The Final Girl and Scream Queens: A (Feminist) Call for the Revival of Slasher Films

Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween

I have a confession to make: I love slasher films. Any slasher film made between The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and whichever one was the most recent remake (because let’s face it: they’re all remakes nowadays), I love. Alright, love may be a slightly strong word to describe the remakes in particular. Appreciate. I appreciate all of them.

Generally when I tell people that I, a young woman, am a devoted fan of not only horror films, but the “lowest form” of horror – the slasher – films, they give me a confused-looking face. “Why?”, they ask. “They’re not even scary, they’re gross. And all the girls just get naked, and then they die. What’s the point?” Well, I’m glad you asked.

If you are not yet familiar with her, though I’m sure most of you are, let me introduce you to Sally (Marilyn Burns). Sally went on a road-trip with her friends, ended up in a godforsaken house full of cannibals somewhere in Texas, was chased by a chainsaw wielding cannibal wearing a human face as a mask, and lived to tell the tale. Her friends, on the other hand, did not.

Sally was the original “Final Girl”.

Four years later, we meet Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis). Laurie is a high-school girl who decides to spend her Halloween night babysitting, whilst her friends go have fun with their boyfriends. They get killed, Laurie does not. She fights back, even when she is stuck in a closet and the Boogeyman (a.k.a. Michael Myers) is hacking through the doors with a massive butcher’s knife. Unlike Sally, she does not simply flee the scene. She self-defends.

Not only did Laurie Strode become the most notorious Final Girl, but Jamie Lee Curtis became the iconic “Scream Queen” of slasher films.

Since 1978, there have been countless Final Girls throughout the 1980s and some of the 1990s. Jamie Lee Curtis starred in three Halloween sequels, and spent most of the early ’80s starring in other slasher films (such as Prom Night and Terror Train). Then, in 1996, we were introduced to Sidney Prescott in Scream, the new Scream Queen. She too starred in an original and three sequels.

But why does this matter? In fact, isn’t this bad? Back in the day, feminist groups were constantly protesting for the banning of these types of films and the numerous imitators that followed, as they supposedly glorified violence against women. Even film critics and theorists from more recent years have argued that the portrayal of women in slasher films functions solely on a sadomasochistic level for the male audience member. They claim that the only people who watch (and enjoy) these films are men who want to see women in distress.

Isn’t that a little harsh though? And what about the women who enjoy these movies? Are they just masochists?

Numerous studies indicate that though horror audiences are predominantly male, the number of women watching – and indeed, enjoying – these films is on the rise, and has been since the heyday of slashers. It has been suggested that women get a kick out of watching a young girl defeat the apparently indestructible killer, when no macho-jock or cop could. It’s a form of empowerment, in a sense.

Though some critics attest that the only reason for women watching horror films is because they want to have a reason to seek refuge in the arms of their dates in a dark movie theater, this type of reasoning is both insulting and incorrect. In fact, when the Saw series first came out, studios were baffled by the vast amount of women attending the screenings, as the films were originally targeted for males under the age of 25, but women often made up the majority of audience members. So, shouldn’t studios start producing horror films targeted for women as well?

Maybe not. As proven by films such as Jennifer’s Body, which was both written and directed by women (Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama), horror films that have arguably attempted to cater to the supposed desires of female fans have failed miserably. If history has taught us anything, it is that women want to see horror films that are apparently meant for men. Nowadays, if you are not inclined towards the demonic-possession type of horror film, you are only left with the torture-porn.

Therefore, perhaps studios ought to properly revive the slasher sub-genre. There have been attempts made in the past with films such as Scream 4, and even though they have proven to be unsuccessful, I will avow that if given the opportunity we will flock to the theaters in record numbers, to see the new Scream Queen kick the ass of the new Leatherface/Jason Voorhees/Freddy Kruger/Ghostface. Enough with this remake-business.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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English & Film graduate. Passions include: writing, horror films, and writing about horror films. Feminism tends to creep up quite often as well.

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  1. in-cement

    Nice piece of writing we have here. It’s quite funny how all of my friends that are females force me to watch horrors, so yup you are right!

  2. Jennifer’s Body was a ridiculous movie.

    Agreed that we do not need any more remakes. More of the new and enough with the reboots. But I do hear good stuff about new Evil Dead though 0_o

  3. The studios have changed their marketing and audience research the past decade have the not? Most horrors of today are targeted toward women as much as men.

