Photograph of a man silhouetted by car headlights, holding a crowbar.

The three endings of horror

write horror fiction from time to time, and one thing I’ve learned is that there are only really three possible horror book endings…

1. The protagonist wins

This is the happy ending – or at least as close to a happy ending as you’re going to get in a horror story.

You’ll have watched in terror as the demon clown / cursed marionette / ghost horse has relentlessly and gruesomely slain a parade of consistently and improbably sexy teenagers, but somehow our hero will have either vanquished the monster or – more likely – escaped by a hair’s breadth and lived to tell the tale. There may be a trail of bloody corpses draped all over the rides at the haunted funfair, but the protagonist isn’t among them.

It’s a pretty traditional ending, regardless of the genre. The hero wins – it’s satisfying (if you’re the kind of monster who would call an ending in which multiple people died and only one survived “satisfying”).

Good examples of this include Dracula (Jonathan Harker and Quincy Morris shank the Count like two Brixton rude boys) and Alien (Ripley blasts the alien out of the airlock).

Yes, Alien is a horror film more than it is a sci-fi film.

2. The monster wins

In this variant, the friends and compatriots and sexy teens fall one by one until only the protagonist remains. Things are looking grim – the carnival is on fire, the abbatoir is sinking, the roller disco is slowly filling with suntan lotion – but our hero spies a chance. If he can just make it to the OH SORRY TOO LATE YOU GET A PICKAXE UPSIDE THE HEAD AND NOW IT’S THE END. The monster wins.

This kind of ending is pretty bleak, but it’s a staple of horror writing. Naturally enough, in a genre that places a premium on fear, an unhappy ending is par for the course. Zombie stories in particular are guilty of this, due to the inescapably pandemic nature of zombism (yes that is a word).

Examples of this kind of ending include The Wicker Man (Sgt Howie is sealed in a giant wicker effigy and burned alive by the people of Summerisle) and also…no, actually The Wicker Man is so good and the ending is so bleak that I’ve decided that I don’t need to provide any other examples.

3. The protagonist wins and everything’s all fine…OR IS IT?

This is the variant in which the monster is vanquished (or escaped from), the protagonist gets away and everything seems fine, until KABLAMMO: the monster’s back, sucker! You can never truly escape those claws / tentacles / haunted fetlocks!

OK, it’s basically a variant of The Monster Wins, but the key difference is that it’s presented as a happy ending until the very last moment.

This is my personal favourite. When it comes to horror books (as opposed to horror films) I like the fear to stay with me after I’ve finished reading. I’ve said before that the best kind of fear in written horror fiction is dread, and for me a traditional “closure” ending – happy or otherwise – switches that off. When the story’s over, the story’s over.

By contrast, the OR IS IT? ending allows a writer to draw the primary narrative to a close, ending the story that he or she intended to tell and providing a more or less satisfying conclusion, but leaving the reader with the explicit understanding that the horror will continue after he or she closes the book (or turns off the e-reader – it is 2016, after all).

Some people don’t like this, as this kind of ending doesn’t have the clear finality of the more traditional endings, but for me this is the most “horror” of all the endings. It’s the “it’s still out there…somewhere” ending. It’s the one that should disturb the reader the most.

And isn’t that what horror is all about?

The best example of the OR IS IT? ending is Stephen King’s Carrie, of course – both the film (“oh so all the bad things are over and everything is all right and I’ll just stand here and OH NO THERE’S AN ACTUAL HAND LITERALLY COMING OUT OF THE FLIPPIN’ FLOOR OMG I THOUGHT IT WAS OVER BUT THIS IS TOTALLY NOT OVER”) and the book (“oh so all the bad things are over and everything is all right and I’ll just READ THIS LETTER ABOUT ANOTHER GIRL WHO LITERALLY HAS ACTUAL FLIPPIN’ TELEKINETIC POWERS OMG I THOUGHT IT WAS OVER BUT THIS IS TOTALLY NOT OVER”).

I think these three cover all possible horror book endings, with all others simply variants of the above…but I could be wrong. What do you think? Do you have any thoughts or suggestions?

Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading.

If you’re interested in reading any of my own horror stories, just search the #horror tag.




3 thoughts on “The three endings of horror”

  1. There is the fourth completely underused ending where the protagonist take the logical and sensible approach by simply moving him(her)self to a place where the nasty thing is, and takes the main door out of the house and away rather than exploring the irresistible satanic roaring from the cellar.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s