Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre. Psycho Drive-in is joining in by sharing articles – some classic, some new – celebrating the greatest women in the genre!
[Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally ran on June 30, 2015]
In horror, the concept of the Final Girl is as widespread as fake tits and serial killers. So who is this Final Girl and why should you care? Final Girls characteristically rescue themselves, kill who they have to, and move on. Horror critic, Carol Clover explains the term in her text, Men Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film:
The Final Girl (1) undergoes agonizing trials, and (2) … destroys the antagonist and saves herself. She is not a heroine … but a hero … one that destroys its adversaries … In our world fear itself is gendered feminine… yet with The Final Girl, triumphant self rescue is no longer strictly gendered masculine.
Put simply, the Final Girl is the ultimate feminist symbol–a badass chick who can rescue herself. This is an archetype not specific to horror–but I would argue it’s a pretty big trope. Two sub-genres of horror, slashers and rape-revenge films are both dedicated to Final Girls.
Rape-revenge films like I Spit on Your Grave (1978) features a Final Girl you do not want to mess with. Jennifer fits the profile of undergoing agonizing trials, as she gets gang-raped, beaten and left for dead. And since Jennifer is no mere heroine–she won’t be calling men to come save her. Even so, it’s 1978, pre-smart phone.
So she does what any badass chick would do–hunts down the rapists and brutally murders them. According to the trailer of this lovely film, “and there isn’t a jury in this country that will convict her.” That’s, right, a woman raped by four men, kills her attackers and escapes jail time.
Feminist as fuck.
But not all critics see it that way. In fact, very few critics praise slashers and rape-revenge horror for anything at all. Mostly these films are attacked for being exploitative or having gratuitous violence. Personally, Jennifer’s revenge in I Spit On Your Grave doesn’t offend me. A victim of gang-rape kills her attackers–that seems like justice.
To be fair–I don’t get offended by movies. What does offend me though is the small portion of American culture that thinks rape is okay. Watch one horror movie–watch ten. You’ll never walk away with that message. Rapists get punished–brutally.
In the movies, of course.
In real life, we are a country obsessed with a sports franchise synonymous with rape. Reports have shown at least 45% of all its players have committed violence against women. I don’t even have to name the sport, do I?
And it’s perhaps these injustices that lead us to film–to art. After all, many people admire Final Girl, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from Alien. I think it’s just more socially acceptable to talk about aliens in public.
Every time, I mention the phrase, “rape-revenge,” people tend to walk away from me.
My point is, we needed the Final Girl in the 1970’s and we sure as hell need her now. Now that you’re pretty sure what a Final Girl is, could you even imagine a good teen slasher without her?
What would Scream be without Sidney Prescott surviving to shoot the killer again and again? Likewise, Halloween would be boring as shit if Laurie Strode got killed off in the first act. In fact, Jamie Lee Curtis has so often played the role of the final girl, that she’s been dubbed The Scream Queen. (Not to be confused with Scream Queens, a horror TV show by the makers of Glee. Yes, freaking Glee).
By contrast to the Final Girl, the big-chested babysitters who let their boyfriends come over for sex…they get hacked to pieces right away. That sends a message to young girls NOT to sleep with dumb jocks. But it’s always the athletic, smart and feminist chick who makes it all the way to the end. So why aren’t more people celebrating these badass chicks?
Even when women are given ass-kicking roles–they are so sexualized that it voids any semblance of agency. Yes, I mean ScarJo’s super sexy Black Widow from Avengers. If she were a feminist, might they have given her a better name (or bra)? Black widow is typically the name for a female insect who has sex with a male then decapitates him. But the Final Girl is no sexualized pawn.
And that is what fascinates me about this archetype; the fearless woman who can outsmart a serial killer and subvert gender roles in 90 minutes or less. Sure there are a lot of tits in horror films, and yes, women are objectified, tortured and killed. Yet what a lot of critics miss, is the badass chick at the end of the film, who is the ultimate feminist symbol.
So I’ll begin my investigation where it all began–in 1976 with one of the greatest slashers of all time–Carrie.
I would argue that Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), the titular character of the 1976 paranormal thriller, was the original Final Girl (of teen slashers at least). Carrie, a virgin, a symbol of feminism prowess (hello late 70s). She burns more than her bra–she sets the whole damn prom on fire.
Most descriptions of the film, Carrie, go something like this, “a young girl with telekinetic powers faces off her psychotically religious mother.” And yes, Carrie does have TK powers (ability to move objects with one’s mind). But I would argue that her mother is religious and has schizophrenia.
Seriously, Momma White (Piper Laurie) makes religious whack-jobs look like mere misguided missionaries. Carrie’s mother literally hits her in the face with a bible. In fact, she beats her daughter repeatedly, locks her up without food or water, then you know, stabs her in the back. Again, literally.
