The fates of psychopaths and spooks in 50 horror films from the last 100 years reveals ambiguity is the secret to the scare. Spoilers, naturally.
Beyond the blood, guts and jump scares that punctuate their plots, horror films are most memorable for their endings.
Horror movies fixate on existential questions – what lies beyond death? Can we outrun the inevitable? – yet, their answers can be pretty ambiguous.
1973’s The Wicker Man features another memorable ending – though here it’s because we last see the film’s protagonist burning to death.
We expect stories to resolve themselves: to return characters to their own worlds, catch killers, and reunite families. But horror movies don’t always follow these rules … survival isn’t guaranteed. What’s especially interesting is that this applies to both heroes and villains.
Of 50 of the best-known horror films of the past 100 years, 24 films – almost half of them – are open-ended. Regardless of whether the lead character survives, the villain or source of horror has a 50/50 chance of making it to the end credits, too.
How do horror movie villains get their comeuppance?
I compared the endings of 50 horror films and did what any sane-minded person would do. I made a spreadsheet.
As you might expect, there are some tried-and-tested ways of overcoming evil on-screen: exorcism, fire and guns all work a treat. But the most common way of bumping off evil is … to not.
There are villains that don’t stay dead (Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger), those who disappear (Halloween’s Michael Myers), and those that can’t be killed (zombies, The Evil Dead, and Brightburn’s superhero gone bad).
Then there are films which never why the killings occur or who’s behind them, such as Bird Box and The Birds.
A third of these open-ended films go one further by either killing off their protagonists or letting evil continue without consequence.
In The Wicker Man, Edward Woodward’s nosy policeman is sacrificed in a burning effigy while his killers gather for a sing-song (both images resurface almost identically in 2019’s Midsommar).
The Ring (2002) sees a mother and son exploit a loophole to survive a haunted video tape, rather than trying to kill its resident evil.
And in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Rosemary Woodhouse learns to love her newborn son, horns and all.
50 horror film endings compared
|1. 1408 (2007)||Fire|
|2. Alien (1979)||Explodes|
|3. An American Werewolf In London (1981)||Shot|
|4. Arachnophobia (1981)||Fire|
|5. Audition (1999)||Fists|
|6. Bird Box (2018)||Open ended|
|7. The Birds (1963)||Open ended|
|8. The Blair Witch Project (1999)||Open ended|
|9. Brightburn (2019)||Open ended|
|10. Candyman (1992)||Fire|
|11. Carrie (1982)||Open ended|
|12. The Conjuring (2013)||Exorcised|
|13. Dawn Of The Dead (1978)||Open ended|
|14. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)||Open ended|
|15. Don’t Look Now (1973)||Open ended|
|16. Dracula (1958)||Exorcised|
|17. Event Horizon (1997)||Black hole|
|18. The Evil Dead (1981)||Open ended|
|19. The Exorcist (1973)||Exorcised|
|20. The Fly (1986)||Shot|
|21. Get Out (2017)||Shot|
|22. Halloween (1978)||Open ended|
|23. The Happening (2008)||Open ended|
|24. I am Legend (2007)||Fire|
|25. The Innocents (1961)||Exorcised|
|26. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)||Open ended|
|27. The Invisible Man (2020)||Knifed|
|28. It: Chapter 2 (2019)||Insults|
|29. Jaws (1975)||Shot|
|30. Jeepers Creepers (2001)||Open ended|
|31. King Kong (1933)||Shot|
|32. Midsommar (2019)||Open ended|
|33. Misery (1990)||Fists|
|34. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)||Open ended|
|35. The Omen (1976)||Open ended|
|36. Orphan (2009)||Fists|
|37. The Others (2001)||Open ended|
|38. Peeping Tom (1960)||Suicide|
|39. Phantom Of The Opera (1925)||Drowns|
|40. Poltergeist (1982)||Exorcised|
|41. Psycho (1960)||Jail|
|42. The Ring (2002)||Open ended|
|43. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)||Open ended|
|44. The Shining (1980)||Open ended|
|45. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)||Shot|
|46. Split (2016)||Open ended|
|47. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)||Open ended|
|48. What Lies Beneath (2000)||Drowns|
|49. The Wicker Man (1973)||Open ended|
|50. The Witch (2016)||Open ended|
About this table
The endings are pretty self explanatory, but here’s a bit more detail:
- The ‘ends with’ column describes the final face-off – where there is one – between a lead character or their sidekick and the film’s main villain or source of the horror.
