Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Final Girl: A Look At Literary and Film Archetype

Long, dark hair. Eyes like pools of honey in the sunlight, slowly melting as she pores over the pages of a novel usually considered above the reading comprehension of whatever age she is (she's over eighteen, hopefully). Maybe she wears plaid. Maybe her jeans are ripped, her earrings dangly, her fingernail polished chipped endearingly.

She's lovely in every sense of the word, though she barely knows it, and even though she may come across as occasionally holier-than-thou, she's actually a little insecure about the fact that she's never kissed a boy before, never been in a veritable relationship outside of the romances that she hides, demurely, underneath her twin-sized virginal mattress. 

She's not like any girl you've ever met before, and that's why she's going to survive this. She is, of course, the Final Girl. 

The Final Girl is the girl who gets to survive a horror movie. She takes an axe to the serial killer's own stomach, sets an ingenious trap laid with expert, former-Girl-Scout hands, or calls the cops because the bad guy's forgotten to chop the phone wires. (In most horror movies, she gets to live because she's a virgin, but sometimes she just gets to be smart.)

Horror movie history has shown us this Final Girl in her many, mostly-brunette iterations: Marilyn Burns from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Kristen Connolly from The Cabin in the Woods, Danielle Harris from some of the latter Halloween movies and Jamie Lee Curtis from the former ones, Neve Campbell in the Scream movies, Anya Taylor-Joy in Split, et alia. The list continues. One of my favorites is Taissa Farmiga, who plays Max in The Final Girls, an aptly-named movie that plays on the typical tropes of the sexy, mildly edgy virginal brunette who gets to survive the psycho killer at a summer camp. 

(But I digress.)

The reason that I write this to you - an audience used to rambling book reviews - is because I feel it appropriate in this lovely month of October to tackle some of the film tropes that dominate the horror/thriller/murder-mystery genre and look at them through a literary lens. It is my opinion that effectively, the Final Girl is just as much an archetype as the Magician or Mentor or Sidekick or Hero. Let's get into it:

In Aristotelian poetics, the idea of what is "character" is entirely secondary to the idea of "plot": here, it's held that characters cannot exist on their own without a plot in the way that a plot can exist without characters (Barthes). But let's be real - Aristotle was alive literally thousands of years ago, and we've made some progress since then.

Later on in the critical viewpoint, Aristotle's semi-simplistic views of what makes up a character are expanded upon and manipulated until we get closer to how we see them today: characters are given a selfhood that proceeds/supersedes any action on their part. In short, characters become actual people. Yet we're still able to talk about characters in an archetypal way, basing 'who they are' "not on psychology but on the homogenous nature of the actions assigned to them by the narrative (giver of the magic object, Assistant, Villain, etc.)" (Barthes). What this means is that while we can get complex and delve into the psychology of characters like Harry Potter or Gandalf or Aslan, we know that on a base level, their function within a plot depends on the most obvious facts: that they are an Orphan, a Mentor, and a Savior respectively.

So who is our Final Girl? If we look at the bits of what she does in a horror movie or scary story, we know that she's just a wee bit different from the other characters around her, the characters who die (maybe it's a Sorority Queen, or Jock, or Nerd). She's physically different enough for the audience to recognize that they should pay attention to her, but she's also got to be some level of cunning or smart, because just finding a really good hiding spot on the haunted campground does not a Final Girl make. There's action associated with what she does - oh, hey, maybe I should go back to the freaky locker and grab those bullets I saw earlier, because then I can kill the guy who just ate my friends - but she's someone on her own before any of that necessarily needs to happen. After all, she grew up going hunting with her dad, so she's resilient and resourceful already, which is pretty darn important if she's going to be a good shot once she gets those found locker-bullets into the gun.

I'm a Creative Writing student currently enrolled in a class about the American Gothic (basically, scary stories set in the U.S.). The reason that I'm so interested in the archetype of the Final Girl is because I want to ultimately use her someday in a way that she hasn't yet been used. There's so much potential for a character who we're familiar with already, who we feel like we know even before we've met her. I want to take whatever action my narrative seems to assign to her and convolute it somehow, maybe making her exist across several archetypes. What if our Final Girl was also a Jock, or a Savior, of a Giver of the Magic Object?

Or... and stay with me, here... a redhead?

Barthes, Roland, and Lionel Duisit. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” New Literary History, vol. 6, no. 2, 1975, p. 256. JSTOR.

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