The best horror movie endings of the 20th century

People love being scared, so it should come as no surprise that horror is one of the oldest genres in cinematic history. George Melies got the ball rolling with his 1896 short The Haunted Castle, and the genre has been going strong ever since.

In over 120 years of horror, filmmakers have given us some truly shocking endings—finales that have given moviegoers nightmares and sent audiences shrieking from theaters. We've already looked at some of the best endings of this century, so now it's time to wind back the clock and check out some classics. That's right—we're looking at the best horror movie endings of the 20th century, an era full of haunted hotels, shapeshifting aliens, and horrible human sacrifices.

Friday the 13th (1980)

The horror genre is full of last-minute gotchas, from the graveyard dream in Carrie to the return of Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street. And while both movies have amazing endings, Friday the 13th stands decapitated head and shoulders above the competition thanks to that infamous shot of Jason Voorhees (Ari Lehman) leaping out of Crystal Lake.

This slasher classic follows a bunch of teenage counselors fooling around at a summer camp when a mysterious killer shows up with every sharp instrument known to man. Eventually, the culprit is revealed to be an angry Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), a former camp cook who wants revenge against all counselors for letting her deformed son drown decades ago.

Luckily, final girl Alice (Adrienne King) beheads Mrs. Voorhees and escapes the camp by climbing into a canoe and sailing onto Crystal Lake. She falls asleep before reaching the shore, and when she wakes up, it's a beautiful day, the cops have arrived, and it seems like she's finally safe. And that's when a waterlogged Jason jumps out of the lake and pulls Alice down with him. True, Alice later wakes up in a hospital, having been rescued by the police, with no sign of Jason anywhere. Was it just a dream? Or is the boy still alive? If only they had made a sequel to give us some answers.

The Thing (1982)

Directed by John Carpenter, The Thing is a brutally cynical sci-fi film that follows a group of American scientists trapped inside an Antarctic research station. They're being hunted by a shapeshifting alien that absorbs its victims and creates identical copies, so in addition to battling this otherworldly beast, our heroes are also dealing with a serious case of paranoia.

By the film's last act, the titular thing has killed almost everyone in the camp, with the exception of MacReady (Kurt Russell), a bearded helicopter pilot who blows the creature to kingdom come. Unfortunately, in the process, he sets the entire base on fire. Knowing his time's running out, MacReady stumbles through the snow and sits in the wreckage of an old building…and that's when somebody steps out of the darkness.

It's Childs (Keith David), MacReady's old frenemy. The guy vanished during the climactic showdown with the thing, and now MacReady isn't sure if Childs is human anymore. Of course, Childs—if it is Childs—isn't sure about MacReady either. The two are in a standoff, and as the cold sets in, the two share a bottle of whiskey and wait for someone or something to make the next move, leaving us to wonder if our heroes will make it out alive…or if they're even our heroes anymore.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) has finally done it. Not only is she graduating from the FBI Academy, but she's also busted Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a notorious serial killer with a penchant for skinning women. She's won the respect of her peers, made her father figure (Scott Glenn) proud, and she's finally silenced the lambs that have haunted her for so long.

Of course, there were some drawbacks along the way, like working with Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). A sophisticated cannibal imprisoned in the world's creepiest cell, Lecter offered his insights into Buffalo Bill's psyche while forming a twisted bond with the young FBI rookie. Their relationship got even more complicated when Lecter chewed his way out of jail, but even though he's a genuine sociopath, Lecter feels a connection with Starling and calls her up on graduation day.

Speaking over the phone, Lecter explains he's having an old friend for dinner. The unfortunate friend in question? The warden who used to torment Lecter when he was behind bars. The poor sap thinks hiding on a tropical island is a good idea, but you can't hide from Hannibal. Right before the credits roll, we watch as the demented doctor follows the warden into a crowd, sauntering along from a safe distance and no doubt working up a healthy appetite.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

In Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Donald Sutherland plays a San Francisco health inspector named Matthew Bennell who's drawn into a bizarre conspiracy involving an evil alien race. These extraterrestrials are dead set on creating doppelgängers of every human on Earth, and their plan is to absorb victims while they sleep and create emotionless doubles using plant-like pods. (And trust us, this process is horrifying.)

