This is part of an occasional series in which we explain Internet things. We like to call it memesplaining; you might call it meme-ruining. Regardless, if you just chanced upon an image macro, hashtag, app or GIF you don’t understand, we have the answers — insofar as answers can be had.
The Meme: The “Grease” Death Theory
What it is
“It’s all in her head,” is the worst cliche of the online fan theory, one equally notable for its frequency as it is for its laziness. There is no easier way to recast the tone of an entire film than to claim that the events on screen were really “all in the head” of one of its characters. The discussion is as tiresome as a college freshman, home for winter break after a riveting Philosophy 101 class, asking his high school friends to prove to him that any of them really “exist.”
But sometimes, despite the cliche, one of these theories sticks around. Such is the case of the “Grease” Death Theory, a years-old Reddit discussion that roared back into the Internet’s line of vision this week. The theory is, essentially, this: What if the musical “Grease” is, in fact, all in the head of a dying Sandy?
As you’ll remember, in the beginning of the film, Danny and Sandy sing about how they met in the song “Summer Nights.”
There’s a line, sung by Danny, claiming that the pair first met when he “saved her life — she nearly drowned.” Of course, Sandy’s version of events is radically different: “He showed off,” she sings of their first meeting, “splashing around.” Maybe Danny was exaggerating, to impress his friends.
Details! Anyway, according to the Internet theory, the entire “Grease” story is actually the result of Sandy really drowning, the film’s plot a fever dream as she lay dying on the beach, fantasizing about a romance with “Danny,” the stranger on the beach trying and failing to save her life.
The primary driver of this theory is the film’s ending, where Sandy and Danny drive off in a red convertible, one that takes off into the sky (and maybe to heaven??????)
Maybe it’s because “Grease’s” ending is genuinely a bit weird, or maybe it’s the appeal of imposing a dark vision on top of the quintessential feel-good film. But for some reason, the theory stuck around, gaining followers all the while.
After a few digital media sites picked up and repackaged the old theory Wednesday, it came to the attention of one Sarah Michelle Gellar, who understandably found the whole idea to be nuts:
And now it’s a full-blown “thing” again. The Internet!
Where it started, and who started it
The Redditor who asked this question in 2013 posted an explanatory graphic to r/FanTheories, sparking a somewhat popular discussion about its merits:
The ensuing discussion simultaneously strengthened and demolished the theory. On the one hand, it spawned a sister-theory about Grease as the imagination of a Dying Sandy. In that theory, Sandy commits suicide towards the end of the film, and the “entire last scene is her dying thoughts.”
On the other hand, the top voted comment of the thread notes that at one point in the film, the shop teacher says of the film’s famous car, “If this car were in any better condition it would fly!”
As for why we’re talking about this old, pretty shaky theory now, well, it seems as though that has to do with the media. The “Grease” Death Theory has been repackaged by digital writers over the years since that original Reddit post, but this week, it caught on.
One of the earliest repackages that we could find this week is this Metro article, which crucially fails to note that the Reddit theory is already a few years old. The Metro article was followed shortly (based on timestamps, anyway) by this Daily Mail piece, which says the old Reddit thread “resurfaced” on social media recently.
Now, the theory is fully caught up in the content machine:
IS IT TRUE???
For many reasons.
Also, there’s this:
A smart observation to make at your next nerdy dinner party
“It’s all in her head,” as a storytelling escape hatch, isn’t just confined to fan theories, as the long list of examples on TV Tropes for “all just a dream” makes clear.
The more you pay attention to cliches like this, the harder it can get to accept them in the media you consume. But the resurgence of the easily debunkable “Grease” Death Theory shows that, for a lot of us, the cliche still works.
More memes, ruined: