See What Happens: The 5 Greatest Horror Movie Endings

%name See What Happens: The 5 Greatest Horror Movie Endings

Nowadays horror movies tend to struggle when it comes to granting audiences a satisfying conclusion. Afraid that movie-goers will leave the theatre disappointed if they’re not shocked or surprised up until the very last moment, modern horror flicks tend to force the same ending upon audiences over and over again. You know how it goes: after the terrifying events that took up two hours of your time, the characters have seemingly made it out alive. Oh, wait. Just seconds before the credits roll, the monster or ghost or threat or whatever was plaguing them is back, presumably putting them through the paces all over again or just killing them off for lack of a better idea.

It’s tired, it’s dull, and it compromises the movie that came before it. Why did we watch these characters struggling if they’re just doomed anyway? Sometimes it works, sure, but mostly it’s just a lazy way to tie up a story – audiences think they’re shocked and amused by these sudden moments, but it ultimately just reduces the impact of the film. Especially if said character isn’t given a chance to even react and is cut off by the end credits and an extremely loud heavy metal song.

A truly great horror movie should take time with its ending and consider it as the most important part of the movie – and many horror movies have, of course. Here we’ve assembled 5 horror movies with absolutely brilliant endings, none of which employ that godawful “here we go again” mentality. Some of these endings are brutal, others are actually amusing, and a couple are just plain weird. However they end, these flicks prove that you can give your audience an ending that will stick with them… one that doesn’t just reduce its characters to nothing, but leaves you with something to think about.

Note: Though it probably goes without saying, major spoilers within for all the movies featured.

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5. Alien (1979) (Dir. Ridley Scott)

%name See What Happens: The 5 Greatest Horror Movie Endings

Once the entire crew of the space cruiser Nostromo have been dispatched by a terrifying alien foe, only Ellen Ripley (arguably cinema’s greatest ever heroine) remains. Extremely eager to get off the ship where all her companions were horribly mutilated, Ripley finds herself trapped in a room with the Xenomorph. Cleverly, she climbs into a space suit and – after luring the creature out of its hiding place – opens the blast doors and ejects the damned thing into space. When it attempts to cling to the ship, she blasts it to pieces using the ship’s ignition thrusters. Phew.

Lost and alone, Ripley makes a final recording to the ship’s computer: “Final report of the commerical starship Nostromo. Third officer reporting. The other members of the crew… Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash and Captain Dallas are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed. I should reach the frontier in about six weeks. With a little luck, the network will pick me up. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo… signing off.” With that, Ripley puts herself into cryofreeze and the drifts off into the endless void of space.

Ridley Scott plays his ending with mystery and melancholy, though it’s important to remember that this is a happy ending – a genuinely satisfying one, in which our heroine beats a horrific monster against the odds. Of course, Ridley Scott could’ve easily gone for an ending where it’s revealed that there are more eggs on board (ala Aliens), but he did the right thing in allowing Ripley to take a breather. Here’s the proof that filmmakers today shouldn’t be so afraid in letting their characters catch a break. We watched this courageous woman suffer and survive, after all, and our reward as an audience is merely the opportunity to hope that – whatever happens next – she might just make it out okay.

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4. The Shining (1980) (Dir. Stanley Kubrick)

%name See What Happens: The 5 Greatest Horror Movie Endings

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining remains an extremely dense and psychology-heavy horror experience, a movie that has bewildered and pondered audiences ever since it first hit theatres over three decades ago. Taking its cues from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Kubrick used the book as a kind of pick ‘n’ mix and emphasises certain aspects, ultimately choosing not to incorporate King’s more linear approach and skimp on the explanations.

Set in the confines of the mountain-based Overlook Hotel, the film tells the story of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family, a caretaker who agrees to caretake the place whilst it’s closed for the winter. Soon enough the isolation has sent Jack mad: possessed or totally insane, he comes into contact with a number of ghosts and apparitions who slowly convince him to murder his son and wife. The film culminates with a frightening and brilliant set-piece as Jack pursues his son through a gigantic hedge maze. He never makes it out alive, freezing to death in the snow.

