The Final Girl: more than a trope
The year is 1978, viewers watch as Laurie Strode fights for her life against the masked Michael Myers. Laurie is the only survivor of John Carpenter’s Halloween, left alone in the wake of her friends’ murders. Three years later Laurie is fighting for her life once again, in Halloween II. This fight between Strode and Myers has played out on the screen for years. The latest film Halloween Ends was released in October 2022. We’ve all seen characters like Laurie Strode, repeatedly in horror movies and slasher films. A female protagonist who manages to survive against all odds and defeats the movie’s monster. Characters like Sidney Prescott, Nancy Thompson and Ellen Ripley all embody this trope, the Final Girl.
PhD student Morgan Podraza delved into the idea of the Final Girl in 2019 after she received an invitation to present at the Midwest Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference. Podraza was asked to speak on a panel titled “Halloween, Then and Now” which looked at both the original Halloween film and the 2018 Halloween, to see how the franchise has evolved and stayed the same over time.
Podraza was excited to get the opportunity to further explore “a movie that I’ve always really enjoyed and thought a lot about,” she says. Podraza found her love for horror films in middle school, when she first watched The Haunting. “That was like the first horror movie I ever watched by myself, and it really freaked me out,” Podraza recalls.
As a popular culture scholar and instructor, Podraza looks at the ways in which pop culture “represents people’s experiences and how we interact with those experiences.” She began her further research by thinking about how women are represented within horror movies, and more specifically the subgenre of slasher films.
Within the subgenre, she researched the Final Girl trope and returned to the earliest findings about it as first recognized by Carol Clover in 1992. Podraza describes the Final Girl as being “the protagonist of the film” and the character who “spends the whole film noticing things, noticing the threats that are around.” Throughout the film the “other characters are inevitably killed [and the Final Girl] is the character that continues to survive.” With this phenomenon in mind, Podraza watched and rewatched various horror films to see how these characters were treated and the situations they were put in.
“One of the things I didn’t expect when I started was really this incredible cycle of representation of the Final Girl,” Podraza says. She noted how the Final Girl is repeatedly put into violent and traumatic situations in order to become triumphant over the monster she is facing.
Podraza was interested in the question of what happens to the Final Girl when the movie ends, as she realized that these characters are only allowed to live in a world of violence and trauma, repeatedly. This pattern can be seen across the genre as well as in specific movie franchises. “The same actor returns to the same role, in these franchises, to continually duke it out with the same monster,” Podraza says. This research allowed her to start drafting her paper, Forty years later: Laurie Strode and the survival of the Final Girl, which she began writing in 2019.
“Our engagement with popular culture shapes our perceptions,” Podraza says. In her paper, she explores the Final Girl trope throughout the Halloween franchise and how Laurie Strode is brought back to fight the same monster in a cycle of traumatic situations. “Cycles of representations that we see of the Final Girl in slasher franchises are really a reflection of how people think about [and] talk about real violence against women,” Podraza says.
As she was writing her paper, the newest Halloween movie had been released in 2018, and at that same time the #MeToo movement was a large part of public conversations. Podraza realized how relevant this conversation of “recurring trauma” in horror films was to the real-life conversations that were going on. Podraza explains, “Representations of violence against, any women and any sort of minority group, seeing that repeatedly…creates an expectation about what it means to be a part of those groups.”
“I think a lot of people see empowerment in the Final Girl, that she survives against all odds, she’s perceptive, intelligent and clever,” Podraza says. However, since these characters only exist in these cycles of violence, this representation “fails to account for what it means to be a survivor after the violence is over.”
After Podraza finished her paper, she was nominated to give a presentation through TEDxOhioStateUniversity, about this topic in December 2022. Podraza went through an interview and training with her coach, Abi Dumm, to prepare for her talk. “I spent many hours just practicing that talk out loud,” she says. This experience gave Podraza the opportunity to condense her scholarly paper into a talk that would connect with an audience.
Podraza enjoyed “taking something that is in this particularly academic context and making it accessible to a wider audience,” as she thinks this “is the most important part of what I do as a pop culture scholar and instructor.” Through this talk, Podraza conveyed her love of horror with the importance of studying pop culture. “Pop culture is for everybody, and everyone should be able to access it and talk about it and think about it,” Podraza says. The Ted Talk opportunity allowed Podraza to make that knowledge more accessible as she described the concept of the Final Girl to a live audience.
Podraza believes that looking at the Final Girl in films that “people really write off as being dumb and needlessly violent, the horror slasher genre…gives us some tools for thinking about real experiences.”
To learn more about the Final Girl watch Morgan Podraza’s talk, What Happens to the Final Girl After the Movie Ends?
By Kira Kadar