On this special Halloween edition of Trope Anatomy 101, Carlie St. George examines horror movies and the girls in horror movies who are too often killed off.
Trope Anatomy 101 is a monthly column in which familiar tropes, particularly in speculative fiction and pop culture, are broken down and discussed by new regular contributor and author Carlie St. George.
Trope Anatomy 101: The Girls Who Deserve to Die
If you know anything about horror movies, especially slashers, you’ve almost certainly heard of the “final girl,” i.e., the last woman left standing after virtually everyone else is dead. First coined back in 1992 by Carol J. Clover in Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the idea of the final girl has since become commonplace in pop culture, especially as horror has become increasingly more self-aware: films like Cabin In The Woods, The Final Girls, and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon have all played with this trope, as have books like The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones and graphic novels like Hack/Slash by Tim Seeley. Every Halloween someone writes a new list of The Top Ten Best Final Girls; hell, I even wrote my own a couple of years ago.
We all know about those girls. We know who they are, and what they did (or more frequently, what they did not do) in order to earn a spot amongst the living. We know their names; we know their stories.
This column is not about those girls.
Instead, I’d like to talk about the girls who almost never live to tell the tale, the girls who are deemed unworthy, the girls who deserve to die. Horror has changed in multiple ways over the past forty years, but certain tropes still persist: these types of girls, for instance, the ones who rarely make it? I want to take a closer look at them, not just talk about how they died or list which horror movie trope they fall under (although we’ll definitely do that, too). I want to create a sort of thought experiment here, in which we re-imagine four movies over four decades from the POV of four specific victims who didn’t survive to see the ending. The point of this isn’t to declare my hypothetical versions superior, or to bash the original movies (some of which I absolutely love). Instead, I aim to see what kinds of stories the horror genre might be missing by repeatedly killing the same types of young women. I aim to see what sorts of tales might have been told, had our dead girls lived to tell them.
Let’s begin with one of the most quintessential types of horror movie victims:
It’s a charged word, I know, and generally considered derogatory, as if there’s something wrong with a woman–and it’s almost always applied to a woman, otherwise modified with the gender identifier “man slut”–who has had sex with multiple people, usually on-screen. Horror often has a troubling judgmental streak a mile wide and is quick to cast any woman as a harlot for having the audacity to want or enjoy sex. There is a lot of overlap between categories in this essay, but for the purposes of this particular trope, “the slut” doesn’t just mean women who are merely more sexually active than the final girl (because that’s generally everybody); the trope more directly concerns itself with girls who are so enthusiastic about sex that it’s basically their entire driving motivation.
See Lynda (P.J. Soles) from Halloween (1978). Lynda is sort of the go-to classic example of the sex-obsessed teen: she’s blonde, vapid, and has seemingly no worries except managing a demanding schedule of stereotypical popular teenage girl concerns like dances, hair appointments, cheerleader practice, and, of course, finding a place to have sex with her boyfriend. She’s portrayed as silly, but unlike Annie (who is a jerk to Laurie, to her father, and to young children), Lynda doesn’t seem like an actively terrible person, just young and self-absorbed. Even if she wounds my soul during her “textbooks aren’t important” ramble, Lynda is primarily only guilty of sexing it up with her boyfriend in an inappropriate location, a crime that’s really only considered grounds for justifiable homicide in the horror genre.
Lynda dies quickly with very little struggle, in sharp contrast to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who not only survives her encounter with Michael Myers but also has to fend off his attacks for a considerably longer time. The dichotomy of terror between victim and survivor is very apparent in 70’s and 80’s slashers, and did not go unnoted by Carol J. Clover in Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, who wrote this about the final girl:
She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B).
I don’t particularly like Lynda, but the fact that she enjoys sex shouldn’t preclude her from looking death in the face or finding this strength to survive. And yet, it’s so rare that the so-called slut character ever gets to go through this process; only mild, unassuming young women are afforded the chance to survive (either as transformed killers themselves, or as battle-scarred survivors who have seen some serious shit). Even in today’s current horror climate where virginity is no longer a requirement for survival, most final girls still reflect the old standby mold; they aren’t the enthusiastic party throwers or flirts, and generally they aren’t portrayed as women who enthusiastically appreciate an upcoming opportunity for an orgasm. The Lyndas of the world don’t last long. The Lyndas of the world don’t outrun the boogeyman.
