Why Don't Horror Movies End?
Updated: Feb 23
Horror movies nowadays have many cinematic shortcomings, including predictable plotlines and excessive use of jump scenes. But for me, there's one issue that's most reprehensible. Critics are finally coming around to admitting the problem exists in even genre-setting horror movies such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Ring (2002).
Beginning, middle, and end
If you’ve spent any time studying the rules of writing fiction, you’ll know that stories must have a beginning, middle, and end. However, nearly all horror movies today have a beginning, middle—and then stop.
They suffer from what I call the “stupid-horror-ending.”
By that, I don’t mean they have sad endings. I mean they have no ending, where plot points or character arcs are not resolved, where the protagonists are either killed or left in an ambiguous state, while the antagonist(s) are free to continue killing people without consequence. The story becomes an endless, repeating loop.
In other words, the movies have no point other than to elicit whatever base reactions the moviemakers want the viewers to experience. There is only one other movie genre that gives nothing to its viewers except chemical reactions. That genre is pornography.
Again, I’m not referring to movie endings I disagree with. I’m referring to movies where closing credits roll mid-discussion or altercation with no pretense of resolution.
Why do moviemakers do this?
Before I give you examples of movies plagued with this infirmity, I’ll provide the reason moviemakers do this. Yes, there is a reason!
Romantic movies often end with a dreamy kiss. Comedies usually end with a humorously satisfying scene. Tragedies end in a downer (but they end!). Musicals end with a song. And horror movies end with a horror punch to the gut.
Each genre ends with a burst of “its thing.” The problem with horror movies is their writers don’t have the creativity or wherewithal to end with a final “horror-ness” without cutting off the viewers cold with nothing but empty pockets.
The greater the number of jump-scares in a horror movie, the more clichéd and tiring it becomes. What’s worse is when a horror movie ends with a final jump-scare intended to make the outgoing movie theater audience look terrified to impress the next batch of viewers waiting in line to see the movie.
Perhaps the makers of horror movies don’t provide an ending because endings bring closure. Apparently, relief is not allowed in the horror genre.
The Haunting of Hill House
One of the more successful Netflix series’ is The Haunting of Hill House (2018). Even though it's of the horror genre, its ending is thoroughly developed. The ending isn’t completely happy or sad. But guess what? It ends. And it's famously successful.
Many viewers and critics alike are saying that if all horror stories were like The Haunting of Hill House, there would be more horror fans in the world.
Plot vs. story
Many movies, most notably action movies, confuse plot and story. These movies are made with the mistaken idea that events are the story. Events are exciting and important, but they're “plot points,” not “story elements.”
Watch this hilariously teasing video of the movie Tenet (2020), which in large part focuses on the movie's attention on the action while omitting character development and backstory.
I don’t mean to degrade fictional plot events. A good spaghetti sauce requires garlic and Italian seasoning. But have you tried to eat Italian seasoning straight out of the jar? Such is exactly what happens when writers and movie makers confuse plot and story.
Because events (plot points) serve the story and not the other way around, the story must continue to resolve after the plot’s climax. Unless, somehow, the story is resolved before the climax. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but it has been done.
In the movie, No Country for Old Men (2007)—which received the Oscar for Best Picture in 2008—the sheriff overcomes his fear of death (which is the story) prior to the completion of the movie’s main plotline. Whereupon the movie abruptly ends. Even in such a technically appropriate case, many viewers left the theater feeling empty.
Moviemakers don’t get a free pass
It’s understandable when novice fiction writers and movie viewers mix up plot and story. But it's not acceptable for moviemakers who spend millions of dollars on a movie to be so thoughtless to their viewers.
A classic example of this problem is the ending of the movie, Black Swan (2010). The ballet within the movie is a plot element. The story isn't about the ballet, but about the ballet dancer. Ending the movie at the end of the ballet gives the feeling that the movie is about the ballet and not the dancer. This gives the viewers a hollow, unsatisfied feeling. The moviemakers should have known better. What a tragedy.
