The Top Ten Horror Movie Final Girls Of All Time
Bonus points if they get to have sex AND survive.
You know who the Final Girl is — the plucky and/or lucky gal who makes it to the end of the horror movie alive. The trope has become so ubiquitous that there were two films released last year named after it (the terrible Final Girl and the humorously meta The Final Girls). But do you know where she came from? How and why does she live?
Carol Clover coined the term Final Girl in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992). The Final Girl is essentially the character in the horror movie who survives — after everyone else is slayed, she is the (generally) unlikely winner in her confrontation with the killer. Clover suggests that she is resourceful, capable usually boyish, often with a masculine name (think Laurie from the Halloween franchise).
She also can’t (usually) be sexually active; while gratuitous T&A is expected in horror, we know these women die quick smart. Clover argues that the Final Girl is a way for the audience to share in the terror of the story, which would apparently be unacceptable if demonstrated by a male character. So we identify with our boyish girl who we root for (the “we” here meaning teenage boys, sigh).
An interesting thing about the Final Girl is that she can be seen as a symbol of female empowerment. The Final Girl encourages us to rethink representations of women in cinema. She offers us a character with some substance, who is about taking action and not just being the shrieking often-naked damsel in distress. Sometimes she might just survive, but occasionally she really rises to the occasion in an unexpected and wholly welcome way. This is the Final Girl doing it right.
10. Sally, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most well-known and discussed films in the horror canon. Sally is not the strongest candidate for best Final Girl — she survives, but only just. She has the instinct to flee, a reflex that is inexplicably lacking in many horror victims, however her survival seems more about luck than ability.
Also, the final scene of her drenched in blood screaming makes it seem likely that though she is physically unharmed, she is emotionally broken. This reaction is completely understandable, but it is also fundamentally distressing.
10. Laurie, Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter’s film is one of the most famous slashers out there, a classic horror that features a slew of tropes. Think scenes from the killer’s point-of-view, hiding in darkened spaces and improvised weapons (the coat-hanger is pretty impressive). But Laurie doesn’t survive by herself, so she gets bumped right down the list. This is an unpopular opinion — Laurie is frequently considered a number one Final Girl — but I’m just not the biggest fan. That she is is saved by a man rather than saving herself suggests she was not up to the challenge.
8. Courtney, Trish and Valerie, The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Here we get three Final Girls, who are not necessarily the pure characters that we expect to survive a slasher flick. You would think that Trish would die early on, what with her booze and her weed. Sisters Courtney and Valerie didn’t even go to the sleep-over, but they don’t turn up just to be killed like the pizza guy and the coach.
This film is notable for being both written and directed by women, who intended it as a parody. It doesn’t come across as a straight slasher or a horror-comedy, but it does have plenty of humour. The voyeuristic locker-room scenes of naked women are so lengthy and overstated that they are comical, and the choice of a power drill is an exaggeratedly phallic weapon. Valerie turns this weapon back on the killer, using it to wound him before she kills him with a machete. So she is technically the principal Final Girl, but she doesn’t just use her smarts to save herself, instead helping the others to survive.
7. Mandy, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)
This film was released long after it was made, when director Jonathan Levine and lead Amber Heard had gained recognition. Our Final Girl Mandy is an unknown quantity. We guess that there is more to her than her shallow hot girl guise, and there sure is. She makes it to the end without doing very much, but she sure finishes everything off with vigour.
6. Jess, Black Christmas (1974)
This early slasher is filled with tropes that are now familiar to even the most casual horror viewer. We have a sorority house, hidden bodies, shots from the killer’s point-of-view and creepy phone calls that — twist! — are coming from inside the house!
Our Final Girl here is Jess, who is brave and instinctively arms herself with a nearby fire poker before trying to save her friends. But she is not our typical virginal character, and a central part of the narrative is her revelation to her boyfriend that she is planning to get an abortion. Also, her victory over the apparent killer is upended by the final scene that reveals the true villain is unexpectedly still alive in the attic.
The fact that Jess is not a wholesome, straightforward Final Girl actually makes her more appealing and relatable — her response to the horrific scenario is not overplayed, and she seems more like a real person than many horror heroines.
5. Sidney, Scream (1996)
Sidney Prescott has sex and survives! The rules of horror films are central to the plot, and are discussed by the characters, who are as aware of the standard slasher formula as we are. Wes Craven offers us Sidney as a familiar and also relatable Final Girl. She plays the game that she is at the centre of, and she wins.
4. Suzy, Suspiria (1977)
Suzy is an unexpected Final Girl, which is part of what makes her so appealing. Dario Argento’s gialli are full of the bodies of viciously murdered women, and Suzy stands out as a character who not only escapes this bloody fate, but emerges as a true victor. She is a Final Girl who does not just survive her horrific encounter, she walks out of the academy as it burns to the ground.
3. Erin, You’re Next (2011)
Erin is a next-level Final Girl. The first time she meets her boyfriend’s (wealthy) family goes even worse than this sort of thing might be expected to, with actual blood drawn when dinner is rudely interrupted by murderous assailants. The scenario is full of horror tropes: a rural mansion, masked assailants and gory kills. What is not expected is that Erin is an Australian raised as a survivalist, and she can take care of herself, and everyone else. The intruders are not alone in getting some creative kills, and she is resourceful with her choice of weapon. This adds to the occasional humour that scattered through the blood-soaked narrative.
2. Ripley, Alien (1979)
Ellen Ripley is an ultimate Final Girl. I know her inclusion in this list is contentious, because she does not feature in a typical teens-slaughtered-by-male-maniac slasher. In this horror/sci-fi the foes is extra-terrestrial, and as her team are picked off one by one she survives. In space, she can’t call the police, there are no neighbours to run to and is no woods to hide in. Ripley has to use her instincts to make it to her final spectacular confrontation, where she emerges as the unlikely victor.
1. Nancy, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Nancy is a Final Girl faced with the terrifyingly immaterial villain Freddie Krueger, who kills their victims in their dreams. Freddy is a seemingly unbeatable foe, because, no matter how much coffee Nancy drinks she has to sleep eventually. But she plans for that, and when she goes to sleep she seeks him out, determined to drag him into the real world where he can be defeated.
Nancy becomes a Final Girl because she is admirably smart, resilient and determined. She does not survive by accident but because she strives to. Though she is consistently let down by her parents and her friends, she actively tries to work out what is happening and why and devises and enacts plans to win. She is a worthy Final Girl because she is scared but acts anyway, ultimately conquering her fear in a way that us viewers could barely dream of.
Rose, Shock Waves (1977): Her status as a Final Girl is established from the opening scene.
Amy, The Funhouse (1981): Another Tobe Hooper film about four teens trapped in a carnival ride.
Katey, The House on Sorority Row (1983): Another cult film about a killer in a sorority house.
Trish, Jeepers Creepers (2001): The Final Girl here is not a love interest but a sister.
Mia, Resident Evil (2002): Mia is the kickass protagonist in this film based on the popular video game franchise.
Sarah, The Descent (2005): Sarah’s status as a Final Girl depends on which version of the film you watch.
Needy, Jennifer’s Body (2009): Karyn Kusama’s film about a cheerleader-turned demon is hugely enjoyable.
Kate Robertson is not that kind of doctor. She is a part-time academic who also writes on art and culture, and is currently working on a passion project about women in horror. You can find her letters here and Twitter here.