Updating the Final Girl Theory
The Final Girl theory is a common trope in horror and slasher films, made famous and fleshed out in detail by Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992). Her definition of the Final Girl can be summarized from her writing in the essay Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film (1987), “She is abject terror personified. […] She alone looks death in the face; but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued or to kill him herself. She is inevitably female.[…] Her scene occupies the last ten to twenty minuets” (201). Clover elaborates on the qualities of the Final Girl throughout the essay, we will return to more specifics on the Final Girl later on.
Clover defines the specifics of the slasher film, “The qualities that locate the slasher film outside the usual aesthetic system […] are the very qualities that make it such a transparent source for (sub)cultural attitudes toward sex and gender in particular”(188). She goes on to say that, “Slasher films present us in startlingly direct terms with a world in which male and female are at desperate odds but in which, at the same time, masculinity and femininity are more states of mind than body”, she argues that the genre, because of everything that it is, provides a very clear picture of current sexual attitudes of the viewing public. The basis of Clover’s theory lies in the reversal of the male-centered identification process of sadistic-voyeur to a masochistic-voyeur by having the identification shift to the Final Girl by the end of the film. The Final Girl’s defeat of the inevitably male killer is the process of emasculation that allows the transfer from sadistic to masochistic.
I’m very interested in seeing where this theory stands now within the world of modern horror/slasher films. I’m not as much of a fan of the genre as I am of its dynamics and social implications. It has evolved since Clover’s book. The films have grown to be more dynamic, there’s fewer series like Halloween (1978–82) or Nightmare on Elm Street (1984–89), and more recently some of the best horror can only be found on the indie circuit. Like Hush (2016), the film which inspired this re-visit of Clover’s theory. For this updated analysis I want to isolate a few newer films, Clover covers Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974–90), Psycho (1960), Nightmare on Elm Street, and Hell Night (1981) in great detail, I feel no need to re-visit those films. An updated application and analysis of where her theory stands is what I’m most interested in. I’m isolating Hush, House at the End of the Street (2012), Silent House (2011), The Witch (2016), and It Follows (2015) for my sample of films. I’m sure there are many others, but I wanted to stay away from series remakes and parodies for the sake of this argument.
A lot has changed in film-making since Clover published her book, and even more has changed in the world of slasher/horror films. Hush is a very tightly constructed, almost minimalist slasher film, it takes place in one isolated house in the woods. There are two principal characters; Maddie (Kate Siegel) and The Man (John Gallagher Jr.), and only three side characters. Our Final Girl, Maddie, is deaf. We learn really nothing about The Man, the killer, in the film. The focus lies solely on the battle of weapons and wits between them. The film already checks off most of Clover’s rules for the Final Girl; Intelligent, neither overly masculine or overly feminine, the main character, and she is alone. The killer is male, he isn’t even given a name, credited only as The Man. We are really made to feel terrified for her, we root for her, and we feel her vulnerability. What’s interesting here is that we are not given another character to identify with, we only have Maddie. This changes the dynamics of Clover’s theory of audience identification, “The reverse question- whether men might not also, on occasion, elect to betray their sex and identity with screen females- has scarcely been asked” (206), Hush only gives the male audience the female victim to identify with. So this film is asking that question, what happens when there is no reversal of identification? What does it mean for the male audience if your choice of identification is only female? Maddie is the epitome of a modern Final Girl, she is completely on her own, she utilizes what she has around her with great tact, and in the end defeats the killer, no one saves her, she saves herself. The fact that she is deaf becomes a more peripheral fact by the middle of the film, we are even given instances where she almost uses it to her advantage, like when she uses the painfully loud smoke alarm to stun the killer.
House at the End of the Street arguably has two Final Girls; Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) and her mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue). While this film might not be the highest rated horror on this list, I still feel the base qualities of Clover’s argument still apply here. The horror/slasher elements take a while to come in to play, and most of our suspicions are fed via flashback, but the end delivers its fill of genre tropes. In the end both women gang up on the killer, Elissa shoots him and then Sarah saves Elissa by delivering the final blow. The two women end up saving each other, instead of the typical situation when a male character takes over and saves the Final Girl. While Elissa is sexualized to an extent because of the romantic relationship that forms between her and the killer, that relationship has no effect on her actions at the end of the film.