It’s in Kubrick’s decision to linger on an old photograph during the film’s final shots that assures The Shining remains the subject of debate. Completely fitting with the bizarre and downright disturbing tone of the hypnotic movie, the master throws a final curve-ball at audiences for the ending: the photo shows Jack Torrance front and centre amongst hotel guests from 1921, sixty years before he’d even visit the hotel. What does it all mean? Maybe there’s no answer. This ending does, however, give audiences something to consider without jeopardizing the narrative that came before it. As we track towards the photograph in one long take and settle on Nicholson’s grinning face, we’re absolutely sure that nothing we’ve witnessed was quite as it seems. Whether we care to work it out or not.

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3. The Wicker Man (1973) (Dir. Robin Hardy)

%name See What Happens: The 5 Greatest Horror Movie Endings

The Wicker Man‘s uncomfortably-realised atmosphere has made it essential horror viewing, but the British classic has always thrived on the reputation of its ending, one renowned for its extremely macabre and downbeat circumstances. After receiving a letter regarding a young girl who has apparently gone missing, Sergeant Neil Howie (a virgin) travels to the remote island of Summerisle off the coast of Scotland to investigate. There he encounters a strange, pagan-bound community who presume to taunt and provoke him over the course of the movie.

Eventually – after several days of uncomfortable exchanges and confusion – Howie is lured to the peak of a cliff where a giant, terrifying wicker man has been placed for his benefit. It is revealed that the entire length of his trip has been pre-ordained, and that he, as a virgin, will be used as a sacrifice for one of the island’s ancient rituals. Howie is forced inside, where the inhabits of Summerisle proceed to light the wicker man and set him ablaze. The community dance and celebrate, ignoring Howie’s relentless screams and prayers.

It’s not just the uncomfortable atmosphere apparent in every frame of director Robin Hardy’s masterpiece that makes the ending so perfect. Here is the culmination of the entire plot, a rare ending in where a character is simply put to death that genuinely works. As Howie prays to Jesus – an act that we know will not free him from this particular fate – the locals simply rejoice around him. The Wicker Man embraces its absurdity in these final moments, leaving audiences with a gut-wrenching sense of horror that they can’t explain. It is bleak, but ultimately essential: Howie never stood a chance, after all, and that’s exactly the point. The joke, as they say, was always on him.

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2. Poltergeist (1982) (Dir. Tobe Hooper)

%name See What Happens: The 5 Greatest Horror Movie Endings

The main plot of Tobe Hooper’s classic horror Poltergeist concerns a nice, all-American family who come up against an entity from another spiritual plain after it kidnaps their daughter through their television. It is, of course, revealed that the family’s house was actually built upon an Indian burial ground, and that the undead have been manifesting themselves through horrifying forms.

Hooper plays his ending cleverly. Though the film seems to be coming to close after the apparent main climax of the film is over, Hooper throws the family back into the fray once more in a moment that looks to be emerging as one of these “here we go again” endings – this isn’t exactly as it seems, however. The Freeling family survive a second wave of spirits and torment and leave their home as it’s sucked into another dimension (to the shock of their gathering neighbours), and take refuge in a motel.

Here, Hooper (perhaps on Steven Spielberg’s suggestion) grants Poltergeist with a rare happy ending, one that is both amusing and apt: upon entering their motel room, the shot lingers outside the door. Then the door suddenly opens again, and father Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) pushes the television out onto the balcony, as Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack switches from sinister to all choral and innocent. Not enough horror movies employ endings like these, and it’s extremely refreshing to watch a film that allows its characters to come through unharmed. Far more satisfactory for audiences, and humorous to boot.

