Posted on February 24, 2016

Origins of the Final Girl: Ann Radcliffe and American Mary

Guest Post

In Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 four-volume Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, the heroine Emily is incarcerated in the castle of Udolpho after her father’s death and the subsequent guardianship of her aunt and new husband, Montoni. Montoni brings her to Udolpho in order to coerce her to marry his friend, Morano, threatening her virginity, and her life until she agrees to do so. Emily, in other words, is in a position of subordination, instability, and danger typical of eighteenth-century Gothic literature: we see it in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Lee’s The Recess, Lewis’s The Monk, and the list goes on. Some version of female incarceration happens in nearly all of Radcliffe’s novels, though Udolpho is her most iconic.

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Though Radcliffe’s heroines may not be as obviously strong and independent as the horror film women discussed during Women in Horror Month, I want to argue for them as precursors to Carol Clover’s “Final Girls”: women who, through their own ingenuity, survive the men (or monsters) who threaten them with violence and/or sexual assault.

Udolpho is well-known for exhibiting Radcliffe’s characteristic “explained supernatural”: Suggestions of a supernatural force throughout the text are revealed to be the misinterpretation of natural and easily-explained occurrences by the heroine. However, the “natural” threat to her life and person is still very real. The men who fill the castle and stalk the hallways of Udolpho make murder and rape more terrifying than any supernatural element. But what makes Udolpho noteworthy in the context of Women in Horror Month is that, despite the images of death and horror that Emily encounters around every corner of her new prison/home, she refuses to be intimidated into a marriage with a man she despises, and she eventually escapes with the help of her sympathetic servant and a mysterious stranger.

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If we consider the qualities of Clover’s Final Girl that Dawn lays out in her post, Emily certainly qualifies as a survivor. She has help from others, but it is her keen and persistent curiosity and investigative skills that enable her escape to (relative) freedom, while maintaining her virginity and the principles of morality and intelligence she values. Her virtue remains impeccable. In her defiance of Montoni, she draws on courage and defensive behavior typically figured as masculine in the eighteenth century, though she is by no means considered masculine in the ways Clover describes. But, in many ways, Emily sees through Montoni’s manipulations and exposes them, proving herself to be evenly matched with the tyrant. Though she does not serve as a point of identification for male readers—Gothic literature of the period more often read (and written) by women—she does provide women with a portrait of a strong and capable woman who refuses to bend to the sway of monstrous men.

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Fast forward to 2012 and the release of American Mary, directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska (powerful women of horror in their own right) and staring Katharine Isabelle. I bring this film into the conversation about the Final Girl because, just as Radcliffe’s novels anticipate Clover’s insightful formula, American Mary offers a new version in which women completely dominate the screen while still navigating male power. In their rape-revenge film, the Soska Sisters bring the threats against Emily in Udolpho to fruition, forcing Mary not only to confront new dangers but also to recover from the trauma of her past. Mary knows these threats are real, not because she has debunked the supernatural, but because they have already happened to her, putting her in an unenviable position of authority: rather than allow her sexual violation to possess and end her, she allows it to fuel her transformation from dominated to dominant.

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Mary Mason is a surgical student struggling to pay the bills. She applies for a job as a stripper, and her interview is interrupted when she’s asked to perform emergency surgery during an interrogation happening in the basement. This success, to which Mary reacts more emotionally than she will to later more damaging events, becomes her entry into the world of underground surgery and body modification. When she starts doing better financially, her professor, Dr. Grant, assumes she’s gone into prostitution and invites her to a party to rape her. Without blinking, Mary quits med school to fully embrace her new-found talents and thirst for revenge, calling on the club owner to kidnap Dr. Grant, her new favorite practice dummy. Perfecting her surgical methods on her rapist—who soon loses arms, legs, ears, etc— Mary becomes the most sought-after surgeon for the body modification crowd. Her big break is an operation on the wealthy “Demon Twins of Berlin” (played by the Soska Sisters), swapping their arms and giving them horns. Despite the high level of gore throughout the film, Mary only kills once (well, aside from her human test dummy), brutally murdering a security guard who discovers Dr. Grant hanging by meat hooks from the ceiling. The film ends when the consequences of one of Mary’s surgical procedures finally catch up to her.

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Last February, Mychael Blinde called Mary an “Amoral Final Girl,” in a post on Bitchflicks, an astute classification that identifies her transition from victim seeking revenge to stone-cold murderess protecting her own questionable way of life. She “starts out as a likable badass but ends up as an amoral psycho,” Blinde says.[1] Robert Lamb, in a post on Stuff to Blow Your Mind, similarly says, “Horror movies have given us countless unethical, unscrupulous and downright mad doctors over the years, including doctors Moreau, Girard, Mantle and Heiter,” and places Mary right along with them but does not elaborate.[2] She is certainly a character who does not shy away from a challenge and doesn’t mind a little (or a lot) of blood on her clothes (or lack thereof).

