You can’t claim to study slasher films (or horror films more generally) without first reading Carol Clover’s field-defining text Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992). In this book, Clover defines and explores the role of the surviving female character and labels her the “final girl.” For my oral exam, I am focusing on three major chapters.

Introduction: Carrie and the Boys

Thesis: Horror’s target audience, adolescent males, are able to identify with a female character (at least for most of the film) because horror operates partly through a one-sex system in which gender is determined by behavior rather than anatomy. Therefore, the main female character is, at different times, both the hero (masculine) and the victim (feminine), she is what Clover calls the female victim-hero.

Notes & Quotes:

Clover spends part of the introduction explaining the horror fandom’s knowledge of the “horror formula” (since it is a genre based on repetition and stock characters) and how horror film’s predictability for fans actually helps the film’s sale. I like viewing horror as a “known quantity” (Andrew Britton, qtd. by Clover 9), because it further helps my ability to see horror as a mass-produced product. It is because of horror’s massive popularity and factory-like production that it is a helpful means to explore cultural anxieties, opinions, and beliefs.

Patrons of a slasher film or a rape-revenge film know more or less what to expect well before the film rolls, and at least one horror director (William Friedkin) has suggested that their emotional engagement with the movie begins while they are standing in line-a proposition that acknowledges the profoundly formulaic nature of the enterprise. (9)

I love the idea that audience’s emotional engagement with the film begins so early. I wonder if this also includes emotional identification with the killer and/or final girl based on the film’s marketing. I think this must be at least partly the case because of the shock that Wes Craven’s Scream (which makes great use of Clover’s scholarship on the final girl) was able to generate by killing off Drew Barrymore’s character within the first ten minutes of the movie. Not only was she one of the more well known actors in the film, but the marketing of the film made it appear that she could have been the final girl (admittedly, Neve Campbell does show up quite a bit in the trailer as well). If movie-goers viewed this trailer before they waited in line for tickets to see Scream, they very well could have begun their “emotional engagement” with the film prior to the first reel being shown. They also could’ve already begun identifying with Drew Barrymore’s character as the final girl which could’ve been part of the reasons why this film’s first scene managed to create such a big shock.

Of course, the most important part of this introduction chapter is Clover’s explanation of gender within the horror film. She states that horror films are informed by two models of viewing sex and gender: the “two-sex” or “two-flesh” model (that male and female bodies are inherently different and thereby inform the gender of the person inhabiting the body) and the “one-sex” model in which “the ‘one sex’ in question was essentially male, women being ‘inverted, and less perfect’ men” (13-14). By using this model horror films add a further instability to their already unstable universe: now there is “slippage and fungibility, in which maleness and femaleness are always tentative and hence only apparent” (14).

The world of horror is in any case one that knows very well that men and women are profoundly different (and that the former are vastly superior to the latter) but one that at the same time repeatedly contemplates mutations and sliding whereby women begin to look a lot like men (slasher films), men are pressured to become like women (possession films), and some people are impossible to tell apart…however, it (the one-gender model) is also echoed in its (the horror film) representation of gender as the definitive category from which sex proceeds as an effect- and in its deep interest in precisely such ‘proceedings.’ (15)

In other words, gender is a result not of the body but of behavior. As explained in the next chapter, final girls survive because of their maleness. By the end of the film they are able to man themselves by taking on a phallic object and penetrating the killer with it, thereby unmanning him. It is through pain and trials that the final girl can become manned, she must pass from victim to hero.

