Horror movies had quite a rocky start in depicting women. Early horror and the age of monster movies depicted women as damsels in distress rather than the final girl archetype we see today. They were always preyed upon and scared into submission. Most of the time, they were helpless. We see from the start of horror all the way to the 1960s with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Marion Crane isn’t really moving while she stabbed in the shower, which contradicts the ballsy moves she makes in the beginning of the film. She flails and she screams, but without the effort to do something, she dies naked, cold and humiliated.
It is important to remember that Marion Crane is not what horror fans know as the “final girl,” but rather her sister Lila that solves the mystery and escapes near death at the end of the film. Psycho did present a shift in the female protagonist, but Hitchcock is not the one to turn to for female empowerment. His following film The Birds is infamous for the mistreatment of actress Tippi Hedren. Instead, we are going to focus on the transition of the female protagonist in horror starting in the 1970s, and how the trope of the final girl went from empowering to demeaning. It remained that way throughout the years until the 1990s with the release of Scream, which destroys and rebuilds the trope once more.
1974: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was groundbreaking at its time of release. It determined what the slasher genre would be in the next few years. It was the next major exploitation horror film after Wes Craven’s release of The Last House on the Left, which is notorious for its brutality towards the two women. That film continued to push the narrative of damsels in distress–in high distress in this case–as they were put into a completely helpless situation. Yes, there is revenge as we see a mother and father rain hellfire on the rapist-murderers, but we don’t see the wronged women get justice themselves.
One of the first appearances of the trope that defines the slasher genre is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This film is the standard of low budget grindhouse, and has the bare bones of what a final girl would look and be like in future films. Sally Hardesty is the last one left alive, and she does get out of the terrifying situation she finds herself in towards the film’s climax. She has good instinct too, but honestly, she gets out of there due to pure luck. She also drags that poor semi truck driver into the situation during the final scene. He is the one to deal the blow that saves both of them. That doesn’t dismiss her as a final girl, but instead of the typical showdown the final girl has with the killer, Sally takes the flight method rather than the fight method.
1974: Black Christmas
Released the same year as the previous film, Black Christmas is an underrated slasher pioneer. It released the same weekend as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but carries a different tone. While both are gruesome, Black Christmas takes a different approach with its characters. Many tropes trace back to this movie, and considering this movie inspired John Carpenter to make Halloween, I say that Jess Bradford is the pioneer of the final girls. For more comparisons between Black Christmas and Halloween, check out The Ringer’s article ‘Black Christmas’ Was the First ‘Halloween’.
What sets Jess apart from Sally is that Jess seems to have a functioning brain and does not shriek at anything and everything in sight. That is a real insensitve take, I know that the traumatizing situations justify Sally’s reactions, but it isn’t the usual image of a final girl. Instead a final girl does what she needs to do, which involves being sneaky and keeping quiet. It also involves a headstrong attitude. Jess exhibits both in the action of the film as well as the other plot points, most poignantly the discussion she has with her boyfriend in regards to her plans for an abortion.
There is something deeply unsettling about the fate of this final girl, as the ending is ambiguous and it leans more towards killing off the final girl, since she receives the damning phone call. This is why I claim this movie and Texas Chainsaw pioneering films. The main reason being that their final girls do not fit the modern day image of the final girl. However, I give it Black Christmas to kick off this trope, as there are similarities between Jess and our next final girl Laurie Strode.
Laurie Strode is always the first to come to mind when I think about final girls. John Carpenter set the groundwork for the strong female protagonist with his 1978 film Halloween. She is a quiet, reserved teenager responsible for babysitting a kid Halloween night. She is on edge throughout the beginning of the movie as she sees Michael Meyers lurking in the shadows. Therefore, in the beginning and by the constant harassment of her friends, we as the audience are meant to view her as “lame”. That’s not it at all though. She is self aware of herself and her actions, which is why she kicks it into gear when she realizes Michael picked off her friends one by one.
With Laurie being the stay-at-home-and-study type in contrast with her somewhat reckless friends, it is sometimes read that Laurie’s survival is like a reward for her purity. This is a stripped down, male gazey version of Laurie Strode and the Final Girl as a whole. Whether we like it or not, the standard for women is lowkey pedophiliac its focus–more like obssession–on virginity. This aspect supposed to be admired about the final girl. This is the wrong way of looking at it. Rather than glamorize the idea of virginity, it should praise not succumbing to peer pressure and holding standards for yourself. Her friends tell her to loosen up multiple times in the film’s beginning. Laurie stands her ground and continues to be herself, all the way up to the end of the film. Tragically, the first train of thought is what the horror industry ran with.
