Almost every horror movie ends with one person left to face the villain alone for one final showdown—and usually, this last one standing is a woman. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name: The Final Girl. What is it about this character that makes her special? Is she a symbol of female empowerment, or a victim of regressive attitudes? Here’s our Take on the evolution of this trope, from the slasher movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s through modern variations in films like The Witch, Us, and It Follows. We’ll look at what this archetype symbolizes, and how some recent subversions have caused us to rethink the Final Girl—for however long she survives.
The Final Girl Trope, Explained
Jill: “What the media really loves, baby, is a sole survivor.” - Scream 4
A New Look At the Final Girl
Almost every horror movie ends with one person left to face the villain alone—one final showdown full of catharsis and bloodshed. And usually, this last one standing is a woman. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name: The Final Girl. Coined by Professor Carol J. Clover in 1987, the Final Girl has been a staple of horror since the slasher films of the 1970s. And while she may come in many different incarnations, she’s united by a few common traits:
- The Final Girl is usually a virgin or otherwise doesn’t engage in sex—which often dooms her peers.
- In fact, she might be a little bit different from other girls. She’s socially awkward, or even a bit of a tomboy.
- She also doesn’t engage in other illicit activities, like drinking or drugs—which leaves her clear-headed and ready to run. Or fight.
- In all, she exhibits what Clover calls the “active investigating gaze” of the film: She’s smart, curious, and vigilant—and that’s what makes her a survivor.
The Final Girl can be cunning and clever, outsmarting her enemies. Or she may just barely make it out alive. Her victory may be short-lived or ambiguous: She may live only to be left forever traumatized. But either way, she vanquishes the killer—at least until the sequel.
So why do we keep putting the Final Girl through this? What is it about her that makes her special—and is she a symbol of female empowerment, or a victim of regressive attitudes? Here’s our Take on the evolution of this trope and what she symbolizes, and how some recent subversions have caused us to rethink the Final Girl—for however long she survives.
Riley: “We will never be broken.” - Black Christmas (2019)
The Dawn of the Final Girl
In the early days of horror, women were almost exclusively victims—damsels in distress who were destined to die, unless they were saved at the last minute by a man. They were vulnerable—and helpless. In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the main female character Ellen is clever and tenacious, using her own purity to lure the vampire Count Orlok to his doom. Still, Ellen dies, sacrificing herself to save the world. It would be decades before women fought back against these horrors—and lived to tell their story.
Carol Clover traces the true dawn of the Final Girl to the slasher films of the 1970s, which gave us young women who stood up to their would-be killers, outwitting and sometimes even subduing them. In 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Sally manages to evade the deadly Leatherface—even escaping her bloody confines twice. But Sally becomes a Final Girl largely through endurance, and she’s only rescued by chance. Jess in 1974’s Black Christmas became another prototypical Final Girl for fighting back against a murderer targeting her sorority house. She was the rare, fully realized woman in a horror movie, one who provides the film’s narrative point of view—yet Jess didn’t totally fit the Final Girl mold, either. For one thing, she’s far from virginal. And although Jess survives at the end, it’s far from certain that she’s won.
Most of our ideas about the Final Girl were established by 1978’s Halloween: Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, ticks all the main boxes of the trope. Laurie is the only one of her friends who’s not interested in sex—or even dating. She’s smart and observant, especially compared to her oblivious friends. And she’s resourceful, eventually fighting back against a rampaging Michael Meyers with anything she can get her hands on. Although we start off looking at things from Michael Meyers’ perspective, we experience the horrors he commits through Laurie’s point of view.
As Clover writes, by making the Final Girl the film’s POV and de facto hero, even male viewers are forced to identify with her. And in a genre that so readily indulges in violence against women, this can be read as a small step forward, forcing men to transport themselves into the psyche of a victimized woman.
Randy: “There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: You can never have sex.” - Scream (1996)
Still, the representation and empathy the Final Girl provides doesn’t negate some of the trope’s more sexist aspects. In Halloween, Laurie’s friends are killed because they’re distracted by sex. Laurie only survives because she’s far more conservative—and largely sexless. The Final Girl is usually the only one who doesn’t give in to her body’s desires—and as critics have noted, there’s obvious symbolism in the fact that slasher films usually find men trying very hard to penetrate them with phallic objects. When Laurie strikes back at Michael with knitting needles, wire hangers, and knives, she is what Clover calls “phallicized,” effectively becoming masculine—and erasing her female sexuality entirely.
