Hiya book bees! Today I’d like to talk about adding a happy ending to an otherwise terrifying, traumatic, and horrific tale. CW: I will be discussing common elements in horror and thriller novels which may include discussions of murder, death, gore, and violence. I will not speak explicitly on these topics nor use detailed descriptions.
I’ve always found it a curious line that horror and thriller authors walk between the up note where monsters and murderers are defeated and the dark note these stories often seek to put out into the world of literature. Thrillers tend to look at the darkest parts of humanity and feature a plucky, sometimes tempted, protagonist who serves as the embodiment of the good in the world. Horror stories look at dark monstrous creatures and what they can embody in metaphors.
I’ve found that horror more often than thriller tends to end on a somewhat positive or a somewhat ominous note. Either one or more of the protagonists survives to the end, defeating the primary monster, or the monster wins with a note of grudging respect. Some authors use one or the other endings to drive home a point–extending any metaphors the monster in question stood in for–or they simply attempt to subvert expectations in the current trends of horror. When a horror novel does end with a triumph for the protagonist(s), it’s usually a bittersweet one. The image of the “final girl” drenched in the blood of her friends and herself, having finally defeated the monster but with a hollow and traumatized look in her eyes as she stands alone is an iconic one.
A happy ending for a horror story tends to be survival, but it’s not uncommon for authors to ask “what next?” Survival at the cost of major lifetime trauma is usually the next step. Some horror manages to portray the next step for the survivors as one of growth and rebuilding, calling on the same inner strength that allowed them to survive the events of their story. Some horror turns to the antagonist as their source of optimism, relishing in the defeat of some great evil. Again, these endings tend to be bittersweet and tinged with the darkness of whatever monster the protagonists faced.
Thrillers tend to have a slightly more optimistic note at the end. It’s unusual for a protagonist to be thwarted by the dark forces at work in a Thriller novel, where the plot largely consists of fighting against a murderer or other villain. Occasionally a thriller–usually when it’s part of a series–addresses the trauma that affects these protagonists. The “happy endings” in these stories usually involve survival, reuniting with a loved one, and any combination of triumphs.
There comes an interesting difference between a true happy ending in a thriller–which can be unrealistically optimistic and feel as though something is missing–and a bittersweet ending in which trauma exists but can be set aside for a moment to celebrate triumph. There’s also the fact that a happy ending in a Thriller may be different for various characters. Death and destruction is likely still evident, especially for a thriller concerned with hunting a murderer. Once again, we have that image of a hero covered in blood and dirt, triumphant but traumatized and hollow.
So what about endings in thriller or horror that don’t address that level of trauma? Books that are stand alone tend to avoid a note too similar to a cliffhanger, calling on either a distinctly optimistic or a distinctly pessimistic view of the world to wrap things up. The more invested you are in the protagonist, the more you hope for things to be optimistic by the end, seeing the protagonist return to a semblance of a normal life and leaving all this awfulness behind them. The pessimistic endings tend to be either a daring defiance of the expectations of the genre, or a twist laid out for the shock factor which can be impressive or fall flat depending on the skill of the author.
Thrillers are more often than not driven by a character, a plucky detective or a victim of a suspicious crime seeking answers to the events surrounding death, disappearances, and other mysteries. Thus, it is easier to imagine a happy ending to a thriller novel because so long as the protagonist survives and gets to move on with their love in some way, the ending can be viewed as positive. There are still times, though when the content of a thriller is so dark and disturbing that it’s hard to imagine the protagonist surviving it all without some trauma and scars.
Horror on the other hand is meant to shock and bring out the darkest of evil characters. A happy ending for a horror novel can be as simple as the monster’s defeat and as complex as defeating multiple previously unknown enemies or thwarting the end of the world. Happy endings in horror tend to feel more exaggerated or less realistic, especially when the elements of the horror story have focused so much on desolation and a lack of hope against a massively powerful darkness. Still others are genuinely triumphant and give a feeling of relief as the characters, broken but still alive, take a moment to look over what has happened and be thankful for what they have left.
Personally, I find myself wanting a little of both kind of ending when reading thriller and horror. In some stories, where the protagonists have already suffered so much, I find myself wanting them to end things on a more positive note. The darkness/monster/killer defeated and the future clear for recovering from the trauma of the story. Other times, though, there are monsters and villains that I can’t imagine being defeated without something truly clever happening. There are absolutely thrillers/horror novels that end on a note in which the villain survives and darkness will return, and it feels realistic or fitting. Like anything else, each book must find the most fitting ending for itself, and each author must decide how much guidance they will put into the ending or how optimistic or dark they want to be.
Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts on this topic! Do you like happy endings after a dark and twisted horror? Do you always believe it when the protagonist defeats the killer and ends up going back to their lives in a thriller?