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The "Final Girl," a key part of every great slasher movie, explained

Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.
Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

You know her when you see her. You relate to her. You root for her. You want to see her do well. Well, you actually just want to see her live.

The Final Girl has been as crucial to the horror genre as villains like Freddy, Jason, or Michael. Throughout the cinematic history of horror movies, Ripley, Laurie, Nancy, and the women they've inspired have endured murderous summer camps, terrorizing nightmares, and alien ghouls. Final Girls are tough enough and strong enough to make it to end — the only people still standing when the last trickle of blood has hit the floor.

"I think there's something really hard and tough about her," Todd Strauss-Schulson, the director of the new film The Final Girls, told Vox about Alien's Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). "There's something also human about her that makes you fall in love with some of the other girls who we really only relate to because they're in peril. "

Strauss-Schulson's film is both an ode to and a critique of these women. The plot focuses on a teenager named Max and her friends as they're transported into an '80s slasher flick starring Max's mom, who is essentially an aggregation of all the girls you meet in a horror movie except for the Final Girl. In this world, characters live and die by the rules of Reagan-era horror movies — sex, nudity, drinking, and drugs are completely forbidden. That the present-day teens are smart enough to know how clichéd horror movies can be is Final Girls' primary conceit.

But as horror flicks like Scream and The Cabin in the Woods and Strauss-Schulson's aptly named Final Girls spell out, the Final Girl is also very much a trope. There are finite rules to surviving a horror movie, to the point that it's easy to quantify and calculate survival. Typically, a Final Girl's life is nothing more than an equation that involves her hair color, how many nude scenes she has, and her personality. And further, a Final Girl's formulaic survival often becomes as meaningless as the deaths that happen all around her.

Therein lies a question about our fascination with and the necessity of the Final Girl. What role does she serve? Why does she exist? And are all Final Girls created equal?

What is a Final Girl?

The term Final Girl was coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, to refer to the last girl standing at the end of a horror movie, especially a slasher. Clover, a professor with expertise in Scandinavian language and film, points to a common series of traits that Final Girls have — they're virginal and virtuous, they sometimes have a unisex name, most of the time they're brunette — and explains that their existence is a reflection of how society consumes horror and violence.

She theorized that Final Girls in movies like Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), Eyes of a Stranger (1981), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) are first presented through a male point of view — the killer's — but then there's a transition where the narrative flips and the audience starts to identify with and root for the Final Girl. How we see violence, how we punish people for their vices, and how we perceive gender when it comes to horror is why Final Girls exist.

"These films are designed to align spectators not with the male tormentor, but with the female victim — the ‘final girl’ — who finally defeats her oppressor," Clover writes.

Final Girls include characters like Halloween's Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Alien's Ripley, Friday the 13th's Alice (Adrienne King), and more recent characters such as Scream's Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), The Descent's Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), and You're Next's Erin (Sharni Vinson).

The term has transcended its academic beginnings and is now a pop culture fixture, as evidenced by lists like "Ranking the 10 Best Final Girls in Horror Movie History," "The 25 Fiercest Final Girls of Horror," and "The Top Ten Final Girls in Horror Movie History."

Final Girls are more or less treated like Disney princesses. As the concept has earned pop culture appreciation, it's been fascinating to watch contemporary audiences recognize the trope, perhaps with a bit of nostalgia, and embrace it  in comparison to audiences who experienced Final Girls more earnestly.

How Final Girls have changed over time

There's been a definitive shift in the types of horror movies Clover wrote about in 1992 and the ones released more recently. (Via email, Clover told Vox that she doesn't do interviews about Final Girls anymore, though she mentions that the preface of the newest edition of her book contains some of her thoughts about the Final Girl in critical writing.)

The catalyst for this shift is a self-awareness. There are a lot of reasons horror movies are more explicitly self-aware than they were in the past — real-life horror being scarier than fiction; 9/11; the evolution of the genre; the popularity of Wes Craven — but there is no doubt that this awareness affected the creative process, and Final Girls with it.

Craven's 1996 hit Scream (which came out four years after Clover's book was published) played with this idea by injecting the slasher film with a meta-commentary on the genre. It came as a shock that Drew Barrymore, the biggest star in the movie at the time and a prime Final Girl candidate, was killed off in the first 15 minutes. Her character didn't know the rules of a horror movie and died at the hands of Ghostface. This is in sharp contrast to Neve Campbell's Sidney Prescott, the quick-thinking eventual Final Girl of the franchise, who drops smirky, knowing lines about keeping her relationship "PG-13" and declares upon killing Ghostface, "Not in my movie."

That was almost 20 years ago, and the horror genre has seen movies that dramatically shifted the Final Girl since then.

Taking Scream's lead on redefining the genre is Joss Whedon's The Cabin the Woods. Its self-awareness is more pronounced, and it's a dark satire on the tropes of horror movies as a slut, a jock, a virgin, and a nerd are lured into the woods and killed off one by one. True to script of every horror movie that came before it, The Cabin in the Woods' virgin, Dana (Kristen Connolly), is the Final Girl. But instead of following Final Girl protocol, she gets to choose whether she'll be the last woman standing or be responsible for letting the world end. She opts for the latter.

This isn't to say that there have only been dramatic changes to the Final Girl formula. Movies like You're Next and It Follows show subtler tweaks on the trope. You're Next's Erin is a Final Girl who was raised at a survivalist camp; she's more of a threat than the killers who are trying to murder her. The same goes for It Follows' Jay, who curses her next lover with an inescapable killer monster that follows him. She develops an understanding about the sureness of that horror and comes to terms with it. And even though she's the last woman standing at the end of her film, the way the rules work — the monster kills your lover, then you, then the person who gave you the monster — ensures she isn't the Final Girl in the monster's grand design.

Our Final Girls, ourselves

Though it isn't a horror movie, Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series spent a lot of time dissecting, analyzing, and scooping out the brains behind our obsession with Final Girls. The show's mythos is about a proverbial Final Girl, a slayer, picked to fight a lonely fight against the forces of darkness. But in its final episode, it circumvents this idea by taking on the patriarchy.

"In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule," Buffy tells her potential successors, informing them of a plan to grant all of them the power to be as strong as her. She continues:

From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?

Buffy's dramatic speech works very well as an allegory to the idea of Clover's Final Girl. One woman is left standing at the end of a horror movie because it's the rule that's been set and upheld by directors, many of whom are men. There's no real reason for directors to continue to follow this rule, other than it's what has always been done.

Like Buffy, the girls of Final Girls are aware of this rule. The mean girl knows that mean girls don't last long in slasher films. The best friend knows that if she kisses a boy, it's curtains for her. Watching these teens teleport into a mindless horror movie underscores how frustrating the formula can be. You're not just rooting for a Final Girl, you're rooting for a Final Girl created by a man who is satirizing so many movies written and directed by men before him. And there's something heart-wrenching and emotional about the characters' inability to break free.

"The intention was to use a horror movie [and the Final Girl trope] as a leaping-off point," Strauss-Schulson says. "The story that we were really telling was really a story about a girl who gets the chance to be with her dead mother … It's not shying away from it. And it's a tearjerker in a lot of ways."

The Final Girls of today aren't the same as the Final Girls we first met 30 or 40 years ago. Viewers better understand the horror genre and the tropes it contains. But when you study some of the more recent Final Girls, a broader social commentary emerges: Today's Final Girls tell their own stories and control their own destinies (even if it means dying). They're badass. And that's even more of a reason to root for them.

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