Even those with a passing interest in horror are likely familiar with the concept of the “Final Girl.” Coined in an essay by Carol J. Clover, Her Body, Himself, the term refers to the trend of the lone female survivor as observed in countless slasher films. Clover’s theories are best explored in her book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, but the subject has been well-covered outside academia as well (see Wes Craven’s Scream franchise and Scott Glosserman’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon for film examples). You can turn to these sources for further study later. Until then… who is the “Final Girl”?
She’s often young, asexual, and less inclined to engage in drugs, drinking, and general misbehavior than her peers. A mysterious string of murders begins and her more promiscuous companions die one by one. She witnesses the deaths of friends and would-be saviors alike and is eventually left to face the killer alone. She’s terrified and hopeless, often irreparably damaged. In her desperation, she turns a corner as all of her fear and hatred turns into strength. Whether she narrowly escapes, fights back, or destroys the monster, she has become extraordinary.
What do we think of the Final Girl? It’s complicated. We question the adoration of the virgin and punishment of the sexually active among other things, but we also choose to embrace the strong women of horror that have always been an inspiration to us. I could go on and on. Another time. For now, I would like to present the Top 10 Final Girls. Ladies, we salute you.
10. Sarah Carter
Shauna Macdonald in The Descent (2005)
There are plenty of formulaic slashers trying to recapture the magic of the 80s, but Sarah Carter of The Descent is one of the few modern Final Girls worth mentioning (close second: Jannicke of Cold Prey). Still grieving the loss of her husband and child, she joins her adventure-seeking friends as they explore a network of beautiful and challenging caves. Before long, the ladies become trapped in uncharted territory and discover subterranean nightmares waiting for them in the dark. The physically powerful, but emotionally fragile Sarah has little to lose. She is willing to sink to bloody depths (quite literally) to retaliate against horrid creatures and rivals alike. Seeing her wield a pickaxe, stained red and wild-eyed, is magnificent. She would be higher on our list, but she owes a tremendous debt to the rest of these fine women. They built the foundation on which she takes her stand.
9. Helen Capel
Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1945)
Speaking of the Final Girl legacy, let’s go back in time and examine an old classic. In the gorgeous thriller, The Spiral Staircase, a serial murderer is targeting disabled young ladies. The vulnerable Helen, a mute live-in nurse for a sickly older woman, may be his next victim. Is she trapped inside the house with a killer? Helen is unusual for her era. Although she doesn’t exactly fight off the villain, she knowingly remains in danger and bravely takes the initiative to try and stop him. The film doesn’t fit the modern definition of a slasher either, but it possesses concepts and visuals that become central to the genre later (voyeuristic shots of the victim from the stalker’s point of view, eyes watching from the shadows, the isolated female victim, etc.). Helen can be considered a precursor. She is the proto Final Girl.
8. Ginny Field
Amy Steel in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Why are we discussing the heroine from a Friday the 13th sequel instead of the clever original? What’s so special about Ginny? Another important trope to consider in Final Girl history is the bond between survivor and monster. Whether it’s relation by blood (See Halloween II), a psychic rapport, or simple empathy, it becomes vital for the last woman standing to connect with the monster. In this case, the fleeing Ginny stumbles into the shrine that Jason built to honor his murderous mother (complete with severed head and turtleneck sweater). In a bold move, she dons the decrepit clothes and takes on the persona of Mrs. Voorhees. Not necessarily a foolproof plan, but impressive enough to cow Jason and buy some time. Tell that soggy mama’s boy who’s boss, Ginny.
7. “Stretch” Brock
Caroline Williams in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
I know. TCM 2 isn’t exactly quality cinema, but it has always been a favorite of mine. The outlandish gore, the hilarious and disturbing Sawyer family, the chainsaw duels…it’s possible that I could watch this every day. Shut up.
Whether you love this goofy sequel or hate it, it’s difficult to deny one thing: “Stretch” Brock, husky-voiced radio DJ and denim shorts enthusiast, is an important Final Girl. She’s notable not only for playing a very active role in hunting down the demented family, but also because she’s a textbook example of Carol J. Clover’s theories on gender roles in the modern slasher (referenced above). I’m not a fan of the theme, but she embodies the victim who tames the male threat with sexuality, “emasculates” him, and assumes his role by the end. Let’s get specific.
TCM’s Leatherface corners Stretch in the radio station and prepares to brutally kill her. In what may be the most laughably blatant metaphor for a slasher’s sexual desire ever, he slides his idle chainsaw slowly along her inner thigh and presses it against her crotch (an uncomfortable moment for horror fans with vaginas everywhere). Terrified that the chainsaw between her legs could roar to life at any second, Stretch uses his childish arousal to stop him. “How good are you?” she asks. “You’re the best.” Confused and fascinated by their encounter, he backs off, lewdly thrusts his chainsaw at her a few times and runs away. By the end of the film, she has literally worn a man’s face and is seen holding a chainsaw over her head, covered in blood and screaming. No subtlety here.
