Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In “Spectral Forms,” a chapter of The Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror, and Fear, Dani Cavallaro presents an observation with which, one might expect, most readers would agree: “Many people would probably be disinclined to confront disembodied voices and floating shapes, let alone share a dwelling with them.” However, having established this seemingly self-evident premise, she introduces “some potentially amusing exceptions, not only in fiction but also in real life,” one of which is recounted in Karen Farrington’s The History of the Supernatural and involves a homeowner who, disappointed that his recently purchased house has not lived up to its reputation, so to speak, of being haunted, sues the seller for what amounts to fraud (79).
Cavallaro’s example provides the basis for introducing a spin or a twist to one’s tale, which, although simple, is, or can be, effective, depending upon one’s treatment of it: suggest that one’s narrative will be resolved in one direction, but end the story in the opposite way. Such an approach depends upon the use of situational irony that is effected through the human mind’s seemingly natural tendency to think in, and, indeed, to create, polarities. The one to which Farrington, through Cavallaro, alludes involves that of the undesirable (the rule, as it were, which applies to interacting with “disembodied voices and floating shapes”) and the desirable (the “exception” to this rule, represented by the disappointed homeowner’s hope of encountering a ghost in the supposedly haunted house he’s recently purchased).
To apply this formula to other narratives, which may or may not involve ghosts or rumors of ghosts, a writer need only to construct a pair of opposites, drive his or her narrative toward one of the two possibilities for resolution, so that, unexpectedly, the story ends in the opposite manner to that which the author has led the reader to expect the tale will conclude. Alfred Hitchcock does this in Psycho. Encouraging viewers to assume that Norman Bates' mother has committed murder, the resolution of the plot shares the secret that it is the protagonist himself, who, impersonating his deceased mother, kills his victims. The movie The Others, directed by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Nicole Kidman as Grace Newman, is an example of this technique at work as well. The film suggests that Grace and her children are haunted by a family of ghosts when, in fact, as it turns out, it is she and her children who are the ghosts who haunt the house’s human tenants. Likewise, in The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Bruce Willis as Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist, who helps Cole Sear, a disturbed boy with dark secrets and claims to see ghosts, one of these phantoms, as it turns out, is Crowe himself, who has returned from the dead, after having been murdered by another patient, named Vincent, to assist Cole and to find closure for his own previous existence.
Shyamalan is a notoriously uneven director with more failures than successes to his credit, and his unsuccessful ventures, Lady in the Water and The Happening in particular, show how an inept handling of situational irony results in the introduction of a plot twist that leaves an audience disappointed and annoyed rather than satisfied.
Rather than constituting an integral part of the overall plot, many of the director’s endings appear tacked on, as it were, solely to deliver the supposed surprise for which he and his films have become known. The surprise endings are forced to fit, having become the trademark for his films.
To the contrary, Psycho, The Others, and, yes, even The Sixth Sense represent effective ways to employ situational irony to create a surprise ending; in each case, the endings issue from the characters of the protagonists: Norman Bates’ transvestism is a manifestation of his dead mother’s unbreakable hold upon his ego; Grace Newman’s guilt in murdering her own children caused her to kill herself and to spend what appears to be purgatory for her sins; Malcolm Crowe comes back from the dead the business of the living which has led to his own untimely demise and his failed marriage.
The twist ending to The Happening (a toxin secreted by plants who are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore from environmentally insensitive people who pollute the planet are causing people to go insane and kill themselves) has no bearing upon the personal crisis of the protagonist (whose problem appears to be that his wife had lunch with a male coworker). Thousands of years ago, in Poetics, Aristotle wrote of the necessity for the end of a narrative to be integral to everything that precedes it rather than being a dues ex machina that unrealistically and illogically concludes the tale. This is a lesson lost on the likes of Shyamalan, apparently, but, when a plot twist is executed with finesse, it can introduce a surprise ending that both jolts and satisfies. The films of Alfred Hitchcock, Alejandro Amenábar, and, indeed, Shayamalan (at one time, for a film or two) are proof of this.