By: Mary Beth McAndrews
A high-pitched scream pierces your ears. You cringe and laugh as a scantily-clad teenage girl is murdered viciously in a slasher flick. This is the typical role of a woman in horror films: she is a sex object, a character whose purpose is to cling to the male protagonist, and an eventual murder victim. Her sexuality is punished through a violent demise. It’s no secret that horror historically has not treated women well.
“Horror as a genre is, despite all its seeming progressiveness, a reactionary form. It likes orthodoxy,” says Dr. Mark Rhoda, associate professor of Theater, Film, and Media Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Despite its love of orthodoxy, horror has had its exceptions, such as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from “Alien” and Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) in “Halloween.” These iconic characters are considered Final Girls, a term coined by Carol Clover in her book, “Men, Women, and Chainsaws.” The Final Girl is the shy, nonsexual girl who survives all the way to the film’s end, endures immense suffering as she watches those around her die and eventually defeats whatever evil has plagued her.
The amazing thing about this term is how it is used and molded to fit an ever-changing cultural context. While the treatment of women in mainstream horror has stayed its course, indie horror has taken the concept of the Final Girl and made it its own. Films such as “The Witch” and “Get Out” expand upon the concept, creating unique characters of their own that exist outside of the mold of Ripley and Laurie.
Both films are recent horror projects that, while seeming to follow traditional horror tropes, create subversive narratives that reflect our current state of paranoia. “‘The Witch’ and ‘Get Out’ both use challenging examples of intolerance turned to hatred and paranoia in U.S. culture, and make them the basis of fictional stories that terrify us,” says Dr. Caetlin Benson-Allott, Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University. “They’re about the ways our minds can turn on us and the way ideology drives people to do terrible things. In that way, they’re much more overtly political than most U.S. horror films, which tend to offer their [message] by analogy or metaphor.”
They’re also experimental while remaining accessible. “One of the ways that [these films] are experimenting is by expanding the traditional gender roles, including, maybe even especially, the roles about the male monster and the ‘final girl,’” Benson-Allott says. These films are prime examples of how horror films can create unique female characters that, while adopting aspects of the Final Girl, are not always heroes.
**Spoiler alert: the rest of this piece contains spoilers for both "The Witch" and "Get Out"
“The Witch:” Finding Freedom Through Suffering
Robert Egger’s 2015 film, “The Witch,” takes an early colonial Puritanical setting and makes it applicable to our current context. Eggers uses the paranoia of that time to mirror our own cultural anxieties of difference and the unknown.
The object of persecution in “The Witch” is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teenage girl accused of being a witch by her family. As her siblings start to disappear, suspicion towards Thomasin grows. Her mother thinks she is disobedient and lazy, while her little twin siblings tell their parents Thomasin danced naked in the woods. She is slapped, insulted and locked in a shed; she is tortured by her family. Eventually, members of her family begin to die around her and she’s even forced to kill her own mother to survive; she will do whatever it takes to survive, which is a typical trait of the Final Girl.
But the ultimate evil in this film isn’t her parents and their religious belief: it is in fact the Devil, and he takes her away from all the pain. He murders her restrictive father and annoying siblings; she no longer has to do chores and pray. He frees her.
Through her suffering, she finds freedom. While most Final Girls only find relief through the death of the murderer, Thomasin finds relief through embracing him.
“Get Out:” Creating the Anti-Final Girl
Not all films use the concept of the Final Girl to create a strong female protagonist. A recent example is Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror film, “Get Out.” “Get Out” is one of the first films of its kind: It directly addresses the issues of race relations in the United States in a genre notorious for punishing minorities. Furthermore, an argument can be made that this film subverts the concept of the Final Girl with Allison William’s character, Rose.
Like the Final Girl, Rose watches those close to her die, one-by-one, until she is the only one left. She then must take matters into her own hands, fighting who she perceives as the villain.
Rose also uses her evil cunning to lie and manipulate her boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya). She feigns innocence until the very moment Chris discovers he isn’t there to meet Rose’s family: he is there to become, ultimately, a slave.
Unlike the Final Girl, she uses her sexuality to get what she wants – more victims. She is framed as the family’s mastermind, luring unsuspecting African Americans to her family under the pretense that they’re in a relationship.
While she is ultimately killed and doesn’t survive, it is not just her sexuality that killed her; it was her manipulation and disregard for an entire race of people. Rose may not fit Clover’s formula of the Final Girl, but Peele borrowed aspects of that trope to create its antithesis. Rose not only provides a commentary on the negative impact of white women on race discourse in the United States, but also a commentary on the role of women in horror as a whole. White women are not always innocent and worth saving; sometimes they are the villain.
Ultimately, indie horror film is evolving in our current political climate, but more mainstream horror is adhering to the status quo. Currently, instead of tropes being rewritten, there are films that stand as exceptions to the rule. However, in our ever-changing cultural context, we can only hope that new filmmakers and new perspectives will continue to create strong characters in horror until we are no longer surprised by a non-cis male protagonist.