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1. The Thing (1982) (Dir. John Carpenter) 

%name See What Happens: The 5 Greatest Horror Movie Endings

After the shapeshifting alien known only as “The Thing” infiltrates an Antarctic research station and reduces it to nothing, killing the scientists and turning them against one another, the two remaining survivors – J.R. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) – regroup outside. Weary, tired and no longer giving a shit about anything, the pair sit and try to work out which one of them (if any) is “The Thing.”

As they try to get a grip on this  - the inhospitable base flaming behind them – both men decide that they’ll never really know the answer. Instead, MacReady, shivering in the icy wind, says: “If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.” “What do we do?” Childs asks. “Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while?” McReady suggests. “See what happens.”

Childs lets out a little laugh, and the two men sit broken and exhausted opposite one another, eventually offering up a couple of delirious grins. At that point, Ennio Morricone’s brilliantly paranoid score eases in, as director John Carpenter cuts to a far-away shot of the station, leaving us, the audience, in exactly the same position as our remaining characters: inching to know what happens. The best bit, of course, is that we never really know, but Carpenter assures an ending that is both appropriate, tense and completely right for a story about mistaken identities. What’s more, “The Thing” might actually be dead… but how will these men ever learn to trust each other after everything that’s happened?

Agree or disagree with our choices for greatest horror movie endings? Let us know your own suggestions in the comments section below.

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  • Jedgentry

    An American Werewolf in London should definitely have been on this list.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tconnolly1 Thomas Connolly

    The Mist! Another Stephen King, with an ending I didn’t see coming, but was really fantastic.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=746875316 Jon ‘Jonny’ Preece

      rubbish film, great ending tho

      • Inga Turner

        Horrible ending! I read the book and loved it, watched the movie, yelled at the tv (something I don’t normally do) and threw the dvd in the trash. The ending in the movie was trite, all shock value, and horrid. The book’s ending was perfect; a little ambiguous but offering eight letters of hope for a little boy whispered into his sleeping ear by his father: Hartford. I would MUCH rather have a story that ended like that than how that trash movie ended.

    • Glen3

      Seriously? The ending was forced and retarded. So they run out of gas and don’t even wait it out for a few hours? Totally unbelievable.

      • Remy Carreiro

        Even King says the movie ending was better than his book, and he wish he thought of it, so really, your argument is null.

  • Sludge

    The endings of Alien and Poltergiest are just the endings you were whining about in the opening article. Just when you think everything has settled down, BOO!, here we go again. So, I don’t know what your point is on selecting those two.
    Pretty dumb list. Besides, Exorcist should be there, great ending with redemption, faith and all that cerebral stuff.

    • Callum

      No they’re not? What do you mean? None of those endings send the characters back into the fray. Poltergeist ends with a joke and the evil vanquished. Alien ends with the monster defeated and Ripley going into sleep. What do you mean?

    • No They’re Not

      What are you, stupid?

    • Kaitain

      I think you’re getting confused. What you’re talking about here is a ‘fourth act’, a final reel that involves an unexpected, protracted extra fight. The article is talking about a shock final moment where e.g. the protagonist is suddenly killed by the returned antagonist leaping out of the shadows unexpectedly, followed by a crash cut to the credits.

  • StyrofoamTumor

    I think the original Paranormal Activity deserves a mention. Sure we new what was going to happen, but it was still quite unsettling.

  • Auguman

    Invasion of the body snatchers, the one with Donald Sutherland, great ending!

    • Loyal_Determined_Opposition

      I saw that in the late 70s and still get a chill when I see Sutherland in a movie. I’m just certain he’s going to lean his head back and point his arms out at me. Bad dreams for weeks.

  • coukie

    “The Thing definitely”! and I think “The Descent” which was pretty disturbing.

    • Kaitain

      Which ending to The Descent, though? The North American one, or the original European one?

