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The ending of The Mist finally explained

In 1980, Stephen King published one of his most disturbing stories, a novella called The Mist. King was inspired to write the story after a thunderstorm killed the power in his hometown of Bangor, Maine. The next day, he went to a grocery store and imagined a "big prehistoric flying reptile" causing havoc inside. The double whammy of bad weather and weird visions encouraged King to write a horror classic about people trapped in a supermarket by a mysterious mist, with some very nasty creatures lurking outside.

In 2007, Frank Darabont adapted the story for the big screen. Darabont had a long history with King's work, having directed both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. But The Mist was way more disturbing than either of those movies, and it got even darker when Darabont wrote a new ending. The film's final twist devastated audiences, and it still traumatizes people today. 

So, why did the movie get so bleak? Why did The Mist end with not with a whimper but four horrible bangs? Well, if you're brave enough to head into the fog, we're about to explain The Mist's ending, once and for all.

Storm's a-comin'

It all starts with a storm rolling into a sleepy Maine town, felling trees, wrecking homes, and serving as a portent for bad things to come. The storm also knocks out the power in the area, forcing artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) to drive into town for supplies. Their next door neighbor, big city lawyer Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), hitches a ride to the store. While David and Brent have had their issues, they're putting aside their differences for the day.

Their newfound friendship isn't going to last long.

When the trio arrives at the supermarket, we're quickly introduced to the major players, including Ollie the good-natured bag boy (Toby Jones), elderly schoolmarm Irene Reppler (Frances Sternhagen), new-in-town teacher Amanda Dumfries (Laurie Holden), and religious nutjob Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden). The store is packed with locals, out-of-towners, and soldiers from a nearby army base. The lines are long and the non-perishable food is going fast, but at least everybody is alive… for now.

And that's when things start getting creepy. A squadron of police cars screams past the store. The soldiers act weird when they're called back to base. A civil defense siren begins wailing nearby. The dread is slowly building, and it doesn't make us feel any better that earlier in the film, David noticed an unusual mist rolling down the mountains. It feels like there's trouble brewing. That's when someone comes screaming into the store.

There's something in the mist

Anybody would be freaked out if they lost power and heard sirens, but when you see a dude covered in blood running for his life, that's when the real terror sets in. As the folks inside supermarket start getting nervous, a local named Dan Miller (Jeffrey DeMunn) comes sprinting for the store, his face caked with gore. When he bursts through the doors, he screams that something in the mist took his friend, which doesn't exactly boost morale.

That's when the aforementioned mist shows up, rolling across town and swallowing everything in the store parking lot. It's impossible to see what's happening in the fog, but we can hear the screams of one unlucky soul who made a dash for his car. Making things worse, a sudden earthquake rocks the store, taking the panic level all the way to Code Red. The whole scene is reminiscent of 9/11 and the horrific images of panicked New Yorkers running from a massive dust cloud. The metaphor here is very intentional — similar to War of the Worlds (2005) and Cloverfield (2008) — and director Frank Darabont does an amazing job of capturing the fear and confusion people felt on that tragic day. And just like in real life, things only get darker from here on.

Won't somebody here see a lady home?

With the parking lot full of fog, everybody in the store agrees to keep the doors shut tight. After all, maybe there was a chemical explosion at the local mill. Step outside, and you might get a face full of poison gas. So everyone agrees to stay inside… except for one woman (Melissa McBride). She's a mom who left her kids at home to do some quick grocery shopping, but with the world falling apart, she can't sit around twiddling her thumbs. She's got to get back to her kids.

Several people try to stop her, warning her that it's too dangerous, but this mom isn't going to hear it. Still, she's a little nervous about facing the mist all alone and desperately asks if anyone will help her. That's when everybody goes quiet. Nobody is going out there. It's death. They all sheepishly look away and ignore her pleas. 

Teary-eyed and disgusted, she curses the group ("I hope you all rot in hell," she says — and boy, do they) and then strides into the mist, having faith she can get home in one piece. It's a nerve-wracking and heartbreaking moment… and one we'll need to file away for future reference. This is going to come around full circle and hammer some themes down hard.    

Here come the monsters

With the mist looming outside, the folks inside the store hunker down for the long haul. David heads into the back in search of blankets, and that's when some truly weird stuff starts happening. He hears something outside the store — something very, very big — and it's trying to get inside. Naturally, our hero is a little freaked out, but when he tells Ollie, good old boy mechanics Jim (William Sadler) and Myron (David Jensen), and Norm the number two bag boy (Chris Owen), they're more than a little skeptical. Instead of listening to David, they dismiss his wild claims and open the back door so they can fix the store's generator.

This turns out to be a very bad idea.

Almost immediately after opening the door, a whole bunch of tentacles come slithering inside. Giant, disgusting, Lovecraftian tentacles. Some are squid-like, meant for grabbing and squeezing. Others come equipped with black talons and hundreds of little biting mouths. We never see what these tentacles are attached to, but whatever it is, it's in the mood for a snack. The beast wraps itself around poor Norm, and despite David and Ollie's best efforts, the tentacles rip the kid to pieces before dragging him outside. Now we know this is no chemical explosion or freak weather occurrence. Whatever's happening here, it's paranormal and pretty hungry. 

