A Final Girl Trope in Horror Films: Then and Now

By Zofia Wijaszka

She’s fierce, polite, but will battle every guy in a mask. The beginning of the pop culture trope from the title started with Mari Collingwood in “The Last House on the Left” (1972).  The phenomenon exists mainly in slasher films and refers to the main character, who is a female. It defines the last woman alive who is supposed to battle the serial killer and kill him. Often the final girl is a virgin. Always with excellent etiquette, she’s also very friendly. A female character’ trope introduced above is meant to survive everybody.

One name comes to mind when thinking about the final girl – Laurie Strode. She’s one of the most famous female characters from a slasher film. The question is, what is the significance and relevance of the trend to pop culture and, first and foremost, female viewers?  For the first time, the term was used in the book titled “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film” (1992) by Carol J. Clover. We can understand that when referring to a genre recognized from its gory, blood splashing components that are often combined with the brutal scenes of rape, it’s difficult to talk about feminism.

However, the author of the book argues with that statement. According to Clover, the destiny of these movies is to depict rather than male – victimized female characters. This way, the audience will relate to the woman facing her tormentor. Not only that – she fights and wins the last battle. It’s also a great matter for women who watch slashers.  They have a chance to see a heroine who, after being chased by a male oppressor, turns out, and fights him. Not only that, she gets to win.

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“[It] defines the last woman alive who is supposed to battle the serial killer and kill him. Often the final girl is a virgin. Always with excellent etiquette, she’s also very friendly. A female character’ trope introduced above is meant to survive everybody.”

With the book being published in 1992, some things still haven’t changed. Some things have. There are many final girls in films, but let’s focus on the most popular ones. First – Laurie Strode. Although according to the sources, Mari Collingwood was the first one, the character portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis is definitely more recognized. She appeared in the slasher “Halloween” created by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Carpenter many times admitted that he didn’t have any idea the film would become such a hit.

Seventeen-year-old high school student Laurie is supposed to babysit little Tommy (Brian Andrews) on Halloween night. She doesn’t know that the said night will change her life forever. A masked killer named Michael Myers terrorizes the neighborhood, killing people with his knife. His main target – Laurie. But why? Let’s not answer that question, because who knows, maybe people still haven’t watched this classic. Laurie survives, of course. She faces Michael in the house she babysits in. All her friends are dead, but the girl doesn’t give up. Laurie survives because she is a final female character in a slasher. Curtis’ character is polite, calm, a great student. Her only vice may be smoking weed with her friend Lyndsey (Nancy Kyes).

The fact that she’s also a virgin is a coincidence in this case. Debra Hill and John Carpenter repeatedly highlighted this subject. They admitted that virginity wasn’t supposed to be a protection from the killer. While her peers’ only interest seemed to be sex, Laurie was focused on studying, hence alone. That, in turn, made her more aware of her surroundings.

While Curtis’ portrayal of Laurie is a final girl from the seventies, she somehow connects to modern times with “Halloween” from 2018. In the continuation that rejects all parts after “Halloween II,” the director David Gordon Green presents the aftermath of the 1978′ events that were left on Laurie. She is a broken woman with PTSD. Her daughter and family believe that she is insane, but at the end (surprise, surprise) turns out that Laurie is always right and everybody should listen to her.

 

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“40 Years Later, Evil Returns Home” The Official tagline for Halloween (2018)

 

After the success of Carpenter’s first “Halloween,” the final girl trope became very popular. In 1984, Wes Craven directed “A Nightmare of Elm Street.”  In a slasher where the reality blends with a dream, the main character – Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), has to figure out who’s interrupting her dreams. Burnt skin, worn hat, and green-red sweater – Nancy is soon to find out that his name is Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).

Similar to Laurie, Nancy’s friends are the victims of the man from the dream. All attributes between the two heroines are comparable – both virgins with a geeky side. Similar to Laurie, Nancy fights with Freddie many times throughout the film. Thankfully, she has a special gift – she can pull someone into her dream. Just as the main female character from “Halloween,” Nancy is the only survivor. The events inspire her future – she appears in the third part of the franchise as an intern therapist in an institute that researches dreams of young adults. Her trauma and experience help her relate to kids having nightmares.

Throughout the years, the trope lingers. In 1997, Wes Craven created “Scream,” casting Neve Campbell as the main character. Sidney Prescott is a Woodsboro High student. As far as her grades and achievements are not mentioned, she’s a good teenager. Although the girl is very young, life didn’t spare her. Only one year ago, since the plot of the first “Scream” starts, we find out that she lost her mother to murder.

Additional to that, Sidney receives vague phone calls from a killer called Ghostface, who kills teenagers while trying to get to her. It’s then when Randy (Jamie Kennedy) presents three fundamental rules on how to survive a horror. You absolutely cannot have sex. No alcohol or drugs. And don’t dare to say, “I’ll be right back,” “Hello?” or “Who’s there?”.

 

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“Do you like scary movies?” Neve Campbell answers the phone in “Scream”

 

Sidney, of course, obeys two our of three. She ends up sleeping with her boyfriend, Bill Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), and, this way, breaks one of the features of the typical final girl. The four parts of the franchise, directed by Craven, change the rules on how to escape the horror in each chapter. But somehow, Sidney’s character survives all Ghostface’s attempts to kill her. In this way, the role of Neve Campbell presents viewers with a modern type of trope.

Years pass by, and Blumhouse Productions comes out with “Happy Death Day” by  Christopher Landon. The new and modernized type of final girl is Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe). She’s definitely not nice. Tree is no stranger to truancy or sleepovers with her male peers. When this university student starts having a real Groundhog day and repeats the same day every day, she thinks she has seen it all.  That’s, of course, not true – there is a killer in a baby mask chasing after her. That said, the heroine has to do two things at the same time – solve the mystery of repeating the same day and figure out who the killer is. She’s brilliant and fierce – she will do anything to resolve it.

“Polite or not polite, virgin or not – it seems as there are not many rules in the modern portrayal of this trope. One thing is sure; we will always applaud the character who’s fierce like Laurie, powerful as Sidney and Nancy, and smart as Tree and Maddie.”

Another excellent example of the modern version of the titled trope is Maddie (Kate Siegel) from “Hush” by Mike Flanagan. In a horror where only a couple sentences are said, the tension is remarkably high. While the woman who happens to be deaf confronts the intruder in her house in the middle of nowhere, her lack of one of the senses may just be something she requires to make it alive. Maddie shows the killer the things she’s capable of. In the mind of the film, the lack of hearing is her superpower. What can be taken as an imperfection, “Hush” transforms it into something needed to survive.

 

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“You know, it’s funny, you relive the same day over and over again, you kind of start to see who you really are.” Jessica Rothe in “Happy Death Day”

 

Every single female character mentioned above and many more out there are symbols of survival and feminine power. Even in the slasher film where the plot isn’t the most imperative thing, the final girl has to be well thought out.  Polite or not polite, virgin or not – it seems as there are not many rules in the modern portrayal of this trope. One thing is sure; we will always applaud the character who’s fierce like Laurie, powerful as Sidney and Nancy, and smart as Tree and Maddie. It’s uplifting to see powerful women in horror who stand up and fight.

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