While Shakespeare wasn’t averse to suddenly killing off a bunch of characters at the end of a play, the shock ending is something altogether different. It deliberately foregoes the denouement at the end of the story (which provides a breathing space for the audience to recuperate) leaving them with an unresolved trauma, an inexplicable, or disturbing scene or image.
The shock ending has its roots in the cliffhangers of serial fiction, pulp fiction, and the early Twentieth Century film serials. Episodes ended with a character in danger: Zorro about to be captured and unmasked, a damsel in distress about to be run over by an approaching steam train, Flash Gordon’s rocket ship about to explode. Reader’s or viewers had to buy the next episode to find out what happened next.
The 1960s Counter Culture produced films like Rosemary’s Baby, which inverted the assumption in traditional storytelling that good triumphs over evil. The shock ending in Rosemary’s Baby relies on a simple visual trick, which turns the familiar and ordinary into something terrifying.
The shock ending can take on many forms: subverting the story, the unexpected death of a protagonist, the injustice of an evil act going unpunished, or a troubling irony. In other instances it can be surreal, literary or artistic: a scene with symbolic, mysterious, or cryptic meaning.
The shock ending of Enemy presents the audience with a bizarre final image that has symbolic meaning. The symbolism appears a number of times as foreshadowing, but the shock ending goes beyond that. It ambushes the audience, who are unprepared for it, and they have no time to recover before the credits roll.
In Fight Club the shock ending is a revelation. In the Usual Suspects we discover that Keyser Söze isn’t who we might think it might be. In Citizen Kane it’s the revelation of a great man’s life is rendered meaningless, when the representation of a beloved and unobtainable childhood object is destroyed.
Planet of the Apes has a famous shock ending when Taylor sees a statue, and realises that he is not on a random planet in space, but somewhere more recognisable. And in Seven a package delivery has never been so disturbing.
Shock endings are often visual, because they need to work instantly. There are exceptions, in Demon Seed it’s achieved through a character’s voice. It can also be achieved through a reveal or reversal, such as the camera pulling away to provide a bigger picture or showing something unexpected, such as the ending in The Village, or a scene which provides unexpected context, like the ending of the Polish science fiction film Sex Mission. Shocking reveals are often linked to unreliable narrators: Atonement, Secret Window, and Shutter Island. (Although these can be plot points that occur during the story rather than absolute shock endings).
Don’t Look Now (1973) has a sudden shock ending that undermines the audience’s expectation of what they think they are going to see. Also from 1973, The Wicker Man has one of the best and probably most famous shock endings. Once again, it subverts audience expectations that logic, reason, and good will triumph over evil and injustice. Conversely, in The Departed we are set up to believe that ‘justice’ will not be served — and then the unexpected happens.