BEB: Final Girl
by Cecilia White-Baer
American horror, as a genre, has developed over the course of its lifetime alongside shifting American politics and women’s liberation. From the mid-20th century to today, the horror industry has highlighted everything from werewolves to witches, to slasher films and alien universes. Though its fluidity and development are some of the most attractive facets of horror, several things remain the same. Since the early 1970s, beginning with Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), the concept of the “Final Girl” narrative in horror has become, if not ubiquitous, at least certainly engrained in the genre. This development marked a shift to what is now considered “modern horror.”
The concept of the Final Girl was first coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover describes the Final Girl as “the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril.” Essentially, the Final Girl is a character brought to consciousness—unlike her fellow characters—and thus, she becomes the focus of the film. The Final Girl is:
“Chased, cornered, wounded...whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified…She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough or be rescued…or to kill him herself.”
The reasons for the presence of a Final Girl, rather than a Final Boy, are complex, and ought not be misconstrued as progressive, at least in their origins. If the majority of the horror audience is young men, why is the hero of the film not someone with whom the viewers can better identify?
The answer to this question seems to lie in the juxtaposition between male and female bodies in early cases, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween, of the Final Girl. In each of these cases, the killer is male, and uses a phallic weapon, such as a knife, horn, or chainsaw to inflict pain on almost exclusively female bodies. In most cases, the only exception is in the case of necessity, such as when a male character poses a direct threat to the killer himself.
Though the genre of horror utilizes many tropes which have stood the test of the time over the last half-century, the Final Girl remains one of the most complex and fascinating of these. In many ways, the evolution of the Final Girl throughout 20th and 21st-century horror have paralleled the liberation of women, sexually and in other ways, in American culture. In a way, the Final Girl in horror was almost an accidental tool of empowerment for women. What started as a way to keep the male gaze entertained throughout the entirety of a slasher flick has evolved to be able to represent female liberation, both sexually and physically, from the constraints of patriarchal society. In today’s America, as the horror gets more realistic and the real often becomes more and more horrific, the genre—and its evolving portrayal of women—has never been more important.