Carrie’s mother believes that God doesn’t want her to teach her teenage daughter about basic human biology. Remember, you can talk to God all day, but if he’s talking to you … crazy town. As a direct result, Carrie thinks she is dying when she gets her period at school. She implores her peers to help her, sullying their clothes with her bloody hands.
Which for some reason, doesn’t go over so well in 1976 high school PE class. Which leads to bullying, which leads to prom revenge … and we all know how that ends. It’s bad enough Carrie has super powers she’s trying to harness. It surely doesn’t help that Ms. White thinks Jesus thinks judges tampon use as a sin. So what makes Carrie a Final Girl?
Carrie stands out as a Final Girl to me because she suffers severe emotional and physical abuse, and gets right back up and kicks ass. From her abusive, psychotic mother to the bitchy cheerleaders at school, Carrie gets beaten down again and again. But like any good feminist does, she gets her ass to the library and learns how to harness her powers.
But before the prom, before all the murder attempts, Carrie was just a high school senior. A lonely ginger in a sea of blondes wanting nothing more than simple, human connection.
At the very start of the film, we are introduced to Carrie as a naked and pure virgin, cleansing herself in the school showers. And by the end of her transformation, Carrie is a supernatural serial killer, soaked in the blood of her enemies. So what happened to poor Carrie White?
The film is often discussed as deriding bullying as cruel and inhumane. And yes, the girls at school bully the shit out of Carrie. But I would argue the kids at school aren’t Carrie’s biggest problem. I don’t think we can blame mean girls in high school or societal pressures entirely. The sheer level of agonizing terror Carrie’s mother put her own daughter through has scarred Carrie for life.
After her own mother beats her, degrades her, tries to kill her, something inside Carrie just snaps. Sure the mean girls hurled tampons at her, but the abuse her mother made her endure, sealed Carrie’s fate as a broken woman. Carrie was always a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. I think prom just happened to be in her way.
Yet it is worth noting that the bullies at school–all female. There’s a lot of social commentary made here (duh it’s based on the Stephen King book). Carrie has several themes and arguments that slam religious fanaticism and being hyper-masculine. I think that last one is something personally important to King.
King stated that he wanted to craft Carrie as a sort of everyman. So that anyone who’d ever been bullied, abused or mistreated could identify with the protagonist. The viewer, regardless of gender, can then identify with Carrie.
That’s another aspect of her character that makes here a great FG. Carrie isn’t hyper-feminine like one of the mean girls, Chris (who also goes by Chuck–WTF?). However, Carrie isn’t super masculine either, like Chris’ boyfriend Billy, played by John Travolta.
And that’s what makes the FG so great. It isn’t about a woman who’s so tough she acts like a man. It’s about toughness itself not having gender. Things like bravery, courage, and tenacity are not gender-specific. That’s right, soldiers can be brave, and so can scared teenage girls.
With Carrie, (thanks to Stephen King), we see a lot of what’s wrong with our society, completely destroyed. Carrie kills 1976 John Travolta–a pretty explicit attack on hyper-masculine men.
As Billy, John Travolta plays a drunk-driving, dumb jock who likes to hit women. What a catch! He’s like one of the most popular boys in school! Although Billy isn’t really to blame for the huge hoax on Carrie (pigs’ blood on prom night) he enables the entire group.
One of my favorite things about slashers is watching the characters make those fatal mistakes. As most people know, to survive a horror film, you have to follow the rules. Yet Billy gets himself killed with his immoral behavior. As does his girlfriend, Chris (Nancy Allen), the second most evil person in the film.
Chris is one of those girls that takes diet pills and sleeps in full makeup. In one scene, after a few drinks, Billy slaps Chris in the face repeatedly. In order to stop him, she doesn’t fight back like Carrie would. Because Chris is the anti-feminist, she just blows Billy in traffic. As if hurling tampons at the weird kid weren’t enough, Chris seals her fate with this act.
She is pretty talented, though–I’ll give her that. Chris managed to moan, “Oh Billy” with perfect pronunciation while she’s blowing him. And after that, she merely degrades herself further. These chicks never make to the end of a horror film. Chris dies with Billy, in an awesome Michael Bay worthy car crash.
And that brings me to the end of the film. Carrie manages to survive the worst prom ever (she has a TK fit and burns everyone alive). She even survives several attacks on her life–bringing us to the final showdown.
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, Carrie seeks contrition from her mother. She offers her mother an olive branch. “Hold me, Momma,” Carrie pleads. But her mother is a crazy bitch and stabs in the back with a knife, all while quoting a bible.
Then Carrie nails her Jesus-loving mother to the wall, almost crucified in JC’s likeness. Why? Because you don’t fuck with Carrie White.
And I’m not going to get into the very end here. Even if you’ve seen Carrie a million times–that ending will get you. Watch it again–seriously.
In the end, I think Carrie is a badass Final Girl. A girl who destroys everything in her wake, and shows you the danger of abuse (and the danger of getting into a car with John Travolta).
For a list of the hottest Final Girls, check out this article.