The Westphall Theory of a Unified TV Universe, Explained

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When NBC’s hour-long hospital drama St. Elsewhere signed off after six seasons on May 25, 1988, more than a few viewers were saddened. Not necessarily because the series—which had earned 13 Emmy Awards during its run—was ending, but because producers opted for a highly unconventional finale. In the closing moments of the episode, a boy named Tommy Westphall (Chad Allen), the son of medical director Dr. Donald Westphall, was seen peering into a snow globe. Inside the globe was a tiny mock-up of St. Eligius, the medical center that was featured in the series. Behind him stood his father, who was sporting a construction worker’s wardrobe.

The implication was that Tommy—a character on the autism spectrum—had imagined the entire show, a fiction-within-the-fiction conceit that had angered viewers during the infamous “dream season” arc on Dallas five years earlier. (On that series, Bobby Ewing was brought back to life after his "death" turned out to be just a bad dream.)

“I expect a very mixed reaction,” Bruce Paltrow, one of the show's executive producers, told the Chicago Tribune in 1988. “I think some people will think it's extraordinary and existential and quintessential St. Elsewhere. I think other people will find it puzzling, odd, maybe unfulfilling in some way.”

More than puzzling, some people found it to be an actual puzzle. If the universe of St. Elsewhere was a figment of Tommy Westphall’s elaborate imagination, then wouldn’t other television characters who appeared in the show’s continuity exist only within Tommy's mind, as well? The doctors had visited the bar on Cheers in one St. Elsewhere episode; Cheers spawned Frasier, a character who appeared on Wings; John Munch, the detective from Homicide, had mingled with the St. Eligius crew, and he has appeared on shows ranging from The X-Files to The Wire, effectively making him the Patient Zero of what's become known as The Tommy Westphall Universe theory.

As of this writing, 441 shows can be tied to St. Elsewhere with varying degrees of separation, ranging from I Love Lucy to The Flash. If the theory holds, then a large chunk of television is the direct result of one child’s formidable imagination.

St Elsewhere Full Episodes, YouTube

Erasing the fiction of an entire medium is not what Tom Fontana had planned. One of the producers on St. Elsewhere, he was openly hostile toward any idea of a reunion special down the line and insisted that the series finale should be definitive.

Fontana’s favored conclusion was a literal apocalypse, where the staff of St. Eligius would be standing by in the year 2013 while a toxic gas cloud passed over, the result of a corporate war between foreign factions. When NBC refused to finance their ambitious plan, the idea for the snow globe was hatched. (Quizzed by IndieWire in 2012 as to who exactly came up with the idea, neither Fontana nor co-writers Channing Gibson or John Tinker could remember.)

Fontana did, however, recall that half of the viewer mail retrieved after the finale was positive, while the other half made loose reference to a desire to “burn [the studio lot] to the ground."

Fontana went on to create Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s groundbreaking prison drama Oz. Those two impressive achievements would have likely relegated the bizarre ending of St. Elsewhere to a trivial mention in Fontana’s biography, if not for the curiosity of a playwright named Keith Gow.

Gow, a resident of Melbourne, Australia, spent time in pubs and online wondering what Tommy’s scene meant for every show connected to St. Elsewhere's characters. "The discussion began on alt.tv.homicide, a newsgroup that discussed Homicide: Life on the Street," Gow tells Mental Floss. "[Fontana] was fond of putting in references to previous shows he worked on, including bringing characters from St. Elsewhere into Homicide."

Along with U.S.-based fan Ash Crowe, Gow began to develop a chart linking the series to other shows on television. Over time, it began to look something like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.

Here’s how St. Elsewhere links to Doctor Who [PDF], hypothetically rendering the TARDIS a figment of Tommy’s imagination:

Donald Westphall and two other doctors visited Sam Malone’s bar from Cheers;

Cheers introduced Frasier Crane, of Frasier;

John Hemingway of The John Larroquette Show once called into Frasier’s talk show;

The John Larroquette Show once mentioned Yoyodyne, a manufacturing client of law firm Wolfram and Hart;

Wolfram and Hart had another client, Weyland-Yutani, that made a weapons display screen for Firefly;

A Weyland-Yutani ship is seen in the BBC series Red Dwarf, which also depicted The Doctor’s TARDIS.

