‘Halloween’ Flips the Final Girl Trope On Its Head

Kim Taylor-Foster
Movies Horror
Movies Horror

SPOILER ALERT: The following article contains spoilers for Halloween. Proceed at your own risk.

The Final Girl is defined by a narrow set of characteristics. You’ll know her as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Sally, Halloween’s Laurie, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy.

According to Carol J. Clover who first coined the term, the Final Girl is the last surviving female in a slasher film who manages to evade death at the hands of a serial killer. Clover, writing in her 1992 book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, looked at the stalk and slash films of the 1970s and 1980s – of which John Carpenter’s Halloween, released in 1978, is a major player. A Final Girl’s survival typically follows a string of murders where her peers are picked off one-by-one, before she has a drawn-out confrontation with the killer at the end of the film.

Not only that, but the Final Girl is also chaste, in contrast to her sexually active, uninhibited friends, and ‘pure’ – resisting the vices, such as booze and drugs, that others indulge in. The implication is that she is morally superior, and more worthy of survival. Final Girl might ultimately be rescued by another person – usually male – and she can often have a non-gender specific name.

In order to grasp how the concept of the Final Girl has shifted today, it’s critical to understand the character’s unwritten role in the subtext of the films Clover analysed. During the confrontation with the killer, the Final Girl tends to undergo a masculinisation process, as the camera’s male gaze shifts focus to force the audience to identify with her. She’s even given a phallic weapon with which to fight back.

Some interesting and complex things are going on here. With a predominantly male-skewed audience for this kind of fare back then – and an arguably less woke attitude making women more complicit in watching via a male gaze – it was posited that audiences wouldn’t identify with a woman character in such a situation. Nor would they accept a man suffering the “abject terror” Clover describes. Yet the terror (and, indeed, woman) need to be present in order to warn the Final Girl not to succumb to the lure of sex, drugs and hedonism. In order for the film to work from a patriarchal standpoint, this gender duality — this transition from feminine to masculine — is necessary. You need to see the woman in terror, but you need to identify with the Final Girl as masculine in order to root for her survival.

The experience of watching shifts from a sadistic enjoyment taken from the events unfolding on screen, as seen from the killer’s perspective, to one in which we root for the Final Girl, who stands in, essentially, for a guy. By the end, the Final Girl’s future is left unclear – the suggestion is often that the killer is still alive – and that’s imperative in order to bring the most patriarchally satisfying conclusion possible to the complex gender role play going on here. It’s interesting to look at what happens to Final Girls when they’re explored in sequels – which we’ll touch on later.

Laurie Strode As Ultimate Final Girl

Laurie Strode Final Girl Halloween
Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in the original 'Halloween' (1978).

With these criteria in mind, Halloween’s Laurie Strode is the epitome of the Final Girl. Considered one of the first – and certainly the Final Girl responsible for the slasher’s ensuing boom, with Halloween itself pivotal in setting slasher rules – Jamie Lee Curtis’s Strode fulfils all of Clover’s defining characteristics.

Where the subgenre developed through the 1980s to introduce Final Girls who might depart in some way from the model – for example, Friday the 13th Part 2’s Ginny (1981) and A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy (1984), both of whom concoct a fairly elaborate strategy to outwit and overcome the killer’s threat without a knight in shining armour showing up – Laurie is always damsel-in-distress. She reacts – largely successfully – throughout the film’s final confrontation to evade death, rather than pro-actively trying to best her pursuer. And, ultimately, she’s reliant on Donald Pleasence’s Dr Loomis to save her. Who turns up at the key moment to fire six bullets into Michael Myers, who in turn promptly tumbles over a balcony, and disappears.

Changing the Landscape Via Scream and Beyond

Halloween Michael Myers Laurie Strode 2018
Halloween reinvents the concept of the Final Girl -- again.

But it was 1996’s Scream, in which Wes Craven parodied the horror subgenre he is critical to helping create, that changed the slasher film forever, and the concept of the Final Girl most significantly. It led to a proliferation of tongue-in-cheek and post-modern slashers, from 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer through 2006’s All The Boys Love Mandy Lane and 2009’s Sorority Row, that subverted some of the familiar tropes including that of the Final Girl.

