CAN HORROR END ON A HOPEFUL NOTE?
One of the things I love about the horror genre is its flexibility. There are so damned many subgenres of horror that if I tried to list them all, this article would be much too long, and there are plenty of stories that straddle all of those subgenres, blending and smudging to make an immense palette.
But, for endings there seems to be a popular template. I have seen the argument many times that there are only a few generic endings a story can have and still be considered horror. They are, most commonly, 1) the protagonist dies, 2) the protagonist lives, but that’s worse than dying somehow (this includes the ‘escapes, but not really’ trope), 3) the protagonist becomes the monster, or was the monster the whole time. There are others in this vein, but they tend to be dour and hopeless.
There is something to be said for that, of course. Those endings are terrifying, especially if done in an unexpected way. What’s scarier than losing all hope? I often follow those paths in my own stories. But I would argue that some of the greatest works of horror fiction end in exactly the opposite way. Regardless of the perception that horror must be grim, they dare to end with a sense of hope for the future.
Major spoilers ahead for some legendary horror movies and books, so tread carefully.
The Babadook is a great example. I could go on and on about the allegory of this film or the questions it raises about whether anything supernatural actually happens in the story. I have my opinions, but I’m not sure they’re entirely qualified, and they hardly matter. The important thing for this discussion is that The Babadook is indisputably a horror film. Its imagery is terrifying. The movie puts its characters in a dire situation that test their love for each other and their grasps on reality. A mother outright tries to murder her son.
But its ending is hopeful. Whether it is a genuine supernatural entity or not, The Babadook represents Amelia’s anger, usually directed at herself and her son, at the intense pressure she is under while dealing with (or not dealing with) her grief over the death of her husband. The movie ends by stating that, now that she’s come to terms with her emotions, she can keep the Babadook in check—even though it never really goes away. Through sheer will, she is able to assert control, and if she’s able to maintain that control, the monster is no longer a threat, thereby leaving her to reconnect with her son. See? Hope.
Now, here’s a tricky one. I want to talk about The Shining. Kubrick or King, it doesn’t matter much for purposes of this discussion. Whether The Shining has a hopeful (not happy, mind you) ending depends on who you consider to be the primary protagonist—because it genuinely has two endings.
During the film, we spend most of our time in two main camps. First, there’s Jack’s arc, which pits him, again, against his own inner demons that manifest themselves as denizens of the Overlook. Many of the same themes are examined here that were later examined in the Babadook. Is the hotel really haunted or is it in Jack’s head, his way of manifesting the pressures of fatherhood? There are other questions about the supernatural nature of the occurrences in the story, but I won’t delve into them. Suffice it to say that Jack’s arc ends with one of the prescribed dour endings. He becomes the monster. He tries to murder his family and dies in the process. If you consider Jack the main protagonist, the ending is not hopeful. He loses his battle in a bloody, ugly way. End of story (Of course if we examine the book, even Jack’s ending is, maybe not hopeful but redemptive. Another discussion, another time).
But is Jack the protagonist of The Shining? I would say not—at least not in the film. That’s the second camp, made up of Wendy and Danny. They are in direct opposition to Jack even before the story begins. I tend to argue that Jack was positioned as the monster well before they got to the Overlook. He was struggling with alcoholism and unfulfilled expectations and he had already allowed that to turn him into someone abusive. And when I look at it that way, the story was always about Wendy and Danny surviving the aggressions of an alcoholic, abusive patriarch. Which they do. They leave Jack dead in the snow (or blown to bits in the book), and head off with every chance at a bright future—if we ignore Doctor Sleep, of course. So, not happy, but with a sense of hope.
I have one more example, and, I think if anyone is going to come after me on this idea, it’ll be because of this one. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (the book, not the movie) spends most of its time with Robert, who has lost a great deal at the hands of a vampire(?) epidemic and is trying to survive on his own, not knowing if he is the last human alive.
It’s also one of the greatest bait-and-switch maneuvers in horror literature; maybe even in literature as a whole. It is the ultimate he-was-the-monster-all-along reveal. Throughout the book he kills vampires, and he maybe even enjoys it. They took everything from him. They destroyed his life, killed his family. So he murders them with impunity and dumps their bodies in a mass grave—until he’s caught. The vampires have formed a society (gasp!). He has been labeled as public enemy number one for a while now, and he’s going to be executed for his crimes.
How is that hopeful? Well, in the case of this particular bait-and-switch ending, the big reveal is that who we thought was the protagonist is actually the villain. And it’s intentional. Without that realization, the story doesn’t have the same punch at all. Which means that the story ended up being about a reclusive murderer who is eventually brought to justice, freeing a fledgling society to finally move past the dark days of its inception. In short, it ends with hope (for the vampires). Human(ish) society can now go on—even thrive now that they’ve cleared that initial bump.
The question of whether horror endings can be hopeful or positive rests on perspective. I love grimness and tragedy and darkness in a story. I was the only eight-year-old I knew that loved books that made him cry. But I resist the idea that that is all horror is, can be, or even should be. Horror does not have to be inherently nihilistic, although that worldview certainly has its place. I believe that some horror can hold up a mirror to us, show us our errors, our mistakes, our monsters—and also challenge us to be flexible about how we think about the world, and in doing so, find the light in the darkness. And that doesn’t make it any less a part of the genre.