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The Ending Of What Lies Beneath Explained

What Lies Beneath was released nearly 21 years ago, on July 21, 2000. And even though critics at the time didn't exactly shower the film with praise, it still took in a worldwide gross of nearly $300 million.  Director Robert Zemeckis, stars Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and screenwriter Clark Gregg (of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fame) all came together to craft the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn't often make these days: an erotic thriller with A-list movie stars. But while it might seem like just another ghost tale, the film's storyline actually goes much deeper. 

The movie follows Claire Spencer (Pfeiffer), a former cellist married to respected scientist Dr. Norman Spencer (Ford). Their seemingly perfect life is upended when Claire starts seeing a ghost. Norman brushes it off, but as Claire investigates the ghost's past, she discovers that the real danger hits much closer to home. 

Spoilers ahead — even though, yes, you've technically had 21 years to watch this. 

In What Lies Beneath, it's all in the details

What Lies Beneath starts off with everything you'd expect from a supernatural thriller, complete with all of the usual suspense and jump scares. The spirit seems like a standard ghost who simply wants people to leave her home. But as Claire looks into its origins, she realizes it's actually the ghost of one of Norman's former students — a woman named Madison Elizabeth Frank. Norman and Madison had an affair, and Norman drowned her to keep it a secret. When Claire confronts Norman, he tries to drown her to cover it up. Madison's ghost intervenes in the nick of time and sends Norman to a watery grave. 

The movie started from a treatment by documentary filmmaker Sarah Kernochan, who originally envisioned a story about a retired couple dealing with "restless but compassionate" spirits. But in the process, What Lies Beneath eventually evolved into something much different — though it did keep the idea of a compassionate ghost. Madison wasn't trying to frighten Claire away; she was trying to warn Claire about who her husband really is — which proved to be a prescient warning when Norman tried to murder Claire. In the final version, it wasn't the ghost Claire had to worry about, it was the person she loved the most.

What Lies Beneath avoids the usual tropes to depict a rare cinematic ghost who wants to help rather than harm, and who takes on the role of a hero rather than that of an antagonist, in the process. Arguably the best aspect of the film is the fact that it didn't have to sacrifice the scares to deliver a truly complex story either.