So, now I have to ask the question: what would Halloween have looked like if Lynda had survived, if the movie had been her story, rather than Laurie’s?
Well, it’s difficult to say. There are certainly multiple ways such a story could play out: obviously, Lynda would have to survive her fateful encounter with the telephone cord, getting away to stumble over her boyfriend’s body. From there, it’s less clear. The way I imagine it, Lynda would likely run for help; in this case, she’d run straight to Laurie. In a classic final girl story, Michael would have killed Laurie before Lynda could get there, leaving it up to our sole survivor to rescue the kids and stay alive until Dr. Loomis shows up. There is something about Lynda having to protect the children, particularly Lindsey, that kind of interests me, as it’s such a reversal of her original motivation–i.e., get that kid out of here so I can have more sex please–but I also worry that such an ending could potentially go to an uncomfortable thematic place, like, all women ought to/will want to take care of kids eventually! We definitely have enough stories with that sexist BS moral.
For that reason (and also just my general reluctance to kill off Laurie Strode), I think our hypothetical scenario would actually be slightly more interesting if both girls survived. (Unlikely in 1978? Absolutely. But interesting, nonetheless.) In this ending, Laurie would remain responsible for the children, perhaps running out with them to get help, while I’d give Lynda Dr. Loomis’s role of shooting Michael off the balcony in the first place. (Dr. Loomis would still be there, of course; he’d just get briefly knocked out or something, leaving Lynda with the gun.) Because with that change, Lynda gets to have the badass transformation that normally only “good” girls get. We’d see “the slut” finally, finally outrun the boogeyman, at least until the sequel. And actually, since Halloween is one of the earliest and most influential slashers, such a hypothetical ending could have potentially diverted horror’s weirdly judgy message that sex automatically leads to death.
But promiscuity isn’t the only trait that’s punished in the horror genre, of course. Let’s turn now to look at some other girls who are likely to bite it, for instance:
The (Actual) Outsider
It’s not uncommon for final girls to be a little different than their friends, even mildly ridiculed or rejected by them in some way. The aforementioned Laurie Strode, for instance, is the bookish, shy one of the trio and is constantly teased for it. But these girls are never too weird or too nerdy; their primary difference is their virtue, which identifies them as Good Girls among Bad Girls. They’re rarely ladies who genuinely love math or wear only black or play D&D on the weekends. Such a young woman would probably be in danger of having too much personality for the typical final girl, who is some strange combination of Ideal and Everywoman. Goths and lady nerds don’t pop up in horror nearly as often as cheerleaders and queen bees, and even when they do they’re often depressingly one-note (the goth is mean, the nerd is pathetic, etc). But one thing that all these ladies have in common is their extremely high mortality rate.
Take Violet, for instance, from the not-exactly-critically-beloved Friday the 13th, A New Beginning. For those of you who aren’t devoted fans of the franchise, this particular sequel is set at a halfway house for teenagers who have been released from a psychiatric hospital, though as the story rarely bothers to delve into anyone but Tommy Jarvis’s reasons for being there, I can only assume that Violet has been diagnosed with Vague Gothness. (She’s probably more 80’s punk rock than actual goth girl, I’d say, but it seems to be the stereotype she’s generally lumped under, due to her generally angry demeanor, bits of dyed black hair, and pretty awesome makeup.)
Violet is a fairly minor character, all things considered, as she’s generally too busy nodding along to her headphones to bother with little things like dialogue. But I like to think she has hidden depths: for one, she seems genuinely upset when she realizes that she’s accidentally set places at the breakfast table for people who are too dead to, you know, sit down and eat waffles; for another, just before she gets killed, she does the robot to Australian new wave, my hand to God. It’s kind of the best thing ever. Unlike fellow punks and/or goths like Trash in Return of the Living Dead or Tosh in Urban Legend, Violet seemingly has no interest in sex or stripping down; all she wants to do is listen to music and dance in peace. I can relate, Violet. I can relate. Unfortunately, she’s quickly and easily killed by a Jason-wannabe instead.
