Horror’s plucky heroine remains suspiciously absent this Halloween.
There’s a scene at the end of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) that never ceases to take my breath away. The battle worn Laurie Strode gasps for air, sobbing against the bedroom doorframe. Her blouse has been ripped open, revealing a jagged knife wound down her arm. She has just clawed her way out of a claustrophobic closet, staving off the boogeyman with a well-placed wire hanger. Joan Crawford be damned, Laurie is still alive.
But just when we think the nightmare has finally ended, we see the eerie glow of Michael Myers’ murderous moon face slowly rising out of the shadows from behind Laurie’s shoulder. In a trope that would be copied by countless slasher films, the killer has come back for one last scare. By now, however, we know how this will end – the triumph of Laurie, one of the genre’s most beloved Final Girls, has become the blueprint for horror heroines in the years since.
Carol Clover first introduced the term Final Girl in 1992’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. In attempting to understand the appeal of horror films, Clover began deconstructing the audience’s gender make up and discovered that midway through the films, the audience, including men, were shifting their allegiance from the male killer to a final female survivor, one who would eventually vanquish, and thereby emasculate, the villain and live to tell the tale. This elevated women in horror films from damsel in distress to sole survivor, but at a cost.
Clover’s assessment of the Final Girl was one who was stripped of her femininity, save for the terror she experiences throughout the film. These Final Girls usually had a unisex name and were sexually unavailable, being either disinterested in sex and/or a virgin. Their survival was implicit on their purity, which allowed them to become masculinized enough to pick up a phallic weapon (usually a knife) and defeat or escape the monster chasing them.
The earliest examples of Final Girls, while memorable, weren’t exactly the self-reliant, blood speckled, ass-kicking women we’ve come to expect from the genre. In addition to Halloween’s Laurie Strode there was Sally Hardesty, the ferocious blonde who kicked and screamed her way out of the worst dinner party ever at the end of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). That same year, Black Christmas offered another early prototype of the Final Girl in Jess Bradford, a sorority sister being harassed and stalked by a terrifying psychopath who, it is discovered, is hiding out inside of her sorority house. But while these characters blazed a new trail for women in the genre, their survival was still reliant on the intervention of men: Sally is ultimately rescued by a well-timed passerby in a pick up; Jess, thanks to the film’s unresolved and terrifying ending, is sedated but not quite saved by the police; and finally, Laurie is rescued from Michael by a gun-toting Dr. Loomis.
In the 1980’s, as slasher movies dominated the genre and the box office, the Final Girl became a necessary ingredient for success. And this new generation of Final Girls were typically stronger than the first. Freddy Kruger found his match in Nancy Thompson, Mrs. Voorhees lost her head at the hands of Alice Hardy and Kirsty Cotton banished the Cenobites back to hell. These characters laid the foundation for the Final Girls of the 90s, including the fearless Clarice Starling, who broke into the FBI’s all-boys club, as well as Buffy Summers and Sidney Prescott, who got to be popular, pretty and, most of all, have sex without the deadly consequences.
Regardless of the decade, Final Girls have long been a staple of horror offerings, especially around Halloween. This year, however, they have been few and far between, with many of the year’s more successful horror films steering clear of the traditional slasher formula in favor of supernatural and psychologic horror. Perhaps this year’s best Final Girl can be found in Rocky from Don’t Breathe or, for a more non-traditional choice, Thomasin who chose to live deliciously in The VVitch.
As Halloween approaches, only a single horror title, The Unspoken, will join Boo! A Madea Halloween and Ouija: Origin of Evil at the box office. And so those of us craving some kickass ladies will have to rely on TV marathons or streaming services to get their Final Girl fix. Some of the best Final Girls of late can be found in High Tension (2003), The Descent (2005), Drag Me To Hell (2009), You’re Next (2011), and It Follows (2014). As for me? I’ll stick to watching the original Scream Queen (and my namesake), Jamie Lee Curtis.