Us vs. them

After the octopus from hell murders poor Norm, David is in a tricky situation. He has to persuade a store full of people that there are monsters in the mist. That's going to be a tough sell, especially since a lot of these people aren't locals. While the residents know David and his three eyewitness aren't crazy, the out-of-towners might think they're all psycho. 

After all, there's serious tension between the locals and the out-of-towners who vacation in the area. David has even gone to court with his seasonal neighbor, Brent Norton. But David wants to convince Brent — a respected attorney — of the tentacled threat. That way, the lawyer can use his position of power to convince everyone they're in deep trouble.  

However, when David tries to explain, Brent thinks he and his buddies are pranking him as revenge for that lawsuit. Honestly, we get where Brent is coming from. Even though Brent spends his money and pays taxes in town, some of the locals aren't so welcoming and gossip about him behind his back. Then there's the race angle. Brent is one of the few black people in a store full of small-town white folks. So he's probably a bit suspicious when these "hicks" show up with such a tall tale.

Instead of convincing people they're in danger, Brent goes hard in the other direction, telling everyone David is a liar, and that they should all leave. Lines are being drawn inside the supermarket, and our human tendency to separate into groups is a huge theme in The Mist. As David and Brent are about to find out, that tendency can get people killed.

Attack of the killer insects

The artist and the attorney have started drawing sides. David convinces most everyone there's a real threat, and his group begins fortifying the plate glass storefront with heavy bags. But Brent isn't buying David's story, and he rallies a band of rationalists. Together, these intrepid skeptics venture into the mist… but they don't get far. 

We know this because a badass biker on Team David (Brian Libby) ties a rope around his waist and walks outside with Team Brent, hoping to find a shotgun. But after a nasty game of tug o' war, David pulls the rope back to find the biker has been ripped in half. Things escalate that night when monstrous wasps and hungry pterodactyls start flying down the aisles on a murderous shopping spree.

During all this, we learn two majorly important details. First, this is where neighborhood nutjob Mrs. Carmody gets some serious cred. She's a bloodthirsty Bible-thumper who thinks the end times are nigh, and earlier that day, she had predicted the monsters would attack at night and kill someone. The creatures are happy to oblige. Then she survives an encounter with a demon bee by keeping perfectly still, convincing some that God is on her side.

This is also where the gun shows up. Before the attack, we learn that Amanda Dumfries keeps a pistol in her purse and that Ollie is a competitive shooter. Naturally, the bespectacled bag boy is given the gun, and during the nighttime battle, he fills a pterodactyl full of lead. But if a gun shows up early in a horror movie, it's definitely coming back in the climax.

Spiders in King's Pharmacy

When you've got killer bugs flying around, a lot of bad things can happen. You might wind up as dinner, or you might even catch on fire and desperately need painkillers from the pharmacy next door. And that's exactly happens to some poor soul, so Team David heads into the mist, searching for medicine. Sure, Mrs. Carmody warns them not to go, worried they'll bring back the monsters, but who's going to listen to this crazy lady?

However, when the group arrives at the appropriately named King's Pharmacy, they make a terrifying discovery. Either Peter Parker has been here, or Team David is in serious trouble. The place is covered in thick, sticky webs, and there's a soldier wrapped up, Aliens-style. Even though he's in serious pain, the soldier says something pretty significant: "I'm sorry… it's all our fault." And then he bursts open, and thousands of baby spiders go skittering across the floor. Yeah, the dude was filled with arachnids, and this is where it's totally okay to lose your lunch.

Unfortunately, babies mean mommies and daddies, and soon, the place is crawling with spiders the size of schnauzers. And despite Ollie's Annie Oakley abilities, the arachnids murder two members of Team David. This is a major turning point in the movie, as the defeat of Team David gives Mrs. Carmody the power to sway most of the store to her side. And when Carmody is calling the shots, she takes all the fun out of fundamentalism.

Today's word is expiation

As he explained to Yahoo! Entertainment, Frank Darabont "was in something of a mean mood" while adapting The Mist, and in an interview with Ain't It Cool News, he described the film as "an outraged liberal tract." After all, the movie hit theaters in 2007, and casualties were high in Iraq and Afghanistan. So when Darabont brought Stephen King's story to the big screen, he was taking aim at the Bush White House. If there's any doubt, Darabont said the movie was a "microcosm of our culture" because "reasonable people are getting ground up in the machinery and agendas of the unreasonable people who are in power."

So, if the mist rolling into town evokes 9/11 imagery, it's logical to assume Mrs. Carmody might represent George W. Bush. Both are religious people who took charge after a devastating attack, and depending on your politics, used fear to justify some very controversial decisions. Of course, Mrs. Carmody doesn't have to be George W. Bush to work as a metaphor. She can represent any fearmonger of any political party who uses fear, religion, and xenophobia to whip up a crowd and make them do horrible things. And now that Team David has been defeated by the spiders, most of the store is turning to Mrs. Carmody, who's about to call for some old-fashioned human sacrifice.

