The “final girl theory” is meant to describe the trope in horror films of one female character being the last to survive, having to defeat the killer, and live to tell the tale. While Carol J. Clover originally coined the term in her 1987 essay Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film and applied it mainly to American slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s, it’s still used in contemporary cinema in a variety of horror films to describe the surviving female character. As slasher films have seen a decline in popularity since their “golden age,” the use of the term “final girl” has expanded to include different sub-genres of horror films, as well as how the final girls themselves behave throughout the films.
The original meaning of the final girl, as described by Clover in 1987, defined the girl as the sole survivor of the group who has a final confrontation with the villain. She either kills him herself or she is saved at the last minute by someone else. Typically, she would become the final girl due to her morally ethical behaviour in comparison to her friends (she may refuse sex, drugs, and alcohol, unlike the others). The term has been broadened to include characters who are slightly more morally ambiguous, and who may even survive along with other characters, so long as they themselves are still the main focus of the struggle with the villain.
What’s portrayed in slasher films, and mainly how certain characters are portrayed, can be considered an overlooked form of reflection on society and how certain people or groups are viewed and treated. In It Lives Again! Horror Movies in the New Millennium, Axelle Carolyn states that “the slasher film’s messages about gender, sexuality, and violence are thought to be a reflection of our culture” and likely influence the development and reinforcement of these beliefs as well. This is why it’s important to note how the character trope of the final girl has shifted with time as society’s views of women in horror films has shifted in general. In Resurrecting and Updating the Teen Slasher (2006), Valerie Wee states that final girls have become more powerful in comparison with their counterparts from early slasher films. She argues that the postmodern slasher films’ final girls “... emerge as heroes who triumph using their own merits and abilities” (p. 58). In Sex, Violence, and Victimization in Slasher Films, a study conducted by Fred Molitor and Barry Sapolsky that analyzed the content of slasher films created from 1980 to 1993, it was found that women are portrayed in fear far longer than men. Molitor and Sapolsky's data reveals huge differences between the treatment of men and women, which indicate that females are singled out for victimization.
While some more modern horror films have deviated from the typical “terrified and helpless female” trope, like the latest instalment of the Halloween series or Ready or Not, the original method is still considered tried and true, and this is mainly due to the male gaze and having slashers attract a predominantly male audience. But the focus on final girls has been directed towards American cinema more often than not, and because of this, there is little to no analysis available on the final girl theory as it applies to Canadian cinema. While some characters from Canadian-made slashers do get mentioned from time to time, most of the articles or studies conducted focus on American final girls. This includes characters like Laurie from the Halloween franchise, Sally from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Sidney from Scream (1996), and so on. But one of the early examples of a final girl, and an inspiration for many American-made slashers that would come after it, happens to be Canadian: Jess Bradford from the 1974 film Black Christmas.
With the rise of sub-genres like supernatural horror, an argument can be made that final girls don’t fit with what horror fans want to see today, but Canadian final girls have made their way into the supernatural, and they feel unique in other ways. It’s plain to see that American final girls have shaped horror, but can the same be said for Canadian final girls? Do they fit Clover’s criteria? Or do they diverge from it? Here’s a look at six final girls in Canadian horror:
Jess Bradford - Black Christmas (1974) dir. Bob Clark
In 1974, while Sally was fighting off Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, there was a final girl across the border facing off with another killer. It’s safe to say that Black Christmas is one of the most important Canadian horror films ever made, but it also helped pave the way for slashers like Halloween. It’s the film that started the “sorority house slasher” narrative. In Black Christmas, a mysterious killer breaks into a sorority house undetected over the Christmas holidays and picks off its residents one by one. Olivia Hussey plays the film’s heroine, Jess Bradford, who is one of the shy girls of the group—initially someone who doesn’t seem like she could take on a killer on her own. The killer taunts the girls with vulgar phone calls, as he lurks in the attic waiting to make his next move.
What’s different between Black Christmas and other slashers is that the film relies heavily on the killer’s point of view. The audience never gets to see the face of the man murdering them, but that’s not the only unconventional element in the film. Looking at Jess Bradford as a final girl, she would be more likely to fit in a modern definition of the horror trope—she doesn’t fit spot on in Clover’s criteria. For one, she isn’t a “sexually inactive woman” as Clover describes final girls to be. We learn quite early on that she’s pregnant, but not only that, she wants an abortion. While that aspect is ahead of its time, this is where things get tricky. Black Christmas presents the mistaken belief that the killer is Jess’ boyfriend, who is angry over the fact that she wants an abortion. And while she is left to face him alone in the end and kills him, the film ends with the real killer still in the house. Her fate is left undecided, so the message that sexual women get killed can still apply if you let your imagination go after the credits. It’s also safe to say that Jess shouldn’t be aligned too closely with the postmodern final girl. She doesn’t survive out of strength and bravery, but pure luck like most final girls of the era.
Kim Hammond - Prom Night (1980) dir. Paul Lynch
After the scream queen found success in Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis traveled across the border to star in Prom Night as Kim Hammond. Kim is a popular high school girl, mainly focused on attending prom and being crowned prom queen. While she is the typical popular, attractive teenager, she’s still presented as being a character who is intelligent, commanding, and sure of herself. While it’s not explicitly shown, she does speak to another character about having had sex with her boyfriend and doesn’t appear to be one to shy away from parties and typically morally ambiguous teenager activities. What’s interesting about Prom Night is that Kim’s friend, Kelly, who is a virgin, is killed while Kim herself is not—flipping the trope on its head. When the killer arrives at the prom and murders Kelly, Kim still reacts with terror, yet she is the one who keeps it together enough to attempt to get her and her boyfriend to safety. When this fails and the killer traps them, her and her boyfriend both put up a fight against him; however, at the end, it’s Kim who delivers the final blow. Kim is certainly a final girl, yet she blurs the line.