A sampling of the Westphall grid. Courtesy of Keith Gow

These strings go on across multiple decades of television, with I Love Lucy being the earliest example. Often, characters crossing over on the same network can ignite a connection, with shared brands or locations providing the connective tissue for others. The fictional Morley cigarettes are particularly pervasive, as is Hudson University, an institution of higher learning mentioned on The Cosby Show, Law & Order, and Murder, She Wrote.

"I prefer character connections, myself," Gow says. "That really solidifies things. And most of the connections on the grid are characters, even though something like Morley cigarettes (a fictional brand) has a lot of individual connections, they just add to the connective tissue in certain ways. The fictional brand or company thing is also Fontana's fault. The corporation that bought St. Elsewhere in its final season owned the prison hospital in his series Oz."

Over time and with the help of reader contributions, The Tommy Westphall Universe grew to include shows as diverse as ALF, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Knight Rider, Melrose Place, Seinfeld, and dozens of others, much of it helped along by the character of Munch appearing in more than 10 series, and those series making reference to other characters and brands.

As Gow and Crowe assembled their chart, comics writer Dwayne McDuffie (Static Shock) wrote a blog entry for Slush.com in 2002 that made a similar observation. "St. Elsewhere also shared characters with The White Shadow and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” McDuffie wrote. “Garry Shandling crossed over with The Andy Griffith Show (no, really!). So Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Mayberry R.F.D., and Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show are gone. Make Room For Daddy takes out I Love Lucy.”

All of it, McDuffie said, proved his own Grand Unification Theory that everyone and everything seen on TV—except for the few minutes viewers spent with Tommy Westphall in May 1988—is just a daydream.

St Elsewhere Full Episodes, YouTube

As one of the co-authors of the scene that ignited the entire premise, Fontana said he was “stunned” to discover the aftershocks and that the theory “basically means that Tommy Westphall is the mind of God.”

Fontana was being facetious (we think), but not everyone was as enthused with the premise. Observers of the theory take issue with the idea out of what they deem is a misunderstanding of an author’s intent. While the doctors of St. Elsewhere visited the Cheers bar, the creators of Cheers offered no consent to have their series thought of as imaginary. There’s also nothing standing in the way of the belief that perhaps the Tommy Westphall end sequence was itself a dream, negating the snow globe conceit. And what about the real people who have appeared on the included shows, like Alex Trebek on Cheers? If Cheers is not “real,” then is Trebek?

But the notion isn't necessarily dependent on Tommy imagining anything: The connections still exist, whether they're considered a dream within fiction or just an interconnected television universe. "The theory doesn't really depend on Tommy Westphall, but he's a good hook," Gow says.

Gow and Crowe, who still periodically update the grid, assert that episodes with real people playing themselves—like Trebek did on Cheers—are exempt, as are cartoons and feature films. That would surely lead to spreadsheets the size of walls: Weyland-Yutani is the company behind the machinations of the Alien franchise.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

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Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

The 25 Greatest Vampire Movies Ever Made

Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958).
Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958).
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Filmmakers have been making movies about vampires almost since the inception of motion pictures, and our public fascination with these creatures of the night has not yet dimmed. Throughout the decades we've seen vampire stories ranging from psychological dramas to comedies to all-out monstrous terrors, using these bloodsucking characters as metaphors for everything from wealth to sin to drug addiction to sexual taboos. Along the way, some truly great movies have come along. Here are our picks for the 25 greatest vampire films of all time (in chronological order).

1. Nosferatu (1922)

F.W. Murnau's legendary silent classic is famously a Dracula adaptation with the serial numbers filed off, but what's lasted about this gorgeous nightmare of a movie is not its reliance on the Dracula structure. Even if you've never seen it you know the image of Max Schreck as the needle-fingered, wide-eyed vampire Count Orlok, and Murnau never misses an opportunity to maximize the raw power of Schreck's performance. Even now, nearly a century after it was made, the image of Schreck simply walking into a dark bedroom at night is enough to leave you chilled.

