Horror’s Ongoing Reckoning: The Final Girl Seizes Control of Her Story

Who is the Final Girl? Why does she matter? And where does her story go after she survives the events that make her into the Final Girl? In other words, what happens after the Final Girl kills the slasher?

For a long time, the answer has been simple, and brutal: she’s either swiftly dispatched in the first of many sequels, or else she lives on to be tormented over and over. But recently, there’s been a change—a reversal of the formula, in which these characters are seen not as victims but as survivors with stories of their own. A new wave of slasher stories on the page and silver screen revisits these final girls—all grown up and bearing scars both mental and physical. The women we meet in these stories have seized control of the narrative from the slashers and, in doing so, they subvert the regressive politics of slasher narratives to insist that there is hope for life beyond the systems of control, abuse, and oppression that defined their pasts (but not their futures).

With precursors as early as 1960 (Psycho and Peeping Tom), most horror fans cite either Black Christmas (1974) or Halloween (1978) as the first fully realized slasher film. Slasher movies have a few distinguishing characteristics, including a focus on the killings from the slasher’s point of view and the presence of what has become known as a Final Girl—the virginal teen who kills the killer (often with his own weapon) and lives to see sunrise. It is these qualities that film professor Carol J. Clover uses to illuminate the social function of the slasher genre. In her landmark 1992 essay, “Her Body, Himself,” Clover illustrates how the slashers and the Final Girl become totemic opposites. The slasher is almost always a developmentally arrested male. He often has an incestuous relationship with his mother, preys on children, or has been incarcerated since youth. Unlike all of her friends, the Final Girl is—to quote another woman not allowed to grow up—”not a girl; not yet a woman.” She abstains from every vice, including drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll.

If you cringed pretty hard at that ableist, misogynistic formula, then you’re reading the film correctly. All of this serves, according to Clover, to reinforce conservative, patriarchal norms for a very specific demographic: “The Final Girl is, on reflection, a congenial double for the adolescent male. She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a  way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality.”

The slasher was born and raised in a time of male anxiety. The FDA approved the Pill—the first effective form of oral contraception to be close to 100% effective and widely available—in 1960. For the first time in human history, women could take full control of their reproductive cycles. Second wave feminism, which took aim at patriarchal systems and structures embedded in our culture, empowered a whole generation of women to take control of their own lives.

The slasher—and his totemic opposite, the Final Girl—are a reaction to female empowerment. Together, they uphold ‘traditional’ White patriarchal gender and sexual mores: Only the girl who chooses to live defined by the White male gaze is fit to survive in the world of the slasher.

So what happens when that Final Girl grows up? What happens when she decides she will no longer endure being silenced, oppressed, victimized? Can she move past the trauma of denying her full humanity? Can she find a path to flourishing?

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, horror has been asking what happens when the Final Girl takes control of her story. As is appropriate for a genre born on the silver screen, new creators are using reboots, sequels, and legacyquels to explore this new territory.

Halloween turned 40 in 2018, when it saw a new reboot/sequel that imagined Laurie Strode as a turns-out-she-was-prophetic-not-a kook survivalist whose trauma signals that she alone is capable of facing down the evil Michael Myers represents. In a terrific final sequence, the sequel inverts the last act of the original film, with Laurie stalking Michael through her house. The message is clear: Laurie’s trauma has made her into a monster, but it might take a monster to kill a monster. And Laurie is willing to become a monster if it means giving her granddaughter a world free of Michael Myers.

Black Christmas turned 45 in 2019 and was reimagined for contemporary campus life (the texts are uh…coming from inside the phone?). The slasher wasn’t a lone deviant but an ancient society of men, appropriately faced down not by a single Final Girl but by a legion of Final Girls banding together.

Slumber Party Massacre (1982)—possibly the most obviously cash grab of the glut of slashers that followed in Halloween‘s wake—got a remake last year. The original featured a naked girls’ slumber party, complete with a pillow fight, peeping toms, and a power-drill-wielding killer. The 2021 reboot flips the gaze around. The girls hosting the slumber party are positioning themselves as bait to catch the original killer. Their leader is the daughter of the original Final Girl, committed to killing the killer to save her mom from a life of fear. The movie also flips the script to satirize some of the genre’s sexist elements, with a group of guys engaging in shirtless pillow fights and dancing, leaving the girls, glimpsing the hijinks through the window, to wonder, “Is this really what boys do when they’re alone? Weird.”)

