The latest meta-horror-comedy, “The Final Girls,” will be released this fall—and the trailer and title give us the impression that the movie will not only be a fun tribute to the ’80s slashers, but will also offer some commentary on cliché horror conventions. And the title references one of the most talked-about horror tropes of all: the final girl. Other meta-horror movies like Scream, Cabin in the Woods and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon have weighed in on the final girl phenomenon, although never actually calling her the “final girl.” The term comes from critic Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws, a book analyzing gender roles in horror movies.
The final girl, by Clover’s definition, is the last surviving character of a horror film. She’s the girl who survives the killer who has murdered her friends, sometimes even fighting back, and in Clover’s words, she “looks death in the face” and “lives to tell the story.”
Clover’s analysis of the final girl, first published in the late ’80s, has been an extremely influential film theory over the years. The rise of the final girl marks a shift in perspective in slasher movies that moves us away from the viewpoint of the brutal murderer to focus on the “victim-hero” protagonist. The analysis is rich and complex, with tons of power-struggles, repressed sexuality and phallic-symbol weaponry thrown into the mix. The final girl has been praised as a strong female icon, criticized for being desexualized (she’s often a virgin, sometimes a virgin with an androgynous or boyish name) and debated over for years. But she’s always seemed to draw our attention.
With the release of “The Final Girls” on the horizon, here’s a list of some of the most influential final girls to grace our screens over the decades.
- Alice Hardy (Adrienne King)
Friday the 13th (1980)
Alice lays low for much of the movie, leading up to the climactic ending when she finds her friends’ bodies and the killer is revealed. Alice’s final scenes are the most beloved of the original movie. She beheads her attacker in glorious slow motion and just when she thinks she’s safe, we get and interesting final shot of her boat on the water. She doesn’t make it far into the sequel, but she fights like hell in round one.
- Kristy Cotton (Ashley Laurence)
Hellraiser (1987), Hellraiser 2 (1988)
Like many classic final girls, Kristy is an innocent young woman in a corrupted world. While her relatives sink lower into corruption and cenobite-infested hell, Kristy gets tied up in the trouble while trying to look out for her cuckholded father. She accidentally summons Pinhead and his gang while playing with their puzzle box, but ends up escaping hell with all of her magically non-frizzing miracle curls intact.
- Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The original final girl. She was the first starring female to escape her movie alive and the character that inspired Clover to write about final girl theory. Sally was subjected to one of the gnarliest dinner scenes ever filmed, hit with a hammer, chased by our most known and loved chainsaw-wielding maniac and jumped through a window. Sally may not have escaped with all of her sanity intact, but she did what it took to survive.
- Erin (Shami Vinson)
You’re Next (2011)
Erin is an almost too-perfect final girl, but an effective one just for that reason. Starring in a self-aware horror movie, Erin represents the complete opposite of the typical horror movie victim. Erin never loses her head, has a plethora of survival-skill knowledge and starts fighting back at the earliest opportunity. You’re Next flipped the subgenre of home invasion horror on its head, all because of Erin’s character.
- Ginny Field (Amy Steel) Friday the 13th
Part 2 (1981)
Ginny stands out in final girl history because she didn’t just run faster, scream louder or even fight harder—Ginny actually outsmarted her killer. The psychology student expresses some empathy for Jason Voorhees early on in the movie and she has enough insight to realize that he must have some serious mommy-issues. In their final showdown, Ginny poses as Mrs. Voorhees to control Jason and keep him from attacking her. The risky move works out in her favor.
- Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)
Although technically not a perfect fit for the “slasher” subgenre, Ripley is widely considered to be one of horror’s finest final girls. Ripley is a tough, ruthless fighter when she needs to be, but still has a soft spot for saving kids and cats. Also notable about Ripley is how many of her battle scenes seem to be girl-on-girl, with the most monstrous creature from Aliens being an alien mother.
- Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
The sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre opened to mixed reviews. Tobe Hooper amped up the comedy here, creating one of the earliest self-aware, meta-horror movies to exist. Stretch was a new kind of final girl. She didn’t just escape—she also kicked some ass along the way. Clover noted how Stretch saves herself after her would-be rescuer, Texas Ranger Lefty, epically fails. Similar to Sally, Stretch also was invited to dine (or be dined on) by the cannibalistic Sawyer family, and was Leatherface’s first crush to boot. Plenty of weapons-as-phallic-symbols imagery in this one. But Stretch comes out on top.
- Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)
Laurie was the first final girl to fight back and one of the most iconic in the genre. Jamie Lee Curtis played a number of final girl roles, but Laurie is by far the most well-known. This classic final girl stabs Michael Myers with a knife and a coat hanger to protect herself and the kids she’s babysitting. Dr. Loomis steps in to deliver the final blows (and lines) but it’s Laurie’s plight that sticks with us.
- Nancy Thompson (Heather Lagenkamp)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Clover called Nancy the “grittiest” of the final girls. In the documentary on making the Elm Street films, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, Robert Englund himself said that Freddy saw Nancy as a “worthy adversary.” In Nancy’s final scenes of the original, she plans an elaborate defense against Freddy Krueger. She booby-traps her house and even full-on tackles the slasher to bring him out of her dream and into her world to fight him on her own terms.
- Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell)
A meta-horror classic, Scream not only put slashers back on the public radar in the late ‘90s, but it did it with self-aware style. Sidney was meant to be a final girl, perfectly fitting into the conventions of the trope at some points and notably breaking those conventions at others. One of the toughest, most no-nonsense stars of the genre, Sidney didn’t rewrite the rules of being a final girl—she threw them out the window.
Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross) Dawn of the Dead (1979)
Dana Polk (Kristen Connolly) Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Valerie and Trish (Robin Stille and Michelle Michaels) Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) Susperia (1977)
Mia Allen (Jane Levy) Evil Dead (2013)