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Woman 1, Monster 0 - The "Final Girl"

This paper was written in 2001 as part of my "plan of concentration" at Marlboro College. This particular paper was paired with a film festival, both to be evaluated by an outside examiner (who happened to be the fantastically talented Steve Bissette).

Just briefly: the final girl is the ‘masculinized’ surviving female character in horror films – the character appeared in 1974 with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The final girl ‘replaced’ the stereotypical ‘girly-girls’ of earlier horror films. The helpless women of early horror and the dominant women of more recent horror are almost binary; they are either entirely weak or exceptionally strong. Over the years the final girl character has matured into a more balanced – and realistic – representation of women.

Obviously, there have been cultural changes since than that ARE NOT reflected here. When I am less intimidated by my own writing, I will endeavor to update the following... until then, enjoy.

Despite its popularity with audiences, critics and scholars often condemn the horror genre as “low brow” and “worthless.” Within feminist film theory there has been one major philosophy considering the horror genre: that it is nothing but misogynistic propaganda exploiting women, which is not an entirely unfounded interpretation. Sarah Trencansky describes the feminist view of horror simply:
The primary rationale for the slasher film’s status as low culture within academia is its consistent depiction of targeted female victims: Even approving discussions of horror consistently bemoan the slasher as ‘explicitly about the destruction of women’ films that feature women victims are harmful to women, the argument states, and slashers fit that description perfectly(1).
While this view is, for all purposes ‘correct,’ it ignores the social, political, and emotional significance of the horror genre. Thankfully, recent feminist writers are beginning to allow that the horror genre, particularly in the 1970’s and 80’s, has been an outlet for strong female characters and not simply an outlet for violent voyeuristic male fantasies.

This more accepting and appreciative view is what I will be focusing on in this paper and with this film festival. I will be looking at the progression from submissive and secondary female characters to the emergence of what is called the “final girl,” and then will consider her most recent incarnation as the leading character in horror films. Feminist critics do not unanimously see the final girl as a progressive change, nor is do they unanimously accept her as existing; many feminists feel women’s roles are not changing within the horror genre. However, some feminists do find the final girl to be a sign of changing times for gender relations in society. For these critics the final girl is a long awaited accomplishment.

The term ‘final girl’ often comes up in recent horror criticism, however there seems little interest in where or when the term first appeared. As far as I can intuit, the term coincides with the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. In recent years the leading authority on the final girl is Carol Clover: her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws is – as far as I have experienced – the leading work on final girls.

Prior to the appearance of the final girl, female characters in horror films merely existed 1) to be terrified, tortured, chased, and attacked by some kind of creature or madman 2) to be the doomed love interest of the leading man or 3) to be inevitably rescued by a “manly” leading man. As examples let us look briefly at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Frankenstein (1994), and Dracula (1932).

In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the female lead Jane (Lil Dagover) has only one major purpose in the film – to be attacked by the Dr. Caligari’s monster, ‘Cesare’. After Cesare attempts to kidnap Jane, she is so frightened that she is in a comatose state. If we look at an excerpt from the film’s screenplay we can clearly see Jane as incapacitated by Cesare’s attack:
Jane lies sprawled in a chair in the sitting room of her father's house. Her father, the doctor, is bending anxiously over her. A maidservant leaves the room at rear as Francis rushes in from the left and throws himself passionately at Jane's feet, imploring her to show some sign of consciousness. Dissolve to Francis and the doctor lifting Jane into an upright sitting position. Her eyes, though open, are quite expressionless and the iris is almost completely surrounded by white.(2)
Interestingly, we see in the excerpt that both Jane’s father and her fiancĂ© try to revive/rescue her but are unable to. What we later see is the two men leaving Jane and going into action. Jane’s only action, when finally revived, is to shriek and cover her face at the memory of the attack. She cannot communicate anything beyond her horror of being attacked and thereafter remains a kind of zombie/sleep walker. She is forever scarred from the attack. And the men are scarred as well; they seek justice/retribution for the injuring of Jane.

