Accepted storytelling theory teaches that there are only 3 types of conflict in storytelling: Man versus Man, Man versus Nature, and Man versus Himself (or herself, obviously). Horror fans assert that there are only a handful of different horror endings—one of which can be applied to every horror film. There’s “Everything’s Okay,” and “Everything seems okay…but isn’t!” Then there’s “Everyone is dead, but the horror is over,” and “Horror wins.” You may not even know which ending you’re getting, now that sequels are so common.
Horror purists will tell you that the best horror movies have bleak endings. Sure, it’s fun to see monsters get exploded or zombie hordes dispatched by plucky groups of survivors. But we know that in real-life, as in horror, sometimes the most likely outcome is also the most tragic. Rampant spoilers for all movies mentioned, so beware!
Here are the 20 Insanely Bleak Horror Movie Endings That Will Haunt You For Life.
We refer here to the original, 1976, Sissy Spacek version of Stephen King‘s debut novel. The remakes of Carrie, though, have all had something of value to add. Carrietta White is as tragic as tragic figures come. Doomed from birth with a religious whackadoo for a mom, endlessly tormented by peers, and apparently forsaken by the God her mother wields like a club—it’s easy to argue that she never had a chance. Even 40 years after the film’s release, fans still argue whether or not Carrie White is the villain of the story.
Whether you think Carrie is evil or just a nice girl pushed well beyond the breaking point, it cannot be denied that her story ends tragically. Sure, Carrie murdered her chief tormentor, Margaret. But it’s not like she enjoyed it. The deaths of classmates, teachers, and even the gym coach who was kind to her—all had essentially no meaning; they’re just more victims of a rage-fueled rampage. Nearly everyone ends up dead at the end of this sad tale, and those who lived are sure to be forever haunted by their time with Carrie.
19. The Host
If you ask a horror fan, they’ll likely tell you that the best reason to watch foreign horror movies is that they’ll kill anyone. In the US, it’s easy to get used to the, shall we say Spielbergian approach to family films. We want the heroes to live, the villains to die, and the final girl to be rescued at the last possible moment. That’s good cinema, right? But see, horror doesn’t always work that way. Its purpose isn’t to make you feel good about life, hopeful for the future, or confident that the hero will make it out alive.
There’s plenty of Asian horror that we didn’t have room for on our list. Audition, for example, or Ringu. Nor was there space for similarly themed monster or aliens movies like Honeymoon. The Host is a must-include, because we want the girl to live so badly. When she doesn’t, we wonder if there was ever a point to fighting the monster in the first place.
The small cast and simple setting of Oculus definitely belie its emotional impact. Viewers really root for Kaylie and Tim, two adult siblings whose lives have been one tragedy after another—all because of a cursed mirror. Dangerous, even deadly mirror stories are nothing new, not since Lewis Caroll anyway. Oculus follows this brother-sister duo over key moments in their lives, and details their plan to capture evidence of, and destroy the cursed mirror before it can cause any more damage.
The tragedy in this story comes predominantly from the careful planning that the siblings, especially Kaylie, employ. They use multiple cameras to capture every second. They’re careful, mindful, honest, and cautious the entire time. So when the worst possible chain of events occurs, we know that there was nothing that could have stopped it. These two didn’t deserve what happened to them, but that wasn’t enough to save them either.
17. An American Werewolf in London
There’s much to enjoy about this surprise hit lycanthrope movie from the heart of the ’80s. There’s a fine and increasingly gruesome performance by Griffin Dunne, a first-rate, practical effects-driven werewolf transformation, and a bunch of horrific murders. It’s also got a killer soundtrack and an adorable romance between David Naughton and Jenny Agutter, plus a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by Rik Mayall as a patron at the Slaughtered Lamb pub.
American Werewolf in London may correctly be called horror-comedy, since there’s a ton of wry humor. That’s why it’s all the more shocking when the lead character is gunned down in the street like…well, like a dog. It’s a horrendous ending to the life of a character we’d all come to like by that point. David and his friend were unlucky enough to be attacked by a wolf, and neither made it through alive. At the very least, it seemed that the lycanthropy curse ended with David. The less said about the sequel, the better.
16. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
There are two exceptional versions of this sci-fi-horror classic. We think the 1978 version has the more mournful and miserable ending—though neither ends on an especially happy note. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers films also carry powerful thematic messages about conformity, political ideation, us-versus-them mentality, and the perils of studying botany. The idea of alien plants descending on us isn’t as far-fetched as we may like to think. In fact, some say it’s downright likely.
