In certain ways and for fairly superficial reasons, horror is often seen as a masculine genre. That notion is not only outdated–it’s downright preposterous. Women can and do not only enjoy horror movies just as much, if not more, than their male counterparts, but they’re also an integral component of horror movie history in more ways than one.
In various horror subgenres throughout movie history, women have been objectified and massacred brutally. There’s no way to write off this fact and certainly no easy solution to unraveling sex and violence after years of being dangerously entwined with one another in this genre. But where there are problematic gender and sexual politics at play, there are certainly some noteworthy examples of dynamic, iconic female characters who do more than die. In 1970s horror movies, like The Exorcist and Alien, women are front and center and their characters are more complex than any damsel-in-distress victim archetype that had come before. The former definitely warrants some problematic readings nonetheless; the story of a single mother whose daughter becomes possessed by a demon can easily be analyzed as an allegory–or even cautionary tale–about divorce, critiquing single parenthood in an era of feminism (as our aforementioned single mom continues her career despite having a child to take care of and somewhat blaming the possession on poor parenting). That said, it’s still a crucially important mother-daughter duo of the horror genre and speaks to the changes in women’s roles–both in society and within the genre itself.
But, if you’re looking for a more overtly “strong” female character in your classic genre fare, look no further than Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Ripley is the ultimate take-no-prisoners female character. While the boys club around her all but perishes at the hands (or perhaps more aptly put–claws) of the terrifying Xenomorph. In space, no one can hear you scream–but on earth, plenty of feminist film-goers found an idol in this character.
20th Century Fox
Ripley of course is not the only female character in horror movie history to prevail against her attackers, though. Since the 1970s, an era which especially saw the increasing prominence of slasher films, there’s been a common formula whose main ingredient is the Final Girl. The Final Girl, though also problematic in its origins and formulations, has evolved quite a bit since that time. She started out as a virginal character. While her peers were being promiscuous and getting punished for it, she was the prudent, even boyish girl. As defined in Carol J. Clover’s seminal scholarly writings on gender in the horror film, the Final Girl would be made masculine by use of some phallic weaponry used to defeat her sexually stunted male attacker. It’s a film theory that is as fascinating and everlasting as any; gender fluidity within this character helped explain how or why female viewers and male viewers alike were able to relate to and identify with her, and therefore, how they were able to engage with the film overall.
And yet, today, our Final Girl does not have to fit into any such molds. She can be sexual, and her weapon certainly does not have to be phallic. In fact, many of my favorite Final Girls of recent years barely need a weapon at all, at least not a traditional one. (Chainsaws and machetes are so yesterday, am I right?) Instead, they use their smarts, their sexuality, and their ingenuity. Defeating male attackers has become a satisfying certainty–a conclusion we all know and love.
So now that you’ve been given your Final Girl 101, it’s time to look at a few of the best, most evolved versions of the classic character type as a way of celebrating strong, interesting women in a genre that carries with it a stigma of being masculine. So here’s to all the Final Girls and the girls who love them:
1) Jay (Maika Monroe) from It Follows
RADiUS-TWC/ Dimension Films
Again, some final girls these days use sex as a weapon, but it doesn’t make them Femme Fatales or objects to be sexualized by others (neither within the film nor by viewers), especially not in this tale which revolves around a sexually transmitted entity that haunts you until you pass it on. The sexual politics of the film are admittedly complex, but Jay does what she has to do to be rid of the entity, and the film never moralizes about sex or makes her predicament seem like a punishment, as in slasher films of yesteryear.
2) Erin (Sharni Vinson) from You’re Next
Adam Wingard’s home invasion film reads, at times, like a parody and transcends mumblecore conventions and horror conventions in equal measure with a sense of humor and some truly terrifying thrills, most of which come from Erin who, little do her attackers realize, grew up learning an incredible set of self-defense skills and uses them to gruesome, glorious effect. You know you’re witnessing a soon-to-be legendary Final Girl if you find yourself cheering, clapping, and/or screaming, all of which you’ll definitely want to do while watching Erin in action.
3) Dana (Kristen Connolly) from Cabin in the Woods
A hilarious and horrific spoof of the very conventions and formulas discussed here, Dana is meant to be the virgin character or, as we all know, the Final Girl. Even though she manages to hold her own against a backwoods family of zombies and is certainly seen as the smart girl if nothing else, the film flips many of these expectations and makes us realize how limiting the old formula can be–and how freeing it is to see a character like Dana who fits but also refashions it so brilliantly.
4) Anna (Maika Monroe) from The Guest
Anna goes to parties and has somewhat of a low-life as a boyfriend (but a well-meaning, fairly likable low-life at that). But even despite the tropes present and her own angsty attitude, punky fashion sense and morose music taste, she sets herself apart from her movie-character peers and predecessors by defending her family, her little brother specifically, above all else, and if anything, her angst stems from that. The familial spin juxtaposed with a kind of nostalgia for 1980s movies and attitudes make for a wild ride and a fascinating Final Girl of sorts.
5) Mia (Jane Levy) from Evil Dead
Having a female version of Ash (in a way) was a fun and refreshing approach to remaking a beloved horror-comedy. Although this film isn’t nearly as comedic as it is gory, it maintains a cleverness, especially in the journey that Mia goes through, from possessed baddie to badass heroine. Her epic showdown near the end is a spectacle unmatched by any traditional Final Girl finale.