The Witch is more of a horror film than a slasher film, but we still have a Final Girl in Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). It’s set in 17th century New England, the film revolves around a Puritan family, this is already a very male-centered environment. Her name is also masculine, as Clover points out, this too is a common occurrence in the genre for the Final Girl. Her family is slowly picked off and killed by the Witch. In the end she succumbs to the Witch, but she does survive. Throughout the film, her family are actually the ones who are the biggest threats to Thomasin. They blame her for the sudden disappearance of the families youngest child, her brother Caleb’s (Harvey Scrimshaw) possession, they talk about sending her away to another family, and her father (Ralph Ineson) even locks her away in the goat’s stable. Her family believes she is a witch. Thomasin kills her mother in a fit of rage after her mother blames her for every wrong that has happened to the family. She is the only one in her family left alive when she joins the coven of witches in the forest. The irony of the whole film lies in the fact that it is the father’s fault that they were banished to live out near the forest, but all the blame is placed on the oldest daughter. So The Witch not only plays on religious anxieties, it also plays on classic male anxieties. The father is faced with bad crops, a shrinking income, and he even sells a silver cup which belonged to his wife. All of these, while they may seem very old-world in nature, are emasculating to the father.
Silent House is a big favorite of mine for many reasons, for one it is edited together to appear as if it was shot in one long continuous take. The plot takes a very surprising turn at the end, turning the film from a supernatural horror to something closer to a slasher/psychological thriller. Elizabeth Olsen plays Sarah, our Final Girl. This film is a great example because it deals with sexual violence, a topic that is nearly always indirectly dealt with according to Clover, “Actual rape is practically nonexistent in the slasher film, evidently on the premise […] that violence and sex are not concomitants but alternatives” (195). The film’s final act revolves around sexual assault that happened in Sarah’s past, the more time she spends in the house the more she begins to remember about the past assaults. Reality and hallucinations begin to mesh and haunt Sarah. Her father and uncle are discovered to be the abusers. Sarah fights back, hitting her father in the back of the head with a hammer. She ignores his pleas and leaves her uncle for dead, alone in the house. The tables really are turned completely at the end of Silent House, “Only when one encounters the rare expression of abject terror on the part of a male (as in I Spit on Your Grave) does one apprehend the full extent of the cinematic double standard in such matters”(212), here we see two adult men at the mercy of a teenage girl.
It Follows really brings the sex and gender dynamic in horror front and center. The ‘It’ in question is a sexually transmitted ghost-like being that haunts the receiver until ‘It’ is passed onto another victim during intercourse. This plays on the classic sex=death trope so common in horror films. The monster is un-gendered, it has no sex, it’s a being that lives to terrify whoever’s body it occupies in the moment. Clover writes about the ‘monster’ character type in the slasher film, “The monster is constructed as feminine, thus the horror film expresses female desire only to show how monstrous it is” (209). In this case any sexual desire is translated as monstrous and potentially deadly, we see both male and female characters either transfer or get ‘It’ from someone of the opposite sex. Annie (Bailey Spry) is our main character, she unknowingly gets ‘It’ from a guy, he only tells her after however. The comparisons between this and STD’s is loud and clear. In the end Annie and her friends collectively defeat ‘It’, they electrocute ‘It’ in a pool, an interesting location choice as it draws connotations to purification.
From these films we can see that the terrain of the horror/slasher has indeed changed since Clover’s analysis. A question I think she would ask is has women’s place in these genres improved? From these films I feel safe in saying yes, it has improved. We are given more powerful Final Girls, they are more independent, they actively seek out the killer, they help save others as much as they are saved. Is there still room for improvement, of course there is, plenty of room. What really has changed dramatically is the contexts themselves that are drawing attention to how gender and sex are dealt with. Clover asks, “But why, if viewers can identify across gender lines and if the root experience of horror is sex blind, are the screen sexes not interchangeable? […] The fact that horror film so stubbornly genders the killer male and the principal victim female would seem to suggest that representation itself is at issue” (209). As we have seen with these films the problem of representation might be less of an issue now than it was when Clover wrote her essay. It Follows shows us that the killer does not have to be gendered at all, Silent House provides us with a strong Final Girl getting her revenge, and as a Final Girl Maddie from Hush is one of the strongest women I have ever encountered in the horror genre. While House at the End of the Street provides audiences with two Final Girls, and The Witch leaves us with the last innocent woman standing, made not so innocent anymore.
Clover closes her essay saying, “That it[adjustments in gender representation] is an adjustment largely on the male side, appearing at the furthest possible remove from the quarters of theory and showing signs of trickling upwards, is of no small interest” (221). While representation of both men and women in the genre has changed, we are seeing more of an uprising of the female character than we are a change in the male character. Gender representation still has a way to go in the world of horror and slasher films, but the progress that has been made should not be ignore or discredited as not being good enough. I, personally am very hopeful, if we continue to see more films like these, who knows where the Final Girl will be in the future.
Totaro, Donato. The Final Girl: A Few Thoughts on Feminism and Horror. 6; 2, Jan 2000. Web. offscreen.com.
Clover. J, Carol Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film. 1987. The Regents of the University of California. Representations, vol 20 (pp. 187–228).