  4. Rosanne

    It would be refreshing to have a new horror franchise that isn’t just torture/demon possession based. At the same time, it’s hard to picture it working without evolving the concept in some way. Scream worked largely because it was so self-aware. I think a new angle is all that’s needed to breath life into the genre again. Interesting take on women & slasher films!

  5. monotone

    Im probably stereotyping here but girls are attracted to the sudden scare horrors (Scream) way more than the gory kind (Hostel). But maybe that trend is changing.

  6. Eleanor

    I am a feminist and I am too a fangirl of this genre.

    Don’t know if you are familiar with this but the public’s view of slasher film is very different in countries outside of US, especially in Japan or Asia. Their views are ahead of ours.

  7. SkateBen

    If you’re in the look for some good slashers then you should pick up some of those brutal French movies like High Tension, Mother, Them…

  8. CA Sweeney

    Hmmm, I think you should read some feminist theory, this is an underdeveloped position you have taken, it lacks nuance and insight I am afraid , disappointingly thin as an intellectual justification for acute fantasy violence done to the bodies of women. Just because we may enjoy things that are ‘bad’ for us is not an excuse to be flippant about this, think more about the psychoanalytic dynamics of the question…..

    • As an academic, I think it’s fantastic to hear the views of women who aren’t simply responding to feminist theory. The risk of academia is that we simply end up in circular conversations with groups of people who share ideas rather than thinking for ourselves. Go for it Sonia!

    • Sonia Charlotta Reini

      Yeah, sorry to burst your bubble, but I have read a lot of feminist film theory about horror films in general (Carol Clover and Barbara Creed in specific) and I mostly find their theories to be quite outdated. This article was not intended to be a thesis that delves into the world of misogynistic representations of women, but rather just a fun little piece of writing to express my appreciation (and also my defense) of slasher films.

      • Indeed 🙂 feminist film theory can be very good at psychoanalyzing the possible reasons behind a script being written, but it doesn’t mean that the script can’t be taken and deconstructed by the director, actor or audience to mean something else.

    • I don’t think the article anywhere says that slasher films are “bad” for us. In fact, it’s resisting the idea that they are bad for us, and for women in particular. I think rather than trying to decide whether such films are “good” or “bad” (a moralistic judgment I’m not sure I can make toward a whole genre), it’s more interesting to ask why they appeal to people (whether women or people in general)?

  9. Jordan David

    I am glad to see I have a partner in crime in terms of writing about slasher flicks! It’s especially interesting to hear (read?) things from the perspective of a female, seeing is how these slasher flicks both revolve around and subject women. I look forward to reading more of your work, Sonia! 😀

  10. This is an interesting piece (confession even?) particularly in relation to audience studies. But as a fellow feminist, I would argue that that the Slasher genre really came about due to fin de siecle tensions surrounding gender and sexuality and position you as a judgmental white christian male. Halloween can be seen as a response to increasingly liberalised attitudes towards sexuality, while Nightmare on Elm Street is a movie concerned with the AIDS epidemic. The ‘final girl’, tends to be the one who adheres to a more conservative sexuality or those who do not pose a threat to ‘normative’ familial sexuality

    • Oh PS….my response was not meant to be a stuffy tirade etc….just think its interesting to consider contradictory pleasures!

    • Actually, if the final girl is a virginal or desexualized figure (though this is not always the case, even before Scream), isn’t this more of a “threat” to normative sexuality than those engaged in frequent heterosexual activity?

      • Sonia Charlotta Reini

        That’s actually a really interesting point on both parts. However, I’ve always thought that the Final Girl’s apparent lack of love interests should not necessarily be considered to represent her lack of sexuality. If macho action-heroes rarely need a love interest to prove their sexuality, why does the Final Girl need one to prove hers?

        • But don’t macho guys in action films usually have a love interest? Maybe in some earlier films, like Rambo (First Blood) that aspect is absent, or Die Hard (original), it’s problematic, but nowadays a romantic subplot seems pretty typical. I actually don’t think either final girls or their friends are meant as threats to normative familial sexuality. Both embody the experience of adolescence. Some teens will be pure hedonists, while others will be more hesitant to indulge, whether out of morals or fear. But both kinds will end up as mothers and fathers eventually. (How many times do you hear one adult chide another in a film, “Weren’t you like that at your age?” To which the other groaningly concedes.)