The first horror movie ending that made me angry (it may have been the first horror movie I ever saw) was Cube (1997), where by the end, everyone dies without any explanation of what's going on. The movie was so disappointing to me that I never bothered to see its sequel, Cube 2: Hypercube (2002). Then, when the third installment of the trilogy came out, Cube Zero (2004), I thought, “Hmm, it’s the last of the three. Maybe it will provide some explanation.” So, I decided to see it. This turned out to be a mistake. There was nothing revealed in the end. It turns out that Cube Zero is a perfect title for the movie.
Here's an even worse example of this problem. Maggie (2015) is a touching story about a father who learns that his daughter has been bitten by a zombie—which means she will inevitably become a zombie. What’s creative about this story is people become zombies slowly over a period of months after being bitten. Thus, the infected victim and all the victim's friends and relatives have a long time to think about things. The entire story presents the question: What will the father do about his daughter’s eventual doom?
Turn her over to the police (who arrest people once they’ve reached a certain stage in the disease’s progression)?
Escape with her to some secluded place?
Kick her out of the house and let her deal with her problem on her own?
Throughout the story, the father, superbly acted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, struggles with how to handle his daughter’s problem.
What happens in the end? When Maggie finds her father asleep, she climbs to the top of the barn and jumps off. Then the movie credits roll. What’s tragic is the moviemakers were unaware that the entire movie centers on how the father will react to his daughter’s demise and not the daughter. The ending destroys the movie because:
After Maggie kills herself,
we never see her father’s reaction
to her death.
In fact, we never see her actually die. The credits roll before she hits the ground.
The ending trivializes the entire movie to a flat cliché. The story didn’t end because the story wasn’t about Maggie. It was about her father. In the last 5 seconds of the movie, my rating for the show went from A+ to F-.
Dead and Buried
On one Halloween night, we wanted to watch a scary movie, so we found an old movie on Netflix called Dead and Buried (1981) which was a suspenseful, refreshingly mysterious horror movie (Rosemary's Baby-ish). While watching it, I thought, "Wow, they don't make them like they used to." That was until the ending when the hero fails and the only character in the movie going scot-free is the chief villain, who is able to continue his evilness indefinitely with no consequences. The "pretty close to A+" movie becomes F- in the last 20 seconds. Too bad. It looks like they do make movies like they used to. The creepiest part of the movie is the chief villain is played by Jack Albertson, who was Grandpa Joe in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" (1971).
We watched Oculus (2013) only because a reviewer said it was an exceptionally well-made horror film. Sure enough, that reviewer was right! The dual-timeline story (the telling of similar stories 10 years apart) made the movie unique and doubly frightening. But for the entire 103 minutes of running time I could think of only one thing: Would it have the stupid-horror-ending? Honestly, that was the only thing on my mind. Sure enough, in the last 60 seconds, the horror non-ending occurred: the antagonist goes free without consequence; the good characters suffer; and the viewer wastes 103 minutes watching literally nothing happen of any consequence. The movie gets an F-, and I will tell everyone to stay away from it.
Then there is The Wretched (2019). The antagonist is destroyed toward the end of the movie. Then, within the last several minutes of screen time, and against all the rules of the story, it is strongly suggested that one of the protagonists has somehow mysteriously and arbitrarily become the new antagonist. Not only does the movie succumb to the trite stupid-horror-ending, but the filmmakers don't have the guts to come out into the open and admit it. How weak and spineless. Movie rating: F-.
Honeymoon and Alien Invasion: S.U.M.1
I'm combining the movies Honeymoon (2014) and Alien Invasion: S.U.M.1 (2016) into one discussion because neither of them deserves individual attention. They're both movies where a lot of interesting things happen, but in the last 2 seconds, their stories are thrown out with the trash because the last scene ends "mid-conflict."
Honeymoon ends with the two wives walking toward the antagonists. Nothing about the antagonists is explained in the movie. We don't know what the antagonists wanted, we don't know where they came from, who they were, or what happened to the protagonists or to anyone else for that matter. The movie ends with a big fat zero. Eighty-eight minutes of viewing time wasted.
