Top 20 Horror Movie Plot Twists
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Thomas O'Connor
It's hard to beat twists like these. For this list, we'll be looking at the very best times that horror films shocked us to the core with unexpected plot twists that left our jaws on the floor. Our countdown includes Red Is Adelaide, Mrs. Voorhees Is the Killer, Stu & Billy Are the Killers, Malcolm Crowe Is a Ghost, and more!
Script Written by Thomas O'Connor
Top 20 Plot Twists in Horror Movies
It’s hard to beat twists like these. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 20 Plot Twists in Horror Movies.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the very best times that horror films shocked us to the core with unexpected plot twists that left our jaws on the floor. Because we’re talking about plot twists, be warned that there will be heavy spoilers ahead.
#20: Esther Is Actually an Adult Woman
We wouldn’t be at all surprised if this 2009 horror movie turned a lot of prospective parents off the idea of adoption, especially when you consider the terrifying twist. After Kate and John adopt a young girl named Esther, the two struggle to get their new family member to open up. Tensions mount as Esther manipulates her new family, with only Kate suspecting something is wrong. In a truly shocking moment, Kate learns too late that Esther - or perhaps we should say Leena - is really a 33-year-old woman who suffers from a medical disorder that stunts her growth. Not only that, but Leena is a cold-blooded killer. Suddenly, the kid from “Problem Child” doesn’t look so bad….
#19: Tom Was the Invisible Man All Along... Or Was He?
“The Invisible Man” (2020)
Leigh Whannell reinvented one of Universal’s classic horror characters for the modern era in this 2020 film. After barely escaping the clutches of her cruel tech mogul partner Adrian, protagonist Cecilia begins to believe that her ex is using cutting-edge invisibility technology to stalk her. Her terrifying suspicion proves correct, but with a twist. After the unseen assailant is shot and unmasked, he’s revealed to actually be Adrian’s brother Tom. But even this revelation is thrown into doubt, with Cecilia insisting this is just another facet of Adrian’s twisted plot. It just goes to show that you can’t always believe what you see, or don’t see in this case.
#18: Marie Unmasked
“High Tension” (2003)
What begins as a quiet weekend of studying quickly turns nightmarish in this French horror-thriller, and if the shocking violence doesn’t leave an impression, the twist definitely will! The story follows two college girls, Marie and Alex, who stay with Alex’s parents in their secluded home to study. But a sadistic killer arrives on their doorstep, taking out Alex’s parents and kidnapping her. It’s seemingly up to Marie to save Alex from certain death, until we learn that almost the entire scenario has been a fantasy playing out in Marie’s head, and she’s been the one maiming her way through numerous victims. It’s a shame, besides the whole ‘being the killer’ part she was a great protagonist!
#17: The Old Couple Is Possessed
“The Skeleton Key” (2005)
Being a live-in nurse is a demanding and often thankless job under the best of circumstances, nevermind when there are paranormal shenanigans going on. After being taken on to care for an elderly man living with the after-effects of a stroke, nurse Caroline begins to suspect the man’s wife Violet of foul play. This comes after Caroline finds a secret room filled with the tools of Hoodoo magic in the attic, which is generally a red flag that something hinky is going on. But rather than simply a practitioner of Hoodoo, Violet is revealed to be possessed by the spirit of a Hoodoo magician from nearly a hundred years prior. Yep, we’d quit too!
#16: It's All Staged
“April Fool's Day” (1986)
A typical twist in a horror movie involves the identity of the killer or killers, but the twist in this 80s slasher takes a different route by revealing that there isn’t a killer at all! Things seem par for the course as far as slasher movies go when the bodies begin to pile up at a fancy party thrown by a group of old college friends. But imagine the audience’s surprise when it turns out that the events of the movie were just an incredibly elaborate rehearsal for a murder mystery night, and nobody was ever in any danger! How’s that for a twist: this slasher movie wasn’t a slasher movie at all.
