Endings for horror films have incredible potential to leave a lasting effect on the viewer. Sure, there are plenty that are content to play along with the happy endings one would see in other genres, and sometimes those endings work. But still, nothing resonates more clearly, especially in horror, than darkness and uncertainty; the sort of endings that glue your eyelids open, pin you to your seat and aren’t easy to shake off. It’s the kind of ending many classics have utilized, but even modern horror flicks such as The Witch conclude with a heavy, brooding atmosphere that is borderline suffocating.
It’s a cliché that bears repeating, but sometimes you wish you had a knife on hand to cut the unbearably thick tension surrounding you. From the classics to the new kids on the block, the finales of these horror flicks would have had you reaching for a serrated edge. These are The 18 Most Chilling Horror Movie Endings. SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.
18 In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
The final entry in John Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse Trilogy,’ In the Mouth of Madness remains thoroughly divisive as a Lovecraftian horror tale, though as time has passed, it seems that more people refer to the film as misunderstood. Whether one may criticize Carpenter’s rock-centric score or the film’s cheap jump scares, one must recognize the film as an admirable attempt at Lovecraftian fiction with an ending to pin you back and make you want to revisit it.
John Trent (Sam Neill) leaves the asylum after the monsters have taken over the world and takes in the film In the Mouth of Madness, realizing he has been a character in author Sutter Cane’s story all along, maniacally laughing and then crying hysterically at this revelation. For a film that explores complex themes of insanity, the ending is rather powerful as it seems to justify its admittedly confusing plot progression.
17 The House of the Devil (2009)
The ending of Ti West’s The House of the Devil is a curious one. With the exception of Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, his directorial features have paid tribute to certain genres of film and filmmaking styles. He took that a step further with The House of the Devil by shooting in 16mm, giving the film an authentically vintage aesthetic. Bearing this in mind, you’d be excused for expecting to have a little fun with this picture.
The film’s final act is a bloody blinder, featuring a disturbingly shot Satanic ceremony and plenty of gore that one might have expected to have fun with in an ’80s horror homage. Any enjoyment, however, is decidedly stripped from the film and reduced to bare-knuckle terror. The victim of the ritual, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), has been impregnated with demonic seed and, knowing this, she turns a gun on herself. The real shock comes at the very end, when a nurse at the hospital pats her on the stomach saying, “You will be just fine. Both of you.”
16 Candyman (1992)
As far as slashers go, Tony Todd’s portrayal of Candyman’s titular character is by far one of the more brutal. Even if the legend of Candyman is nothing more than that, no one would dare say his name in a mirror five times lest they end up like this poor psychotherapist. And though the film’s heroine, Helen (Virginia Madsen), defeats Candyman by sacrificing herself for the sake of a baby’s life, the film just couldn’t let itself end on such a bittersweet note.
Helen’s now ex-husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley) has been shacking up with one of his students, but still grieving Helen’s death, he calls out her name only to be awestruck when she appears before him, gristly hook in hand. Though some might have been justifiably happy to see Trevor receive such a violent comeuppance, the idea that Helen has merely taken Candyman’s place as mystical slasher is a rather bleak note to end on.
15 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Few remakes can say they were on par, or even better than their predecessor, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of them. The best remakes take the core concept of the original and build an entirely different movie around that concept, and while Invasion could only accomplish that for the most part, it intelligently crafts a new ending far more terrifying than the original’s.
As a political allegory regarding Communism in America, the original’s intent was to frighten viewers of a distant threat through cryptic messaging. With a rather abrupt ending, the remake goes for a more direct route by scaring its audience through effective genre thrills. Philip Kaufman’s ability to add upon the already creepy atmosphere established by Don Siegel’s original was summed up by the film’s ending, when Donald Sutherland’s Matthew reveals himself as a pod body with an ear-splitting scream.
14 The Innocents (1961)
Few horror films have mastered the art of the slow build, but Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is most certainly one of them. In this adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” – co-written by Truman Capote – Deborah Kerr stars as a governess watching over two children at their family’s large mansion, but comes to learn that the house is haunted and the spirits are possessing the young siblings.
By the film’s tense conclusion, young Flora (Pamela Franklin) has been sent away due to trauma, leaving Miss Giddens (Kerr) alone with Miles (Martin Stephens). Miss Giddens keeps trying to force Miles to acknowledge Peter Quint, the spirit possessing him, but largely to no avail. Outside in the garden, surrounded by a circle of mythical statues, Miss Giddens attempts one final confrontation. Frantic direction from Clayton disorients the viewer – also thanks to a rapid 360 shot revealing Quint hovering above – but the final gut punch comes when Quint kills Miles, the severity of the moment disturbingly contrasted by chirping birds.
13 The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing is known for many things, such as its fabulous practical effects that have stood the test of time. Though the many transformation scenes those effects contribute to are well-deserving of praise, one of the aspects many people forget about is the film’s appropriately bleak ending.
