Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why unsatisfying endings are the best

(Just a little note: If you haven't seen The Descent and don't want spoilers, stop here.)

If you don't know a lot about me, you should know that I am an avid horror movie watcher. Few things make me happier than watching a group of teenagers or twentysomethings get hacked up with a machete, de-limbed by a chainsaw, or just generally creeped out by some malevolent spirit.

This guy falls a little out of the twentysomething realm, but he'll do. (source)

Horror movies are supposed to be scary, disturbing, or, at the very least, adrenaline inducing. And when you put characters through the wringer like horror writers usually do, chances are they're going to come out scarred for life. Even if they do actually live.

The Descent is a British horror movie with two endings: The original, British ending and the alternate, "American" ending that was put on the US DVD and used when the movie airs on TV here in the States. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a copy of the DVD that included the original ending, and that was the version of the movie I watched.

Both endings involve a lone survivor, a woman named Sarah. A year before the titular descent, Sarah's husband and daughter were killed in a car accident. Sarah reunites with her adrenaline junkie friends and, well, descends -- into a cave full of man-eating monsters.

In the final moments, the only survivors are Sarah and her friend Juno. We learn that -- surprise! -- Juno was sleeping with Sarah's husband before he died. So what does Sarah do? She stabs Juno and stays in the cave. The exit is just a few hundred feet ahead of her, but the final shot shows her sitting on a rock, envisioning her dead daughter there with her. She shows no signs of wanting to leave.

Guess what happens in the American version? Sarah escapes, although it is implied that her life will never be the same.

It's common for horror movies -- especially slasher movies with large casts that are picked off one by one -- to have a lone survivor finally defeat the bad guy. But these movies usually don't follow our hero after their quest is finished. And if you spent two hours being stalked by a psycho killer and watching all of your friends die around you, you'd probably spend the next few decades racking up some impressive therapy bills.

So, when Freddy tried to hack you up with a did that make you feel? (source)

People loves happy endings. Movies (and books) are supposed to be an escape, and we want to see other people succeed even if we can't. But some of the most powerful stories involve endings that aren't so satisfying. Both The Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games trilogies (again, spoilers!) follow a hero that succeeds in their quest and survives their journey, but forfeits life as they know it. I bitched and moaned for months after finishing Mockingjay about how much the ending sucked, but I'm actually sort of glad it did. If I wasn't emotionally invested in the story, I wouldn't have cared what happened.

Whether you're writing about hobbits destroying a powerful ring, teenagers fighting against a totalitarian government, women escaping man eating monsters, or anything else, a story has to transform the character, for better or for worse. And if you're unsatisfied with how a character's story ends...well, you had to care about them in the first place to get that way, right? It might upset you. You might do what I considered doing and chuck your copy of Mockingjay out the window. But that story will stay with you much longer than a happy one. Because it's real.

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