So again, let’s ask the question: what could A New Beginning have looked like if Violet survived? Well, I’d probably just have Violet and actual final girl Pam switch places, which is fine, as Pam is utterly bland and entirely inconsequential to the plot. Violet, meanwhile, would be a groundbreaking heroine because, seriously, the only goth I can think of who survives a slasher movie is Mimi from Detention, and Detention is not exactly your typical slasher–by which I mean it’s a sci-fi-horror-comedy bucket of utter WTF weirdness. In this new version, Violet would have a few more scenes early on to establish character, ones that maybe give her an actual diagnosis, backstory, etc. We’d give her and Tommy a few moments together, too, because I bet they’d instantly have a much more interesting dynamic that Tommy and Pam ever had–and not just because Tommy barely has any dialogue himself, but because they’re both screwed up kids struggling to move on from their pasts. Since we don’t know Violet’s actual past, we can basically make up anything; personally, I think she should be the final girl from her own horror story because man, that could make one hell of a romance.
Anyway, here’s how I’d see it: Violet would escape getting fatally stabbed and run into young Reggie, who has just discovered the bodies of all the other teenagers. “Jason” would chase them outside, and events would largely play out the same from there, except that Violet would either be the one who cut off “Jason’s” hand or at least get to hit him with the tractor. Oh, and also we’d go ahead and cut the epilogue because it’s not like Friday the 13th canon didn’t just ignore it themselves.
A New Beginning could be so much more than a failed attempt at restarting the franchise with a new villain; it could also tell the story of a couple of traumatized, rebellious kids becoming friends and moving past both their own literal and figurative monsters. If you think about it, doesn’t that story feel like it should naturally slide into the horror genre? That’s a story I’d like to see, at any rate.
Moving on now to our next type of dead girl:
The Best Friend
Woe to the woman who befriends a final girl, for her death will be swift and likely involve a garage door or some kind of hook.
Things have changed since 1992. Horror films still heavily revolve around a leading lady MC, but that final girl isn’t always the only person to survive. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least six slashers where more than one character makes it to the finish line (including the aforementioned A New Beginning), although it’s fair to point out that men (typically brothers or love interests) are far more likely to survive instead of other women. The BFF, meanwhile, has a shockingly high mortality rate. If you find yourself in a horror movie scenario and have exchanged a friendship bracelet with anyone who has darker hair and is less sexually adventurous than you, I’m sorry, but statistically, you have less than a 2% chance of surviving.
With that in mind, let’s look at Tatum Riley from Scream, a progressive film that awesomely subverts all kinds of horror movie tropes . . . except this one.
Tatum (Rose McGowan) is a typical horror movie best friend in many respects: she’s blonde, sassy, has lousy taste in men, etc. Nobody watching this movie expects Tatum to live, but twenty years later, I still find myself wishing she had. Partially just for the novelty of it all (offhand, I can think of only one subversion to this trope, who I’ll talk about later), but mostly I wish she’d survived because Tatum has a lot of good qualities for someone who is mostly remembered for trying to escape through a cat door. For instance, Tatum is protective of Sidney, scolding her own boyfriend for being an insensitive ass, and literally putting herself between Sidney and ambitious reporter Gale Weathers on more than one occasion. Tatum never gives Sidney shit about being a virgin, reassuring her that she doesn’t owe her boyfriend sex, no matter what Billy has to say about it. She’s also really the only character who doesn’t paint the deceased Maureen Prescott in terms of angel or harlot; Tatum believes the rumors about Maureen’s infidelity and promiscuity but never actually demonizes her for them, which is a more than welcome change. And unlike most classic slasher victims (Lynda and Violet included), Tatum fights back hard, injuring Ghostface multiple times before eventually dying in that previously mentioned garage door.
If Tatum hadn’t died, though . . . you know, Scream could have gone one of two ways. The movie is, after all, unequivocally Sidney’s story: her history, her trauma, and largely her POV. If you wanted to keep it that way, then I imagine it playing out like this: Ghostface attacks Tatum, injuring her severely. We presume she’s dead, but actually, she’s just lying unconscious somewhere. (For this to be even mildly credible, I’m afraid someone else is going to have to go up in the garage door.) She only just comes back in the knick of time, shooting Billy before he can kill Sidney; essentially, Tatum swaps places with Gale Weathers, just like Violet swapped places with Pam. This would quietly subvert the Dead BFF trope while keeping the focus on Sidney being a new kind of final girl.