Aside from the attack Jane has few lines of dialogue and makes few appearances on the screen. Her character is more of a sketch than an actual person – her personality is never explored or explained. Her state as a zombie is indicative of women’s roles in horror films: “woman” as an “individual” is unimportant.

In Frankenstein the female lead Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) plays a more active role than Jane. She is portrayed as very strong in a motherly role – capable of giving emotional support to both Dr. Frankenstein’s aging father and his young brother. Both Elizabeth and Victor know this to be true as evidenced by this excerpt from the screenplay:
If only I could. But one of us must stay. Father's not strong. Willie's just a child. Who can look after them in your absence? Who can run the estate?

Only you(3)
However, since she is the doomed love interest (wife) of Dr. Frankenstein, any action she takes/makes is overshadowed by her impending death. In other words, her death is her most important moment in the film. While Jane is transformed into a zombie, Elizabeth is transformed into a monster, similar to Frankenstein. Her character is also indicative of female roles in horror, creations or monsters as opposed to actual human beings.

In the 1932 version of Dracula the female lead Mina (Helen Chandler) is the most passive of the three women I’m considering; she is easily manipulated by Dracula and relies on the various men she knows to save her life: and they do exactly that - save her life. Mina is entirely incapable of protecting (or rescuing) herself from Dracula. Towards the end of the film Dracula kidnaps Mina. Her husband and Dr. Van Helsing rush off to her rescue – while Van Helsing kills Dracula, Mina runs into the open arms of her husband. The three escape, unscathed.

Had Mina not existed, the men would still have hunted and killed Dracula, Mina simply adds a secondary dimension of motivation to their hunt.

These weak female characters are not elemental to the plots’ forward movement; they are almost extras but even more so they are simply objects, of action and of desire. Without these women the leading men would still discover the creature’s lair and destroy it. Prior to the final girl, horror film women were expendable. Essentially pre final girl horror pieces are stories about men fighting off monsters. They are about men bonding while behaving (stereotypically) manly.

Around 1974 the final girl made what is often considered to be her first appearance on the screen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (hereafter referred to as TCM). In her early appearances the final girl is strong but she still needs outside help to survive; she does not kill the monster, but manages to escape with the help of someone else. Whereas the pre final girl characters were completely dependent on men for protection, the early final girl is capable enough to fight off her attacker. The pre final girls submitted to the whims/commands of the men in their lives, while the early final girls do not hesitate to challenge men and eventually make their own decisions. Although the final girl appeared in ’74 she did not fully mature until the 80’s.

These “first step” final girls of the 70’s were just that – the first step towards stronger, more realistic female characters within the horror genre. A prime example of a more mature final girl is Laurie Strode, the survivor of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). While babysitting Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is attacked by a psycho killer. Although Laurie’s friends are systematically killed off, she manages to escape the killer, wound him, and even seemingly defeat him at one point. Laurie eventually manages to save the children she is watching over but in the final moments of the film – when the killer springs back to life for one final attack – Laurie is helpless. She survives only because at that very moment Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) rushes into the house and shoots the killer. While Laurie is a final girl – she still needs outside help to vanquish her attacker. This lingering dependence on a man may be due to her maternal/virginal qualities. Her character is, actually, a virgin and therefore she is the only character capable of babysitting/being maternal.

The screenwriter’s choice to let Laurie’s character live is not simply a moral lesson to teen audiences: don’t have pre-marital sex because it’s a sin. It is a greater moral/religious message: the virgin mother is sacred. She gave birth to ‘our savior’ and therefore is herself ‘our savior.’

