Evolution of the Final Girl in Horror

Contributing Writer
Evolution of the Final Girl in Horror

For a long time, a woman’s place in classic horror was best summed up by Robert Mitchum, who once referred to his The Night of the Hunter partner Shelley Winters as someone who was born to “float in the water with her throat cut.”

Throughout the existence of the genre, all kinds of terrible things happened to women: fanged monsters climbed their windows, trying to abduct them; they were constantly dragged through the dungeons in their silky undergarments; oversized gorillas carried them onto the very tops of phallic skyscrapers; they would gradually lose their clothes along their misfortunes, mumbling instead of having a proper dialogue.

In the creative toolkit of the classic Draculas, Frankensteins, and Mummies, women would count no better than as an ornament. Years later, Peter Jackson would brilliantly mimic this practice in his own version of King Kong, by filming Naomi Watts basically the same way an IKEA piece from catalogue gets filmed – illuminated eerily beautiful to the point you want to get one for your home, although unsure if you need it. 

It was in the 40s, due to the combined efforts of thrillers, crime films and noir,  when female characters started to have more fun and received their fair share of lines. Hitchcock also came to the rescue, inventing a “cold blonde in distress” trope; in his films, women still remained toys to cruel men – however, now they became somewhat proactive.

In this sense, the evolution of Grace Kelly’s characters is illustrative: Hitchcock's favorite blonde first appeared in Dial M for Murder as a victim of her own husband’s cunning scheme, looking semi-unconscious half the time; then, in Rear Window, she quite literally becomes a right-hand woman to the temporary aidless James Stuart. Sadly, Hitchcock’s perfect princess would run away with a real-life prince, but it was Kelly’s Rear Window character that surprisingly inspired the screen presence of another “princess of the genre” — Clarice Starling of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, who walks into the utterly male, chauvinistic frame with a bulletproof dignity. 

Along with another Brit – Michael Powell – Hitchcock originated a new film format with a figure of a maniac at its core. 1960's Psycho and Peeping Tom are not yet (or not at all) slashers; however, they serve as a dual starting point for the upcoming obsession with the subgenre. Among other things, both films explored the motif of voyeurism and fascination with evil; Powell’s feature also unambiguously equates the eye of the murderous “peeper” to a camera lens willing to assimilate and absorb any verity it captured.

As a result, it was Norman Bates and Mark Lewis who became “the founding fathers” of the very specific “eye closeup” in horror. Years later, this very closeup would be divided into two subtypes by Carol Clover in her classic piece, Men, Women and Chain Saws. “–źssaultive gaze,” a gaze associated with an aggressive, primal male domination, a look of a murderer, and “reactive gaze,”an originative and perceptive gaze, widely associated with the feminine (and translating, most of the time, into meaning a victim).

This stereotype -- which proved to deliver dutifully until it started to crumble under its own weight -- of the power imbalance in inter-gender relationships has been re-interpreted in horror films for years. This trope was literalized by the maestro of slasher’s Italian twin giallo, Dario Argento, in his Opera (1987), where an attention-seeking murderer goes to impressive lengths to force Cristina Marsillach’s character to watch him in action.

Later, in The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), Argento’s daughter Asia simultaneously plays a victim and an assaulter, a woman who comes to question her gender identity after surviving horrible violence. As if trying to shake off the gender-imposed mantle of a victim, she sort of becomes one with her offender, which ends tragically for many of those involved. 

Historically, the survival rate of the heroines who didn’t seek to suppress their feminine identity but accepted it with all its nuances, was marginally higher.  Thus, a particular horror genre concept was created, nicknamed “final girl” by the very same Carol Clover in 1992. Sally Hardesty of the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) became the golden standard of such heroines, particularly embodied in the film’s ending where Sally was whisked from Leatherface and his psychotic family towards the unknown future by a bypassing pickup truck.

Much later, a new, hugely unrealistic archetype got attached to the concept of Final Girl, courtesy of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, who introduced an ironic checklist for the perfect horror heroine in Scream (1996). According to the formula defined in Scream by cinephile Randy, the true screen queen should be free of bad habits, do well in school, never have sex, and ideally be played by Jamie Lee Curtis. In other words, the final girl should meet certain moral – uhm – criteria against her rather freethinking peers.

Curtis’ own filmography had encouraged the spreading of the stereotype: her characters in Halloween, Terror Train, and Prom Night were indeed marked with chastity; then again, the plain binary morale of the urban legends also contributed to enrooting it in slashers. As we know, sex was at the very core of Friday the 13th's narrative, since it stood in a way of horny camp counsellors keeping a better eye on Jason Voorhees.

At the same time, not all horror heroines pointedly hold onto their innocence: for example, the quivering Jess of the original Black Christmas (1974) was not only not a virgin, but, by the time of the attack on the sorority, was also contemplating abortion, despite the protests of her disapproving boyfriend. It didn’t, however, stop Jess, played by angelic Olivia Hussey, who only years beforehand played Shakespeare’s Juliet, from effectively protecting her life against the assaulter by masterfully handling a fire poker.

