In her 1992 book “Men, Women, and Chainsaws,” Carol J. Clover coined the term ‘Final Girl,’ referring to female leads in horror movies who survive as the other characters are killed off. Carol writes that they “shriek, run, flinch, jump or fall … (and) sustain injury and mutilation” until they escape or, infrequently, kill the attacker themselves. Clover explains that they are less people and more “abject terror personified,” existing solely to be afraid.
The tormented female protagonist has existed almost as long as horror has, with ‘Scream Queens’ like Ann Darrow in 1933’s “King Kong” shrieking their way through the plot, a stereotype that transformed into the ‘Final Girl’ through the decades. The concept coalesced in the 1970s, with characters like Laurie in “Halloween” being hunted by powerful villains like Michael Myers. While they do fight back, every ‘Final Girl’ spends most of their stories terrified, trying to escape the villain. This lasted until the new millennium, when cinema began to embrace new ideas and voices.
In 1999’s “Scream,” Sydney is still a ‘Final Girl’ but violently fights with almost no fear when compared to Laurie from “Halloween,” and even terrifies her attackers. Then there is Sarah in 2005’s “The Descent,” who hits another character with a pickaxe, leaving them for the monsters so she can escape with her own life. A weirder example is 2006’s “Inland Empire,” where Laura Dern (“Blue Velvet”) plays both the hero and villain, and it is sometimes unclear who is who.
While the roles of ‘Final Girl’ and villain were still obvious in these movies, the inhumanity stretched to both. In the 21st century, The ‘Final Girl’ didn’t just flee the monsters blindly. She made ambiguous, brutal choices that ran against the ‘Scream Queen’ stereotype. In the 2000s, the ‘Final Girls’ strained the trope’s limits, with a horrific action here or a murky decision there. In the 2010s, however, they transformed entirely.
In 2014’s “Under The Skin,” an alien stalks the streets of Scotland, abducting humans for food. While this seems like the perfect set up for an “alien terrorizes Final Girl” scenario, like 1979’s “Alien,” the extraterrestrial instead takes the form of a woman played by Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story”) and does not fit the typical role of the antagonist. This time, the alien is the main character. The female protagonist in “Under the Skin” is no ‘Final Girl,’ though. She is intelligent, powerful and unafraid. She murders people but develops shades of kindness, creating an empathetic push and pull that’s impossible with simple heroes and villains.
While the alien is chased by an assailant in the final minutes of the film, it’s by an average man, not a monster like the usual ‘Final Girl’ adversaries. After being assaulted by said man, the alien sheds their female skin and stares into its human eyes. An alien, a creature usually depicted as a monster in horror, holds the skin of an assaulted woman, a trait that typifies the ‘Final Girl,’ as if contemplating, why wear the skin if it only brings terror and injury? Subsequent characters chose not to.
In 2015, Thomasin in “The Witch” survives as her family is killed off, but, ultimately, doesn’t fight back or even run from the witches. She joins them. 2018’s “Suspiria” is similar: Susie triumphantly becomes the leader of a sinister witch coven in 1970s Berlin. Like “Under The Skin,” these women break the ‘Final Girl’ mold and become something far more complicated.
They are attacked by horrific forces and fight back, but don’t do it out of fright; their violence is imbued with deep power. They also embrace violence and the supernatural, without being confined to the role of a villain.
Without the ‘Final Girl’ trope, horror can tread new ground, forcing audiences to empathize with dark, complex characters and examine their own capacity for evil.
What happens after losing one’s humanity? Can violence be healing and redemptive? Can one escape the patriarchy by joining a coven of witches?
These questions, and many more, could be asked only by discarding the ‘Final Girl’ stereotype, and are mostly unique to the 2010s. In no other genre, and at no other time, have the roles of hero and villain converged in this way, to such profound and horrific effect.
In 2018’s “Halloween,” everything comes full circle. Laurie and Michael Myers return, and the ending is shot to mirror the original. Yet it’s Myers that hides, as Laurie hunts for him with a shotgun. She is ferocious in a way that approaches that of a serial killer, like Myers. It may have taken almost half a century, but Laurie finally isn’t afraid.
The ‘Final Girl’ is dead, and horror is all the better for it.