The definition of ‘final girl’ is changing, evolving to include more interesting and complex characters who aren’t defined by their ‘good girl’ status.
When you hear the words ‘final girl,’ there are several characters that instantly spring to mind. The first is undoubtedly Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who survives John Carpenter’s classic film, Halloween. The second is likely Nancy Thompson, played by Heather Langenkamp, who took down Freddy in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street film. There’s also the iconic Sally Hardesty, Marilyn Burns’ character from the 1984 Texas Chain Saw Massacre, who is one of the first final girls seen on film. Though ten years earlier, Jess from Black Christmas made her dazzling debut.
The term ‘final girl’ was coined in 1992 by writer Carol Clover in her book, “Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.” Clover’s theory was that, at some point, viewers may perceive the action of the films through the lens of the killer, but as the story progresses, viewers lock into identifying with the protagonist, who ends up defeating or confronting the killer at the end.
When Clover defined this term, its meaning was simple: the final girl was the female character who didn’t just survive the film. She was the one who ended up in the last confrontation with the killer, ultimately taking him down and likely being the only survivor. The final girl is most likely pure, maybe virginal, and not the character who is seen doing drugs, drinking, partying, or having sex.
Since then, our view of the final girl has changed.
In modern horror, the final girl may not always be a virgin or the straight-laced girl amongst her hard-partying friends. As the world has changed, so has our vision of what a final girl could be.
In fact, a final girl could potentially be a villain, subverting the original definition of the ‘70s and ‘80s final girl. This keeps horror continuously interesting, updated, and fresh. Let’s take a look at some final girls who don’t fit your stereotypical mold — and a few that don’t get nearly the credit they deserve. These are not the Nancys and the Lauries, but rather the genre’s unsung final girls.
Brigitte, Ginger Snaps
“Out by 16 or dead on the scene, but together forever” is the quotable line most remember from the amazing Canadian horror film, Ginger Snaps. The feminist take on werewolf transformation tells the story of two teenage sisters dealing with hormones and lycanthropy at the same time. At the close of the film, Brigitte kills her sister, Ginger, as she’s being attacked, leaving her as the last one standing. She’s not the typical final girl. She’s weird, different, and dark. But ultimately, through her love for her doomed sister and her own resourcefulness, she’s also a survivor.
Wendy, The Shining
Wendy Torrance spends the final moments of The Shining running from her crazed husband who is trying to kill her and her young son with an ax. Is she a final girl? By all definitions, yes. She has a confrontation with the killer. She faces him down. She survives. Wendy actually turns out to be pretty brave, doing what a mother would do to save her son. And, she wins. It should be noted that she escapes certain death with no help. Nobody picked her up a la Sally Hardesty, and nobody shot her assailant, a la Laurie Strode. Even Sidney needed a hand from Gale in the first Scream film. There was no Dr. Loomis, no Losers Club, no knights in shining armor for Wendy. Wendy is often disrespected in horror culture due to the “annoying” character traits she displays, but this final girl deserves another look.
Beautiful Beverly (played by Emily Perkins and Annette O’ Toole in the first film, Sophia Lillis and Jessica Chastain in the new versions) spends her young life being abused by her father and called a “slut” by school boys. But when it comes to Pennywise, she won’t back down. She is the lone female survivor in a group of males that all face off against the legendary evil as a child, and the grown woman who walks away while male characters die.
Gale Weathers, Scream
When most people discuss final girls and Scream, Sidney Prescott leaps to mind. But what about Gale Weathers? The nosy interviewer, played by Courteney Cox, lived through every Ghostface attack and literally wrote the book on it.
Samantha, House of the Devil
One of my favorite films, the moody Ti West film set in the ‘80s gives off a cool, creepy vibe. At the end of the film, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is almost sacrificed to the devil and does get injured, but not mortally wounded. She survives, and there’s even a hint that she’s with child. Though, to be fair, this birth may not be the blessing most moms-to-be hope for.
Thomasin, The Witch
Thomasin (Anya-Taylor Joy) is not your average final girl. She’s a witch who talks to her goat, Black Phillip, signs the book of the beast, and does bad, witchy stuff. Yet, she’s independent and not afraid to be her own woman — in a time when such boldness was far from acceptable. She refuses to be defined by the horrors of her life, and that makes her a shining example of a modern final girl.
Amanda (Shawnee Smith) is an interesting final girl for one reason: though she ends up being known as the only survivor of Jigsaw’s traps, she turns the tables when she becomes Jigsaw’s protégé. It’s a rare example of a tortured final girl who goes through hell and comes out the other side only to move from victim to victimizer.
Baby, House of 1000 Corpses/The Devils Rejects/3 from Hell
Is Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) a final girl? Technically, yes. In this case, the evil is subverted. Baby is seen as a protagonist, almost a hero, while the police, society, and the public are her enemies. She stares down the villains and wins, time and time again — after her house was raided in the first film, a shootout with the police in the second film, and a jail break in the third. She constantly evades the law and death, the only female character in these films to do so. Subverting the trope of the final girl completely, Baby is an unusual example of a final girl: a villain we can’t help but root for.
Audiences were originally led to believe that Marybeth doesn’t survive the ax-wielding villain’s attacks through the end of the series, as she was seen being impaled in Hatchet 3. But in Adam Green’s final film, Victor Crowley, there’s a glimpse of Marybeth in the last shot: the ultimate survivor. She’s a bold, brave final girl who stares death in the eyes and doesn’t look away. Though some consider her an anti-heroine, I think just the “heroine” part applies to this formidable character, who is played in Hatchet 2 and 3 by the iconic Danielle Harris.
Tree, Happy Death Day
In keeping with the modern trend, Tree (Jessica Rothe) isn’t perfect. She’s a sorority girl who drinks, parties, and has sex. But in these films, she comes face to face with the baby mask killer and uses her intelligence and resourcefulness to defeat him and survive, not just once, but twice. She’s a template for the new final girl, one most of today’s women can actually relate to. And she shows that you can be flawed and very much human, but still tap into your inner strength and survive the unthinkable.