All her friends are dead, picked off one by one by a knife-wielding maniac in a tacky Halloween costume. But she keeps on fighting. Whether she’s running through an empty house, an abandoned hospital, or a darkened forest, the “final girl” finds herself alone—the only person left alive to take on whatever bloodthirsty monster is lurking out there in the yonder. She’s not always the main character or the most interesting, no, but she is always set apart from the others. Smarter, braver, nicer, more virginal.
Quite a bit has been written about the gender issues concerning this phenomenon in horror films—particularly as it appears in the slasher genre. Why must the lone survivor be a woman? Is it because the audience is more likely to sympathize with her struggle than with a man’s? Is it because the audience wants to see a girl rewarded for hanging onto her purity? Why does the final girl tend to have a more traditionally masculine name than the other female characters? What can we say about her empowering herself with the killer’s own weapon? Emasculation or what?
Huh. Weird, backward sexism in a genre that exists solely on guts and topless women? Surprise, surprise. Either way, we mustn’t neglect that some of these ladies have really kicked butt too. They’ve earned their place in pop culture history along with Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees themselves. And my list of the top ten final girls combines the most famous with the most obscure—to give you a little taste of just how far this trope extends.
10. Sally (Marilyn Burns) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
This timeless tale of five friends coming face to face with a family of cannibals on the Texas back roads has horrified viewers for decades now. Interestingly, Sally doesn’t see much action until the end of the movie, but her climactic escape scene certainly resonates as one of the best. Diving through a window, she manages to evade the clutches of the men who are holding her captive and to flag down a pickup truck, on which she escapes bloodied and traumatized while Leatherface waves his chainsaw about in frustration. Her daring fight for freedom earns her a place on the list.
9. Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) in Stage Fright
This Italian film tells the story of a group of actors performing a bizarre art-house play about a serial killer called the Night Owl. One of the leading players, Alicia, immediately gets the audience’s support. She needs this job desperately, she has to deal with temperamental co-stars and an insane director, and to top it all off, she’s performing through an ankle injury. It’s no surprise that she’s the one to survive when a real serial killer shows up and starts picking people off. Now, Alicia does spend much of the film’s third act unconscious after tumbling down a ladder, but when she wakes up, she proves that she’s cunning enough to evade the killer right up to the end and even has the good sense to go for a gun when the opportunity presents itself (a great feat in a slasher flick, you know) And while Alicia doesn’t necessarily defeat the murderer on her own, being rescued near the end, she nevertheless earns her spot on this list.
8. Alice (Adrienne King) in Friday the 13th
Why do people bother going to Camp Crystal Lake? Whether a drowned boy or his mother, someone is always stalking the teenage counselors. This film was filmed right here in Jersey—at a camp I stayed at a few times growing up. And Alice earns her spot on this list for just about being a parody of the final girl trope. When we see the young woman and her co-workers are playing strip Monopoly, everyone is in states of half-dress but her, and just as she is about to disrobe, a wind blows in and messes up the board. Purity saved by the forces of nature themselves. Now, Alice is not necessarily the most clever character on this list (when given the choice between throwing a paint can at the killer and a roll of twine, she opts for the twine.) All the same, she manages to behead the murderer with a machete at the end, and that’s pretty cool.
7. Jennifer (Jennifer Connolly) in Phenomena
This film is about the daughter of an American movie star who is sent to a boarding school in Switzerland—where someone is picking off the students with a spear. There’s also a chimp that hangs around the local entomologist. And did I mention our heroine has the power to telepathically control insects? This bizarre supernatural slasher flick boasts a relatively famous actress in a relatively obscure role. And while the character of Jennifer makes some questionable decisions (accepting medication that turns out to be poison from someone she suspects is the murderer), her psychic powers help her both get revenge on her bullies and survive to the very end. Fun fact, Jennifer and the chimp did not get along on set even though said chimp saves Jennifer in the film’s finale. That sentence made more sense in my head.
