The trope of the Final Girl and indeed, the horror genre’s relationship with women in general, is one with a problematic history. The two options for women most readily seen in American horror films are either the Final Girl, viewed as a castrated man or a “masculinized” woman (and therefore an acceptable protagonist for the male viewer), or the Whore/Femme Fatale, who is condemned for being sexually active or for even wanting sex. Author Carol J. Clover does a much better job than I do of explaining the gender politics of the horror genre in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, so please give that a read if this topic is near and dear to your heart. I highly recommend it.
When it comes to your Classic Final Girl, she is (in general) sexually unavailable or virginal, doesn’t use drugs, may have an androgynous first name, and possibly has a connection to the killer. These chosen few (in my list or not) represent how our culture reacts to violence and horror. And while I root for all the Final Girls of the world, these 10 just happen to be my favorite.
*Note: This list is in chronological order of film release dates, not in order of my favorites. They are all my favorite.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
1. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns)
A true survivor and one of the earliest examples of the Final Girl, Sally Hardesty makes it through the most awkward family dinner ever. Her will to live ensured that she escaped that cursed Texas farm with her life. Her sanity…not so much. But how many people have squared up against Leatherface and his family and lived to tell the tale? For being a pioneer for the Final Girl trope in modern horror and for representing Texas (Whoop!), Sally makes it on my list.
2. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)
Laurie Strode is the Every Girl. She’s not larger than life or a caricature of a teenager. Laurie is simply a shy girl who does well in school and wants the boy she likes to notice her. She has no clue about the darkness that lurks in her past and eventually brings the present crashing down around her. Laurie doesn’t know why she and her friends are targeted by the most evil being to walk the streets of Haddonfield. She only knows that she is not going down without a fight. Often cited as the quintessential Scream Queen and Final Girl, Laurie Strode survives the night and lives to face the Boogeyman another day (and another day, and another day…).
3. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)
Despite its being set in space, Alien is in fact a horror film. And as with most horror films, Alien also comes with its own particular set of gender politics. “Alien is a rape movie with male victims,” according to David McIntee (who wrote Beautiful Monsters). “And it also shows the consequences of that rape: the pregnancy and birth. It is a film that plays, very deliberately, with male fears of female reproduction.” Instead of falling victim to rape by the “perfect organism”, Ripley keeps her cool, outlasts the rest of the crew on the Nostromo, and gives us one of the best examples of the Final Girl and one of the first examples of the action heroine. (And she gets super, extra, amazing bonus points from me for saving Jonesy the Cat. That was seriously the most STRESSFUL part of the film for me. But hey, I’m a crazy cat lady.)
Friday the 13th (1980)
4. Alice Hardy (Adrienne King)
Originally from California, Alice Hardy is one of seven camp counselors hired to renovate Camp Crystal Lake in 1979. Keeping in line with the Final Girl Rules, Alice does not participate in the sexual goings on like her fellow counselors although she does play Strip Monopoly; however, she manages to keep all of her clothes on and maintain her “virginal” status. (It is revealed earlier in the film that Alice accepted the job at Camp Crystal Lake to start over after ending an affair with a married man back in California.) While Alice survives the wrath of a bereaved and mentally unstable mother in Friday the 13th, she eventually becomes Jason’s first victim in the 1981 sequel. Regardless, she still gets props for not letting her fear get the better of her and taking down one of the OG killers that helped kickstart modern horror.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
5. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp)
Nancy Thompson is a Final Girl with a plan. Once Nancy puts all the pieces together, she finally realizes that the adults in her life cannot (or will not) help her or even believe her. She knows what she’s up against, arms herself (literally and figuratively), and makes Freddy run through a series of punishing booby traps at the end of the film. Nancy is also smart enough to know when to dig in and when to (literally) turn her back on the man of her nightmares. She may be on Freddy’s hit list but she is far from a victim. Author Kelly Bulkeley (Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology) compares Nancy to Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz stating, “Nancy ultimately finds in her dreams the deep resources of personal strength to overcome an evil that the adult social world had failed to defeat.” Even though she takes down my personal favorite modern horror figure (What can I say? Freddy makes me laugh.), Nancy is still one of my top Final Girls for her sheer tenacity and courage. She is so terrified at one point that (part of) her hair turns white, but she saddles up anyway. Go get ’em, Nancy!
6. Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence)
A man named Frank Cotton encounters a puzzle box that, when arranged in the correct configuration, opens a portal to Hell and allows creatures known as the Cenobites to come through to our plane of existence. The Cenobites have their own ideas of what constitutes pleasure and pain and Frank pays the price for messing with forces he does not know how to control. Frank’s brother (Larry) and Larry’s wife (Julia) move into Frank’s old house and bloody hijinks ensue.
While the men help set the scene and circumstances, the women in Hellraiser are definitely the narrative movers and shakers. Kirsty’s femme fatale stepmother, Julia, has an affair with a not-so-dead Frank (it’s pretty “ewwww”-inducing) and brings unsuspecting men to the house for him to feed on. Kirsty sees all these men coming into the house and believes that her stepmother is cheating on her father and is determined to catch Julia in the act. Once Kirsty figures out what’s really going on, she uses her logic to devise a plan to outwit both Frank and Julia as well as the Cenobites. She does have a love interest but he serves little to no purpose. Kirsty cares about him but she doesn’t need him to do what needs to be done. He eventually comes in at the end of the film but it’s too late… she’s already saved herself and the day. For her indomitable self-reliance, Kirsty earns a spot in my Top 10.
7. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell)
Scream is the movie that really jump started my love affair with horror. I was 11 years old when I first rented it from Blockbuster (I would go back to rent it again many, many times.) and I found in Sidney Prescott an intelligent, relatable, and strong role model. Terrible things happened to her (before and during the movie) but she doesn’t let those things define her. And although Sidney is victimized, she refuses to become a victim. After Sidney defeats the killer, she declares “Not in my movie”, thereby rejecting the rules of the traditional Final Girl and any other horror movie rules laid out by her movie-obsessed friends. For the ice water that runs in her veins and the badassery she displayed that helped shape my idea of the undaunted woman with nerves of steel I wanted to become, Sidney will forever be in my Top 10.
The Descent (2005)
8. Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald)
The Descent is the ultimate survivor’s tale. Sarah is the only survivor in a car crash that killed her husband and daughter. She also somehow makes it through the crushing revelation that one of her best friends was having a long-term affair with her late husband. Not to mention the fact that (depending on which ending you watch/prefer) she fends off subterranean monsters to outlive and outlast all of her friends. For sheer grit and refusal to die alone in a cave, Sarah definitely gets a spot on my list.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
9. Dana Polk (Kristen Connelly)
Another Final Girl rule breaker can be found in the character of Dana Polk in 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods. Dana is not a virgin, she (eventually) decides that she deserves to partake in a joint, and doesn’t have a connection to (any of) the killer(s). In fact, everyone that goes up to the titular cabin doesn’t exactly fit into the role they were given. Dana’s best friend Jules (The Whore) is in a long-term relationship with her sociology major boyfriend Curt (The Athlete) who also has a full academic scholarship. Jules and Curt try to fix up Dana with Holden (The Scholar), the new star of the football team who also happens to be able to read Latin. They are accompanied by the token stoner friend Marty (The Fool) who is the actual virgin of the group. Dana realizes at the end that “they made us choose… They made us choose how we die” but did any of them really have a choice? All of Dana’s “choices” eventually lead to her being the Final Girl (along with Marty as the Final Guy?) and her final choice (the only real one in the film) condemns the rest of the human race to oblivion. If I were in her position would I have made the same choice? Maybe not. Do I respect her choice? Hell yes.
Evil Dead (2013)
10. Mia Allen (Jane Levy)
Mia starts out as a pretty pitiful character. She’s a heroin addict and has had multiple failed attempts at getting clean. It takes her very soul being threatened, her body being taken over by a demon, and all of her friends (including her brother) to be killed for her to finally chop off her own hand and say “ENOUGH”. And this time, she means it. Mia is far from perfect but her status as a badass Final Girl is without question in my book. I just need to make sure I don’t read from that book… like ever.
What did you think of the ladies on my list? Who are your favorite Final Girls? What are your thoughts on feminism in the horror genre? Let me know if the comments below! Thanks for reading and stay spooky!