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The best Final Girls in horror movies

Throughout the long history of the horror genre, there have been numerous memorable characters, clever one-liners, and masked killers who have scared and entertained audiences. Almost every villain, whether it’s Michael Myers or Ghostfacehas a “Final Girl” as their main antagonist, ready to fight back after a night or two of unspeakable violence. 

Initially, the trope was associated with physical and moral purity. For instance, Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s Halloween is often polite and “nice,” contrasting greatly with the loose Linda or the careless and sloppy Annie. The term gradually transformed over time as larger societal behaviors changed throughout the decades. In the following eight examples, the evolution of the Final Girl, and what she represents both within the movie and in a greater critical context, can be seen and fully appreciated.

8. Jess Bradford, Black Christmas (1974)

Jess answers the phone call from a stalker in Black Christmas
Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.

Before the ominous voice on the phone asked Carol Kane if she had checked the children in Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls, another eerie individual terrified students in Black Christmas, a slasher movie directed by Bob Clark in 1974. During Christmas break, several sorority sisters, including Jess (Olivia Hussey) and Barb (Margot Kidder), begin receiving anonymous, lewd phone calls. When Barb initially teases the caller, all jokes stop as the perpetrator responds with threats. Soon after, one of the students goes missing, and a local girl is murdered, leading the students to suspect that a serial killer is on the loose. However, the danger is even closer than they previously suspected, as it is eventually revealed that the killer is making the calls from inside their house.

Black Christmas is not only terrifying, but it’s also an empowering horror movie that reveals a commentary on abortion, body autonomy, and women’s rights. The character that provokes the after-film discussion is Jess, who struggles with an unwanted pregnancy. Due to her decision to get an abortion, she fights with her boyfriend, who wishes to marry her and keep the baby. Black Christmas not only does a great job of being a successful slasher but also empowers Jess in her life-altering decision. Jess is a Final Girl who is not only capable of fighting a mysterious killer but is also successful in maintaining her independence as well.

7. Laurie Strode, Halloween (1978)

Laurie grabs a needle in Halloween.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Curtis became a Scream Queen of the horror genre after her portrayal of Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween. After meticulously planning to spend the titular holiday carving pumpkins and babysitting, Laurie instead fights for her life as Michael Myers (Nick Castle), a masked killer and mental hospital escapee, attempts to kill her and anyone who stands in his way.

This Final Girl, however, doesn’t give up and further demonstrates her maturity and ability to make quick decisions. At the same time, she also showcases a tremendous sense of self-sacrifice, as Laurie’s sole goal throughout the film is to protect the children and stop Michael before he harms someone else. Laurie became the model for which many Final Girls were molded after: Virginal, pure of heart, and selfless, all aspects of which made her an easy character to identify with and root for at the time.

6. Sidney Prescott, Scream (1996)

Sidney Prescott is looking at the killer in Scream
Paramount

In Wes Craven’s 1996 meta-horror film Scream, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is stalked by Ghostface, who calls his victims and frequently asks: “What’s your favorite scary movie?” When Ghostface threatens to murder Sidney’s closest friends, she does everything in her power to stop the masked killer (or in this case, killers). With the help of Dewey Riley, a police officer (David Arquette), and Gale Weathers, an ambitious TV presenter (Courteney Cox), Sidney eventually succeeds in surviving and living on to appear in every Scream sequel.

Sidney embodies all the qualities characterizing the Final Girl, with the premise of going back to the family roots — similarly to Halloween’s Laurie Strode — and how parents’ actions can damage their children. Yet unlike Laurie, Sidney has sex and isn’t punished for it, which is rare for a female protagonist in a horror film. The Final Girl in the ’90s and 2000s could be less “pure” and more realistic to how teens acted and behaved…at least onscreen.

 5. Tree Gelbman, Happy Death Day (2017)

A killer stands behind a blonde woman in Happy Death Day.
Blumhouse / Blumhouse

In this contemporary take on Groundhog Day, Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) keeps dying and mysteriously waking up, relieving the same day over and again, but that’s not all. A serial killer with a baby mask on the loose attempts to hunt her and kill her. Assisted by Carter (Israel Broussard), Tree tries to figure out who the killer is and why she is trapped in a time loop.

Tree represents the next stage in the evolution of the Final Girl. She’s not perfect and polite; instead, she curses, she’s rude to her roommate, and she generally doesn’t care about tarnishing her reputation. The comparatively simplistic Jess Bradfords and the Laurie Strodes of the 1970s simply wouldn’t connect with a 2017 audience, who are used to morally complex characters that are less pure and more imperfect than ever.