6. Kirsty Cotton
Ashley Laurence in Hellraiser (1987), Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992), and Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)
Kirsty from the Hellraiser series is a very interesting and clever Final Girl. She has a talent for solving the puzzle box known as the Lament Configuration (as far as I can tell, anyone can solve it by circling their thumb on it for a few minutes, but what do I know?). Once solved, the gateway to a dimension of indescribable suffering opens and the horrific “Cenobites” are summoned to collect new flesh. Kirsty, stumbling into this arcane ritual by accident, resorts to bargaining and deception to escape her fate. It eventually becomes clear that she has no qualms whatsoever about sending enemies to a place of eternal torment to save her own skin. It’s best to stay on this lady’s good side. Otherwise, I hope you like hooks and chains a lot.
5. Sally Hardesty
Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Since I covered the ridiculous sequel, it wouldn’t be right to neglect the gritty and brilliant classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Depending on the criteria you’re using to evaluate these ladies and their place in horror history, Sally Hardesty can be considered the first Final Girl (in close competition with Laurie Strode in 1978, more details later). She’s not the fighter later associated with the archetype, but her will to survive at any cost, both physically and mentally, is incredible. She crashes through glass windows without hesitation to evade her pursuers (Twice. Twice!), repeatedly outruns Leatherface, and never stops struggling to escape. In the last scene, Sally is drenched in blood, laughing, and screaming as she eventually speeds away to safety. The raw descent into madness portrayed by Marilyn Burns in this film is riveting.
4. Nancy Thompson
Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Nancy isn’t the first and she isn’t the best, but she is one of the first Final Girls to actively hunt her slasher. No one believes a dead pedophile with claws is chasing her in her dreams and everyone she turns to lets her down. Unlike her predecessors who fight as a last resort, Nancy quickly takes matters into her own hands when she realizes help isn’t coming. She sets traps (“I’m into survival.”), forces her dream stalker into reality, and faces him on her own terms.
3. Laurie Strode
Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (1978) and Halloween II (1981)
As I mentioned previously in my thoughts on Sally Hardesty, Laurie is often considered the first Final Girl. She’s certainly referenced as the origin of the concept more often. The difference between them is a simple matter of “fight or flight”. Sally’s escape was extraordinary, but Laurie Strode’s appearance four years later represents the next step forward in Final Girl history. She fights back.
Before the sequel changes everything and relates them by blood, Halloween is the simple tale of a frightened babysitter and a mysterious stalker. She’s terrified and not particularly strong, but she keeps her cool long enough to defend herself and “kill” the boogeyman. Whether she succeeds or not is irrelevant. I appreciate her attempt to not only escape, but stop the threat as well. A long and glorious history of yelling “Finish the job!” at bad slasher flicks is born.
2. Sarah Connor
Linda Hamilton in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
We approach the end of our list and I must admit the top two ladies are remarkably similar. Both are brilliant interpretations of the Final Girl. Both make shocking transformations from victims to veterans. Both retain their femininity and explore maternal themes despite stepping into traditionally masculine roles. Both…share a romance with the same man? (Michael Biehn, you dog!)
Since the franchise became known for action, The Terminator is often unfairly excluded from the ranks of the slasher. Looking closer, the first film couldn’t qualify more if Arnold strapped on a hockey mask. Keeping this short to avoid repeating myself too much, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is a particularly amazing and proactive heroine. Battling a time-traveling robot and raising the savior of the future is an awful lot to ask of a waitress, but I’m convinced. She can handle it.
Who is number one? Do you really have to ask?
1. Ellen Ripley
Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)
When listing the merits of classic sci-fi hero Ripley, where does one even begin? Being terrified, isolated and outmatched in an Alien-infested space-station never stops her from taking control of the situation and doing her best to get everyone out alive (even Jonesy the cat). She’ll sacrifice herself for the greater good if there’s no other way to destroy the threat and save lives. It’s this selflessness and strength while facing even her greatest fears that sets her apart from the rest. At the risk of sounding cheesy, she’s also the only woman on the list that I’d consider a good role model for young genre fans.
For these reasons and many more, Ellen Ripley is the ultimate Final Girl.
This list was compiled by Jenny Dreadful and Rae Winters of the Final Girl Support Group. It’s been fun to share our picks with you. Now, it’s your turn. Who is your favorite Final Girl?