By JENN ADAMS
The Final Girl is one of the most beloved archetypes in horror. The term, coined in Carol J. Clover in her seminal essay, “Her Body, Himself” describes the sole survivor of the slasher film. Clover builds her theory mainly on three characters, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween), and Vanita ‘Stretch’ Brock (Caroline Williams, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). The first chapter in her classic book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film also lays out the framework for the slasher film, a sub genre of horror that has held strong for nearly fifty years. The late ’90s saw a slight deviation in this format as Scream (1996) ushered in a series of meta-slashers. Twenty-five years later, we’re witnessing the emergence of a new variation, the legacy slasher.
While this trend arguably began with the 2011 film Scream 4, the legacy slasher craze kicked off in earnest with Halloween (2018). Serving both as remakes and direct sequels to their original films as well as hopeful reboots to dormant franchises, the new Blumhouse Halloween trilogy, and the recently released Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) are most notable for ushering in the return of Laurie (Curtis) and Sally (now played by Olwen Fouéré), beloved Final Girls back for one last showdown with the killers they once escaped. As these horror icons return, perhaps it’s time to also return to Clover’s classic theory to see if the formula still holds. While Stretch is an impressive Final Girl, she has yet to return to a franchise sequel so for the purposes of this essay, we will leave her triumphantly waving a chainsaw on the top of an amusement park mountain.
Though opinions vary on the first official slasher, Clover bases her theory mainly on Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) with elements from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) serving as a sort of prototype. Hooper’s film follows Sally, her friends Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn), and Jerry (Allen Danziger), and her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), on a summer road trip through rural Texas. The group stumbles into the clutches of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a chainsaw toting giant wearing a mask of human skin, and his deranged family. The five friends are brutally dispatched one by one until only Sally remains. She joins the family for a dinner of human sausages likely made from the bodies of her friends, before escaping through a window and jumping into the bed of a passing pick-up truck. In the film’s final scene, she laughs and screams while covered in blood as she watches Leatherface recede into the distance, swinging his chainsaw in rage and frustration under the rays of the morning sun.
Though it informs much of Clover’s theory, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is often thought of as a proto-slasher, while many consider John Carpenter’s Halloween to be the first true example of the sub genre. In Carpenter’s film, Laurie and her friends Annie (Nancy Kyes), Lynda (P.J. Soles), and Bob (John Michael Graham) are stalked and attacked by a masked killer who would come to be known as Michael Myers (Nick Castle) in later sequels. After finding the bodies of her friends, Laurie is herself attacked several times over the course of Halloween night. She fights her way free each time before being saved by Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), Michael’s psychiatrist who has followed him to Haddonfield. The doctor shoots Michael who then falls off a second floor balcony before escaping into the night.
Clover’s theory focuses on five key elements: the killer, the locale (aka the Terrible Place), weapons, shock effects, and victims, with the Final Girl standing as the sole survivor. She is the enduring heart of the slasher, providing inspiration and empowerment for generations of fans. The legacy slasher is arguably defined by the return of the Final Girl from the franchise’s original film. Now horror matriarchs, these women come back for another showdown with their equally iconic foes and attempt to pass the torch to a new generation of Final Girls. But also notable is their troubled mental state. Both Laurie and Sally return as shells of the girls they once were. While carefree and innocent in their original films, they have been hardened by trauma in the decades that follow, dedicating their lives to hunting down and killing the men who once hunted them.
If the Final Girl is the slasher’s heart, the masked killer is its star. Though they come in many shapes, sizes, and masks, the slasher killer is usually male, single-minded in his violent focus, and hiding behind some sort of disguise or deception. He is seemingly indestructible, returning again and again to hunt down new victims. This is the case for the most recent legacy slashers. In Halloween (2018) Michael (James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle) once again breaks out of a mental institute and returns to Haddonfield for another killing spree. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) implies that Leatherface (Mark Burnham) has been hiding in an orphanage ever since Sally escaped his family home. The death of his adopted mother causes him to rev up his chainsaw once more and mount a killing spree on the young people seeking to gentrify his dying town.
They are the original killers, mirrors of the original Final Girls, and their motives remain largely unchanged. Michael dons his iconic mask and picks up another large kitchen knife. Leatherface creates a new mask from a human face and slices through anyone who crosses his path. The Shape and the Saw have returned to kill again. Aged but just as powerful, they exist as symbolic evil; a murderous force that has been dormant for decades, now running rampant through a new community. Both franchises have made attempts to humanize these killers, but our collective consciousness knows them as representations of pure destruction. We see glimpses of both without their masks, though their faces exist mostly in shadows. The focal point is the masks they wear and the evil they symbolize.