4. Grace Le Domas, Ready or Not (2019)

Grace laughs in a blood-soaked dress in Ready or Not.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Ready or Not, a horror comedy directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, focuses on Grace Le Domas (Samara Weaving), a recently married woman who is forced to participate in a bizarre game organized by her husband’s family. When the woman chooses the “Hide and Seek” game, everything turns deadly and Grace is forced to face her new family in a life-or-death match.

Weaving’s character represents another modernized version of the Final Girl trope. Grace is a strong-willed person, isn’t afraid to speak her mind, and tirelessly fights to survive. One of the most satisfying scenes is when Grace walks out of the burning mansion, blood splattered on her face and a ruined wedding gown. While waiting for the police, the Final Girl of Ready Or Not sits down and lights up a cigarette. Her expression is solemn, almost numb, as she struggles to process the brutal events that have just occurred. This Final Girl is allowed to feel the trauma of what she’s experienced and isn’t perceived as “weak” for doing so.

3. Dani Ardor, Midsommar (2019)

Dani smiles in MIdsommar.
A24
In Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Florence Pugh plays Dani, a bereaved young woman who travels to Sweden with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), to attend a Midsummer festival after the death of her parents and sister. But as Dani spends more time with the residents of the Swedish village, she realizes it’s a dangerous cult rather than a welcoming community.

In a foreign place, and completely outnumbered, this Final Girl doesn’t surrender, even after the cult, under the guise of faith and tradition, commits terrifying acts, including setting Christian on fire. In the age of “Elevated Horror,” Dani is perhaps the best representative of that subgenre’s Final Girl: Strong, yes, but traumatized, and burdened with feelings of guilt and anger that she eventually overcomes by the movie’s end by choosing to sacrifice her boyfriend to achieve some state of happiness.

2. Deena Johnson, the Fear Street trilogy (2021)

A concerned Deena in the Fear Street trilogy
courtesy of Netflix

Adapted from R. L. Stines teenage horror series of the same name, director Leigh Janiak divided the Fear Street film series into three chronological chapters: 1994, 1978, and 1666. They all create a compelling story about female empowerment, queer love, and revenge. The Shadyside resident Deena Johnson (Kiana Madeira) is dealing with the aftermath of the separation from Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) in the 1994 chapter. When Deena, her brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr. ), and their friends encounter an ancient evil responsible for a series of brutal murders, they set aside any petty grievances to save not only themselves, but their town as well.

What differentiates Denna from other Final Girls is her status as a lead LGBTQ+ character, which is a rarity in a genre that typically adopts traditional, and sometimes conservative, stereotypes and narratives. Deena is the unsung hero of the franchise, facing ghosts, serial killers, and the paranormal to save Sam, her girlfriend. She possesses both the strength of Laurie and the moral complexity of Tree, Grace, and Dani, creating an appealing and aspirational Final Girl who doesn’t care if anyone likes her or not.

1. Tara & Sam Carpenter, Scream (2022)

Tara (left) is answering the phone, Sam (right) is aiming a gun at a killer in Scream
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Tara (Jenna Ortega) and Sam (Melissa Barrera) are the newest Final Girls in the horror genre from the fifth installment of Scream. Twenty-five years after the brutal murders committed by Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) and Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), the sleepy town of Woodsboro is once again rudely awakened by another series of murders. As Ghostface attacks and nearly kills Tara, her sister Sam returns to the infamous town to protect her. Sam and Tara’s friends attempt to figure out who is the killer, aided by the original trio of survivors — Sidney, Dewey, and Gale.

For Tara, the creators did something really great here: They made the Final Girl of the movie a daughter of a serial killer. No longer pure of heart, Tara has visions of her dead father encouraging her to give in to her violent impulses. What makes Tara stand out is that she uses these visions to strike back at the new Ghostface, turning her past trauma into a present triumph. For Sam, her survival breaks the Scream franchise’s tradition of killing off the first person featured in the opening scene.

The inclusion of both sisters as Final Girls symbolize the unity between women, sisterhood, trust, and power. What was once a single female protagonist surviving through sheer luck is now multiple women succeeding through a combination of intelligence, strength, and teamwork. The Final Girl in 2022 isn’t alone anymore. As Scream and other recent horror movies have demonstrated, she is supported by other females, other Final Girls like herself, who succeed in vanquishing any foe, be it a serial killer, cult, or paranormal foe, who stands in their way.

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Zofia Wijaszka
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