The Final Girl did represent some progress from those early horror heroines. In the ‘80s, women became fighters, not just victims—and in the wake of Halloween, they only became more proactive, cunning, and deadly. Yet in many respects, these women were still being used symbolically. Like Ellen in Nosferatu, they were visions of purity, and their femininity was conflated with abject terror. As Carol Clover wrote, “Angry displays of force may belong to the male, but crying, cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, begging for mercy belong to the female.” The Final Girl was a tool: She was used because audiences, presumably, wouldn’t identify with male characters in similar danger. The Final Girl could fight back, and she lived to tell the story—but it would be a while before she controlled it.
Subverting the Final Girl
Horror is a genre built on formulas—and it wasn’t long before the Final Girl became one as well. With 1996’s Scream, director Wes Craven offered a meta-commentary on the many slasher tropes he’d helped to create through films like A Nightmare on Elm Street—including the concept of the Final Girl. Scream sets Sidney Prescott up to be a typical Final Girl: She’s sweet and chaste, and she even sees herself as the opposite of a horror film’s usual victims. But Scream also shows us Sidney isn’t quite as demure as she appears. She may not be totally innocent, either. And the film even takes away her purity by allowing Sidney to have sex with her boyfriend. Sidney proves to be a different kind of Final Girl. She exerts total control over what happens to her—knowing the rules allows her to bend them.
Randy: “This is the moment when the supposedly dead killer comes back to life, for one last scare.”
Sidney: “Not in my movie.” - Scream (1996)
Like all good horror formulas, Scream inspired its own imitators. Films like 2015’s The Final Girls and 2011’s The Cabin In The Woods made similar inquiries into why these tropes persist—even as they reveled in them. But more importantly, Sidney Prescott helped to usher in a new era for the Final Girl, one where the heroine doesn’t just survive, but thrives. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, both the movie and the TV series, further upended the trope by making the Final Girl a blonde, unabashedly feminine cheerleader—the complete opposite of the virginal tomboy. Buffy not only defends herself against the monsters—she hunts them. And you can see her empowered descendants in films where Final Girls no longer cower and hide, but run toward the fight.
More recent films have taken this agency a step further, giving us Final Girls who are revealed to be in greater control than we—or they—ever suspected, causing us to question our gendered assumptions about their innocence. In Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Dani seems like a quintessential Final Girl: She spends most of her time isolated from her friends, who indulge in drugs and sex—and meet the deadly fates we’d expect. Dani also fulfills the role of the active investigating gaze: She’s the only one who seems to suspect that something sinister is going on. Yet she’s not just the last one standing. In becoming the Final Girl, she’s finally granted the control that her abusive boyfriend has repeatedly taken away from her—and she uses it to punish him, becoming a killer herself.
A similar subversion occurs in Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Suspiria, a tale of witchcraft, dance, and the meaning of authority. In Dario Argento’s 1977 original, Suzy is a classic Final Girl, snooping in the shadows as a coven of witches kills off her classmates at a dance academy, and escaping through a combination of vigilance and pure luck. But the Susie in Guagnino’s film has real power: As the witches prepare to sacrifice her, Susie exposes herself as the true leader of the coven, who has returned to exact retribution for the women abusing their power. It’s a reversal that shows Susie not just taking control of her fear, but revealing that she was the source of it all along.
Beyond just offering meta-commentaries on the trope, this new era of Final Girls poses a challenge to the structures that have defined them. The Final Girls in It Follows and The Witch triumph not because they’re virgins, but because they accept and use their sexuality. Jay in It Follows is tracked by a supernatural entity that’s transmitted by sex—a literal manifestation of the Death by Sex trope—yet rather than defeat it by shedding her sexuality entirely, Jay actually embraces and weaponizes it, using sex to free herself. Thomasin in Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a virginal, naive teenaged girl who’s repressed by her religiously strict 17th-century society—“the final girl laced into a Puritan bodice,” as Salon’s Eileen G’Sell puts it. Fear of her blossoming sexuality causes her family to treat her as a villain—until at last Thomasin gives in and becomes one. This allows her to claim full agency over her body, in a notably orgasmic climax. Rather than being “phallicized,” like the Final Girls of those early slashers, the modern Final Girl is empowered by her sexuality. It’s a feminist update to a trope that has long been mired in subjugation.