…the new prominence of women is the structural effect of a greater investment in the victim function… modern horror seems especially interested in the trials of everyperson, and everyperson is on his or her own in facing the menace, without help from the authorities…it is not only in their capacity as victims that these women appear in these films. They are, in fact, protagonists in the full sense: they combine the functions of suffering victim and avenging hero. (17)

So it is through this ability towards self-help that female victims within the modern horror film are able to turn themselves into masculine final girl heroes. Clover doesn’t offer a reason, however, in the next chapter, she mentions that the 1970’s typically faltered in this plot-line at the very end, causing a random male authority-figure character to suddenly appear and rescue the final girl. However, starting in the 1980’s this changed and the final girl typically saves herself. I think this change has a lot to do with the growth of the neoliberal state and ideology. It also could be an effect of conservative thinking in which the government cannot be trusted. A great example of this shift in horror film endings between the 1970’s and the 1980’s can be seen in the first two Texas Chain Saw Massacre films.

Sally rescued by a random man at the end of TCM (1974)

Chapter 1: Her Body, Himself

Thesis: There are a number of component categories of the slasher film which help to create the genre: killer, locale, weapons, victims, and shock effects. Gender in slasher films is not very straightforward, and slippages and mutations within gender representations can occur throughout a slasher film. However, these films still display the concept that being male (active hero) is preferable to being female (passive victim).

Notes & Quotes:

There is SO MUCH that is helpful in this chapter, but I don’t want to go crazy writing this all up, so I’ll stick to the greatest hits as much as possible…

  • While discussing the role of the killer in the slasher film, she mentions that, just like the final girl, the killer also slides between genders. The killer appears to be stuck in childhood, resulting in his violence and gender confusion. Some killers (i.e.: Norman Bates) can fit into the normal world and ‘pass’ as a normal male, however most slasher killers are only marginally human (i.e.: Micheal Myers, Leatherface, etc.) and possess the superhuman ability to survive. She also notes that the killers are the staples that remain throughout (almost) all of the sequels of the film’s franchise. This is interesting considering the fact that it is the final girl who the audience is guided to ultimately identify with. If she is the hero of the story, why do audiences want to watch the killer in the following sequels? I suppose that, despite the fact that the final girl does become the active hero, pushing the action forward as she hunts the killer during the film’s final act, it is the killer who continues to push the action forward past the film’s conclusion. Additionally, final girls typically drop their phallic weapon in the final few moments of the movie, returning to a feminine identity, often crying and expressing their fear, which Clover reads as a feminine emotion according to pop culture representation.
  • The terrible place! I think this could be potentially helpful for ecogothic readings. Clover notes how the terrible place, the location for the most important violence in the film (often also the location of the showdown between killer and final girl), is often very uterine- they are sometimes tunnels, they are dark, slick, wet with blood, etc. These places can appear to be a safe space in which the victim/final girl can seek shelter, however, there is always a “penetration scene” in which the killer fights or sneaks his way into the terrible place.

The penetration scene is commonly the film’s pivotal moment; if the victim has up to now simply fled, she now has no choice but to fight back. (31)

  • She describes the slasher film a a pre-technological genre because of its attachment to weapons like chainsaws, daggers, and knives, the absence of guns, as well as the consistent failing of technologies like elevators, phones, cars, etc. She also notes how these sorts of weapons satiate audience’s taboo curiosity to see the inside of the human body.
  • According to Clover, one common trait amongst all victims in slasher films (male and women) is that they are sexual transgressors. I think this is no longer the case… just considering Scream, for example, Jamie Kennedy’s character dies in the sequel yet never is represented as sexually transgressive (although maybe his lust for Sidney counts?) Also, from the 90’s onward, the stoner character has been included in the list of slasher killer victims. Although he (usually its a guy) is not typically sexual, he still is killed (I guess he transgresses in other ways through his drug use).
  • Clover highlights the fact that female victims’ death are always slow, close-up, and detailed, while male characters are always murdered off-screen, quickly, or not very clearly.

