[CW: mentions of sexual assault/abuse, violence against women]
**Spoilery on so many levels**
As with yesterday’s offering, this came out of a discussion board post in my Visual Rhetoric class. This week’s post was about visual rhetoric in film and I went a bit overboard but this is a subject that really fascinates me.
First of all, I love horror movies, tv shows, and books. I always have. I saw Poltergeist when I was 8 and read The Shining when I was 10. That kind of thing leaves a mark. It really does. And I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of the Final Girl. I actually just finished reading a newly-released book called The Final Girl Support Group so when I read Jody Keisner’s article, “Do You Want to Watch?A Study of the Visual Rhetoric of the Postmodern Horror Film,” I immediately knew that I had to discuss the concept of the Final Girl. The book essentially takes the narrative tack that Final Girls are real, that they survived something horrific, and that these events have colored their lives in a variety of ways. Basically, if the events in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Friday the 13th etc. actually happened and the survivors had to learn to deal with life and the publicity and fame that came after, as well as the PTSD how would they handle it? The book delves into many of the aspects that Keisner brings up in her article, including the idea that Final Girls are virginal or celibate, and that they must learn to live in the monster’s world in order to survive. It also tackles the idea of who, exactly, qualifies to be a Final Girl. Some of the women in the support group did become “as aggressive or witty as the monster” in order to escape but some, like the main character, played possum while grievously injured and waited for help to arrive (422). It was an interesting take on the idea and shows the different ways that people cope with desperate and violent situations. The book also discusses the ways in which these women are continually brutalized by monsters, whether they be the monsters from the original movies that come back in the sequel or new monsters that are inspired by the originals.
So then, the idea of the Final Girl. I started looking into it and found “These Are the 10 Greatest Final Girls in Horror Movies” at AP. The list covers the basic, easily-recognizable Final Girls like Laurie Strode from Halloween, and Nancy Thompson from Nightmare on Elm Street but it also brings up some that have flipped the trope, like Thomasin from The Witch.
I love this movie. It’s one of my favorite movies of recent years but I hadn’t considered that she might be a Final Girl. But in looking at it again, she really was. Her entire family died and she was the only one left. In the end, however, she decided that she would do as Keisner discussed and live within the monster’s reality for good instead of as a temporary means of survival (422). The other difference between The Witch and other Final Girl movies is that those who died were her immediate family, none of whom have committed the sins of horror/slasher film victims, and who all lived essentially “godly” lives. As a Final Girl, Thomasin embraces the darkness and death that the monster, Black Philip, brings to her life.
A classmate asked in, their post, about the changes in newer horror movies and the females-as-monsters idea and that sent me down another rabbit-hole about the ways in which women are portrayed when they are cast as the perpetrator. Most male monsters, in horror/thriller/suspense films don’t have much backstory beyond the usual “bullied as a child,” “unnamed mental illness,” or “entire family was killed in some horrible way and now it’s time for revenge” variety but female perpetrators will almost always have some horrific origin story that involves rampant and violent sexual assault/abuse. This isn’t necessarily a new concept though. The idea goes back to ‘70s exploitation films (I Spit on Your Grave is the most well-known, I think) and has its own genre category with 84 entries (please don’t hit either link if violence or assault is a trigger for you). Most of the exploitation films involve close-in shots of the woman as she’s being victimized, with a plethora of nudity that is meant specifically for the male gaze. The inherent idea, then, is that women cannot be interesting or multi-faceted without having some kind of horrible event done TO them, physically. Even strong and witty Final Girls only get to be that way because violence has been enacted upon them, for the titillation of the audience.
Women can’t just be driven by amorphous reasoning. Men will generally be driven by the sexual assault/death of the women they love (Women-In-Refrigerators trope) or the loss of their families, or in John Wick’s case, the death of his puppy. For women though, it’s a whole other story. The only movie I can think of right off the top of my head that has revenge killings by a woman with a traditionally-male backstory is Peppermint, with Jennifer Garner. She isn’t sexually assaulted in any way. Instead, her husband, her child, and her are gunned down at Christmas time and only Jennifer Garner survives. Granted, it wasn’t the greatest film ever and there are seriously problematic moments, but I was very excited to see a female vigilante with a relatively non-triggery backstory. But this movie, and Garner’s role in it, brings us right back around to Final Girls. Garner is both the Final Girl and the monster in this movie. She is the last of her family who is still standing and she becomes the monster, hunting the men who killed them.
