After the Final Girl: Tropes and Archetypes in Hollywood Horror Movies
(Assistant Professor, Department of English, Baselius College, Kottayam)
Hollywood’s genre-bound industry makes a lot of marketing sense. It streamlines production and distribution which caters to audiences that go beyond the borders of USA. Catering to a global audience comes with its own risks. Hollywood then is bound by formulaic film making which is derisively referred to in tropes like ‘Hollywood story’ or a ‘Hollywood ending.’ However such formulas also clues us into the essentials of mythmaking in our present times and universal archetypes that are seemingly tapped into. The alternative of such theories are Hollywood creating mythologies which are basically neo-colonial parables (example would be the readings of Avatar (2009), which, nevertheless, are quite compelling.) which are then force-fed as entertainment into an America-gazing global audience. Is there a sane path between these options? Can we look at Hollywood movies, not merely as capitalist- expansionist analogies or archetypal mythologies, but both? In this paper, the attempt is to look at Horror movies in Hollywood and how one particular trope- that of a final surviving girl- renders itself to multiple readings.
Who is the final girl? Final girl is a trope seen in Hollywood movies, where one female character remains at the end of the movie from a group of people who encounter horror events in the movie. The last surviving member of a number of horror events is that of the figure of a young woman. While many see it as a positively feminist factor in Hollywood films, others deride it as a trope which clearly distinguishes woman who sins and woman with chaste values. Because the lone woman who survives from a mixed group of men and women seems to embody the following characteristics: she is chaste, she holds her Christian values intact, she is not impulsive, she is watchful, and while others romp around, she is the one standing up for her values. Quite the moral person to survive the world after a catastrophe. However, I argue that there are further narrative and archetypal functions this trope signifies. The continuity of narratives, and the continuity of life after a disaster are all narratively significant outcomes of her survival.
Slasher movies are a sub-genre of horror movies, where a group of survivors, usually teenagers, are preyed upon by a demented man (usually, man) who kills them, one by one, brutally and viscerally, and using various tools and lot of gore and flesh is seen. These movies use various camera techniques like the POV where the audience sees the killer’s point of view and the female characters, as being surveyed, eroticised and finally killed. Here the invitation is for a male gaze who devours the female body at a time of ‘sinning’. Her ‘sins’ might vary anywhere from engaging in sexual activities with a friend, being seductively attired, venturing into places unbidden or being alone, away from others. This is the moral compromise that the audience is invited to see through the eyes of the killer. This might seem very well like the list of reasons that one hears upon a news of a rape or a molestation while the fact remains that she is killed only because she is a woman. But morality is the front through which the whole mechanism operates and sustains itself.
In a rather obscure horror movie, Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988) the demented villainess, Angela, a camp director who secretly finishes off camping boys and girls whose acts she deem immoral, has an interesting talk with a ‘nice girl’ in the camp about a third girl Ally who is portrayed as the ‘immoral’ one. The dialogues can be transcripted as follows:
Molly: She [Ally] is more experienced!
Angela: Well, which probably means she has a disease or two…
Angela: Well, in this day and age, you can’t be too careful. And no matter what they say, boys like nice girls. I’m still a virgin and I am proud to be one.
Molly: It feels so awkward, I don’t know what to do…
Angela: Well, there’s a saying my aunt used to say to me. And it has held me through a lot of difficult times. It goes: Keep your morals strong, and you’ll never go wrong.
Angela finds Molly worthy of respect and doesn’t kill her. If one reads between these lines, keeping in mind very well that one of the interlocutors is a psychopathic killer whose perverted morality proves fatal to many, the society and its morality seems itself mirrored in the ‘nice girl’ as well as in the ‘killer.’ This is an interesting situation. Here you have the ‘nice’ girl who will survive till the end, seeking counsel of a psychopath moralist. Do they have similar morals? Or is it that their moral consciousness is of varying degrees? Say, Angela represents an extremity being an executor while Ally is only a representative of it? Or, to seek the easy way out, are they the two sides of the same chastity coin? However, another reading is possible here.
Molly’s moral compunctions seem very well adhered to Angela’s moral laws which are very well the laws of Christian virtue. The movie is treading here the middle path of morality by pitting two divergent characters in juxtaposition. On the one hand, you have Angela who kills to make sure morality rules. On the other, you have a young woman like Molly trying to live a moral life in a teenage world rife with sexual perversity and anxieties. One should be moral, the movie seems to say, but not too moral. By treading a path that supports morality, the movie tells us, in fact, to be moral. Even though the killer is shown as a demented moralist who is killed at the end, we see the survival of Molly who is also a moral person. The movie might seem as trying to acknowledge the realities of teenage sexual anxieties, but, in fact, only ends up supporting moral Christian values (that Angela has been preaching throughout the movie) through the character of Molly who is demure and modest. In short, they weren’t all that different!