Clover’s theory also notes the Terrible Place, a central location where the killer’s evil thrives. Leatherface’s family farmhouse and the adjacent gas station are prime examples of these deadly locales. Sally and her friends happen upon them and become victims of the evil that occurs there. Michael’s Terrible Place is a bit more nebulous. His first murder occurs in his childhood home, a house that subsequently becomes the local haunted house. Though his later crimes do not occur here, Laurie becomes a target when she approaches the Myers House to drop off materials for her father’s realty business. Lurking within, Michael fixates on her and stalks her throughout the day. She does enter the Terrible Place, but her connection to its evil casts a shadow that follows for the rest of her life.
The Terrible Place is the most adaptable of Clover’s key elements. Though most slashers have a central location for killing, Halloween (1978)’s own ending and the opening scenes of its first sequel demonstrate the transient nature of evil. The Myers House doesn’t appear in the modern trilogy until the second film, Halloween Kills. In Halloween (2018), the Terrible Place is Laurie’s own home. Obsessed with revenge, she has transformed her house into an elaborate trap for Michael, intending to capture him there and kill him once and for all. Leatherface’s reign of terror is every bit as gruesome in Harlow as in his original farmhouse. One major killing spree occurs on a party bus, itself an instrument of transportation. Though the Terrible Place is often the site of the instigating violence, it is rarely the sole location of depravity. In fact, legacy slashers show that evil lives within the actions of the killer, not the place from which he came.
Much of Clover’s theory focuses on the intimacy and phallic nature of the killer’s weapons; Michael’s long kitchen knife and Leatherface’s iconic chainsaw. Though both also use weapons of convenience, found objects in Michael’s case, and occupational tools of the slaughterhouse for Leatherface, their instruments of death always require close proximity with their victims. In the years following their attacks, Sally and Laurie each pick up their own weapons; large shotguns and rifles. This choice is an inversion of Clover’s theory as she notes that slasher killers never use guns against their victims. Guns allow shooters to attack from a distance and the killers she describes thrive on watching their victims die up close.
Both Laurie and Sally find safety in their shotguns, though they turn out to be less than effective in the long run. Another characteristic of slasher killers is their superhuman strength and endurance. Though they may be momentarily slowed by a shotgun blast or bullet wound, they quickly get back up and attack again. They are also rarely afraid of these guns, tending to charge forward and grab the barrels, rendering them useless. Leatherface prevents Sally from cocking her gun with his hands while Michael takes Laurie’s own shotgun from her and chokes her with it. Meant for protection from a distance, these long weapons prove to be of little use against a killer who prefers to attack up close. It is in picking up the knife once again that the girls are finally successful. Sally stabs Leatherface with a small blade and Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) strikes the decisive blow with Michael’s own knife.
Shock effects are present in both versions of the Slasher, though dramatically dialed up in later installments. Both Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) are known for their extremity, though both are relatively bloodless. The audience doesn’t see the impact of most wounds, but Sally and Laurie do. Another facet of the Final Girl trope is that they absorb the weight of the trauma around them. They not only survive, but live with the knowledge that their friends have not. Witnesses to unthinkable tragedy, Sally watches her brother brutally torn apart by a chainsaw and Laurie stumbles upon the posed bodies of her friends. But with the advancements of special effects and audiences increasingly demanding gore, legacy slashers are shockingly brutal. We see the deaths up close. We absorb the trauma along with the Final Girls.
The victims of both slashers and legacy slashers are largely the same, but with one interesting difference. Clover notes that men are typically killed more quickly than women with male deaths often appearing offscreen while the deaths of female characters become focal set pieces of the film. This bears out in Halloween (1978) as both Lynda and Annie are slowly strangled while Bob is quickly, albeit brutally dispatched with a single blow. But the theory is more noticeable in Hooper’s film. Franklin, Jerry, and Kirk all die very quickly with either blows to the head or the aforementioned chainsaw evisceration. But Sally and Pam are both witnesses to the atrocities. Sally watches Franklin die and lives through the most depraved family dinner in history, while Pam is hung on a meat hook with no choice but to watch Leatherface hack her boyfriend Kirk to pieces.
In an interesting update, legacy slashers visit extended brutality on male bodies as well. Dante’s (Jacob Latimore) demise is more violent than that of his unnamed fiancé and Richter (Moe Dunford) suffers perhaps the most upsetting death of the film. In Halloween (2018), Allyson’s friend Oscar (Drew Scheid) is hung by the chin from a wrought iron gate. The male/female podcasting duo presents another example of this reversal. Though Dana (Rhian Rees) is tormented in the gas station bathroom, her death occurs mostly offscreen with only the stillness of her shoes to indicate her passing. Her partner Aaron (Jefferson Hall) is slammed repeatedly against the bathroom walls and left to bleed to death in the corner. Legacy slashers seemingly seek to correct decades of imbalance by punishing male bodies while finally letting women off the proverbial hook.
