The 3 Basic Endings In Horror

Posted: May 2, 2014 in Reflections, Scary Stuff, Writing
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Horror stories usually have three basic types of endings. At least, in my experience they do. There are variants on the the endings, but for the most part horror stories and movies tend to fall into three broad categories: the happy ending, the temporary reprieve, and the monster’s victory. I hope that in the course of this post, I can go through all three and describe the benefits and cons of using each of these methods. This may bring a better understanding not only to other horror authors, but to myself of the stories we write and why we write them and how to improve upon them.

So without further ado, let’s begin the examination of endings in horror.

The Happy Ending. This one doesn’t need much explanation, because this ending appears in most stories. Good conquers evil, the monster is vanquished, and the hero or heroine returns home, maybe sporting some very attractive partner on their arm if they’re lucky. This is a standard ending that all authors use at least once, and it’s a good one because most audiences want a happy resolution to their stories. However, the problem with the happy ending (at least in horror), is that if it is done wrong, the reader could be given the impression that all is flowers and roses and that everyone who survived the terror is left unscathed. And fans of horror have only one response to that sort of Hollywood-sweet ending: “Bullsh*t!” Even though we enjoy realms with monsters, ghosts, and serial killers, we want some things to be realistic, and that includes having your characters somewhat scarred, even after they’ve achieved total victory over the enemy. At the very least, show how the characters are haunted by their experience, how they wish they could’ve done more or they’re sad that their lives are so messed up.

A good example of a happy ending in horror that is well done can be found at the end of the novel Misery. Protagonist Paul Sheldon has barely escaped Annie Wilkes. He hasn’t even escaped in one piece! He’s missing a foot and thumbs, he’s dealing with alcoholism and writer’s block, and he keeps seeing Annie’s ghost wherever he turns. Yet at the end he finds inspiration for a story and starts to cry, because he’s able to start writing again, that he was able to get away from Annie at all, and because of what his life has become post-captivity. That is a really well-handled happy ending for horror if ever I’ve read one.

The Temporary Reprieve. Another common ending in horror, and if you ask me the best of all three. The temporary reprieve is when the hero or heroine has defeated the monster at the end and has had a few pages or minutes of screen time to recover, maybe even celebrate and have a smoke. But then evil rears its ugly head again. The monster has returned, it’s only been stopped a short while, and it plans to continue doing horrible things no matter what happens (you don’t have to end the story with the monster reappearing, though. You can show what happens after it reappears or just end it there). This is a great way to end a horror story, because it gives the readers one last scare and leaves open the possibility of a sequel.

The problem with this ending though is pulling off another good scare (I’d also include whether or not you should do a sequel, but I’ve written about that elsewhere). You want to lull a reader into a false sense of security and get them to really be terrified at the end, and doing that relies largely on your talent and skill as a writer. If you are unable to create that twist at the end, it may come off to readers as cheesy, contrived, or unnecessary. Some good examples of horror stories that do this well are the movies Insidious and Nightmare on Elm Street.

The Monster’s Victory. Strangely for horror this one is a rarer ending, and I think that has to do with people wanting a positive resolution to their stories, even in horror (I have trouble with these endings sometimes). However the monster’s victory is still a great ending, and in the right hands can be a fantastic final note to a good horror story. In it the monster of the story has won, the protagonist has been killed or been rendered a victim, and evil will continue its reign forevermore (or until a sequel is made).

Like I said, this sort of ending does have the possibility of turning off readers, but at the same time, doing it well done will create a very positive response. I would recommend practicing it as well as looking at endings that have done the monster’s victory well. Some good examples would be the movies Sinister and The Skeleton Key. Terrifying and fun.

Now, not all horror stories fall neatly into these categories. Some are a mishmash of these endings, such as Texas Chainsaw 3D, which is arguably a combination of all three endings. And some endings don’t seem to be any of these endings: the novel Carrie has everyone in it, from insane Margaret to most of the cruel and evil teens to poor Carrie herself dying at the end of the book with a bunch of carnage in her wake. How do you categorize that sort of story?

Regardless though, these endings do crop up a lot in horror, and they provide a framework for authors to work and experiment with in their own writing. Using these sort of endings or examining them and identifying their flaws as well as their positive sides can help you identify which would work best for you or your story, or if you should try some sort of different ending that is not among the ones above. And if it produces a great story, then all that examination is worth it, don’t you think.

  1. Angela Misri says:

    I think the most effective ending using the ‘Temporary Reprieve’ that I can recall is the movie Identity – did you ever see it?

  2. Sometimes, its just best that the monster win. Otherwise, you have to deal all the heavy handed sequels, right? How many times did Chucky come back from the dead?

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