Teenie Kill & The Final Girl
By Hannah D. Forman
During my high school years I spent very little time partying and having sex. I did drink, smoke occasionally, and lose my virginity at sixteen but these activities were not a part of my regular lifestyle. Instead, while my friends were out in the dead of night partying, my best friend Jane and I were up late in her house watching slasher films and eating ice cream. Our weekly routine consisted of walking down the block to her video store and spending up to 45 minutes in the horror section trying to find the cheesiest looking movie possible. I never really gave any feminist thought as to what I was watching because at this time I had no interest in politics and little understanding of the women's liberation movement. All I knew was that these movies gave Jane and I tons of private jokes and gut busting laughter at the stupidity of each scene.
When I moved away to college and took my first women's studies course I fell in love with feminism. It became my passion and I joined National Organization for Women (NOW), started a grrrl zine, and read all the classics I could get my hands on. And then it happened. I sat down to watch an old favorite - a Friday the 13th movie for the zillionth time, and noticed a big ball of guilt in my stomach. How could a feminist enjoy watching women being brutally murdered in a sexualized manner over and over and over again? How could I be a feminist and work for a women's right to own her sexuality and be treated as equals to men but go home and enjoy a film genre which seemed stuck inside the values of a less progressive time? As feminist film critic Carol Clover says "We have, in short, a cinematic formula with a twenty-six year history, of which the first phase, from 1960 to 1974, is dominated by a film clearly rooted in the sensibility of the 1950's, while the second phase, bracketed by the two Texas Chainsaw films from 1974 and 1986, responds to the values of the late nineteen sixties and early seventies." Battling with my own personal enjoyment vs. my politics was not easy and resulted in a long break in my horror movie watching evenings. But ignoring something that I enjoyed for so many years just didn't sit well with me. Because even though I wasn't watching the movies I still knew in my heart that I enjoyed them. What was wrong with me?
During spring quarter at Evergreen State College I met a guy named Marco Rossi. He came into the Women's Resource Center where I was interning and proposed the idea of sponsoring a Feminist Horror Movie Night. I was caught off guard at the suggestion because, well, how on earth did feminism and horror movies even belong in the same sentence? When I told Marco how much of a horror junkie I was we both lit up and began a conversation on the genre and its political implications. He gave me a book to read by a feminist critic named Carol Clover entitled Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Genre. I went home and devoured it. I had spent all quarter studying women's history and learning how fearful and even downright hateful our country is towards women and when I read Clover's book I finally after years of beating myself up for being a bad feminist, felt validated. Clover didn't prove that Slasher was feminist- in fact she argues that it is very much a product of patriarchal values but, she opened up a dialogue about the intense complexity of gender and sexual repression within the genre. During this time period the Olympia Sex Conference was happening and Marco approached me with the description of his workshop entitled Sexual Repression, The Tough Guise, Feminism, and The Horror Genre and asked if I would be interested in co-facilitating the workshop with him. I jumped at the chance and so began my study of feminism, gender, and the slasher film.
Until Carol Clover wrote Men, Women, and Chainsaws, discussing the complexity of gender roles within the horror and slasher sub-genre there were many, and continue to be, arguments about the one dimensional anti-feminist backlash that these films are thought to represent. In this genre the most common motivation for the crazed manic killer stems from a negative relationship with a woman- usually the mother or the sister. It is assumed that the psychopath violence is excused because he was done wrong by women during his/her/itís life. Not only is the female blamed for the cause of his rage but consequently the female gender then becomes the primary victim of this wrath. In Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic writer Linda Badley explains:
Feminists have found horror film the particular enemy of women, and it is easy to see why. In a noted statement of 1981, Roger Ebert censured the 'slasher' film from taking the point of view of an anonymous male predator victimizing women (Why Movie Audiences). Since the late 1970's, horror has been popularly equated with the slasher. Originating with John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and followed by films such as Prom Night, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the slasher pared horror down to it's essentials: a killer (psychosexually 'disturbed' and possessing a phallic weapon), a victim or victims (mostly female), and blood. As film technique, the slasher condensed Alfred Hitchcock's thriller into a formula of analytical montage, tracking shots, and crosscuts. Plot in the usual sense was unnecessary. The woman was identified stalked, and brought down by a villain who functioned as an enforcer of patriarchal law (Bradley, p.102).
One must wonder if it is coincidence that these films came out and became popular in the 1970's and 1980's, during the time the Women's Liberation Movement was starting to change the way America viewed women's rights and roles.