The truth behind Project Arrowhead

Mrs. Carmody is preaching some serious fire and brimstone, talking about atonement and God's punishment. And as things turn into Lord of the Flies, David decides to speak with the three troops stuck with them in the store, hoping for answers about the mist. After all, the spider-infested soldier at the pharmacy said the mist was the military's fault. But things fall apart when David finds two of the three soldiers have committed suicide in the back room. As for unlucky Soldier #3 (Sam Witwer), he's been dragged before the court of Mrs. Carmody.

As he begs for his life before an angry crowd, the soldier explains that military scientists at a nearby base were conducting an experiment called the Arrowhead Project. They were trying to open a window to peer into other dimensions, but unfortunately, that window turned out to be more of a door, unleashing the mist and all these nightmare monsters. Furious, Mrs. Carmody says it's time for some human sacrifice to keep the beasts at bay, and the frenzied crowd tortures the poor soldier before tossing him outside. Seconds later, he's viciously devoured by a gigantic praying mantis. 

If Team David had any hesitations about leaving before, they're now packing their bags as quick as they can. The threats outside have nothing on Carmody and her crew. Giant spiders and pterodactyls? That's nothing compared to the monster we call "man."

The darkest ending of all time

As Team David plans their escape, they're stopped by Mrs. Carmody and her cult, who decide to sacrifice David's son. Fortunately, Ollie pulls out that pistol and introduces Mrs. Carmody to her maker. With the psycho preacher dead, Team David runs into the mist, where several members, including Ollie, are picked off by killer bugs. The surviving members — David, his son, Amanda, Dan, and the elderly Irene Reppler — pile into a car and drive into the fog… but not before David grabs Ollie's gun. 

Warning: this is where things get grim.

As they work their way down the road, they see toppled telephone poles, wrecked cars, and a school bus savaged by spiders. They find the webbed-up body of David's dead wife, watch an enormous Lovecraftian creature lumber by, and no matter how far they drive, the mist stretches on forever. Eventually, they run out of gas, and as they hear the monsters outside, they decide a bullet is better than a flesh-hungry bug.  

With barely a word, they all agree to give up. David checks the gun, sees there are only four bullets for five people, and does the deed, killing everyone in the car, including his son. David is the only one alive, howling like a wounded animal. But his despair gets worse when seconds later, a military convoy rumbles out of the mist. Adding insult to injury, David sees vehicles full of survivors, including Melissa McBride and her kids. The mist begins to clear, and David is left screaming in pain. If only he'd waited a few more seconds, his son would still be alive. And on that cheery note, the film fades to black.

Hope, The Mist, and The Shawshank Redemption

The Mist doesn't think very highly of mankind. It shares a worldview with movies like Night of the Living Dead and John Carpenter's The Thing (there's even a Thing poster in the film's opening). According to The Mist, people are prone to paranoia and distrust, and will turn on each other when things go south. But at the same time, the movie is ultimately a message about the power of hope and what happens when hope disappears.

Speaking with Yahoo! Entertainment, Darabont explained The Mist works as a companion piece with his first feature, The Shawshank Redemption. As Darabont put it, "If Shawshank is the movie about the value of hope, then The Mist becomes a movie about the danger of hopelessness." So in the '94 classic, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) hangs onto hope and escapes from prison. But in The Mist, instead of getting busy living, David and his companions get busy dying. While Andy keeps the faith and finds freedom, David gives up and loses everything when salvation was so close.

And this is where Melissa McBride's character comes back in. This mom marched into the fog to rescue her kids, even though everyone else was scared and tried to stop her. She never let go of hope, and as a result, she saved her children. David, on the other hand, fell into despair and lost his son's life. So what's the big moral of The Mist? Even if life feels like a never-ending nightmare, be like Andy Dufresne or Melissa McBride, because you never know when the mist will fade away.

The movie vs. the book

Both the novella and movie versions of The Mist are excellent, but they radically differ when it comes to the ending. While the film goes in a decidedly dark direction, King's novella is much more ambiguous. In fact, the author actually leaves his readers with some hope that things will work out for David and his crew. Team David escapes the super market, but instead of committing mass suicide, David turns on the radio and thinks he hears a voice say the word "Hartford." Encouraged, he believes Hartford, Connecticut, might be a safe zone, and he heads in that direction.

The novella ends with David narrating these final lines: "I'm going to bed now. But first I'm going to kiss my son and whisper two words in his ear… Two words that sound a bit alike. One of them is Hartford. The other is hope." And that's where the book ends, hinting that maybe Team David is going to be okay. Obviously, Darabont decided to traumatize moviegoers, thanks to the political landscape at the time, but Stephen King was totally okay with the new ending. When Darabont asked for King's opinion on the nihilistic finale, the author gave him two thumbs up. King even famously declared that "anybody who reveals the last 5 minutes of this film should be hung from their neck until dead." We really hope he doesn't read this list.