The final girls if film’s of the 80’s were developed enough to survive,
and defeat the creature, without any assistance from the outside world. In fact any and all offered help from the outside world appears to actually be a hindrance to the final girl. She needs no one but herself. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) offers a clear example of the maturation of the final girl character. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is the only survivor of a series of brutal attacks by an undead psycho killer. After her three friends are killed off, Nancy sets up an elaborately booby-trapped maze in her house in order to capture and kill her attacker. During her final battle with the killer she wounds him repeatedly and finally defeats him. Nancy escapes the encounter unharmed. She is not only able to defend herself against his attacks; she takes a pro-active approach and attacks her attacker.

The final girl from the 80’s on is a strong, dominant, often masculinized, leading female character. She is also marked – often – by a masculine or gender-ambiguous name, for instance ‘Sidney’ in Scream, or the final girl may scream while being attacked. She may suffer great physical pain and exhaustion. But in the end, she will be – often – the only survivor at the end of the film. She is the only character to fully realize the danger she and her friends are in. She knows what only the audience is supposed to know and therefore becomes the ‘I’ for audiences to identify with(4). In these later incarnations she is the only one capable of killing/defeating the creature. She is the active character pushing the plot forward to its bloody conclusion. The final girl ‘acts’ unlike the women who came before her who were ‘acted upon.’

The final girl is “equal” to her male counterparts. Every machine that men can operate, the final girl can operate. Every weapon that men can wield, the final girl can wield. Every problem that men can solve, the final girl can solve. She is completely capable of doing every thing that the men in her life can do – and often she can do it better. She is levelheaded and can function well under pressure.

The final girl is incapable of having a heterosexual relationship. She is too masculine and too independent to maintain any kind of intimate relationship with a man. This is why the final girl is usually either a virgin or simply celibate. If, perchance, she begins a relationship with a man he will be killed before the end of the film; if she has any kind of sexual relations, her partner will be killed immediately. This final corollary is an interesting inversion of the male/female dynamic present in pre final girl horror films where the female character exists as a doomed love interest.

The final girl is incapable of maintaining a friendship with a woman because she is too masculine to relate to female concerns. Stereotypically female characters are intimidated or unnerved by the final girl. Other women obey her orders as they would those of any man they encounter. These women see the final girl as “one of the guys.”

Unfortunately, the final girl is also a lonely girl: First because she’s generally the only survivor; second because the final girl is so “masculine” she is forced into a social realm reserved for “the other” – a place where monsters reside.

The concept of “the other” is seen often in feminist criticism however; it has roots in the tradition of Gothic literature. The other is the creature (or character) that is vilified by their society and therefore must live outside of it. From Mr. Hyde to Frankenstein’s monster to alien life forms the other is always present in horror. Unfortunately for the final girl, she too is pushed outside of society into the realm of the other because she is unlike anything they have ever seen. She is not vilified so much as “demonized.(5)” Because of this demonization the final girl is connected and related to the monstrous other (or creature). Her only true companion in the film is the creature that she must escape and kill. Phillip Simpson explains the final girl/creature relationship as thus:
Together, these monstrous couples reject socially defined boundaries of normality and explore the taboo territory of their selves together, fated never to return to normality.(6)
The final girl and the creature are actually two halves of the same monstrous whole. Together they subvert the dominant ‘normal’ order of the society that created them.

The final girl cannot fit in with her society; she cannot fit in with women, because she is so masculinized. She cannot fit in with men, because she is – biologically – a woman. She challenges stereotypical gender roles; her gender bending renders her almost gender-less. Neither the rules for men nor those for women directly apply to her. While this affords her some level of freedom, it also removes her from “normal” social activity.

This point is not made to say that final girls have to trade their femininity and their humanity for an active role. What they do trade for an active role is their ‘stereotypical femininity;’ they give up their accepted or expected role in society to play another role, one which has been thought by society to be a male role. While the final girl may simply be empowered the society that rejects her sees her as ‘masculinized.’

