If a horror film wants to rank in the upper echelon of genre offerings from a critical and commercial perspective, then it is imperative for the narrative to stick its landing. A film’s concluding scene is the vital connective tissue that ties its ongoing storyline(s), thematic underpinnings, and overall character development together in a way that’s logical for its world while playing within the bounds of established tonal settings. It is the aftertaste that makes a meal delicious or ultimately repulsive. A beautiful cap to a dazzling horror tale leaves that coveted lasting impression of ample praise, deep analysis, and widespread recommendations.
There are many horror films with final scenes that have left fans in awe. But there are a select few that are embedded into our consciousness. Their lasting impressions changed horror cinema history, setting new standards and spawning trends that others may emulate but can never quite duplicate.
Let’s celebrate thirteen of the best final scenes in horror movie history.
Get Out (2017)
Get Out deftly tackles themes of microaggressive racism, dehumanization, fetishization, and more through the unsettling tale of Chris Washington, a young Black man who nervously meets the affluent parents of his white girlfriend Rose. Things go awry as he uncovers the entire family’s sinister and heinous plans to utilize his body as white man’s Earthly vehicle. The final scene’s tension is at an all-time high as Chris strangles Rose, the last antagonist standing between him and certain freedom. Suddenly, the flashing lights of what appears to be a police vehicle illuminate the darkness.
Chris’ palpable fear shakes the viewers’ belly as they steel themselves for a heartbreaking outcome. At best, Chris will end up in handcuffs and accused of violently murdering “good white folks.” At worst, his fate will mirror Ben’s in Night of the Living Dead with the cop shooting him to death after his valiant fight for survival. Get Out lets this uncertain dread momentarily linger before the vehicle door opens. Anyone watching this film can’t help but cheer at the sight of his intrepid best friend Rod in his TSA vehicle. It’s a lovely subversion of expectations that allows you to unclench after a long third act of violence, fear, and anxiety. We get to rest in the joy of Chris’ rescue and survival.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The swerve ending is a ubiquitous staple of horror movies going way back, but the way Wes Craven uses it in A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the most jarring. After seemingly defeating dream demon Fred Kruger, heroine Nancy immediately steps outside her front door to a beautiful, sunny day. It’s almost like beginning-of-Blue Velvet levels of idyllic.
If that weren’t enough to get us thinking something’s off, Nancy’s friends—who all died by Freddy’s razor-gloved hand—return to pick her up in a convertible, as Nancy’s alcoholic mother now stands at the door to cheerily wave them off. But things turn bad real fast. The convertible top comes up marked with the familiar stripes of Freddy’s sweater, and Freddy’s hand grabs Nancy’s mom from a tiny window in the front door. She turns into a dummy and gets pulled through, proving you can’t kill the master of nightmares.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The final scene of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is crazy as hell, especially by horror standards of that time. Sally Hardesty has been fighting for her life against Leatherface and his family all night long. She finally gets a big break when a trucker is able to subdue Leatherface just long enough for Sally to flag down a pickup truck driver. Covered in blood and sweat, she hops into the back of the truck as it speeds off.
Leatherface runs behind them briefly before stopping in the middle of the open road, wildly swinging his chainsaw around in a defeated dance of frustration. Sally’s wide eye stare, hyperventilating, and eerie manic laughter as she distances herself from her torturer is a horror moment that burrows itself into your long-term memory. It’s a solid culmination of her rapid psychological breakdown and the feral carnage we have witnessed throughout the film.
The VVitch (2015)
The Witch is one of the most unsettling horror films of recent memory. With its era-perfect depiction of a puritan family imploding while a real forest witch skulks around, the movie feels icky in a number of different ways. But the ending leaves the sole survivor on a bit of a hopeful note. As the object of her family member’s various Deadly Sins, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) has had to endure a lot through no fault of her own. Having no idea what to do after all of them die, she visits the barn which houses the family’s massive billygoat, Black Philip. Turns out he’s the devil and asks her if she wants to live deliciously. She then walks into the forest, finds a group of other women dancing naked around a bonfire, and gleefully joins them, floating up to the sky. Good for her!
Friday the 13th (1980)
After a night of terror, Alice finally thinks she will get some reprieve as she floats in a canoe on Crystal Lake. But the seemingly not-so-dead and disfigured corpse of a child Jason Voorhees is there to greet her, pulling her into the depths of the waters. She awakens in a hospital, convinced that the boy is “still there.” Alice is both right and wrong in this instance. He’s not physically a child anymore. However, Jason Voorhees IS in fact still there, waiting to exact his revenge on anyone who dares step foot on his cursed ground. It’s a horror movie final scene that laid a perfect foundation for not only a sequel but a bonafide franchise, something that many slashers continue to aim for today.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
If you thought a Sam Raimi horror movie could possibly end happily, then you only have yourself to blame. The increasingly ridiculous and jump-scaring toils that befell Christine after she denied a loan to an old Romani woman had finally come to an end, it seemed. She passed an item of her own to the dead woman’s casket, meaning the curse placed on her would lift and she wouldn’t in fact die in torment. Uh oh. Just as everything seemed fine, she realized it was the wrong envelope! Now it’s too late! As if to illustrate everything we need from a title like this, the ground opens and demons literally drag Christine to Hell. Moral: don’t work in banking.