          A true threat would be an explicitly asexual, anti-family, polyamorous, or homosexual protagonist, and as far as I know, in most popular slashers, these figures simply don’t exist. I can’t think of a single final girl that is completely desexualized–she usually has a boyfriend, or an interest in boys, even if she is hinted to be a virgin. Her friends, meanwhile, may be wild, but the films don’t make that out to be anything abnormal for people of their age.

          I agree with Chris that slashers (and modern horror in general) is bound up with anxieties about liberalized sexuality and the feminist movement, and Clover was insightful to key into that. I guess I just don’t go as far as to see particular character tropes representing a particular kind of moral symbolism. Even in a limited subgenre like the slasher, there are too many exceptions for there to be a proven rule.

  11. As a horror fan, I appreciate your article and interest in the genre. I also did not know that such a significant portion of the audience for Saw was female. However, I’m not sure what makes your argument particularly feminist or new? You say that women enjoy these movies for themselves, not just to hug their dates at the scary parts. You say that the “final girl” is an empowered figure who defeats the villain. (Although in Texas Chain Saw, Sally just screams and runs, and even in Halloween, although Laurie fights back, she doesn’t defeat him and remains terrified throughout.) You mention Clover & Creed. I agree that they are outdated, but didn’t they make those same arguments?

    I’m not just being nit-picky or critical. I am curious to hear more about how you think these films work, and why you and other women like them, especially from a feminist standpoint. Isn’t it possible that rather than these films appealing because of (only, if at all) “final girl” empowerment, women share the same violence-loving attitudes as men? I’m not saying this is my own belief; it’s obviously more complicated than that.

    But the whole “final girl” concept, though it has its merits, has problems; one being that the supposed progenitors of the figure do not quite meets its criteria. Another problem I have is that it doesn’t quite explain why men like slashers. I don’t quite buy Clover’s argument that men identify with the final girl, and that explains the trope. Another issue is that it fails to account for the rest of the film: it sounds like a weak argument to say that women enjoy seeing a man hack up other women, just so the man can in turn be hacked up by a woman himself. Finally, it implies that an enjoyable horror film should end with the villain being defeated, when in fact I would argue that some of the best horror ends with an ambiguous ending, or even an implicit triumph or survival of the antagonist.

    These are just some of the things I thought about after reading your article. I wonder what you think of Linda Williams’ work, which I think goes further than Clover in uncovering some of the appeal that horror has for both women and men. Also, though not from a feminist view, Adam Lowenstein has written some interesting pieces connecting trauma theory and social crises to horror, and his article “Why Torture Porn Does Not Exist” seems relevant. If you write future pieces exploring your thoughts more in-depth, I’d be interested in reading them.

    • Sonia Charlotta Reini

      Thanks for the amazing comment AJS! I’m very glad that people are interested in discussing this topic further, as I’ve spent the majority of my university years researching this (I wrote my dissertation on women in slasher films, haha).

      I completely agree with you about Clover’s theory regarding cross-gender identification as problematic. Her notion of men being able to relate to the Final Girl because she is masculinised is, in fact, quite untrue, especially in relation to slasher films of the 1980s. I believe she also argued that the Final Girl is desexualised and almost always a virgin (I may be confusing this argument with another theorist though, so I apologize if this is the case), which, despite having become a slasher film cliche, also appears to be untrue. I think John Carpenter himself made the point that Laurie was never meant to be a virginal heroine-type, but the reason she survived was simply because she was smarter than her friends (again, my memory is not 100% on this).

      This article and my general opinion on the subject is nothing new, but I just wanted to write a somewhat nostalgic piece about a seemingly forgotten subgenre of horror (because really, how many slasher films are made nowadays?). Also, I felt it would be interesting to hear what other people thought about it, because I honestly have conversations with both men and women about slasher (and horror) films and still often get the general response: “What? But you’re a girl, why do you like them?” Perhaps the most feminist aspect of my particular obsession is that I believe there is no specific reason for it; I’m a woman, I like slasher films, and that’s it. If men have not and do not need to explain their love for these types of films, why should we? 🙂

  12. You’re welcome, and thank you for taking my comments in the spirit which they were meant (friendly discussion). Great to hear you were able to work on slasher films for your dissertation. How did your professors and classmates react to your work? Were they dismissive or encouraging of the subject?

