Saturday, July 2, 2016

I Think I'll Go Cry Now: Considering The Bleak Ending in Horror


Spoiler Warning:  Let's get this one out of the way early.  I can't very well write about movies with dark endings without spoiling how they end. 


As horror movie fans, it's safe to assume that we can deal with harsh subject matter.  Horror, by definition, deals in darkness.  Something I've noticed about myself, however, is that while I love dark themes, if a movie ends on a complete down note, I often find myself soured to the experience.  A recent example that comes to mind is Goodnight Mommy, last year's Austrian import about two twin brothers who suspect the bandaged woman who has returned from the hospital is not actually their mother, but a sinister impostor.  By the conclusion, however, we realize that one of the twins has actually dead for some time and that the surviving twin is having a psychotic episode that ends in the death of his mother.

Most of the reviews I've seen about Goodnight Mommy have been glowing, and I've seen it on a number of 2015 top ten lists.  But while I recognize that the movie was very well made, the ending left such a bad taste in my mouth that I cannot say that I actually liked it, which makes me curious.  Am I the anomaly here?  If so, what is the appeal of the bleak ending?  So I posed a question to the Twitterverse in the form of a poll:  Do people prefer their horror flicks to have happy endings, bleak endings, or does it not matter?

In my sample of 28 responses, 15 people said the ending didn't matter, 12 people preferred bleak endings, and just 1 person said they prefer happy endings.   So while the majority of folks said that the ending didn't make or break the movie, those that did have a preference almost all leaned toward the bleak.  Clearly, a three-option poll doesn't give the whole picture, so I also asked people to give me some insight into their preferences.

Let's start with the "Bleak" camp.  Andrea Subissati, aka "Lady Hellbat," (@necromandrea) explained, "I prefer a bleak ending but the movie has to lull me into a false sense of security first. Make me not see it coming, somehow."  She seems to like the visceral gut punch that a harsh ending can give, citing movies like Martyrs, Sinister, The Decent, Spoorloos, and Funny Games.

Chance Shirley (@crewless) contends that unhappy endings don't necessarily need to leave the viewer depressed: "Bleak endings are fun, especially when they run off the rails."  He mentions Cabin in the Woods as an example, and I'll admit that in this case I agree.  You don't get much more "off the rails" than Lovecraftian gods destroying the planet, which for me was too over-the-top to be depressing.  Chance also mentions the "quiet bleak ending of Carpenter’s The Thing" as a downer done right.

The Thing's ending might also fall in line with Boo's (@peekaboocorpse) preference, as she seems to like a nice swirl of happy/bleak, saying "I like ambiguous endings. eg., it seems the survivors have triumphed for now, but there's a lot more around the corner."  After all, in The Thing, it's implied that at least one of the final survivors is the alien that wiped out the rest of the compound, but we don't know for sure.  And while it certainly looks as though their both going to die out there, we don't necessarily know that either. I for one love this ending, so perhaps leaving it open for interpretation takes away some of the sting.

Kat of "The Horror Honeys" (@horrorhoneys) explains that bleak endings generally tend to be truer to the narrative in horror:  "No one gets a happy ending. I find that bleak endings affect me more rather than neat packages."  I completely understand this rationale.  When screenwriters shoehorn a happy ending into a movie as a way to placate the audience it can cheapen the movie.

While some responses didn't commit to preferring bleak endings, they did echo Kat's sentiment that an ending should make sense for the narrative.  Thot'Challa (@Mrs_B055)  says "Whatever serves the story best it what I like."  Maria Aguado (@sarisataka) agrees:  "I put 'doesn't matter,' but think 'it depends on the story' is more accurate."  Unnecessary Feelings (@clodia_risa) used to prefer bleak endings because "happy felt unrealistic."  However, now she thinks "the ending just has to feel earned."

Some instances of those who said "it depends" focus on their connection to the characters.  Justin Yandell (@ShotgunZen) wonders "How much do I like the protagonist? I think dark endings (Drag Me to Hell) are more memorable [than happy endings]. But if it's a good-hearted character that kind of ending would probably turn me off."  Hopelessly Chaotic (@chaos_4ever) also says her taste "Depends on the characters. Likable characters, I want happy endings. Unlikable characters, bleak endings."

Wonder WoManos (@zhombiehunter) has a very interesting take, as she wonders if there is actually such a thing as a happy ending in horror.  She cites The Mist as her favorite bleak ending, but she's unable to think of her favorite happy ending, wondering if "maybe because they aren’t really happy?"  This is certainly something to consider.  In the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example.  Sally is able to escape the cannibalistic Sawyer family, but given that all of her friends are dead she appears to have been driven insane by the ordeal, we couldn't really call this happy, could we?  The same could be said for many of the sole survivors in the horror genre.

We did have a couple of people give happy endings a little love.  Joanna from "Bloody Popcorn" (@bloodypopcorn) does say that her preference depends on the movie, but she does acknowledge that "for a while, it felt like bleak was the norm, so getting a rare "happy" ending became a refreshing thing."

And finally, Will Klein (@oslowe) is likely our one responder who answered that he preferred happy endings in our poll: "I like "happy"- I prefer for "good" to triumph, reset the status quo. Some bleak endings are ok but I prefer upbeat."  I think an important aspect of Will's statement is that the story needs to break away from the status quo.  As we all know, the status quo often sucks, and one of the great things about horror is in the way it makes us see that.  Sometimes the bleak endings shine a spotlight on the bad end that comes from the status quo, which is certainly important.  But, as Will notes, it's fun to see the status quo take a shot in the nuts from time to time.

So, what did I learn from my brief social media experiment?  It seems that most people don't necessarily prefer bleak endings or happy endings in and of themselves.  If they have a preference, its in how that ending serves the story.  Many people who watch horror, perhaps unsurprisingly, find happy endings to be unrealistic, so if the screenwriter is going to take that path, they better be able to get there in a way that still tells a meaningful story.  I can certainly agree with this line of thinking, but just know that if you recommend a movie to me where everyone dies at the end, I may need a hug afterward.

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