The ‘final girl’ in horror movies has come a long way since the ’70s and ’80s. In this article, Features writer Kate Kowalski profiles the long evolution of the Final Girl trope, from its origins as the embodiment of female terror to the ‘good for her’ cinematic universe of the twenty-first century.
The horror genre is endlessly fascinating to me. At its best, it’s a provoking intersection of artistic vision and the darkest truths about humanity; at its worst, it’s still entertaining in a campy, fun, so-bad-it’s-good way. When I was a creepy little nine-year-old too young to watch these movies, I would obsessively read their plot synopses on iMDB. But once I was finally allowed to watch them, I would roll my eyes in disgust at the blatantly extraneous shower or undressing scenes they’d insert for the hot female lead; it felt like the director had busted through the screen to gaze intently at his adolescent male audience and whisper, “I did this for you.”
Blatantly extraneous shower or undressing scenes for the hot female lead felt like the director had busted through the screen to gaze intently at his adolescent male audiences and whisper, “I did this for you.”
But I was always intrigued that, despite the obvious pandering to this audience, a surprising amount of horror protagonists are female. In 2019, 26% of horror leads were women. This sounds low until you realize that it’s the highest percentage of any genre, with dramas trailing behind at 24%, comedies at 21%, and action at 16%. Horror leads the pack here due in part to the age-old trope of the “final girl.” This term is pretty literal: it refers to a film’s last survivor, often female, who features in the final showdown with the killer.
Carol Clover, who coined the term, defines the final girl as “the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and her own peril; who is cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again.” The final girl is one of the foremost examples of the vocabulary of film theory entering popular culture (with honorable mentions to the manic pixie dream girl, the Bechdel test, and the “male gaze”)—as evidenced by the two 2017 films entitled respectively Final Girl and Final Girls. The trope was originally critiqued by feminist scholars and viewers due to the victimization and objectification this character suffered. Today, however, in the era of the “good for her” cinematic universe, the final girl is entering a newly-empowering era.
In the early days of the final girl, she was primarily an embodiment of pure terror. When marketing films to an overwhelmingly male audience, horror directors could never allow male protagonists who experienced such an emasculating emotion as fear. A female lead, however, can scream her little heart out without provoking any societal discomfort. The perceived helplessness of the young female body heightened concern and thus audience investment.
When marketing films to an overwhelmingly male audience, horror directors could never allow male protagonists who experienced such an emasculating emotion as fear. A female lead, however, can scream her little heart out.
There was also a significance to which of the films’ women made it to the finish line. In slasher films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), the often-teenaged final girl earned her survival through her purity. While her peers indulged in sex, drugs, and rock n roll, she remained chaste, studious, and/or awkward. And one by one, those sinful teens dropped like flies (in accordance with another trope known as “death by sex”). The final girl is also set apart by her relative competence; unlike her shallow peers, she can wield a gun, knows mechanics, or merely approaches the film’s central problem from a more productive perspective. But ultimately, the final girl lives not because of her own strength, bravery, or wits, but because the killer and the plot permit her to survive. Mike Meyers doesn’t die under Laurie Strode’s knife, but under Dr. Sam Loomis’s gun; Sally Hardesty makes her escape from Leatherface and his brother when they’re knocked down by a random truck driver; Alice Hardy overpowers Jason Voorhees’ mother, but is unable to overpower and is ultimately killed by the man himself in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981).
But horror today is a dramatically different genre than it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A pivotal moment for the genre came in the form of the semi-satirical Scream (1996). The self-aware film calls attention to the final girl and death by sex tropes in this memorable scene, in which a character explains the “rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie.” The foremost of these rules concerns “the sin factor”—in a horror movie, “sex equals death,” because “only virgins can outsmart the killer in the big chase scene in the end.” This self-awareness was something never seen before in horror films, and Scream both ridiculed and subverted genre conventions. The film’s final girl, Sidney Prescott, is not only depicted having sex in the film but also finishes off the killer herself. She also possesses a distaste for the tired tropes she defies, complaining early in the film that horror movies are “always some stupid killer stalking some big breasted girl who can’t act who always runs up the stairs when she should be going out the front door.” This refreshing originality helped Scream maintain the title of highest-grossing slasher film until 2018. In fact, Scream is credited with revitalizing the horror industry, which was stuck in a sequel-ridden slump in the ‘90s.
The early 2000s were a transitional period for the horror genre as a whole and women in horror in particular. New trends swept the genre, including the found-footage film, “torture porn,” horror comedy, a worldwide embrace of East Asian horror, and early iterations of the zombie craze. And thanks in part to Scream, the final girl found new life; movies like May (2002), The Descent (2005), The Cabin in the Woods (2011), and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) began to put their own nuanced yet terrifying twists on the trope. But whether audiences were ready to let go of their outdated perceptions of the final girl was another question. This disconnect manifested most tragically in the marketing fiasco surrounding the 2009 film Jennifer’s Body.
