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the formula for the final girl [A&C]

a reflection on trauma and female survival

Maybe Laurie should die.

I can’t help thinking this as I watch the final battle in David Gordon Green’s Halloween Ends—the latest (and perhaps final) installment in the slasher franchise that began some forty years ago. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) faces Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney) yet again, for what us viewers have been told will be the last time. And so, knowing that it will end, we are left to wonder how it will end. Who will live and who will die?

For the audience, there’s a sense of inevitability that one side will triumph over the other; we’re a society plagued with binaries, after all. And if there’s any binary that the Halloween films enjoy, it’s good versus evil. However, while watching this scene, I can’t help but wonder if they’re really going to do it. If not just Michael will die—but Laurie, too.

Knitting needle in hand, Laurie takes up arms against her lifelong tormentor—an homage to how her character originally “killed” Michael in the first Halloween. But it’s a different struggle this time. Michael quickly turns the needle back onto her, and the two grapple for dominance. Mortality, after thirteen movies in the franchise, feels as though it has finally reached its breaking point—the line between Laurie’s life and death has grown very thin, and the same could be said for Michael. If both were to die here, it would feel as though the story has finally come full circle.

But of course, Laurie lives. 

Strangely enough, this ending feels anticlimactic, underwhelming, and unsurprising—even when they throw Michael’s dead body into a metal shredder. Perhaps there’s something sadistic about my desire to see things go a different way.

At the same time, I recognize that there’s something equally inevitable about Laurie’s survival. Something necessary. On the one hand, it comes off as a shameless cash-grab that isn’t challenging to sniff out. Laurie has to live so that there’s still room to continue the story, and therefore make more money. But on the other hand, it also leads me to ponder Laurie’s status as the final girl, the last character who always seems to be left alive to face the killer. Does this, in some ways, put her on par with Michael—who, time and time again, has made his return? In a broader sense, is it even possible to tell the story of a slasher film without the existence of a final girl?

Sure, we have Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger, or Ghostface, among others. All undoubtedly the faces of their respective films, their names are known by slasher and non-slasher fans alike. But each of their stories would not have reached such success without a good final girl alongside them. It’s become a tale as old as time, a mainstay trope in the horror mythos. The secret of a good slasher flick lies in the formula for a final girl.

To better understand this formula, let’s take a look at two other pioneers of the final girl: Nancy Thompson and Sidney Prescott.

Written under—and perhaps constrained by—the dictates of Reagan-era conservatism, the character Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is wholesome and pure. That’s step one for being a final girl: She must be virtuous. After all, it’s already common knowledge that if you have sex in a horror movie, your chances of dying increase tenfold. The final girl is thus situated against the vices of her peers, so that by contrast she can be seen on a pedestal. If the final girl wants to survive, then she must be pure.

But while she may be the “nice” girl of the group, the final girl is never nice to a fault. That’s what I think Nancy demonstrates best. She may be inexperienced and innocent, but she’s tough. It’s clear that in Wes Craven’s world you can’t rely on any adult, but this is amplified for Nancy. Her mother is often drunk, her father is distant, rarely seen. She lives through the deaths of both her best friend and boyfriend. There’s no one left to save the day, except for herself.

As such, Nancy is resourceful. Throughout the film, she takes proactive measures against Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). After first noticing his pattern of appearing in her dreams and physically harming her, she decides to use caffeine in order to stay awake. When she’s taken to a sleep disorder clinic, Nancy is able to grab Freddy’s hat and drag it into the real world to serve as physical evidence. And during the final battle of the film, Nancy discovers that Freddy is fueled by the fear of his victims and thus unlocks his “weakness.” Overall, she’s made the chase much more complicated for her pursuer—and it makes her even more worthy of a catch. Nancy showcases several different ingredients for creating the final girl: self-reliance, intelligence, and most importantly, an ability to get underneath the killer’s skin.

Twelve years down the line, in another film directed by Wes Craven, Scream’s Sidney (Neve Campbell) demonstrates much of the same criteria for the final girl. Much like Nancy, she is tough and self-reliant. But Sidney has a different slate of trauma: Her mother was sexually assaulted and murdered a year prior to the movie’s events, and rumors of her mother’s promiscuity still swirl around town. Sidney must cope with all this while dealing with the normal pressures of high school—homework, friends, her boyfriend. And because the murders committed by Ghostface take place near the anniversary of this tragedy, her struggles are brought even further to the forefront. In this light, Sidney characterizes the final girl as a woman who’s often defined by her pain.

But despite the pain and trauma her character goes through, the final girl persists as a model of virtue. And so Sidney, too, is shaped around the vices of her peers, so that in comparison she may appear smarter and more principled. Though she does break a long-standing rule by having sex with her boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), Sidney still effectively remains the most “wholesome” of her friend group, and much of her dialogue is laced with quick wit that suggests she’s a cut smarter than the rest.

What is perhaps most notable about Sidney’s status as final girl is her own connection to the killer—and why she’s particularly successful in getting under his skin. At the end of the film, it’s revealed that one of the two people behind Ghostface is her boyfriend Billy, hellbent on revenge for the secret affair between his father and Sidney’s mother. In this instance, both the “final girl” and the villain are victims of shared circumstances: the sins of their parents. This ties them together in a complementary, yin-and-yang fashion, invigorating the killer’s chase with a whole new sense of passion. After all, they did have sex with each other. It’s personal.

So there you have it: two successful final girls, Nancy and Sidney, later renditions of Laurie’s model. To sum up the formula: virtue, wit, self-reliance, a connection to the killer, and, altogether, an ironclad will to live. But to speak of it more broadly, the essence of the final girl is an elevated damsel in distress. She’s tied to the train tracks, but she’s not waiting to be saved. Instead, she unties herself and kills the man who put her there in the first place.

I can’t help but wonder what it is about the final girl that resonates so well with audience members, sustaining the slasher universe throughout the decades. Perhaps it’s the stories of repeated female trauma that keep us allured. They echo the anxieties, pains, and horrors that already exist in our day-to-day lives, woven into the fabric of our patriarchy. A woman walking home alone at night feels like the final girl. Turning on the news feels like listening to the stories of a million final girls. The undercurrent of any good slasher movie is its connection to our reality, and everyone wants to root for the final girl against her male oppressor. She’s relatable, she’s human—but she’s also inoffensive, pretty, chaste, thin, white, and she fits very, very neatly into this little box we have constructed for her. Movie after movie, we see her struggle. We remain comfortably in our seats as we witness her trauma.

It’s a simple formula, and it works. We can’t peel our eyes off the screen. Maybe just like how I wished for Laurie’s unhappy ending in Halloween Ends, there’s something sadistic about our attraction to the final girl.

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