On the Trope of the ‘Final Girl’ in Horror Movies and Books

Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween,” by Warner Brothers Pictures (1978)

Editor's Note:

The Last Time I Lied is the second thriller from Riley Sager, the pseudonym of an author who lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Riley’s first novel, Final Girls, was a national and international bestseller that has been published in more than two-dozen countries.

She’s pretty, though not in a showy way.

She’s smart and not afraid to show it, unlike some of her friends.

She’s usually quiet. Content to observe. Her friends draw all the attention and boys and trouble,which is fine by her — most of the time.

Yet she’s strong when she needs to be. Like, for instance, when a masked killer shows up at her secluded summer camp. Or at that raging party where all the cool kids have gathered. Or on her suburban street filled with plucky kids and their babysitters. She fights back when others succumb. She survives.

After that, she becomes something else. A survivor. A warrior queen. A legend.

She becomes a Final Girl.

The idea of the last woman standing isn’t a new one. It’s been a staple of horror films for decades. Their stories are all the same—good girl faced with a mortal threat rises to the challenge, defeats evil, lives to tell the tale. Think Laurie Strode in “Halloween,” Sidney Prescott in “Scream,” the long list of survivors from “Friday the 13th” with girl-next-door names like Alice, Chris and Jenny. Each year, it seems, another one joins their ranks.

Which begs this question: Why? If the Final Girl trope has been exhausted, why is it still part of modern horror? Surely there are other stories, other characters, other journeys. Indeed, there are, and recent horror films have done a fantastic job telling them. (Look to last year’s “Get Out” if you need further proof.)

But the Final Girl is here to stay, now making her way into television, video games and, yes, even books. When I wrote Final Girls, I wanted to explore the idea of life as a survivor. How does it feel to make it through an ordeal that left all your friends dead? What is it like living with those scars, both physical and emotional? Once you survive the unthinkable, is it possible to return to a normal life?

Because every one of these characters had a normal life before fate marked them as Final Girls. They’re very relatable that way. We know these girls. They’re just like us. Or our sisters. Or our friends or cousins or co-workers. When we see Laurie and Sidney and their menaced sistren on the big screen, we also see ourselves. And therein lies their appeal—and their importance. In recent years, a growing female audience has been flocking to horror movies, a genre that’s long been criticized for misogyny and violence against women. Some of that criticism is valid.Some of it is not. But what isn’t up for debate is that horror, more than any other film genre, features the most screen time and speaking roles for women. A recent study conducted by Google and the Geena Davis Institute proved it.

That’s not to say horror movies are perfect. There is always, to paraphrase Sidney in “Scream,” some big-breasted girl who can’t act running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. But there are also characters who serve as more than just victims. Women who are smart and tough and fight for their lives when they must.

And watching them is an army of young women who see a flicker of themselves in those characters and might apply their intelligence, strength and resilience to their own lives and situations.

Thus the Final Girl becomes the role model. And that’s something worth revisiting as often as possible.