The Final Girl: A Few Thoughts on Feminism and Horror

by Donato Totaro Volume 6, Issue 1 / January 2002 11 minutes (2741 words)

One of the more important, if not groundbreaking, accounts/recuperations of the horror film from a feminist perspective is Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaw. One of the book’s major points concerns the structural positioning of what she calls the Final Girl in relation to spectatorship. While most theorists label the horror film as a male-driven/male-centered genre, Clover points out that in most horror films, especially the slasher film, the audience, male and female, is structurally ‘forced’ to identify with the resourceful young female (the Final Girl) who survives the serial attacker and usually ends the threat (until the sequel anyway). So while the narratively dominant killer’s subjective point of view may be male within the narrative, the male viewer is still rooting for the Final Girl to overcome the killer. We can see this operating archetypically in Halloween (Jamie Lee Curtis, 1978), Friday the 13th (Betsy Palmer, 1980), Eyes of a Stranger (Jennifer Jason Leigh, 1981), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (Heather Langenkamp, 1984).

One of the book’s central strengths is the direct simplicity of its central premise: taking the classic Laura Mulvey male-centered identification process of sadistic-voyeur and flipping it around to a masochistic-voyeur (by having the identification process shift to the usually female victim/Final Girl). Vis-à-vis the Mulvian argument against male-driven cinematic pleasure, Clover does for the horror film what Gaylyn Studlar did for the Sternberg-Dietrich films: swapping the Post-Oedipal, male voyeuristic-sadistic impulse for a more feminine, Pre-Oedipal masochistic impulse. In psychoanalytical terms, sadism is post-Oedipal, meaning that it takes shape when identification shifts from the mother to the father. Masochism, deriving pleasure from one’s own pain or submission, is pre-Oedipal and takes place when the mother is all powerful and is the source of the child’s identification (from the womb to the breast). In the pre-Oedipal stage the child takes pleasure in this pure submission to the mother. (Fellini once said a similar thing about why his films are populated with large, motherly women and ‘motherly’ prostitutes: because of middle aged men not wanting to let go of that pleasure of unadorned submission.) In relating this to the Sternberg/Dietrich films, the implication is that one can also identify with the submissive male or female character one finds in each of the films. When turning this over to the horror film, as in the traditional slasher film, the spectator assumes a submissive position whenever they identify with the female victim, and more importantly, the female heroine (the Final Girl).

Final Girls: Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and Jason Jennifer Leigh in Eyes of a Stranger

Hence weakness or victimization, which may be seen as a form of disempowerment, becomes a pleasurable submission to the mothering body. In Barbara Creed’s feminist psychoanalytical account of the horror film, this mothering body takes the form of the “The Monstrous Feminine”: the female as castrated male becomes the female as castrator, period. Although psychoanalysis never really gives full justice to the social, political and artistic subtleties of any film, it does seem best served by the horror film. Even staunch anti-psychoanalysis theorist Noel Carroll admits to its value where horror is concerned. What is also commendable about Clover’s approach is that she has at least seen a lot of horror films and supports her arguments with textual analysis. But there are other precedents to her main argument, most clearly Linda Williams’ “When the Woman Looks” (which Clover acknowledges but discounts as still being dependent on the sadistic-voyeuristic model).

The Linda Williams essay serves as a bridge from Laura Mulvey to Clover by positioning the woman not only or just a victim, but as a symbiotic double for the monster (monster/woman as ‘different,’ ‘freak,’ object-to-be-looked-at, victimized, etc.). Which harks back to the early horror film classics where the monsters were sympathetic figures (wolfman, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, King Kong, the Mummy, etc), unlike the demonized and psychologically disturbed human monsters of the modern era. The “otherness” of so many classic horror movie monsters could be seen as metaphoric explorations of different forms of ‘difference.’ For example, racial (King Kong (1933, Merian Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack), sexual (homosexuality and lesbianism in Nosferatu (F.W Murnau, 1922), Dracula’s Daughter) (Lambert Hillyer, 1936), ethnic-cultural (The Mummy) (Karl Freund, 1932), and parental (Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), The Bride of Frankenstein) (James Whale, 1935). Another essay that makes a similar argument is the French piece by Gérard Lenne called “Monster and Victim: Women in the Horror Film” (listed in Clover’s bibliography). Lenne sees woman as a dual being, beginning with the Maria doubles from Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) and following through on many European models as well (lacking from the Clover book, which concentrates exclusively on American films).

Ellen Confronts Nosferatu: Sacrificial Passion or Taboo Sexual Desire?

For example, the wonderful female doppelganger of Barbara Steele as the benign countess (dressed in black) and her evil look-alike descendent witch in Mario Bava’s amazing La Maschera del demonio/Mask of Satan (AKA Black Sunday, 1960). Or the angelic looking but murderous blond haired ghost girl in Bava’s Operazione paura/Kill, Baby, Kill, 1966, who literally represents the town’s (returning) repressed dark secret (which influenced the angelic-demonic girl in Fellini’s Toby Dammit, 1969).