All of this thinking about Final Girls and women in horror brought me around to Buffy Summers and the way that she was ostensibly created to flip the trope of the perky blonde cheerleader who is almost never a Final Girl. Joss Whedon claims that he created her because he hated the cliche of “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror film.” Now, let me just say that I love Buffy. It’s one of my favorite shows. I own all the dvd sets. But, there are inherent issues with the way that the character was portrayed because, while Whedon says that he didn’t want her to be the cliche or the trope, he still subjects his strong, empowered teenage hero to one of the most cliched of all horror movie cliches. Buffy, a 17 year-old girl, has sex with her vampire boyfriend one time, and in so doing, gives him perfect happiness and thus turns him into a monster because of a curse.
Essentially, Keisner’s point that “premarital sex is most often the ‘crime’ the protagonists commit before meeting their doom; those who ignore the social mores of celibacy before marriage suffer a brutal death” is proven out (419). Buffy has sex with Angel, Angel becomes the evil Angelus, and spends the rest of season two tormenting Buffy and killing her loved ones as a lead up to what he hopes will be her death. And here too, we see a flipping of the script. Due to Angelus’ actions and hard work, Buffy very nearly becomes a Final Girl but in the last second, she is forced to become the monster when she has to kill the re-ensouled Angel in order to save the world. She then runs away from her friends and family to suffer in silence, alone. We are once again face-to-face with the rhetoric of “sex = trauma = monsters” and it seems like we can never get away from that. And too, even Buffy couldn’t go all the way through her seven-season run without a sexual assault being thrown in, when Spike attempts to assault Buffy in her bathroom in season six. Even though Spike has a chip in his head that prevents him from harming humans, he is able to harm Buffy, because she is somehow “broken” or “not right.” In many ways, the show is much less a celebration of female empowerment and more a montage of all of the different ways that a young woman can be brutalized over the course of seven years and still survive with most of her sanity intact.
As I was wrapped up thinking about women and monsters in movies and on tv and how the women are often underdeveloped or completely reliant on an abusive backstory, my brain jumped the tracks to the concept of tv shows that immediately begin with a dead teenage girl and the search to find her killer, which drives the entire plot of the show. I’m thinking specifically of Twin Peaks (which was, is, and will always be my favorite show, EVER) and the mystery of Laura Palmer; The Killing and the missing and eventually found-dead Rosie Larsen; and Pretty Little Liars and Alison DiLaurentis, who was missing, then believed dead (there was a body…?) and then very not-dead after all. In these shows, no one really knows who the monster is, including the viewer, but it is often insinuated that perhaps the dead girl was the monster and she was killed for a reason. Essentially, she is more interesting as a dead mystery than she ever was as a living girl. And, in the case of Alison DiLaurentis, the victim was very much portrayed as the monster, though it would turn out later that she too had dealt with her own share of abuse. Rosie Larsen’s monster was someone in her own family, and Laura Palmer was being hunted by a very real, supernatural monster (and family member), whose greatest desire was to make Laura a monster as well.
Admittedly, this post went a bit off the rails, but considerations of women in horror/thrillers/suspense/mystery engenders a lot of discussion because there is always so much to unpack in how they’re portrayed. Nothing is ever straightforward. Maybe that’s why I like them but it’s also why I sometimes hate them. It’s a complicated relationship.
Hendrix, Grady. The Final Girl Support Group. Penguin USA, 2021.
Keisner, Jody. “Do You Want to Watch?A Study of the Visual Rhetoric of the Postmodern Horror Film.” Women’s Studies, vol. 37, no. 4, 2008, pp. 411–427., doi:10.1080/00497870802050019.