Horror’s Love Affair With Twist Endings

By  · Published on January 20th, 2017

Why do we love being fooled so much?

With M. Night Shyamalan’s latest venture, Split, hitting theaters this weekend, there’s one question that seems to be on most moviegoers’ lips: what’s the big twist? Shyamalan has built a career on keeping viewers guessing, starting with his very first (and arguably greatest) reveal in The Sixth Sense, which follows Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a young boy whose the ability to see dead people, often in gruesome ways, torments him and his frustrated mother, Lynn (Toni Collette) until a psychologist (Bruce Willis) comes into Cole’s life to help him. Of course, the twist we probably should’ve seen coming was that (SPOILERS, but really you should have seen this one already) Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. In fact, we watched him die, having been shot by a distressed patient (Donnie Wahlberg) in the film’s opening scene. Sure, some sharp viewers caught the subtle hints and guesssed the truth but overall Shyamalan hoodwinked us. The Sixth Sense became a box office success, a cultural phenomenon with countless spoofs and earned six Academy Award nominations.

After the huge success of The Sixth Sense, the “twist” became known as something of a director’s calling card for Shyamalan. While Unbreakable remains severely underrated and criminally overlooked, Signs took on faith and aliens and, with one of Joaquin Phoenix’s most endearing roles, gave us a different sort of twist: a collection of quirky character trademarks (glasses of water left around the house, asthma, a failed minor league baseball career) that patchwork together to complete the puzzle and save the day. Not quite “I see dead people,” but effective nonetheless. After Signs however, things get dicey. While I personally enjoy The Village, most viewers were outraged by the film’s reveal. Going forward, Shyamalan’s films almost seem encumbered by the need to shock viewers, which takes a toll on so many of the elements that make a reveal truly surprising.

Of course, Shyamalan isn’t the first director to pull the rug out from under viewers. The twist is a gimmick often employed in horror films but when it’s done well, bolstered by a tight story, suffocating suspense and a masterful director, the impact can be seismic. The jarring reveal of Norman Bates clad in a floral dress, knife raised high in the air, granny wig askew on his head, his face twisted in a silent scream, is arguable the greatest twist of all time, sparking countless imitations, homages and rip-offs – including 1961’s gender-bending Homicidal – ever since. Two decades later, the Friday the 13th franchise was born on the back on Hitchcock’s Psycho, inverting the deranged son into a vengeful mother and shocking viewers, who had unconsciously coded the stalking POV shots as belonging to a male killer. When the twist works, it’s works because it follows the formula laid out successfully in films like Psycho or Friday the 13th, plausible misdirection that gently guides viewers into believing that maybe Jason and Norma were alive and causing havoc, before spinning them around and making us play the fool.

Will Split be a return to form for Shyamalan, who regained some footing and credibility with 2015’s The Visit? Perhaps, although it’s worth noting that the film has received criticism for its portrayal of mental illness. Whether good or bad, if you’re itching for more great twists in horror, here are a few of my favorite surprises that I’ve come back to time and time again. SPOILERS APLENTY BELOW!

Coming just two years after the success of Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp banks on the tested and true formula of picking off campers, while mixing in a delicious dose of 80’s camp (no pun intended) and a nod to William Castle’s Homicidal. Angela (Felissa Rose) is a traumatized and strange girl who lives with her Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) after the death of her father and brother, Peter, in a freak boating accident. Angela is sent to camp with her cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), who does his best to shield Angela from the abuse of older campers who find her odd. When several of the bullies turn up dead, suspicion turn to Ricky, although viewers likely suspect Angela herself. And they’re right but what makes Sleepaway Camp truly shocking is not the reveal that Angela is a killer, but the reveal that Angela is in a fact Peter – displayed in a full-frontal scene where Angela’s face is frozen in a horrifying hiss. Peter is raised as his sister by his Aunt Martha, who already had a son and wanted a daughter, forcing the boy to adopt the identity of his dead sister. It’s ludicrous and over the top but it remains one of the most jarring and memorable final images in horror.

In a way, Carnival of Souls is the spiritual ancestor of The Sixth Sense and The Others, encasing the “she was dead the whole time” twist inside of a deliciously eerie monochrome film that has become a cult classic in the years following its release in 1962. Mary (Candace Hilligoss) is the lone survivor of a drag race gone wrong, that sent a car full of her and her friends over a bridge and into the river below. Mary starts over in a new town, working as a church organist, but she is haunted by a mysterious and terrifying man, who is luring her to a rundown carnival pavilion. Sure, it’s similar to the premise of The Twilight Zone episode “The Hitch-Hiker,” which predates the film by two years. But Carnival of Souls is filled with haunting images and memorable scenes, such as Mary’s frenetic and ominous organ playing, her department store meltdown, and the bizarre revelry she uncovers at the pavilion, as the undead dance around her and send her careening out towards the ocean in terror, before we discover the dark truth about Mary’s accident.

Like many of Shyamalan’s films, you either love or hate the twist in High Tension. A gory and delicious entry into the New French Extremity cadre by director Alexandre Aja, High Tension follows two college students, Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maïwenn), who have retreated to Alexia’s family home in the country for a weekend. The secluded farmhouse is attacked during the night by a brutal and relentless killer (Philippe Nahon), who ruthlessly executes Alexia’s entire family, before kidnapping Alexia herself. Marie, who escaped the killer by ingeniously hiding, follows in hot pursuit to save her friend, turning into one of the most badass final girls in the making. That is until it’s revealed that Marie is also The Killer, having split her personality as an extreme way to deal with her attraction to Alexia. Sure, the reveal makes a handful of scenes, namely the severed head being violated and tossed out of the truck, stick out as jagged edges in the narrative but I would argue they work just fine as the story is being relayed to us by Marie, an unreliable and unstable narrator who truly believed in the existence of The Killer. With this in mind, don’t let anyone come between you and High Tension any more.

The beauty of The Wicker Man is how it lures you into eating out of the palm of its hand before crushing any chance of hope or survival. Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) comes to a remote Scottish island in search of a missing girl and finds his strict Christianity in direct conflict with the pagan beliefs of the inhabitants. As much a musical as a horror movie, The Wicker Man boasts a naked Britt Eckland pounding on the walls of her room to seduce the virginal Howie and a stupendous Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, who has made the strange island famous for its harvest crops. While Howie objects to everything he encounters, he eventually surmises that the missing child will be sacrificed by the villagers in exchange for a bountiful harvest. Except the child was a red herring, used to lure Howie – a god fearing virgin a.k.a. the perfect sacrifice – to the island, where he is thrown into the heart of a mammoth wicker “man,” and burnt alive. Sure, the 2006 remake has Nicolas Cage infamously screaming about bees, but nothing quite tops the original’s quirky magic.

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Jamie Righetti is an author and freelance film critic from New York City. She loves horror movies, Keanu Reeves, BioShock and her Siberian Husky, Nugget.