Death & the Maidens’ own Lucy Talbot is here to examine the final girl narrative. The last girl standing has been debated by horror fans and academics alike. We can track her evolution through the main stream of horror but her story existed long before the 1970s. For every final girl we find a fallen woman. Looking back at Victorian fiction we find that sex equaled death long before masked serial killers stalked and brutally murdered teenagers.
The final girl is the horror film survivor. She represents all that a young woman should aspire be: pure, innocent, clever, determined and kind of heart. It is her morality above all else that sets her apart from her peers. Only with these attributes can she defeat the killer and be crowned last woman standing. This term was first coined by Carol J Glover in her book Men, Women & Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), and has been a popular subject for critical theory and debate ever since. For me, this is no modern construction, the final girl narrative existed way before the slasher films of the 1970s. As society shapes and changes so does the role of the final girl. In order for her example to be set her moral values must stand out from the crowd. For every final girl we find a fallen woman. This was a popular term in the 19th century for women who had been ‘led astray’ and lost their innocence. Jennifer Hedgecock explains in The Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature: The Danger and the Sexual Threat that ‘popular literature [at the time] warns readers of the consequences suffered by exiled fallen women forced into alienation, poverty, slum dwelling, and suicide’ (2008, p.49). Ultimately, the lesson being that sex equals death. Here, I want to track the stories of both the final girl and the fallen woman through time. Exploring the characteristics of these roles and demonstrating the presence of this narrative in both Victorian fiction and the modern horror film. We will find the final girl is in fact the ‘last woman standing’ with social conventions making the fallen women less relevant to our modern life.
The horror film’s final girl is often argued a sexist construct, objectifying women with sexualised scenes of violence. There has been heavy criticism of the genre for this reason. With so much debate around horror and the gender politic, it is no wonder that many directors are finding new ways to explore and often challenge these stereotypes. First though we visit an era when the final girl narrative may have acted more as a fable for young women than gratification for men…
Adam Bede by George Eliot (1859)
“There it was, black under the darkening sky: no motion, no sound near. She set down her basket, and then sank down herself on the grass, trembling. The pool had its wintry depth now: by the time it got shallow, as she remembered the pools did at Hayslope, in the summer, no one could find out that it was her body. But then there was her basket — she must hide that too. She must throw it into the water — make it heavy with stones first, and then throw it in. She got up to look about for stones, and soon brought five or six, which she laid down beside her basket, and then sat down again. There was no need to hurry — there was all the night to drown herself in”
The shocking realisation that Hetty Sorrel gave birth in secret, leaving her baby to die from exposure is captured within this beautiful painting. The wide eyed mother shields her ears from the cries of her child as she fleas the scene. Her haunting expression embodies sheer terror and the maternal pull she fights by running. A connection between the Gothic novel and horror film is not difficult to make. Both involve an ‘other’ often with a supernatural element designed to scare. This pastoral tale however, may seem an odd comparison. But the story of Hetty Sorrell and final girl Dinah Morris shows that this narrative existed before a need for the ghostly and the violent, because the reality was horrifying enough.
Eliot carefully constructs a binary that warns young women what happens if you ‘go into the woods’ with a man (like Hetty) whilst educating the audience (through Dinah) on how to behave. Hetty is innocent and naive. Beautiful and childish she wins the affections of both admired local carpenter Adam Bede and Captain Arthur Donnithorne, grandson of the local squire. It is this seduction of Hetty by Arthur that takes her away from the family home, hoping that he will support her and their unborn child she searches for him. Penniless and depressed Hetty can no longer rely on her good looks and girlish charm. Often perceived as vulgar by those she meets along the way, with her evident pregnancy representing her fallen status. She considers suicide but instead it is her child that dies abandoned. Although Hetty eventually returns for her child it is too late. When she is later located she is arrested and tried for infanticide.
Dinah prays for Hetty in the prison cell. It is this overwhelming act of compassion that encourages her to speak the truth. Although sentenced to hanging, death is not instantaneous for this fallen woman. Prior to her execution Arthur returns and has her punishment reduced to transportation. Some might argue a worse fate due to the horrors Hetty would have been exposed to on route to Australia. We learn that she dies as a result of illness. Throughout the novel Dinah is a good friend to Hetty and someone she trusts, loves and respects. She dresses in black, contrasting with the girly portrayal of Hetty. Dinah is a Methodist preacher, while Hetty dreams of a life with Arthur, Dinah prays and preaches. She is presented as strong, intelligent and morally grounded. This is noticed by Adam Bede and the two marry in a rather sudden twist to the plot. Eliot rewards Dinah for her purity by giving her the happy ending Hetty could have had with Adam Bede.