    My problem with identification in film: we are presented with such a variety of sensory information that I don’t know if we truly “identify” with a particular character all the time. When people cheer for the dispatch of the next victim, or for the dispatch of the killer, they may be cheering more for the violence or visceral experience than the triumph of a character. Characterization is not usually the strong point of slashers.

    I think that you’re right about what Clover and Carpenter said. Carpenter did not mean to set up a abstinence/promiscuous dichotomy between Laurie and her friends, just that Laurie was smarter and not as easily distracted. Carpenter also said that Laurie struggles with her sexual awakening, and the dynamic of conflicting desires is part of what makes her character interesting and resourceful.

    I see your point about just wanting to stir discussion on the topic. I agree 100% that women shouldn’t have to justify their enjoyment of slashers any more than men; but as a man, I have been challenged by people, both men and women, who are dismissive of these kinds of films, whether it’s because they see them as deeply misogynistic, or just as stupid and formulaic.

  13. Owen Atkinson

    An interesting and compelling argument. I’m now embarrassed to admit that I kind of enjoyed that Jennifer’s Body movie. Or at least, I enjoyed laughing at it.

  14. Dennis Corsi

    Have you seen “Cabin in the Woods” which came out in 2011? I don’t want to include any spoilers, but I would be interested in your thoughts on it. It utilizes the stereotypical horror film characters and turns the story on its head. It even deals a bit with gender issues with a “virginal girl” sacrifice.

    • Sonia Charlotta Reini

      Cabin in the Woods is in the top five of my favourite films of all time! Pure genius. Might write an article about horror movies that are aware of the cliches in the genre, Cabin in the Woods being my main inspiration 🙂

  15. This radio show talks about some new indie slashers, though they give most of them bad reviews. I haven’t seen any of them except Alyce Kills, the only one they really liked, which I agree was pretty good.

    I’ve also been thinking about checking out the Hatchet series. Hatchet III comes out June 14, but I haven’t even seen the first one. So, while slashers aren’t as popular as they used to be, they still seem to be thriving.

  16. Dale Barham

    I found the gender role analysis here to be really interesting. I love slasher flicks as well, but stick to the classics unless a new release catches my fancy.

    I went to one of those haunted house attractions not long ago, where people dress up as famous horror villains and chase you round maze-like corridors. I spent half the time crying with fright and the other half getting excited at some of my favorite slasher scenes reinvented. A Halloween 2 inspired hospital corridor was my personal favourite!

    Keep up the great work, fantastic article!

  17. Camille Brouard

    An angle on slasher films I never thought about before, thanks! Also, I really liked your writing style, it never dragged but always went in-depth.

  18. Levi Everaerts

    There’s a fairly new indie film out called American Mary, starring Katharine Isabelle of Ginger Snaps and Freddy vs. Jason fame. The film was written and directed by two female horror writer/directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska (also known as the Twisted Twins, or the Soska Sisters). This film portrays the evolution of the Final Girl, think a mix of Eihi Shiina, Neve Campbell and Betsy Palmer. It also has several nods to European and Asian cinema, influenced by people like Lars von Trier, Takashi Miike and Dario Argento. Great flick for horror fans who are sick and tired of the clichés and formulas.

  19. SForeman

    This discussion is interesting for me as I am in the difficult position of being expected to do a quick online review of four self-published thrillers, written by someone I know. There are appalling rape scenes in these books, as well as ‘normal’ sex scenes between the protagonist and the women he is in relationships with, or as casual encounters. Given the particular criminal setting of the books, some of the rape scenes are probably realistic depictions of what actually happens. But these books could easily be good thrillers without the explicit depiction of these horrific events. They don’t scare in the way that a horror novel or film would, just present the vile events as straightforward fact. These books would be better thrillers without these explicit descriptions. By no means all of the women in the books are portrayed as victims or weak; there are strong women characters, and the main characters have mixture of sexual orientations and a range of genders. Yet the general impression is that either the author has written this way because he thinks it will bring more sales, or he has deeply ambivalent attitudes, with strong sadomasochistic undertones, towards women. Or both, of course. Overall, the effect is pretty unpleasant, I tried to force myself to read his two other books but just could not do it. I don’t watch slasher etc films, I think partly because of what does happen in the real world. Think of Rwanda, of what happens to women in wartime. I don’t get the attraction to these kind of films, or the of books I am supposed to review.

