[The following essay contains many spoilers. If you haven't seen The Haunting of Hill House, Drag Me to Hell, A Quiet Place, and/or Sinister, please proceed with caution.]
According to some sources, show runner Mike Flanagan originally intended to conclude his masterfully-structured Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House with a particularly cruel twist. As the remaining Crain siblings celebrated their miraculous escape, the camera would have pulled back… and revealed a telltale narrow window, implying that our protagonists were still trapped in the mysterious “Red Room”—that they had, in fact, been “digested” by their demonic childhood home and added to its ever-increasing collection of ghostly inhabitants. Eventually, however, Flanagan realized that he’d grown too invested in his characters’ struggles to doom them to such an arbitrarily macabre fate; after all the hardships they’d endured, surely they deserved an unambiguous victory.
His instincts served him well. All too often, the writers of spooky stories can’t resist ending on a note of overwhelming existential dread or despair—with less than emotionally-satisfying results. I’m reminded specifically of Sam Raimi’s 2009 splatter-fest Drag Me to Hell, in which the poor, hapless heroine winds up getting… well, it’s right there in the title. Unfortunately, the director underestimates how likable and sympathetic his protagonist is. Whatever “sins” she may have committed against the vindictive old crone that cursed her certainly didn’t warrant eternal damnation; indeed, her bleak, grisly demise feels totally unearned, putting a pessimistic button on what is otherwise a gleefully gory slapstick comedy.
Apparently, Raimi forgot an important lesson from his own Army of Darkness: there is room for optimism in scary movies. For evidence, look no further than John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place: even though the father is slain in the film’s suspenseful climax, his sacrifice reaffirms his unwavering love for his fractured family. This, in turn, allows the survivors to heal and become stronger—and, ultimately, to discover a weapon capable of destroying the ravenous aliens that have tormented them for so long.
I don’t mean to suggest that nihilism can never be narratively justified; on the contrary, it is sometimes completely organic to the plot. Take, for example, Sinister, in which Ethan Hawke’s washed-up novelist is determined to exploit his new house’s blood-soaked history in order to revive his faltering career—inevitably costing him not only his own life, but those of his wife and children, as well. I suppose, when you come right down to it, that horror really is an inherently (and please pardon the pun) visceral genre: you can’t explain why an ending succeeds or fails in logical terms; you just know the difference in your gut.