In her landmark book, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film (1992) Carol J. Clover defines the final girl trope for the first time. About the significance of Clover’s coinage, Isabel Cristina Pinedo says, “[Carol Clover] advances the idea that the primary pleasure for male viewers of the genre is a masochistic rather than a sadistic one, but her concern with gender is strictly limited to male viewers” (Pinedo 70).
Pinedo in her work Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing discusses in detail how women in slasher movies encounter death and it is a pleasure catered to male viewers alone. She says:
Like the woman in Laura Mulvey's seminal essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," victims in the slasher film are positioned through the male gaze as objects of sexual investigation: surveyed and eroticized before they are killed. The visual evidence of their sexual activity is used to establish their guilt and to motivate the punishment for their transgressions. (Pineda 74)
But how does she survive after all? There are cinematic techniques at play here. We see the final girl being watchful while others are careless. Her paranoia of an ominous atmosphere helps her survive. The gaze is now reverted. While the other characters are seen through the eyes of the killer, the final girl appropriates the gaze and turns it upon the killer. Clover says, “We see him from her point of view. Indeed, the transition from the killer's point of view to the surviving female's point of view, which increases progressively in the second part of the film, is a pivotal shift that motivates audience identification with the surviving female” (Clover 45).
This turn of the gaze is essential for her survival as well as the intelligibility of events that follow. The woman then is ‘in charge’ of her destiny. This gives the feminist dimension to the final girl trope. The climax of the movie would be a dangerous fight between the final girl and the killer, and she overpowers him with her smartness rather than her skills. The killer is finally ‘killed’ and the girl survives to the outer world. A typical Hollywood ending of a dystopic movie.
In a way, ‘end of the world’ catastrophic movies takes the end of the horror movies even further. We see the characters, possibly of a single family, holding on to each other after a typical end of the world event, an alien invasion, natural catastrophes, or terrorist attacks, and walking back to build a new home and a new family, with their familial values and moral instincts enshrined. Their familial bonds are now tighter than ever. Can we see this as the extension of the horror movie endings? As such movies seem to take over where horror movies end. That the final surviving girl is now ready to build a new family as well as enter the adult world.
The trope of Hollywood ending is the survival of the heteronormative, patriarchal family. Here too, when everyone else dies, a single woman survives. It can be seen as an agnipariksha for chastity for the young woman’s trials here. She survives not only with her skills, but upholding her chaste, moral values in a morally deprived society. The dystopic element is struck when the handful people who come to camp or picnic in remote islands are set off from the rest of the world, mimicking an ‘end of the world’ scenario. And there is one woman who at the end of the movie sets sail in the Noah’s Ark to re-enter the world, possible beginning of a new, morally upright family whose centre is the chaste wife and mother who after the horror, might be foreseeing hell if she ever strays the moral path.
In the movie, The Ruins (2008) the final girl, Amy, who survives the horrors from a Mexican archaeological ruins where evil lurks, is seen impregnated at the very climax of the movie with the evil himself. She survives, so does the evil. What might be of significance here is that the woman who survives the horror also becomes a potential mother. And when she rides off to safety, the possibility of she being a mother points us not only about the potential sequel of the horror movie, but also the continuity of life after an apocalypse. All of her friends, male and female dies at the site. She survives and with her she carries a child to the new world.
The elements of the famous archetype of the ‘rite of passage’ can be evidenced in such movies. ‘Rite of Passage’ can be defined as a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someone's life, especially birth, the transition from childhood to adulthood, marriage, and death. [It] can be a novel which depicts the state of adolescence and the rites of passage that lead to adulthood. Most horror movies have as characters teenagers frolicking their way in an isolated environment. The killer’s attack becomes their test of survival in the world. And only one person escapes from this horror prison, surviving all the tests meted out by the killer, and it is usually the final girl.
Various myths and archetypes inform the horror movie genre. They can be seen as populating the horror movies with interesting tropes that has significance beyond their marketability. Like in all creative endeavours, horror movies also tweak their elements, if ever so slightly, to make them more interesting and new. So even when the movie reaches a typical Hollywood horror movie ending, one can see elements which are seemingly different from previous horror movies. This might mean not only that we might have better horror movies, but also that the movies may be less replete with gender stereotypes and gender-specific violence. That might hopefully be the dawn that the final girl may be walking into.
Avatar. 20th Century Fox, 2009. DVD.
Clover, Carol. Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. Print
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print
Dika, Vera. Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Genre. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1990. Print
Mulvey, Laura. "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Inspired by Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946)." Framework no. 1517 (1981): 1215. Print
--. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema."  repr. in Movies and Methods, Vol. 2. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985. 30315. Print
Pinedo, Isabel Cristina. Recreational Terror Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. Albany, N.Y.: State U of New York, 1997. Print.
Schuller, Kyla C. (2013). Avatar and the Movements of Neocolonial Sentimental Cinema. Discourse, 35(2), 177-193.
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers. Nelson Entertainment, 1988. Film.
The Ruins. Spyglass Entertainment. 2008. DVD.