For this final girl there is no physical monster to destroy, it is her dedication to religion that guides her through life. Hetty dies because of her choices, falling victim to seduction at a time when society held no mercy for women and their mistakes. Arthur is perhaps the monster to some degree. He does not live in the village, thus ticking the box of ‘other’. Taking advantage of Hetty and her innocence, leaving without a thought for her.
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
“She seemed like a nightmare of Lucy as she lay there, the pointed teeth, the blood stained, voluptuous mouth, which made one shudder to see, the whole carnal and unspirited appearance, seeming like a devilish mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity”
Stoker takes us further towards the familiar final girl of modern horror. The threat moves away from life’s harsh realities and introduces a supernatural element. Dracula is not the dashing Bela Lugosi we would hope. He is in fact a hideous creature with the ability to draw unsuspecting women to him (a metaphor for syphilis?) Lucy Westenra has an additional admirer on Hetty’s two suitors. Although her letters to Mina Murray detail how much she wants to be a good loyal wife her nightly activities say otherwise. Growing increasingly ill and requiring multiple blood transfusions it becomes evident that her innocent intentions do not hold up against the Count.
Mina Murray is the final girl and thank to the extended ramblings of Van Helsing we know the example that Stoker wishes young women to live by. Mina is praised for her intelligence and ‘male like’ thinking. She possesses the unique telekinetic ability to connect with Dracula’s movements. Thus helping the trio of men find and destroy him. In the scene Lucy is staked through the heart we encounter the use of phallic symbolism horror fans will grow to know and love. In the period between Lucy’s death and final destruction stories emerge of the Bloofer Lady. Newspapers report a sinister female stalking the bay at night drawing young children to her. Like Hetty abandoning her child this represents again the anti-mother: women not fulfilling the role that society sets them. Early in the novel Jonathan Harker witnesses a small package being thrown to three vampire women for them to feed on, the description suggests this to be a baby. Mina’s strength to fight the urge of drinking Dracula’s blood plays out in a disturbing scene whereby he cuts a slit in his chest and forces her to it. However, later adaptations do not always keep this final girl so pure.
The Odd Women (1893) by George Gissing
“Make a brave woman of her… The world is moving”
Gissing’s novel connects better to the works of Eliot in the realms of realism. This novel highlights an important step for the final girl. Rhoda Nunn is again a strong, independent, intelligent woman. At first glance Rhoda is like Dinah or Mina. But she is soon revealed as a forward thinker ditching old ideals and set on moving society forward. Her relationship with dandy Everard Barefoot shows a softer side to Rhoda Nunn. She debates entering a free union with Everard, a relationship outside of the social norms with no legal contract or social restraints. Rhoda embraces her status as an ‘odd woman’ making it a choice. Unlike the poor sisters of Monica Madden (Gissing’s fallen woman) two sickly spinsters with little money or enjoyment Rhoda is a picture of innovation. That she will even consider a free union is revolutionary. In this story it is this final girl who is left holding the baby (Monica’s child after her inevitable death) ending the novel on a note of hope. Can Rhoda pass her ideals and values to the next generation and bring change? From here we move to the modern final girl. Comparisons can be made with Dinah, Mina and Rhoda but for many critics the final girl is the ultimate insult. Yes intelligent, kind and strong but always portrayed as passive, plain creatures with limited personality until the final scene.
Enter Laurie Strode.
The comparison between Laurie Strode and characters Dinah, Mina and Rhoda is not difficult to make. Whilst her friend’s plan to celebrate Halloween drinking beer with their boyfriends Laurie is happy to plan festive activities for her babysitting duties. She dresses in modest, plain clothing and does not like to draw attention to herself. Laurie does not judge her friends and seems to envy their ability to flirt and have a good time. She is allowed to become the final girl because she does not engage in any form of reckless or sexual activity.
Her ‘fallen’ friends meet their end in scenes directly linked to their promiscuous behavior. Instead of focusing on their babysitting duties these girls plot having a good time. After sex, Linda’s boyfriend Bob goes to get beer from the fridge and is stabbed by the silent stalker Michael Myers. Laurie urging Bob to hurry back to bed with her beer is greeted by Myers hidden under a sheet. Thinking this is a Halloween joke Linda laughs and drops the bed sheets to expose her breasts. Naked she is strangled with the telephone cord.
The fable found in 1970s and 1980s slasher films is much like that of the Victorian novels. It just presents a slightly different message to young audiences. Impressionable girls become awkward teenagers. Fallen women become party girls. The final girl remains the final girl.