Alien Invasion: S.U.M.1 ends with the protagonist presumably shooting a heavy military firearm into the mouth of one of the creatures. We're not sure about this because the screen goes dark before he shoots. This is followed by rolling credits. Two hours of wondering if the protagonist will prevail or not. We'll never know.
These F- endings were constructed this way on purpose. Why?
Should I feel sorry for them?
I almost feel badly for the Hollywood idiots who have no idea what to do or where to turn.
“Those movies make millions of dollars,” you say.
“So they know what they’re doing.”
Really? Maggie cost $1.4 million to make and it earned $1.66 million. It would have made $10 million had the story been allowed to end.
The Netflix movie Bird Box (2018) has no excuse for not-ending. It has some major actors (Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich, Rosa Salazar). At the end of the movie, nothing is learned about the invisible antagonist(s). The remaining protagonists (a woman and two children) make it to a remote community attended by blind people. But there's nothing preventing the creature(s) from attacking the mother and her two children after they get there.
If you want to watch a movie where nothing is learned or revealed, where everyone dies (or could die at any moment), and where nothing is (permanently) accomplished, then watch Bird Box.
Again, you think this is just my opinion? Bird Box cost $19.8 million to produce. Netflix’s revenue for Bird Box over the first three months after its release was $4.21 million.
I could have fixed the movie for free using only several lines of dialogue. It would go something like this:
Mother: “What’s happening?”
Community leader: “We don’t know. Except, Jonathan—who is blind—was among them out in the forest. It was hours before we could get him back. He said he felt their shape, that they are soft like clouds and as large as buildings.
Such a short exchange would explain why no one in the film was hurt by the creatures unless they were either outdoors or looking out through a window. Such would not solve every problem in the movie, but it would give the viewers something instead of nothing.
Because the moviemakers didn’t do this, it's clear to me that the movie’s non-ending is intentional.
If I may digress for a moment, Bird Box has another problem that reveals Hollywood's destructive influence on society. The way the creatures affect people in Bird Box is they reveal to people their worst nightmare/greatest fear. This causes the people in the movie to commit suicide. What a terrible premise for a story! People all around the world often face their greatest fears and they don't kill themselves. The mental state of Hollywood today is shameful.
The Turn of the Screw (2009 version)
The first movie adaptation of Henry James' novel, The Turn of the Screw, was called The Innocents (1961). The movie has since been made seven more times. In the original (1961) version, the story ends with a mixed good/bad ending. But it ends!
The most recent version made by the BBC in 2009 employs the "stupid-horror-ending," where all protagonists are either killed or presumably will be killed (being driven off in a police wagon to be executed), and the antagonist or antagonists are free to continue killing without consequence. The 2009 BBC version ends at the beginning of the next story loop with a new governess, thereby setting up an infinite cycle.
But, there is a greater problem with the latest BBC version. In this version, one of the two children dies in the end, consistent with the 1961 version and Henry Jame's novel. The problem with continuing the story as an infinite loop is one of the children is now dead, so it's not possible (even for ghosts) to continue their debauched and vile physical relationship through the two living "innocent" children (boy and girl) if only one child remains. It's as if the people who made the BBC version never saw the original movie adaptation or read Henry James' story.
And if I may add another point. In the 1961 version, the protagonist, Ann, is shown reading the Bible, appears to be God-fearing, and describes her father in glowing, loving terms when asked about him. But in the 2009 BBC version, Ann makes it clear that she believes in only "the other" (Satan), and that she hated her father because when he wasn't absent from her life he was emotionally abusive. He is shown in flashbacks as a preacher giving harsh words to a congregation about something. Is making the protagonists (both Ann and her psychologist) anti-God really necessary?
Vivarium (2019) is a perfect example of a well-done movie (it's very creepy!) until the last five minutes when viewers begin to realize the movie is an "infinite loop" story, where the antagonists keep repeating the same attack over-and-over ad infinitum without repercussion. There is no story arc or explanation. In fact, the word "vivarium" means "an enclosure meant for keeping animals under 'ordinary' conditions for observation or study or as pets, such as a terrarium or aquarium." I should have known that definition before wasting two hours of my life.