Naturally, this doesn't sit well with Bennell and his small group of survivors, who desperately try to stay awake. The group also discovers they can fool the aliens by acting cool and detached, but if they show an ounce of emotion, the pod people emit a high-pitched scream to alert their fellow aliens.

Bennell does his best to prevent the bad guys from spreading their pods across the world, but there's no stopping the invasion. At the end of the film, it appears that Bennell is hiding in plain sight, surviving by impersonating the pod people. But as he leaves his office one day, he runs into an old friend (Veronica Cartwright) who's still human, and that's when Bennell raises an accusing finger, opens his mouth, and lets loose with a horrifying scream.

Don't Look Now (1973)

After their daughter tragically drowns at their English estate, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, respectively) find themselves trapped in a spiral of grief. Devastated, they move to Venice, where they encounter two creepy sisters who claim they can see the little girl's spirit. Laura believes the psychic siblings and takes comfort in their message, but John is skeptical.

Nevertheless, he does notice that something weird is going on. For example, there's a mysterious little figure running around town, sporting the same red coat his daughter was wearing when she drowned. There are also rumors of a serial killer in the area, and stranger still, after his wife returns to England on an emergency visit, John inexplicably spots her riding a funeral boat down a Venetian canal.

John's unease grows and grows, until he spots the girl in red one last time. Hoping that maybe it's the ghost of his daughter, he follows the cloaked figure, only to realize it's a monstrous dwarf armed with a meat cleaver—the serial killer who's been dropping victims in the Grand Canal. She plants her knife right into John's neck, and as his body violently convulses, John realizes the vision of his wife on a funeral boat was actually a premonition of his own death, but there's nothing he can about it as he bleeds out on the floor—a victim of grief, guilt, and one ugly monster.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) is having a really bad day. First, her buddies and brother were violently butchered by a chainsaw-wielding monster. Then she wound up as the guest of honor at the world's worst dinner party. But moments before becoming the main course for a cannibal family, Sally manages to break free and escape her captors, running for freedom as fast as she can.

Of course, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his hitchhiking brother (Edwin Neal) aren't going to let their meal get away so easily. But the will to kill isn't as strong as the desire to survive, and Sally makes it to a nearby road seconds before an 18-wheeler plows into the hitchhiker. Leatherface is still on the loose, though, lumbering after Sally with his trademark weapon.

But despite the torture and the trauma, our hero isn't giving up. Sally quickly jumps into the back of an oncoming pickup, and as the truck barrels down the road, our blood-caked protagonist screams in joy, anguish, and victory, leaving a furious Leatherface dancing in the road, wildly swinging his chainsaw as his dinner drives off into the Texas horizon.

The Omen (1976)

Directed by Richard Donner, The Omen features one of the most iconic villains of all time: Damien Thorn (Harvey Spencer Stephens), a pint-sized Antichrist destined to rule the world. Adopted by an American ambassador (Gregory Peck), Damien is indoctrinated by his satanic nanny (Billie Whitelaw), and soon, reporters are getting decapitated, priests are being impaled, and demonic hellhounds are popping up everywhere.

After realizing his adopted kid is the son of Satan, Ambassador Robert Thorn takes Damien to a church and plans to go full-bore Abraham and Isaac. However, before he can land a killing blow, the cops show up and open fire. After the gunsmoke clears, we cut to a funeral, but unfortunately for mankind, Damien is alive and well—it's Ambassador Thorn who's six feet under, and in a satanic twist of fate, Damien has been adopted by Thorn's old buddy, the President of the United States.

Well on his way to world domination, Damien exercises his unholy powers by breaking the fourth wall, looking directly at the camera, and giving an incredibly eerie smile that will prevent anyone watching from ever wanting kids.

