Posted on February 10, 2016

The New Final Girl of 90s Horror: Part 2

Dawn Keetley

There is much to say about how the Final Girl changed in 1990s horror, so this post will inevitably be partial.

First of all, the Final Girl became intriguingly fused with AUTHORITY in the 1990s. In the slasher films of the 1980s, the authority figures were, for the most part, nowhere to be found when the killer started stalking and slaughtering teens. In fact, part of the ideological message of these films was to indict the authority figures (parents, police, doctors) who were either recklessly absent, incompetent, or were somehow involved in creating the problem in the first place. Why did officials at the psychiatric hospital allow Michael Myers to escape, anyway? Why are police and/or parents signally absent when it matters in Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and their many sequels?

Things changed with the groundbreaking The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991). Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is unambiguously a Final Girl, meeting all the characteristics, as I laid them out in Part 1 of this series. As fledging FBI agent, however, she is also the authority figure—and an effective one at that. She finds Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) and saves his latest victim while the rest of the FBI is miles away.

Clarice in Silence of the Lambs

Clarice in Silence of the Lambs

The confluence of Final Girl and authority figure is sustained in the second groundbreaking horror film of the 90s, Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), along with its sequels Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000), both also directed by Craven. While Sidney (Neve Campbell) herself is not an authority, she is helped in all three films by journalist and mother-figure Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Deputy Dewey (David Arquette).

In some ways, then, the Final Girl in 90s horror could be seen to be a more conservative figure. The normalcy she restores at the end of the film is a normalcy sanctioned by traditional authority (FBI, media, police), not one that happens against and in spite of those authorities (as in 80s horror). Sarah Trencansky makes this point in her article about Final Girls in 1980s and 1990s horror: in the slasher of the 90s, she writes, “Authority is revealed as right and good after all, a last line of defense against sick monsters.” Indeed, Trencansky asserts that the entire trajectory of 90s slashers is about “valuing normality.” (Her article consistently prefers 80s slashers.)[i]

Of course, the conservatism of this alignment of Final Girl and authority is unsettled by the fact that the authority figure is a woman—which becomes most clear in the case of Clarice Starling. That Clarice is a woman in a man’s world could merely serve to render her more masculine, more androgynous (as Carol Clover says the Final Girl must be), but, Silence of the Lambs goes out of its way to represent Clarice as female—as a woman in a man’s world. There are repeated shots in the film, for instance, of Clarice surrounded by men—and, for me, this works much less to showcase her androgyny than to showcase the fact that she is female.

2. Clarice in the elevator

If the Final Girl of the 90s is aligned with authority, then, it is an authority that undermines the pervasive association of authority with men.

The case of Scream brings me to my second (related) point about how the Final Girl changed in the 90s. Sidney does not fight the killer alone—in Scream or any of its three sequels. She joins with Gale, Randy, and Dewey in Scream, for example.[ii] The Final Girl, then, is not as isolated as in earlier films but instead becomes part of a COMMUNITY. Trencansky (not surprisingly) reads this shift rather negatively, arguing that the Final Girl of the 90s becomes weaker, claiming of Sidney in particular that “other characters step in repeatedly to save her.”[iii]

Gale, Randy, and Sidney near the end of Scream

Gale, Randy, and Sidney near the end of Scream

I have to admit to being on the fence, myself, as to whether the Final Girl of the 90s slasher is weaker or whether she demonstrates the virtues of collectivity. I was bothered by the ending of I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997), for instance, because Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) only survives because of the help of her boyfriend (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), and she utters the rather nauseating phrase “I feel your pain,” as she snuggles in his arms after they (mostly he) defeat the killer (they think). This ending seems less like community than a return to female weakness—and the Final Girl’s needing to be saved by a man.

Julie and Ray near the end of I Know

Julie and Ray near the end of I Know

My third point about the change in the 90s Final Girl is that she no longer needs to be a VIRGIN. Sidney has sex with Billy (Skeet Ulrich) in Scream (big mistake, but it doesn’t get her killed!), for instance, and Julie has sex with Ray early in I Know.

That 90s slashers permit Final Girls to have sex is highlighted by the frame below from Scream, which is right after Sidney loses her virginity to Billy. She is brushing her hair in a way that distinctly evokes the scene at the beginning of Halloween—when Judith Myers has sex only to be killed, while brushing her hair, by her infamous brother.

5. Sidney brushing her hair

In this scene, Sidney repeats Judith but lives—demonstrating that 90s slashers no longer seem so intent on punishing girls for having sex. Of course, this claim has to be modified to some degree in that the Final Girl still remains more chaste than her friends, girls like Tatum (Rose McGowan) from Scream and Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) from I Know, who are more sexual, less bound to a relationship, and who end up (as a result?) dying a brutal death.

Just a few ideas, then, about how the Final Girl changed in the 90s. I would love to hear more from you!

[i] Sarah Trencansky, “Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgression in 1980s Slasher Horror,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 29.2 (2001): p. 72.

[ii] See Valerie Wee, “Resurrecting and Updating the Teen Slasher: The Case of Scream,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 34.2 (2006): p. 58-59.

[iii] Trencansky, p. 72.

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