As I’ve shown before, I take my horror movies pretty seriously, and I am especially concerned with the portrayal of the characters therein. One of the most important characters in a horror movie is the protagonist who will end up in the final confrontation with the killer. Because this character is almost always female, we call this character the Final Girl.
But what does the term “Final Girl” imply? She is the last one left alive. This doesn’t really imply any level of strength or skill on her part, merely that she has kept breathing longer than the rest of the victims. We also have our protagonist referred to as “girl”, despite the fact that she is most likely a legal adult, which puts her in a position of immaturity and weakness. The title doesn’t even really state that she will triumph over her adversary and still be alive at the end of the movie; it simply says that she is the last in a line of victims.
A less-used term, however, is that of the Horror Heroine. There’s not even a TVTropes page for such a character; she’s that rare. This term implies much more agency in the character. This is not someone who simply does not die; this is someone who is victorious over her adversaries. The reason this term is less common is probably because this character is less common. It’s very easy to make a Final Girl: she simply has to be female and survive between 85-100% of the movie. A Horror Heroine, however, has to be an actual character with strength and determination.
Below the cut I’ve compiled a list of some of the characteristics of each archetype and a few noteworthy examples of each.
The most traditional Final Girl will typically embody very stereotypical Christian values. She will dress conservatively, speak gently, and not make waves among her contemporaries. She will seem disconnected from the people around her because she’s the “good girl” while everyone else is wild and carefree. The other characters will probably tease her for being shy/pure/modest/smart/etc., and the audience may start to question how this group of people ever ended up together. In this situation the Final Girl will probably react with fear when those around her start disappearing, but there won’t be much emotion other than that.
The Final Girl will probably end up in the film’s climax by pure luck. Sometimes she has some narrow misses with the killer, but chances are she wasn’t around when her friends were partying or screwing and getting killed because she was off reading the Bible or something. She will come across their mangled bodies and finally be forced into a confrontation with the murderer which will involve plenty of screaming and haphazard fighting. She will use whatever weapons she can find and typically assume the killer is dead, only to have him return for another scare or two.
If a final girl comes back for a sequel, chances are she’ll die in it. Otherwise she just might become a Horror Heroine. Some prime examples of Final Girls are Alice Hardy from Friday the 13th, Julie James from I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Nancy Holbrook from A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).
The Horror Heroine will often share similarities with the Final Girl. She may very well be the shy and modest one in her group of friends, but this will not be her driving characteristic. Very often, she will actually be friendly with her friends, believe it or not. The real kicker here is that she has a personality, therefore the people around her can actually engage with her! Because of this, she actually cares when her friends start dying and isn’t going to take it lying down.
When a Horror Heroine faces her antagonist she does so with purpose and conviction. That is not to say that she isn’t afraid—to say that would be dull and a disservice to her character—but she is ready to work through her fear because she has every intention of ending this terror once and for all. This is where her triumph lies. She may not actually defeat the killer, since franchises make studios more money, but she takes a personal victory in overcoming her own fears and fighting for herself.
Examples of Horror Heroines are Sidney Prescott of Scream, Ginny Field of Friday the 13th: Part 2 (making it one of the only films in that series I really like), and Nancy Thompson of A Nightmare on Elm Street.
As I hinted at earlier, there are also crossover characters. The best example I can think of for this is Laurie Strode of the Halloween series. In the original, Laurie is very much a Final Girl, but one of the more rounded ones. She and her friends actually do care about each other and she shows quite a bit of resolve during the final battle. In the immediate sequel she plays more of a victim, but when she returns in H20, a lot has changed. She has become hardened by her experiences, but still remains cautious. When the killer finally returns and finds her she is terrified, of course, but she is no longer the girl she once was. This time she is ready to fight and will not stop until she’s sure she has won.
While it’s obvious that I prefer Horror Heroines to Final Girls, I don’t object to their scarcity. For one thing, it makes them that much more special and memorable when they show up. Their fights are the ones worth watching over and over again. Additionally, the Final Girl has her place, too. In order for the killer to be terrifying, he or she can’t have an equal to fight against. We need them to be insurmountable forces of evil to really play on our overactive imaginations and put us in places of fear and unease. This is not to say, however, that the Final Girl has to be the personality-free caricature that she so often is.
Is it possible to have a horror-driven movie that still has well-developed characters? I think so. The Final Girl need not become the Horror Heroine in order to be a worthy aspect of the horror genre, but better writing surely wouldn’t hurt her place. Both archetypes are integral to the success of the genre and I would not claim that one needs to replace the other.