While Scream’s Sidney was allowed to have sex and survive, the girls in Sorority Row joined together with their eccentric badass house mother, played for laughs by Carrie Fisher, to defeat the guy cutting a swathe through the sisters. I Know What You Did Last Summer was achingly self-aware, whilst Mandy Lane, at first positioned in the Final Girl role, turns out to be (one of) the perpetrator(s). Other more serious films intent on playing with slasher conventions and the Final Girl trope followed, including Silent House (2012), It Follows (2014) and Hush (2016).

And now we have Halloween, the follow-up to John Carpenter’s original gamechanger. David Gordon Green’s new film discounts all previous sequels and reboots to pick up the story after that fateful night in 1978 – 40 years later. And in doing so, the belated sequel does something no slasher film has ever done. It tells the victim’s life story, filling the audience in on how Laurie has been affected during the intervening years, and brings her story full circle. At the same time, it doesn’t just subvert notions of the Final Girl, it flips the entire concept completely on its head.

Upending the Final Girl Trope in Halloween 2018

That isn’t to say that slasher franchises have never returned to Laurie’s story. Indeed, Halloween itself did it in 1981’s Halloween II – now struck from the timeline – picking up the story in the aftermath immediately following Michael Myers’ killing spree of October 31, 1978. Only in doing so, the franchise firmly planted itself in Final Girl trope territory by hospitalising a traumatized Laurie.

In the traditional slasher format, if a surviving Final Girl returned in a sequel, she was usually either institutionalised or killed off, like Friday the 13th’s Alice, who is swiftly dispatched at the start of Part 2 (1981). Elm Street‘s Nancy Thompson found herself a victim of both, first being placed in a psychiatric hospital in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors – albeit as an intern – and then dying at the razor claws of Freddy. It’s a way of upholding patriarchal values and suppressing women who can look after themselves.

Director David Gordon Green very deliberately set out to upend such conventions in tackling his sequel.

“There have been so many clichés or tropes, or however you want to look at it,” he says. “We try to embrace them and then turn it upside down a little bit. So if you’re expectations of a Final Girl are of some kind of damsel-in-distress, you’re not going to get that in this movie.”

In the increasingly enlightened post-#MeToo world of 2018, revisiting a Laurie who resists expectations is necessary, but no less groundbreaking for it. Green’s Halloween directly addresses simplistic readings of Laurie as “psychotic” (interestingly, labelled by daughter, Karen) or a “nutcase” (labelled by granddaughter, Allyson). But it’s not just her progeny that see her in those terms. When two podcasters come to Laurie’s heavily fortified house for an interview she questions why she’s seen in these terms: “Twice divorced, and I’m a basket case?” she asks. It’s a question also meant for the audience to ponder – if Laurie were a man would she be seen in the same way?

Facing Her Destiny

For Jamie Lee Curtis, who reprises the role of Laurie in Halloween, it was important that the story they told in the sequel rang true: “I wanted Laurie to have integrity, I wanted her to have the same qualities that made her compelling and somebody that you cared for in 1978. I wanted to have the same thing happen in 2018 and I wanted to tell the truth.”

But while Laurie is seen as having single-mindedly dedicated her life – bar taking the time to fall in love at least twice and bring a child into the world – to one day confronting Michael again, the film positions it as her acceptance of her destiny. What happened to Laurie in the first film was fate – a major theme introduced into the movie during the classroom scene in which they discuss two writers’ approaches to predetermination – just as it is her destiny to face ‘The Shape’ again.

We also see Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson sitting in a class in which they explore the concept of fate, underlining the idea that fate is once again a major theme in this film. In David Gordon Green’s film, Laurie tells the visiting podcasters that there are “no new insights or discoveries” to be made about her or the case. And this is because this is simply destiny playing out.

