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When Marion Crane’s blood swirled down the drain in 1960’s Psycho, it did a lot more than invigorate a genre and art form. Her blood gestated for 18 years, birthing a new incarnation of horror women – the active and iconic Final Girl in 1978’s Halloween. As Carol Clover outlined in her seminal essay, “Her Body, Himself,” the Final Girl first appeared in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as Sally fought her way to bloody supremacy in 1974. But with the arrival of Janet Leigh’s offspring, Jamie Lee Curtis, in Halloween, the Final Girl evolved from a woman who survives in film, to a hero whose impact often stretches beyond the boundaries of fictional horror. As villains rose into multiple-film menaces, the Final Girls who fought and defeated them became icons in their own right – symbols of good, female strength to balance the evil.
Of course, as Clover noted, this is a problematic symbol. Figuratively, the Final Girl’s presence “has very little to do with femaleness and very much to do with phallocentrism.” “She is simply an agreed-upon fiction,” Clover writes, “and the male viewer’s use of her as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies is an act of perhaps timeless dishonesty.” Yet the idea of this hero as a feminist development is more than, in Clover’s words, “wishful thinking.” The visceral impact of a strong and increasingly capable heroine, regardless of phallic violence and rigid moral guidelines (being chaste, studious, inventive), is still felt to this day, as Hollywood repeatedly struggles to present women on film.
For all of the form’s faults, Final Girls offered a new look at femaleness, womanhood defined by perseverance rather than overwrought victimization. They weren’t iconic victims like Marion Crane, nor super-sexualized dynamos of the then-recent exploitation films. For every fault, they also offered a sense of safety – an idea that a deadly attack need not be fatal, that with smarts and will, one could survive. They were female action stars well before Hollywood ever acknowledged the possibility, a new wave of kick-ass, modernized femininity.
Curtis’ Laurie Strode set the framework for slasher horror. As a good girl who fears dating, who is studious, mindful of her elders, and watchful of the world outside her own narrow frame of reference, she instigated the rules that would become immortalized one day in Scream. Laurie is clearly set to survive based on her moral choices, but it is not her morality that saves her – it’s her will to survive. In one night, she evolves from the innocent girl avoiding the school dance to the screaming girl locked in a closet, to the survivor fashioning weapons out of every nearby object while actively protecting the children she’s babysitting. Though she is “saved” by Doctor Loomis, it’s not so much that he stopped the violence by shooting Michael, but that his presence delayed Laurie’s fight for another day, in Halloween 2.
Her timelines split, with her dying in an ultimately ignored storyline so that Curtis could return for H:20, for the (presumed) final showdown, that would not only have her decapitate Michael, but do so after bonding with her mother (with Leigh playing coworker Norma). Ultimately, it is not so much her brother, but Hollywood greed that kept Laurie Strode from being an undefeated Final Girl, with a much maligned sequel, Halloween: Resurrection, ending the story and her life. But since Strode already survived one presumed death when the series ignored multiple installments, her final, less-than-stellar demise can be ignored as well.
Right on the heels of Laurie Strode came Ellen Ripley, arguably the most iconic heroine to fight in horror/science fiction. Where the former offered a taste of power to the young, Ripley earned power as a rational, working woman. No Final Girl, or any female film hero for that matter, was offered the evolution of Ripley. She quickly learned to fight when faced with the alien race in Alien, then fought alongside marines, survived a vicious penal colony to seemingly die to save the world from the Alien queen growing inside her, and was ultimately resurrected 200 years later as an Alien-infused anti-superhero.
Unlike other films that rise on the strength of their Final Girls before excommunicating them, Ripley is the essential hero. Her Alien enemies are certainly iconic in their own right, but they rely not on a good vs. evil dichotomy, but a specific battle with Ripley herself. Though she is plagued with many of the same pitfalls of other Final Girls – a distinct and growing sense of masculinity battling an overt motherly instinct – her womanhood is essential to the film’s success.
