Sometimes horror movies take unexpected directions. They don’t always become what we think they’re going to or end up quite where we expected them to. That’s one of the best things (to me) about watching horror films is that you rarely truly know which direction they’re going to take.
Usually, there’s either a clear-cut victory or clear-cut loss at the end. With most features, whatever the outcome is, it’s an overtly stated one. But that’s not always the case.
There are plenty of horror pictures out there that don’t wrap up quite so neatly. Movies in which the events are sort of left up to the viewer’s interpretation. These types of stories don’t always work, but when they do, they become some of the most well-crafted, enticing, thought-provoking features out there.
One of the best-known ambiguous horror endings out there, American Psycho leaves it up to the viewer to determine for themselves whether or not Patrick Bateman ever actually killed anyone or if we were just watching his murder fantasies play out in his own mind. Most people take the second approach, but I’ve always believed the truth lies somewhere between the two.
At the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing, McReady and Childs have seemingly destroyed the creature, but there’s no real way to be sure. They’re still suspicious that one or possibly both of them could be infected. They still don’t want to let the other out of their sight, even as they lay there dying. No matter how you interpret this ending, it’s impactful.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The neat thing about this film—one of the neat things, at least—is that it takes place almost simultaneously between past and present. But how much of this is in her head? How much of the situation is fabricated, if any? Did she hallucinate the entire story? Or is this cult a serious threat?
Here’s another one of the most famous ambiguous endings in horror. What does that picture mean? Has Jack, in fact, always been the caretaker? Or is he just another victim of the Overlook, taking his place in its endless purgatory and doomed—like his predecessors—to serve it beyond his death.
Let the Right One In
While the short story follow-up written by the author of the source novel might answer this question, there are things open to interpretation when you watch the film on its own. It’s a bittersweet ending that could be either happy or very sad. Oskar and Eli escape their lives and run away together, but are they actually going to be happy or is Oskar doomed to take care of her into old age while she seeks out a new protector in the same way she originally found him?
Almost the entire film is open to interpretation. What’s happening and what’s not? Is this a mind breaking under post-Vietnam stress? An acid trip? Or this an actual experience of Hell? These are the interesting questions that Jacob’s Ladder poses and it’s the unknown aspects that really make it such an unsettling nightmare of a feature.
The Blair Witch Project
One of the most intriguing aspects of The Blair Witch Project is that no matter how suspenseful and scary it is, you never really see anything happen. This leaves much of the film open to interpretation. Is there even a witch? Are they hunted by someone or something in the woods or do they just succumb to their own fear? Again, the sequel provides clear answers, but the film itself leaves a lot up to the viewer.