When thinking of a scene that best captures the sexual threat against innocence present within horror films of this era. I can think of none better than this bath time scene. Nancy Thompson has already lost her best friend Tina Grey. Tina was brutally murdered by Freddy Krueger following a sexual encounter with her boyfriend. The pair fell asleep and Freddy struck. Nancy fights off Freddy the only way she can by staying awake. Every time she starts to doze off the infamous Freddy claw emerges from the water between her legs. Only to disappear when Nancy fights the urge to ‘fall’ asleep.
Wes Craven carefully crafted a plot that paid homage to the tradition of slasher films whilst addressing the sexism they were so often criticised for. Playing with the very horror conventions his earlier films adhered too. Character Sidney stays true to the final girl until a point. She is intelligent, brave and of course a virgin. Her boyfriend Billy continually puts pressure on Sidney to have sex with him but she declines. Prior to the reveal of the killer’s identity Sidney looses her virginity with Billy. Having on occasion suspected him to be involved in the murders it appears that doubt still remains in her mind. Having sex means that Sidney no longer qualifies as the final girl. She is now the ‘fallen’.
This is consciously acknowledged in a scene where movie buff Brady explains the rules of horror to his disinterested peers. You have sex, you die. Billy finally makes it known to Sidney that he is the killer and her instinct was right all along. The monster is not an outsider in this instance, he is the man she has lost her virginity to. In the final scene Sidney does not defeat the murdering double act alone. She gets help from an unlikely friend, news reporter Gail Weathers. Who covered the murder story of Sidney’s mother the previous year. It comes out that Billy is responsible for Sidney’s mother dying too. This was a revenge attack for an affair that caused Billy’s mother to abandon him. Maternal themes present once again that later extend to the sequel. In Scream 2, Billy’s own mother comes back to avenge his death. A plot twist seen in other horror films such as the original Friday the 13th. The rules had to change. Social norms had shifted and to engage audiences horror needed to respond to that. To keep the final girl virginal would make her not only dated but difficult for a lot of teenagers to identify with. Sidney is not the slut Billy claims her to be and the mistake she has made (having sex with the murderer) does not warrant the stereotypical punishment of being killed off. The final girl has not fallen. She’s just had sex.
In Cherry Falls, Virginia a serial killer under a female guise is targeting virgins. Bodies are recovered by the local police with ‘Virgin’ carved into the skin sending the town into panic. For the final girl Jody, this awful crime spree comes at a time she already feels pressure to loose her virginity from boyfriend Brent. Terrified, the high school teenagers plan a mass orgy. Which of course attracts the killer. Jody who is the sheriff’s daughter conducts her own investigation through the course of the film uncovering the brutal gang rape of a high school girl 25 years before. We see the maternal at play here again when the killer is revealed as the child born of the rape attack. This son has come back to avenge his mother and seek revenge for his own awful childhood.
When Erin goes to stay at her boyfriend’s family home the last thing she expects is to be fighting for her life. Ironically, the last thing the team of hired killers expect is for Erin to be fully trained in combat having grown up on a survivalist compound in Australia. This final girl doesn’t just survive. She takes down each of the killers one by one. When her skills are first unveiled (with humour so dry you almost miss it initially) you realise just how clever this film is. Your’e Next pokes fun at the final girl narrative whilst also celebrating it. Mia is resourceful, strong and highly skilled. This final girl does not have to break through her innocence or learn how to survive. She is already a force to be reckoned with.
I am a huge fan of the original The Evil Dead series. So I went to see the new version with every intention of hating it. To my surprise, I rather enjoyed it. With signature scenes from the original 1981 version present and the right amount of ‘comic’ it felt more like a tribute to the epic work of Sam Raimi than a total rip off. Something that really captured my attention was the switch of gender roles and introduction of a final girl. In the original film none of the female characters survive. The intention of replacing Ash with Mia as the sole survivor is a bold statement. Challenging the gender politics widely departed within horror genre.
Or does it? In a great article by Kelsea Stahler ‘Why The Bloodiest Scene in Evil Dead is good for Women’ the question is raised: does bringing in a final girl pull horror backwards? I think that it is the merging of the final girl with the fallen woman that makes my answer to this question a solid no. Mia has a drug problem and a troubled past. That is what is so great about her. She has made mistakes but the narrative does not punish her for them. Instead she comes back fighting and claims the masculine role by ‘becoming Ash’. The chainsaw in all its phallic glory becomes a brutal blood bath. Which is weirdly rather liberating to watch…