About 4/5 of the way through A Cure for Wellness, Gore Verbinski’s nearly two and a half hour long horror epic, it becomes clear that there will not be a satisfactory resolution to the many threads and set ups teased earlier in the film. Certainly, the film is beautiful looking, in an ugly kind of way. But amidst a miasmatic soup of sea greens and handsomely framed, symmetrical shots, the film seemingly becomes bored with its own mysteries. Eventually, it wanders into another story entirely. What had been a psychological horror mystery about a mysterious clinic offering obscure treatments develops into the territory of rote gothic horror.
It is an endemic problem for horror narratives; just look at Stephen King.
First of all, I love the guy. I tried for years to dislike him, but it’s a fool’s errand. He’s a sweetie-pie, supportive of less famous horror writers, generous, gregarious, and at his best, highly imaginative. But his narratives have a tendency to get ahead of themselves, setting up more than can possibly be delivered in the final act. Part of it is his abiding affection for his own characters. Sure, he’s willing to sacrifice a few of them in gruesome ways, but when push comes to shove you have a pretty good idea who is going to emerge unscathed and who will be killed.
Generally speaking, if there is a little kid, he or she will survive (The Shining, the loser’s club in It, Desperation, Doctor Sleep, Firestarter, Salem’s Lot, etc). Their guardians might get a little beat up, but they will probably make it too. The evil force, typically, will be soundly defeated (It, Salem’s Lot, Misery, The Shining, The Stand, etc). Part of this is what makes him so appealing to the general public – the sense of being lead through his story’s dangers in relative safety – but it is also what hampers some of his work from being truly effective. Some of his strongest work bucks that trend, which makes them genuinely scary (Pet Sematary springs to mind as an example in which both the characters you are sure won’t die, including the little kid, do die, and the evil force persists).
I’ve never read "The Langoliers", one of the novellas collected in Four Past Midnight, but I have seen the truly dreadful mid-90s miniseries adaptation. Again, for 4/5 of its length, it sets up exciting, pulpy mysteries. What are the titular langoliers, which look like Pac-Man mixed with rabid tribbles? Why does the soda in the airport not fizz? Just where have the passengers of the airliner found themselves? And then it spends the final act coming up with hurried, silly, too-pat resolutions that feel, ultimately, like a betrayal. Many of his novels follow the same unfortunate formula.
Consider J. J. Abram’s Lost, perhaps the most extended shit ever taken on a narrative. The first season is must-view television for sci-fi geeks. It feels as if it is constantly on the verge of giving up some cosmic secret. You feel led, inexorably, towards revelation. But the many mysteries the show sets up, like what is the hatch, why are their polar bears, who are the others, what does Hurley’s number mean, are either resolved in insultingly obvious ways or forgotten. In the end (spoiler alert), they’re dead. The show, which owes quite a bit to King’s work, ends just like the worst of the masters’ stuff: by fizzling out with a sputter.
The problem might be that these stories, like A Cure for Wellness, aren’t saying anything in and of themselves. There are exceptions. I forgive the ludicrous ending of Stephen King’s gigantic It because it is so successful at capturing a feeling of mid-century American childhood in all its joys and trials. The Shining’s sappy feel-good conclusion is alright because it has been such a great portrait of a family that is barely held together by love, and nearly torn apart by substance abuse and isolation. Thank God they had something to say, or else they would have felt like junk food full of so many empty calories.
There are several ways of solving this problem. One is to not resolve anything at all, the frequent modus operandi of cosmic horror. Lovecraft never sees fit to let his characters (which, come to think of it, are less characters than ciphers) escape unscathed. Instead he punishes them for their curiosity; they may get some answers to the mysteries they set out to solve, but lose their minds in the bargain.
While Stephen King’s endings occasionally fail to satisfy, Lovecraft’s do because they confirm that the stakes were high all along. The wages of knowledge are death, or insanity. But if, in It, a handful of kids can defeat cosmic evil by holding hands, being friends, and staging an orgy (one of King’s most coke-addled creative decisions ever), than the evil space-clown-insect must not have been that powerful in the first place. Again: I love It, but not because of its surreal, literally touchy-feely ending. The real triumphs of imagination in the novel come from King’s evocation of a time and place, and of the inherent creepiness of being an unpopular kid against the world.
To a certain extent, all horror narratives are subject to these problems. Where other stories might make you yearn for happy endings, horror as a genre relies on generating fear and unease. Just as it might be strange if, after however many seasons of Friends all five of the titular friends were roasted alive and eaten by cannibals, it feels somehow wrong when a horror narrative which has promised that its characters are in for it ends up with them all making it out. I suspect this is why so many horror films try to have it both ways: the surviving good guys defeat evil in order to please the crowd, but a final image (the most cliché example of which is a hand shooting out of the grave) shows that evil hasn’t been defeated at all, but has only been momentarily set back.
Maybe I’m a depressive monster who is only happy when I’m unhappy. But for me, the horror film ending par excellence is Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Sally Hardesty, the so-called “final girl” of the story, manages to escape the cannibal family (without killing a single one of them!) by climbing into a passing motorist’s truck, leaving the psychotic, mentally-challenged Leatherface in her dust. Leatherface engages in a kind of dance of frustration, swinging his chainsaw around in the dawn sunlight. Sally, covered in blood, has just lost her brother, her friends, and almost certainly all her future comfort and peace of mind, but she’s safe. She watches Leatherface’s mute frustration, and laughs. Not a ‘haha, I did it’ laugh, but a laugh which asks the viewer what the cost of her victory has been.
It’s basically the same emotional beat as the finest noir film ever made, Chinatown. It flirts with the same despair and paranoia that fuels the best horror films, ends with private detective Jake Gittes solving the case, but having to watch as his love interest is murdered by her own father and her daughter stolen away by her incestuously minded grandfather/father. Jake, this hard-boiled, seen-it-all kind of gumshoe, is so shocked and horrified by what he’s seen that he cannot form a coherent sentence. Now that’s horror.
I am not saying that all horror has to end with misery and despair. Horror/comedies like Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead should probably be allowed their happy endings (although, of course, Shaun of the Dead has one of its heroes die). So too with family horror movies like Paranorman or Poltergeist, both of which are really more adventures mixed with horror elements.
But horror narratives that insist that the stakes are high and that the horror is hopeless should remember to avoid the King conundrum and remember two cardinal rules:
1.) Don’t write checks you can’t afford. At some point, you should stop setting up more and more mysteries, and figure out a satisfying way to answer them. This does not mean that the ending should be happy, but it doesn’t mean that everyone should die either. Look at The Babadook, which manages to have the main characters defeat the villain, but in a way which makes sense considering the larger themes of the work. For your reader's sake, don't over-explain the mysteries -- it might be better to leave them mysterious.
2.) And remember that if you have been promising that the evil forces arrayed against the protagonists are terrifyingly powerful, then they should be terrifyingly powerful to the last. Avoid pat resolutions in which little kids, for instance, defeat cosmic gods with slingshots.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. And when you do bite, bite hard.