Ah yes, the season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and another Final Girl triumphing over the masked killer who has just butchered her friends. You could hardly call this a spoiler for the latest Halloween – though be warned, there will be plenty of spoilers in this piece, since it’s all about endings. But we already know The Final Girl, that slasher movie archetype incarnated by Jamie Lee Curtis in some of her early horror roles (the first two Halloween movies, Prom Night, Terror Train) and first identified by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, will survive. The Final Girl always survives.
Unless, of course, the trope is being subverted. The Final Girl may perish unexpectedly. Or she may not be the last one standing after all. She may even turn out to be the psychokiller. But the very fact that the cliché can be subverted only emphasises how much The Final Girl is a part of the culture now. Many column inches are dedicated to her. Movies (Final Girls, The Final Girl et al) and novels (Final Girls, The Last Final Girl et al) and episodes of TV shows (Scream Queens, American Horror Story et al) are named after her.
But amid all the earnest analyses of her behaviour and sexuality (or lack of it), there’s one question no-one ever seems to ask. Where are all the Final Boys?
Oh, they’re there, but you have to dig a bit. The very last shot of The Evil Dead (1981) may throw the fate of Ash (Bruce Campbell) into question, but he soldiers on to battle the Deadites in sequels and a TV series. There’s Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) in Get Out, who manages to turn the tables on his abusers, just as Paxton (Jay Hernandez) emerges from Hostel intact, give or take a couple of digits. Jesse (Jason London) inherits the Sue Snell survivor role in The Rage: Carrie 2 (though Sue herself doesn’t make it this time). Brent (Xavier Samuel) gets his feet nailed to the floor, but manages to escape before his captors lobotomise him in The Loved Ones.
Mark (Leigh McCloskey) dodges Death itself in Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980), though you can be sure it will catch up with him in the end, the way it nails Alex (Devon Sawa), who survives all the way through Final Destination (2000), only for the sequel to reveal that he was later brained, offscreen, by a falling brick. Jim (C. Thomas Howell) finally eliminates The Hitcher (1986), though this might have something to do with the psycho having a death wish, or being Jim’s alter-ego, or incarnating some sort of homoerotic subtext (as Facebook might have said, it’s complicated). MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) make to the end of The Thing (1982) without being infected (or do they? though heaven knows how long they’ll last in those sub-zero temperatures anyway), a film that would have had trouble drumming up a Final Girl since there aren’t any girls in it.
And there’s a long list of quasi-Final Boys in everything from Don’t Look Now to Session 9 to Ghost Stories to Hereditary, in which a male character seems poised to survive – only to fall victim to a last-minute ironic twist in which his throat is slashed, or he’s sacrificed to pagan gods, or possessed by demons, or revealed to have been trapped in his own head all along.
You might almost think men are in danger being erased from the annals of survivors as horror becomes feminised with the gruelling torture porn of the noughties giving way to a slew of pics featuring haunted houses and family curses. “The strongest audience for horror, traditionally the bastion of young males, is now younger females,” Screen Daily reported earlier this year. But while Final Girls outnumber the Boys, it’s worth remembering that before the heroine can triumph, we first have to share in her harrowing ordeal of being terrorised and abused. Could it be that film-makers and audiences feel more comfortable with this type of treatment meted out to female characters rather than male ones? How often have you heard men screaming or begging for their lives in horror movies? It’s true that tears run down Chris’s face in Get Out, but how often do you see men cry on screen?
Maybe it’s simply more fun to see the underdog coming out on top, with men (or in Chris’s case, white people) cast as the oppressors, just as they tend to be in real life. But if it’s rare to see male characters terrorised on screen, perhaps this is also because it conflicts with preconceived notions of masculinity. Men are supposed to be pillars of strength, not snivelling victims – that’s more the stuff of comedy than horror. Men are expected to kick ass – it’s their default mode – so whereas it’s considered noteworthy when women fight back, being “The Final Boy” is just business as usual for blokes, and why such scenarios are more likely to be presented as thrillers or SF or action-adventure than horror movies. Think of Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Predator, or John McLane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard or countless other films in which James Bond or Jason Bourne or John Wick overcome megavillains or monsters or aliens to emerge as last man standing without having to sacrifice an ounce of manliness.
It could be that male directors prefer to terrorise women as a form of surrogate sexual domination, putting them in their place. “If they have a good face or figure I would much refer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man,” Argento once said. The same goes for Brian De Palma, who said, “You fear more for her than you would for a husky man.” But this says more about the film-makers than about horror itself. French director Pascal Laugier, best known for torturing his heroine to death in Martyrs, admits that the bond between the two sisters who are comprehensively abused and tortured in his latest film, Incident in a Ghostland (2018), was inspired by the relationship he had with his brother – but that he found himself incapable of making the characters male. “I couldn’t crack it,” he told the website allocine, “Male characters pull me back into a sort of realism that I naturally try to escape from, whereas female characters instantly slot into the sort of storytelling that interests me.”
To which I say – try harder. What are you afraid of? Anyone can terrorise girls – it’s not so hard – but why not explore precisely what it is that makes you so reluctant to put male characters through the same wringer, as Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz did in Calvaire (2004), in which Marc (Laurent Lucas) finds himself stranded in the boondocks of Wallonia (the Belgian equivalent of psychobilly country), where he is abducted, shorn, forcibly dressed in a frock, and sexually abused before he finally manages to flee his attackers? One of horror’s abiding strengths is the way it allows film-makers and their audiences to plumb those parts of the psyche into which mainstream genres dare not dip their toes, so surely the limits of masculine identity would be a rich and potentially illuminating seam to mine.
The Final Girl provides male directors with a useful way to pay lip service to their feminine side without letting their mask of virility slip. But, just as feminism is as much about liberating men from traditional, restrictive notions of masculinity as it is about furthering the cause of women themselves, so it might be useful, even healthy, for more horror film-makers, male and female, to explore the vulnerability of male characters as well as female ones.
This piece was first published in the Guardian in October 2018. It has since been edited.