Even Scream, which was equal parts slasher film and a meta satire of slasher film conventions, is getting a legacyquel which comes out later this week. In the first trailer, Sydney says, “I’m Sydney Prescott. Of course I have a gun.” (One wonders if we’ll get new new rules for post-#MeToo slashers.)

While this recent trend toward recentering stories around the figure of the Final Girl in film has been intriguing, perhaps it’s found its most thoughtful expression in horror fiction. Two recent blockbuster novels explore the question of the Final Girl’s fate even further. Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group gives horror fans the Slasher Extended Universe we never knew we wanted. The titular support group is populated by analogs of the Final Girls of most major slasher franchises: Dani is not-Laurie Strode (Halloween), Adrienne is not-Ginny Field (Friday the 13th), Heather is not-Nancy Thompson (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Julia is not-Sydney Prescott (Scream), and the narrator, Lynette, is not-Aubrey Bradimore (Silent Night, Deadly Night).

For years, the women have met with a therapist who helps them process their traumas—which manifest in various ways. Lynette is an agoraphobic who has secured her apartment like Fort Knox. Adrienne purchased the summer camp where she was attacked and has turned it into a retreat center for women. Heather is an addict. In addition to the women’s individual traumas, Hendrix illustrates how the women have become cultural commodities, their experiences purchased and recreated on film, the artifacts of their lives treated as collectors’ items. But the women themselves are disposable—most never see a dime of the money made from their suffering.

In the opening chapter, Lynette reflects, “We’re an endangered species, for which I’m grateful. There are only six of us still around. It used to make me sad there weren’t more of us out there, but we were creatures of the eighties and the world has moved on… We’re media invisible. We might as well not even exist.”

When someone starts killing Final Girls one by one, Lynette decides to face the Final Girls’ past and present. She decides to take control of the story.

Stephen Graham Jones’ latest novel, My Heart Is a Chainsaw, takes a different tack: what if the Final Girl wasn’t a White woman? What if the person of color didn’t die first? The titular heart in this novel belongs to Jade Daniels, the only Native American girl in her small Idaho town. Jade’s no virgin. She comes from a broken home—she lives with her alcoholic, abusive father and doesn’t speak to her mother. She recently attempted to die by suicide, and returns from a treatment center to discover she’s walked into the beginning of a slasher story.

Jade has found a haven in horror films, and her encyclopedic knowledge of slashers makes her the perfect Final Girl—except for the fact that she doesn’t fit the formula. As she reflects at one point, “This is the part of the movie where Jade’s supposed to rally… She’s supposed to be gearing up, pouring black powder into lightbulbs, hammering nails into the business end of the bat, that kind of stuff. But there’s no camera on her, she knows. And there never was.”

This being a Stephen Graham Jones novel, we know that Jade’s story isn’t going to play out like we expect, like the formula tells us it should. It can’t. Because the formula was created by White patriarchy. The formula was created to dehumanize and exclude. To center a slasher story on a woman breaks the formula. To center a slasher story on a woman of color burns it to the ground.

A through line in all these stories is hope: hope that the trauma and damage inflicted on the world by racist, misogynist, patriarchal oppression doesn’t have to last forever. Hope that the generation speaking up, standing with Final Girls and survivors everywhere and insisting #MeToo—this is our story as well— are effecting real and lasting progress. Because there’s a reason we’re revisiting these films, reconsidering these characters, and asking these questions about whose stories are important, and who matters. It’s not just that the world has changed since the rise of the slasher genre—it’s that it hasn’t changed nearly enough. There are still far too many women—and especially trans and non-White women—for whom violence and trauma is a constant threat, who deserve to hope for so much more than simple survival. Rethinking the Final Girl’s story is progress, but it’s also a reminder to look for the stories that don’t get told at all, to recognize those silenced voices as an even deeper horror. To hear the call to do better.

JR. Forasteros cut his teeth on Goosebumps books and Sword of Shannara. These days, he’s a pastor, author of Empathy for the Devil and scifi/fantasy junkie in Dallas, TX. Once he makes it through his to-read list, he plans to die historic on the Fury Road. Find him on Twitter or Instagram, or on the Fascinating Podcastwhere he is a co-host.

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