Not providing an explanation or resolution to the story means the movie makers get to spend half the money making the movie, and yet still charge viewers the full admission price to watch it. What a scam.
One of M. Night Shyamalan's later films is called Split (2016). I would have given the film a rating of A except for two terrible blunders in the film. There's not a single human being on Earth as stupid as the psychiatrist character, and her death is irritating, distracting, and pointless. It doesn't contribute to the plot and only degrades the film to a clichéd slasher film. What a tragedy.
But that's not my main point here. One of the final scenes shows a police officer telling Casey (the protagonist), "You're uncle's here. Are you ready?" Meaning, Casey is about to be delivered to her uncle.
The entire movie is about Casey overcoming the physical and mental abuse of her evil uncle. That is the story. The antagonist in the movie, Kevin Wendell with his 24 personalities, is a symbolic extension of Casey's villainous uncle.
She overcomes the monstrous Kevin Wendell and is now in the safety of a police vehicle. Does she say to the officer, "No, I'm not going back to my uncle"? Or does she say, "I'm going to kill him"? We'll never know because she says neither the scene ends. The opportunity to give the movie any meaning is lost. How sad. My rating for the movie drops to F-.
A film that actually ended
Critics love to tear apart M. Night Shyamalan movies, and deservedly so because many of them are hideous. However, Signs (2002) is an exception.
I’ve heard so many vague complaints about Signs that I finally had to look up why critics don’t like it. The prevailing complaint is how easy it was to defeat the creatures: simply splash water on them.
As I recall, the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939) fell to the same deus ex machina demise, and no one complained about that. Do you know why? Because The Wizard of Oz wasn’t about the witch.
Signs is not about the monsters, either. Critics who spout the ease-of-defeating-the-monsters criticism against Signs don’t realize that the story isn’t about the monsters. The story is about the father grappling with his faith in God. Because his wife died in a car accident prior to the beginning of the movie, the father in the story disavowed his faith. The real story of Signs is the father’s path toward regaining his faith in God.
Any critic who ignores the story of Signs and instead complains about its monsters is a charlatan.
The Three Little Pigs
The well-known story about the three little pigs was originally published by James Halliwell-Phillips in 1890. Parents around the world have been telling his story to their children for over one hundred and thirty years.
Had The Three Little Pigs been a modern horror story, it would have gone something like this:
Wolf eats the first pig who made the house made of straw.
Wolf eats the second pig who made the house of sticks.
Wolf knocks on the door of the third pig in the brick house.
“But Mommy, what happens to the third piggy?” Timmy asks.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” Mommy says. “What do you think?”
What a stupid story that would be! Yes. Welcome to the modern horror movie.
What all this means
If you’re a budding writer, please take my advice and have enough courtesy to finish your stories. Endings can be tragic, but they must exist. To know how to end a story, you must first learn the difference between plot and story. You must know what your story is really about. The story in The Three Little Pigs is not about pigs. It's about our having the wisdom to build our lives on solid ground.
With that in mind, be a real writer who creates complete stories that people will read to their loved ones for the next hundred and thirty years.
Examples of horror movies that end
To show that I'm not unreasonable, I've listed below examples of horror movies that actually end. They do exist! I wish someone would send me a list of a hundred of these so I could enjoy watching some good horror flicks that actually have an ending.
The Bad Seed (1956)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1957)
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Fright Night (1985)
The Lost Boys (1987)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Devil's Backbone (2001)
The Others (2001)
The Host (2006) (Korean)
The Messengers (2007)
Case 39 (2009)
The Host (2013) (American)
Train to Busan (2016)
The Ritual (2017)
Gerald's Game (2017)
Happy Death Day (2017)
Get Out (2017)
Lost Child (2017)
Ready or Not (2019)
Invisible Man (2020)
Blood Red Sky (2021)
By my count, over 1,200 horror movies have been made. I have found 29 that end without a repeating loop. That's about 2.4%. Admittedly, I haven't seen every horror movie, so my percentage is likely off. But it doesn't look good.