#15: The Ancient Ones
“The Cabin in the Woods” (2012)
After their cabin trip is spoiled by some pesky zombies, friends Marty and Dana discover a massive facility full of monsters beneath the cabin. And after a surprise appearance by Sigourney Weaver herself, the pair learn the deeper truth: that the events of the film were an elaborate ritual to appease a group of elder gods who want nothing more than to see groups of teenagers meet their messy demise again and again. You don’t need a film degree to figure out that the ancient ones’ craving for routine carnage is a somewhat scathing commentary on horror audiences, crystallizing the film’s deconstruction of tired horror tropes and imploring filmmakers to try something new. [“It’s time to give someone else a chance”]
#14: Those Aren't the Real Grandparents
“The Visit” (2015)
Director M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation as the king of the twist ending is somewhat well deserved, as most of his movies contain at least one shocking twist. Heck, this isn’t the only movie of his on this very list. The twists can get more than a little stale, but there’s just something about this one that gives us the creeps. After an odd yet seemingly innocent weekend at their grandparents’, teens Becca and Tyler receive a shocking revelation: that those aren’t their grandparents. This reveal comes hot on the heels of a number of strange occurrences the pair had experienced, suddenly ratcheting up the already high tension to stratospheric levels.
#13: Red Is Adelaide
Jordan Peele’s electrifying follow-up to “Get Out” did not disappoint, mixing great horror movie scares with a powerful undercurrent of social commentary even before you get to the shocking final reveal. After narrowly escaping her “Tethered” doppelganger with her life and family intact, mother Adelaide seems to be in the clear. Except the audience is clued in via flashback that the woman we’ve been following for the whole film IS the Tethered. Adelaide and her Tethered were switched during childhood, meaning the raspy-voiced Red was actually the original, out for revenge after being exiled below ground. It’s a twist that casts the entire movie in a new light, just like a great twist always does.
#12: Samara Is Now Free
“The Ring” (2002)
We’re betting that up until this infamous moment in the 2002 remake of the Japanese horror sensation, the protagonists were patting themselves on the back. After all, it’s not every day you get to put the vengeful spirit of a dead child to rest. But you forgot that you made a copy, didn’t you? Now your ex is dead and you have to continue passing the curse on in order to save your child. Great job! In all seriousness, the twist that the terrifying Samara was NOT put to rest by uncovering her grave and will continue to wreak vengeance on the living is still one of our favorites, and we still can’t see TV static without shuddering.
#11: The Call Is Coming from Inside the House
“Black Christmas” (1974)
In this 1970s Canadian slasher flick, the residents of a sorority house are plagued by a string of obscene and disturbing phone calls. But things just get worse when several of the residents are found dead, and the killer is behind the obscene calls. In the film’s most iconic scene, a telephone company employee frantically traces the location of the mysterious caller, and eventually discovers that the calls are coming from a second line inside the sorority house! It’s a terrifying reveal, one that kicks the tension in the film into overdrive with the revelation that protagonist Jess is far from safe despite being indoors and under police watch.
#10: The Coagula Procedure
“Get Out” (2017)
Once again, Jordan Peele manages to pull off a twist that’s not only terrifying on the surface, but casts the entire film up to that point in a new light. After meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, Chris begins to suspect something is amiss with the seemingly friendly couple. Following a series of unnerving encounters with the family, Chris is hypnotized and wakes up bound to a chair, a videotape informing him of his fate: to have his brain removed so that a rich old white person can have his body instead. This twist, itself a commentary on how black bodies and physicality are commodified by seemingly well-meaning white people, cemented Peele and the film as horror royalty.
#9: It's All in the Killer's Head
In this horror/thriller from “Logan” director James Mangold, a group of strangers find themselves stranded in a secluded motel and stalked by a mysterious killer. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill slasher movie. It’s revealed late in the film that almost everything we’ve been seeing has been taking place inside the mind of a convicted serial killer. The “victims” are actually the killer’s multiple personalities, and they’re being killed off as part of his treatment. The “it was all a dream/hallucination” twist is honestly a little bit played out, but this version offers an admittedly fresh spin on the well-worn idea, to great effect.
#8: Mrs. Voorhees Is the Killer
“Friday the 13th” (1980)
The machete-wielding, goalie mask-wearing Jason Voorhees is without a doubt one of the biggest slasher icons. But as horror aficionados are fond of pointing out, he wasn’t the primary villain in the first film in the “Friday the 13th” series. After a number of her fellow camp counselors are brutally murdered, the film’s protagonist Alice discovers that the killer is in fact Mrs. Voorhees, the mother of a deformed boy who drowned while the counselors were...shall we say….distracted. Needless to say, the revelation that the seemingly kindly old lady in a sweater is a crazed killer doesn’t do much to make Alice’s day better.
