This FandomWire video essay explains the horror movie trope called the Final Girl and how it’s used in storytelling.
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This is a “Final Girl.” The lone surviving teenaged girl or woman at the conclusion of a horror film. Her friends have likely been stabbed, bludgeoned, dismembered, crushed, eaten, or killed through any number of creative and gory methods. But SHE… has survived. It’s a classic horror trope that has been a lasting tradition throughout the genre. Many of horror’s most iconic films feature the “final girl.” Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Suspiria, Alien the list goes on and on.
So, where did this tradition come from and why is it such a vital and important element of the horror genre? The term “Final girl” was originally used in 1987 by film scholar Carol Clover. Clover wrote an essay titled “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” where she dissected the slasher subgenre of horror and spoke in detail about what she called the “Final Girl.” Clover said this, “She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again.” That’s it in a nutshell. The final girl is somebody who will go through hell and come out alive, stronger, and standing on her own two feet.
Horror, more than any other genre, has rules. The Slasher film is especially riddled with rules and clichés required to survive or to kill the un-killable beast that stalks in the night. While these rules are not iron-clad, rules are meant to be broken, or at least bent, they do remain true more often than not. The rules of a final girl are simple. She’s a good girl. NO sex. And NO drugs. She is traditionally the most down-to-earth, the most relatable character for the audience to connect with. Think of Laurie Strode from John Carpenter’s horror classic Halloween. Her friends spend their Halloween night smoking Marijuana and canoodling with boys and are quickly punished with the sharp end of Michael Myers’ blade for their indecency. Horror movie killers are a moral group, after all, and they will not put up with teenaged debauchery. Nope. None of it. Laurie on the other hand spends her night babysitting. No sex, no drugs… and she lives to tell the tale.
And while the Final Girl trope is still around in horror today, it’s gone through quite a transformation. Let’s start by looking at one of the earliest examples of a Final Girl. Sally Hardesty from Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Sally fits Clover’s description of a Final Girl to a Tee. Mutilated bodies? Check. She’s chased. Check. Screams, Staggers, Falls? Check. Check… and Check. Sally is the lone survivor as each of her friends meet increasingly violent and gruesome deaths at the hands of Leatherface and his demented family. She ultimately survives after running through the woods to a roadway, jumping in the bed of a passing truck, and narrowly escaping as Leatherface wildly swings his chainsaw in frustration. She survives because she’s rescued at the last moment… by a man. Just as Laurie Strode was rescued by Doctor Loomis at the end of Halloween.
I’m not saying the final girl was always a damsel in distress. Nancy devised a plan to defeat Freddy Kruger in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and Ripley fought off the Xenomorph with little more than a flame thrower and her underwear. The biggest change that we’ve seen in Final Girls over the years is in their ability to become just as ruthless as their pursuer. With movies like 2011’s You’re Next we see Erin, the final girl, go through an on-screen evolution. Baptized in blood she becomes even more dangerous than the original killers who hunted her. We see her transition from a scared, fleeing, and clueless victim, to a dangerous fighter who wins her survival through brutal force. Savior be damned! She is her own savior! Like a phoenix, she emerges from her trauma a new woman. A force to be reckoned with. To be feared… to be respected.
This is the modern-day Final Girl. Films like Ready or Not, 2013’s Evil Dead reboot, Crawl, they all see the heroine make a conscious decision to fight back. Even 2018’s Halloween sequel reimagines Laurie Strode as a woman who is tired of running. That scared little girl hiding in the closet and pleading for her life is a distant memory of the past. She is now ready to stand her ground, gun in hand, and face her demon head-on.
Traditionally this level of violence at the hands of the female lead was reserved for a small subgenre of revenge horror. Films like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left saw the victims of brutal physical and sexual violence return to punish their abusers and get their revenge. They weren’t really final girls. They weren’t the lone survivor of a maniacal killer, they were the killer. But that’s a totally different topic for another video…
The “Final girl” is important. As viewers watching a slasher film we want and expect to see most of the characters killed off. That’s WHY we’re watching a slasher film. But we also want somebody to root for. We need it. We need an onscreen counterpart to connect with in order to make the cinematic experience feel like a worthwhile journey. Over the years the final girl has evolved into a symbol of empowerment. Not only of female empowerment, although that is definitely true. But empowerment for everybody who has ever been perceived as weak. Anybody who has been bullied. Pushed around. Threatened. Their triumph is our triumph… their victory is OUR victory.
As the times have changed, the horror genre has changed with it. The Final Girl has been around since at least the ’70s, but she has continued to adapt and evolve over the decades to represent new ideals. This is one horror trope that fans have embraced entirely and will not be getting bored of any time soon. Do you have a favorite Final Girl? Let me know in the comments and please, if you enjoyed the video give it a like. And don’t forget to subscribe. Thanks and I’ll see you next time.