Like all art forms, film is a political institution. The horror genre in particular is one of the most influential arenas for discussions regarding morality and its place in society. This becomes obvious only when one considers the role the filmmaker plays in implementing the moral code by which all characters of a horror movie are judged.
Horror films are primarily invested in perpetuating public fear. Fear makes an audience vulnerable and therefore more receptive to a film’s underlying messages. When a character in a horror movie dies, this signals to the audience that that character was, in some way, irredeemable.
On the other hand, when a character makes it to the end of the film alive, it indicates some inherent superiority that allowed them to survive.
So what makes a good survivor? Horror is one of the only genres in which being mortal is conventionally understood as a shortcoming, a punishable offense. Mortality, the ability to die, is antithetical to the goal of survival, after all. That said, it’s also what makes a character sympathetic—and audience sympathy is the ultimate key to surviving.
The horror narrative almost invariably becomes a political statement in and of itself, as it seeks to address questions such as: who deserves to live in our society? Who deserves to be punished with death?
Nowhere are the rules more clearly defined in that regard than in the procedural “slasher” horror subgenre, which saw its golden age in mainstream American pop culture in the 1970s and ‘80s. The slasher movie is all about who lives and who dies. Paradoxically, the antagonist—the slasher in question—also reigns as the film’s internal moral compass; disposing of individuals who lack those “correct” sympathetic traits which ultimately deem the protagonist worthy of survival.
So here’s the summary of every slasher movie ever: a masked (often brooding, misunderstood) killer stalks and individually picks off targets—typically from a group of misbehaving young adults—leading up to a final standoff in which they are confronted by the surviving protagonist.
Though there are variations on the form, the most common kind of slasher protagonist by far is “Final Girl,” the unlikely female survivor and the killer’s most competent rival. Think Laurie Strode from "Halloween," or Alice Hardy in "Friday the 13th" or even Nancy Thompson from "Nightmare on Elm Street."
But what makes a Final Girl, really? She’s virtuous. She abstains from drinking, from drugs and from premarital sex. Final Girl is modest. She’s pretty but unaware of it. Demure. She plays fair. A good girl. This is why she lives while her more promiscuous peers die. Final Girl is the gold standard, the role model for the impressionable female viewer.
Most importantly, she represents the male-dominated film industry’s fear of the popular women’s liberation movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which increasingly encouraged women’s autonomy and celebrated expressions of female sexuality.
Feeling threatened, horror giants in Hollywood began killing and torturing fictional facsimiles of the liberated woman, depicting her as amoral, inferior and vapid. They punished her with a painful, sensational death, playing out these scenarios over and over again on the silver screen.
Then they created the idealized prototype of the Final Girl and rewarded her obedience, her purity, by sparing her life. As if to say to the women in the audience, "This is your only hope for survival." As if to say, this is how you must behave or you’ll die. We’ll kill you.
Now, do you want to make it into the sequel, or not?
Grace Pulliam is an 18-year-old creative writing junior from Zachary, Louisiana.