2. Dracula (1931)

There's a reason you can ask almost anyone to do a Dracula impression and you'll still usually hear Bela Lugosi's accented, almost otherworldly cadence, and it's not just because a Sesame Street character picked it up and ran with it. While some viewers have come to prefer other versions of the Count—including the Spanish-language Dracula shot alongside the Lugosi version—the pure, spooky aura of Tod Browning's original Universal Pictures adaptation still casts a strange spell. The eerie, scoreless silence; the subtle touches of spookiness lurking around the main plot; and Lugosi's earnest power all still work all these decades later.

3. Vampyr (1932)

Carl Theodore Dreyer's moody masterpiece might move a little slowly for modern audiences, but if you let its shadowy world creep into your psyche just a little bit, it'll never leave again. Shot with minimal dialogue and often nonprofessional actors (the star is the guy who funded the movie), Dreyer makes excellent use of mood-setting visuals to convey an overall tone of dread. From shots of clouds moving behind weathervanes to the way the light hits a skull to the simple, slow turning of a key in a lock, Dreyer's film creates an atmosphere that's very similar to a nightmare that you don't quite understand until you've woken up.

4. Dracula's Daughter (1936)

In the opening minutes of Dracula's Daughter, the title character literally sets the body of her father on fire. It's a bold statement, especially considering how much the Count would come back to Universal Pictures in later years, and the first of many daring moves in this subtly progressive sequel. Gloria Holden is mesmeric in the title role as a woman trying to free herself from her father's curse; the lesbian overtones of the story are surprisingly progressive for their time; and the film has a lot of rather compelling things to say about being part of such a horrific legacy.

5. Horror of Dracula (1958)

Tod Browning's Dracula is a moody, quiet, understated exercise in otherworldly terror, which is why Hammer Studios's first attempt to bring the bloodsucking Count to life runs in almost entirely the opposite direction. Horror of Dracula, the first of several films to star Christopher Lee in the title role and Peter Cushing as his nemesis, Van Helsing, is hot in all the ways that Lugosi's Dracula is chilling. Vibrant, sexy, and led by two iconic performances, it remains a bloody good time, and inspired more than a few solid sequels.

6. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

The delicate dance of ambiguous horror can backfire on a filmmaker if the audience is eager to see genuine monsters onscreen, but John Hancock's film about a woman who retreats to a secluded country home after a traumatic event—only to find that something horrific might already be there—is an example of ambiguity going as well as it possibly can. With notes of The Turn of the Screw and Carmilla woven into its psychological terror, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a film that manages to make you question everything while still ultimately delivering the horror goods. The scene in which the townspeople reveal the wounds on their necks remains one of the most unnerving moments in all of 1970s horror.

7. Blacula (1972)

If you haven't seen Blacula, you might be forgiven for thinking that the film is a joke based on its title alone, but it's in that very concept that the first note of brilliance comes from this exploitation classic. See, "Blacula" is a joke. It's a cruel joke told at the expense of the title character, who's made a vampire after refusing to allow slave trading to be done in association with his proud African nation. In that way, the film is much about an African leader reclaiming his personal and national pride in modern America as it is about a bloodsucking, seductive monster, and star William Marshall makes sure you walk away feeling both.

8. The Blood Spattered Bride (1972)

If Dracula is the most-adapted vampire story ever, then the second most-adapted is Carmilla, Sheridan Le Fanu's tale of a lesbian vampire preying on a young woman. Of all the various adaptations, though, Vicente Aranda's The Blood Spattered Bride stands out as the most impactful and the most haunting. Thanks to wonderful leading performances from Maribel Martín and Alexandra Bastedo, and a series of unforgettable image choices, Aranda's film captures both the alluring, dreamlike power of the story and the bloody eroticism of some of the best '70s horror films.

9. Ganja & Hess (1973)

Ganja & Hess is a film that takes its time, building its own pace and thematic weight brick by brick until it's finally ready to unleash the full horror of its story. At its core, Bill Gunn's film uses vampirism as an addiction metaphor, telling the story of the title characters—played by the incredible Marlene Clark and Duane Jones, who is best known for his role as Ben in George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead—with patient, concentrated emotional energy. It's a film capable of being so laid back at times that you almost forget the horror is about to hit, then when it does it's an unforgettable explosion of brutality, sin, and raw acting power.

10. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

The image of Max Schreck as the pale, pointy-eared monster known as Count Orlok was an indelible piece of pop culture for decades before Werner Herzog decided it was worth picking up again for his own purposes, and against all odds Herzog managed to produce a second all-out classic using Schreck and director F.W. Murnau's core cinematic concepts and pushing them just a bit further. This Nosferatu is a little sexier, a little more subtle, and propelled by magnificent performances from Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, and Bruno Ganz. Plus it's got pitch-perfect Herzog dialogue, including lines like "Time is an abyss profound as a thousand nights."

11. The Hunger (1983)

The Hunger is one of the sexiest, most stylish vampire films ever made. It's so distinct in its costuming, pacing, and cinematography that there's a temptation to place style over substance when talking about Tony Scott's dark romance. But look beyond the beautiful visuals and you'll see that Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon are actually weaving a devastatingly beautiful tale of fading love, regret, and loss. It's a story about an eternally young woman who would rather hide her past away than confront it, and it's that thematic core that takes the film from sexy supernatural drama to all-out horror in the final minutes.

12. Fright Night (1985)

Just as the Hammer Dracula films took everything pop culture had learned about vampires from the 1920s onward and poured it into films made for a new audience, Fright Night took everything pop culture had learned about vampires since the Hammer era and poured it into one endlessly entertaining movie about the vampire next door. It's basically a film about a kid who has grown up watching all of those vampire movies on television, only to find that a creature from one of them has walked off the screen and into his life. It's got all the things you want from a classic period vampire flick—a little comedy, a little seduction, some amazing creature effects, even a washed up vampire hunter character—but it puts them all in the house next door to great effect. It also has Chris Sarandon, and honestly what more do you need?

13. The Lost Boys (1987)

Lots of vampire stories focus on the monster entering an otherwise peaceful community and slowly consuming. The Lost Boys, directed with wit and visual power by the late Joel Schumacher, flips that convention to instead tell the story of a family who moves to a seemingly peaceful beach town, only to find that the monsters are actually sort of running the place. The result is a film that's funny, fierce, and a perfect metaphor for the often horrifying challenges of adolescence. Plus, it's the film that features the internet's favorite saxophone player.

14. Near Dark (1987)

The legend of the vampire is so cemented in popular culture that it can function as a kind of shorthand for just about any viewer, which means some of the best films in the subgenre are the ones that take it as a given that you know the basic rules, then go out of their way to reinvent them. Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark is a masterclass in vampiric reinvention. You know the basic idea, the movie knows you know, and so you're plunged immediately into a dark Western dreamscape where a lonely young man is pulled into a world of hyperviolent predation lurking just beneath the sleepy surface of the land he thought he knew. Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen give all-time great performances, and the film still packs some of the most memorable visuals any vampire movie has ever delivered.

15. Vampire's Kiss (1989)

Many of the greatest vampire stories ever told lean heavily on the metaphor of aristocracy as vampirism, of the upper class literally and figuratively sucking the life out lower classes. So it's no surprise that in the 1980s someone had the idea to take that metaphor and apply to rich single white dudes living the executive life in New York City. Vampire's Kiss, led by Nicolas Cage in one of the all-time great scenery-chewing Cage performances, is about both the sneering apathy of the wealthy in 1980s America and about the scourge of toxic masculinity in office spaces across the country, all with a black comedy twist. And if that doesn't do it for you, it's got Cage reciting the alphabet like a lunatic.

16. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

The last Dracula adaptation on this list is one that hoped to take the familiar pop cultural aura of Bram Stoker's story and twist it in ways no one had ever seen on the big screen before, and the result is what might be the least subtle Dracula adaptation ever made—we mean that in a very good way. Francis Ford Coppola's take on the Count (played with relentless intensity by Gary Oldman) is soaked through with the kind of voracious appetites the legendary vampire himself would appreciate. This film is hungry for sex, hungry for stylized violence, hungry for lavish costumes, hungry for practical effects, for accents, for melodrama, for all of it. It's a film that invites you to drink deep, and the result is something unforgettable.

17. Cronos (1993)

Guillermo del Toro's feature directorial debut is already packed with many of his eventual hallmarks. The story of an antiques dealer who stumbles upon a mysterious device that induces vampirism, it's packed with memorable visual choices, a beautiful design for the central McGuffin, and of course, aching sympathy and even love for the central monster. In del Toro's hands, the legend of the vampire becomes a powerful, singular meditation on faith, love, and mortality that only he could deliver.