#7: The Girl Isn't Missing
“The Wicker Man” (1973)
Before it was remade with Nicolas Cage and turned into an internet meme, this 1973 horror film was a darling of British horror cinema. The film begins when a police detective arrives at a small town on a secluded island after a local girl goes missing. But it quickly becomes clear that something is terribly wrong, and that the villagers are part of a dangerous pagan cult. The detective suspects the girl might have been taken as a human sacrifice, but it’s worse: The girl was never kidnapped, and it was all a ploy to lure him to the island to serve as the sacrifice himself.
#6: Jigsaw Is the Dead Body in the Bathroom
This infamous horror flick not only kicked off an entire franchise, but arguably started a whole new subgenre. While the sequels went on to more gruesome and elaborate gore, the first one keeps it fairly simple. Two men find themselves chained in a bathroom, with a corpse between them and a hacksaw each. The only way either of them can escape is to take that hacksaw to their own ankle. After much bloodshed, it’s revealed that Jigsaw, the mysterious killer who orchestrated the whole thing, has been in the room the whole time, posing as the corpse lying between his two unlucky victims. Shocking, effective, and oh so twisted.
#5: The Family Are Ghosts
“The Others” (2001)
This spooky, atmospheric horror gem stars a woman named Grace and her two children, who live in a secluded mansion following World War 2. As anyone might if they lived in a house this creepy looking, Grace begins to suspect that her home is haunted. It turns out she’s right, but not in the way she expected. After a series of terrifying encounters with what seem to be spirits, it’s revealed that Grace and her children are the ghosts haunting the house, and the visions they’ve been seeing are the new residents. It’s a clever inversion of the classic haunted house scenario that caught most cinemagoers completely by surprise.
#4: What David Needlessly Does to His Group
“The Mist” (2007)
Things look about as grim as they can possibly get for painter David Drayton and his family. After a strange mist envelops their sleepy New England town, monsters begin emerging from the strange fog and exterminating everyone they can get their tentacles, pincers, and claws on. David and his son flee in their car along with some other survivors in a desperate bid for safety. Eventually, the car runs out of gas, leaving David to shoot his friends and son to keep them from a grislier fate. With not enough bullets to go around, David leaves the car to be eaten by the monsters, only to find the military has arrived to save the day. Talk about too little too late...
#3: Stu & Billy Are the Killers
This trend-setting slasher movie revitalized the genre for a new generation by injecting a dose of self-aware meta-commentary to liven things up. This mainly takes the form of the teenage characters, who recognize that the mysterious killer stalking them is following the traditional rules of slasher films. Namely stuff like if you have sex, do drugs or say “I’ll be right back”, you’ll be the next one to die. But rather than just two horror movie fans familiar with the tropes of the genre, the characters of Billy and Stu turn out to be the killers themselves, making the horror movie awareness of the Ghostfaced-killer suddenly make a whole lot of sense.
#2: Malcolm Crowe Is a Ghost
“The Sixth Sense” (1999)
The twist so infamous that it started an entire meme remains a fan favorite, even if it turned a promising new director into “the twist ending guy”. The film tells the story of a young boy with the ability to see ghosts, which obviously leads to a near non-stop parade of terrifying encounters with the unquiet dead. Things look to be getting better when he meets a child psychologist determined to help the boy, to make amends for a previous failure. But in the end, it’s famously revealed that Bruce Willis’ Doctor Crowe is a ghost himself, having died after the film’s opening scene. For cinemagoers in 1999… it was one blown mind after another!
Before we get to our number one pick, here are some honorable mentions:
Simón Was Trapped & Died Behind the Walls
“The Orphanage” (2007)
Johnny Is Harry
“Angel Heart” (1987)
Mary Was Dead All Along
“Carnival of Souls” (1962)
Sarah's Escape Was a Hallucination
“The Descent” (2005)
Crispian, Zee & Felix Planned the Whole Thing
“You're Next” (2011)
#1: Norman Bates Is the Killer
Even before the shocking reveal at the film’s climax, Alfred Hitchcock’s horror opus already had audiences scared out of their minds. But that ending just made things worse. After watching numerous characters seemingly die at the hands of the apparently demented Mrs. Bates, audiences were stunned to learn that the killer was in fact her soft-spoken son Norman, who had preserved his dead mother’s body and taken on her identity. Even decades after the film’s release, and subsequent enshrinement in popular culture, the reveal at the end of this legendary film still remains the most shocking and memorable twist ending in the history of horror cinema.