Defining the Final Girl

Kristy Strouse
October 30, 2023

Through the chaos and the haunting screams, a survivor emerges, having triumphed over monsters, whether supernatural or deranged. This is our protagonist, having made her way through hell and back. This is our Final Girl.

Photo-Illustration: Katch; Photos: Dimension Films, New World Pictures, New Line Cinema, Lionsgate, Compass International Pictures, 20th Century Studios

The term has evolved, adapting to trends and changes in horror movies. However, it consistently pays homage to the original women who first made it to the end.

In this analysis, I will explore some of these horror icons to answer the question: what defines a final girl? Is it as simple as surviving? Or something more?

For this piece, I look at Scream, Halloween, Hellraiser, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien and You’re Next.

In classic slasher films featuring Final Girls, such as Halloween, Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street, and even more recent ones like You're Next, the story often unfolds in suburban or rural America. This choice of setting is not coincidental; it is closely tied to the concept of innocence. Almost every film in this genre features a teenage girl as the protagonist, and the idyllic houses and peaceful communities in these locations reinforce the assumption of safety. In general, the setting is intrinsic to the story and the fear created, be it the vastness of space (Alien) or the rural expanse such as You’re Next or Texas Chainsaw.

The innocence of these Final Girls makes them particularly relatable and likable as characters. For instance, Sydney Prescott in Scream proudly embodies the archetype of the good girl, despite her boyfriend's disapproval. Similarly, Laurie Strode in Halloween spends the holiday babysitting while her friends engage in more reckless activities. Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street is also portrayed as the quintessential girl next door.

While their innocence serves as a defining characteristic, so does their perceptiveness. Final Girls often possess a keen eye for detail and are more attuned to potential dangers than others. Their perspective may not be worldly, but it is sharp, and these female characters demonstrate remarkable resourcefulness (Halloween, Alien, You’re Next).

A true hero cannot exist without a genuine villain. This dichotomy is also reflected in the pairing of lovable and detestable characters, akin to the concept of yin and yang. In nearly half of these stories, the lead female character starts off as naive, unwittingly placing herself in harm's way due to the consequences surrounding her. However, as the fight for survival intensifies, courage emerges, unveiling a boldness that was previously hidden beneath the surface. A common theme is good vs evil, such as the “Boogeyman” concept in Halloween. These are characters facing tremendous incarnations of considerable wickedness.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of the final girl gained prominence and challenged traditional gender roles. These characters began to embody qualities that defied conventional expectations. They were portrayed as intelligent, resourceful, and determined individuals who relied on their wit and survival instincts (think: Alien or You're Next) to outsmart the antagonist. No longer passive victims, they actively engaged in their survival, becoming proactive participants in their stories.

These characters often undergo significant character development throughout the film, experiencing a transformation. In these seven movies, each strong female lead goes through a high arc, but it fluctuates, starting strong, and then dropping low as they fight for survival and are relentlessly pursued. Eventually, they rise to a high point, or at least a higher one, depending on how the final sequence plays out. One thing is certain: our courageous female protagonist prevails.

The definition of a "successful" ending may be subjective, but the data shows that these women all face adversity and, through their resilience, find a way out. These actresses in the films mentioned are iconic in their portrayals, forever connected to these roles that spawned horror movies for years to come.

These determined females often have a group supporting them, working together towards their goal, but they also face numerous challenges alone. At some point in the film, we witness the final girl standing by herself. In films like Alien, Halloween and You’re Next they are also powerful leaders among the group.

The experience is fearful, filled with violence and turmoil, creating a dark yet energetic atmosphere bursting with unexpected twists. There is also common usage of deception, some sort of mystery or hidden event that propelled the horror. This is seen in Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien and Hellraiser.

You're Next serves as an excellent example of a horror movie that keeps both the audience and the final girl guessing. She is repeatedly confronted with plot twists and obstacles, forced to adapt to each new sense of danger. Given that these are horrors, all manner of weapons are used from knives (Halloween) to anything that can be used for defense (You’re Next, Alien). The fight for survival and consistent intense pursuit (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

Outside of the narrative and character traits some of the aesthetics are key.

What’s also common throughout these pictures is the set design and locales, creating a backdrop for these horrors to be depicted. Brilliant use of special or practical effects is also a valuable component to emphasizing the thrills. Nightmare on Elm Street’s horrifying dreamscape or the ship, the Nostromo in Alien. The creature and villain design are as synonymous with these titles as the final girls are, facing some of the most terrifying imagery one can conjure. The Xenomorphs in Alien are genius in their crafting (acid blood?) and who can deny the effect of a burned man wielding blades for fingers in Nightmare? Or the emotionless terror created by the plain white mask in Halloween. In Hellraiser, this is put lightly, as the evil that is faced are walking, seething creations of agony personified.

The director of these films (wielded by some of the best in the business like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and Ridley Scott) is a strong collaborator in bringing these legendary females to life.

The films are often musical statements, featuring memorable scores and motifs like Halloween or stellar soundtracks like You’re Next or Scream.

Severe violence, gore, and a disturbing overall experience are often imperative for these films. Can anyone forget the bed of blood in Nightmare on Elm Street or the mask made of skin in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? The death counts in all of these are high and brutal, making these killer endeavors to watch, and especially, to survive.

What makes a final girl? It’s a collaboration of character and circumstance, of light and dark, and the overcoming of obstacles. But, most importantly: it’s the memorable journey and the undeniable resilience of human nature and the female fight through wit and heroism.

Check out these blog posts next.