Confusing horror movie endings explained

We've seen everything come and go when it comes to horror flicks: aliens, werewolves, vampires, the Saw films, Asian ghost stories, and even killer dolls. After all the crazy things that have haunted our nightmares over the years, there are still a handful of scary movies whose endings left us scratching our heads. We've already explained a bunch of other confusing movie endings, but this time we're in for some frights and fears as we explain some of the horror genre's more detabable and obscure closing scenes.

Warning: Some of the videos below feature NSFW language and content. 

Prince of Darkness (1987)

John Carpenter's modernized possession film depicts a bunch of scientists and grad students investigating a mysterious liquid canister locked away in the basement of an abandoned church in LA. After all kinds of scientific jargon gets tossed around, a whole lot of numbers are crunched, and a bunch of ancient text gets translated, the team finds out that the ancient mechanical cylinder houses the physical embodiment of the devil, in some kind of transcendent liquid form. Of course, the stuff leaks out of the canister, possesses the kids one by one, and eventually triggers an outbreak.

The plot gets really confusing when the physicists and priest who hired them start debating the concept of Satan coming from a negative realm of antimatter, where there is some kind of polar opposite God in wait, trying to cross over. Basically, the kids get possessed, the unpossessed ones fight to survive, Alice Cooper plays a random homeless guy keeping everyone in the church, the main host of the devil tries to reach into a mirror to pull the anti-God out into our world, and the heroine tackles them both all the way back into the mirror. The priest throws an axe at the mirror, breaking it before anything can come back out, trapping the girl, Satan's possessed body, and the anti-God all on the other side.

The heroine's boyfriend has weird dreams (which are actually broadcasts from the future) that extend the dreams everyone else was having at the church, showing that the girl who sacrificed herself to stop Satan and the anti-God eventually becomes possessed and crosses over into our world years from now to cause the apocalypse. Basically, this guy is afraid that the girl he liked might one day return from the negative world and destroy everything.

Phantasm (1979)

For a small indie '70s horror flick, Phantasm left a lasting impression. Director J.J. Abrams is a huge fan, which can be seen in The Force Awakens, as Captain Phasma's name and silver armor are both tributes to the franchise. The 1979 original film featured a lot of surreal imagery, and if you follow the course of events in terms of what happens to its main characters, things just don't make a lot of sense.

Jody Pearson, his 13-year-old brother Mike, and their good friend Reggie investigate the local mortician, who they call "the Tall Man" and is responsible for a lot of deaths and disappearances in the area. The Tall Man is super strong, has an army of dwarf minions, and commands an anti-gravitational silver sphere that is filled with all kinds of weapons and death traps. The trio find out that the Tall Man comes from some kind of other world and Reggie shuts down the mortician's teleportation device which warps away the local mortuary, but he's killed by the Tall Man on the way out. Mike and Jodi trap the unkillable Tall Man at the bottom of a mine shaft and cause a rockslide to leave him stuck. Just when they thought everything was okay, Mike wakes up and it was all a dream. Reality is completely changed: Jody supposedly died in a car crash, Mike is staying at Reggie's place, and the movie ends with the Tall Man appearing yet again, proving it wasn't a bad dream. Reggie obviously didn't die, since he goes on to star in the other sequels, so what happened?

As explored via a series of sequels that span nearly 40 years, this series has to do with alternate realities and parallel worlds. The Tall Man figured out how to jump from world to world, and each time Reggie, Mike, and Jodi eliminate him, another version of him comes out of a teleporter to replace the one that died. In one reality, Jodi died; and in another, Reggie died. By the time we hit Phantasm V, there's one reality where Reggie is continuing his fight against the Tall Man decades later, another where he died, and another where he's an old man in psychiatric clinic.

The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick's iconic interpretation of Stephen King's third novel takes a lot of liberties from the source material. Whereas King's book is a pretty much an elaborate haunted house story taking place at a giant resort closed for the winter, Kubrick's depiction is much more cerebral. Throw in the psychic concept of "Shining," and things get even more confusing. All kinds of books and documentaries have tried to break down what happened throughout the movie. One thing we can all agree on: Jack Nicholson's character freezes to death outside after trying to murder his wife and son.

As Danny and Wendy Torrance escape in a snowmobile, the movie ends with a close-up picture in the hallway of the presumably haunted hotel. We see a picture dated July 4, 1921—16 years before Nicholson was even born—with Jack Torrance smiling and waving in front of a crowd of partygoers. While film theorists believe this picture could be psychically "Shined" into existence by Danny, the hotel, Jack, or even the viewer, Jack's appearance in this picture is obviously significant. Kubrick, a stickler for details in his movies, specifically posed Nicholson like this as a reference to old 18th century drawings of the devil and modern artwork of Baphomet. This basically suggests that Jack Torrance went to hell for trying to kill his family, regardless of whether his homicidal rampage was caused by the ghosts of the hotel or a particularly nasty strain of cabin fever.

