Recently I went through this phase in which I felt compelled to watch every single installment of A Nightmare on Elm Street. It started innocently enough I suppose, with a weird nostalgic impulse to see the first one again. But as I’m sure the horror fans in the crowd will attest, it’s hard to watch a single installment without succumbing to the need to see the rest. And so I made a week out of it, or eight days, rather — one film a night.
It was during number four, The Dream Master, that it finally occurred to me: In each installment, the sole survivor is a woman. This led me to consider every horror movie I had ever watched, and I realized that this was the case for at least 90 percent of them.
Director Brian DePalma (Carrie, Scarface) once claimed that female frailty is a predicate of the suspense genre. In the case of horror films, the suspense arises not from watching some knife-wielding lunatic hunt down his victim, but from the fact that that victim is almost always female. This is a result of mainstream cinema, which has trained us to view female characters as ancillary to males, lacking the same degree of self-reliance. “The guy shines as the star while the girl orbits around him,” says Gina Fournier, author of Thelma and Louise and Women in Hollywood.
Horror films, on the other hand, continuously offer us intelligent feminist heroines, women who can subvert the viewer’s preconceptions of gender by effectively outmaneuvering their assailants, and without all the heavy-handed politics that tend to undermine more “credible” feminist cinema.
In Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol Clover, professor of film studies at University of California, Berkeley, refers to this perennial female survivor as the Final Girl. Charged with the task of tracking down and eliminating the killer, the Final Girl is more or less the embodiment of raw fear: “She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued, or to kill him herself. But in either case, from 1974 on, the survivor figure has been female.”
It is in the film’s third act, usually after an elaborate chase sequence, that the Final Girl is at last able to overpower the killer, often by luring him/her into an ad hoc trap of sorts. This is often viewed as the film’s most important scene, not just in terms of narrative arc, but because the juxtaposition of the two characters, Final Girl and killer, forces audiences to identify with her and cheer her on.
The horror genre hasn’t had it easy. Roger Ebert has repeatedly blasted films like Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for their story lines and perceived lack of substance, contemptuously referring to them as “dead teenager movies.” Feminist scholars have been tireless in their efforts to draw parallels between horror films and pornography; some have even gone so far as to liken them to snuff films. “The human monsters of such films rarely rape,” writes Linda Williams, professor of film studies at the University of California, Irvine. They “more often kill, but killing functions as a substitute for rape.” Even the Final Girl, in spite of her title, must withstand a considerable degree of torture, both physical and psychological — as depicted in such films as Halloween, I Spit on Your Grave, and the current Lindsey Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me — which seems to hark back to the kind of degradations heaped upon women in certain realms of the pornographic.
Film studies professor Barbara Creed says, “The horror film offers an abundant display of fetishistic effects whose function is to attest to the perversity of the patriarchal order.” The perversity, in this case, refers to the latent psychosexual conflicts underlying the violence of most horror films, such as an exacerbated oedipal complex (Psycho) or issues regarding sexual identity (The Silence of the Lambs) and the “patriarchal order” that Creed mentions indicts American culture.
Recently, however, attitudes toward horror films have shifted. Beginning in the ’90s, many scholars, film and feminist, have stopped focusing so heavily upon the disadvantages of female characters and more upon their assets. And there are plenty. The Final Girl’s efforts to eliminate the killer are contingent upon her strength, intelligence, and fortitude — qualities that, in most cases, her male counterparts do not possess. In the Alien franchise, for instance, it is Ripley — arguably the most ass-kicking of all Final Girls — who defeats the ruthless space monstrosities, not the squadron of marines or the all-male prison colony.
Sigourney Weaver in Alien
In Friday the Thirteenth Part II, Ginny cleverly dons Mrs. Voorhies’s sweater and appeals to Jason as his late mother, thereby halting him in his tracks. And let’s not forget Sidney, heroine of the self-aware Scream trilogy, who fought off a total of five attackers over the course of three films. This list goes on.
Horror films forcibly challenge the conventional politics of movie-watching, not to mention movie-making. The sexualization of the Final Girl is intended to subvert our assumptions about on-screen gender roles, articulated quite aptly in Scream with Sidney’s (Neve Campbell) scathing summation of the standard horror plot: “Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who’s always running up the stairs when she should be running out the door. It’s insulting.”
Presumably, the “insult” derives from the relationship between the character’s exaggerated good looks and her intrinsic victimhood; DePalma’s “female frailty” adage. The implication here (one of them, anyway) seems to be that for the Final Girl, strength and sexual appeal are, or should be, mutually exclusive. But why? Why does she have to choose between the two? After all, this is what sets her apart from the rest of her group: she is multidimensional. She can be strong and sexy. Is that so unrealistic? (It is interesting to note that Campbell’s character, Sidney, gave this speech only moments before being attacked and consequently becoming the trilogy’s Final Girl.)
This is also what distinguishes the Final Girl from the prototypical leading male in most action flicks. We know from the opening scene that the brash, rugged Bruce Willis-type will ultimately prevail, the only question is how (we can usually assume it’ll involve guns and at least one exploding truck). As for the Final Girl, however, the question of her survival is much trickier, because quite honestly, we’re just not used to seeing beautiful women save the day.
Except in horror films.
None of this is to suggest that horror films are any more enlightened than other genres. Wes Craven is certainly not the next Betty Friedan. Nor is this to suggest that the concept of empowering women in the face of capitalist patriarchy is completely absent from mainstream cinema. Over the years, Hollywood has offered films such as Thelma and Louise, Erin Brockovich, and Million Dollar Baby — seemingly progressive flicks that depict strong, resourceful, independent women who overcome gender-based obstacles. But in these films, the need to draw attention to the woman’s conquering prowess often leads to little more than the not-so-astonishing realization that men and women are pretty much capable of the same things.
Sissy Spacek in Carrie
The overarching message is largely overshadowed by the ham-fisted efforts to make the viewer aware that there is, in fact, a message. Thomas Doherty, chair of the Film Studies program at Brandeis, says the concluding scene in Thelma and Louise teaches us that “the only conceivable fate for a woman with the right stuff is to be driven off a precipice into oblivion.” How could anyone find hope in this?
Meanwhile, the horror genre remains the only genre in which women are guaranteed to save the day. Horror films are not explicitly about gender politics, yet the Final Girl remains an integral part of film, even more so perhaps than the axe-wielding lunatic chasing her through the darkened field, because that’s what really grabs us as viewers. We’ve been conditioned to believe that she won’t make it, that she’s incapable of surviving on her own, and so we’re frightened on her behalf. DePalma’s assertion that female frailty is a predicate of the suspense genre may have been correct, but if that’s the case, then so is female perseverance.