Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for the Halloween franchise, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Friday the 13th franchise and the Scream franchise, so if you haven’t seen any entry of the franchise, beware of them.
CW: Mentions of sex
Stories are made of tropes. No matter how much one wants to deny it or consider a story ‘original and/or unique’, a trope is the backbone of a story. Always has been and always will be, and they are always present even if you want nothing but to avoid them. They make the story what it is.
Horror is known for using various tropes multiple times to the point of making them a cliché, such as ignoring common sense and going to the haunted house anyway, splitting up when it’s the last thing you should do, having sex means you’re dying in a horror film, and even your typical dead cell phone at a crucial moment is a trope. Nevertheless, the trope I want to focus on in this article is the final girl, a trope that originated in the 70s with slasher films in which a girl is the last surviving member of her group and the only one capable of defeating the ‘big bad’ for good due to her ‘moral superiority’ (she is a virgin, doesn’t smoke, drink or consume drugs) over her friends.
For a genre well-known for depicting women in hypersexualized scenarios, to the point that it turns grotesque and obscene, dismembering them like it’s their favourite hobby, and overall using them as nothing but props, it’s interesting to study how it also became the instigator of a trope where “[a girl] who alone looks death in the face, but…who finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued, or to kill him herself.” According to Carol J. Clover, who coined the term in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film in 1992, the trope was created so that audiences could identify with the survivor instead of the killer.
Clover wrote that audiences wouldn’t be able to sympathize with a male character who was terrified as “cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, begging for mercy belongs to the female.” As a sympathetic character, she was the driving force of the narrative, asking questions, being cautious of the situation, exhibiting ‘common sense’ in the face of danger. But, the final girl couldn’t stay a girl to defeat the villain, as “angry displays of force belong to the male,” so the movies had to masculinize the final girl through “phallic appropriation” (by making her take a weapon such as a knife, a machete or anything phallic) and erase her femininity and her sexuality to defeat the killer.
In the early stages of the trope, the 70s, it was most often seen that the ‘final girls’ would hold on just long enough for a ‘big strong man’ (usually a cop) to come in and save the day. Take for example the epitome of the final girl, Laurie Strode from Halloween (1978), who in the movie holds on until Dr. Sam Loomis swoops in and saves the day, or one of the earliest examples of the trope, Sally Hardesty from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) who is (spoiler alert) saved by a passing truck as she runs away from Leatherface.
Damsel to Hero
However, it was during the 80s that the trope started to diverge from the ‘damsel in distress’ scenario and focus more on the girls and the power they held on their own to survive the horrors they faced, like Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street or Alice in Friday the 13th. Both of them were the last ones standing, outwitting the killer to defeat the evil and save themselves from a horrible death.
But it is also important to mention that in the early stages of the trope, the final girl wasn’t often a ‘victorious heroine’ as she was often severely traumatized, catatonic, or her fate is left ambiguous, with the threat still at large, waiting for the perfect opportunity to come back. Much like in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), where the end shows Freddy attacking them all over again, leaving us unsure if what we just saw was a nightmare or reality in the end.
For these girls, there’s no resolution or salvation, as even death proved itself to be inescapable, like Alice from Friday the 13th (1980) who was murdered by Jason in the first scene of the sequel, or Chris from Friday the 13th Part III (1982) who ends up catatonic by the end of the film. Laurie ends up institutionalized by the end of Halloween II (1981) and only Nancy seemed to have escaped this fate until A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors came along and murdered her. The film ‘allowed her’ to kill Freddy with a smile in the end, only for that to not be the case and setting up yet another entry of the franchise.
It’s clear that many of these unambiguous endings were due to the popularity of the franchise and the desire to capitalize on their popularity, which considering the climate we live in is not surprising. But one can’t ignore the underlying message these entries have on how we view young women, as someone we must condone or punish for surviving the horrors they face.
Finding Power in the Feminine
In horror, a woman was usually punished for being a sexual being, chastising her for having sexual relations by killing her in brutal explicit manners while still half naked in the viewers eyes. And the early examples of the final girl show us that these ‘sexually unavailable or virginal’ characters who ‘don’t succumb to temptations’ such as drugs or alcohol are also eventually punished by being brave and assertive. There was no salvation, even if you were to be the final girl.
However, it all began to change during the 90s, with the introduction to Wes Craven’s meta slasher film Scream that served as a satire of the clichés that plagued the slasher film for the last two decades, mainly Nightmare on Elm Street which Craven also created. Sidney, a “cool” final girl who is allowed to have sex and survive the killers and is nowhere near dead or institutionalized at any point during her run in the franchise.
She was allowed to exist outside the confines of the trope, and many that followed her were allowed to trace her footsteps, evolving the tropes from the confines it was trapped during its conception. Even Laurie got her second chance, as Halloween (2018) retconned every sequel of the franchise and allowed Laurie to be a strong and flawed female character, who had been through horrors but managed to survive and even thrive, in the case of Sidney at least.
But things didn’t stay like that as movies like The Witch (2015) and It Follows (2014) explore how the main characters accept and explore their sexuality, even weaponizing it in the case of It Follows, as a means to survive and even thrive in the ordeal. They do not become “phallicized” like the final girls before them, but they remain unequivocally female throughout the narrative.
As much progress has been made with the final girl trope, from damsel in distress-esque type to having complete control and agency over what happens to her, especially in an era where violence against women is still as relevant as it was in the past, it is important to notice one very important cliché this trope hasn’t managed to shed over the last 40 years: it is an ultimately and uniquely white trope. So we must ask ourselves if we’re really as progressive as we think we are.
If you’d like to read more from Maríe Garduño, check out more of her work here!