There is a website entitled Beautiful Dead Women and in one of the essays a woman who didn't publish her name writes: "Women create the killer, become his victims, and cause his temporary death. Having once been a normal member of society, a man becomes a psychopath when an evil female, a relative, drives him insane. The evil female is not a central character but is recounted through flashbacks or dialogue. If not a blatant affair, the relationship between the male killer and evil female has sexual or incestuous overtones. In the movie Psycho (1960), Norman Bates is driven to kill women when the 'mother' portion of his split personality becomes jealous of females who excite him sexually. Michael Myers, the maniac in Halloween (1978), first wields a knife when his sister neglects him in order to have sex with her boyfriend."
There is no denying the powerful effect Albert Hitchcock's film Psycho had on the creation of the slasher genre; (the very term "slasher" comes from the scene in this film where Norman Bates "slashes" a woman to death in the infamous shower scene). Not only was the term "slasher" taken from this film but the root cause of Norman Bates derangement has been used in almost all slashers to date. Bates suffered psychological damage from a domineering mother and this theme of negative female influence has been used in popular slashers such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare of Elm Street and many others (with the exception of the feminist slasher The Slumber Party Massacre written by Rita Mae Brown which I will talk about later). Aside from the root cause of the slasher's violence some argue that the audience whom is mostly male becomes aroused sexually by the bloody crimes through the usage of camera angles, brighter lighting during the massacre of the female characters, and a woman engaging in sex right before her death. As the author of the website Beautiful Dead Women explains:
The audience participates with the psychotic in his voyeurism. The victim's crime is arousing the killer and the males in the audience sexually. This does not imply that the psychotic is the guardian of morality. If his purpose is to punish those who break the moral code, the killer would have no reason to attack the Final Girl [I will discuss the 'Final Girl' later]. For the maniac and the male audience, violence is an acceptable substitute for sex. In accordance with America's cultural norms, the film directs the audience to proclaim female victims who engage in sexual activity deserving of punishment. Directly before the actual murder of a young woman, the killer either sees his intended victim nude or having sex. The director often shoots this scene using the killer's point of view. The audience participates with the psychotic in his voyeurism. The victim's crime is arousing the killer and the males in the audience sexually.
In 1992 Carol Clover's book not only presented a radical new view of the horror genre from a feminist standpoint but also gave great comfort to feminists, like myself, struggling to understand how they could like these movies despite all their feminist activism and work to end violence against women. It is not that Clover argues that these films are Feminist but instead that they are not as simplistically misogynist as once thought. In fact, Clover argues that there is much to analyze in the way men and women are portrayed in these films and they give us interesting insight into how our society deals with gender confusion, sexual repression, and violence. Clover argues we shouldn't just ask ourselves: "Does this film depict violence against women?" but rather, "Why does it do so? From whose point of view? Creating sympathy with whom? And what final message?" The answers to these questions no doubt are complex and reveal much about how we view the sexes, the double standards that underlie our behaviors and social mores we are brought up to follow.
In the slasher film, going back to the first one-Psycho- there is always one girl to survive the film. Clover has coined her "The Final Girl" and describes her as "Girl-Victim-Hero." The Final Girl and the Killer both share qualities of gender confusion. While the Final Girl is in fact female she is also the only female who has masculine traits and in many ways is similar to an adolescent boy- making it easier for the male audience to identify with her. "The Final Girl, on reflection, is a congenial double for the adolescent male. She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of female competence and sexuality" (Clover, pg. 51). Her name tends to be androgynous (Stretch, Parker, Marti) she doesn't respond to sexual advances and remains virginal while her friends - both male and female pair off and have sex that leads to their deaths. The Final Girl is in fact the only one who does not partake in sex and drugs which allows her to survive since she has not participated in an activity that is unacceptable for her gender. "The Final Girl is presented from the onset as the main character. The practiced viewer distinguishes her from her friend's minutes into the film. She is the Girl Scout, the bookworm, the mechanic. Unlike her girlfriends (and Marion Crane [Psycho]) she is not sexually active. Laurie (Halloween) is teased because of her fears about dating, and Marti (Hell Night) explains to the boy whom she finds herself sharing a room that they will be using separate beds. The Final Girl is also watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore, she registers. Above all she is intelligent and resourceful in a pinch (Clover, pg.39). In other words, the Final Girl seems to follow the Freudian psychoanalytic model, where an active or powerful woman is nothing more than a woman with penis envy, or a closet lesbian. (I will discuss the Final Girl in more detail in the next section.)
