The New ‘Final Girls’ of Horror Embrace their Dark, Delicious Lives

The women who survive these terrors don't just make it, they thrive.

They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky… It’s another FangByte article! Welcome to our autumnal crop of Halloween themed Fanbyte fun (that we like to call FangByte). Each day on the week of Halloween, we’ll have more pieces dealing with creepy, crawly topics across games and other pop culture. Make sure to check back for more! For now, though, enjoy the following.

Note: we’re going to spoil Midsommar here, in case you haven’t seen it! That goes for Suspiria (2018) as well.

It’s no secret that horror loves its tropes. Slasher movies in particular embrace familiarity, often to the point of formula: ah yes, teenagers travel to an isolated location for a holiday weekend of fun-n-fornication. A character with a tragic backstory becomes a masked killer, offing horny teens and inept authority figures with creativity and silent glee. And there’s the heroine who will vanquish him, the Final Girl.

The term “Final Girl” was coined by Professor Carol J. Clover in her seminal 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Simply put, the Final Girl is the character whose “moral purity” leads to her becoming the sole survivor. We view much of the happenings through the eyes of the killer, but in the movie’s last 15-20 minutes, the Final Girl becomes the audience surrogate. She endures a protracted battle with the killer, sometimes saving herself. Sometimes she is saved by a man. Regardless, she alone makes it out of the nightmare alive and victorious.

the Final Girl is the character whose “moral purity” leads to her becoming the sole survivor.

The Final Girl trope is so well-known that she has become a staple of discussion amongst horror fans as we debate their quirks and qualities, compiling endless “Best Final Girls” lists and claiming favorites. Perhaps you admire the moxie of the proactive Final Girls like A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson, who is so “into survival” that she reads up on boobytraps and takes the fight to Freddy Krueger. 

Maybe Ginny Field is more your style with the way she uses her wits and a crusty old sweater to outwit backwoods maniac Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part 2. Then there’s the pure grit of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Sally Hardesty, who manages to outlast and evade Leatherface and his twisted family. By the end of it all she’s cackling with madness, having survived the nightmare thanks to pure animal instinct. 

No matter the methods they employ as they battle evil, however, these Final Girls (and all the others like them) have one thing in common: they are reacting to and escaping from the monstrous circumstances they suddenly find themselves in. They learn that someone (or something) has killed all of their friends, and they adapt to ensure they are not the next victim. This is not to say they are not incredibly brave–far braver than I, for sure. I know myself well enough to know that I have no survival skills. In their shoes, I would simply lie down and cry. 

While tropes and familiar beats continue to thrive in horror today, there have been changes to the well-worn formula. It’s been a long time since the slasher heyday of the early 1980s, and in the last few years, a new kind of Final Girl has manifested, one who does not exist solely to escape the nightmare and grant us a happy ending. Rather, she stands her ground and becomes the nightmare, granting herself a happy ending above all else. I hail these new Final Girls–these Final Witches–who live out my power fantasies and obliterate the tired dichotomy of “good and evil.”

Because most of them can be seen as “evil,” as they are ostensibly a type of villain by the end. I don’t mean there’s merely a twist, an “oh wow, the Final Girl was the killer the whole time!” as in 1983’s Sleepaway Camp. It’s more complex than that. Sometimes they use violence themselves to speak truth to power, or to save themselves…always, though, they embrace their true selves and emerge from their pasts with a newfound strength.

The Witch thomasin

Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015) is a “New England folktale” centered on a family who is cast out of their Plantation village for their religious extremity. Too Puritan for the Puritans, they make their homestead near a foreboding wood that’s home to a coven of witches. The family falls victim to the witches–or each other–until only teenaged daughter Thomasin remains. She makes a pact with Black Phillip and, shorn of all the trappings of society and Christian life, joins the coven. The film ends with the women performing a frenzied bacchanal, and we see Thomasin rising into the air with a blissful smile. 

You might frown at the witches’ penchant for fashioning their flying unguent from a paste of unbaptized babies, sure. It’s a downside for the babies, no doubt about it. But what alternative did Thomasin have? What kind of life was she promised for her in “normal” (ie the hyper-religious patriarchy) society? She was already an exile, then branded a witch by her family, bearing the blame for all the evils that befell them. They wanted to give her away. Eventually her mother tried to kill her. Instead of merely surviving, Thomasin ultimately chose freedom and began living deliciously. Who wouldn’t?

Luca Guadagnino’s divisive 2018 remake of Dario Argento’s iconic Suspiria subverts the standard Hero’s Journey of myth and the Final Girl trope all at once. In Argento’s 1977 film, American dancer Suzy Bannion learns that the German ballet academy she attends hides a  coven of witches. She destroys their leader, Helena Markos, causing the coven to wither and die. In true Final Girl form, she walks away into the night as the academy burns behind her. Guadagnino’s film takes place in 1977 and the basic plot is the same. However, his Susie Bannion undergoes a radically different evolution. 

Suspiria susie

In this incarnation, the dancer from Ohio is revealed to be Mother Suspiriorum herself, one of the three most powerful witches since time immemorial. She literally rips herself open and destroys half of the coven, the women that have been abusing their station and running unchecked for decades. It’s incredibly bloody and messy, but the violence Susie employs makes room for good to flourish. The message is that the powerful must be held to account, that their power must serve not only their own ends but the greater good. If not, the revolution will no longer satisfied with the chopping of heads–Susie blows ‘em up but good.

Midsommar dani

Finally, there is Dani in Midsommar (2019, written and directed by Ari Aster), a woman on the edge. After the loss of her sister and parents in a murder-suicide, Dani unwisely accompanies her emotionally distant, gaslighting boyfriend and his pals to Sweden for the midsummer celebration in Hårga. In good folk horror fashion à la The Wicker Man, the villagers are revealed as cultists and their celebrations require human sacrifices. Dani suffers from grief, acute anxiety and depression during the film, and her boyfriend is a manipulative asshole. It’s a portrait of two people who simply won’t let go of a dead relationship until Dani becomes Hårga’s May Queen; she chooses her boyfriend as a sacrifice. He’s stuffed inside a dead bear and as he is burned alive, Dani, like Thomasin, smiles.

Like their traditional counterparts, these new Final Girls find themselves in situations of unimaginable terror, violence, and cruelty but ultimately live. But instead of running from the flames, they willingly walk into them. They are reborn, emerging not only as reactive survivors, but as the active force in their own narratives. You might find them to be good, evil, or somewhere in between. As for me, I find them inspirational. They make me feel like even I, the one with no survival skills, can someday rip myself open and live deliciously.