Ready or Not (2019)
Grace’s overnight battle against her new (and hella rich) in-laws in a twisted ritualistic game makes for a modern horror classic. Ready or Not’s dark comedy, sharp dialogue, and truly diabolical narrative keeps us on a wild ride leading up to a literally explosive ending. Grace narrowly survives until sunrise and the curse works its magic as the Le Domas family explodes one by one, drenching her in their blood. Their palatial mansion is ablaze as a soaked Grace walks to a set of steps, drained from her exhausting ordeal.
“Love Me Tender” by Stereo Jane plays as she stands where she exchanged vows, the serene wedding décor juxtaposing the house’s flaming chaos. She sits down and casually lights a cigarette as the police flood the scene. An officer asks her what happened to her. Grace’s long drag of a cigarette and deadpan “in-laws” answer caps off this wild film perfectly. In-laws are the bane of many married folks’ existence but this story truly takes the cake.
The Invitation (2015)
The slow burn of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation takes us from awkward dinner party, through tense dinner party, until finally we get to violent death-cult dinner party. We’ve all been there, obviously. While a few members of the hapless bougie people, brought together in a house in the Hollywood Hills to reconnect, survive the ordeal, the actual horror of the severity of the night’s events becomes clear. It wasn’t just their group that was taking part in the mass murder-suicide (as evidenced by the red lamp hung outside) but in fact it was dozens of other houses. Basically all of the Hills, and probably loads more, had also had similar, or even more fatal, gatherings. It takes a scary premise and turns it nigh-apocalyoptic simply through the image of lantern lights.
After an epic night of exacting revenge on her teenage enemies and her disgusting mother, Carrie sadly sets her own home ablaze and dies in the fire. The sole prom survivor, Sue Snell, sits at Carrie’s gravesite with flowers. Her sadness quickly transforms into terror as Carrie’s bloody arm shoots through the grave and grabs her. Sue is alive but she’s trapped in her own version of hell where Carrie’s memory will haunt her waking thoughts and nighttime dreams. This moment is not the first jump scare scene ever. But it popularized it in the genre, inspiring Friday the 13th and many more horror films to have the undead killer rise for one final moment of terror.
The Mist (2007)
Infamously, writer-director Frank Darabont changed the ambiguous ending of Stephen King’s short story “The Mist,” in which strange, eldritch creatures descend on a small Maine mountain community out of mysterious fog. To his credit, Darabont knew the audience needed a real gut-punch, and King himself approved. Our hero David, his son, and a few other survivors might have gotten away from one horde of monsters, but they don’t know how widespread this is. They don’t know if the entire world has been taken over! Silently, they all decide they don’t want to continue.
David quickly shoots all of them with the remaining bullets in his revolver only to find he doesn’t have one for himself. As he screams in grief, he gets out of the car…only to see the mist lifting and the military role through. David and the audience have to grapple with the knowledge that had he waited another five minutes, it would have been a happy ending. Brutal.
Eden Lake (2008)
A couple heads to a remote lake to spend an idyllic and romantic weekend together. What could possibly go wrong? A lot actually, especially when a pack of wayward teens led by Brett, true psychopath, cross your path. Eden Lake is an overflowing bucket of despair up until the very end. Sole survivor Jenny awakens to seemingly sympathetic faces after crashing her escape vehicle. This brief moment of relief soon shifts to horror as she realizes these people are the parents of her torturers. The gang blames the night’s murders on her and she makes one last attempt to fight for her life. But it is to no avail. Eden Lake ends with her horrific muffled screaming offscreen as Brett wears her deceased boyfriend’s sunglasses and stares into a mirror. It’s brutal, sickening, ruthless, and a flawless unhappy ending.
The Wicker Man (1973)
You’d be forgiven for watching almost the entirety of Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man and not have any idea why it’s called that. Surely it’s a weirdly dreamlike film, in which a devoutly Catholic and judgmental police officer comes to a remote island community with information that a young girl had disappeared. The islanders practice a kind of paganism, communing with animal spirits and copulating in the night, which repulses the lawman. He scoffs at the preparation for the spring festival, and its hopes of bringing back the island’s apple crop.
Slowly the film reveals the entire mystery was a ruse in order to catch the policeman and prove that he is their perfect virgin sacrifice. As the islanders cheerily lead him over a hill he sees a giant wicker man, already full of livestock, a ladder leading to the man’s head, and a pyre at its feet. He, and the audience, know what will befall him and no amount of his pleas to them and his beseeching of his Christian god will save him. He will burn, while people cheer and sing about it.
A horror film where evil triumphs is an exceptionally disturbing treat. This is the case with Smile, a psychological spiral with an ending that haunts you long after the credits. Rose’s fraught mission to rid herself of a murderous supernatural entity that feeds on her deep-rooted trauma takes us back to her abandoned childhood home. We hope that its dilapidated walls will somehow hold a key to Rose’s survival and perhaps make sense of the bizarre monstrosity that plagues her. But that is not the case. The final moment of Rose with that sinister smile plastered on her face as she sets herself on fire in front of Joel is both glorious and gut-wrenching. This is one of the best final scenes in a horror film that people will talk about for years to come. The curse lives on. There is no happy ending. Sometimes, evil simply cannot be contained.