The Nightmare on Elm Street series, though a classic slasher story with a gruesome, seemingly immortal foe, offered a twist right in the very beginning: Final Girls who act instead of react. Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson seems like the quintessential good girl destined to survive Freddy’s claws – and she does – but not because she merely survives Krueger’s attacks. Nancy takes the offense, scheming to pull the villain out of her mind and into her reality so that they could fight on her terms. Where he creates sadistic dream worlds, she creates a booby-trapped reality, strips him of his energy, and temporarily defeats him.
Her role then shifts from equal fighter to weathered guide, her diary acting as a how-to for defeating Freddy, before she reappeared in Dream Warriors. Like any Final Girl who appears in more than one or two films, Nancy is killed in her second big battle with Freddy, but like Ripley, cannot be ultimately stopped as her heroism is integral to the foundation of the story. In New Nightmare she isn’t resurrected, but rather reintroduced as the actress, Heather Langenkamp. In this story, Nancy’s death is punished — an evil entity is unleashed into the real world. Her previous death is, therefore, not only a danger to the audience thriving on the Final Girl’s power, but a danger to those who fictionally killed her – a warning sign about the problem with killing the essential heroine.
Though the horror impact of the Nightmare on Elm Street world diminished greatly with every passing installment, the fourth and fifth installments reconfigured their take on the Final Girl. Alice Johnson’s empowerment becomes an essential, and specific, plot point.
At first, she’s the shy, introverted hanger-on to her much more wild friends (much like Laurie Strode). She considers herself a non-entity, preferring to mask her mirror, and thereby herself, with her friends’ images. When they die, however, and she mystically consumes portions of their strength, the pictures come down in chunks as she wipes away the old Alice to become the active fighter. Instead of teamwork, the team is infused into one previously passive being, a mecha-human designed to defeat the dream monster. Alice is one of the few true and ongoing Final Girls; she survives two films, saves her child from demonic possession, and disappears from the Nightmare on Elm Street world without ever succumbing to the inevitability of death in a future installment.
In many ways, Sidney Prescott is simply a modern manifestation of Laurie Strode. Wes Craven’s ‘90s horror hit lavishes in the meta world of horror, while specifically having fun with Halloween — mimicking all manner of the early film’s aspects, from names and death scenes to the familial ties between killer and hero. Her change is not so much one of personality – Sydney is essentially the same strong heroine in each film – but maturity. She slowly evolves out of the intimacy-scared, modest-teed young woman and into a tough and self-assured success. She’s been attacked by family, friends and strangers, and unlike Strode, is allowed to keep her power and life, refusing to hand the reigns to a younger generation, and avoiding the danger of a second modern sequel. Likewise, she’s the only Final Girl who both suffers monumental losses and ultimately gets to keep a handful of her original friends.
Not the traditional Final Girl, Cherry Darling is relegated to one film and a wholly unique circumstance – the exploited sex worker who becomes a physical weapon. She is, at once, the stereotypical groan-worthy figure and the ultimate wish fulfillment. Unlike most heroines in horror films, she does endure grievous bodily harm, but emerges all the tougher, her amputated limb replaced with a gnarly machine gun leg.
Furthermore, as a tongue-in-cheek homage to exploitation horror, Cherry Darling is the obvious, blunt manifestation of the Final Girl. She’s a woman completely sexualized by the male gaze, “improved” by her male lover, and then released as a deadly superheroine that can’t be stopped. She requires no figurative assessment because both manifestations are displayed clearly. As such, Cherry unintentionally becomes the warning sign for Final Girls – a revelation of the trope’s inherent inadequacies.
For a time, it seemed like the Final Girl would evolve in the new millennium. Buffy Summers was given the chance to morph from a truly clueless popular girl and would-be victim in a comedic horror piece to a formidable feminist figurehead on television. In the aughts, the Final Girl was splintering into factions. As Buffy left television, Mandy Lane descended in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, rejigging the Final Girl as the ultimate sneaky villain.
Now many films choose to remake the originals, from Halloween to the upcoming Evil Dead. Instead of Ginny playing with Jason’s mind in Friday the 13th Part 2, we have Nancy in a remake of NOES that is not nearly as inventive as Langenkamp’s – only somewhat balanced by Sidney Prescott’s ongoing survival with Scream 4.
Their time seems to have come to an end, hopefully for something better skittering on the horizon.