For the film festival I have chosen four films, which document female characters prior to the final girl, the appearance and subsequent progression of the final girl: Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), TCM (1974), Alien (1979), and Silence of the Lambs (1991).
There are two points I must deal with before I get into the films: TCM and Silence of the Lambs may seem like confusing choices because TCM is based on a true story and Silence of the Lambs is based on a novel. The roots of these two films may seem to interfere with the final girl character, as the characters existed prior to the films. However, the film representation – of both TCM and Silence of the Lambs – clearly differentiate themselves from the original representation of the stories they are based on. So to say the films are very different from the true story behind TCM and the novel behind Silence of the Lambs. Clearly then the screenwriters and directors of these two films made changes as they saw fit, making the films viable examples of final girls.

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) offers a clear demonstration of the weak, pre-final girl female character. Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) is your typical screen siren; she has big, beautiful eyes, a shapely body, a lovely smile, and she screams at the sight of the monster. Kay is the “assistant” to her scientist boyfriend David Reed (Richard Carlson.) Together they work for a man named Mark Williams (Richard Denning) who is clearly attracted to Kay. David and Mark are asked to join another scientist on an expedition into the Amazon to look for fossilized remains of some mysterious creature. Kay is assumed to be going on the trip because David is going and she is his assistant/girlfriend.

Although Kay is referred to as David’s assistant, she is clearly of little intellectual help – really she is there to run errands and watch the men work. Being a woman she is removed from any actual participation in the scientific discoveries and explorations. After one of Mark and David’s diving expeditions, Kay stands beside David saying wistfully “I wish I could see it down there.” David gives her a tight-lipped smile and a quick hug, and offers her (instead) the option she generally accepts – “outsider” or other – by telling her she can go below with the men and watch them work. Kay declines and as soon as the men are out of sight she makes as close an attempt as she can to experience what they do – she goes for a swim. When the men come back on deck and see her they all begin yelling to her to “come back” and even steer the ship over to her to pick her up. One can almost infer here that Kay is treated like a misbehaving child and is reprimanded accordingly by the men.

With his refusal even to acknowledge Kay’s desire David can pretend she doesn’t feel it; this desire is the desire to go where the men go and do what the men do – something a securely heterosexual man of the 1950’s cannot accept from his girlfriend. When Kay attempts to fulfill her desire the men rush to stop her.

When the monster attacks Kay, she throws her arms up across her face, screams, and in some instances runs to the open arms of whichever man is closest. Unlike a final girl she does not run – neither for her life nor to get a weapon. Unlike a final girl Kay covers her eyes and recoils at the sight of the creature bearing down on her – recall here Jane of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari who can do nothing but scream and cover her face at just the memory of her attack.

After Kay is captured by the creature, David and the remaining members of the team rush to rescue her. During the final confrontation with the creature Kay runs into David’s open arms as the other two men gun down the creature. It stumbles away to die and the scene fades out on Kay clinging to David. Had the men not discovered and invaded the creature’s lair, Kay surely would have died at the creature’s hands.

When Kay is allowed to venture out on an expedition with the team of men she becomes a problem for the men: they begin fighting for her attention and they all feel they need to protect her from any danger – she becomes a kind of item on the ship, instead of a person. Kay is entirely dependent on the men in her life – this is not to say she chooses to be, simply that she is.

While Kay is clearly a victim Sally (of TCM) is a victim/hero. Kay is attacked and therefore needs to be protected. Sally is attacked and therefore protects herself. This movement from passive to active is the biggest character distinction between the final girl and her pre-cursors.
TCM (1974) is often considered by critics to be the first appearance of the final girl. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) is the sole survivor of a horrendous attack on her friends/family by chainsaw wielding cannibals. Sally’s companions are killed off relatively quickly leaving her alone to fight for her life. The final 30 minutes of the film are dedicated to her being chased, tortured, screaming, escaping, being recaptured, and finally being picked up – someone stops for her and she jumps into the bed of their pick-up truck - on the side of the highway by a stranger who drives her to safety.

Although Sally begins the trip with a boyfriend, he is killed shortly before she begins fighting for her life. As Sally “grows” into her role of final girl, she must end her “normal” heterosexual relationship – or, as the case may be, the relationship must be ended for her to survive.