The closest The Thing comes to having a triumphant moment comes when MacReady (Kurt Russell) screams at the Thing, “Yeah, f--- you, too,” then throws a lit stick of dynamite in its direction, destroying it. Otherwise, the film contains a consistently downtrodden tone coated with thrillingly gruesome sci-fi horror action. When MacReady and Childs (Keith David) realize that the only thing giving them refuge from the blistering cold of Antarctica is the blazing inferno that used to be their research base, they know it's the end for both of them. When MacReady puts forth a plan, “See what happens,” Ennio Morricone’s minimal score emphasizes their staring into the abyss with indifferent eyes.
12 Kill List (2011)
For the most part, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List isn’t a horror film. A solid majority of the film’s opening hour or so is a well-executed slow burn crime thriller, but in the final half hour, the film takes a dark turn down a rather twisted road, leading to an ending that is jarring for more reasons than one.
Having had to mercy kill his hitman partner Gal (Michael Smiley), Jay (Neil Maskell) has briefly escaped the cultists out to capture him, but is unsuccessful, knocked unconcious after he reaches the family cottage where his wife and son are taking refuge. Waking up in a field, the cultists surround him and force him to fight a blanketed hunchback figure trying to kill him. Jay kills his foe, but under the blanket is his wife and son, who took the brunt of Jay’s stabbing. Arguably more disturbing than this revelation is his bloodied wife’s cackling, and his dead, stoic expression as the cultists crown him.
11 Eden Lake (2008)
Many of the films on this list people would describe as 'visceral' feature contrasting, subtler endings; Eden Lake is no different. Starring Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender, the film depicts a couple whose weekend getaway is rudely interrupted by unruly teenagers – led by a young Jack O’Connell as a ruthless alpha – who ground the ‘killer children’ archetype in unsettling naturalism. When the chase starts, the content becomes grislier and the overall outlook only gets bleaker.
Eden Lake’s seemingly continuous pessimism reaches a crescendo in the final minutes as some parents realize their children are dead - killed either out of self-defense or by O’Connell’s Brett – and for all they know, Reilly’s Jenny is responsible, so they decide the proper course of action is off-screen vigilante justice. Just like the kids, among this group of adults is an alpha male – who happens to be Brett’s father. The ending leaves no hope for anyone's future.
10 Martyrs (2008)
Martyrs is the kind of artfully disgusting movie that makes you feel like you need to take a shower. As disturbing as the film’s incredibly graphic content is, however, nothing else from it quite compares to its shockingly abrupt ending. It is even more perturbing than the revelation that the systematic torture the women endure was designed to achieve martyrdom and report their experiences of the afterlife.
After Anna (Morjana Alaoui) has been grotesquely disfigured by her captors, the Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin) carefully listens to what she has to relay. After many have gathered to listen to his message, the Mademoiselle’s assistant asks what Anna saw. Once she removes her make-up, she asks her assistant if he regularly thinks of an afterlife. Although he says he has, the Mademoiselle grabs a gun out of her purse, says “keep doubting,” and shoots herself. Such a nihilistic ending communicates something quite terrifying: all of the pain and suffering has all been for nothing.
9 Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
One of the more frightening parables regarding Satanism, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of “Rosemary’s Baby” incisively tapped into the fears of expectant mothers everywhere. Additionally, concerning Mia Farrow’s captivating performance at the lead, there is no better example of her turn than its closing scene, after she has given birth and Satan’s followers reveal him as the Devil’s son.
Many of the endings on this list are shamelessly pessimistic, and Rosemary’s Baby subtly throws its name into the ring. Having now fully internalized the realization that her son is the Devil incarnate, Rosemary attempts to sooth her crying baby much to the disdain of one Satanist. Softly rocking the baby’s cradle, she manages a slight smile gazing down upon her newborn son, in spite of what he is. Her calm acceptance of the circumstances may be interpreted as hopeful, but considering the trauma she experiences, the ending paints a picture of uncertainty more unsettling than her screaming bloody murder.
8 Black Christmas (1974)
Bob Clark’s Black Christmas doesn’t usually get the credit it deserves for inspiring John Carpenter’s Halloween and being a sterling example of early slasher films, in spite of, for instance, the presences of actors Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and John Saxon. Most people might remember the horrendous remake done a decade ago, but the original film is one people should keep in mind, especially for its particularly innovative ending considering where the slasher genre would go the following decade.
After Jessica lays asleep having slain the presumed murderer, her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea), police and reporters leave her be, and the conversations dissipate. As soon as it’s silent, the camera tracks through the house up to the attic, where someone makes ominous whispers near an undiscovered corpse sitting by the window. When the camera pulls out of the house, one’s left with the chilling thought that the true killer was never caught.
7 Psycho (1960)
If Carpenter’s Halloween was a warning to peaceful American suburbia, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho introduced audiences to the originator of those fears: the unassuming, all-American Norman Bates. Norman sure loved his mother; loved her enough kill her, uncover her body and adopt her as an alternate personality. After he’s been found out, the local police hold him in a holding cell, but all is still not well.
