Welcome to the Women in Horror column. Every Wednesday, we highlight the work of women in the horror genre.
The Final Girl has been a staple in horror cinema since the 1980s. The young woman who defies the odds, surviving repeated attacks from the killer or monster in the film. Classic slasher leading women like Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978), Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Ripley in Alien (1979), and countless others have leading women who fit the bill, though the trope was first named by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. In the nearly thirty years since the term was coined, Final Girls have appeared in many iterations, some pushing boundaries and some in line with the traditional trope. David Robert Mitchell’s film It Follows (2014) directly confronts the problems with the Final Girl while maintaining some elements of the trope, playing a role in crafting a new, modern version of the Final Girl.
To understand what It Follows accomplishes, it’s necessary to assess the gender politics of the time of the trope’s emergence in comparison to when It Follows was released. Particularly in the slasher and body horror subgenres, women’s bodies were/are typically displayed in overtly sexual ways up until the moment that they are brutally murdered. However, the use of the Final Girl trope in the slasher genre seemed to signal a change in horror’s portrayal of women. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween is one of the most memorable examples. She survives Michaels’ attempts to murder her using household objects to defend herself, defying some patriarchal notions of women: that they are weak, lack agency, and cannot defend themselves. Although this trope signaled a bit of a shift and gave women more onscreen agency, it did not mean women were given the same depth of storyline or amount of screen time as men. Additionally, the Final Girl was/is practically always white, traditionally attractive, able-bodied, and middle class. Her status as the Final Girl is typically earned through her purity and virginity rather than her wit and Jay (Maika Monroe), the Final Girl in It Follows, is no exception. Jay is white, blonde, attractive according to Western beauty standards, and able-bodied. She is not a virgin, though. She’s seen having sex a few times throughout the film and she though she is not shamed, she faces consequences in a different form: the sexually transmitted monster.
The sexually transmitted monster, referred to as “It” throughout the film, is one of the most creative and terrifying monsters in recent horror history. “It” follows one person at a time and moves at a leisurely pace, walking toward prey with no rush. Taking the form of strangers or people the victim knows, “It”’s appearance shape shifts depending on the situation. We’re left with a contradiction here: Jay has sex and lives — pushing back against the virginal aspect of the Final Girl — yet, at the same time, she’s left with a murderous monster as a direct result of her sex life. So, although she does fight back and survive the monster, Jay is, in a way, punished for having sex the same way many women in horror films are. Typically, though, women are literally murdered for being sexually active whereas Jay is threatened with murder but ultimately lives. It’s a small change but with the prominence of the trope’s ties to virginity, it is monumental that Jay has sex when she wants to, with who she wants to, and is not shamed for her actions.
It Follows does not subvert the Final Girl trope on all fronts — she still looks and acts like classic Final Girl (white, pretty, thin, and fit) — but the acceptance of Jay’s sex life and persistance of her fight against “It” are big, positive shifts in the genre. Jay’s story is an example of what the Final Girl can be like in the future. Hopefully, we’ll get to see Final Girls who push back in more ways and break the conventions of the trope even more.