcolm is the one with unfinished business and the ghost. Eventually remembering how he was shot and killed, Malcolm is able to make peace with his death.
Whilst Malcolm (and the audience) are lead to believe Cole is the one with the primary conflict to resolve, this is a red herring. It’s actually Malcolm with the primary defining conflict.
#7 – The Mist
In this Stephen King adaptation, The Mist spends plenty of time building up the situation’s helplessness. Humanity is at an end, the monsters will reign supreme, and there’s nothing that can stop it.
- This becomes painfully clear in act three as David (the protagonist) and other survivors come face to face with a giant six-legged monster.
- Aware that there’s no way out, the survivors enter into a suicide pact which results in David killing everyone including his young son.
- He runs out of bullets before he can finish himself off as well, and is forced to run as monsters come near. He runs into the mist and comes face to face with US military rather than death.
In a heartbreaking example of a red herring, it turns out that the monsters have already been defeated by the army. The lead characters have remained unaware, assured that hope was lost.
Everyone could have made it out alive if they had just held on for a few moments longer. Instead, David is forced to live alone in a world he was convinced didn’t exist any longer.
#8 – Sherlock
- The episode follows Sherlock and John as they investigate a case brought to them by Mycroft.
- In short, a dominatrix named Irene Adler took some compromising photos of herself with a woman in the royal family.
- Sherlock and John are tasked with getting the photos back. It seems simple enough.
However, while attempting to retrieve the photos, Sherlock and John discover Irene has far more than compromising pictures in her possession.
Irene has evidence of a Ministry of Defense ploy to save a plane full of passengers from a terrorist attack. In the end, the pictures and Adler’s dominatrix hobby was a cover up for her job of international espionage.
#9 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- The basis of the story is that someone is plotting a mass murder.
- The audience are led to believe that the likely suspect is one of two people: Jonathan, a nerd with few friends who brings a large gun to school. Or a staff member on the school paper who appears extremely pessimistic and paranoid.
We are left hanging until Xander walks in on an unidentified lunch lady pouring rat poison in the students’ food. Turns out, it was her all along. And ironically enough, it had already been foreshadowed by an earlier off-handed comment from Xander.
#10 – Doctor Who
Throughout the season, a major cataclysmic, universe-shattering event is foreshadowed. Prophecy says that an evil cosmic being will be released and “The Pandorica will open, silence will fall.”
- The Doctor is aware of this and is further concerned when River shows the Doctor a painting with the title, “The Pandorica Opens,” that depicts the TARDIS exploding.
- As the Pandorica is said to be the prison for the deadliest thing in the universe and that the Doctor’s biggest enemies are being drawn to it, the Doctor implores everyone to prepare.
When the Pandorica inevitably does open, it’s actually empty. In the end, the “evil, cosmic being” is the Doctor himself and the Pandorica was built by his enemies to be his prison.
With the Doctor firmly out of the way, the universe would finally collapse and silence would indeed fall.
#11 – Game of Thrones
A red herring example runs through most of season 7 of Game of Thrones. It features in relation to the triumvirate of Arya, Sansa and Littlefinger at Winterfell.
- The bulk of Arya and Sansa’s arc as they are reunited features the two of them struggling to re-connect after years grown apart.
- Littllefinger takes advantage of this potential distance to sow more conflict between them.
The development of this arc leads the audience to believe that Sansa and Arya are venturing down an irreparable route of conflict. Just when it seems this conflict is about to reach a head, there’s a twist.
Sansa and Arya have actually been working together against Littlefinger. We haven’t noticed because we’re so used to Littlefinger’s meddling.
The reveal proves dramatic as the Stark sisters ambush Littlefinger and take him down for good.
#12 – Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner 2049 is pretty much entirely built on a red herring.
During a mission to “retire” Sapper Morton, K finds the remains of a female replicant who passed away due to C-section complications. As reproduction was previously thought impossible, K’s higher ups order him to track down and get rid of the child.
After discovering the date 6-10-21 at the same location, K recognizes the date from a childhood memory. As replicant memories are artificial, K is led to believe he was born rather than created.
- Later, K finds that two twins were born on 6-10-21 to the female replicant who passed away, Rachael, and a former blade runner, Rick Deckard.
- The girl died and the boy is listed as alive.
- K tracks him to an orphanage and remembers that as well. He then draws the conclusion he is Rachael’s son.
However, this ends up being a red herring. It turns out that K is not Rachael and Deckard’s son nor is he fated to be a revolutionary. The true child and chosen one is a minor character briefly introduced early on.
#13 – Supernatural
There’s a great red herring example in the season 5 premiere of Supernatural.
After Lucifer is released from his cage at the end of season 4, Sam and Dean spend most of “Sympathy for the Devil,” searching for the Michael Sword. According to Chuck, the weapon was used to defeat Lucifer once before and could be used for such purposes again.
- The brothers soon discover the weapon is in their dad’s lock-up and rush to retrieve it.
- After being confronted with a possessed Bobby, Zachariah, and his angels, Sam and Dean realize that it was all a trap.
- Dean was the Michael Sword the whole time. In the traditional red herring way, the solution was always there right under their noses.
To be properly utilized though, Dean must consent to possession by Michael. After refusing this consent, being tortured, and thankfully rescued by a somehow-alive Castiel, the Winchesters still find themselves two steps behind.
#14 – The X-Files
- In the beginning, we find Mulder and Scully investigating a case of gruesome kidnappings.
- After witnessing several teens recovered half-naked and drugged with either the phrase “He is one” or “She is one” written on their backs, they suspect a nearby cult is to blame.
The vegetarian, red turban-wearing cult appear guilty. On top of them though, the audience is treated to all kinds of weird happenings. There’s also a suspicious plane crash, a peeping tom named Gerd, DNA alien injections, and hallucinogenic romps in the forest.
Ultimately, none of it actually has anything to do with the case. They’re just there to distract the audience and provide a general level of… weirdness.
Unable to discover any concrete evidence or explanations, Scully declares the case open and unsolved.
#15 – Firefly
- In this episode, the crew salvages some Alliance goods and sets off to Persephone to deliver the stolen crates.
- Before leaving, the Serenity crew picks up some passengers for some extra cash, including a doctor called Simon Tam.
- It’s strongly hinted that Simon is working for the Alliance, due to his reserved and standoffish nature, prying questions, and his habit of casually strolling around in restricted areas.
- Of course, when the crew comes to learn that there’s a mole on the ship, all assume Simon is the one to blame.
It turns out though that the mole is not Simon, but another passenger from Persephone named Dobson. Simon’s behavior was never due to working with the Alliance.
Instead, it was owed to being a fugitive trying to smuggle his sister to freedom.