Suspiria (1977)

One of the most beautiful horror movies ever made, Suspiria is a neon nightmare full of maggots, razor wire, and bloody ballerinas. This surreal fantasy follows a young American named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) who's recently arrived at a prestigious German dance academy. Unfortunately for poor Suzy, the school is secretly run by witches who delight in murdering their pupils.

After digging into academy's cursed history, Suzy works her way into the red-and-blue bowels of the school, knowing the only way to stop the coven is by killing the head witch, Helana Markos. But that's easier said than done: Markos happens to be invisible. Making matters worse, Suzy is attacked by the zombified corpse of her murdered BFF, but after catching a glimpse of Helena's outline, she plunges a blade into the witch queen's throat, causing all hell to break loose.

The witches immediately begin writhing in pain, and the building starts to rumble and shake. Chandeliers fall, doors explode, and the walls rip apart as Suzy stumbles toward freedom. With the school burning behind her, the young dancer makes her way outside, smiling as she walks into the rain. It's a shockingly happy ending for a truly horrific dream.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) is an uptight Christian and a middle-aged virgin, which means he doesn't fit in with the citizens of Summerisle, an island populated by pagans who run around naked, perform fertility rituals, and dance around phallic maypoles. But while he's shocked at their heathen ways, Sgt. Howie isn't about to leave. He's on the trail of a missing girl, and he's worried the islanders plan on sacrificing her as part of their May Day ritual.

Howie is right about the sacrifice…but wrong about the victim. The islanders actually plan on killing the virgin cop to restore their failing apple crop, and after binding the policeman, they march him up a hill where he sees his fate waiting on the other side. It's a gigantic wicker man, and Howie's face contorts into pure horror as he desperately begins to shout, "Oh, God!" He knows what's about to go down.

Totally unfazed, the zealots lock him inside the statue and set the wicker man on fire. Terrified, Howie recites the 23rd Psalm as the islanders joyously sing below. Despite his prayers, the wicker man burns to a crisp as the sun sets in the distance, leaving the villagers with hope—and the audience in stunned silence.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Equal parts H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, In the Mouth of Madness will make you feel like you're losing your mind. Don't believe us? Just ask John Trent (Sam Neill), an insurance investigator hired by a publishing company to track down bestselling author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow, a.k.a. Evil Neil Gaiman). The writer has mysteriously vanished, taking his new novel with him, but as Trent digs deeper into the case, he learns that Cane is no average author.

See, Cane has millions of loyal followers around the world who worship his novels, giving him the power to bring his characters to life. Worse still, Cane's new book will drive people mad and turn them into monsters. It's all part of his scheme to destroy the human race and subject humanity to the rule of ancient gods. But before he can accomplish his plan, he wants Trent to deliver his now-finished manuscript to his publisher…and Trent has to obey because he's one of Cane's characters.

Obviously, Trent refuses to believe he was dreamed up for some book, but soon enough, Cane's novel has turned the world into a mutated madhouse. With society crumbling around him and his mind slowly slipping, Trent winds up in a movie theater and watches the film adaptation of Cane's book. As it turns out, Trent is the main character and everything that's just happened to him is playing on the big screen. Realizing his life is a Sutter Cane creation, Trent snaps, laughing hysterically before weeping uncontrollably. But hey, at least he has the entire theater to himself.

The Shining (1980)

The final shot of The Shining has generated more conversation (and more confusion) than perhaps any other horror movie. The madness starts after hotel caretaker Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) goes completely insane thanks to spirits—both evil and alcoholic. The deranged writer grabs an ax and chases his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd) across the haunted Overlook Hotel, hoping to hack them into pieces.

Fortunately, his psychic son lures Jack into a massive maze, and the world's worst dad never makes it back out. Instead, he's transformed into one scary-looking popsicle. But director Stanley Kubrick isn't done messing with our heads just yet: moments before the movie ends, the filmmaker zooms up on a black-and-white photo of the Overlook during a swinging party from 1921, and right at the front, there's Jack Torrance, decked out in his old-timey best.