As the camera slowly zooms in on Norman, his body language, as well as his mother’s internal voice, tells the audience his mother has fully taken over. Looking down at the fly that’s landed on his hand, Norman’s slow lifting of his head and sly smile is an iconic image placed next to equally iconic line, “She wouldn’t even hurt a fly.” Before the shot dissolves to Marion Crane’s sunken car, a slightly noticeable, superimposed image of presumably his mother emerges, and with some eerie music to back it up, shivers down spines are expected.
6 The Mist (2007)
Give Frank Darabont some credit; it took genuine gall to pull off his own alternative ending for his adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Mist.” Given the intense drama that takes firm hold with horror violence mostly utilized as a buffer – or even, perhaps, relief – Darabont’s ending deeply upset many people, but while some might criticize it for not adhering to King’s novella, the general reaction speaks to how powerful it truly is.
Darabont’s allegorical mirroring of political relations in W. Bush-era America ends less with hope and more with a ‘glass half empty’ lack of resolution when the townsfolk’s more decidedly rational contingent leave the store, and that sort of depressing outlook provides its ending extra heft. Watching Thomas Jane’s David Drayton scream in agony after killing all of the car’s passengers but himself then try to pull the trigger, is a haunting sight. Seeing the mist clear and the trouble dissipate is a firmer punch in the gut.
5 Saló (1975)
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s posthumously released Saló, an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s “The 120 Days of Sodom,” may not be a horror film in the traditional sense, but the deviant – to put it mildly – acts committed against the teenage boys and girls here are horrific enough to justify the film’s inclusion in any genre conversation. Pasolini was a notorious political provocateur, and given his country’s turbulent history, it seemed only natural that his adaptation of the work would feature Italian fascists from the early 1940s in place of the Marquis’s French libertines.
The sexual and moral degradation these four men make the teenagers suffer is unconscionable, yet even more twisted than the physical torture and eventual murder of these children is what Hannah Arendt referred to as the ‘banality of evil.’ We only see the barbarism through the binoculars of one fascist taking in the sights as a spectator, sitting in motionless silence.
4 The Shining (1980)
The Shining is unfairly loaded with unforgettable moments. What Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson proved is that, sometimes, simplicity is the most effective option. As soon as Wendy and Danny make their escape from the maze and heavy blizzard, Jack is left to weakly stumble around the maze’s confines, still intoxicated by psychopathic rage. But that just simply can’t be the end.
It’s a face that will haunt your dreams. Jack Nicholson’s dead, frozen glare, eyes nearly rolled back into his skull, is a frightening image, not only because of the image itself, but also because of Kubrick’s persistence with the long take to sear that image into the collective public conscience. On top of that, the series of shots slowly zooming in on a hotel photo revealing Jack at the Overlook in 1921 leaves the viewer confused and speechless.
3 The Wicker Man (1973)
While the Nicolas Cage remake of The Wicker Man is notorious for all the wrong reasons, the original is one of the horror genre’s finest. Because the original fell into obscurity shortly after its release, perhaps the only good the remake had was introducing audiences the 1973 classic.
The atmosphere produced in the original is overpowering. As the island inhabitants light the Wicker Man to burn their offering Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) alive, the rising flames are accompanied by the inhabitants singing a Celtic folk song and swaying to an fro. Howie attempts to drown out their chorus with a comforting Christian tune, but it’s all in vain as soon as the flames reach the compartment containing him. The singing continues as the smoke swells around him and the structure tumbles to the ground, a demented dichotomy for one of horror’s greatest endings.
2 Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Zombies as we know them today exist thanks to George A. Romero and his social allegory Night of the Living Dead. Many film historians and critics have suggested that Romero’s film serves as commentary on the War in Vietnam and as deconstruction of American media and the archetypal nuclear family, but what remains most prevalent is the film’s critiquing America’s history of racism.
After that horrid night of fending off zombies, the group’s sole survivor, Ben (Duane Jones), awakes to a reality not much more pleasant. When a group of gun-toting townsfolk pass by the house he’s been defending, he is mistaken for a zombie and shot dead. The still images to follow were too close for comfort for Americans in the ‘60s: a strong, black leader lying dead and a group of white men dragging his body out for burning. Even the sight of white, middle-aged policeman with German shepherds before Ben’s death is disquieting.
1 Halloween (1978)
The night he came home was a night that John Carpenter’s characters, and Hollywood itself, would never forget. Halloween was the conclusion of an era in slasher films in the ‘70s when similar flicks such as Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were revered as terrifying genre entries. The final shots of Carpenter’s film, however, emphasize what most slasher films of the ‘80s got wrong.
Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Samuel Loomis shoots Michael Myers multiple times, Myers falls out of a second story window and for a moment, the terror is over. Not moments after Dr. Loomis confirms to Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode that was, in fact, the Boogeyman, he looks out the window only to find Michael has escaped once more. Ending with a series of shots throughout the neighborhood and sites of murder, accompanied by amplified non-diegetic breathing under a mask, Halloween emphasizes the scariest aspect of the film; the fact that these horrors could happen anywhere.
Which horror movie endings gave you the chills? Let us know in the comments!