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Horror Movies and Final Girls

October 17, 2013

final girl 1

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.

final girl 2

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.

From → Pop Culture

12 Comments
  1. Umm… very interesting and informative. I understand that we all have a liking for being frightened, something left over from our childhood years… I am not so sure about the submissive/sadistic position. But then again, perhaps I am not the best person to pass judgment on this, being only an accidental slasher-movie-watcher.

    • I love that phrase–an accidental slasher watcher. I know what you mean, though, I felt that I had a lot of slasher movie mania unjustly thrust upon me through osmosis. Still, the psychodynamics of it can be interesting.

      • Certainly. I only watch them when a friend asks me to come along, and I do find it interesting to observe how the process of engaging with the story affects people. Will be using your insights in my observations hereafter, and perhaps even to discuss the films with my friends. Could make for some fascinating interpretations.

  2. Michael Andreoni permalink

    Fantastic explanation of why the “Monster” is utterly sure and deadly with his initial victims, yet almost laughably inept when he goes after his real nemesis. “Final Girl” rules!

    • Yep. Clover uses psychoanalysis at times to entangle a point made quite simply elsewhere in popular culture (yes I’m looking at you Batman and Joker!) about the co-determinative braiding of the hero and his or her nemesis.

  3. Fascinating argument. I always thought Mulvey’s view – while persuasive and groundbreaking in its own right – was a bit forced in its feminism. I’m not convinced I agree with the Freudian aspects of Ms. Clover’s analysis, but I would definitely like to read her book!

    • Please do check it out. And although I’m sure she would not mind the term psychoanalytic to describe her work, she would probably balk at hearing it dubbed Freudian–although that does help to explain some of the basic concepts she’s working with–more so than Lacanian, which is certainly true of Mulvey. I’m also offering the Procrustes’ Bed version of her amazing argument, lopping it down to bite-sized morsels, so perhaps it’s my nutshelling that may be getting in the way of the psychology. Nevertheless, do check it out. It’s an amazingly enduring monograph of pop culture analysis.

  4. I found this with further research:

    “It can be seen as a trope that sort of accidentally breaks gender stereotypes: yes, it’s an old fashioned idea of ‘ideal’ femininity (the demure, virginal, studious, inevitably white, girl next door). But the conflict between horror film makers needing a protagonist who they could show in the depths of terrifed panic and their uneasiness (or their feeling that audiences would be made uncomfortable) with reducing a male character to that level of vulnerability forged an archetype of the demure, virginal, studious, inevitably white, girl next door with hidden depths of resolve, buttkicking, and a giant kitchen knife.”

    http://www.themarysue.com/final-girls-jamie-lee-curtis/

    • Interesting, there’s the masochistic dynamic shining through in that last image, suggesting a fantasy in which the sublime terror of the slasher actually helps the final girl to self-actualize, to open up her otherwise hidden depths. I love the bathos of it too, from the demure to the giant knife. It shows something Clover doesn’t really touch on–how weirdly hilarious so many of these films also are, always were, simultaneous to their attempts at horror.

  5. Wow! Still taking in your fascinating article. Lots of food for thought.

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