6. Jess (Olivia Hussey) in Black Christmas
This movie is famous for its opening sequence wherein a young woman is suffocated with a plastic bag and left propped in a rocking chair undiscovered for the film’s entirety. But Jess is the one who really holds the plot of this slow, haunting thriller together. And that’s because she’s strikingly more complex than most characters in these types of films. A college student with a somewhat crazed boyfriend, she must cope both with her decision to terminate her pregnancy and with the slasher who’s taken up residence in her sorority house. For defying stereotypes and for her mental and emotional strength turned physical, Jess earns her rightful place on this list. (Even if we’re to assume she’s killed off during the credits and all that).
5. Ginny (Amy Steel) in Friday the 13th: Part 2
Another heroine from the Friday the 13th series, huh? In other lists similar to this one, Ginny proves one of the more enduring entries, and it’s because she relies on her wits to come out triumphant in the end. With a background in child psychology, she manages to fool infamous serial killer Jason Voorhees (pre-hockey mask) into thinking she’s his mother by wearing the dead woman’s sweater. And so, for proving brains always win out over brawn, Ginny thus earns her rightful place at the halfway mark of this list. And, hell, Alice is killed off at the start of this movie, so someone had to inherit her mantle.
4. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien
So this movie doesn’t have a costumed killer picking off teenagers, but for all intents and purposes, Alien is just a slasher flick set in space. The crew of the Nostromo is returning to Earth, and because this is a horror movie (no matter what anyone says), it manages to pick up an unwelcome stowaway on its voyage home. Now, in the sequel, Ripley turns into a true action hero, but even here, she displays her massive fighting potential, surviving to the very end with a flamethrower, a grappling hook, a bit of luck, and a lot of drive.
3. Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween
Here she is, the original final girl. Although we later find out she’s Michael Myers’ little sister, here we see Laurie Strode as just a young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, stalked relentlessly while babysitting on Halloween night. But while she did launch the trope and while this film did start Jamie Lee Curtis’s scream queen career, Laurie doesn’t actually do all that much. She runs around a lot, and she does manage to fight off the masked killer in the film’s climax, rescuing both of her young charges. But, in the end, Laurie tends to be one of the film’s duller characters. We like her, but we like her friends better. All the same, Laurie makes it through quite a few sequels, and that certainly deserves a nod (especially when you consider how much tougher she gets with each one).
2. Sidney (Neve Campbell) in Scream
The original meta horror parody, Scream manages to be as scary as it as amusing, and guiding the series through four movies, Sidney rightfully earns her place on this list. Before outsmarting and outfighting the killers in the original film’s climax, she gets multiple memorable chase sequences, and as things start to come to a boil, the audience really begins to root for her. And how could we not? She’s tough, funny, and determined, and when she turns the murderers’ own game against them, I always find myself grinning. Therefore, for surviving the sprees of seven different killers, Sidney properly emerges as number two on this list, kicking butt to the very end. But now for the grand finale.
1. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) in A Nightmare on Elm Street
She’s just your average teenager, the girl next door who finds herself confronting the crazed serial killer Freddy Krueger, who hunts his victims even in death by invading their nightmares. But what makes Nancy so special? It’s the fact that she’s ready to give her tormenter a fight. Taking to his own uneven playing field, the dream world, Nancy prepares herself to battle Krueger face to face, fearlessly dragging him back into reality. And there, she has a fair shot, luring the killer into the booby traps she has set up before setting him ablaze. And when that doesn’t work, she turns away from him, effectively taking back the power she has given her fears and rendering him helpless to harm her (until that weird epilogue was shoehorned in). All the same, add in the fact that two films later Nancy prepares a new generation of teenagers to defend themselves against the knife-wielding predator and the fact that before dying she manages a final blow on Freddy with his own glove, and Nancy emerges as my number one final girl in horror film history.
And there you have it, folks. Tell me who yours are in the comments. There are a few honorable mentions absent from this list, such as Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) from The Descent, but there’s plenty of others too who probably deserve a spot on lists of your own.