      • coukie

        The horrible one:

        SPOILER

        She gets out, gets into the car, gets away and then she wakes up in the cave again because she was obviously dreaming the whole thing. Horrible ending and of course great one ;-)

    • Kaitain

      I think this re-edit of The Thing manages to improve on the ending. But then, I’m biased…

      http://tinyurl.com/2wynk7s

    • Olinser

      The author kind of misses a lot of the ending in “The Thing”.

      He asks, “but how will these men ever learn to trust each other after everything that’s happened?”

      Uh… they won’t. Because they’ll be dead. They are in a literal frozen wasteland, with no transportation, no supplies, and now no protection from the elements. They are literally going to sit there and freeze to death in a few hours.

      THAT is the greatness of the ending. They’ll both be dead… but is one of them actually The Thing? Will it just freeze for a few more centuries until somebody finds it under the ice again?

      • Inga Turner

        Exactly.

        Childs: “Temperature’s up all over the camp. Won’t last long though. How will we surivive?”

        MacReady: “Maybe we shouldn’t.”

        They don’t survive, that’s part of the poignancy of the ending. The lingering horror is that one of them *might* survive… as the Thing. The great part is we’ll never know.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ben.r.forsythe Ben Forsythe

    I would say that the original Saw film should have been on the list no one saw that ending coming. And it was quite satisfying.

    • Diviavamp

      I immediately thought of Saw as well. Till this day, I think it has the best “most unexpected” ending EVER. I was left thinking what the hell!!

    • Inga Turner

      This wasn’t necessarily about surprise endings though, it was about satisfying endings, even more about the rare ending that can give both shocking and satisfying, even adding in emotionally touching, lingering, and haunting. That’s why they said the five ‘greatest’ endings of all time. It’s about magnitude as well as just ‘better than good’.

  • Augustus7669

    One of my favorite horror movie endings ever has to be The Howling.

    • Keet

      Good one..

  • rabbitwithfangs

    The Vanishing…

  • toby

    The Exorcist?!?

  • http://www.facebook.com/KingAaron Aaron King

    How, how is The Mist not on this list?

    • E

      ‘Cause it sucked

      • coukie

        No it didn’t! you can think whatever you want about the movie but the ending is very very good…

  • w h o k n o w s

    The Thing is definitely the best… although it could have been a better movie I liked Final Destination’s ending a lot

  • Mugwomp

    No “Scanners”?

  • http://www.facebook.com/fobos.dudo Fobos Dudo

    with the wickerman, there is no way people could keep disappearing and no one would come along and figure out why. the giant pile of fucking ash with bones it is would be a dead giveaway.

  • troy

    Wrong Turn 4…escape on snowmobile scene. Check it out.

    • http://www.facebook.com/danielle.whitakerowens Danielle Whitaker Owens

      Yeah, that was bad ass.

  • andy

    Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve. It has one of the most shocking ending’s I’ve ever seen.

  • Beulah

    I totally agree with putting the ending to The Thing in the #1 spot, but An American Werewolf in London should have made this list over one of the other movies.

    • Inga Turner

      How? Watching it, it came as really no surprise at all that he was shot to death by the police. This was an ending you saw coming, and it wasn’t anything that epic. It was poignant, yes, but that’s it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BradGHinton Brad Hinton

    It means Jack’s been claimed by the ghosts of the hotel. That’s it.

    • D2Kvirus

      I’d say there’s a little more to it than that – after all, Grady says Jack’s “always been the caretaker” which implies the darkness in him was always there, and whatever it is in The Overlook knew all about it.

  • skunkybeaumont

    I always believed the ending of The Shining simply meant that Jack Torrance had been incorporated into the evil of the Overlook Hotel. If the evil exists outside of ‘time’ as we know it then it makes sense that ‘Jack’ would transcend time as well. Although it attacked all three family members, Jack was the only one it fully claimed (since he died) and he was either destined or doomed to be at the hotel for all of eternity. You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

  • Kaitain

    “Ridley Scott could’ve easily gone for an ending where it’s revealed that there are more eggs on board (ala Aliens)”

    That is absolutely not true. There are no more eggs on board in Aliens. Alien3 *asserts* that there are more eggs on board, but this is essentially a retcon. It makes absolutely no sense, as the queen has long since detached herself from her egg sac, and would have had no time to secrete any eggs in the locations shown at the start of Alien 3. Alien 3 basically lies, to get a new story moving.

