by Amy Davis, October 2016
With the next four posts, Amy takes a look at female archetypes in horror, specifically the modern slasher movie.
Not being a slasher fan, I must say I did learn quite a lot from reviewing her work and did a bit of investigating into the genre myself.
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The “survivor girl” (or “final girl”) kills to make it through her perils. She is also the one most willing to save others. When her efforts fail, she grieves her loss, which often exacts an emotional toll on her.
If the survivor girl is in a group of that outlasts the killer she will return throughout the franchise (the follow-up films). Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is an early popular example of this formula. Sally is the only one to escape Leatherface (he is masked) by flagging down a trucker. Leatherface flings his chainsaw around in frustration implying she is the first to escape him. Sally sets the tone for Leatherface’s defeats at the hands of women in the rest of the series.
It’s also worth mentioning that Chainsaw establishes another horror archetype, the psychological killer.
And while we are offering up side notes, Anthony Peraino’s Bryanston Films produced and distributed Chainsaw.
The Perainos were the mobsters who also financed Deep Throat (1972), the movie that initiated the modern era of adult film, and used Bryanston as a legitimate cover to distribute that film.
They jolted American culture with off-the-wall violence in one production and hardcore sex in another, forever changing how we regard free speech in film and slamming the door for good on the puritanical Hayes Code that dominated Hollywood from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s.
The Slumber Party Massacre films (1982, 1987, 1990) pits scantily clad girls against The Driller Killer. While this doesn’t sound like an improvement for the empowered female, the film series, written and directed by women incidentally, is actually meant to be a slasher parody though it was received as straightforward horror.
In that same vein, Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) includes a survivor girl who faces her fears and destroys the evil disfigured Freddy Kruger.
The Virgin Question
In these early films, there was one unfaltering rule every horror filmmaker followed: the virgin lives. If she doesn’t have sex with anyone and tends to abstain from drinking and drugs, she becomes a model “survivor girl” ensuring that our culturally programmed moral ethos emerges victorious.
A shift in the survivor girl archetype begins with Scream (1996) when the character Randy so famously recites the rules for a horror film. “Number one, you can never have sex. BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay?” So our heroine, Sidney, remains virginal through most of the film before facing the mysterious killer known as Ghostface. (He wears mask, of course. Freddy doesn’t need one, he’s burn victim.)
In a twist in the tale, Ghostface turns out to be her boyfriend.
By the way, Sidney’s deceased mother is referred to as a whore and the sexual conquests of the other survivor girl, Gale Weathers, are suggested as the film progresses.
These references are intentional. By outlining the rules of horror and then smashing them, Director Wes Craven makes it clear that the virginal archetype needs to be called into question and does so when Sidney and Gale become familiar faces in the Scream franchise.
In the 2009 production Laid to Rest, the main character Princess, who has amnesia, sees a videotape of her former life as a prostitute. When the murderous Chromeskull (you guessed it, it’s a mask) abducts her, she defies the whore stereotype and makes it to the end.
In other words, a checkered sexual pass is not a deterrent to survival.
The Good Girl Revisited
Currently horror is taking a more subtle approach to the survivor girl as the stereotypical good girl.
In the Hatchet series (2006, 2010, 2013), Marybeth is called poor white trash, suggesting that she may not be virginal. However, her sexual status is irrelevant to the plot so it’s not addressed. She rebuffs any advances because they interfere with her vain attempts to eliminate the deformed swamp creature, Victor Crowley (back to disfigurement as a disguise). Protecting her virtue is given little thought. After all, she has a series of films ahead of her.
As part of the slasher movie mystic, most survivor girls brush off unwanted advances due to lack of interest or wanting to stay a virgin. That’s fortunate because the narratives do stick to the old formula of anyone (male or female) being outwardly sexual dies.
But times are changing and perhaps the modern sexually active woman who sits in the audience is more accepting of the non-virgin heroine . . . and keep in mind that consumer dollars drive any industry.
The Purge (2013) deals with this in subtle fashion. The heroine Mary outlasts her tribulations. By the way, this film has a political message about the class system and how America treats its veterans. No one cares that Mary has had sex; they do care about her surviving Purge night because she has children to raise.
The survivor girl’s sexual history (or lack there of) is becoming more and more irrelevant. All we care about is her overcoming whatever obstacles are in her way.
Speaking of Mary, next we’ll look at another horror archetype, the “mother.”