Horror: Anatomy of an Ending

Those of you on my Facebook page or Twitter have recently seen me ranting a bit about horror movies. You’ll have seen some of this before, but by no means all of it.

In trying to recharge my brain, in the midst of multiple big projects, I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies (mostly supernatural horror, which is far an away my preference). And I’m starting to get seriously frustrated with them, almost enough–at times–to make me swear off the whole bloody lot.

Point the first: End your Goddamn movie!

You can have a happy ending. You can have a grim ending. You can have an ambiguous ending. You can have an open ending. All of those are fine in horror (but see point two). But guess what, guys? You still have to have some sort of ending!

Cutting to credits in the middle of a scene, where a few of the main characters are still alive and no actual plot points have been resolved beyond "Lots of people died"? That’s not an ending. That’s lazy. It’s bad storytelling. If there’s not something that tells the viewer "This is why the story ends here," it’s not an ending. And your movie, no matter what has led up to that point, is a bad one.

Now, on a purely personal level, I really don’t much care for the "Introduce a bunch of characters, kill off all but one or two, make it look like they’re going to survive, then kill them and roll credits" technique. To me, that’s almost not an ending; it escapes qualifying as the above problem by the skin of its teeth. And it annoys the crap out of me. But, as I said, I recognize that as subjective opinion.

Point the second: Did you know that horror doesn’t have to be nihilistic?

Horror is one of the few genres where you can get away with really grim, downbeat endings. The protagonists are all dead. The monster wins. The world’s destroyed. The hero’s soul is doomed for all eternity, trapped inside a haunted bidet. Whatever.

Problem is, the fact that it’s accepted has made it common, and the fact that it’s common has made it a crutch.

If your ending is good, make it as grim/downbeat as you like. Again, that’s one of the genre’s strengths. But a lot of horror scripts seem to have down endings because it’s easier. Once again, it’s lazy writing.

It’s easy to kill everyone off. It’s easy to go for that last jump scare. It’s easy to do, and it’s just as easy to do badly. You know what happens when it’s done badly? It makes the whole movie utterly meaningless. It becomes a non-ending, as above, because the whole film has become a non-story. If you’r going to do it, you need to do it in such a way that it still feels like the actual story has reached an actual end, not like you ran out of characters.

You know what’s a lot harder? A happy ending in horror that flows well and feels natural to the story. You know who tries to write the harder stuff? Better writers.

(No, I’m not saying if you don’t have a happy ending in horror, you’re a bad writer. I’m saying that if you have a horrific ending for no better reason than that it took less effort, or because you feel like you’re "supposed" to, you may need to polish your craft a bit.)

Also? When down endings in horror were a significant minority of endings, it upped the suspense level of every horror movie. You honestly didn’t know if the characters would make it or not. But now that they’re so damn common, and so often lazy? I’ve found it much harder to get invested in the characters or stories of the horror movies, because I’ve reached the point where I don’t expect anything they do to matter.

Before I go into point three, let me be clear: I am fully aware that point three is entirely subjective. While I have some opinion in points one and two, I maintain that the core of those points has some basis in the actual rules of storytelling. I make no such claim about point three; it’s entirely my own thing.

(You’re still wrong if you disagree, though.) 😉

Point the third: There’s enough damn injustice in the real world, thanks.

Did you notice above where I said that I vastly prefer supernatural horror? That’s largely because it simply falls more in line with my tastes. I’m a fantasy guy, and frankly, dark/urban fantasy and supernatural horror are the right and left hand of the same creature. I just enjoy it more, across the board.

That said, there’s another reason I prefer supernatural horror to horror with human "monsters." And that’s a question of, well… Justice, to be dramatic about it.

If it’s a ghost, or a zombie, or whatever, then I can deal with most kinds of endings, happy or grim. But if it’s a human? I despise horror movies where the human villain wins or gets away with it. Hate them. It makes me literally gut-clenching, want-to-hit-someone angry, to the point where it’s so unpleasant, it utterly ruins my experience of the movie. If the villain of a horror movie is human, they need to get their comeuppance in some shape, form, or fashion by the end, or else I’d honestly rather never even watch it. No matter how good it otherwise may be.

Along similar lines, I really don’t like stories of struggle to no avail (such as most of the "kill off the last character in the last shot" movies tend to be). Even if it’s a grim ending, I want the protagonists’ travails to have accomplished something. Again, personal opinion, but it’s a personal blog. 😛

Given all of the above? It’s getting harder to find supernatural horror that I enjoy. I’ve reached the point of looking for spoilers before I watch a movie. How self-defeating is that? To know how a horror movie, of all things, ends before watching it. But all the above frustrations have gotten so ubiquitous that I find it preferable to spoil myself than to run into one of said endings without warning.

So please, guys. At least points one and two, okay? I can work through the personal taste stuff on my own if you’ll stop trying to make me eat lazy writing along with it.

P.S. Less about endings than horror movies as a whole, but…

Supernatural horror shouldn’t try to explain everything, no. Leave some mystery, some stuff for the audience to ponder. But explaining too little? Leaving the audience without even a semi-clear idea of what happened? That’s not "Making the audience think." It’s not "deep." It, too, is bad, lazy writing.