Horror Movies and Final Girls
Ever wonder why all slasher films focus on post-adolescent teens?
Know why those young people who get stalked and dispatched one by one always have a slightly tomboyish girl among them? She’s the one who passes on the joint when it comes around. She’s the one who tells her boyfriend (if she has one at all) to stop when things between them seem to be going as fast as they’re going with that other looser and probably very blond girl over in the next tent, who by virtue of an inevitable and puritanical agenda of death is always the first to go.
Ever notice that the prudish girl is always named Bobby or Sidney or Chris or some other boyish name? Have you noted how she is rather like a boy? How her ability to run and hide and turn the tables against her larger, slow walking aggressor finally helps her to escape certain death and live on to run and scream again in a sequel?
Know why horror movies always take on this same dutifully repeated structure? Why they cleave to that structure so devotedly that it seems as if the real pleasure horror viewers seek is less about blood and guts than predictability and ritual?
I still wonder about these things, but in a much more informed way after reading Carol Clover’s groundbreaking account of the slasher film in Men, Women, and Chainsaw. The book’s major concern is the Final Girl and what she means to spectators.
While most see the horror film as a male-centered genre, Clover points out that in most slasher films, the audience, male and female, is structurally ‘forced’ to identify with the resourceful young Final Girl. It is she alone who survives the serial attacker. Like audience members, she’s the only one with a chance to walk away when the lights come back on.
So while the killer’s point of view may be male within the narrative, the male viewer is still situated by the film to root for the Final Girl. We can see this operating archetypically in Halloween (Jamie Lee Curtis, 1978), Friday the 13th (Betsy Palmer, 1980), Eyes of a Stranger (Jennifer Jason Leigh, 1981), A Nightmare on Elm Street (Heather Langenkamp, 1984), and so many other derivatives in the decades that follow.
Clover performs a dazzling reversal of a standard theoretical take on the gendering of film. She takes the classic argument from Laura Mulvey about Hollywood cinema always creating a “male gaze” and turns it on its head. In the slasher film, Clover flips the sadistic-voyeur around to a masochistic one. She does this by showing how the identification process shifts from the usually female victim to the oddly masculine and victoriously unkillable Final Girl.
Against Mulvey’s argument of male-driven cinematic pleasure, Clover swaps the Post-Oedipal male for a more feminine, Pre-Oedipal masochistic impulse. In psychoanalytical terms, sadism is post-Oedipal, meaning that it takes shape when identification shifts from the self and mother to the father or law, external authority.
Masochism is about deriving pleasure from one’s own pain or submission and is thus pre-Oedipal. From a Freudian perspective, the spectator of a slasher film assumes a submissive position whenever identifying with the female victim, a sadistic position while identifying with the killer, and, more importantly, both when being forced by the plotting of the film to identify with the masculine yet female heroine, the Final Girl.
According to Clover’s brilliant thesis, one of the pleasurable things we seem to momentarily witness being killed off in slasher films is a compulsory and overly rigid form of gender identification, which stalks us with slow but aggressive deliberation in our non-film-watching lives.