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

A huge influence on the Silent Hill video game franchise, Jacob's Ladder is a psychological horror flick that features Tim Robbins as a Vietnam War vet. The movie starts off with him being stabbed with a bayonet; then we see him years later in New York. Robbins' character, Jacob Singer, remembers the life he had prior to the war, where he had a wife and three sons, the youngest of whom—Gabe—died before he deployed. He now lives with his girlfriend, Jezzie, and suffers visions of demons, people trying to kill him, faceless monsters around him, hallways and subway lines abruptly/randomly leading to dead ends, and all kinds of other surreal imagery.

Jacob occasionally bounces back and forth between life with Jezzie and his wife and kids before the war, making things even more confusing as he believes he's experiencing some kind of after-effect from a chemical war agent he was exposed to in Vietnam. The whole thing turns out to be in his mind, as all the espionage, hauntings, confusion, distrust, and government coverups Jacob thought he was experiencing were psychologically triggered by the comrade who wrongly bayoneted him in Vietnam. Even worse, the events of the movie were happening in his mind while he lay dying from the stab wound. Coming to terms with his death, Jacob then goes home to his apartment before the war. He reunites with Gabe, who leads his father up their home's staircase into a bright light, presumably meaning that Jacob is finally at peace.

Silent Hill (2006)

Speaking of Silent Hill, this atmospheric video game-based horror flick ends on a bit of a downer. Rose Da Silva was able to rescue her adoptive daughter, Sharon, from the nightmares (and nightmarish inhabitants) of Silent Hill. She finds out that Sharon is actually half of Alessa Gillespie, a little girl who was burned alive by the cult-indoctrinated townsfolk years prior. The fire accidentally spread and engulfed Silent Hill, but Alessa survived—as did the town, enshrouded in a perpetual fog in a purgatory-like setting. Alessa was twisted by her pain and betrayal, causing her good side to manifest in an infant form of Sharon and her bad side as an evil kid whose spirit continues to haunt the town.

After Sharon reunites with the rest of her soul, she escapes with her mother, finally able to leave the town with Alessa's consent. They're supposedly "home," but husband Christopher Da Silva doesn't see them and vice versa. Even worse, Chris' version of the house is filled with sunshine, but the girls' is full of fog. This is a callback to when Christopher goes through the physical remnants of the burned-down Silent Hill, but doesn't experience any of the fog or see any of the cursed townsfolk, suggesting that Rose and Sharon are stuck in some sort of alternate dimension/reality. Unfortunately, Rose and Sharon never quite left the ghastly purgatory of Silent Hill—a situation addressed in the movie's not-as-awesome sequel.

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

The last entry of John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy (the other two being Prince of Darkness and The Thing), In the Mouth of Madness lives up to its namesake by going off the deep end in a very H.P. Lovecraft sort of way. This film Inceptions itself with a story-within-a-story that dabbles into psychological horror and metafiction. Jurassic Park alumni Sam Neill plays John Trent—an insurance investigator sent to look for a famous record-breaking horror author named Sutter Cane, whose name is obviously a play on Stephen King. Cane has gone missing as his next bestseller (take a wild guess what it's called) is expected to break world records. Trent goes to New England to search for the author, but ends up reliving many parts of Cane's stories.

If you thought Prince of Darkness' story was off the wall, Madness takes the ball and runs with it. Cane's novel is so embraced by the masses that his stories actually free a bunch of Lovecraftian deities from another dimension, intent on taking things over. Neill's character finds out that he's actually just one of the characters written in Cane's story, which doesn't make sense to him. Cane turns out to be the portal from which the monsters emerge and Neill's character eventually wakes up in a rundown psychiatric ward. Turns out the world is descending into hell, suicides and murders are widespread, monsters are roaming the Earth, and Trent finds a movie theater playing the theatrical version of Cane's newest book, In the Mouth of Madness. The film Inceptions itself yet again as Trent watches the movie relive his previous experiences, indicating that he really was a Sutter Cane character all along and only became real as the story unfolded.

Let the Right One In (2008)

This Swedish vampire love story is the original film that inspired 2010's Let Me In. The premises for both films are almost the same, for the most part, except for the names, settings, and a few plot details. Oskar is a bullied 12-year-old living with his (presumably divorced) mother. He regularly fantasizes about getting revenge on his bullies, whose brutal treatment is escalating. One night he meets Eli, a girl who looks his age, living next door with an old man named Hakan. Eventually, they become friends, despite Oskar only seeing Eli at night and Hakan's request for Eli not to befriend the boy. Surprise! Eli is actually a vampire and Hakan has been taking care of her for a long time, killing people in secret to feed Eli and keep her secret safe.

Hakan gets caught by the cops, splashes acid on his face to keep his identity secret, and offers his life as a drink for Eli. She also kills off Oskar's bullies after they attempt to drown him, resulting in the two running away. Their last scene together depicts Eli in a large box next to Oskar on a train, tapping lovey-dovey notes to one another through Morse code. Surprisingly, the boy has no clue that he's bound to grow old and repeat the life of Hakan—that is, unless she ever decides to turn him into a vampire as well, though it's never really suggested in the movie.