Whether you’re rooting for Kevin McCarthy or Donald Sutherland, get ready for intense disappointment. Terrorized children, distant spouses, and a slow, creeping burn set the scene for the final moments of these films. McCarthy winds up alone, screaming down the street that everyone should run, that they’re next. Heedless, they treat him like a crazy person. McCarthy is still running around screaming when the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers begins. It ends when Veronica Cartwright discovers that her last friend in the world has been assimilated. Drag.
15. Apollo 18
Regardless of genre, it’s always tragic when everybody dies. There was a Star Wars movie like that once, and it was incredible. Tragic, but incredible. Any movie that takes place outside the Earth’s atmosphere is likely to offer more chances to die a brutal or horrible death. When just outside your door is an airless vacuum, staying inside seems like the only smart choice.
The 2011 movie Apollo 18 suggests a sinister reason why the US hasn’t made another return trip to the surface of the moon after the Apollo program ended. In short: monsters. Little spidery ones, in fact. But that’s not the worst of it. In Apollo 18, astronauts are sent to confront dangers they haven’t been told about, and their government was fully prepared to abandon them on the moon if things don’t go well. Tragic as it is that none of the astronauts survive (we really like them by the end), the betrayals are far more difficult to content with. It’s a small but powerful film.
14. The Pit and the Pendulum
The films made by American International in the ’60s are still popular today. Audiences still love Vincent Price as a kind but tormented anti-hero constantly falling victim to one unfortunate circumstance or another. In this case, Price is Nicholas of the house Medina, Don of a fine old family. His wife has recently died and Nicholas is far from over it. As the story progresses, a dark family secret is revealed…one that has already taken hold of Nicholas.
Where the tragedy lies at the end of this 1961 film depends on the character for whom you have the most empathy. Francis Barnard is almost killed, and the doctor dies a quick death—quicker than he deserved, perhaps. Nicholas, through no fault of his own, is quite insane before falling to his own death. That’s a tragedy. And awful as she is, seeing Medina’s deceitful wife left in the iron maiden? There’s a certain poetic justice to that. But what an awful way to die.
13. Alien Trilogy
The Alien series is one that even the most ardent fans can’t seem to agree on. For some, the first three films make a perfect trilogy with a beautifully tragic ending. As a trilogy, the Alien series is a tremendous accomplishment that straddles genre. It’s horror. It’s sci-fi. By the third installment, it’s an epic drama, an action masterpiece.
In each film, the tragedy is palpable. We watch in helpless horror as the crew of the Nostromo is dispatched one by one. Ripley’s survival feels like a victory until we see the reaction from The Company in the first sequel. Before we know it, she’s back in danger and another fine crew gets picked off one by one. This time though, a little girl, a marine, and Bishop the “artificial person” survive…until the third installment. That begins with the tragedy of Newt and Hicks’s deaths. It ends with still more good people dying (and some less good) and ends with Ripley sacrificing herself to rid the universe of xenomorphs. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that it didn’t work.
The movie Sinister starts out with a pretty basic setup: family drama ensues when character moves family into house with sordid past. Each of the two children have some sort of creepy issue. The husband is lying to the wife, the townies think they’re ghouls, and something terrifying is going on. Like most movies of its type, viewers wind up yelling the same things at the characters on screen: “Get out! Just pack your stuff and leave right now!” When the characters don’t listen, moviegoers can sit back, comforted in the knowledge that had they only taken your advice, they’d all be alive.
But in Sinister, the deceitful writer does pack up his terrified family in the middle of the night, and takes them to a new house. Thank goodness, right? The family will be spared…except they aren’t. We learn that they were supposed to leave the house, that leaving was part of a long-established pattern that would ultimately destroy the whole family in a memorably gruesome manner. What kind of monster treats good coffee that way? Plus, there’s a sequel.
11. Eden Lake
Far better than the average couple-alone-flees-band-of-killers flick, Eden Lake features Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly as Steve and Jenny, a couple taking a long weekend together. He’s about to propose, but a band of violent children turn their weekend into a fight for survival.