    • squareWave

      My personal “Alien” canon ends right there. Alien 3 and everything after was craptastic. Lots of people defend Alien 3, but to me its attempt at doubling down on the nihilism and bleakness of that universe (e.g. by killing off two of the survivors from Aliens at the very outset) just came across as hamfisted and pretentious.

      That series could have gone in so many much cooler directions at that point.

    • Private Hudson

      Well, what about the sound of an opening egg at the end of the credits for Aliens? Even though I disavow any knowledge of any sequels after Aliens, that sound alone is enough to suggest that at least one egg was on the Sulacco.

  • TimO

    Now go watch John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds” (1966) with Rock Hudson. Middle-aged man gets a new, younger life then in the end finds out how they get replacement bodies. Final scene is a chiller….

  • Hypnotoad

    You did not know eggs were on the ship until Alien 3. The queen snuck aboard

  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.burian Dave Burian

    Hello? What about Carrie? Night of the Living Dead (original)?

  • Mike

    Cabin in the Woods had the best ending. Not only did it achieve it’s goal to make fun of horror films of the last 20+ years, it did so while still managing to have a great ending.

  • Robert Neville

    I never thought it’s ending was THAT good…but overall, The Thing is a very solid sci-fi/horror flick.

    John Carpenter was the man back in the day.

    …and Morricone’s score is insanely perfect for the movie.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ianwilliam.green Ian William Green

    the omen………..

  • Mespelbrunn

    Return of the Living Dead. Best horror movie ending ever. This is a movie where the stupidity of all the living characters is their greatest enemy, rather than the undead. In desperation, they finally reach out to be saved by the secret military group who supposedly knows just what to do (by calling the 1-800 number stenciled on the side of the oil drum that contained the first zombie they let loose that started the whole thing), only to have them drop a nuke on the town. This blows the zombie toxins into the atmosphere, and infects an area many times larger. The End.

  • Snowy

    Don’t forget that as the end music plays, we see the screen of the rejected TV briefly, faintly, flicker to life, then fade away again.

  • Chris

    Evil Dead 2, anybody?

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.delahoussaye.98 Michael Delahoussaye

    Really surprised no one’s brought up The Sixth Sense yet. That one should’ve been on the list for sure.

  • Gavin

    Halloween (1978) in my opinion has the best ending.

    • Goku50k

      Agreed

  • Anon

    Mouth of Madness ends with a terrific scene at a movie theatre. IMO best horror movie ending ever.

    • Dean Transience

      I agree :)

  • Earych

    To me, Jeepers Creepers has one of the best endings. It was daring and really broke the mold when it came to thrillers. Threw me for a loop considering how jaded I am when it comes to horror.

  • Thad Malley

    I dunno…the ending of “The Strangers” made me jump a country mile!

  • Ric Kaplan

    what about Soylent green, best ending to a movie ever!!!

  • Mitchell DeVillier

    Best horror movie ending ever: The Body Snatchers, directed by Philip Kaufman 1978. Donald Sutherland’s pig scream at the end alerting the “snatchers” of a human in their midst.

  • tony

    leaving out The Exorcist is insane. Aliens was by far the best of the franchise. Classics like Night of the Living Dead are better than most of those you named and Body Snatchers belongs somewhere in there. Given the time I could name another fifty good horror movie endings and I certainly agree with everything you said and have said it so many times that the writers, directors etc usually take the easy way out on the endings, You should publish a top twenty or more of this genre

  • Luv Harper

    I just love the ending of “The Thing”. We never know which one of the guys was infected,or if the thing had died. It was a amazing ending to an awesome film.

