**This article can also be found published in the March 2012 Special Issue of HorrorHound Magazine**
The Final Girl is to the slasher film what an old lady’s diary is to the romance film; she is the vehicle through which the story unfolds, bringing you the unique thrill that defines the experience of the genre.
Rising to fame in the 1970’s, the ‘Final Girl’ is a commonly used and very successful formula for a female character. Through her quick wit, intelligence, willingness to put up a fight, and the ability to maintain a sense of level-headedness while pursued by some form of blood-thirsty killer(s), the FG outlasts the entire cast to defeat her pursuer – at least until the sequel.
As a horror fan, you’ve undoubtedly found yourself rooting for a FG, whether it be Jamie Lee Curtis or Danielle Harris in Halloween, Camille Keaton or Sarah Butler from I Spit on Your Grave, the women of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or the many, many others that have helped keep horror interesting over the years.
One o' the greats, Final Girl Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween 1
Many argue that the very existence of this bold character type is a reflection of the American society’s desire for a cathartic reaction to punishment of the women in these films who are not the star/Final Girl. Co-starring female characters found in films who star a Final Girl typically have the opposite personality characteristics. They are portrayed with any of the following traits: sexual (or overtly so), unintelligent, impulsive, bratty, spoiled, or otherwise flawed through unlikeable mannerisms.
One can hardly deny the ease in which (overly parodied) scenes with necking young couples whose heavy petting is interrupted by a brutal slaying can be found.
Of course, punishment of the previously mentioned character types means that the Final Girl characteristics would instead be rewarded for being the sexually withholding, quick witted, smart, conservatively dressed girl that’s kind enough to run back for you after the inevitable tumble you’ll take as the killer advances.
As far as character development goes, nearly every writer and/or director drops some type of formulaic character into his or her script to help advance the story while giving the audience something familiar, whether intentionally or not. Those insisting the FG is nothing more than an insult to females are missing at least one big aspect: what she brings to the slasher story.
As in any other genre of film (with the exception of thrillers), the central character(s) must evolve, there must be a recognizable movement from one state to a new, more interesting state of being.
The pre-transformation FG is not unlike any young girl cast in a coming-of-age drama. She is at a pivotal age – taking her first few wobbly steps toward autonomy. The difference? Instead of her life-changing event being a girl-on-girl kiss with a bff, the divorce of her parents, the first time she’s caught stealing or any number of other stereotypical tropes you can imagine launching a drama film, she’s forced to find the strength to preserve her very existence – often against a much larger, stronger, and sometimes paranormal attacker!
In keeping with ideas about rewards and punishments, perhaps the FG’s prevalence against her attacker represents a general desire to see women destroy violence against them on their own? Either way, there is very little that can measure up to a leap this big in terms of character growth.
If instead of the FG the director were to choose the promiscuous and cocky diva-chick stereotype of the cast in this same scenario, would there be as many audience members rooting for her? There’s no reason she couldn’t win in the end. However, the fact is, seeing an uncertain girl who sleeps in a ruffled flannel nightgown, counts 100 hair brush strokes before school each morning and to whom ‘Dirty Sanchez’ has no meaning go head-to-head with a criminally insane murder is much more intriguing to most people than seeing someone with any type of intensity already infused in their personality (sexual or otherwise) graduate to a hero. Intensity infers experience, and the fun of the Final Girl is knowing that she has none.
So, in a FG we have an innocent girl who has been pushed to the outer limits of her potential. By this point in the film, we already trust her to give us the good vs. evil battle we all love to watch unfold. When the dust settles, half the cast is in the ground and the entire small town of *fill in the blank* are terrified to leave their homes, who better to rise as the hero than the character that has been given the most hero-like qualities?
And sure, FG’s benefit from an increasingly three-dimensional personality when compared to slashers from the 70’s… but too much time spent on character development takes space that can be used to infuse all the awesomely gruesome killing that gets the crowd in the seats in the first place.
So, do those who find no good in the FG simply not understand the appeal of horror films in the first place? It is arguable that the personality types of those killed in horror films doesn’t matter much, because crowds come to see something extreme that can’t be seen everyday – the horror – which by the way doesn’t mean they won’t flinch, jump, cringe or even close their eyes. Horror fans enjoy being made to flinch, or proving they don’t need to.
Because I’m truly thirsting for thought-provoking conversation on this topic, I must ask: what’s YOUR take on this?
For more ideas on the social impact of the horror genre’s Final Girl, check out the book that is responsible for a lot of the ideas that led me here, Men, Women and Chainsaws. Also, there is a seriously fantastic podcast out there called Stuff Mom Never Told You, (part of the friendly neighborhood info folk at How Stuff Works) which covers the Final Girl as part of the Halloween Slasher Spectacular! episode.
For more instant gratification on the idea, here’s Actress Caroline Williams (Star of Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, Stepfather II) in a video interview – (if you can tune out the infuriatingly repeating sample of what I’m certain is Trent Reznor screaming in the background for no apparent reason). I must make this disclaimer, however; although I was largely there to listen since Ms. Williams was part of the aforementioned cinematic movement, I’m mostly with her until she trashes women’s studies folk, a group with whom I proudly identify both as a rabid consumer of philosophical writing and a proponent of equal rights.
Besides, feminists and women who appreciate Women’s Studies aren’t all the single-minded image of joyless flannel-flaunting, work boot-cladded male-haters that Married With Children seemed to impress upon an entire generation.
~TANGENT SEQUENCE COMPLETE~
There are also many other great articles, bits of data, and conversations about the Final Girl out there, but not nearly enough so do feel free to give me a shout! As I mentioned, this article will appear in HorrorHound Magazine March 2012 Special Issue, so if you raise good questions, witty retorts, or present me with a fun argument, you may just find your ramblings in HH Magazine, HH Online – or better yet – FinalGirl – HorrorHound’s BRAND-SPANKIN NEW sister company that is scheduled for launch in March 2012 with this article and the awesome teaser trailer during the Film Festival at HorrorHound Weekend, Columbus. Join the fun!