A Final Girl is a commonly used trope in horror—especially slashers—where one ‘lucky’ female character rises like a phoenix from the ashes and survives a terrifying ordeal, coming out the other side with new strengths and usually bucket loads of emotional trauma. Final Girls were born out of the terror of the 70s, and while they can be used to deconstruct the relationship between horror and feminism over the years by the way of spectatorship and voyeurism, I want to take a look back at some of my favourite survivors who encompass the true spirit of the strength they’re being used (perhaps subconsciously) to represent, and what makes them individually unique.
10. Max Cartwright (Taissa Farmiga) in The Final Girls
When I first saw The Final Girls I quickly wrote it off as a late copycat in the same deconstruction category of Scream and The Cabin in the Woods. I considered that it was neither smart nor fresh enough to provide anything meaningful, but after a rewatch I saw it for what it really is: an ode to horror and all its tropes—basically, it’s just a love letter. And Max, who has to overcome more emotional obstacles than physical ones, is the driving force that eventually picks up a weapon of her own and commits to a slow-motion showdown that is a feast for the eyes. Max has to leave the past behind to break out of the horror reality she has stepped into, and the touching mother/daughter relationship at the film’s centre is what pushes her to do it.
9. Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) in Split
In M. Night Shymalan’s acting showcase opposite James McAvoy, Taylor-Joy shines as Casey, a teenage loner who confronts her childhood trauma while trying to escape her current confines. And it’s her refusal to keep being hurt by the men in her life that leads to victory and the eventual path to safety. When Casey’s past is laid bare at the end of the film, scars and all, she recognises she has a resilience most don’t possess, and even though it was born out of a disgusting crime, it’s what keeps her alive. Casey’s journey doesn’t mean we are defined by what has happened to us, or that it’s something we should see as a necessary hardship to gain toughness; it means we can use it to go places other people can’t.
8. Erin Harston (Sharni Vinson) in You’re Next
Watching a film in which torture is inflicted upon the main character can sometimes feel like a sick joke. As if the universe has conspired to add insult to injury—and is indifferent to the pain caused by it. Well, You’re Next flips the script entirely. After Erin is put in danger by someone she trusts, it’s revealed through her sheer will that she’s a physically and mentally skilled opponent who won’t be going down without a fight. As she goes through each person who underestimates her strength, it begins to feel like the joke is on them—and that they’ve made a grave mistake, which we get to enjoy Erin rectifying. You’re Next isn’t just a win for the supposed underdogs, it’s a “fuck you” to the mean spirited gun usually pointed in their direction.
7. Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) in Scream
For the time being, let’s appreciate one of the two final girls in the Scream franchise. That’s right, Wes Craven breaks every rule in the book in his meta-slasher that refreshed the genre—including the one female survivor rule. The aptly named Gale Weathers, a news reporter without boundaries or ethical code, is one of the best parts of the franchise. She’s an unlikely ally to Sidney as the films progress, and comes with great humour and a surprising knack for getting out of bad situations. Final Girls before the 2000s tended to be bookish, quiet, and angelic types that directors thought needed to be broken-in; Gale was the polar opposite, and frequently distasteful. She broke the mould and wasn’t punished for it with a gruesome death.
6. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) in A Nightmare on Elm Street
While being proactive in the original Nightmare, Nancy Thompson in the third Elm Street entry, Dream Warriors, was something special. The film focuses on a group of kids trying to survive Freddy’s wrath and hones in on the communal aspects of trying to make it out of the dreamscape alive. Nancy returns and puts herself back in danger’s path to stop the new group’s suffering, and despite not being an awards calibre performance by any standard, the display of selflessness and overcoming internal fear is meaningful. She moves into a big-sister role that wasn’t foreseeable, and her mentorship is something we can all look up to.
