An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
Author Ambrose Bierce
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) short story
Published in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians
Publication date 1890

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" or "A Dead Man's Dream" is a short story by American author Ambrose Bierce. Originally published by The San Francisco Examiner on July 13, 1890, it was first collected in Bierce's 1891 book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. The story, which is set during the Civil War, is famous for its irregular time sequence and twist ending. Bierce's abandonment of strict linear narration in favor of the internal mind of the protagonist is considered an early example of experimentation with stream of consciousness.[1] It is Bierce's most anthologized story.[2]

Plot summary

Peyton Farquhar, a plantation owner in his mid-thirties, is being prepared for execution by hanging from an Alabama railroad bridge during the American Civil War. Six military men and a company of infantrymen are present, guarding the bridge and carrying out the sentence. Farquhar thinks of his wife and children and is then distracted by a noise that, to him, sounds like an unbearably loud clanging; it is actually the ticking of his watch. He considers the possibility of jumping off the bridge and swimming to safety if he can free his tied hands, but the soldiers drop him from the bridge before he can act on the idea.

In a flashback, Farquhar and his wife are relaxing at home one evening when a soldier rides up to the gate. Farquhar, a supporter of the Confederacy, learns from him that Union troops have seized the Owl Creek railroad bridge and repaired it. The soldier suggests that Farquhar might be able to burn the bridge down if he can slip past its guards. He then leaves, but doubles back after nightfall to return north the way he came. The soldier is actually a disguised Union scout who has lured Farquhar into a trap, as any civilian caught interfering with the railroads will be hanged.

The story returns to the present, and the rope around Farquhar's neck breaks when he falls from the bridge into the creek. He frees his hands, pulls the noose away, and surfaces to begin his escape. His senses now greatly sharpened, he dives and swims downstream to avoid rifle and cannon fire. Once he is out of range, he leaves the creek to begin the journey to his home, 30 miles away. Farquhar walks all day long through a seemingly endless forest, and that night he begins to hallucinate, seeing strange constellations and hearing whispered voices in an unknown language. He travels on, urged by the thought of his wife and children despite the pains caused by his ordeal. The next morning, after having apparently fallen asleep while walking, he finds himself at the gate to his plantation. He rushes to embrace his wife, but before he can do so, he feels a heavy blow upon the back of his neck; there is a loud noise and a flash of white, and everything goes black.

It is revealed that Farquhar never escaped at all; he imagined the entire third part of the story during the time between falling through the bridge and the noose breaking his neck.

Stories with similar structure

The plot device of a long period of subjective time passing in an instant, such as the imagined experiences of Farquhar while falling, has been explored by several authors.[3] An early literary antecedent appears in the Tang dynasty tale, The Governor of Nanke, by Li Gongzuo. Another medieval antecedent is Don Juan Manuel's Tales of Count Lucanor, Chapter XII (c 1335), "Of that which happened to a Dean of Santiago, with Don Illan, the Magician, who lived at Toledo", in which a life happens in an instant.[4][5] Charles Dickens' essay "A Visit to Newgate" wherein a man dreams he has escaped his death sentence has been speculated as a possible source for the story.[6]

Bierce's story highlighted the idea of subjective time passing at the moment of death and popularized the fictional device of false narrative continuation, which has been in wide circulation ever since then. Notable examples of this technique from the first part of the 20th century include H.G. Wells's "The Door in the Wall" (1906) and "The Beautiful Suit" (1909), Vladimir Nabokov's "Details of a Sunset" (1924) and "The Aurelian" (1930), Jorge Luis Borges's "The Secret Miracle" (1944) and "The South" (1949), as well as Cortazar's "The Island at Midday" and Perutz's "From Nine to Nine".

Among more recent works, David Lynch's later films have been sometimes compared to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", although they also have been interpreted as the Möbius strip storylines.[7][8] A particularly strong inspiration for the 1990 film Jacob's Ladder, for both Bruce Joel Rubin and Adrian Lyne, was Robert Enrico's 1962 short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,[9] one of Lyne's favourite movies.[10] Tobias Wolff's short story "Bullet in the Brain" (1995) reveals the protagonist's past through relating what he remembers—and does not—in the millisecond after he is fatally shot.


Several adaptations of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" have been produced.

