By the end of the 1990s, the Final Girl trope had arguably run its course, at least within a conventional slasher narrative. One reason for this, I think, is because of the self-reflexivity of horror in the 1990s. The persistent reflection of one character by another, on TV screens and in mirrors, started to disclose how characters were trapped in a mirror of reflections that was preventing radical transformation.
The Halloween and Scream franchises are deeply reflective of each other. And while one of the things the Scream franchise was known for was its self-reflexivity—its internal explicit references to other films—the Halloween franchise (beginning twenty years earlier) was actually the first to build into its narrative meaningful references to other horror films.
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) famously weaves Christian Nyby’s 1951 sci-fi horror film The Thing from Another World into its plot. Lindsey and Tommy are watching the film throughout the fateful Halloween evening—and it’s not just a throwaway reference. In the earlier film, the “Thing,” an alien from another planet, is called a “boogeyman on ice”—and is an utterly inhuman, emotionless killing machine. Michael Myers, called “The Shape” in the credits, is also, of course, an inhuman, emotionless killing machine, and the last exchange of the film is Laurie (Jamie Lees Curtis) saying to Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), “It was the boogeyman.”
Deeply influenced by Halloween, the most famous of 90s slasher films, Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), includes an extended scene near its end in which characters watch Halloween at a party (like Lindsey and Tommy watched The Thing in Halloween). Craven pushes it one step further, though, as Halloween becomes an explicit part of the actual story of Scream: at one point, Randy (Jamie Kennedy) starts talking to Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), urging her to look behind her, right as the killer in the real-time narrative of Scream is behind him. That the actor who plays Randy is called Jamie only makes the mirroring more intense as he yells—“Look behind you, Jamie!” The camera shows the TV screen, featuring Jamie Lee, with Jamie Kennedy’s reflection superimposed. They are both trapped in (two) frames together—the frame of the film and the frame in the film. Both are stalked by a killer—and both survive (making Randy a kind of “Final Girl” in his reflection of Jamie Lee!)
Although Jamie Lee Curtis returned as Laurie Strode in Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981), four films followed without perhaps the best-know Final Girl, and she didn’t return until Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998). Just as Scream featured Halloween within its narrative, H20 returns the franchise’s compliment by briefly featuring Scream 2 playing on a TV in the kitchen (though, tellingly, no one is watching anymore).
What all these films-within-a-film show us, I think, is that the characters of slashers, particularly the Final Girl, have become caught in a kind of Hall of Mirrors, able only to reflect each other and look at their own reflection—not able to escape.
H20 really emphasizes this point by offering many shots of Laurie “trapped” within tightly-framed windows and mirrors. Often her reflection is tied to that of Michael, the killer to whom her fate is forever bound.
It comes as no big surprise, then, when, early in Halloween Resurrection, Laurie is finally killed. This is the end of the Final Girl as she had developed across the 1980s and 1990s. Following on her increasing confinement within the Hall of Mirrors, within increasingly stifling reflections, her death seems inevitable.
I want to link here to a great article by BJ Colangelo from a couple of years ago that argues that final girls are the “worst thing for women in horror.” Colangelo makes a compelling argument that the Final Girl is a stereotype that limits women’s roles in horror film, that it puts them in a box, forcing a film “to follow a specific formala.” I particularly like her point that if women don’t look a certain way—if they’re not thin, not white—you can bet that they’re not the Final Girl and that they’re going to die.
I do, though, also disagree with Colangelo. Horror films are genre films—and that’s one of the things I love about them. There’s a vast array of horror conventions and tropes out there (including the Final Girl) that films take up, play with, disrupt, challenge, and overturn. Indeed, I think part of the immense creative power of horror (in all aspects, not just how women are represented) comes from its ability to put horror conventions together in interesting ways—to draw on the rich tradition of past horror film and transform all parts of the tradition. I guess I believe pretty strongly that creativity—art—doesn’t come out of nowhere: it comes from putting things already out there together in new ways.[i]
That is the power of the Final Girl. Yes, it offers a particular way of representing women, but from the very beginning, writers and directors took up the Final Girl and changed her. While I’ve argued that the Final Girl of the slasher plot seemed to reach exhaustion point in Halloween: H20, that the Final Girl is unable, in the end, to get away from her own reflection, almost immediately, as the twenty-first century opened, horror films started radically re-thinking what the Final Girl could be, outside the Hall of the Mirrors that the slasher plot had become.
We’ll be exploring these new directions that the Final Girl has taken in the last week of our series for Women in Horror Month.
[i] Perhaps supporting this point is one of the comments under Colangelo’s article:” I’m writing a slasher story (kind of, most of them die by strangulation) and I think I have a pretty unique final girl.”