Eden Lake is a little bit Deliverance, a little bit Straw Dogs, and a touch of Lord of the Flies. These kids are vicious, eventually killing Steve with a series of increasingly sadistic “pranks” they record on their cell phones. Jenny flees for safety, ultimately killing one of the children. Once she’s safe with some locals, she explains what has happened. But when one of the children rushes in and screams that a child has been killed, the townsfolk descend on her in a way that makes you almost relieved when the screen fades to black. You don’t even want to know what happens to Jenny, but you already know that it’s awful. * shudder *
10. The Man Who Laughs
Most people know this movie as the story that influenced the film The Black Dahlia, or know Gwynplaine as the character basis for Batman’s nemesis: The Joker. This film is far more than that. It’s a triumph of German expressionism with heart-wrenching moments from beginning to end. This film opens with a horribly cruel murder–a child watching his father die slowly. The boy is then put through surgery that gives him a permanent smile. He thinks he’s going to travel with a carnival, but they abandon him when the law gets wise to what they’re doing.
After a lifetime of horrible treatment, Gwynplaine seems finally free to go his own way and pursue the woman he truly loves, the blind but beautiful Dea. But before that can happen, both Gwynplaine and Dea die horribly, far apart enough that they can’t even touch. But you know, the Germans aren’t exactly known for heartwarming family entertainment.
It’s been said that the more you love Bill Paxton, who directed and starred in this 2001 horror thriller, the sadder this movie is to watch. Sure, Paxton has died onscreen almost as many times as Sean Bean. He’s also one of only two actors to play human characters that were killed by a Terminator, a Predator, and a Xenomorph from Aliens (the other being Lance Henriksen). But we digress.
Frailty is the story of a family chosen by God to destroy demons disguised as people. Sounds crazy, right? But Dad Meiks believes it fully, and so does one of his two sons. When the murders begin, only the oldest boy Fenton does anything to put a stop to it. After a few fails, Fenton realizes that killing his father is the only way to make it stop. But even that doesn’t work, for more tragic reasons. The conclusion and reveals of Frailty are often hotly debated by horror fans—though they all agree that the ending, whichever interpretation you follow, is at least depressing, but at most, morose.
8. The Fly
The Fly is one of those delightful but rare instances when a remake surpasses the original. Of course, the original Fly is a classic and probably a low-level masterpiece itself. It’s certainly a beloved staple of the genre. The original Fly has a tragic and gruesome ending, mainly because despite being brilliant and dedicated, scientist and family man Andre dies horribly. You might even say he dies horribly twice. Ultimately though, his family moves forward without him.
In the remake of The Fly, Jeff Goldblum is not as lucky as Al Hedison. Brundlefly ends with his insane plans foiled, and him ending up a hideously vile monster. Gena Davis doesn’t end up much better off, since she’s got a baby-fly (that’s a maggot, right?) inside her that grew up to be Eric Stoltz. Both films had a “Son of Fly” style sequel, neither of which was anything to write home about. Suffice to say that merging yourself with a fly never turns out well for anyone…except maybe Bart Simpson.
7. Dawn of the Dead
Speaking of sequels that surpass the original, the remake of Dawn of the Dead is (arguably) another example of this. While Romero’s second zombie cannibal movie is also a classic, the upgrade to fast zombies gave this 2004 reboot a terrifying advantage over the original. The 1978 film would not even make this list, since it’s one of Romero’s happiest zombie endings. Two of our four heroes (the ones we like, in fact) manage to escape with their lives. What’s more, they fight to live because they have hope for the future.
The rebooted cast is more recognizable—but not nearly so lucky. Though a few survivors make it out of the mall and onto Modern Family Dad’s boat, none of them actually reach safety. The credit sequences tell us that nothing is safe, no place is free from plague, and there is literally nowhere to hide. Combine that with Andy, and Medium’s husband, and the guy from House of Cards not making it either, and this is a recipe for sadness on a worldwide scale.
6. Soylent Green
Even if you’ve never seen this 1973 sci-fi horror classic, you might already know that “Soylent is People.” Too bad too, because if you do watch the film, that revelation is every bit as horrifying as the giant blender reveal in Snowpiercer. Soylent Green takes place in a bleak and frighteningly possible future where global warming has caused famine, widespread poverty, and overcrowding. The story follows a policeman solving a murder, and winds up with him exposing that soylent, the food most eaten by those who aren’t rich, is not made of plankton but rather, corpses.
The tragedies of Soylent Green are numerous, not even taking into account that it was the final film of Edward G Robinson. Detective Thorn (Charleton Heston) gives up everything to expose the secret, and in the end, his sacrifice is fruitless, because no one understands or believes what he’s saying. And we have to think soylent would taste even worse than tofu, which is already pretty gross.