Aside from the gender mores of the Final Girl, the Killer is usually suffering from similar and more intensified gender confusion. In Psycho(1960) Norman Bates, for example, suffers from multiple personality - half his mother and half himself. Even though his mother is dead and Norman has preserved her corpse, he embodies her harsh controlling rules, making him murderous whenever he becomes aroused sexually and wearing her clothes to perform the consequential murder. At the end of the film he is seen wielding a knife in his dead mother's dress and blond wig. The weapon, in this case a knife, is always used in these films, guns are never the killer's tools, instead they use phallic objects like knives or drills that are used to penetrate violently in replace of sexually.
Another influential slasher film, Halloween (1978), follows the killer Michael Myers; a mask wearing, indestructible male referred to as the "boogeyman." Michael first murdered when he was six-years old right after his sister had sex with her boyfriend. Once again, Michael used a phallic weapon and used violence as a means for dealing with repressed sexuality. Writer Douglas Winter sums up this "puritanical subtext."
If there is a single certainty it is the teenagers who have sex in cars or in the woods will die. Most Horror stories offer a message as conservative as their morality: conform. The boogeyman of Halloween and Friday the 13th are the hitmen of homogeneity. Don't do it, they tell us, or you will pay an awful price. Don't talk to strangers, don't dare to be different. (Badley, pg.102)
This concept of sexual repression in a puritanical society runs rampant throughout the genre and is the motivating force for these killers. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the killer Freddy Kruger was born to a woman who was brutally raped. He worked in the school as a janitor and would bring children down into the basement and molest them. When the courts let him go the parents took matters into their own hands and burned him alive inside the furnace in the basement he committed his crimes. The premise of this film is that Freddy, now super-human, haunts the children of those parents who killed him by entering into there dreams.
In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Leatherface would kill woman only to steal their body parts, turning their face and hair into female masks that he wore constantly. Silence of the Lambs (1991), which gained the most recognition (even winning an Oscar), also deals with a killer "Buffalo Bill" who wants to be female and therefore kills women, peels off their skin and makes a "woman suit" that he then wears. The film Sleepaway Camp (1984) follows a girl named Angela who ends up being the killer in the end. The very last scene you see her naked, holding an axe, reveling that in fact Angela was biologically male but his mother didn't want a little boy and so brought Angela up in women's clothes. The concept of unhealthy sexuality is the driving force for violence in almost all of these killers live's.
The term Final Girl was coined by Carol Clover and is used widely among those who make and enjoy watching the slasher genre. Clover explains:
The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stager, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friend knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with this knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also find the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B).
The Final Girl is the one to make it to the end of the film, as mentioned earlier she is the bookworm, the mechanic, the non-sexual female, the female who possesses the qualities of Freud's women-as-castrated-male theory. The Final Girl is an essential piece of the slasher formula.
Although Clover doesn't claim that these woman are feminist representations of women, she acknowledges their role on a deeper level instead of writing them off as one dimensional damsels in distress, seeing within the Final Girl an evolving woman who learns to not just run and scream but actually fight back and represent female empowerment which the male audience can then identify with. Starting with Psycho (1960) and working up to Scream (1996) the Final Girl has gone through an immense change. I will discuss each film on this timeline showing the ways the genre has not only evolved but the effect women's roles in society have evolved with them.
In the first slasher film, Psycho (1960) the concept of a Final Girl was not fully developed yet. At the end of the film Lila Crane- who would be the Final Girl for this film- went exploring in Norman Bates' house and discovers the corpse of his dead mother that he keeps in the basement. Just as she discovers her Bates shows up behind her dressed up like a woman intending to kill her. Lila Crane doesn't even have time to attempt to fight back because just as Bates tries to attack her, a man whom she has come to the Bates Motel with comes to her rescue (ending A).
Fourteen years later the film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was released. This film, though heavily influenced by Psycho, helped set the slasher/Final Girl formula in stone for this genre. In this film the Final Girl, Sally, is the last survivor of her friends who have been murdered one by one by an evil cannibalistic chainsaw wielding monster known and Leatherface and his family. After all her friends had been hung on meat hooks and killed gruesomely she is chased and tortured for the last half hour of the film. Being that she is one of the first Final Girls of the genre she does not fight back as much as her later counterparts. She runs and screams and eventually gets saved by a car passing by on the road. Just as Lila Crane in Psycho, Sally was a part of (ending A)- she was rescued. "For nearly thirty minutes of screen time- a third of the film- we watch her shriek, run, flinch, jump, or fall through windows, sustain injury and mutilation. Her will to survive is astonishing; in the end, bloody and staggering, she finds the highway, Leatherface and Hitchhiker in pursuit. Just as the bear down on her, a truck comes by and crushes Hitchhiker. Minutes later a pickup driver plucks Sally up and saves her from Leatherface" (Clover, Pg. 36).