18. Interview with the Vampire (1994)

The first film adaptation of Anne Rice's legendary Vampire Chronicles novels remains a classic thanks to Neil Jordan's sumptuous direction and blistering lead performances from Tom Cruise (who Rice famously thought was miscast until she saw the film), Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst, and Antonio Banderas. Rice's stories often focus on the existential dread not of the humans surrounding the vampire, but of the vampire itself, living as an outsider in a world they once thought they understood. Jordan's film is thick with the emotional and thematic weight of that metaphor, but he and Cruise also ensure that the narrative around it never stops being a blast to watch.

19. The Addiction (1995)

Abel Ferrara's black-and-white film about a graduate student who becomes a vampire is a masterclass in how to absolutely pack 90 minutes of genre filmmaking with meaning while never letting go of the horror. Lili Taylor is stunning in the lead role, holding our eyes as Ferrara builds out the metaphors of the titular addiction, the philosophical underpinnings of each decision that drives the plot, and the slow-burn build to a literal blood feast at the end. It's a gritty, visceral gem of a film with a crystal clear understanding of what it wants to do with the vampire myth.

20. Blade (1998)

Blade is a film that begins with a shower system in an underground club raining blood down on dozens of dancing bodies, and that's pretty much all it needs to make this list. Seriously, though, Stephen Norrington's big-screen version of the Marvel Comics character of the same name, played with undeniable swagger by Wesley Snipes, is a supernatural action film that also manages to get vampires right. They could be disposable monsters for Blade to swipe at. Instead, they become a diverse array of characters who are often frightening, sometimes sympathetic, and always compelling.

21. Let the Right One In (2008)

"What if you were the one who got to be close to a vampire?" was done before Let The Right One In, but it was never done so beautifully before Tomas Alfredson's film about a lonely boy and his budding friendship with a strange new neighbor. From the way the camera sits, often distantly, to watch a child on a playground alone to the way the film is able to pivot from emotionally devastating scenes of isolation to sudden explosions of violence, it's a masterclass in tone, pacing, and feeling that's often as heartwarming as it is harrowing.

22. Thirst (2009)

No one on Earth shoots violence quite like Park Chan-wook, which means no one has ever made a vampire film quite as brutal and unpredictable as Thirst. But, as with all of his films, the violence is only part of the story. With the thematic weight of sin at the heart of this story of a priest who indulges in an affair around the same time as he's indulging his thirst for blood, Chan-wook anchors the film in the beautiful performances given by Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-bin (credited here as Kim Ok-vin) to deliver a tragic, often strangely funny, tale of love gone wrong. The final act of this film is one of the most powerful and brutal of any vampire story you're ever likely to see.

23. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Leave it to Jim Jarmusch to deliver one of the most straightforwardly gorgeous, deceptively simple takes on vampirism as loneliness, even when it's the story of who you get to share that loneliness with. Starring the relentlessly bewitching duo of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, with unforgettable work by the great John Hurt thrown in for good measure, Only Lovers Left Alive works as an intimate, perfectly focused study of eternal love amid a changing world that's passed you by.

24. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

The prevalence of vampire stories across pop culture means that spoofs were always inevitable, and the popularity of mockumentaries means that someone was probably bound to do one like this eventually. What sets What We Do in the Shadows apart, and takes it beyond its goofy premise into the realm of classics, is the sense of sincerity that hovers over the whole thing. The film doesn't attempt to poke holes in vampire tropes we love, and it earnestly avoids any sense of "Isn't this stupid?" mean-spiritedness. There's something so genuine about the whole thing, and that makes everything from the performances to the plot work so much better as not just a good comedy, but a good vampire movie, full stop. (We'd be remiss not to make mention of its TV series spinoff, which follows a different group of vampires living in New York.)

25. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an unnerving, sensuous dream of light and shadow, anchored by a spellbinding performance from Sheila Vand in the title role. Rather than attempt to anchor her film to a clear sense of time and place, Amirpour's tale of a lonely vampire prowling a fictional city instead exists in its own, unmoored bubble, like a vampire who's forgotten how old they are or how far they've wondered. The result is a film that's as magical as it is unsettling—a fairy tale with fangs.