Ever since John Carpenter's horror classic film, Halloween first premiered in 1978, the slasher film has been a familiar staple for horror movie viewers. In the decades that followed, there have been an astonishing number of slasher films though they all tend to follow the same basic formula.
This includes scenes of graphic violence, usually featuring a (typically female) protagonist attempting to stay alive while a faceless evil stalked and killed all the other victims, often in bizarre and creative ways. Despite the gratuitous violence and stereotypical cliches relating to sexism, slasher films have a strange popularity with movie audiences and have even made unlikely film stars out of relentless killers such as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees.
It is hardly surprising that movie producers keep coming out with new releases considering how profitable slasher films have been over the years. The original Friday the Thirteenth movie was produced in 1980 with only a $550,000 budget but went on to become a cult classic that would spawn multiple sequels.
One recurring theme of these slasher films that has taken on a tongue-in-cheek fame all its own involves the Final Girl (or, sometimes the Final Boy). In these films, there tends to be a double-standard involving sexuality with male characters usually being portrayed as promiscuous and sexually aggressive while female characters are often either "good girls" or "bad girls" depending on their own sexual behaviour.
The Final Girl is typically a "good girl" who avoids sexual activity and needs to resist the advances of her more promiscuous friends. One of the best definitions of what a Final Girl is comes from slasher film director Sean Cunningham who is quoted as saying: "The Final Girl in these little morality tales is the person who has embodied the moral code that society thinks allows you to go forward in life".
Sociologists have referred to this moral code as the traditional sexual script that defines appropriate sexual behaviour for both male and female characters. In many ways, the message seen in these kind of movies resembles the rape myths that still remain popular in society. The "good girls" manage to survive while the "bad girls" somehow "deserve" their gruesome deaths by the way they've been acting during the movie. Research studies have shown that male viewers tend to have less sympathy for rape victims in general after watching R-rated slasher films while men who describe themselves as having traditional views about sexuality often report watching slasher films "to see victims get what they deserve."
These kind of slasher films also seem to reflect the Just World hypothesis which regards people as deserving whatever happens to them with the sympathetic characters in the movie being more likely to survive until the end while the unsympathetic characters get killed off in some gory fashion. There seems to be a gender bias at work though with females being more likely to be judged critically than males (eg., being seen as "bossy" rather than "assertive").
Though the formula used in slasher movies and the role of the Final Girl have been endlessly discussed in books, parodied in movies (including my personal favourite Cabin in the Woods), and copied repeatedly there has been surprisingly few research studies looking at slasher movies overall. To fill this gap, a new research study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture provides an in-depth look at Final Girls over three decades of slasher films. Written by psychologist Angela Weaver of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada and a team of fellow researchers, the study looked at the ten highest-grossing slasher films for each of three decades (1980s, 1990s, and 2000).
For the purpose of the study, a slasher film was defined as "commercially released feature length movies in which a human killer (usually male, acting alone) terrorizes and kills multiple individuals in suspenseful scenes which emphasize the victim’s fear, dispatching victims with devices such as knives, hooks, drills, or chainsaws in a variety of violent, graphic and often creative ways.” By using highest-grossing films in their study, Weaver and her fellow researchers hoped to get a true sense of the overall popularity of the film characters for movie audiences.
The films included made up much of the Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises as well as many others. All of the films were coded to identify common features as well as the presence of a Final Girl (or Final Boy). A Final Girl was defined as "primary character who out-lives all (or almost all) of the other primary characters, who survives one or more attack attempts by the killer, whose battle against the killer is the focus of the final act (i.e., final 1/3rd) of the film, and who is ultimately instrumental in destroying (or seemingly destroying) the killer."
Not surprisingly, all of the films included in the study had at least one Final Girl (some had more than one, thus making them Semi-Final Girls). These Final Girls were primarily Caucasian, young, attractive, and single (or in a casual relationship). They also tended to be dressed more conservatively than other females as well as being far less likely than other characters of openly engaging in sex during the movie.
Final Girls were also far less likely to have nude scenes than other characters who died. They were typically sympathetic characters as opposed to those characters who were seen as "deserving" to die. In terms of fight-or-flight behaviours, Final Girls were far more likely than other characters to fight back or run from their attackers (hence their ability to survive).
But what about Final Boys? Though not as common as Final Girls, more than half the movies in the study had one male character who was able to survive. Much like their female counterparts, Final Boys were overwhelmingly Caucasian, single, and young. They were also much less likely than other males to have nude scenes or be shown engaging in sexual activity on-screen. They were also more sympathetic as opposed to other characters who were more prone to act antisocially.
Contrary to what many film critics have suggested, Final Girls aren't necessarily "good girls" though they tend to be less sexually active than other female characters more likely to be killed. For the most part though, they tend to be strong heroines able to overcome enormous odds to survive whatever Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, et al. is throwing at them. This formula has stayed remarkably consistent over three decades of slasher films which may say something about the moviegoers who ensure that these films stay profitable.
So, what does all this mean for those of you who find yourselves in a slasher movie (aside from needing a new agent)? If you want to be a Final Girl (or Boy), be a prosocial, young, attractive Caucasian willing to do what it takes to survive to the end of the movie.
Just don't come back for the sequel.