HE’S NOT GONNA GET YOU - The Final Girl in Slasher Movies

The phallic-looking weapons penetrate their bodies, blood flows and as punishment for a lost virginity, it could hardly be more fitting.

Having had all her friends killed by a madman with a taste for stabbing weapons, over the course of a 90-minute-movie, the good girl finally realizes that she must fight for herself and in an act of what at first might be seen as panic begins to stab, beat and finally is able to do what seemed impossible, she kills the madman and in doing so becomes part of a select group of women in slasher movies: the final girls.

John Carpenter’s Halloween from 1978 is generally seen as the movie that established the “rules” for all slasher films to come. The general theme of the slasher film was nothing new in 1978, but the success of Halloween – critically, but perhaps more importantly, financially – ensured that the slasher films to follow would not stray too far from the story penned by Carpenter and Debra Hill.

Halloween is the story of the inevitable confrontation between good girl Laurie Strode in the made-up all-American small town of Haddonfield, who is spending Halloween babysitting, and deranged killer Michael Myers, who escapes the mental institution where he has spent almost all his life and heads for Haddonfield and Laurie.

The contrast between Myers and Strode could not be greater and to contrast it even further, Laurie is portrayed as even more of a good innocent girl by the actions of her friends who spend Halloween drinking and having sex. To make it perfectly clear just how much of an opposite Myers is to Laurie, Dr Loomis, Myers’ psychiatrist, early on the movie states that Myers is “purely and simply... evil.”

This contrast may well be the reason as to why horror films tend to have a final girl instead of a final man, more common in action films. In order to cope with something truly evil, the audience must have something truly good to believe in. However, it may also be a case of using these opposites to make evil even more evil and terrifying.

Since the killers in slasher movies often are male, or at least made out to be male throughout the movie, having a male hero simply will not do, especially since the idea of male virginity tends to be more a source of comedy and ridicule. It has to be a female virgin, this being with almost angelic characteristics, who in gender studies is the Madonna in the Madonna/whore paradox.

The women in slasher films are often portrayed as exactly that, either Madonnas or whores. The whore characters are the ones who drink, do drugs and engage lustfully in premarital sex and for that reason will not make it to the end of the movie. They are however a necessity in slasher films since their characteristics help define the good in the heroine, something perhaps not easily done otherwise, but now all the heroine has to do to define herself as the Madonna and not the whore is to say no alcohol, drugs and sex. There are also of course financial reasons behind adding drugs, sex and female nudity into a film targeted toward a male teenage audience.

The Madonna, being the stereotypical good woman, is also in need of her more immoral female companions since she is of course rather passive and it is her active friends who set things in motion which our final girl eventually will have to react to, making her story one of coming of age. She matures and comes out at the end of the movie as a different, more adult, person than she was in the beginning. This should be compared to her friends who are still children, but have adapted certain adult behaviors such as drinking and having sex.

Pretending to be an adult will not go unpunished and their deaths by various sharp and stabbing objects can be seen as reprimands for the premarital sex they engage in. The phallic-looking weapons penetrate their bodies, blood flows and as punishment for a lost virginity, it could hardly be more fitting.

But the final girl instead saves herself and becomes an adult by finally taking responsibility and fighting back. In no slasher movie is this more visible than in A Nightmare on Elm Street, where final girl Nancy wakes up from an encounter with dream-stalking killer Freddy Krueger with a few strands of her hair turned white or grey.

As mentioned above, the concept of the final girl was not invented by Carpenter/Hill in Halloween, but has existed in several movies before. Many of them have however relied on a final man suddenly appearing and saving the day. The final girl does put up a fight, but leave it to a man to come rescue the woman in the end. This is also the case in Halloween, signaling that the road towards a final girl who actually puts an end to the monster herself has been long and even in the 1970’s our heroine was not ready to finish things off. That however changed in the 80’s where for example Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street give us final girls who possess enough strength to finally put an end to the killer themselves.

There are more examples to give to support both the need for a final man up until the 70’s and nothing but a final girl in the 80’s and onwards, but these are left out in order to avoid spoiling them for anyone who has not seen them. The concept of the final girl is also present in many other horror films and not just slasher movies, but since those films seldom follow the rules of the slasher movie, an analysis of that final girl might be somewhat different and is therefore left out in this text.

To summarize, the slasher movie tends to have two types of female characters; the good passive girl who is still a virgin, but because she is not able to drive the story forward and set things in motion and is more defined by what she does not do than what she does, a group of more (sexually) active girls are also needed in order to convince the audience of the good in the heroine and to do all the things that draw the attention of the killer. The good girl is also the complete opposite of the killer, making the movie a fight between good and evil. There are of course also male characters present in the slasher movies and even though they may portray different personalities, they often end up as nothing more than something to add to the body count or serve the same purpose as the sexually active girls. Occasionally there is a good boy who gets the final girl in the end. But only if it turns out he was actually only wounded.

Written by Mattias Danielsson, 2014-03-17