Angry displays of force may belong to the male, but crying, cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, begging for mercy belong to the female. Abject terror, in short, is gendered feminine, and the more concerned a given film is with that condition- and it is the essence of modern horror- the more likely the femaleness of the victim. It is no accident that male victims in slasher films are killed swiftly or offscreen, and that prolonged struggles, in which the victim has time to contemplate her imminent destruction, inevitably figure females. Only when one encounters the rare expression of abject terror on the part of a male… does one apprehend the full extent of the cinematic double standard in such matters. (51)

Unfortunately, I think this is still very much the case. I recently saw Hereditary in theaters. During one scene, the teenaged son character played masterfully by Alex Wolff is terrified, panics and cries, begging his mom to stop her meddling with the undead by crying out “mommy, stop, mommy, mommy…” There were definitely a few uncomfortable giggles in the audience, and I saw some negative reactions to this moment online. However, I found this to be one of the most chilling moments of the movie because we never see male fear.


  •  I loved Clover’s explanation of how the final girl and killer and intimately connected. It reminded me a lot of Jack Halberstam’s comment in his Skin Shows (which I can’t wait to re-read for this list!) that female-identifying audience members often relate to the killer. First, Clover highlights the common misreading of Halloween as a film that punished female sexuality. John Carpenter responded to this claim by stating that Laurie was able to fight against Micheal because she has a lot of repressed sexual energy, not because she’s a virgin. Clover adds that,

… the “certain link” that puts killer and Final Girl on terms, at least briefly, is more than “sexual repression.” It is also a shared masculinity, materialized in “all those phallic symbols”- and it is also a shared femininity, materialized in what comes next (and what Carpenter, perhaps significantly , fails to mention): the castration, literal or symbolic, of the killer at her hands. The Final Girl has not just manned herself; she specifically unmans an oppressor whose masculinity was in question to begin with. By the time the drama has played itself out, darkness yields to light (typically as day breaks) and the close quarters of the barn (closet, elevator, attic, basement) give way to the open expanse of the yard (field, road, lake-scape, cliff). With the Final Girl’s appropriation of “all those phallic symbols” comes the dispelling of the “uterine” threat as well. (49)

Again, her reading of the terrible place, this time, the destruction of the terrible place, is probably really helpful to ecogothic and ecohorror readings. What happens when gothic nature is gendered? Can we read gothic nature through the monstrous feminine?

  • Clover also describes the audience’s “body” and how it is attacked by the film (and the director). Because horror is a genre that creates physical reaction (see my notes on Carroll’s Philosophy of Horror), the audience takes on the female victim role, while the film itself becomes a male attacker/monster.

Cinefantastic horror, in short, succeeds in incorporating its spectators as “feminine” and then violating that body- which recoils, shudders, cries out collectively- in ways otherwise imaginable, for males, only in nightmare. (53)

  • Finally, the Final Girl’s role is a character that becomes masculine in order to become the film’s final hero. Clover asserts that this is most likely not due to audience’s fear of castration, but rather because of Western pop culture’s requirement that a hero be male. Additionally, because of this shifting identity, the camera perspective shifts as well. The first half of the film, the camera operates from the killer’s point of view. The killer is the spectator, while the body of the victims and the Final Girl are spectacles. However, in the final act of the film, this perspective shifts. The Final Girl takes on an investigative gaze (something which Clover notes is typically not allowed for women in film) and actively seeks out the the killer. It is through her that the camera now operates. The Final Girl is now spectator, gazing upon the spectacle of the (unmanned) killer.

Still from Halloween (1978). At the beginning of the film, the camera identifies with Micheal.

Still from Halloween (1978). At the end of the film, the camera identifies with Laurie.

This all is true, however, where does this reading leave us when Laurie drops the knife/knitting needles? I would argue that, although she has returned to a female identity, the audience remains identified with her. Halloween is an exceptional example, however, because the Final Girl, Laurie, appears alongside the killer Micheal in the sequel. I guess Laurie had to be once more unmanned so that the dramatic journey towards becoming-hero could occur once more in the sequel. Maybe the dropping of the weapon is also another means to bring everything back to normal by the end of the film.

Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chain Saws. Princeton University Press, 1992.

Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.