    • Sonia Charlotta Reini

      I understand where you’re coming from in terms of the unnecessary violence, but at the same time I think they are quite necessary in order to serve the main purpose of horror films: to scare. Slasher and horror films use violence to give you a “safe scare” (much like roller-coasters do) and the violence is not supposed to be sad or tragic like real-life violence, but rather exaggerated or even comical.

      I do see what you mean though. Slasher films aren’t for everyone.

  20. Emily Deibler

    As a feminist who loves horror, I would definitely love more original slasher movies with thoughtful female leads!

  21. My impression is that the “Final Girl” theory is a misreading of the intention of the texts in these films. I can understand and appreciate that women have their own ways of enjoying and relating to these movies, but I think it goes too far to suggest that because a woman can see a humanistic idea in a film that the humanism is there in the text.

    From what I can see, all the Final Girl does is set up an opposition between good girls and bad girls. The bad girls are fully sexualized, have sexual desires, are promiscuous, and have visual markers of femininity. The good girls are androgynous or virginal. The whores are to be discarded, and the good girls can live. What is important to realize is that the sluts in these movies are punished not only for having sexual desires, but for having desires at all – for having speech, thoughts of their own, for going against the law of the father. Sluts are threatening to patriarchy because they undermine a man’s sense of ownership and control over women and their children, so they must be destroyed. They are also poison-containers in which a man can disavow his “filthy” desires and place the blame for them on a woman who can contain them in her putrid body which after being defiled (with a knife, a penis, a camera, or some other intrusive weapon) is destroyed.

    The good girl obeys the law of the father by keeping to herself. She does not seek out sexual partners, and she is either single or she has a husband or boyfriend that she is devoted to. So the message of these films is: Women, don’t have your own desires or pursue men, don’t have speech, free will, or autonomy, because this is what will happen to you if you try.”

    When the Final Girl is androgynous on top of being virginal, it sets up another layer in which the feminine body of a woman with its gender markers is itself disturbing enough to justify mutilation.

    The other problem with these films is that the killer is often obscured in shadow, or has an identity we don’t discover until the end. In this way the killer becomes “everyman” the way he does in a porn film. He is the nameless, faceless John, the invisible partner in human trafficking and child prostitution.

    These films, rather than being transgressive, are hyper-conventional and sub-status-quo. When women enjoy them they are engaging in the same sort of split that men are engaging in; to identify with the Final Girl is to distance yourself from the sluts – the girly girls- the stupid girls – the feminine girls – whatever it is you feel you are not, and to identify with the heroine. Women may see this heroine as a triumphant character, but in order to do so they have to engage in the mother-whore split created by men in which they distance themselves from the sluts.

    So while Clover’s essay describes a real phenomenon and a valid reason that women can enjoy slasher films and find a heroine to identify with, she neglects to mention what happens if we identify with the sluts. But you see, we can’t, because these women are treated as such human trash that no identification is possible. It’s also impossible to identify with a class of people that you know are going to be routinely slaughtered. In these movies, once a woman is showing some leg or cleavage or kissing someone or having sex, we put them in the category of non-human, of meat basically, so that when they are slaughtered moments later we won’t feel too upset about it.

    The Final Girl is not there to provide any heroine to identify with or any assurance to women; she is there to assure the men that there are still some good girls in the world that they can marry and settle down with. And the sluts are there to assuage a man’s guilt for enjoying the spectacle of women being brutally murdered, since they are “asking for it.” Not only that, they are usually bitches on top of everything else – they talk back to men, they swear, they curse, they are irrational – they need to be put out of their misery. The only message to women here is to behave, to not talk back, to be modest and keep to yourself, and to be some man’s nice wife. It’s THAT conventional.

    Women may want to interpret this Final Girl in their own way, which makes her a real heroine. But I would argue that this is either a misreading of the text, or a reinvention or re-claiming of the material in a way in which it was not intended to be interpreted.

  22. I love this article and totally agree. We need more slasher films, though, perhaps more in the vein of the Scream franchise, a thinking man’s horror series. This call for thoughtful horror has been answered in part by “It Follows” and “Cabin in the Woods.”

  23. What about Jess (Olivia Hussey) in “Black Christmas” (1974)?

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