Evolution of a Final Girl

I love Final Girls. This term, coined by Carol Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, describes the last character, usually female, left alive in a slasher film. Ever since watching Sidney Prescott in Scream, I’ve been enamored with these strong women and the many shapes they’ve taken over time. The female empowerment that they embody is what drew me to horror in the first place, and many strong women have won my heart over the years. While Sidney is my favorite, a close second is Laurie Strode from the Halloween franchise. Played by the stellar Jamie Lee Curtis, Laurie has become a touchstone for female empowerment in the horror genre. 2018’s Halloween sequel offers us an interesting look at a Final Girl evolving through the years. By looking at Laurie in the original Halloween in 1978, Halloween: H20 in 1998, and New Halloween in 2018, (yes, I know they’re different timelines) we can see how the concept of the Final Girl has changed over time. 

Conversations about Final Girls can be contentious. Everyone has their favorite. One that they most strongly identify with. And with the general underrepresentation of strong women in films, it’s understandable that we would form strong attachments. My opinions on Final Girls are my own and may differ from yours. And that’s ok. We can each find what we need in these characters without taking away from anyone else. 

So we start with Laurie. She, along with Jess, Sally, and Alice, serve as the Final Girl template. Laurie survives as each of her friends are picked off one by one. Other than the children she is babysitting, she is the only one still alive by the time Michael attacks her and must ward him off on her own. She has noticed that something is off, but Laurie only really learns of Michael’s existence as a threat when she is under attack leaving her with no time to make any kind of plan other than simple evasion. While she does fight back when attacked, she is reactive and only attacks Michael in self-defense. Early Final Girls survive either by actively defeating the killer or by surviving long enough to be rescued. And while they are physically alive, they absorb the full extent of the trauma and must confront the knowledge of their friend’s deaths. They may have last minute assistance, but they are the final victims, surviving alone to carry the weight of the tragedy.

Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy and Alien’s Ripley show us a new development in the Final Girl trope when they begin to use more proactive measures against the threats they face. Nancy discovers Freddie’s weakness and makes a plan to defeat him. Ripley uses the loader to make herself an even physical match for the Queen. While not as reactive as earlier Final Girls, they do still ultimately conquer on their own. They may save others, but they stand alone against the killer.  The evolution I see is that they turn and fight. However, only because they have no choice. 

The game-changing Slasher film Scream delivers not one, but several inspirational female characters. Final Girl Sidney, along with Gale, Tatum, and Casey, are strong women who fight back. They may not all survive, but they each put up a fight when attacked. One notable facet of Scream is that it references previous slashers. Throughout the movie, Randy details the rules and tropes of the slasher sub genre and we even see characters watching and commenting on the original Halloween. Sidney exists in a culture that has grown up with Laurie and is familiar with Final Girls. She can use Laurie’s experiences to her advantage in order to overcome Ghostface. And Sidney is not the sole survivor. Gale, Dewey, and Randy also survive as well and assist Sidney in overcoming the killer. We see our Final Girl not standing alone, but with others. She will have support in the next steps of her recovery and will not have to bear the weight of the tragedy alone. She survives because of the strength of her relationships.

While Halloween H20 came out two years after Scream, this version of Laurie serves as a bridge between Nancy and Sidney. In H20 we see the toll Michael’s attack has taken on the last 20 years of her life. She is still suffering from the lingering effects of the trauma, but H20’s conclusion shows her begin to take her power back. Like Sidney, she refuses to be a victim. When she is offered the chance to get away from Michael even though his whereabouts are unknown, she doesn’t take it. Unlike her 17 year old self, she rejects the opportunity to escape and takes the narrative into her own hands. Like Sidney, she turns and fights. But like Nancy, she does it alone. What I like about this version of Laurie’s story is that her weapon of choice is an ax. She turns and confronts Michael but on her terms. When presented with a choice not afforded to previous final girls, she chooses to turn and fight. 

2018’s Halloween shows us another version of Laurie. This time 40 years later, but the PTSD she suffers from is the same. Her experiences from Halloween of 1978 have redirected the course of her life, and she has spent the last 40 years preparing for the chance to exact her revenge on Michael. Like Nancy and Ripley she makes a plan to evenly match herself with Michael. She creates a house that functions as a trap to lure him in, builds an arsenal, and trains herself for physical combat. Throughout the movie, we see several reversals of iconic shots showing us that Laurie is no longer the victim, she has become the killer. Through her extensive planning, we learn that she has been in control of the narrative all along. We also learn that Laurie has been training and preparing her daughter, Karen. She has used her own experiences as a lone survivor to empower the next generation to fight back together. She is no longer a Final Girl. She is creating a Matriarchy. 

From Laurie to Laurie (with a few deviations along the way) we see the evolution of the Final Girl. From a girl who purely reacts and survives alone to a woman who stands and fights to a leader who empowers others. I belong to a generation of women who have grown up watching Laurie. Through the years, I have been with her as she learns from her experiences, chooses to empower herself, and helps to turn the next generation of women (including me) into fighters. She will use her experiences to keep others from suffering the way she did. Karen and Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson offer us a glimpse of what the next Final Girls will be. Women who may be afraid but can rest in the knowledge that they are not alone. That others have survived so maybe they will too. As a women who has only recently found her voice, I am grateful for Laurie and all the other Final Girls who have helped me stand and fight.

Jenn Adams