That could be cool but–because I have a serious penchant for sidekick stories–what I personally think would be even more interesting is if, despite all the drama surrounding Sidney, Tatum is actually your primary POV heroine. (Or, at the very least, a real second final girl in her own right–I find the idea of having two genuine heroines in a horror movie very exciting.). In this case, things would play out much like above, except for a few things: one, the scene where Ghostface attacks Tatum would be much longer, as befitting any proper horror movie heroine. Pivotally, though, Tatum wouldn’t simply be out for the count for most of the movie before popping up for a surprise reveal. Rather, we’d watch her wake up and struggle to come to Sidney’s aid despite her injuries, stopping the killer and saving her best friend. (Sidney could still kill Stu, though, and probably get the infamous final shot . . . although a part of me is just in love with the idea of the two friends killing each other’s boyfriends.)
In Scream, Sidney’s story is all about overcoming trauma with, well, more trauma, but Tatum’s story is about friendship, loyalty, and being a total spunky badass in order to protect the ones you love. And again, that’s a story that I feel has value in the horror genre; in fact, it’s basically the story that High Tension could have been, if it hadn’t been for that bullshit Psycho Lesbian twist at the end. Girl friendship stories are hard enough to find in Hollywood, with so many genres (action, SF, fantasy, etc.) limiting the number of important female characters to two at best; horror, meanwhile, is one of the few genres where it’s not uncommon for women to equal or even outnumber men, and yet it seems to me that the stories told rarely have much to do with friendship. Horror movie heroines have friends, of course, but that’s mostly just so that the total body count will be higher. (The Descent and Death Proof being notable exceptions, although considering how The Descent turns out, it’s not exactly the positive girl friendship story I’m looking for. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy Death Proof as much as I do.) And I think the lack of good friendship stories in horror is a shame. I love Scream with all my meta-obsessed nerd heart, but I sometimes wonder if Tatum’s survival–in either of my hypothetical scenarios–could have made it an even more interesting and groundbreaking movie.
And finally, for our last proposed victim-turned-survivor?
The Person of Color
See, that’s all kinds of problematic right there, because Person of Color absolutely shouldn’t be its own category, like, a character’s ethnicity should never be the only thing that defines them. But far too often, that’s exactly what happens in horror. As BJ Colangelo notes in her article, Virgin/White/Female=Survivor: A Lesson in White Privilege, there is a difference between the type of archetypal characters we’ve been discussing thus far and a token character. “A token character,” Colangelo writes, “is defined as ‘done for the sake of appearances or as a symbolic gesture.’ This means that the character is plugged into the mix out of obligation. In horror movies, white people have never been token.”
And it’s true, particularly because all-white or nearly all-white casts dominate the horror genre. It’s rare when even one person of color makes it into a horror movie, let alone two or three, and if there are two non-white people, then they’re likely dating and almost definitely the same race, as biracial couples are nearly non-existent in horror movies, with Jordan Peele’s upcoming film Get Out being a notable exception. And no matter how many PoC end up in a movie, it’s rare that they actually survive. It’s an extremely well-known trope of the genre, for example, that black people never make it, although it’s something of a misconception that they always die first, and I can think of at least a few welcome subversions where black people do live. Brandy is a particularly shocking one, managing to survive being both black and a best friend in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer; meanwhile, the admittedly flawed TV show Dead of Summer had some wonderfully positive subversions, including not only a black final girl, but also a white trans boy and a gay Latino boy who make it out of Camp Stillwater alive. Regardless of these examples, however, black characters deserve better: they’re often appallingly stereotyped (sassy black women for comedic relief, etc.) and are still killed off far too frequently.
But it’s also important to note that black people aren’t the only people of color who are regularly killed off in horror movies. Which brings me to Claire (Jamie Chung) in one of my guilty pleasure favorites: Sorority Row.
Sorority Row is a “prank gone deadly wrong” story. Claire is one of the girls who helps cover up the accidental death of her fellow sorority sister, and when final girl Cassidy plans to spill the beans, Claire ultimately goes along with Queen Bee Jessica’s plan to blackmail Cassidy into silence. So, Claire isn’t exactly perfect. On the other hand, no one in this story really is, including Ellie, who also survives, presumably because she hesitates slightly longer about the cover-up (and because she’s played by Rumer Willis, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis’s daughter).