So how did Jack get in a photograph taken in the 1920s? Is he a reincarnated spirit forever doomed to haunt the hotel? Or did the Overlook consume his soul, making him part of its history? It's a question that will haunt cinephiles for eternity.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Nearly 20 years later, it's easy to forget how big a deal The Blair Witch Project was when it came out in 1999. It revolutionized viral marketing, introduced found footage to the mainstream, became "the first indie blockbuster," and it totally messed people up with its incredibly freaky ending.

After heading into the woods to make a documentary about a local legend involving a child murderer and demonic entities, three college students—Heather, Josh, and Mike—find themselves completely lost and wandering in circles. They discover stick figures hanging from branches, hear creepy kids giggling at night, and then Josh mysteriously disappears, leaving only a few teeth and his tongue behind.

Soon after, Heather and Mike hear Josh screaming in the distance, and they follow the sound to an abandoned house. Inside, the two become separated, and Heather grows increasingly panicked. Camera in hand, she makes her way into the basement and finds Mike standing in a corner…which is how the serial killer of local lore would position his victims.

Despite her frantic screams, Mike never turns around, and that's when someone—or something—attacks Heather from behind. We never see her assailant. Instead, we just watch as the camera falls to the ground, still recording for several seconds before the scene cuts. And that right there is how you end a horror movie.

Psycho (1960)

When Psycho debuted in 1960, audiences were shocked when the main character, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), was violently murdered in the middle of the film. But things took an even crazier turn when it was revealed the murderer was Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in drag. Having murdered his mother years ago, the disturbed motel clerk suffered from a split personality that caused him to act like his evil mom and stab unsuspecting victims as they shower.

Norman was captured and tossed into a cell, where he completely transformed into his domineering mother. Huddled beneath a blanket and with his mom's voice running through his head, Norman looked at the audience and gave a chilling grin. Mrs. Bates' skull was then superimposed over her son's face, showing there was no more Norman, only Mom. 

Creepier still, right before the film ended, director Alfred Hitchcock cut back to the Bates Motel, where the audience could see the cops towing Marion's car out of a swamp. A disturbing image, it leaves the viewer wondering how many other cars Norman buried down there.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead has a simple plot: one fateful day, the dead rise up, and boy, are they hangry. Soon, a small band of survivors find themselves trapped inside an old farmhouse, desperately fighting the zombie horde—not to mention their own growing fears and rivalries.

Eventually, there's only one survivor left, a black man named Ben (Duane Jones), who wakes up the next morning after hearing a volley of gunshots in the distance. Cautious but hopeful, Ben peers out the window, spotting an all-white posse outside. The redneck zombie hunters, sporting high-powered rifles, are patrolling the countryside with angry German shepherds, evoking images of Birmingham. Suddenly, the posse sees Ben, and assuming he's a zombie, a gunman puts a bullet in his head.

Having survived an assault by an army of flesh-hungry friends, our hero is ultimately defeated by the very people who were supposed to keep him safe. His body is tossed into a bonfire, ending Night of the Living Dead on one of the bleakest, most nihilistic notes in horror movie history.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

In the movie that put M. Night Shyamalan on the map, Bruce Willis plays Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist with some unfinished business. Years after failing to help a young patient suffering from hallucinations, Crowe gets a shot at redemption in the form of nine-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). The young kid claims to see dead people who don't know they're dead, and while Crowe is skeptical at first, he quickly learns the boy really does possess, well, a sixth sense.

Realizing the spirits might need help, Crowe encourages Cole to communicate with the dead and come to terms with his gift. But just because he's a good psychologist doesn't mean everything is happy at home. Crowe has grown distant from his wife (Olivia Williams), and at the end of the movie, he sits beside his sleeping bride—which is when the M. Night magic really kicks in.

In her sleep, Crowe's wife asks why he left her and then drops something on the floor. It's Crowe's wedding ring…the one he thought he was wearing during the whole film. Suddenly Crowe remembers that a disgruntled patient—the one he'd failed so long ago—actually murdered him before committing suicide. After realizing he's been a ghost all along, Crowe decides to move on. Now that he's made up for his past and told his wife goodbye, he fades into the white light, giving us the greatest movie twist of all time.