The Bavaesque Angelic Demon From Toby Dammit

Another key touchstone essay for Clover is the famous 1981 Roger Ebert diatribe against the subjective point-of-view killing mechanism of the slasher film which, he argued, placed viewers in the position of ‘seeing as’ and ‘identifying with’ the maniacal killers. Ebert then turns this into an anti-feminist backlash movement (although Ebert did give Halloween its due respect). But even Hitchcock disproved this simplistic association of subjective point of view shooting with audience identification by believing in point-of-view cutting as a stronger way of achieving audience identification with a character (i.e. cutting from a shot of the character, to a shot of what they are seeing, and back again). Clover turns the Ebert argument on its head by making horror films much more victim-identified (masochistic rather than sadistic).

In any case, Clover and other feminists deprive themselves of great potential material with their near exclusive dependence on American horror. American horror, like its popular culture in general, is generally prudish and too deeply entrenched in a Puritan past to really engage in sexuality, which is so important to the horror film. For example, Isabel Cristina Pinedo’s fine book Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing (1997) cites over 120 films in her book, but only 3 are non-English language films! As a professor of “Media and Cultural Studies,’ this points to a general inherent drawback with any “Cultural Studies” approach: the culture in question is usually the one the writer is born into, in this case of course American. But it is in the European horror film where sex and violence really cook. Typified by the title of the excellent book by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs: Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 (1994). In the American horror film women are murdered for their sexuality and desire, from Cat People (1942), to The Birds (1963), and onward, and expressed archetypically in Psycho (1960), where Marion Crane arouses Norman’s repressed (homo/Oedipal) sexuality and is subsequently murdered by his jealous ‘mother’. An exception is the Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg with Rabid (1975), where ex-porn star Marilyn Chambers stars as a victim of science gone wrong who sprouts a nasty, phallic-like lesion that makes her crave blood. And Shivers (1974), featuring Bava/Italian horror icon Barbara Steele as the lesbian seductress/vamp, which champions pure, unadulterated sex-drive in the form of a parasite.

Barbara Steele: The Archetypical Euro Scream Queen

Much auto-feminist criticism points to the fact that there is no pleasurable room for female spectatorship, or more directly, does not address how the horror film may speak to female empowerment. Most feminist recuperations of the horror genre entail shifting the emphasis from, as noted above, a male/Oedipal sadistic position to a female/Pre-Oedipal masochistic position. But when this happens, as in Barbara Creed’s the monstrous-feminine, the ‘vagina-dentata,’ is still only an externalized reflection of male anxiety and fear of the female (Alien (R. Scott, 1979), The Brood (D. Cronenberg, 1979), The Exorcist (W. Friedkin, 1973), Carrie (B. De Palma, 1976), and I Spit on Your Grave) (Meir Zarchi, 1979). And I do not know of too many women who would take great pleasure in such an identification, as either a masochist or castrator. The deeper problem resides in the built-in patriarchy of depending on a Freudian psychoanalytical model, where an active or powerful woman is nothing but a ‘masculinized’ woman (or a closet lesbian). Isabel Cristina Pinedo acknowledges this problem and writes, “If a woman can not be aggressive and still be a woman, then female agency is a pipe dream. But if the surviving female can be aggressive and be really a woman, then she subverts this binary notion of gender that buttresses male dominance.” [1] This is exactly what occurs in the Italian sex-horror film Femina Ridens (Frightened Woman, 1969), by director Piero Schivazappa, who plays his cards up front by displaying a huge vagina dentata in his set design (more than a decade before all these feminist accounts), and has a twisted, millionaire playboy character literally walk in and out of it!

Vagina Dentata, literally!

In this film the male character, Dotto (Philipe Roy), invites a young female employee, Mary (Dagmar Lassander), to his modish house for a weekend of S&M. Dotto is James Bond and Austin Powers rolled into one, but the tables slowly turn to the point where Mary becomes the willing master (similar to the dynamic power shift in Losey’s The Servant, 1963). In fact, by the end of the film we discover that Mary was never a victim, but had actually planned the event. In this latter case, the female spectator is given ample space within the narrative to identify with the woman’s sexual (and not necessarily violent) empowerment. [2]

In the American horror film, women are usually murdered because of their having had sex, or desiring sex. In the Euro horror film women murder because of their carnality! A classic in this regard is the Spanish shocker Vampyres (1974, José Laranz), a Carmilla-inspired lesbian vampire story about two female vampires who detour men into their castle-lair, drug them, and then keep them as imprisoned blood supplies. In Vampyres vampiric carnality is the erotic. Another film which wears its female carnality on its sleeve is the sleeper French horror film Baby Blood (1990, Alain Robak). In this darkly humorous film a circus-bound tentacle incubating in a lion escapes into the womb of a pregnant woman (played by Emmanuelle Escourrou). The alien womb turns the woman into a ravenous, voracious male killer (reminiscent of the Marilyn Chambers character in Rabid). In the infamous German underground film Nekromantik 2 (Jörg Buttgereit, 1988), female sexual desire manifests itself in the perverse arena of necrophilia. It may not always be pretty, but female sexuality is often celebrated in the Euro horror film. Subsequently, within the relativized moral rules and aesthetic merits of the horror world, the approach found in the Euro horror bears a far richer and healthier terrain for feminist analysis.