5. Dana Polk (Kristen Connolly) in The Cabin in the Woods
In the subversive Drew Goddard flick, horror is reinvented in front of us. Dana Polk fits into the good girl stereotype the genre loves to prey on—pure, untouched, and performed with a kindness. She is salivated over and watched from afar. Attractive enough to be sexy but conservative enough to not be called a slut—the perfect token virgin. And this fits, because the hypocrisy of the audience is that they want to cheer on the suffering (remember when there were cheers for the infamous tree scene during a The Evil Dead screening?) but they don’t want it to feel malicious, because then they’d have to confront their enjoyment. But in true Goddard fashion nothing is as it seems; instead of being gratuitous he shows discontent for the archetype and opts for something more memorable. In the final moments of the film, Dana makes the most cutthroat decision in the entire story and sheds any pre-conceived nice girl notions by trying to kill Marty to survive as the Final Girl. Its arguable whether Dana actually counts as one, but she was definitely a tool to explore the trope.
4. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
In Tobe Hooper’s classic, the ordeal is one that for a long time appears inescapable. The revs of the chainsaw are the only things rising above the penetrating heat causing ripples in the orange soaked sky. Sally is one of the first Final Girls, before they were even really a thing. When she escapes on the back of a stranger’s truck and looks back to see the distance between her and Leatherface becoming greater and greater, the look of desperation on her face changes to a smile, and then a laugh. As the madman she leaves in the dust swings his weapon in the air in frustration, she rides off into the distance as the sun rises on a new day. I can’t think of a better, or more poetic, moment that captures the essence of triumph against all odds. The relief is awe-inspiring, and in such a brutal film the details of what make it beautiful are outstanding.
3. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween
Michael Myers is the commodity that kept people returning to Halloween and its many spawned sequels for decades, but it’s fair to say that Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode at any point in the franchise is welcomed like a well wrapped gift. She is the polar opposite of the faceless evil he represents and rejects his ethos. A Halloween film doesn’t quite feel like one without Laurie’s original girl next door characteristics, or whatever she has evolved into since her original meeting with evil. In 2018’s direct sequel she looks to be an obsessed, more sure of herself version that will be fascinating to watch. I’m not saying you can’t make a good Halloween film without Curtis, I’m just saying she improves every one she’s in. She’s perfect to root for.
2. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien
Sigourney Weaver’s methodical, ferocious, and strong Ripley is an icon. How her character was handled (especially in Aliens) was game changing for the action genre, and it’s certainly not a reach to say she’s a massive element of Alien‘s success. Ripley doesn’t take the role of protagonist until about half way through the original film, but she’s always taking action or suggesting things that solidify her as a logic-based survivor. Her intelligence is brazen, and she simply shines. Every film in the franchise features a tweaked version of her but in the first two it’s clear who’s in the driver’s seat. What makes it more powerful is the resistance from the people around her letting her take the wheel; it’s not until the body counts start rising that the groups she’s stuck with begin to move to the side, allowing her to take her rightful leadership role. Ripley possesses all the qualities of a brilliant hero, while remaining down to earth and human.
1. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream
Sidney Prescott is a precious character. She has no super powers, is not fearless, and represents the average Jane. What she does possess is the will to keep going. When I think of who has been put through the ringer the most, Sidney comes to mind. Time and time again, she is hunted relentlessly, forced to suspect everyone around her, and cannot escape the loop of being preyed upon by the many different iterations of Ghostface. She doesn’t grin and bear it either; she’s paranoid, worried, and was for some time a complete shut-in. But that’s what makes her so great, she could be any of us. She’s not the strongest, smartest, or bravest—she’s simply cursed by circumstance and culture.
A character who lives to tell the tale has many purposes, but perhaps the biggest is giving the audience someone to latch onto, someone to place all their hopes of escaping fear on, and our instinct to survive and sprint away from all of the bad. This “bad” can come in any form, but someone (especially women who are known for their internal strength) getting up after taking so many hits is enough of a sweet dosage to dull the sharp knives of any slasher.
To me the ultimate survivor is Ripley: as you said, she’s not the strongest character at the beginning of the first movie, but she surely changes over time! I wrote about the first two movies in my (collective) blog, if you want to read my review of Alien it’s here:
I will! Cheers