Heroines of the Hellraiser and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, played by Ashley Laurence and Lisa Wilcox, respectively, weren’t particularly saintlike, and yet, each of them managed to outpower their hellish opponents twice. In fact, even Craven and Williamson, being the sole authors of the post-modernist farcical take on the genre rules, happily violated it by putting Sidney Prescott in bed with a psychopath. And yet again, Sidney is a spotless heroine who refuses to play victim despite all.  

Just as it was the case with Sally Hardesty, who would reach the credits of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre alive – not because she had a supposed higher moral ground over her dead friends, and neither because she was a cyborg in disguise – no, Sally just really wanted to live. This is why she was patient when she needed to be, jumped right through the glass of a second-floor window, and ran as if her life depended on it; precisely because it did.

It was a desperate, gripping desire to live even with a hammer-pierced fractured head, multiplied by an immense sense of purpose, that allowed Sally and other heroines like her a feeling of superiority over the evil forces. It’s the struggle for life they execute with cleavers, hammers, kitchen knives, fireplace accessories, cabinets, clothing hangers, and, in one particularly memorable case, a blender.

That is what made them in the right by default. The whole concept of a “final girl” in its core comes down to discarding everything hollow and recognizing life as the highest value, to stubbornly holding onto your own right to it, thus, turning a fight against a leather-wearing madman from an unfortunate nuisance into an epic battle of good versus evil.

In January 2017, birthmoviesdeath.com published an emotional piece by Lauren Milici, describing how Sally's triumphant laughter in the Texas Massacre finale and, subsequently, watching other final girls, helped the author deal with her own post-violence trauma. The all-triumphant desire to survive by all means shared by Sally, Sidney, as well as the other heroines who at different times opposed Freddy, Jason and Michael, not only turned the screenwriting cliche into a full-bodied character every time, but also transmitted the respective worldview from the screen onto the real world, in which too many women have been and continue to be forced into the role of victims.

Milici’s emotiveness is appealingly sincere as she shares her thoughts on these films, relating to them through her own experience, and it emphasizes yet another critical detail that makes the horror heroines so realistic: when it comes to survival, the final girls apply all of the life experience they have in stock – even the ones that are pretty unconventional.

Thus, Ginny from the second Friday the 13th film never loses her head in the face of challenges and manages to outsmart the biggest mama’s boy in horror history by using his issues in her favor and yanking him out by impersonating his mommy dearest. Erin, the Aussie girl in You’re Next, effectively assembles a guillotine in a hall of the attacked house, while Bree Turner’s character in Don Coscarelli’s Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, when faced with a maniac, sets out booby traps using her own underwear.

Finally, the writers’ unexpected resourcefulness in depicting the various ways a woman can use to kill a madman if chased with an axe long enough, has led to yet another curious effect. The conventional power dynamic of the gender forces in the horror genre has inevitably cracked at its seams and appears to have finally exhausted its potential.

The men in horror are no longer the exclusive bearers of aggression, and the higher cinematic authorities have granted the female characters great ambivalence. In the finale of the second Hostel, Beth accepts the repressed killer within much much more easier than her predecessor from the first movie.

Dana from The Cabin in the Woods is not eager to fulfill the assigned role of a textbook heroine and does not save the world in the finale. Shauna Macdonald’s character in The Descent doesn’t hesitate to pick up a bloody fight with a friend right inside an underground cave favored by the carnivorous monsters. And in Barbarian, the heroine’s “savior complex” gets directly addressed. There are films straightforwardly celebrating the triumph of the female, sometimes murderous, sexuality: John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, and Julia Ducournau’s Raw.

Like Ducournau’s film, another French outing, Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017), is both a daring exercise in the genre and a feminist statement in its own right. While Ducournau’s film explored the awakening of female sexuality, Fargeat’s is a take on a female transition from an object into a subject, from a victim into literally a hunter.

At first, Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz’s character is constantly objectified by everyone: by sleazy men (notably, the most disturbing scene in the film includes the closeup of a man eating a chocolate bar) and even by the female director, whose detached gaze portrays Lutz as Kubrick’s Lolita in the beginning.  When the girl is first forced to rise in arms, she does so for survival, but then acquires the taste for revenge on men who prove to only appear brave when dealing with someone they perceive as being weaker than them.

Even the traditional exploitation of female nudity in horror is turned inside out here. Hence the spectacular ending where we witness a full-fledged (and beautifully filmed with rampant rage) face-off between a half-dressed woman and a gloriously naked man.

The so-called tradition is water under the bridge now – the same water Robert Mitchum suggested his partner float down with her throat cut, not that the world has changed that much. After all, let’s not forget it was the silver-haired Lillian Gish sporting a gun who defeated Mitchum’s character in The Night of the Hunter.

The world, like people, in all variety of genders, does not change much at all – but the films do. As does the understanding of the power and strategic purpose of women’s underwear.

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