  • The Spy (also released as The Bridge) was a silent movie adaptation of the story, directed in 1929 by Charles Vidor.
  • A TV version of the story starring British actor Ronald Howard was telecast in 1959 during the fifth season of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television anthology series.
  • La rivière du hibou ("The Owl River"), a French version directed by Robert Enrico and produced by Marcel Ichac and Paul de Roubaix, was released in 1963. Filmed in black and white, it later went on to win the award for best short subject at the 1962 Cannes film festival and 1963 Academy Awards.[11] In 1964 La rivière du hibou aired on American television as an episode of the anthology series The Twilight Zone.
  • William N. Robson's script adaptaton has been broadcast a number of times, most notably on Escape on December 10, 1947 starring Harry Bartell as Peyton Farquhar and Suspense on December 9, 1956 starring Joseph Cotten as Farquhar, December 15, 1957 starring Victor Jory as Farquhar and July 9, 1959 starring Vincent Price as Farquhar.[12]
  • CBS Radio Mystery Theater broadcast an adaptation by Sam Dann on June 4, 1974 (repeated on August 24, 1974 and September 15, 1979) starring William Prince.[13]
  • Winifred Phillips narrated and composed original music for an abridged version of the story for the Tales by American Masters radio series, produced by Winnie Waldron on May 29, 2001.
  • Issue #23 of the comics magazine Eerie, published in September 1969 by Warren Publishing, contained an adaptation of the story.
  • Owl Creek Bridge, a BAFTA Cymru-winning short film by director John Giwa-Amu, has been showcased internationally. The story was adapted to follow the last days of Khalid, a young boy who is caught by a gang of racist youths.
  • The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas broadcast an adaptation of the story by M. J. Eliot directed by JoBe Cerny, starring Christian Stolte as Farquhar and featuring Stacy Keach as the narrator.[14]
  • In 2006, Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Stories was released, which contains adaptations of three of Ambrose Bierce's short stories, among them "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" directed by Brian James Egan. The DVD also contains an extended version of the story with more background and detail than the one included in the trilogy.
  • The Escapist is a 2008 film directed by Rupert Wyatt. In an interview with Trevor Groth, Wyatt said "The structure of the film's plot was inspired by a well known short story written in the 19th century by Ambrose Bierce called 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'." In the final scene, Frank Perry visits Rizza's cell, brings the book, and says he must have read it about a dozen times.
  • A 2013 short film, The Exit Room, starring Christopher Abbott as a journalist in a war-torn 2021 America, is based on the story.[15]


  • The plot of the radio play "Present Tense", written by James Poe, starring Vincent Price and broadcast on Escape on January 31, 1950, has similarities to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The same script was used (with Price again starring) on Suspense on March 3, 1957.[16]
  • Adam Young has said that this story was the inspiration for the name of his electronica musical project, Owl City.[17]
  • The story was also a major influence on Christopher Thomason's 1960s-set novella 'Got Love If You Want It'.
  • The second song of Serifs' self-titled album is entitled "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".[citation needed]
  • The fourteenth track on Bressa Creeting Cake's self-titled 1997 album is entitled "Peyton Farquhar".
  • The heavy metal band Deceased retold the tale in the song "The Hanging Soldier" on its 2000 album Supernatural Addiction.
  • The album Stampede from The Doobie Brothers includes a track called "I Cheat the Hangman", authored by Patrick Simmons and released November 12, 1975. It is a somber outlaw ballad that was inspired by the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". "It's about a ghost returning to his home after the Civil War and not realizing he's dead," said Simmons about the song.
  • In The Simpsons, season 25, episode 6, "The Kid Is All Right", Lisa Simpson's campaign speech is cut short when she notices the shadow of a noose around her neck, explained by Mr. Largo as a prop for the school's production of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".
  • In an interview with Afterbuzz, Teen Wolf writer and creator Jeff Davis said that the final sequence of the Season 3 finale was inspired by "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".[18]
  • The music video for Grouplove's song "Colours" features a plot centered on a man escaping his own hanging. However, it is all in his imagination, as the last scene reveals that he is dead, swinging from a rope.[19]
  • The song Mendokusai on Tellison's 2015 album Hope Fading Nightly features the refrain "We are all broken necked, swinging from the timbers of Owl Creek Bridge."


  1. Khanom, Afruza. "Silence as Literary Device in Ambrose Bierce's 'The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.' Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. Spring 6.1 (2013): 45–52. Print.
  2. Blume (2004), p. 211
  3. Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge": an annotated critical edition. Robert C. Evans ed. 2003, Locust Hill Press, West Cornwall, CT. ISBN 0-9722289-6-9.
  4. Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena, Tales of Count Lucanor,
  5. This story was rewritten by Jorge Luis Borges in "The Wizard Postponed", in his book A Universal History of Infamy (1935).
  6. Tabachnick, Stephen. "A Possible Source for Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owlcreek Bridge." ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews.26.1 (2013): 45–48. Print.
  9. Bruce Joel Rubin, Jacob's Ladder, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 1990
  10. Hartl, John (1990-11-01). "Adrian Lyne Met A Metaphysical Challenge". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2010-02-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962)". NY Times. Retrieved 2010-01-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "The Exit Room". Retrieved 2014-05-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Why I Call Myself Owl City". Adam Young Blog. Retrieved 2015-12-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Blume, Donald T. (2004). Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press. ISBN 0-87338-790-2.
  • Owens, David M. (1994). "Bierce and Biography: The Location of Owl Creek Bridge". American Literary Realism, 1870–1910 26(3), pp. 82–89.
  • Stoicheff, Peter. (1993). "'Something Uncanny': The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'". Studies In Short Fiction, 30(3), 349–358.
  • Talley, Sharon. (2010). Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 978-1-57233-690-2.
  • Yost, David. (2007). "Skins Before Reputations: Subversions of Masculinity in Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane". War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, 19(1/2), 247–260.

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