And yet it’s interesting that Ellie gets the (half-ass) redemption story because it could just as easily have gone to Claire; in fact, Claire’s story would likely have been much stronger. On one hand, she actively helped dump her friend’s body down a mineshaft, while Ellie did not. On the other hand, Ellie totally agreed to dump her friend’s body down a mineshaft; she was just too busy having a meltdown to actually do it, which I wouldn’t exactly call moral high ground. It’s also interesting that Ellie’s primary fear about the truth coming out is losing her scholarship, while Claire’s entirely concerned about her father having another heart attack.
It’s also worth noting that Ellie doesn’t really go through any kind of emotional journey in Sorority Row: she has meltdown after meltdown (which get to the point that they are intentionally played for laughs) but there’s no shape to them; her arc from “utterly useless” to “badass survivor” is incredibly weak. Claire, however, has an arc just aching to be developed: in the beginning, she’s clearly a supporting player, backing Jessica’s every play, even though Jessica is awful and says shitty things like, “I like being your friend because it makes me multicultural without having to do anything.” (I mean, right there alone, there is a story we glimpse but never get to really see, as a clearly offended Claire has to make the split second decision to laugh the joke off, something I’d imagine people of color have to deal with all the time, but white people like me never have to worry about.)
Throughout the film, though, Claire begins to change, living with her guilt and expressing regret over what she admits was a terrible mistake. If Claire had survived–which she’d do by avoiding her Darwin Award death, going back inside the house, and essentially switching roles with Ellie, up to and including choosing sisterhood over fear, killing the bad guy, and saving final girl Cassie–her story would be about growing a backbone, standing up to mean girl Jessica, and gaining redemption for what she’s done, which, if you think about it, should play great because Hollywood loves a redemption story, right?
Well, they do if the stories are about men. Women, less so, and since Jamie Chung is the only person of color in an otherwise overwhelmingly white cast, it’s absolutely no surprise when, instead, Claire goes off alone to turn off an overheated hot tub for no real reason, walking through a virtual sea of bubbles with only a flare gun as backup, with no rationale at all that would explain such a ridiculously dumb move.
You could argue, of course, that Claire’s death has nothing to do with her being Asian-American, and maybe that’s true. What’s also true is that I cannot think of a character of Asian descent who has survived a Western horror movie, slasher or otherwise. Sorority Row, Friday the 13th (2009), Friday the 13th Part VII: Jason Takes Manhattan, Saw, The Descent, Hostel, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, even Scream: The TV Series. Actually, I take that back; I’ve got one from, yet again, Detention. (To be honest, Detention doesn’t really kill off that many people.) Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any more–my knowledge is hardly infinite, and if you have an example, I’d love to hear it–but it seems pretty rare, especially because it’s so uncommon to see Asian people in Western horror movies at all. (Possibly this is because common Asian stereotypes don’t fit the genre’s typical needs: for instance, the Stoic Asian or All Asians Know Martial Arts is somewhat at odds with the typical slasher victim who has to fall down at least once while being chased and, of course, scream a lot. Then again, that’s only East Asian. I’m still trying to even come up with examples of a South Asian character in a horror movie.) The track record is so bad that it’s just no surprise when an Asian woman–or really any person of color, honestly–dies, just like it’s no surprise when best friends, weird girls, or girls who enthusiastically appreciate sex die, too.
But as I’ve tried to show today, there are potentially very interesting stories that are dying with these girls, stories that could help reinvent the horror genre, stories that want to be told. Don’t get me wrong: like most horror fans, I often take pleasure in the predictability of scary movies, and sometimes it’s a lot of fun to shout out who’s about to die based on knowing the rules of horror. But one, some of these tropes are downright sexist, racist, or both, and two, it’s good for any genre to sometimes make bold storytelling choices in order to change with the times and keep audiences from growing bored. Of course, horror has made a number of changes over the decades: the bad guys are faster, the kills are gorier, and most everyone involved has seen a scary movie before. But I feel that the majority of changes seem to be primarily about the villain, and I’m ready for more innovative changes to the survivors. I’m ready to see horror present new kinds of stories, and for me, that’s not happening fast enough.
I want more stories that are willing to subvert tropes instead of consistently playing them straight. I want more creators who are willing to push past nostalgia and make something new, something both bloody and progressive. Horror keeps burying the same girls, over and over and over again, but I’m ready for these girls to live–because dead girls tell no tales, and these tales deserve to be told.