Four years after Sally was rescued by a truck driver in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Carpenter pushed the Final Girl role further along, combining ending options A and B (A: she is rescued. B: she is saved). In Carpenter's 1978 film Halloween, we meet Laurie Strode played by "screem queen" Jamie Lee Curtis. At the end of this film Laurie does not only run and scream like the final girls before her, but attacks the killer Michael Myers by sticking a knitting needle into his neck. When she thinks he is dead she begins to relax, only to realize he has risen again to chase her. "She takes refuge in a closet, lashing the two doorknobs together from the inside. As the killer slashes and stabs at the closet door- we see this from her perspective- she bends a hanger into a weapon and, when he breaks the door down, stabs him in the eye. Again thinking him vanquished, she sends the children for the police and sinks down in pain and exhaustion. The Killer rises again, but just as he is about the stab her, Dr. Loomis, alerted by the children, rushes in and shoots the Killer" (Clover, 37).
Laurie Strode was the first Final Girl in a Slasher film to attempt fighting back. Once Laurie showed the strength the Final Girl is capable of possessing the formula of the genre became more evolved and made room for a female to not only run from the killer but to kill him herself; she had moved from passive to active and did so with much fierceness.
In 1982 Rita Mae Brown wrote >The Slumber Party Massacre, which was then directed by another woman Amy Jonas. (This film is one of the only "feminist slashers" ever made). Upon your first viewing this film might not strike you as particularly feminist, in fact it's got more nudity then most others, although it is done to be ironic and satire. The differenceSlumber Party has with its counterparts is the formula. Usually, the Slasher genre follows the story of the killer, why he kills, his history, etc. Each new installment gives more insight into the killer's psychosis; the victims are the characters to change while the Monster stays the same. In Slumber Party all three installments have different killers while the victims/survivors stay the same. Instead of one Final Girl, there are three. "Valerie in Slumber Party Massacre takes a machete-like weapon to the killer, striking off the bit from his power drill, severing his hand, and finally impaling him" (Clover, 38). When I watched this scene the first thing that popped into my head was castration; the weapon appeared very phallic and the scene where she chops it in half seems metaphorical for his loss of manhood and power.
In Friday the 13th part II (1981) the Final Girl uses her knowledge of child psychology to convince the killer, Jason Voorhees, that she is his mother by putting on the sweater that adorns the alter he has made to her severed head (reminiscent of Psycho). She begins to speak like his mother "Jason, listen to mother." Once he has become submissive she is able to escape. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) has a very resourceful Final Girl. As Clover explains: "the grittiest of Final Girls is Nancy. Aware in advance that the killer will be paying her a visit, she plans an elaborate defense. When he enters the house, she dares him to come at her, then charges him in direct attack. As they struggle, he springs the contraption she has set so that he is stunned by a swinging sledge hammer, jolted and half-incinerated by an electrical charge, and so on. When he rises again, she chases him around the house, bashing him with a chair" (Clover, 38).
The Final Girl has come a long way since Psycho. In fact Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, ends very similarly to the first one- accept now it's 1986 and the Final Girl, Stretch, out runs the killer to the top of a mountain, slashes him open with his own chainsaw, and the film ends with her "in brilliant sunshine, waving and buzzing the chainsaw triumphantly overhead" (Clover, 38); Which is the exact reversal of the situation of Sally in Texas Chainsaw I.
The Final Girl may not embody feminist values but she has certainly come a long way. She is usually the hero and intelligent enough to outsmart her attackers.
After doing much reading and re-watching of and about old slasher films I was able to pinpoint the aspects of the slasher genre that I enjoyed and realize I am not such a terrible feminist for watching them after all. Afterall, the slasher (and horror genre as a whole) deals most blatantly with sexual deviations and cultural attitudes about women and sexuality then any other. I donít view these films as simple entertainment with anti-feminist overtones anymore. Instead I view them as current and past interpretations of gender, sexuality, and culture as a whole in American society. The one genre that people are most uncomfortable watching is the one genre that is not afraid to show it like it is.
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