    • aprince66

      But we do know. Spoiler of sorts….

      Carpenter revealed at the end, you can see McReady’s breath. Not so much with Childs.

      • solrak

        So why did they go to all the trouble of testing each others blood to find out who The Thing was?

      • WILLIAMDWYER

        The Thing video game, endorsed by Carpenter, clues you in as to who was the Thing.

  • Carnifex

    lol

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Originally in Alien, Dan O’ Bannon wrote an ending where the creature does kill off Ripley in the shuttle. Then it shows the creature operating the controls and sending out a message in her voice. Scott thought it was too farfetched and not to mention a real downer.

  • paulj

    A comedian (I think it was a comic but memory fails) commented on The Thing and made a suprisingly good point.

    MacReady has icy breath, he exhales and it comes out white (condensation or something or other). But Childs does not, his breath is invisible!

    Ofc it could easily be an FX failure or something to do with the lighting, then again Childs was suspiciously absent during a crucial sequence of events!

    In fact having just checked it out on youtube one commentator states that Carpenter himself said that “one of them is breathing, the other isn’t”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GA4Ozqt7338

    • WILLIAMDWYER

      The Thing video game, endorsed by Carpenter to be the canonical sequel to the film, clues you in as to who was the Thing.

  • Remy Carreiro

    I would have to add the wonderfully ambiguous Martyrs.

  • Kevin Gradin

    Didn’t Carpenter score The Thing? I’m almost certain he did.

    • Iam_Spartacus

      No, that was Ennio Morricone. You’d think it was Carpenter being how minimalist the music is like he usually does so I can understand why people would think that. I guess John decided to take a break from those duties.

  • iammattelam

    I think SAW should be on here

  • tedh754

    Ripley “trapped in a room?” It was the shuttle! Who vets these lists?

  • Kwack

    Is there a reason that all of the “best” ones are from the late 70′s to early 80′s?

  • DKendraFran

    The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (based on the book “Harvest Home” by Thomas Tryon). Bette Davis is outstanding as Widow Fortune.

  • Jackie Jormpjomp

    Actually the Indian burial/cult leader thing, I’m pretty sure, didn’t show up until the second movie. In the first film it was a cemetery where they only moved the headstones.

    • Inga Turner

      You’re right, the details weren’t added until the second movie. Which personally I think was a little overkill. In the first it was built over a cemetery where only the headstones were moved. In the second, they added an Native American burial ground presumably under the cemetery, and also this cave that this cult leader and his followers sealed themselves into (before or after the N.A. burial ground?). As in a lot of cases, they shouldn’t have tried to cash in on the success of the first one by making sequels. They didn’t work.

  • rj

    its rj not jr

  • Simon Nicoll

    The thing 2013 is a prequel to the thing, the game on the ps1 also named The Thing cannonically dealt with what happened to them after they stopped to rest in the snow after killing the larger thing at the end.

  • mike mcguire

    how about the sixth sense!! who knew he was dead??

  • cwwj

    The Haunting, with Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn. The greatest ghost story ever filmed, and a shocking ending that sees Julie Harris, the one whom the haunted house wanted, killed by the ghosts as she is trying to escape. Harris realizes at last that she belongs to the house forever.

  • ChampMira

    It is difficult to choose as the acceptable is forever changing in what movies can show. Carrie was at the time of release probably the best ending of a horror movie, yet I remember the ending of Bonnie and Clyde, and the shocked silence as the audience left the theater. not a horror

  • aschark

    I saw Carrie at the drive-in the Seventies. When that arm came out of the grave at the end, yeah, we both jumped. It couldn’t have been the illegal substance that we smoked, because years later I saw it straight, knew it was coming, and still jumped.

  • Ryan Collins

    Original “Halloween.” The “Shape’s body has disapeared and you can here him breathe but you can’t see him. Awesome!