But what of the returning Final Girls? The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s famous tagline asks, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” Legacy slashers seemingly exist to answer the second question. Clover makes an important distinction between Final Girls who defeat the killers themselves and those who survive long enough to be rescued. Sally and Laurie both fall into the latter category. This is not to diminish anything either incredible woman does during her respective story. Laurie stabs Michael several times and fights her way out of a closet with only a coat hanger as a weapon. Sally endures a hell most of us could only imagine and jumps out two windows in order to avoid certain death. But the fact remains that because they have no time to mount a planned counter attack, they are both rescued by others. Sally is driven away in the back of a passing pickup and Laurie waits in the hallway as Loomis shoots Michael. They do not get the catharsis of their own kill. Though Laurie does return in several films, both Halloween (2018) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) are notably direct sequels to the original films. In their respective cinematic landscapes, Laurie has remained in the hallway and Sally continues screaming in the back of the truck.
Perhaps the real reason for their return is to give them the closure afforded to Final Girls who would follow in their footsteps. In the conclusion to the original Scream, Sidney (Neve Campbell) shoots the killer in the forehead, definitively ending both his murderous rampage and his life. She returns in her own legacy sequel, Scream (2022), though her appearance does not feel as redemptive. She struggles with the trauma she’s endured, but Sidney walks away from each Scream film having delivered a cathartic death to the killer who terrorized her. She has found her own empowerment. Sally and Laurie don’t get that luxury in their original films. Only escaping their killers, they live the next decades of their lives fearing his return and longing for the empowerment of a decisive kill. Maybe we bring them back because we want it just as much as they do.
Many have written that the slasher villain exists as a representation of patriarchy, an omnipresent male threat lurking outside the edges of everyday life. If slasher killers represent the patriarchy, perhaps their longevity stems from the fact that this force is still alive and well in our current culture. This may be another reason why we seek the original source of our empowerment. We want to know that not only did Laurie and Sally survive once, but they keep surviving. We find comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our ongoing trauma. We live vicariously through their initial survival but also the acknowledgement that the trauma they suffered has done lasting damage. Their overt brokenness is representative of the stress we feel in continuing to fight the same fights year after year, decade after decade. Maybe the relief comes in actually seeing it recognized and believed.
If this were the sole reason to bring our beloved Final Girls back, we would likely get the cathartic empowerment we long for. But these films also serve as intended reboots to their franchises; our horror matriarchs exist alongside younger versions of themselves, new Final Girls to embody the archetype they originated. While there is a certain empowerment in watching young women learn at the feet of these powerful matriarchs, this often relegates our returning Final Girls to their stories’ subplots. Studios do not want a decisive end to the story and so Laurie is perpetually stalked by a killer who will not die. Sally, whose return feels largely perfunctory, is thrown away for a fleeting moment of shock at the end of Leatherface’s saw.
The actual empowerment we seem to crave can be found in the first ever legacy slasher, Halloween: H20: 20 Years Later. Though arguably a prototype of the subgenre, Steve Miner’s franchise installment brings Laurie Strode back as Keri Tate (Curtis), her pseudonym in an alternate cinematic timeline. In this film, Laurie has changed her name and attempted to start her life over in California. Though still struggling, Keri does have a full life. She has a son, a functioning job as headmistress of an elite boarding school, and a boyfriend who tries to help her heal. She is still haunted by the trauma of her past, but has actively tried to move on. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of legacy slashers is that they tell us our beloved Final Girls have remained in the moments of their original film’s conclusions, locked in the immediate aftermath of the attacks that have come to define their lives.
It’s in Keri’s story that I find the most hopeful ending. Deciding to turn and fight, she does not pick up the killer’s knife or an ineffectual gun, but a new weapon. She hunts Michael with an ax on her own terms. Keri becomes the stalker, not because she’s spent years planning to do so, but because the time has finally come to stop running. Keri gets closure with the man who tried to kill her and the catharsis of a definitive kill when she chops Michael’s head off with her own unique weapon. Though another sequel reframes this ending, I like to pretend that her story ends on that California hilltop. She will still have trauma to deal with, but she can go forward knowing that she has forever vanquished her boogeyman. Her story will have a brighter future because she has not spent the majority of her life trying to relive a moment that has already passed. This is the legacy we should want for our Final Girls: that they stop living in the shadows of their boogeymen and find their way back to lives of their own.