Evil, Fiction, Film, Horror, Television

The Final Girl

With the announcement that HBO Max is to develop as a series author Grady Hendrix’s novel The Final Girl Support Group, we will likely see the trope of the final girl, already familiar to most horror aficionados, gain wider exposure and inevitably enter the popular lexicon. So, I wanted to take a moment to discuss this particular novel and the character of the final girl in general.

From where do we get the term final girl and who is she? The final girl was mainly born out of slasher film craze spawned during the 1970s and 1980s. There are some that argue it goes back even as far as Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Within the slasher genre, there was a pattern that evolved where the last acts of the films concluded with a climactic confrontation between the killer and the last girl alive following the former’s murderous rampage. In time, this last girl (woman) came to be known as the final girl. Early on, the final girl was the one female character who abstained from the risky behaviors in which the victims around her engaged. Whether or not it was true, she was idealized as being virginal and pure. Where others had been unwitting victims of those killers, the final girls were those who often could find no way of escape other than confronting the slashers who brutalized and butchered her friends.

As examples, a few of the more prominent final girls in films include Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, in Halloween (1978); Alice Hardy, played by Adrienne King, in Friday the 13th (1980); and Nancy Thompson, played by Heather Langenkamp, in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). However, one cannot omit mention of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which in some ways bridged the horror of Psycho with the slasher sub-genre and subsequently provided inspiration, if not a template, for Carpenter’s Halloween.  

Though escapist in nature, slasher films did adhere loosely to a subtle theme of punishment for those characters who engaged in behaviors such as premarital sex, drug abuse, and underage drinking. It would be a stretch to call these films morality plays, but it quickly became apparent to audiences that the ones who survived the mayhem were more often than not the ones who did not participate in these deviant behaviors. And many of these righteous characters were the unimposing teenage girls forced into violent struggles for their lives.

The defining feature of final girls, apart from their biological sex, is the fact that they are mostly portrayed as active survivors while other characters are played as passive victims. In The Final Girl Support Group, Hendrix takes the familiar trope, taking it out of the world of make believe and dropping it squarely in a meta-reality where slashers are real; their final girl survivors are celebrities who cash in on their fame by selling their stories for film, book, and television adaptations; and the collection of murderabilia is a fan pursuit that is as lucrative as it is twisted.

The final girls of Hendrix’s novel meet regularly in a support group facilitated by a renowned psychologist. Where the meetings had once been meant to provide a safe space for the women to exorcise the demons and confront the PTSD brought about by the horrors through which they lived as well as their ultimate celebrity, the meetings have eventually devolved into petty bickering. The initial meeting, where the reader first meets these final girls, focuses on whether or not snacks will be brought to future gatherings.

Written in first-person from the perspective of final girl, Lynnette Tarkington, the novel itself is a meta-memoir where Tarkington confronts the horrors of her past and the current conspiracy to end and discredit all final girls.

Of those final girls introduced to the reader in the novel, Lynnette seems to have been most affected and traumatized by her experiences. Her life has become one all-encompassing obsessive-compulsive routine of monitoring her surroundings at all times, travelling by way of circuitous routes and modes of transportation to evade any potential pursuit, and ensuring she positions herself strategically wherever she goes.

Hendrix offers Easter Eggs in the form of the women’s traumatic experiences that brought them to final girl status. For the fan of the horror genre in general, the slasher sub-genre in particular, the reader might recognize familiar scenes from some of the iconic films that inspired the final girl trope and provide a shorthand for each of Hendrix’s character development and story arc.

The final girl trope is not without its controversy and detractors, who see the perpetuation of a misogyny that seems to be glorified by these films. While the films (and television shows and novels) seem to encourage audiences to see the final girl as woman of strength who through stubborn perseverance and raw determination survives her horrific ordeal and vanquishes the killer (at least until the sequel), she is also only able to do this because of her pure, virginal qualities. The earlier stories used the theme of deviancy to provide a moral justification for the killings. The killer was the arbiter of this twisted morality. Only by turning away from such deviancy can one hope to survive. This dichotomy recalls the angel/whore trap that tries to pigeonhole female characters into one of two extreme stereotypes, consequently denying them half of themselves. But no woman, no person, is all good or all bad all of the time. There was a perception that these slasher films existed mostly for the titillation of male audiences who got to enjoy the promiscuity of those female characters who would eventually be killed off while offering the olive branch of the final girl to appease the girls these guys brought with them as their dates.

To be brutally honest, the slasher sub-genre has never and will never be rich with stories heavy into character development. The Scream franchise of the 1990s brought to the fore in self-referential style the “rules” of the slasher film so that non-horror fans could understand the role of the final girl.

The final girl is a fun concept to play with, and contemporary authors and filmmakers are becoming emboldened to explore and stretch this particular stereotype beyond the stereotypical. Hendrix both succeeds and fails here with Lynnette’s character.

But I think strides in the right direction are being made. Maybe not in horror. Maybe we will always have some version of the original final girl. But we are seeing the emergence of stronger, more three-dimensional female characters. While the slasher story has been become mostly a relic of the past or relegated to streaming horror channels such as Shudder, we do find stronger, more well-rounded female characters in the genres that have taken the place of it. Occult, apocalyptic, crime thrillers, sci-fi horror fiction all have begun to showcase leading female characters who stand tall in their own right. Properties such as The Walking Dead franchise, Evil, Happy Death Day, Supernatural, Stranger Things, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Ready or Not, The Handmaiden’s Tale, The Hunt, just to name a few, feature flawed female characters who must overcome existential challenges in their own ways. They may not succeed. They may not be final girls. But they no longer have to be.

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