Virginia Wainwright - Happy Birthday to Me (1981) dir. J. Lee Thompson
Happy Birthday to Me is the one slasher on the list that proves itself to be a real curveball, and this could be due to the fact that it heavily relies on the psychological. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, the film follows final girl Virginia Wainwright, played by Little House on the Prairie’s Melissa Sue Anderson. She’s a pretty and popular high school senior who is in with her school’s top clique. They drink and party like any typical high schoolers, but it’s all fun and games until Virginia’s friends begin to go missing. Virginia has been plagued with memory problems ever since she survived a car wreck, one that killed her mother. And when it becomes known that her friends are being murdered, she begins to suspect she’s the killer because of her constant blackouts. And while for most of the film the identity of the killer is hidden, later, the narrative makes the audience believe that Virginia really is the killer by showing her shoving a kabob stick down her friend’s throat or killing another with garden shears. This is the curveball, because you think, “Wait... isn’t she supposed to be the final girl?”
She still is, in fact, due to a weird, confusing twist that involves one of her friends disguising herself as Virginia with a latex mask. But, as (most) slashers do, the final girl and the killer face off in the end, with the killer secluding Virginia in her family’s old guest cottage and Virginia dealing the final blow with a knife. She’s a final girl that Clover could use to emphasize her definition, but the narrative of the slasher itself is one that probably would have her scratching her head. There are many strong characters in this film, and it's safe to say that Virginia’s really the weakest of the bunch due to her mental affliction. And while, unlike Jess, she stares the killer down, she doesn’t survive because of any heightened abilities; she wins by the luck of the draw.
Sarah - My Bloody Valentine (1981) dir. George Mihalka
In My Bloody Valentine, the character of Sarah (Lori Hallier) has the benefit of having a meek and terrified female friend to make her, by contrast, appear stronger and braver. When a killer begins his rampage through a small mining town the night of Valentine’s Day, Sarah and her friends are forced to try and manoeuvre their way through the mines in order to survive. While Sarah begins as a stereotype popular in older slasher films—scared and not very resourceful—she evolves into a more useful and dimensional character as the stakes are raised and the threat is more imminent.
As mentioned, this is contrasted strongly by the use of her friend being nothing but terrified and emotional. Her friend actually ends up slowing the group down, constantly proclaiming that she is too scared to go any further and stopping to cry or scream. At one point, Sarah actually tells her friend to “shut up” and keep moving, forcing her along with the rest of them, and this is when her character becomes much more than a regular final girl. While she doesn’t necessarily make any intelligent decisions that guarantee her survival (during the battle with the killer towards the end of the film, it’s her boyfriend that does most of the fighting in order to help her), she’s still considered a final girl even if she doesn’t survive alone.
Cynthia - American Gothic (1988) dir. John Hough
After her baby drowns in the bathtub due to her negligence, Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) from American Gothic spends time in a facility that aids her in overcoming the event, essentially attempting to improve her mental health. Due to all of this, when her husband and their friends all decide to go on a trip to a nearby island, it’s shown that she is the weakest of the bunch. When they inevitably get stranded on the island, her friends break into a house and she is the only one who shows any sign of having a moral compass. When they are finally confronted by the owners, Cynthia is also the only one who doesn’t mock their strange behaviour.
What is interesting about American Gothic is that Cynthia becomes the final girl due to the fact that she’s simply the better person. Unlike her friends, who are all killed, she is welcomed into the family that has killed them, and since she has suffered a mental break, she happily joins. But when something occurs that reminds her of what happened to her baby, she turns on the family, killing them all in a brutal fashion. Cynthia has a personality shift that brings her from the “obvious” choice for the final girl by separating her from her friends, to making her a powerhouse of violence, leaving the other characters with no choice, and solidifying her role as the final girl.
Brigitte Fitzgerald - Ginger Snaps (2000) dir. John Fawcett
John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps is a celebrated cult classic among horror movie buffs and a film that demonstrates that final girls don’t only reside in slashers. Ripley of the Alien franchise has been cited as a final girl despite the films being sci-fi horror and the killer not being human. The same can be said for Ginger Snaps and final girl Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins). The film explores the bonds of sisterhood through a shared love of death. Brigitte and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are both high school outcasts, both virgins, and both haven’t even had their first period. There’s a werewolf on the loose, and on the night Ginger finally gets her period, she’s attacked. She’s saved by Brigitte, and while she’s wounded, she heals quickly.
The whole film is basically a metaphor for the changes that occur once a teen hits puberty. And while periods aren’t as scary or dramatic as growing a tail or getting fur on your chest like Ginger, it can still be alarming. After Ginger’s attack, she slowly begins to transform into a werewolf, and unlike our previous final girls, Brigitte is incredibly active in trying to find a way to heal her sister—her would-be attacker—and stop her from killing innocents. Unfortunately, Brigitte’s attempts to heal her sister before she fully transforms fail and Brigitte has to come face to face with the fact that she might have to kill her own sister. As Ginger, in full werewolf form, stalks her prey, Brigitte proves to be an incredibly resourceful final girl and makes surviving look easy, fitting the postmodern definition of a final girl well.
To be clear, Brigitte’s goal in the final confrontation is not to kill Ginger, but she does so in self-defence like most final girls. While Brigitte is morally pure in the sense that she’s a virgin, she wouldn’t fit under Clover’s definition, as she helps cover up her sister’s killings throughout the film. Ginger Snaps was made just a little over ten years after Clover’s essay, and it’s apparent how the narratives surrounding final girls had shifted in that time.