Rehabilitation Through Confrontation

In 2018, Laurie Strode lives alone. She has tricky – but not estranged – relationships with her daughter, Karen, and her granddaughter because of the impact the incident had on her life. Vowing to confront him again one day – as podcaster Aaron posits: “Could it be the only hope of rehabilitation is through confrontation?” – Laurie has prepared for the past 40 years for the night that Michael Myers escapes again.

She also prepared her daughter, such was Laurie’s confidence in the fact that he’d return. By the end of the film we learn that the prison, or “cage” Laurie has hidden herself away in isn’t a fortress but instead an elaborate trap, with bolts, locks, iron bars, a weapons arsenal and metal shutters throughout – and a whole lot of wood presumably designed to burn easily. She’s a woman fighting back, knowing that confronting him is the only way to take back control.

As Jamie Lee Curtis says: “Trauma is generational and if it’s untreated, it is lifechanging until you can take back the narrative.”

Interestingly, one of the notions Viktor Frankl examines – the psychiatrist whose teachings Allyson is studying in class – is that a person’s destiny is unique to them. He argued that sometimes the situation in which someone finds themselves in may require that person to shape their own fate, while other times they may be required simply to accept fate and to bear their cross. While Laurie has for many years accepted her fate, she seems to recognise that she is capable of shaping it going forward, by her actions, thereby further breaking out of the traditional Final Girl mould.

Laurie As Final Girl, Killer and Rescuer

Laurie is far from Final Girl, as Carol Clover defines her, by the time this film ends – even though she survives. And in fact, she takes on other traditional slasher roles through the film. At times, she shrugs on the role of killer. In John Carpenter’s Halloween, we see chunks of the film through the eyes of the killer, via a first-person perspective, the camera acting as Michael Myers’ field of vision.

In David Gordon Green’s Halloween, we sometimes see through Laurie’s eyes in the same way, aligning her with the traditional slasher killer role. Not only that but she shares the role of hunter in this film with Michael Myers. This is particularly evident at the end when we see Laurie searching for Michael in her house, prepped to kill. At times, we see Michael unaware of where she is, in an interesting role-reversal.

Laurie is a purveyor of jump scares, too – notably when she comes down the stairs and points a gun at her daughter, saying, “Got you, you’re dead.” But perhaps most pertinently, she mirrors Michael from the end of the first film when she falls over the balcony and lands on the ground below, only to disappear from view. Laurie is turned into stalker herself in this sequel, albeit one who still makes some of the same mistakes of a Final Girl – for example, standing by a window where she can be seen, and grabbed.

Another role she adopts is that of rescuer. Where Pleasence’s Sam Loomis saves her at the end of the original Halloween, Strode is the one who turns up at the critical moment here, rescuing her daughter and granddaughter – both of whom have played a part in outsmarting and overcoming Michael. All of this gives Laurie a power and a prominence that, as a Final Girl, she didn’t have in the first film – a power afforded to no other Final Girl we’ve ever seen on screen.

Passing the Baton To A New Breed

Andi Matichak as Allyson Strode in Bonnie and Clyde costume.

Indeed, while Laurie might be flipping the notion of the Final Girl on its head, granddaughter Allyson fulfils several of the Final Girl criteria. She’s a morally upstanding young woman who is studious and demure and who survives the final confrontation with the killer, saved by a fully ‘masculinised’ Laurie, who dresses in khaki tops and practical trousers, and who never had to atone for her “sins” against the patriarchy – of being capable and independent – by dying in the next film.

In trapping Laurie within the masculinised version of herself that endured at the end of the original film, Allyson is never masculinised (despite the film playing with this notion via her Clyde, out of Bonnie and Clyde, Halloween costume), since she’s never our point of identification. This frees her from the destiny of Final Girls past, setting her apart from the standard Final Girl model. In the film’s closing moments, we see all three generations of women sitting in the back of a truck – Allyson clutching a bloodied knife. The implication is that Allyson will pick up the mantle from her grandmother. Has Laurie Strode literally birthed a new breed of Final Girl?

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.