Perhaps the most common trope among horror movies, especially the classics of the 1970s and 1980s, is that of the final girl, the last survivor.
This trope’s recurring presence underscores a powerful narrative pattern. A pattern where a singular, often seemingly vulnerable woman, manages to outwit, outlast, or outfight her tormentors, embodying resilience and endurance in the face of extreme terror. She’s the character we cheer for, the character whose journey we’re deeply invested in, and more often than not, the one who has the last word (or scream).
While the trope has existed for nearly fifty years, the term “final girl” is a more recent phenomena. Carol J. Clover brought this term to popular lexicon in her groundbreaking book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. This wasn’t just a catchy name; it was an analysis, a deeper dive into the symbolic strength of women in horror genres.
For those unacquainted with the terminology, it might sound foreign, but a single glance at horror movie posters or DVD covers will reignite your familiarity. Think of the defiant face of Laurie Strode from Halloween or the determined stance of Ellen Ripley from Alien. These are but mere examples from a list that could stretch around the block. More recent iterations include Sidney Prescott, the tormented yet indomitable heroine from the Scream franchise.
However, if I were to don my critic’s hat and talk favorites, my vote would undoubtedly swing towards Ginny, portrayed by the talented Amy Steel, in Friday the 13th Part 2. Ginny’s character was layered, not just a survivor but an intellect. She showcased an impressive balance of vulnerability and shrewdness, making her stand out in a genre that can often resort to one-dimensional characterizations.
The “final girl” trope, while criticized by some as formulaic, offers a unique lens to examine the broader cultural perceptions of femininity, strength, and survival. It’s not merely about being the last one standing; it’s about evolution, resistance, and reclaiming power from the jaws of horror. In a genre that revels in its capacity to induce fear, the final girl stands as a beacon of hope, a testament to the human spirit’s indomitable nature. Whether you see her as a feminist icon, a plot device, or something in between, her resilience in the darkest of tales continues to inspire.
Here are several iconic “final girls” from some of the most beloved slasher horror movies:
- Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in “Halloween” (1978): One of the original final girls, Laurie faces off against the masked killer, Michael Myers, in John Carpenter’s classic horror film.
- Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974): After enduring unimaginable terror at the hands of Leatherface and his demented family, Sally manages to escape, though deeply traumatized.
- Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) in “Friday the 13th” (1980): As the sole survivor of the massacre at Camp Crystal Lake, Alice’s confrontation with Mrs. Voorhees, the killer, sets the stage for the series’ subsequent installments.
- Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984): Nancy showcases resilience and resourcefulness as she battles the dream-invading murderer, Freddy Krueger.
- Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in “Scream” (1996): Sidney is the modern embodiment of the final girl trope, battling Ghostface in multiple installments of Wes Craven’s self-aware slasher series.
- Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) in “Black Christmas” (1974): As one of the earliest examples of a final girl, Jess must contend with a mysterious killer stalking her sorority house during the holiday season.
- Jenny Field (Amy Steel) in “Friday the 13th Part 2” (1981): Taking on the role of the final girl after Alice, Jenny faces off against Jason Voorhees in the early sequels of the Friday the 13th series.
- Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) in “Hellraiser” (1987): Kirsty is confronted with the sadistic Cenobites but manages to hold her own against Pinhead and his cohorts.
- Dana Polk (Kristen Connolly) in “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012): A more recent and meta take on the slasher genre, Dana is one of the five college students who are subjected to a manipulated horror scenario, with her being the “virginal” archetype.
- Erin Harson (Sharni Vinson) in “You’re Next” (2011): One of the more recent entries in the slasher genre, Erin proves to be more than a match for the masked intruders that descend upon a family gathering.
- Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in “Alien” (1979): While the “Alien” series is a blend of sci-fi and horror, the tenacity and resourcefulness displayed by Ripley against the terrifying Xenomorph qualifies her as one of the most iconic final girls in cinema history. She emerges as a beacon of human resilience against a nightmarish extraterrestrial entity.
- Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald) in “The Descent” (2005): In this claustrophobic horror film, Sarah and her friends embark on a spelunking adventure that quickly becomes a fight for survival against cave-dwelling creatures. Battling both the creatures and the growing mistrust among her group, Sarah’s determination and will to survive make her a memorable addition to the final girl roster.
Both Ripley and Sarah Carter have become quintessential figures within their respective films, showcasing not only physical endurance but also immense psychological fortitude in the face of life-threatening adversities.
These final girls are not just survivors but also symbols of perseverance, courage, and resilience in the face of overwhelming terror. Their stories have left an indelible mark on the horror genre, inspiring new narratives and challenging traditional gender norms.
The Final Girl phenomena stands in conflict with the theory that horror movies demean and sexualize women. And to be fair, the lesser quality horror movies of yesteryear certainly did. Think Cheerleader Camp and the countless me-too slashers that pervaded movie screens forty years ago. However, the final girl is often the most intelligent, resourceful, and resilient character in a horror movie.
Remember Laurie Strode in Halloween? She didn’t believe in the boogeyman . . . at least not until the very end of the movie. Yet she was the only character, outside of Dr. Loomis, who sensed danger and acted to safeguard the children she babysat. Can you recall a more powerful badass than Sarah Connor in the Terminator? She was charged with saving humanity against a cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger. And that dude became governor!
You’ll have a difficult time finding strong male characters in horror movies. Most are sex-crazed buffoons, who bumble through the movie, making terrible decision after terrible decision and never recognizing the danger lurking in the shadows. It’s always up to the woman — the final girl — to save the day.
Who are your favorite horror movie final girls?