Rethinking The Final Girl
Donna: “A Black Final girl? Sweetheart, they kill folks with my complexion off first.” - American Horror Story: 1984, 09x08
Even as the modern Final Girl may have more agency than those girls of the ‘70s and ‘80s, she remains confined by at least one outdated trapping: The Final Girl is still usually white. Director Alfred Hitchcock once mused, “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” And this attitude has prevailed even in modern, more enlightened horror films, which still depend on the empathy for female victims whose purity is conflated with whiteness.
In many ways, this reflects real-world attitudes. PBS anchor Gwen Ifill coined the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” to describe the disproportionate panic that surrounds imperiled white women. And we see this reflected in horror films that repeatedly foreground white women in danger while treating minority characters as disposable: the flipside to the Final Girl, after all, is the Black Guy Dies First trope. While audiences are expected to be terrified for the white girl, the deaths of black characters are regarded as just part of the show.
As Nerdist’s Tai Gooden has pointed out, “Black women and girls weren’t perceived as vulnerable people whom an audience could identify with as victims of violence because we were barely seen as people at all, much less valuable ones.” Horror films also reflect this in their settings, taking place in the familiar confines of high schools and safe suburban neighborhoods—showing terror invading an idyllic, often lily-white community that believes it’s not supposed to happen here. Films have long treated violence against black people as commonplace—and not especially terrifying. The black woman is therefore almost never the Final Girl—she is, at best, the close-to-Final Girl, there to offer her support and common sense before she is inevitably dispatched to teach the Final Girl a lesson.
Hallie: “Look, look, stupid people come back, smart people run. We’re smart, so we should just get the fuck out of here!” - Scream 2 (1997)
But the recent rise of social horror has begun to challenge this aspect of the trope as well. Jordan Peele’s Us subverts horror’s predominantly white perspective through Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide. She’s the rare Black Final Girl, one who’s been assimilated into those safe confines of white society through her wealth. When that comfort is threatened by a mysterious other—a group of murderous doppelgangers known as the Tethered—it highlights just how much Adelaide has participated in creating the horror she now faces. But the film’s twist—that Adelaide is a member of the Tethered, while her doppelganger is the one who really belongs—challenges us to ask who we side with. Adelaide is both villain and victim, monster and Final Girl, and by making us both empathize with her—and feel terrified of her—the film forces us to confront the social constructs that are the film’s true source of horror.
A similar social commentary underpins 2018’s Assassination Nation, in which a group of diverse high schoolers—including transgender model Hari Nef and black singer Abra—become a collective of Final Girls who find themselves under attack by local men over their supposedly loose morals. They not only survive—they violently turn the tables on their attackers, calling on all the other girls to join them in overthrowing the patriarchal terrors they face. And in Sophia Takal’s loose, 2019 remake of Black Christmas, one of the original sources of the Final Girl fully enters the 21st century, as the film’s protagonist, Riley, fends off zombie-like fraternity brothers who seek to keep women in their place—and who targeted her for refusing to keep silent about her own sexual assault.
In the film’s climax, Riley is joined by an army of multi-racial, multi-gender survivors—no longer alone. The terrors in these films are systemic, affecting more than just one kind of girl. And they take more than one Final Girl to defeat them.
Even as the Final Girl has evolved, she’s remained rooted in ideas about women as inherently innocent—a waiting vessel for the violence the world cruelly inflicts. The Final Girl still feels sadly relevant because violence against women is still rampant in our world. But whereas former Final Girls were defined by their victimization, today’s Final Girl is a far stronger, far more complex character. She’s a more intersectional representation of not just gender and sexuality, but of race and class, and the many ways in which we are made to live in fear. Today her journey isn’t just about defeating the monster but finding the strength in herself. Tellingly, in the 2018 version of Halloween, Laurie Strode is no longer just a survivor—she’s a warrior, forever prepared to fight. The terrors that women must endure haven’t subsided, but the Final Girl will continue to stand up to them—to the bitter end.