The final girl is as common a trope in horror as exorcisms and masked killers. In fact, the final girl defines what horror is from generation to generation with each final girl bearing the fears and hopes of their generation – when done right. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it was coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film which came out in 1992. As a must-read, Clover maps out this trope’s meaning: “She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and her own peril; who is cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified.”
Put in its simplest form, she is the last girl or woman alive to confront the killer, ostensibly the one left to tell the story. Traditionally, the final girl exists as the woman of purity, the one you easily root for, the most feminine of the bunch, and this femininity is subverted when she takes up the weapon of the slasher or monster in order to kill them and save themselves.
While the final girl is analogous to the slasher subgenre, the spirit of who a final girl is is also used in rape-revenge films, science fiction, invasion horror, and beyond. While this was used to denote the one virginal survivor in the 1970s has now become synonymous with women who overcome trauma both before and during the events of the film and have harnessed that trauma into a weapon, and now, she’s rarely alone. Throughout the decades of horror we’ve seen good final girls, bad final girls, and even final boys, but to celebrate Women in Horror Month, I decided to make a list of who I consider the truly great final girls in the horror pantheon. Without further ado here are my top 13 final girls.
13. Grace, Ready Or Not
One of the best horror films of 2019, Ready Or Not‘s final girl Grace (Samara Weaving) is anything but the standard. Sure, she carries some familial scares from her past but where she starts as the perfect daughter-in-law in her white dress, she decides to fight for herself however she can as her new husband’s family hunts her down in a ritualistic game of hide ‘n seek. As the film progresses, Grace becomes surer in her violence and in herself as she makes her way through obstacles to survive. She’s unrelenting and oh so powerful to watch.
12. Jay Height, It Follows
It Follows is quite possibly the one horror film that resonates the most with my college students, or people discovering their sexuality for the first time. Instead of a slasher hunting down teens, it’s a supernatural killer that takes different forms and is transmitted sexually. When Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with a guy, he doesn’t just ghost her, no, he serves her up to the Entity. What follows (pun intended) is a film that is so quietly disturbing and scary that Jay’s survival is a miracle. Additionally, the formula of the film pushes its characters to have sex to save themselves, playing in the “virgin survives” toy box in an interesting way,
11. Jen, Revenge
Now I know that Revenge is less a slasher and more a film about reclaiming the rape-revenge genre for women, Jen (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) breaks every single piece of the trope. While a final girl is resourceful and fights back, she never sins beforehand. She isn’t a party girl, in fact, she is the girl next door. In Revenge, Coralie Fargeat throws all of this out of the window and showcases the fact that a woman, regardless of her background is not responsible for her brutalization as she turns Jen into a woman who is out to stop the men that hurt her.
10. Alexa Woods, Alien Vs. Predator
Alien Vs Predator may not have a great reputation when compared to the other films in its franchise but it did give horror one of the greatest final girls: Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan). In line with the example Ripley set, she’s competent, strong, and intelligent. She doesn’t start out as a delicate flower but instead owns her space. Her strength affirmed when she teams up and earns respect from the Predator. What’s a higher honor than earning that kind of praise from one of the film’s most skilled hunters.
9. Erin Harson, You’re Next
If you haven’t seen it, You’re Next redefines the home invasion movie. Using all of the tropes that we usually see, Erin (Sharni Vinson) turns from the hunted to the hunter after the most awkward family gathering you can imagine. A girlfriend visiting her boyfriend’s family for the first time is always rough, throw in their disfunction and a gaggle of masked killers and it’s the recipe for a fun time. But what makes Erin stand out as a final girl isn’t her transition from helpless damsel to all of a sudden badass, it’s the fact that she’s a final girl with a backstory. While most home invasion films have the lone woman finding a power in herself and fighting back against her attacker using her knowledge of her home, it’s Erin’s former life as a prepper that prepares her to not only try to save the people she’s locked inside with, but anticipate and flip the situation on the attackers.
8. Jenn, Sweetheart
Sweetheart was one of my favorite horror films of 2019 and that was due to its lead character, Jenn (Kiersey Clemons). Now, I’m not sure most would define her as a final girl but writer-director JD Dillard definitely uses the trope in his own and unique way. Stranded on an island, Jenn finds herself at the mercy of a sea creature who arises from the water every night looking for a meal. Over the course of the film, we Jenn become the most capable survival horror protagonist we’ve seen in a while. She’s creative, intelligent, and able to fight through her fear. When her controlling boyfriend and the girl he cheated with wash up on shore, we also get to see Jenn stand up for herself and fight back against gaslighting as well as the monster.
