A teen girl waits inside a creepy, empty house with a knife. She knows the killer is outside and she knows he's coming to kill her next. Her friends are dead, her clothes have been ripped to shreds, she is covered in blood, and she is all alone in the deserted house. But she is ready. She waits, ready to avenge her friends and save her own life. She is the Final Girl.
While it might be easy to assume that horror films are directed toward a male audience, many of them feature a female protagonist and heroine who becomes the "Final Girl"— the character in a horror film who survives after all of her friends have been killed off one by one by a monster or killer and, left alone, is forced to fight off and defeat the monster on her own. In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol J. Clover charts the rise of the Final Girl from slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the clearest and most definitive example of the trope and current works like Netflix's Hemlock Grove toy with the theme in interesting ways.
In the 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and its 2003 remake), Sally and her friends are on a road trip when they run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. If this seems all-too-familiar, it's because that's how pervasive the Final Girl trope has become. The group of friends winds up trapped in the home of a family of former meat butchers who have turned their expertise with knives into new careers killing people. One by one Sally's friends are tortured and killed until she is the only one left. After running from her captors all over the scary house, Sally escapes and jumps in the back of a passing pickup truck, while her would-be killer Leatherface waves his chainsaw in frustration, unable to catch her.
While slasher films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween created the Final Girl, the late '90s and early 2000s saw a resurgence of horror and slasher films for a teen audience, like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream, that played with the same trope. The Final Girl has become so ingrained in audience expectations for horror films that filmmakers are now able to play with those expectations by playing directly into them—or surprising audiences by playing against and with them.
Rob Zombie's 2003 film House of 1000 Corpses is so full-to-the-brim of every horror film cliché that watching the movie and counting the tropes should be a drinking game. The film follows the general outline of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—a group of friends need help on a road trip and encounter a creepy family in a creepy house that pretends to be eager to help. Soon enough the youngsters are being killed, tortured, and Rainn Wilson (yes, he's in it, it's totally worth seeing) is turned into half man-half fish experiment before the Final Girl Denise escapes on her own. Rob Zombie follows these clichés not out of a lack of imagination, but out of a genuine affection for the horror film genre—the audience is meant to recognize the repetition of the tropes they've seen before, anticipate the plot, and enjoy the playful and campy familiarity.
Part of the fun of watching a horror film is knowing what's going to happen next—the creepy music starts while a woman in a nightie descends the basement stairs, and you know she's headed for trouble—and horror films actively play into those expectations because it heightens the tension.
The Final Girl never went away, but horror films are working to incorporate her more and more, and audiences are loving it. The 2011 horror film Silent House is an intense and experimental take on the Final Girl—shot in one continuous take, actress Elizabeth Olsen is often the only character on screen as she is left alone in a terrifying house. The recent remake of Evil Dead—which made $26 million in its opening weekend—rewrote the plot of the famous cult film to feature a group of friends trapped together in a cabin in the woods. The original film was mostly Bruce Campbell by himself fighting off an evil demonic force; in the new film, Mia's friends are killed one by one until Mia alone must confront and kill the demon that has taken their lives. The 2011 remake of The Thing does the same—the original 1982 film has an all-male cast, while the 2011 film has a young woman in Kurt Russell's role, fighting off an alien invader after it has killed her crew. This remake is more than a slight nod to the character Ripley in the Alien films—an early version of the Final Girl, but in space. The 2012 film Prometheus, a prequel to the Alien films, ends with Noomi Rapace as a Final Girl alone in space—it counts as her being alone if the only other crewmember left alive is a robot, right?
Final girl Kate Lloyd (and final flamethrower) in 2011's The Thing.
Drama Hemlock Grove is the new original series out this year from Netflix (after House of Cards and Arrested Development) and it disturbs those horror film expectations in an interesting way: by following them closely until the very end of the season, then revealing a major twist. The plot must have gone over well because the show was just renewed for a second season.
Hemlock Grove attempts to adapt the trope of the Final Girl for what we could call the "creature generation"—teens who have grown up with media filled with supernatural monsters like vampires and werewolves on shows and films like True Blood, the Harry Potter series, Twilight, Teen Wolf, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These series and films aren't necessarily made to interact with the kind of horror film tropes solidified in slasher films, but with their popularity and the pervasiveness of the Final Girl, crossover was inevitable. While Buffy could be construed as a kind of Final Girl, she is never alone—she has her friends alongside her. Of course Buffy is amazing, but part of the appeal and construction of the Final Girl is that she and only she is capable of bringing down the monster—because she is abandoned and now she must save her own life.
In Hemlock Grove, teen girls in a small town are being gruesomely murdered and the local police think a rabid dog is on the loose. High school heartthrobs Peter, a teen werewolf, and Roman, a teen vampire, team up to find the "vargulf" responsible—a werewolf gone mad. But they're not the only ones looking. Shy freshman Christina has also figured out that a werewolf is responsible for the murders.
Christina, center, in a scene from Hemlock Grove's first season.
Christina is intentionally built up to be the Final Girl—she discovers the body of one of the dead girls abandoned in the woods and goes into shock, her best friends are killed, her hair turns white, and she tells anyone who will listen that she knows the werewolf is coming to kill her next. But as the audience follows the cues, the end of the season dismantles the trope. I won't go into details, but the show gives Christina agency over her own counter-intuitive choices and subverts the image of the Final Girl as tougher and more worthy of survival than those who died.
Not to get all Freudian, but horror films are really all about gender and sexuality. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween are about sexuality—a killer stalks teens and kills them after they have pre-marital sex because, Clover argues, in horror films, "violence and sex are not concomitants but alternatives, the one as much a substitute for and a prelude to the other." When a sexually frustrated killer cannot be sexual, he kills those who can. Films about possession are really about the fear of childbirth—ever notice how in most possession films it's women and girls being possessed, not men? I challenge you to think of a horror film that isn't about gender and sexuality. If you can, I'd counter, "But is it good?"
The Final Girl works as a horror film trope not only because she is expected, but also because she can be identified with. Many horror films have a sexually predatory killer at its center—it's empowering to watch a woman fight and conquer her attacker. What horror films with a Final Girl seem to have in common is the threat of sexual assault. The killer won't just murder the Final Girl—the threat of rape is there, too. As Emily Nussbaum recently argued in a New Yorker piece on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, horror can have "a strange therapeutic quality for any woman, a ritualistic confrontation with fear." The Final Girl shows us that fear is survivable and conquerable.