- Open ended: the source of the horror isn’t challenged or doesn’t die.
- Fists: the protagonist fights back with their hands or body.
But note that some films can be said to end in multiple or different ways than described above. For instance, does Jeff Daniels triumph over his Arachnophobia with fists, fire or a [nail] gun? Similarly, The Fly ends with a shotgun … but it’s also technically a mercy killing (or suicide).
Ambiguity is the secret of the scare
Horror movie villains seem to get away with it an awful lot. So why do these stories seem to greenlight evil?
Well, although many of them spawn sequels that won’t stay dead any more than their villains, it’s not just about franchise power.
After all, plenty of films bump-off their bad guys only to resurrect them for a sequel. Alien’s exploding xenomorph hasn’t stopped five follow-ups. See also Jaws, Candyman, and villains that can’t be contained to a single film or franchise (Dracula).
Sometimes the source of the horror is also so ambiguous, or so over-powering, that there’s no clear way to get rid of it.
In The Happening and Bird Box, an invisible force makes people kill themselves in gruesome ways. Both movies end without overcoming – or even uncovering – the reason why. So does The Birds.
Similarly, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has a ‘false ending’ that veers from the book by Stephen King. In Kubrick’s version, angry dad Jack Torrance freezes to death before he can murder his young son. However, his spirit, like the haunted Overlook hotel itself, appears to live on.
This ambiguity is as much a part of the genre as its blood and guts; it’s the secret to the scare. While action movies and RomComs tell us humans always come good in the end, horror leaves us with nagging doubt.
Of course, sometimes the unresolved ending is a way to introduce a shock twist – or, as with The Blair Witch Project, it’s part of the story’s myth-making (i.e., genuine found footage).
But it can also bring an air of realism to even the most fantastical stories. Maybe it’s wise to assume that if aliens start cloning us in greenhouses, maybe our odds won’t be so hot (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978).
Evil reaches beyond the screen
Don’t Look Now murders its protagonist, grieving dad Donald Sutherland, in the final few minutes. It’s a second tragedy to the one that haunts the story (the death of his child). There’s no comeuppance at all for the killer.
Instead, the futility enhances the horror of never-ending stories. It lets fear sit with us long after the movie has ended, along with the shock of the dead-end or downbeat twist.
The Ring (2002) and Poltergeist (1982) use visual effects to the same end. Their snowy bursts of TV static were commonly experienced by viewers at home before always-on programming and high tech devices – offering the potential of jump scares long after the movie.
Of course, the ambiguity baked into horror stories can make it hard to know for certain to know (or agree) how they end at all.
1408, adapted from another haunted hotel story by Stephen King, has several distinct endings. Whether John Cusack’s grieving protagonist survives depends on which cut you see.
Meanwhile, in The Devil’s Advocate, Keanu Reeves’s shifty lawyer kills himself to escape, but there’s a question mark over whether it works. The bigger brain-twist is that the protagonist is the hero, a bad guy and demonic all at once. Ambiguity: it’s everywhere.
How to kill a villain
If the horror genre sounds unbeatable, at least its common endings offer a lifeline.
Faced with an animal foe? Shoot it. Six of the 50 horror films above off their villain with a gun, from 1933’s King Kong to the hybrids of An American Werewolf in London and 1986’s The Fly.
Faced with a human killer? If they don’t have a chain saw and a skin mask you can probably beat them off (Audition, Misery and Orphan). Don’t waste time calling a lawyer: horror movie villains rarely go to jail.
Casting out demons is your go-to for malevolent spirits – though it doesn’t guarantee everyone gets out of it alive including, famously, the The Exorcist’s exorcists. But you’re squaring off against Zombies, all bets are off. Good luck with that.
In the end, there’s no cheat sheet. Where other genres tell us love and ingenuity can conquer all, in horror – like life – there are no guarantees.
Picture credit: Daniel Jensen