Why So Few Horror Movies Have Good Endings

By  · Published on October 31st, 2016

Proof that sticking the landing is harder than it looks.

Elmore Leonard’s 1990 novel Get Shorty is one of the best books about the movies, not only because it posits that actual gangsters would be better studio executives than the make-believe gangsters who actually run studios, not only because it observes that actors are always shorter than they appear on the screen, and indeed not only because it has the best Lew Wasserman joke in American letters. (“Who’s Lew Wasserman” you ask? Well, as Rainier Wolfcastle once said, that’s the joke.) It’s great for all of these reasons, and many more, including this passage on its last page. The protagonist, ex-gangster and ascendant movie producer Chili, is in a car with colleagues Harry and Karen, spitballing about the ending of his movie:

“What if,” Chili said, “Leo hops on the railing and makes a speech. Says how he sweated, worked his ass off all his life as a drycleaner, but he’s had these few weeks of living like a movie star and now he can die happy. In other words, he commits suicide. Steps off the balcony and the audience walks out in tears. What do you think?”

Karen said “Uh-huh . . .” Harry said he wanted a drink and Karen said that wasn’t a bad idea. Chili didn’t say anything, giving it some more thought. Fuckin endings, man, they weren’t as easy as they looked.

And that’s the last line of the book, which is why Get Shorty is the best and why I would give a major limb (preferably not one that would inhibit writing, although that’s negotiable) to be as good a writer as Elmore Leonard. And it’s a great point: endings are really hard. Especially, for reasons I shall elucidate, in the horror genre.

Horror occupies a very specific place within genre film, it being the one (non-pornographic, that is) genre whose entire purpose is circumventing the rational mind and going straight for primal emotion.

All of the genre’s traditions have to do in some way or other with fear, and the unknown. Spooky houses in the middle of nowhere are isolated, and human beings are social. It’s hard to see in the dark. Monsters can physically overwhelm you. Strangers are strange. The supernatural violates the informal compact we have with the physical world stipulating that things happen a certain way.

With horror, as a genre, being rooted in the unknown, it’s not all that difficult ‐ but by no means automatic ‐ to create a scenario or even simply a general tone that unsettles and compels an audience. The first act of a horror movie is a Utopian period where anything is possible. The principal challenge for the remainder of the movie is creating an explanation that lives up to the potential of the creepy possibilities. The problem here is that the unknown is scary. The known is “oh, that dumb thing.”

One route to a successful horror movie is to have an explanation that makes total sense but where the protagonists are fucked anyway, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween. Knowing who Leatherface or Michael Myers are doesn’t make you any less dead. These movies draw on the unavoidable fact that death comes for us all, and are thus rooted in the natural world, and merely feature determined mortality enthusiasts seeking to goose the process along a little quicker.

Supernatural horror movies face a steeper challenge. Here, creators have to come up with a made-up story that’s as creepy and scary as reality, and, if they don’t plan on simply killing off all the people and skipping merrily along, devising a solution to the existential dilemma posed by the antagonist so at least one person can make it out alive. This is a lot harder than it sounds, and consists of a lot of hard conceptual and structural work. The proof is in how rarely a construct like this makes it to the end of the movie without everyone going “wait, if all you needed to do was [x], why did that never occur to anyone?” or some such. Related, monster movies where the actual monster isn’t scary tend to stop being scary the second the audience shifts from mining their own deepest fears to looking at what an inadequate special effects budget gave forth. (This is why the Wyatt Russell episode of Black Mirror was so great, the whole horror ARG in it was derived from his own fears.)

Endings, man. Tying everything up is a problem in all genres and all forms, but in one rooted specifically and immovably in a state of mind antithetical to calm and ordered thought, it’s an imposing one. Thankfully, it’s not impossible, as the rarefied group of horror movies with good endings proves (this year’s The Witch is a prime example, proving one needn’t trek back too far in history to find an example). Rare delights may prove few and far between, but they’re all the sweeter when they occur.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all