Helmed almost entirely by women (written by Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama), the offbeat comedic horror film centers on a complex and codependent female friendship and explores feminist issues such as sex shaming, sexual assault, and the sexualization of teenagers. Megan Fox, fresh off superficial “hot girl” roles such as in the Transformers franchise, stars in the titular role and brings acting chops and nuance she was previously unable to explore. However, typecasting is hard to shake for actresses and tropes alike. Jennifer’s Body was woefully misunderstood by critics; Roger Ebert dubbed it a “Twilight for boys” and many others fixated solely on sex appeal, including New York Daily News’s dismissive labeling of Fox as “Transformers boy toy,” the Chicago Tribune’s obnoxious joke that the only “perfect aspect” of the film was the title as “nobody is going to like this movie for its brain,” and Rolling Stone’s intelligent musing of “Hot! Hot! Hot!” You can almost see the cartoon jaw dropping, eyes bulging, and tongue rolling out like a carpet (awooga).
In the post-Me Too era, however, Jennifer’s Body is finding new life as an underrated feminist cult classic. When viewed as a female revenge fantasy rather than a male sex fantasy, the film suddenly lives up to expectations.
At the expense of showcasing the heart of Jennifer’s Body—bitingly funny, emotional, refreshingly original—the marketing focused on Jennifer’s literal body, with trailers hyping up a near-throwaway skinny dipping scene and a close-up kiss between Fox and co-star Amanda Seyfried. In interviews, Cody and Fox commiserate that the marketing dismissed their intended audience—teenage girls—by trying desperately to appeal to the stereotypical horror audience of teenage boys. According to Cody’s assessment, the girls dismissed it, the boys were disappointed in it, and the film had a discouraging opening weekend of $6.8 mil (compared to its $16 mil production cost). As USA Today dejectedly put it, the film was “not as hot as you hope it would be.” In the post-Me Too era, however, Jennifer’s Body is finding new life as an underrated feminist cult classic. When viewed as a female revenge fantasy rather than a male sex fantasy, the film suddenly lives up to expectations. After all, in the words of review ReelView, “if you’re in search for a way to ogle Megan Fox’s body, there are a lot better ways to do it than subjecting yourself to this.”
Horror movies have obviously always drawn from deep-seated fears both personal and societal—fears of loss, betrayal, materialism, loneliness, change, apocalypse, death. And in a decade defined by earthshaking political and social divisions, fear runs deep.
The 2010s have been a renaissance era for the horror genre. Production studios such as Blumhouse and A24 found success investing in visionary indie directors like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers, provoking the use of the term “elevated horror.” Horror has become more thoughtful, more diverse, and more prestigious, with films such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out appealing to impressively wide audiences—including awards crowds, a rarity for horror movies (it’s one of only six horror films to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars). Underneath all this diversity runs a common thread: social horror. Horror movies have obviously always drawn from deep-seated fears both personal and societal—fears of loss, betrayal, materialism, loneliness, change, apocalypse, death. And in a decade defined by earthshaking political and social divisions, fear runs deep. The unmistakably allegorical nature of films like Get Out provide social commentary—attacking the lie of a “post-racial” America—wrapped up in a niche genre package (criticism of widely accepted narratives is generally more palatable when cloaked in familiar genre conventions and escapist elements). The Me Too movement was one of these defining moments, and the buildup to and aftershocks of the movement are palpable in the horror genre.
One plausible explanation for the evolution of the final girl is our society’s evolving understanding of survivorship itself.
The role of women in horror films has shifted significantly over the past decade. Female protagonists are no longer so easily defined by or sorted into tropes, making any labeling of a 2010s “final girl” debatable. She’s grown past the slasher genre to pervade thrillers, monster movies, supernatural films, and other horror subgenres. And she definitely no longer subscribes to those satirical “rules” rattled off in Scream. One plausible explanation for the evolution of the final girl is our society’s evolving understanding of survivorship itself. The last few decades have brought a more nuanced and empowering understanding of trauma. Popular terminology shifted from “victim” to “survivor,” and hashtags like #IBelieveHer and #MeToo demanded accountability and encouraged open conversations.
In films like The Witch (2015) and Midsommar (2019), the protagonists aren’t uncomplicated vehicles for audience terror; they are complex and dark characters who (spoiler alert) don’t always end up on what traditional horror fans might consider the “right” side. These women are pushed to the brink by oppressive societies, by misogyny, by trauma, and they react in viscerally human ways—aka, not simply screaming and running up the stairs when she should be running out the door. They don’t embody the socially sanctioned female emotion of fear, but explore the more dangerous emotion of rage. Like true-to-life survivors, they are tangibly transformed by trauma. Like many survivors, they find catharsis not in the physical escape from their abuser but in claiming autonomy over their own bodies. And the diversity of these characters’ experiences, responses, and resolutions reflect the complexity of human trauma more than ever before.
Article by Kate Kowalski.