7. Sarah Carter, The Descent
I consider The Descent one of the best horror films of all time and it’s also my go-to for Women in Horror month because the cast is made up of women who are all adventurous, strong, and capable. What throws everything off-kilter is when Juno makes a mistake while they’re being pressured and hunted by the cave swelling monsters. While I’ve always loved Juno as the antagonist, Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald) is an amazing final girl. In her role of the story, she’s overcoming not just being hunted by both monsters and friends but she’s also overcoming trauma. It’s clear that she’s moving through the world with an immense weight holding her down and yet, as the film continues, she channels that trauma into power.
6. Adelaide Wilson / Red, Us
This selection is a double whammy. If you’ve seen Us, then you know that the big reveal at the end is that Red (Lupita Nyong’o) was the real Adelaide (Nyong’o) and that Adelaide was really a tethered that escaped and assumed her life. The reason that this final girl duo is amazing and earns a shared spot on the list is that we see two representations of a final girl that exist as such in their own narratives. Adelaide is fighting to save her family from the tethered. She’s confronting her trauma and striking it back to preserve the life she took. Red, on the other hand, is using her trauma to claim what should be hers, sharpening her need for revenge and orchestrating a plan of liberation for the Tethered. Each character is their own final girl, which makes Jordan Peele’s horror vision a necessity on this list.
5. Laurie Strode, Halloween Franchise
I don’t know what to say about Laurie Strode, a final girl as iconic as the scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, who portrayed her. While she becomes the prototype for the trope and gets most of the credit for establishing it, I’ve always thought that it’s important to note that Laurie survives, not because of plot armor virginity, but because she’s written as a character who knows what she is doing. Laurie is aware of her surroundings and actively fights back when evil rears its head. Like Sidney Prescott, Halloween H20 serves up a look at what happens after the credits roll and the final girl survives. Now, that’s all undone in the following film, 2018’s Halloween, which rebooted the timeline, giving us an old-woman Laurie with bite and trauma that solidifies her position as one of the top final girls to ever come on screen.
4. Jess Bradford, Black Christmas (1974)
As one of the very first final girls in a film that came to define the slasher subgenre, Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) is an interesting character on the list. While the trope she helped defined is about virginal and docile women who learn to fight for themselves, Jess doesn’t have to learn. In a revolutionary subplot, a year after the passage of Roe V. Wade, Jess is going to get an abortion. While the killer is picking off her sorority sisters, Jess is having her own problems But her story isn’t about will she or won’t she, it’s about Jess making her choice to have an abortion and pushing back against a gaslighting boyfriend who refuses her agency. This stands in stark contrast to the trope that develops after her and is why the previous entry on the list Laurie Strode is who we look to for defining the final girl.
3. Ellen Ripley, Alien Franchise
It wouldn’t be a list without Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). A woman who is regularly dismissed and talked over by her male crewmates, she doesn’t play into gender stereotypes. As arguably the most badass woman to ever walk across the screen, she not only takes on androids and Xenomorphs, but she defines her life on her terms. In fact, if at any moment the rest of the Nostromo crew had listened to her, the film would be very different. Ripley doesn’t just prove her ability to survive in the franchise, but she proves her ability to lead, overcome circumstances, and take on the xenomorph queen with ferocity. Given that there is a slasher formula at play in this piece of science fiction history, Ripley’s final girl legacy and subversion need to be recognized.
2. Sidney Prescott, Scream Franchise
It wouldn’t be a list without the final girl that defined my generation of horror fans, Scream‘s Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). In the meta-horror classic, Wes Craven went out of his way to create a stereotypical final girl. Virginal, naive, and hopelessly manipulated by her boyfriend Billy, one of two who don the Ghost Face mask in the first film, Sidney wins by not only assuming her attacker’s weapon but doubling down and shooting him. But Sidney’s strength as a final girl doesn’t come from Scream, rather it comes in the following sequels that allow us to see the immense toll that being a survivor means. The paranoia, the guilt, and trying to learn how to live again all define Sidney’s journey in the Scream franchise and it’s
1. Gale Weathers, Scream Franchise
Don’t boo me, I’m right. While much of the horror community praises Sidney Prescott as the subversion of the final girl in the first film — she really isn’t. Her subversion doesn’t come until the sequels. But Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), she’s the one who truly subverts expectations of being a final girl. Now, Scream does subvert expectations by having both women survive, Gale does so by being Sidney’s foil. Gale is aggressive, strong-willed, career-driven, and not here to put up with anyone’s bs. It’s a trend that continues throughout the series of films and while most final girls learn how to be tough, Gale learns empathy for the people around her. Her success and her callousness in the face of fear may put off some, but for me, she’s the quintessential final girl, unrestrained by the trope.
Favorite final girls are like favorite films, there are some that you love when you’re feeling a certain way, others that are timeless, and others still that hit you emotionally while maybe not working for others. Because of that, I know that my list will look different than yours, and that’s okay. Who is your favorite final girl? Let us know on twitter.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.