American Psycho (2000)

Was Patrick Bateman a Wall Street serial killer or was it all in his head? Most of American Psycho seems to suggest the former, but the final events of the film leave you questioning just how much of it really happened. Sure, this movie lets you see what Warner Bros. saw in Christian Bale before making him Bruce Wayne, but it ends on a rather open-ended note. Bateman loves analyzing corporate rock, living the high life, and killing homeless people, co-workers, and prostitutes—although we're still unsure just how much of any of it was real.

During the climax of the film, Bateman goes on a public rampage, killing bystanders, security guards, police, and more—leaving a crazed confession message on his lawyer's answering machine (remember those?). To his dismay, one of his assumed victims, Paul Allen, isn't dead, and his apartment isn't filled with Bateman's victims as we were led to believe.

Jean, Bateman's secretary, finds his office journal, which is filled with drawings of murder and other unspeakable horrors. This is the major hint that all of the movie's butchery is happening in Bateman's imagination, especially when his lawyer claims he met with Paul Allen after Bateman supposedly killed him. The worst part is that Bateman is still being mistaken for someone else, so we're left unsure as to whether he's killed anyone.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

This low-budget classic set the tone for Jacob's Ladder and other surreal movies like Eraserhead, where the plot isn't as important as the emotions you're supposed to feel. Carnival of Souls features a simple plot when we get to the punchline, but it's filled with all kinds ghastly and melancholic imagery.

Mary Henry and two of her friends crash their car while racing a group of fellas in another vehicle. After emerging from the water with no recollection as to how she escaped, she goes on with her life. As she travels to Utah, she's stalked by a ghastly apparition (played by the director of the movie, Herk Harvey) wherever she goes. She rents a room and gets an organist job, but is still haunted; unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn't really care for her visions, dismissing her as crazy. Even worse, there are times when the rest of the world ignores her completely.

After countless visions of a haunted pavilion that was formerly a dance hall and carnival, she decides to visit it. The whole thing is filled with ghouls and ghosts, and she sees herself dancing with Harvey's undead character. The party eventually chases her down and corners her. The people she interacted with in Utah search the pavilion, but find no sign of Mary. After her disappearance, the crashed car is finally removed from the water, and Mary is one of the corpses still inside the vehicle. Was Mary's ghost interacting with the people she met in Utah? Or did the pavilion ghouls somehow undo her surviving the crash? We lean more toward the former, but when it comes to surrealism, remember that your personal interpretation is just as important as the plot itself.

The Thing (1982)

Arguably the best of John Carpenter's horror movies after Halloween, The Thing tells the story of a shapeshifting alien parasite stalking an American research station in the Antarctic and taking the forms of its victims. After Kurt Russell's R.J. MacReady loses all of his friends and ultimately defeats the last morphing alien, he's left in a weary standoff against the only other survivor, Childs (played by Keith David). The movie ends ambiguously, with both men leery of one another, likely freezing in the subzero temperatures as the compound's fires start to die. Even worse, we're left unsure whether MacReady or Childs is a converted alien or human. Fortunately, multiple viewings and a mindful eye help narrow down our choices.

When Mac and fellow survivors Nauls and Garry left the compound to search for their incarcerated scientist, Blaire (who was unknowingly set free and possessed by the Thing), Childs was left at the compound's main door keeping a lookout. We find out that Blaire/Thing was in the generator room the whole time, which was really close to where Childs was keeping lookout. Since Childs was watching from the window to see Mac and company go, Blaire could've easily sneaked up on him from behind. More importantly, the dark blue jacket Childs wore when he was keeping lookout changed to a beige/brown by the end of the movie (like Kubrick, Carpenter was heavy into details), which suggests the alien tore through his coat and he took another one from the extras by the exit door.

Even more important is the exchange between Childs and MacReady at the end. During this scene, Kurt Russell was clearly wearing a flamethrower on his back, covered by a cloak, though it's never mentioned. He's also seen carrying a bottle, which he doesn't drink but shares with Childs, who was the most distrusting member of the group and normally wouldn't touch it. Mac was a heavy drinker and always boozing whenever he had that bottle with him, but he and other members of the team filled all the liquor bottles with gasoline to destroy the compound, which could suggest why he wasn't drinking from it.

Carpenter himself has said that Mac's breaths are visible, whereas Childs' aren't, and he's also pointed out the "gleam" that's always present in the true humans' eyes in the film. Referring back to the chess game at the beginning of the movie, where Mac loses a match against a computer (an artificial "Thing," standing in for a human), he ultimately gets the last laugh by pouring alcohol into the computer, shorting it out. Here, we can imagine Mac getting the last laugh in a similar manner: He lost the game (all of his friends are dead, the compound is destroyed, and he'll inevitably die out there), but gets the last laugh by giving Childs (presumably the Thing standing in for a human) a drink from what is likely a gasoline-filled bottle, before blowing him away with the hidden flamethrower. Of course, the Thing wouldn't really know what whiskey is supposed to taste like, right?