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    Books: Final Girls with the Final Word

     

    When we think of slashers, obviously Freddy, Michael, and Jason quickly come to mind, but beyond the masks and machetes, there is always a strong heroine at the center of these stories who doesn’t get the same notoriety. Until recently. Many probably know the final girl as a sexist trope found in Hollywood slashers pioneered by the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven. But are final girls sexist or are they truly the ultimate heroine? On the one hand, they are objectified, they are physically and psychologically tortured, they almost always have to be a virgin to survive, and they rarely pass the Bechdel Test. But on the other hand, final girls are badass females who survive whatever meat cleaver or chainsaw is thrown their way, sometimes even in heels. While scholars and critics love to reduce the horror genre to a few notable clichés, contemporary authors are digging deeper and changing how overused story conventions can evolve within popular culture and how the final girl trope may be more important now than ever.

    The final girls of today are different from their conservative counterparts born out of Ronald Reagan’s eighties. They’re damaged, they’re jaded, they’re not well-behaved, and in a metafictional commentary, they’re also completely aware of the tropes of their own genre. Like the teenagers in Scream (the first self-aware horror story), these characters have seen all the movies, they understand all the rules, and they know what it takes to be a final girl. Or at least, they think they do. By leaning into what readers think they already know about the horror genre, authors like Stephen Graham Jones and Grady Hendrix are subverting expectations and mining more complex themes than those found in your typical slasher (toxic masculinity and overcoming trauma to name two), while still maintaining all of the gory, nostalgic fun.

    Grady Hendrix’s Final Girl Support Group poses the question, “What happens to these women after the credits stop rolling?” And the answer is that they would be deeply fucked up. They would need therapy. They would probably also sell the rights to their stories, because hey, they’re only human, right? And that’s the point. Hendrix looks at these characters as both victims and as survivors, as real people who have been defined by their past trauma and have had to find ways to cope with living in a reality bound by fear and paranoia. The members of the Final Girl Support Group are based on familiar characters from classic teen slashers like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and Halloween, and horror fans will have fun noting the many parallels to those stories in what is truly a love letter to the genre. Hendrix examines how the final girls from such movies might deal with their trauma decades later, as well as their unshakeable identities as the would-be victims of psychotic killers. The ones that got away. 

    “I inventory my pockets: keys, money, phone, weapons. I stopped carrying a firearm on public transportation after an incident a few years back, but I have pepper spray, a box cutter in my right front pocket, and a razor blade taped to my left ankle. I don’t wear headphones, I don’t wear sunglasses, I make sure my jacket is tight so there’s nothing to snag, and then I say goodbye to my plant, take a deep breath, step outside of my apartment and face a world that wants me dead.” —Lynette Tarkington in The Final Girl Support Group

    Jade Daniels is a seventeen-year-old horror expert in Stephen Graham Jones’s My Heart is a Chainsaw. She gets off on spouting horror movie trivia to anyone who will listen (whether they want to or not). She is obsessed with slashers and final girls, so much so that when the body count begins to rise in her small Idaho town, readers have to wonder if Jade’s certainty that this is the work of a real life slasher is the foresight of an expert or the fantastical musings of a troubled—perhaps delusional, perhaps even dangerous—young woman. Jade is also certain she has identified a real life final girl in the beautiful and popular Letha Mondragon. The clear irony is that Jade never stops to consider that she herself may be the final girl because she has already established that she does not fit the idealized stereotype. The qualities that Jade thinks stand in the way of her being a final girl—her family, her poverty, the scars on her wrists, her biting sarcastic wit—are the exact qualities that make her the kind of character you want to spend time with and sometimes want to hug.

     “No, Jade will never be any kind of final girl, she knows, and has known for many years. Final girls don’t wear combat boots to school, untied in honor of John Bender. Final girls’ wrists aren’t open to the world. Final girls are all, of course—this goes without saying—virgins. Final girls don’t wear ‘Metal Up Your Ass’ shirts to school, with the indelible image of a knife thrusting up from the toilet. Final girls never select the ‘skank station’ mirror, or wear this much eyeliner—they don’t need to. Their eyes are already piercing and perfect.” —My Heart is a Chainsaw

    Jade Daniels and Lynette Tarkington are beyond unreliable narrators. They are admittedly emotionally unstable women with troubled pasts, which obviously means they are not to be believed, especially not by the police. Final girls are rooted in gothic horror, where the main character is almost always a young woman with a troubled past which comes back to haunt her present. Sounds a lot like Laurie Strode or Sydney Prescott, doesn’t it? Gothic horror is also where the Hysterical Woman trope really took a foothold (Is the manor truly haunted, or is the governess simply lonely and delusional?) and as time went on, women in horror stories, especially teenage girls, continued to be coddled or infantilized by males and authority figures. But the final girl is nothing if not determined. And the female protagonists in these novels are not only determined to save themselves, but to save others. As survivors of trauma, Lynette and Jade long to save others; in fact, they’re obsessed with it.

    As the evolution of the final girl continues, authors in other genres are using horror tropes to explore similar themes. While Gillian Flynn’s work falls more under the crime/thriller umbrella than horror, stories like Gone Girl, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects use the mystery surrounding violent murders to break open female characters and identify the trauma they have been living with. Flynn is an expert at crafting worlds where the “final girl” can be a survivor, a victim, and even a villain all at once. Stephanie Perkins’s YA slasher novel There’s Someone Inside Your House gives an updated look at the archetypes found in the genre, particularly the teenage female protagonist Makani, whose own past is defined by a dark secret. Britt Cannon uses well-known final girls and classic horror themes as a way of dissecting their own childhood trauma and abuse in their postmodern poetic memoir, Flight of the Final Girl.

    What does it take to survive a horror story? As these authors suggest, it may be empathy. The modern final girl’s “pure of heart” status lies less in celibacy and conservative clothing, and instead in the strength of her character and her ability to overcome trauma and stop the cycle of victims. Witnessing her friends and/or family get murdered has shaped her into becoming the woman she needs to be in order to go toe to toe with the big bad and come out the other side. The things that break us also make us stronger, and no character archetype exemplifies that better than the final girl. After all, what is the difference between a survivor and a victim? A victim is defined by the harm that has come to them, but a survivor is defined by their life and their choices afterward. Final girls will always be a lynchpin of the horror genre because we need them, and we need them even more in a post-#metoo world where the prevalence of violence against women has been so well-documented it has its own hashtag. We need final girls because, as Jade explains in one of her many essays on slashers, “Final girls are the vessel we keep all our hope in.”

     
     
    Katie Gilligan
    Katie Gilligan is a screenwriter/freelancer/bartender. She has an MFA in Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from UC Riverside, Palm Desert, and currently lives in Palm Springs with her husband and their dog, where she is working on the next great American horror-comedy.
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