1980: Friday the 13th
The next big slasher is what gave us the so-called “rules” of the genre: Friday the 13th. This has a big plot point of punishing the act of sex, as that is the reasoning Mrs. Voorhees attaches to her son’s death, and rightfully so, as neglect to watch over the swimmers led to him drowning. But they push that punishment to the extreme, with Mrs. Voorhees striking during or right after the act. It’s mindless revenge as none of the counselors were around Camp Crystal Lake during Jason’s death. Therefore it comes off more as a senile woman punishing the act of sex rather than getting revenge for her son.
Alice Hardy is our final girl in this film. The film exhibits her prudishness with the strip poker scene and her childlike crush on Bill, therefore it establishes the assumption that she is a virgin. What makes her the standard for the final girl is her epic showdown and kill of the villain. The seemingly innocent Alice is fed up and lops Pamela Voorhees’ head off, which according to her character we saw in the rest of the film, it is fairly unexpected and has us cheering for her. While Laurie Strode served as influence for Alice Hardy, the ideal final girl is Alice when the trope is analyzed by itself.
1984: A Nightmare on Elm Street
This implication of slashers punishing the youngsters for sex and drugs carried itself on a box office pedestal throughout the 1980s as several knockoffs and sequels planted their roots in the home video-palooza of the 80s. Though some had their twists and turns, the final girls became more and more washed out. It was almost like the final girl was becoming a hollow shell of herself and they were hitting copy-paste with each new release. Wes Craven took on a different kind of final girl in A Nightmare on Elm Street by giving Freddy a different motive than the motiveless voiceless killers of the early 80s, but even then Freddy painted himself as a godlike figure doing punishing.
Nancy Thompson is smart and has a good head on her shoulders. She is feminine, which was forgotten in the 80s, with the purposeful masculinization of the final girls to make them seem tougher. However, due to the nature of the killer and her surroundings, she comes off as helpless quite a few times throughout the film. Another ambiguous ending confirms this helplessness in which it implies Nancy actually never made it out alive.
Instead of going in that direction, the rest of the films of the 1980s almost had a carbon copy of Alice as their final girl. We would continue to see this regurgitation for the whole decade, until Craven finally said enough is enough.
Scream is brilliant, and I mean that in both adoration and critically. This film blends humor, horror and badasses, especially from the main protagonist Sidney Prescott. When I think of my ideal final girl, it goes to Sidney all the way. Despite her trauma and her poor taste in men, she doesn’t skip a beat to kick ass and defend herself and her posse. Her posse in both the original and its sequels also feature some badass women, with Gale Weathers being a secondary final girl and Tatum Riley, who scores some awesome hits on Billy before her unfortunate run in with the garage door.
Sidney destroys the final girl archetype as she breaks most of the “rules” Randy reminds of us nearing the climax of the film. She is not a virgin by the final showdown and she is not a innocent delicate flower. She is actively dealing with her mother’s murder and testified against Cotton Weary so effectively that she put him in jail on a life sentence. Sidney is a breath of fresh air and restores the internal workings of a woman into the final girl. Therefore she rises to the top of the hierarchy side by side with Laurie Strode.
Wes Craven did make an instant classic, which engraved Ghostface in the history of horror among the classic slasher villains. He also made Sidney Prescott a posterchild for aspiring young women. His writing of Sidney is almost like a true apology in regards to how he wrote women characters before. A lot of Craven’s previous work brutalized women quite a bit and put them in hopeless situations consistently. Therefore, to have Sidney Prescott persevere through all of this, I can forgive Craven’s depravity.
What now? Modern Day Final Girls
In modern horror, the final girl is still alive and kicking, but rather in the model of Sidney Prescott rather than Alice Hardy. Some key examples is Grace from Ready or Not, Rocky in the first Don’t Breathe, and Dana in The Cabin in the Woods–who plays a trope in but transcends it much like Sidney did. There hasn’t been much regression, and while sequel fever has sparked back up in the recent years, more paranormal based films are the ones to pick up sequels, which prevents the final girl becoming hollow again.
A brilliant horror comedy that has come out in the past decade is The Final Girls. It truly is a romp and will become a cult classic as the years go by, but the way that this movie plays with the rules that the 1980s horror flicks set is creative and hilarious. This film is a feature in my 31 Days of Horror coming up, so check it out. Overall, I don’t think the horror community will allow this trope to return back to where it was, and when it does, it usually is in homage to something and likes to challenge the original ideas that caused such a prudish final girl. Final verdict: thanks to Scream, you can drink, do drugs and have sex and you can still survive a horror film. Just don’t say you’ll be right back, because you won’t be. Easy enough, right?