Unlike Kay, Sally does not find herself being herded around by controlling men; she is an equal member in the terror of being attacked. When she screams she does not run to the open arms of anyone – she saves her energy for running away from her attacker, something Kay clearly would not have attempted. Kay waits for someone to chase the creature away while Sally wastes no time in running away herself. Even after standing by while her brother is impaled by a chainsaw, she does not cover her eyes or even look away, but instead she turns to run, even before the killer can turn his chainsaw on her.

While Kay is merely watched and eventually scooped up and kidnapped by the creature Sally withstands multiple abuses: she watches her brother being mutilated by a chainsaw, her long blonde hair gets tangled in tree branches, she is chased for miles – in various intervals while wearing clogs, she throws herself out a second story window and then gets up out of the glass shards and runs away, she trips and falls, she’s beaten with a broom then bound and gagged, she’s poked with the broom stick while being driven to the cannibal’s house with a sack over her head, her finger is sliced open by one cannibal while another sucks the blood, she’s poked and prodded and has her hair pulled, she’s held over a washtub while being hit in the head with a sledgehammer only to break free and run away as she runs she is slashed and with a razor, yet she manages to make it to the road and climb into a truck. As if surviving this torment is not enough, as she and the truck driver escape, Sally laughs.

Although Sally does not kill the chainsaw cannibals, she does escape from them. And although she does not manage to escape entirely without assistance she does manage to escape and get to the highway on her own.

Sally is stronger and more independent than Kay. As we move to our next movie we will see another jump in independence and strength; Ripley (of Alien) can actually be identified as a leading character within her first few moments on screen. Sally’s position as final girl is not entirely obvious until the final scene of the movie while Ripley can be identified as the heroin of the film instantly. An interesting aside as to why Ripley is so clearly the final girl can be credited to the fact that the character was initially intended for a man to play.

Alien (1979) offers us one of the least feminine final girls in history. Lieutenant Ellen L. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is as tough – if not tougher – than any man she encounters. Around every corner, at every moment, she is totally in charge – despite being third in command on her ship. Not only does she give orders, but she also refuses to obey orders from her commanding officers when she deems those orders to be harmful to the crew and the ship.

Ripley is one of two women on the ship – there are seven crew-members total. While Ripley is clearly a final girl, the other woman Navigator J.M. Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is almost as helpless as Kay and her peers of the pre-final girl era. If a situation appears dangerous, dirty, or otherwise difficult Lambert whines and complains about it – often refusing to participate until ordered to do so. She even quips to her captain “I like griping.” At the sight of danger Lambert screams, freezes up, and essentially becomes useless to herself and the crew. In the face of danger Ripley takes charge and overcomes any obstacles. She is resourceful, competent, and above all else confident. This is the biggest difference between Ripley and her counterparts Kay and Sally – Ripley never once doubts her ability to succeed, or, if she does, she does not let anyone, especially her enemy, know it. As Stanley Solomon says of the western hero ‘To project his invincibility on the brain of an enemy is the ultimate skill of the hero,(7)’ so is true of Ripley.

Ripley can do anything the men on her team can do and she can often do it better. Although A.J. Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is the captain Ripley is able to manipulate the computer into giving her the answers she needs whereas Dallas could not, and abandoned the pursuit. After science officer Ash (Ian Holm) is destroyed Ripley “hotwires” his mangled body in order to grill him and extract answers from him, while the remaining two crewmembers stand by and watch. While hunting for the rogue alien on the ship Ripley always carries a weapon - be it the stun gun or the flame thrower – and she uses both without hesitation and with accuracy.

There is no mention of Ripley having a boyfriend/lover – she is, simply, celibate. Asexual may even be more accurate. While Lambert is subject to sexual jokes and passes by another, male member of the crew, the men all speak to Ripley as though she is a man. As the final battle with the alien draws near Ripley takes her masculinization one step farther by pinning her long, “feminine” hair up. That combined with her jumpsuit eliminates all identifiable feminine characteristics.

