The Final Girls Club is a column posting every 1st, 3rd and 4th Monday of the month. It aims to take an analytical and retrospective look at female-led horror cinema and how these films hold up in the context of current issues surrounding gender, sexuality and politics.
Slashers and the Final Girl go together like coffee and cherry pie. The Final Girl helps orient the audience in the world of a slasher and gives them someone to cheer for. But, this tried and true trope exists in more than just one genre; it is a malleable term that changes with the growth of female characters within horror. It even exists in the world of found footage.
Now, in found footage films, everyone is expected to die so of course there should be no Final Girl. However, John Erick Dowdle’s 2014 film As Above So Below subverts expectations with the character Scarlett (Perdita Weeks). Her survival is shocking, yet a breath of fresh air in such a nihilistic subgenre. She undergoes the transformation of the Final Girl, but helps shift the focus of the trope towards the survival of trauma rather than virginity and Otherness.
Scarlett is an archaeologist with a litany of degrees and an obsession with alchemy. As Above So Below is all about her need to discover the philosopher’s stone, a legendary object that grants eternal life, can create gold, heal any injury, and more. To find the stone, she journeys into the catacombs below Paris with a group of climbers, a fellow historian, and a cameraman. But what lies underneath the city streets is not just dirt and bones; the group inadvertently wanders into Hell. In her journey to the underworld, Scarlett is looking for redemption for her father who killed himself during his own search for the stone. There is a deeply personal and traumatic link to this discovery, one that leads Scarlett to put herself and others in danger in the name of confronting her own demons. Her relationship with trauma is what shapes Scarlett into a new kind of Final Girl, who doesn’t just survive the entire film, but watches those die around her in the name of confronting her own past.
While much of the film follows Scarlett under the guise of making a documentary about her search and the ensuing journey into the increasingly spooky catacombs, it is crucial to acknowledge that Scarlett’s drive is introduced in the first minutes of As Above So Below. Instead of the documentary filmmaker following her, she is filming herself via cell phone. She is travelling into Iran by herself to follow a lead on the location of the Rose Key, a crucial piece to helping in her journey to find the stone. This first person footage establishes Scarlett as the central character through which the viewer will see the world, both literally and figuratively.
It’s also here that Scarlett’s trauma is introduced as she sees the spectre of her father after he committed suicide. It is an image that only Scarlett and the viewer see; no one else that travels with her into the catacombs knows about this reminder of her past. From the beginning, Scarlett is shown as more than a crazed treasure hunter, but a woman who is not driven by the possibility of immortality. Armed with just a cell phone to gather evidence, these first few minutes show that this perilous journey is not just about getting attention, but about proving something to herself. Her adventures, while self-serving, are about discovering the truth to validate both her and her father.
The opening scene also establishes one of the most interesting things about Scarlett: she’s complicated and not always likeable. She isn’t written to fulfill the idea of a well-behaved woman who knows exactly what to do. Instead, she is selfish. In her quest for the Rose Key, she endangers herself and her guide in the face of demolition. She has no regard for other lives, only for what she desires. This continues as she moves further underground. No matter the signs of the supernatural and the obvious gate to Hell, Scarlett will keep going; she seems to have no sense of self-preservation or empathy for those around her. That apathy is only compounded as she watches those die around her at the hand of demonic forces that lurk in the depths of the catacombs, she is implicated in their deaths. Instead of just a masked killer picking oFf her friends one by one, it is because of her actions that they descend into Hell (literally) and why half of the party is gruesomely murdered.
The Final Girl should be allowed to be this complex. Many famous Final Girls, from Laurie in Halloween to Nancy to Nightmare On Elm Street to Ripley in Alien, while strong and badass, are meant to be the good girls whose perceived purity lets them live. It is easy to cheer them on and see them as nothing but positive characters. Yet Scarlett shows a new possibility of what the Final Girl can look like. The viewer may be frustrated by her manipulation of those around her and her persistence to keep going in the face of supernatural danger. She is guilty of transgressions both in the past and in the present. There isn’t an air of purity around her, which makes her all the more fascinating to watch her grow and evolve on screen.
While every character who travels to the catacombs confront their guilt in one way or another, Scarlett’s trauma is more fully realised and portrayed as an arc of forgiveness, from the initial introduction of her father in Iran, to her final acceptance and apology. Her journey, while littered with bodies, is a personal one; it is not to protect herself and those around her, but to achieve some kind of closure. Scarlett doesn’t transform into a masculinised monster; she instead realises her own role in history and graciously accepts it.
Scarlett has to go to Hell and back to transform who she is, and isn’t that the journey of every Final Girl? It doesn’t matter if she’s a virgin, if she’s studious, if she’s masculinised. The Final Girl is more than a figure defined by her sexuality; she is a woman with her own experiences with trauma. She is more than a trope, but a discussion of surviving traumatic experiences and the effects they have on the rest of her life. While most characters in found footage films don’t make it to the end, those who survive like Scarlett are all the more important. Their survival is a rebellion of sorts, proving their resilience in the face of utter destruction. There are only a few like Scarlett in the world of found footage, but she shines a light on the potential for the ever-expanding subgenre.
by Mary Beth McAndrews
Categories: The Final Girls Club