Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Nonfiction

The H-Word: When the Final Girl Grows Up

Picture a teenage film student in 1978 (me), who loves horror movies but has grown up wishing that occasionally, just every once in a while, the women would be the ones to defeat the evil and save the day. Alien’s Ripley and Dawn of the Dead’s Fran are still a year in the future; the big fright flicks of the previous ten years have featured women in the traditional roles of passive or victimized wives or mothers, while the men have served as the heroic exorcists, Antichrist investigators, shark hunters, and the ones who nailed the boards up over the windows.

This, of course, was hardly an issue found only in a single genre. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I’d often watched movies and television series that left me entertained but somehow yearning for more. It’s probably not a coincidence that the first movie I really loved—and I was so small I don’t remember this, so I’m relying only on anecdotal family history—was Disney’s Mary Poppins, which featured Julie Andrews as the iron-willed, funny, powerful, and magical eponymous character. Mary Poppins was still a nanny who existed to serve young children, but at least she was also shown as having a life outside of her maternalistic duties.

Later on, I’d discover the British series The Avengers, and while it’s perhaps questionable whether I was genuinely shaped in any way by Mary Poppins, there’s no doubt whatsoever that Diana Rigg’s supremely brilliant amateur superspy Emma Peel had a huge formative impact on me. As a pre-adolescent, my indulgent mom bought me little one-piece catsuits so I could dress like Emma Peel; later on, re-watching the series as an adult, it occurred to me that the relationship between Mrs. Peel and her partner John Steed—one in which they treated each other as true equals (a genuine television rarity in the ’60s)—probably shaped how I treated, and expected to be treated by, men.

Sadly, The Avengers was completely unique in the way it upended gender roles. There was nothing else like it, especially not in the horror genre, where women still tended to be the negligee-clad victim or the desperate mother seeking to save her child from some otherworldly terror.

Now let’s fast-forward to October of that year 1978, when I started reading reviews of a new movie called Halloween that was supposedly terrifying. I grabbed a couple of friends and we headed to a theater, I think on about the third day of the film’s release.

Fortunately, John Carpenter’s seminal classic did more than live up to the reviews. It wasn’t just genuinely frightening, it also featured a young female protagonist who was strong and resourceful; she was also, unlike Brian DePalma’s Carrie, released two years earlier, someone who acted from logic rather than pure unleashed id. The fact that I was the same age as Jamie Lee Curtis and, like her character Laurie Strode, was still a gawky girl who was shy around boys, loved Halloween, and made some extra dough babysitting neighborhood kids, all cemented my affinity to this soon-to-be-iconic character. I liked to imagine that, faced with a Michael Myers, I would also pull apart wire hangers and use them to defend myself.

Halloween became an instant favorite, and apparently, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, given that it went on to become one of the most successful independent films ever made and spawned more than just a string of sequels and rip-offs (oops, I meant “homages”). Audiences everywhere responded to the Final Girl.

Wait, did I just say, “Final Girl”? In 1978, that term was still decades away; first, horror would have to run through an entire cycle of slasher movies in which smart and virtuous young women eluded the killer who slaughtered sexually active teens. I don’t mind admitting that as much as I adored the first Halloween, the formula quickly wore thin for me. While there were still pleasures to be found in watching these empowered young women fighting off killers, I was outgrowing them. I aged; they didn’t. Plus, we soon had, in addition to the ongoing adventures of Ellen Ripley, characters like deejay Stevie Wayne in The Fog, the vampiric heroine Mae in Near Dark, and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Women were making headway in horror.

But that was in front of the camera; what about on the other side of the lens?

By the mid-’90s, I was starting to write and sell fiction (after spending the previous decade focused on screenwriting), and was also exploring nonfiction. My first published book, in fact, would actually be a nonfiction film study (of influential Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark, whose use of women absolutely thrilled and obsessed me). Now, however, I was starting to feel a bit of that same perplexity I’d felt as a child, but in another direction: where were the women like me who wanted to write about this stuff?

Cue Carol J. Clover.

In 1992, Clover (who is a Professor Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley) published a book called Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Although Clover had first used the term “Final Girl” in an earlier paper, it was this book that positioned it firmly within not just academic film theory circles, but (surprisingly) the vaster playground of pop culture. I first read Clover’s work probably about 1998, and it was like an intellectual nuclear explosion. Here was a woman writing (with extraordinary insight and skill) about my favorite genre, cutting it open and laying its guts out for analysis, revealing its strengths, its flaws, its prejudices, its assets . . . but most importantly, telling us why it worked.

Here’s a bit of how Clover describes the Final Girl: “She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded . . . She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A), or to kill him herself (ending B).” By the way, in the interest of full transparency, Clover actually considers Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to be the first real Final Girl, predating Laurie Strode by four years; however, to my way of thinking Sally survives more by luck than her wits, and while I agree that the original TCM is a classic, the shrieking Sally is far less likely to appeal to those of us looking for characters to identify with. I must also acknowledge that Clover doesn’t consider that women—at least some women—might identify strongly with these independent Final Girls; she is instead more interested in studying cross-gender identification, suggesting that men root for Final Girls as much as women, and that women equally cheer on male heroes.

The important thing here, though, is—for me, there’s a direct through-line from Laurie Strode, who I will always consider to be the original Final Girl, to the woman who created that defining term. As a teenager, Laurie Strode assured me that horror would not always consign people like me to stereotyped roles; and as an adult, Carol Clover showed me how these stereotypes could be usefully categorized, dissected, discussed, and re-purposed. Clover opened a door, and there are now a number of women exploring the horror genre in works of analysis and critique.

It’s gratifying to know that, although Laurie Strode was there in the beginning to give me a little hope, when it comes to writing about my favorite genre, thanks in part to the pioneering work of Carol Clover, I’m far from a Final Girl.

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and 150 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert. Her recent releases include Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction from Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852-1923 (co-edited with Leslie S. Klinger) and Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances; her latest short stories appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2020, Speculative Los Angeles, and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other  Spectacles. Forthcoming in 2021 is the collection Night Terrors & Other Tales. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and online at lisamorton.com.