How to End a Horror Story

You’ve written a killer opening to your horror story, and terrible, terrible things are happening to your characters in all the best ways.

Now…. How do you end your horror story?

The key to writing a great ending to a horror story is honoring the genre.

And to do that, first, you need to understand how the horror genre works.

best ending for horror story. How to write endings.

Understanding Horror

Horror is a special genre.

In fact, there is only one other genre that works like horror does. Romance.

Huh? Aren’t horror and romance kind of, well, opposite?

Yes, on the surface they are. One trades in happy love stuff and the other deals in scary, it’s going to kill you and everyone you love kind of stuff. Both are pretty fun.

Even though they are effectively opposites, horror and romance are the only genres that are principally defined by the emotional response they seek to create in the audience.

Romance wants to make you feel like you’re falling in love, and all of the heady love bubble stuff that goes along with that, all the way to the happily ever after, or at the very least, the happy for now.

It’s emotional; it’s visceral.

Horror wants to make you feel like you could lose anything and everything. Horror wants to scare you, and along the way, horror wants to revolt you, startle you and make you question everything you thought was true about your priorities in life and your perceptions of your own limitations.

Again, it’s emotional and visceral.

As such, the ending of a horror story needs to honor the reaction the genre seeks to elicit in the reader.

In horror, the payoff must be genre appropriate.

I’m sorry, but this means a straight happily ever after ending is just not going to work for a true piece of horror.

Different Ways to End a Horror Story

Everything Is Gone

At the end of this kind of horror story, everyone is dead, everything is destroyed, and there’s nothing left and no hope of anything ever rising from the ashes. Often this means good has won, and there’s no one left to fight but also nothing left to live for, though it can also mean that evil has won absolutely.

Examples: Cabin in The Woods – evil gods destroy the universe. Wolf Creek – Mick Taylor wins, and you just know he’s going to do it all over again.

Good Conquers Evil… For Now

This is a classic. You’ve seen it before: the villain has been vanquished, dead and buried and then the hand shoots out of the grave, or the prophecy promises the curse will return, the monster has babies. The incarnations are limitless. This is a great way to go if you’re building a sequel or a series.

Example: Carrie – classic hand from the grave effect.

Hero Wins The Battle But Loses Something Else

The monsters have been quelled; the hero is victorious, everything on the surface is returning to normal. Except… something is wrong. Often this will come in the form of a post-trauma effect, like the hero is now a trembling mess of insanity. Or perhaps the hero has been forced to sacrifice something or someone.

My favorite example of this is at the end of The Mist where a mercy killing becomes a tragedy.

Another example from Stephen King is Misery – hero wins but is completely mad and traumatized.

How to end a #horror story? Consider the emotional journey you want to force your readers into and honor that with an appropriate payoff. Dread? Hope? Damnation? Click To Tweet

A Shred of Hope Remains

This is as close as you can get to a happy ending in a horror story. Here, everything is pretty bad – the villain might be dead or just about to be brought to justice, and everyone is broken. But there’s a light, a glimmer of hope that maybe, somehow, something might be okay again, one day.

Example: Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original)

My horror novella Restless: A Tale of Demonic Possession ends like this. The hero, Travis, hasn’t exactly won – he’s on the run, everyone is dead, and the demon is still alive. BUT, there’s a glimmer of hope that Travis will be okay, that he’ll find a new life.

The Lesser Evil Remains

The hero has beaten the ultimate evil, and that part of the battle has been won. But, evil remains. This is similar to the conquering evil for now factor, but usually involves a secondary dimension of threat.

The ultimate example of this is Silence of the Lambs where Buffalo Bill has been killed, and that part is all good, except that other psycho serial killer, the cannibal we hate to love (or is it the other way around) is on the loose.

This is often a great ending to craft a moral ambiguity, a discomfort that fits nicely into the unease inherent in the horror genre.

Whichever ending you choose for your horror story, the pay off only needs to do one thing – honor the genre.

Think about what you want your reader to feel. Dread and hopelessness? Terror and hope? The tragedy of the ongoing torment?

What have you set up in your horror story opening? What’s the emotional journey you’ve forced your reader into?

Pay that emotional goal.

Approach your horror tale’s final act with your reader’s reactions in mind, and you can’t go wrong.

What’s your favorite way to see a horror story end, as both a writer and a reader/viewer?

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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