Horror movies are notorious for featuring bleak endings where no one gets out alive. As their characters struggle to survive whatever horrific situation is thrown at them, they often fall at the last hurdle and are snuffed out before the credits. Some horror movies like to subvert this though and end on a happier note, with the Scream franchise always seeing the villain vanquished by Sidney and her friends.
While audiences know not to expect a satisfying conclusion from a horror movie, their depressing finales hit harder when the film makes the audience believe things are going to turn out alright. The fake happy ending trope is used to trick the characters and the viewer into thinking the nightmare is over, only to dash those hopes at the last second.
‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968)
Available to stream on HBO Max, Peacock, and Paramount+.
The movie credited with starting the zombie genre, George A. Romero‘s Night of the Living Dead follows a group of strangers who are stranded together at a remote farmhouse during the zombie apocalypse. As the undead horde outside increases, the tension between the humans inside also grows.
The finale sees the zombies finally breach the house, and they make meals of everyone except Ben, the most capable survivor. As an armed militia arrive in the morning and clears out the undead, Ben emerges to join them. When he approaches his saviors they mistake him for another zombie and swiftly shoot him in the head.
‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984)
Available to stream on HBO Max and Tubi.
One of the defining slasher movies of the 1980s, A Nightmare on Elm Street stars Robert Englund as supernatural boogeyman Freddy Krueger. After the child killer is burnt alive by a vigilante mob, he returns via the dreams of their children and massacres them while they sleep.
Iconic final girl Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) turns the tables on Freddy and defeats him by bringing him into the real world. She wakes the next morning to discover her friends are all alive again. As she gets in a car with them and waves to her mother, Freddy reveals his survival by killing Nancy’s mother in front of her.
‘The Ring’ (2002)
Available to stream on Paramount+.
One of the best American remakes of a foreign movie, The Ring revolves around a cursed videotape that is said to kill anyone who watches it in seven days. After her niece is killed by the curse, journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) investigates the tape while trying to avoid becoming its next victim.
Discovering the girl on the tape’s (Samara) tragic backstory, Rachel finds Samara’s body and gives her a proper burial. Believing they have defeated the curse, Rachel and her friend Noah return home. They soon find out they are wrong as Samara materializes in Noah’s TV and murders him, revealing that the curse is still alive and well.
A recent horror hit, Smile received heaps of buzz thanks to its terrifying marketing campaign. After a patient commits suicide in her care, Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) becomes haunted by a presence that feeds on grief, manifesting as a creepy smiley face adorned on those around her.
Believing the key to survival rests in facing her past trauma head-on, Rose returns to her childhood home and burns it down. Free of the spirit, Rose visits her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), only to realize it’s all an illusion, and she’s still trapped in the house with her tormentor. She sets herself on fire as the newly arrived Joel can only watch on in horror, soon to become the entity’s next victim.
‘Final Destination’ (2000)
The franchise that wants you to be afraid every time you step outside your front door, Final Destination begins with a plane crash that kills everyone onboard. But it was only a premonition, and high schooler Alex (Devon Sawa) gets himself and six others thrown off the plane, only to watch it explode like it did in his vision. Death does not like to be cheated, and it begins to kill the survivors in freak accidents.
Believing he has figured out the pattern and cheated death once and for all, Alex, alongside fellow survivors Clear (Ali Larter) and Carter (Kerr Smith), travel to Paris to complete the trip they were denied. Their new lease on life is interrupted when Death comes back with a vengeance and kills Carter with a giant falling sign.
‘Drag Me to Hell’ (2009)
Available to stream on Tubi.
Sam Raimi‘s return to the horror genre after his stint with Spider-Man, Drag Me to Hell follows loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman). After denying an elderly woman an extension on her mortgage, resulting in her eviction, the woman places a curse on Christine that will soon result in her being banished to hell.
Plagued by disturbing events, Christine visits a medium that seemingly lifts the curse. Arriving at a train station with her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), he proposes to her before she is pulled onto the tracks. The spell failed, and Christine is dragged to hell as Clay can only watch on in horror.
‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ (2016)
An indie horror hit, The Autopsy of Jane Doe stars Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch as a father and son duo who work as coroners. The unidentified body of a young woman is brought to them, and as they attempt to identify a cause of death, they soon begin to be plagued by supernatural occurrences that seemingly stem from the body.
When the spooky events lead to the death of his father, Austin (Hirsch) attempts to escape from the cursed corpse. Hearing the police outside, he races to the exit, only to discover that it is just the body messing with his mind, and another jump scare results in the young man falling to his death.
Available to stream on Tubi.
An early attempt by Ryan Reynolds to break free of his comedic persona, Buried sees him playing Paul, a US truck driver in Iraq who is abducted and buried in a coffin underground. With nothing but a cell phone and a lighter, Paul scrambles to escape his horrifically claustrophobic situation.
After hostage rescuer Brenner receives his whereabouts from a captured insurgent, he rushes to Paul’s location and digs up the coffin. He soon realizes he was given the location of another hostage, who is already dead. Brenner apologizes to Paul over the phone as his coffin fills with dirt, suffocating him.
‘The Descent’ (2005)
Available to stream on Shudder.
When six friends decide to explore an uncharted cave system in America, they soon become trapped underground. With no help coming, the women soon discover they are not alone, as flesh-eating creatures who live in the darkness hunt them through the endless tunnels.
The lone survivor, Sarah escapes the cave and reaches the safety of her car. While speeding away a vision of her dead friend Juno startles her, and she realizes she is still trapped in the cave, her escape a mere hallucination. This was changed for the US release to have Sarah actually escape, as The Descent‘s producers feared the original ending was too depressing.
Available to stream on Hulu and Tubi.
The low-budget horror movie that spawned a billion-dollar franchise, Saw begins with two men locked in an abandoned bathroom. As Adam (Leigh Whannell) and Lawrence (Cary Elwes) get to know each other, they realize they are the latest victims of the infamous Jigsaw killer.
When hospital orderly Zepp, seemingly the killer, shows up to execute them, Adam murders him. As the mortally wounded Lawrence crawls for help, Adam searches Zepp’s body, finding another tape player. As it is revealed that Zepp was merely another victim, the dead body that has been in the room with them from the start stands up and reveals himself as Jigsaw. Adam screams for help as he seals him in the room forever.