Spotlight on Horror: Who is the Final Girl?

Dona Deric

From Laurie Strode to Ellen Ripley, every iconic horror film has its iconic Final Girl. Impact‘s Dona Deric explores the evolution of the character, and how it has become a trope central to contemporary horror.

First “coined by academic Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), the “final girl” trope refers to the last girl standing”, the sole survivor of the film’s group. She is often the last to confront the villain before their untimely end. According to Clover, she is given this respite due to her “moral superiority” – being the only one to refuse to engage in elicit behaviours, unlike her friends. But what has the Final Girl gone through to become what you know today? 

One of the earliest examples of the Final Girl is seen in 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Sally Hardesty (played by Marilyn Burns) is the only survivor of the film’s primary killer Leatherface. Initially, the Final Girl may seem to reflect the strength of the female lead, reflecting her ability to survive the torturous actions of the villain. 

Sally represents the very definition of the good girl

However, Hardesty reflects the key misogynistic aspects behind the archetype. Looking after her disabled brother and tending to her grandfather’s grave, Sally represents the very definition of the good girl. This purity justifies her survival. While her more overtly sexual friends may succumb to the killer first, she still spends the film arduously tortured by Leatherface and his family. Her attempts to escape only result in her being sent back to her perpetrators. 

After her repeated suffering, she can finally reach her moment of empowerment. At last, during her momentous escape, another feature of the cliché comes to light. When her release ultimately arrives, it is in the form of a male truck driver who whisks her away to freedom. 

a new and improved Final Girl

Following the peak of slasher flicks in the 70s and 80s, the 90s subverted the genre, as meta-horror gained popularity. Given that the style satirises popular horror tropes, it’s no surprise that one of the genre’s most popular films had its own take on the Final Girl. Scream (1996) never shies away from addressing clichés. Randy, the movie’s resident horror fanatic, outlines the rules of horror films very clearly – “Number one: you can never have sex, BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs”. 

Final Girls of old may have stuck to these rules, yet by the climax, protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has done anything but. No longer the virginal golden girl, Sidney pulls through using her wit, growing from what she has endured. Utilising her own abilities to defeat the Ghostface killer rather than fumbling until a male character comes to her rescue, Sidney Prescott ushers in a new and improved Final Girl.

2019’s Midsommar continues the transformation of the Final Girl with its main character, Dani. Diverting to focus more on a psychological form of horror, Midsommar allows us to see a multi-faceted Final Girl on screen. Dani, played by Florence Pugh, begins in a vulnerable state, having lost her family.  The film takes us through her journey of grief. Her growth comes from the emotional turmoil she eventually learns to deal with, rather than physical violence inflicted on her. 

a much more complex picture of the Final Girl than we have ever seen before

By the end of the film, Dani’s character is left up to the audience’s interpretation. While some see the climax as her moment of empowerment, others perceive it as her villainous turn. Finally letting go of her grief, Dani commits herself fully to the cult. She may have found a new family, but in doing so she accepts the cruelty that they have committed.  As director Ari Aster says, “For most of the people visiting this village, this community, this is a folk horror movie. But for Dani, for our main character, it’s a fairy tale.” The ambiguity of this ending creates a much more complex picture of the Final Girl than we have ever seen before. 

With the horror genre constantly evolving, the Final Girl is evolving right alongside it. There may be further to go, as horror protagonists still display an overwhelming lack of diversity. But we can see that things are heading in the right direction. Here’s hoping there are only even more exciting Final Girls to come.

Dona Deric

Featured image courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article image 1 courtesy of @cinemaframed_ via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.

In-article image 2 courtesy of @Scream_Obsessed via X. No changes were made to this image.

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