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A detailed look at “The Final Girl” — horror’s favorite trope

A detailed look at “The Final Girl” — horror’s favorite trope

When it comes to the provocative, horrifying, and oftentimes erotic genre of horror cinema, there are some cliches and unspoken rules that have lasted for as long as the genre has existed. The world of horror is a world in which the car never starts, the friendly old woman cannot be trusted, and the teens die right after having sex. However, one of the most notable cliches is the “final girl”, which is essentially the last female character to live at the end of the film, and are usually the ones who kill the main antagonists. 

Coined by Carol Clover in her notorious novel Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992), the term Final Girl highlights the role of gender in horror. While some believe that the trope is inherently misogynistic, Clover believes that, “the Final Girl has not just manned herself; she specifically unmans an oppressor whose masculinity was in question, to begin with.” 

Despite being known as cliche, the final girl trope appeals to viewers because, in many ways, we see ourselves in her. The final girl is someone that the audience roots for because they don’t deserve what’s happening to them, and when we see them overcome their battles and kill the antagonists, we’re all thinking “good for her.” We become emotionally involved in the struggles of this character — we’ve seen her covered in blood, tired and exhausted, running for her life. We feel for the final girl as we’ve seen her journey through the film and that intimate exposure builds a strange, para-social connection.

Neve Campbell in promotional stills for Scream 2, 1997

From the very beginning to the final scene of the film, Sidney Prescott in the cult classic Scream (1996) exemplifies the “final girl.” She starts off as the sweet and innocent good girl and over the course of almost 2 hours, Sidney becomes a badass that can fight her own battles. 

The final girl is also a product of her time —in the 1970s, you had Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw and Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978). In the 80s, you had Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the 90s had Julie James in I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). In recent years, we now have Grace Le Domas in Ready or Not (2019) and Red in Us (2019). They are titled as the “final girl” but are all widely different when it comes to their actions and personalities. All of these girls are tortured, chased, and are in positions no one wishes to be in, but yet we somehow find ourselves immersed in their worlds. 

Maybe it’s because we can put ourselves in their shoes and justify the choices the make throughout the film. When Dani in Midsommar (2019) is smiling at the end scene watching her ex boyfriend burn in the cabin, we understand her. When it’s revealed that Red in Us (2019) switched lives with her doppelgänger, we don’t hate her for it because we see her reasoning in doing so.

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A lot of the final girls over the years aren’t one hundred percent good girls. No, they fight back, they embrace vulgarity, and it makes their character all the more human. In the Halloween 2018 film, Laurie Strode is no longer the scared innocent teenager, she’s older, stronger, and is stripped away from her good girl title. 

Nowadays, the horror/slasher genre has diversified itself in more ways than one. Rather than relying on the typical jump scares, more movies act as a commentary on social issues such as racism, classism, and sexism. There are more films that make people recognize their privilege. It’s disheartening to see horror movies get dismissed because of their cheesy cliches when there’s a strong female character fighting for herself on the big screen. Because what screams girl power more than being covered in blood?

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