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Blinde includes parts of an interview with the Soska Sisters, in which they discuss the rape scene and why they represented it as they did (real and horrific but not stylized)—I highly recommend her blog post. She’s right that, as the film goes on, Mary becomes noticeably more cold and emotionless, and this (particularly in a woman) can be interpreted as monstrous. But, in many cases, I see it as strength and self-control, with remnants of self-protection lingering from her horrific violation. Mary is utterly independent to the point that she allows no one to become close to her except for a robotic friendship with the club owner and conversations with her long-distance Nana. When the twins ask her, “Do you feel connected to anyone, Mary,” she simply says no. This is yet another characteristic of the rape-revenge film according to Clover: “female self-sufficiency.”[3] A stoic character to begin with, Mary’s numbness increases as she anesthetizes one client after another, but so do her confidence, ability, and obvious pride in her work. This is in stark contrast to Radcliffe’s Emily, who, when not playing detective, spends much of the novel crying or fainting: not the same mark of weakness in the eighteenth century as it would be today but still a marked difference in how these two Final Girls handle problems emotionally. Not only has Mary survived the sexual assault that Emily fears, but, through her own talent and ingenuity, she thrives and refuses to ever put herself in a vulnerable position with a man again. When she holds the knife, she’s in complete control.

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The film is centered on women throughout, the only men in it are pretentious, sadistic rapists (the doctors) or sex-crazed thugs (the club staff, many of whom eventually come across as likable). Women, those of the bod-mod subculture, go to other women when they need help. When Mary first encounters Beatrice (constructed to resemble Betty Boop), Beatrice introduces herself by saying, “I’m just a desperate woman looking for help,” a situation often brought to men in other horror films. Mary isn’t the only one who becomes self-sufficient. Beatrice seeks her out to perform an unconventional operation for Ruby, who desires to become like a doll, completely de-sexualized so that she no longer feels “degraded” when naked. And, with Beatrice and Mary’s help, she’s able to make that happen.

While Mary speaks to men with unhidden disdain, her tone is decidedly kinder with women, despite a consistent undertone of sarcasm and condescension.[4] She remains disconnected from them but seems more inclined to help them through their own self-modification, building her reputation through their satisfaction with her surgical talent and their new selves. “My work is getting consistently stronger,” she tells Dr. Grant, “comparatively to the work I’ve done on you. That’s rather crude. Then again, you were never something that I was excessively proud of,” as she snaps photos of his body as he recorded her. The only time we see Mary thaw emotionally is moments later, when she brutally murders the security guard, a scene that goes on and on, just as the scene of her rape did. Both shots focus on Mary, one of her drugged and submissive, the other of her powerful and active. After both, the camera captures her elongated body walking stiffly (doll-like, even), undecided whether it’s seductive or in pain.

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Here is also where critics like Blinde identify that shift into questionable morality, a point I won’t dispute. However, I interpret this shift as defense of her new career and the bodies that she modifies, bodies that have become as valuable and personal as her own: “Isn’t the work just as much a part of yourself?” she asks. She could not protect her own body, but she can protect the work she does on others, and with their full consent. I think it’s also important to note that this monstrosity in Mary is a necessary result of her violation. Mary is damaged, and to ignore such a fact would be to excuse the rape or see it as benefiting her, an interpretation the Soska Sisters do not want to allow.

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Rather than amoral, I would characterize Mary’s role as Final Girl as self-constructed, perhaps more appropriately, Self-Modified Final Girl. Determined, hard-working, and resourceful in the beginning of the film in her attempts to follow Dr. Grant’s lessons and impress the medical staff by being the perfect surgical student. One of the earliest scenes is of Dr. Grant aggressively questioning her in the classroom, warning her not to “fuck up in my class.” He greets her with, “I hope you finished all your studying before you came here” at the party where he will rape her. Mary does nothing but apologize and agree with him in response. But, in later interactions, she speaks to her patients with authority, not with anger, but with confidence and a dry, witty humor that clearly reinforces her position of power. Mary acts for herself and to please herself only after she begins her underground surgery, answering to no one other than the patients, who love her work (and, therefore, her).

Mary’s final push into alternative surgeries is, therefore, a combination of her first success prior to the rape and the rape itself: a combination of power and powerlessness. Clover describes this kind of transformation as characteristic of rape-revenge films: “the avenger or self-defender will become as directly or indirectly violent as her assailant, and… these films are in some measure about that transformation.”[5] Mary transforms herself into an alternative Final Girl: a self-possessed, creative, professional “slasher,” a term the male doctors use in reference to surgeons. Whereas Emily, in Mysteries of Udolpho focuses on escaping and surviving male threats to prevent herself from unwanted transformation—as ruined woman or unhappy wife—Mary escapes and survives her ordeal by transforming herself, into Bloody Mary, Final Girl and female slasher.

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[1] http://www.btchflcks.com/2015/02/american-mary-in-praise-of-the-amoral-final-girl.html#.Vr-YY1KznWs

[2] http://www.stufftoblowyourmind.com/blog/american-mary-surgical-horror/

[3] Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, pp. 143.

[4] This noticeably changes when she begins to feel possessive toward the club owner and uses her power to intentionally scare another woman with her surgical tools.

[5] Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, pp. 123.


Laura Kremmel received an MA in English from Lehigh in 2009 and an MLitt in Gothic Literature from Stirling University in 2010. Her dissertation considers the ways in which the Gothic imagination extends Romantic-era medical experimentation throughout the Gothic texts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including poetry, drama, novels, and chapbooks. Where scientific thought reached its limits, the Gothic could pick up the scalpel and set to work on dissections and cures of its own. Though she considers herself to be a Romanticist, she is also a Gothicist, interested in all facets of the tradition, Romantic to Contemporary. At Stirling, her MLitt dissertation explored the vampiric character of melancholia in works ranging from Polidori’s The Vampyre to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Laura also runs Lehigh’s Gothic reading group, has published on The Walking Dead, and is a frequent blogger. Follow her on Twitter.

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