Female Carnal Desire in Vampyres

The suppression of female sexuality is the critical subtext of the British exploitation horror film The House of Whipcord (Peter Walker, 1974). In the film a woman and husband, banished from their positions in the British court house because of corruption, run their own secret court-prison for women of "lax moral conduct." They rid the world of sexual liberation by sending out their attractive son to swinging London as bait to return with young, sexually active women, who are then detained as prisoners. Punishment for not abiding by their ridiculously strict prison rules escalates from solitary confinement (1st offence), flogging (second offense), to death by hanging (third offense). The film was made as an unabashed exploitation film, complete with sadomasochism, incest, and (slight) female nudity, but below the exploitation is a social critique of what director Walker saw in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s as an increasingly sexually and politically repressive British society.

Repressing Female Sexuality in The House of Whipchord

Where the ‘final girl’ is concerned, there is a wonderfully strange coincidence that exists between Texas Chainsaw Massacre (T. Hooper, 1974) and The House of Whipcord (made in the same year). Chainsaw ends with the Final Girl escaping her torturers out onto a nearby highway, where she is saved by a passing truck driver. Whipcord BEGINS with a physically distraught and semi-comatose woman escaping from some horrendous situation out onto the street, stopping and being picked up by a truck driver! The film then switches to flashback to tell her story (the Final Girl in reverse!).

Final Girl “In Reverse”

Returning to Carol Clover, her central argument does not work as consistently well in the European horror film, simply because the killers/murderers in Euro horror are often female! Hence the gender dynamic is rarely the same as in the American model. Mainly because in the European horror film there are many instances where (a) the victims are exclusively or mainly male, and (b) the male victim/hero is sexually attracted to the female killer, not repulsed, as with the monstrous-feminine, and hence there can be no disavowal of her femininity. Consequently, there are less instances where, vis-a-vis Clover, the male viewer is able to simultaneously experience these forbidden desires and disavow them on account of the victim being female. However, if you stick with the American model, as Clover and other feminists usually do, there are still the interesting exceptions and films that can be read ‘against the grain’ (as Clover and others such as Vera Dika, Cynthia Freeman have done with the slasher film, and which has been brought out into the popular mainstream with the —overrated— Scream). But there are far more interesting gender politics to be found in such European horror films as: the sensual lesbian vampire films Daughters of Darkness (1974, Belgium, Harvey Kumel); Blood and Roses (Roger Vadim, 1961), Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker, 1970), Immoral Tales (Walerian Borowczyk, 1974), and Lust for a Vampire (Jimmy Sangster, 1971); the female revenge film The Blood Spattered Bride (Vicente Aranda, Spain 1972) (in contrast to such as American versions as Carrie, Ms. 45, (1980, Abel Ferrera) I Spit on Your Grave, etc); the British Alien rip-off Inseminoid (Norman Warren, 1981), which features Judy Geeson impregnated by an alien and killing the crew (the ‘monstrous-feminine’); the aforementioned Baby Blood; and pretty much the whole oeuvre of the French director Jean Rollin, who made close to a dozen films in the 1960’s/70’s which feature female vampire predators in a dreamy, surreal pop art world, usually with very little dialogue (Le viol du vampire, 1968, Le frisson des vampires, 1970, Requiem pour un vampire 1972, La rose de fer, 1973, Fascination, 1980). While there are some questionable and extremely misogynist European horror films (as is par for the course), there are also far more of the sexually liberated variety. In general, the gender-political range is broader in the European horror film, and these films should be mined by feminist writers and theorists, rather than merely attempting ‘against the grain’ readings of familiar, over-analyzed American models.


1. Isabel Cristina Pinedo. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997, 83.

2.The frame stills from The Frightened Woman are taken from the DVD release, courtesy of First Run Features.

Bibliography of Important Feminist Horror Film Literature

Berenstein, Rhona J. Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender, Sexuality, and Spectatorship in the Classic Horror Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996

Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.

Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine. London: Routledge, 1993.

Dika, Vera. Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Genre. Rutherford, NY: Fairleigh Dickinson, UP, 1990.

Freeland, Cynthia. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Colorado: Westview Press, 2000.

Ebert, Roger. “Why Movie Audiences Aren’t Safe Anymore.” American Film (March 1981): 54-56.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia, UP, 1982.

Modleski, Tania. “The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory.” In Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Ed. Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indian, UP, 1986, 155-66.

Lenne, Gerard. “Monster and Victim: Women in the Horror Film.” In Sexual Stratagems,ed. Patricia Erens.

Pinedo, Isabel Cristina. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Williams, Linda. “When a Woman Looks.” In Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Criticism. Ed. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams. Frederick, MD: American Film Institute, 1984, 83-99.

Wood, Robin. “Return of the repressed.” Film Comment 14.4 (July-August, 1978): 25-32.

The Final Girl: A Few Thoughts on Feminism and Horror

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 6, Issue 1 / January 2002 Essays   eurohorror   feminism   film theory   giallo   horror   psychoanalysis