Carol J. Clover’s widely-studied final girl theory takes the last, almost always female, survivors of your favourite horror films and examines why they live. It’s a trope, mainly in slasher films, that refers to the last woman alive who confronts the evil head-on. They tend to defeat it by adopting ‘masculine’ traits and phallic weapons. Most have unisex names – such as Laurie in Halloween or Sidney in Scream– and are sexually unavailable or virginal; they are the only ones who do not ‘transgress’. In the prime examples, to ‘transgress’ means to go against social boundaries; have sex, drink, and take drugs- as the protagonists famously do in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. First explored in her 1992 book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Clover suggested that audiences share the perspective of the final girl as the film progresses, having begun so with the killer.
In recent years, Clover’s final girl has begun to evolve; she is no longer a meek and mild ‘non-transgressor’, but that doesn’t mean she can’t defeat her demons. Fede Alvarez’ 2013 reimagining of Evil Dead is a perfect example of this. Mia (Jane Levy) is taken to a cabin by her brother and friends to oversee her cold-turkey attempt to kick her drug habit. A final girl with a cocaine addiction? Surely that’s not right? Clover may have laid out these identifiers, but they are certainly not rules. Mia still prevails and kicks ass in a glorious bloodbath of a finale. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook made its survivor a grieving mother, and Coralie Fargeat’s debut Revenge took ‘virginal’ out of the equation and made her final girl own her sexuality and still defeat the evil. With more films finally offering some wild and real women, allow me to suggest an entirely new type of horror icon: the archaeologists’ daughter.
In the 2014 found-footage horror As Above, So Below, we are introduced to this fresh breed of heroine, one that takes direct inspiration from video-game icon Lara Croft. Perdita Weeks plays Scarlett, already proposing a new set of rules with a name that’s the epitome of femininity. In the film, Scarlett – who has more degrees and knows more languages than can be counted on one hand – is on the hunt for the infamous Philosopher’s Stone. It’s a substance that alchemists have obsessed over for centuries, created by Nicolas Flamel and said to be able to turn base metals into gold and grant eternal life. Beginning as a documentary chronicling her search, she tells all of this to the audience directly. When Benji, the man behind the camera, enquires about her father, we learn that he too was searching for the stone. She shows the camera her father’s journals, a battered brown book filled with drawings and ideas, something we’ve seen countless times in adventure movies like Indiana Jones. She explains that her father “was actually the world’s pre-eminent historian in Alchemy”. Benji continues to probe Scarlett about the speculation surrounding her father’s mental health, and she tells us that he killed himself; he was driven mad in his quest for the stone.
This is the same story for Lara Croft in the 2013 game reboot trilogy of Tomb Raider. Lara’s father also killed himself, mad with grief over the death of her mother, whilst searching endlessly for some ancient supernatural artefact that may bring her back. Of course, these are video games, the lead character must survive because there has to be a story. But it is still interesting to see how two different types of media can offer the same audience experience and support a character archetype. Scarlett and Lara are both educated and well-travelled young British women, both their fathers died in the same way, and both are searching for the same thing – a centuries-old supernatural artefact.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) Lara is trying to find and put a stop to Trinity, which she calls “an ancient militant organisation that seeks control of the supernatural.” She wants to complete her father’s work and clear the rumours that he was ‘crazy’. Along the way she encounters hidden cities, ancient cults, blood rivers and ritual sacrifices. But through every step she is not afraid, she approaches each obstacle with a clear mind and is constantly learning. Like Scarlett, she knows many languages, and throughout the game she deciphers centuries-old scrawlings on walls and monoliths. In As Above, So Below, Scarlett does the same, she figures out The Rose Key which leads them to Flamel’s tomb, and she is the one who completes the puzzles in the catacombs that threaten their lives. While the supporting characters in both the game and the film stand by frightened and confused, the women use their heads and see the way out.
It is infinitely exciting to see a woman in horror who is educated and confident, it’s not a journey she goes on to become that way, but rather she is who she is from the beginning. Scarlett literally encounters all nine circles of hell and goes first through every passage without hesitation. As she tunnels through one particular cavern she turns back to her friend George and remarks, “And they shall be made to crawl on their bellies, to enter the kingdom of darkness” – this girl’s done her Bible study.
It is safe to say that we are no longer passive watchers when we start to break down conventions as Clover did. But it is exciting to watch as new conventions evolve. These women are not virginal, timid or naïve like horror’s final girls of the 70s and 80s, they do not take on the traits of men to defeat their antagonists – they use their smarts. They are an empowering new horror prototype that I hope to see more of, whether it be in film, video games, or TV. These women have put in the work and paid their dues, and that is how they survive.
by Millicent Thomas
Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian studying Film & Publishing at Bath Spa University. Hobbies include video-games, theatre, and waiting for Charles Xavier to show up and tell her she’s the world’s most powerful mutant. Her favourite films are Her, Logan, Columbus and the Spy-Kids trilogy. You can follow her on Instagram at @millicentathomas and Twitter and Letterboxd at @millicentonfilm
Categories: Anything and Everything