5. The Descent
Some horror fans find this film infuriating. These women, while essentially likeable save for Juno, made a series of foolish mistakes that ultimately lead to their doom. It’s true that they couldn’t have known that the cave they were spelunking would be inhabited by CHUDs. But anyone who would trick their friends into exploring a never-explored-before cave with no map and no plan for rescue is…well, they kinda deserve what they get. Couple that with the fact that Juno was also lying about the affair she had with Sarah’s now-deceased husband, and it becomes difficult to root for a few of these chicks.
While this entire movie is infuriating in various ways, the ending of the director’s cut is both brilliant and profoundly unforgettable. Rather than escaping as she does in the theatrical release, final girl Sarah winds up insane, lost deep in the caves, believing she’s celebrating the birthday of her dead child as the CHUDs move in. Chilling.
We refer here to the French-Canadian, 2008 film. The American version, as predicted, was roundly dismissed by fans and currently enjoys a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This one, however, is a modern horror classic and standout great in the subgenre commonly called “torture porn.” Unlike other entries in this subgenre, Martyrs offers a compelling explanation for the intense brutality—something far more vital than mere sadism. Even being flayed alive serves a purpose other than foreshadowing the Bolton family on Game of Thrones.
This film gives you a few characters to root for, none of whom get a positive resolution. As the truth of what’s happening unfolds, we’re gradually sucked into the fantasy. Is this a real thing? Can it possibly work? We’re as anxious to hear what Mademoiselle has discovered as her fans are…which is why we’re equally devastated at and confounded by her suicide.
3. The Human Centipede
When people talk about the first entry in The Human Centipede trilogy, they don’t tend to mention the gut-wrenching tragedy of the final moments. No…it’s all about the operation, which is kind of a shame. Director Tom Six actually gives us a compelling and fascinating character in Dr. Heiter, a man obsessed with threes. Dieter Laser is truly incredible as the insane doc, but he’s def overshadowed by all the swallowing and stitching.
Ultimately, members of the small cast end up dying one by one. The doctor, the cops, the front and back portions of the human centipede itself, all dead. The only survivor is Lindsay—she’s the one who almost escaped, enraging the doctor and “earning” her place as the middle of the centipede. When everyone else dies, she remains alive, alone, and stitched to corpses on either side of her. While it doesn’t get nearly the props it deserves, it’s one of the most disturbing and grotesque finales in all of horror. It doesn’t seem like a sequel could be even more disturbing—but it is.
2. Night of the Living Dead
There are endless reasons to watch this film in its entirety if you haven’t already. It’s the first modern zombie film, the first to feature cannibalistic undead, and the first explosive hit for a guy named George Romero. It also features a black guy feuding with a white guy where no mention of race is made. This is a terrifying film that no one has to pay to see due to a tragic mishap that cut off the copyright frames of the film prints.
That tragedy aside, Night of the Living Dead has something pretty rare—a final guy. The final guy here is extra surprising, because Ben isn’t the first character we meet. Ben is the clever guy who survives by keeping his head on a swivel, staying calm, and making smart moves at every turn. So when he’s mistaken for a zombie and gunned down by local doofuses, we aren’t sure we’ll ever get over it. Night of the Living Dead is still the best, most important, and most tragic zombie movie ever.
1. The Mist
When you think of tragic horror movie endings, this 2007 classic is probably what leaps to mind. This movie is even more tragic than the novella it’s based on, which is saying something. Stephen King, Greg Nicotero, and Frank Darabont joined forces with an exceptional cast to present a harrowing modern take on B-movie sci-fi-horror and wound up with a truly exceptional film.
There are several phenomenal elements that make The Mist as great as it is. Mrs. Carmody, the gradual insanity of Jim Grondin, the monsters themselves; it’s all great stuff. The darkest tragedy comes when David (Thomas Jane) and his group escape the store, press on after another awful loss, and run out of gas far from safety. David keeps a promise to his son that he “won’t let the monsters get him,” and does so by shooting everyone in the group, including the boy. Just a minute or two later, we see that not only was the shooting unnecessary (since the military has arrived) but that had David made a different choice in the early moments of the film, he and the boy would have escaped danger altogether.
Stephen King praised this ending, but fans were sharply divided. This is an ending many have decried as “going too far.” We say there’s nothing wrong with a horror movie that ends with the hero screaming in anguished defeat.
Did your favorite tragic horror movie ending make our list? Tell us what you think in the comments!
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