Blog Post #2: Realistic Endings

I have a problem. That problem, is that although I love to write about the paranormal, or exceptional situations which might be terrifying, I always like to have a realistic ending. It can be hard to reconcile those two desires, especially when a ghost or mythological creature has been the main antagonist for the duration of the story. The key things about a horror or thriller story to me are not the elements of the unusual, or the amount of gore, but instead the psychological reaction and experience of the protagonist(s). From the right perspective, many mundane, everyday experiences can be a horror story if for some reason they illicit that response in a person. Horror is subjective. One person’s American dream of a white picket fence and a house in the suburbs is another person’s suffocating entrapment of mediocrity that would result in them blowing their brains out.

A realistic ending is rarely a happy one. The world is awake now to the fact that even when stories end with a happily-ever-after, life, and people continue to change, and that happiness may be fleeting. I believe good humans, the best humans, are always growing, always striving to become better. With that growth your idea of a happy ending will continue to evolve along with you. I’ve met several women who, as children, dreamed of a young wedding and marriage with many children. As adults, some of those same women found themselves quite happy alone with their books and pets. For these kinds of reasons, a happy ending is never truly the end of the story, and rarely is the same ending happy for everyone.

Can a happy ending be a realistic ending then? I suppose so, after all, potentially any kind of ending could be happy to someone. But what makes a realistic ending then? To me it’s the aftermath implied by the final actions of the characters. Did something horrible happen and did the characters manage to skip out as winners, without any ensuing baggage or emotional harm? Did the protagonist manage to not only survive an insane physical situation, but without any lasting pain? Did a character experience a gruesome injury, only to be using the limb at the end of the story without issue? None of these seem realistic to me.

At minimum, when horrible things happen (the essence of horror), people walk away emotionally scarred or with negligible physical injury. At worst, they die or see their loved ones harmed and killed. Somewhere in between those two is the situation where a protagonist can become a monster themselves, something difficult not to do when the world has so thoroughly beaten you down.

Do abused children go on to become abusive adults? Real life says yes, quite often. Even if they were not as abusive as their initial tormentors, they will often still act in ways that their future children, families, even coworkers find harmful. Rare is the beautiful soul who comes through trauma as a wiser, kinder person full of love to share. A former coworker was the first to give me the saying; “Hurt people, hurt people.” This was especially poignant coming from her as she had immigrated to America from a developing country with experiences no one will ever go through stateside. Then took care of a completely disabled spouse, their child, and considered the 8 hours of her work shift to be her only “me-time.” Despite her being an incredibly sensitive, kind, and caring person, I know she was the exception and not the rule. In this way you could believe that the true sequel to a horror story is one where the former protagonist and victim, becomes the future antagonist.

In the same vein that it’s difficult to imagine a character surviving a horror or thriller story without damage, it’s near impossible to believe that some protagonists escape their journey still alive. I don’t enjoy writing about grief. However, I believe that it does a disservice if I were to include a lot of death in a story without then addressing the aftermath. Death isn’t a stumble in the road. It is devastating to the survivors. The families I know who have experienced a member dying continue to suffer, perhaps forever. For them, even finding a sliver of happiness in future moments can result in a plunge back into suffering. They often feel shame for having experienced happiness, and guilt for still being alive or for not having been able to save their loved one.

Death due to a sudden trauma is just as difficult for the survivors to experience. Without going too far into the subject, I can only say that with 100% certainty, that no real-life person would be able to watch the gory death of someone close to them without permanent consequences. So, when horror novels or movies show the surviving characters running off to live happy lives, unaffected by the events they’d just experienced, I scoff. It’s annoying, it destroys suspension of belief more so than ghosts or vampires. I know not everyone agrees with me, and there’s many who have no problem with things like rape or murder as a plot device with no repercussions or happy endings after trauma. They might argue that they’re here for entertainment, not reality. That’s fine for them I suppose, and I’d like to encourage them to go have a Disney marathon. Although I’ve heard even those Disney happy endings have gotten more realistic over the years. Whatever those people happy-ending lovers think, if they’re not my readers, then I’m OK with that. I’d like to have all my characters experience a realistic ending, whether that be death, permanent injury, PTSD, or hell, just wanting to go through therapy in order to process what they’ve endured. That is life. That is a check I can take to the bank. Maybe I’m cynical for it, but that will always feel more satisfying to me than a big happy celebration, sexy love affair, becoming a perfect hard ass, etc. What makes a realistic ending to a horror story for you? Please share with me, I’d love to hear your thoughts.