As we move from Ripley, the most masulinized of the final girls mentioned, to Clarice (of Silence of the Lambs) we are confronted with a powerful female instead of a masculinized female. Clarice is not so much a manly woman as she is simply a strong female character. Clarice’s most obvious link to the final girl is her duality: Clarice exists within two worlds and in both she is an outsider.

Silence of the Lambs (1991) brought to the screen Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) the last, most mature version of the final girl. Clarice is – not only – a strong woman survivor, but she is also working within a man’s world; Clarice occupies a role generally reserved for men – the brilliant FBI detective capable of outsmarting, out fighting, and eventually conquering the “super villain.”

Clarice is the most interesting example of the four final girls: the emphasis on Clarice’s character is positioned over how “un-feminine” she is as opposed to how “masculine” she is. Clarice can be very feminine with her nails painted, her stylishly conservative jewelry, and styled hair. But even while looking feminine she is ‘acting’ like a man.
The film opens on Clarice running an obstacle course at the FBI training facility; hair simply pulled back yet with lipstick on, in flattering sweats yet sweaty. She climbs, jumps, and runs the course with precision. While there are other trainees on the course, she is the only woman. And as she passes them, they all turn to stare at her behind. If nothing else in the film lends to Clarice’s femininity it is the fact that she is often, within the film, subject of ‘the gaze;’ a voyeuristic theory created by Laura Mulvey. This theory says that women are objectified in movies for the pleasure of men. This objectified looking she calls ‘the gaze.(8)’ Similarly, if nothing else in the film designates Clarice’s masculinity it is in the scene where she and her boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) are preparing to conduct an autopsy in a rural town. The local police force is present; they are stereotypically not very bright and rather sexist. They all comply as Clarice shoos them out of her way like small children, effectively clearing the autopsy room so she can begin working. Although Clarice is pretty and feminine she is commanding and powerful.

Being a final girl Clarice exists in that realm of “the other” which is why she is the only character capable of communicating and connecting with Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins.) As the cannibal super villain, Lecter also exists in the realm of other – considered outside humanity by society. While Clarice is clearly attracted to her boss – a very manly man – her only intimacy is with Lecter. In fact, this relationship is taken one step farther in a sequel (Hannibal 2001) when Clarice and Lecter fall in love. This is an interesting twist on the final girl’s de-sexualization: Clarice cannot have a sexual relationship with Jack but she can with Lecter because both Clarice and Lecter are outside the realm of societal norms. Although Clarice and Lecter’s is a heterosexual relationship it is a heterosexual relationship between two ‘others.’ They are not obliged to conform to society’s rules and therefore the rule of final girls not being able to have relationships is null and void.

Although the final girl of the 80’s represented a very realistic, well-rounded, and strong view of women the teen horror films of the early 90’s have been a backsliding; the final girl seems to be retreating back into the helpless victim. If the emergence of the final girl was a step forward for women, it has since been lost. There may be a return to the strong final girl. One can only hope as much.


1 -Sarah Trencansky. “Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgression in 1980’s Slasher Horror,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 29, no. 2 (2001): 63.

2 -Excerpt from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari screenplay as found at

3 -Excerpt from the Frankenstein screenplay found at

4 -Trencansky.

5 -Barry Keith Grant, ed., The Dread of the Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 1996), 76.

6 -Philip L. Simpson, Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Pres, 2000),59.

7 -Stanley J.Solomon, Beyond Formula: American Film Genres (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 24.

8 -Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989), 14.


Grant, Barry Keith, ed. The Dread of the Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Simpson, Philip L. Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Pres, 2000.

Solomon, Stanley J. Beyond Formula: American Film Genres. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Trencansky, Sarah. “Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgression in 1980’s Slasher Horror.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 29, no. 2 (2001): 63.


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