I learned about strong women from horror movies. Yes, the same movies that rejoiced in half naked co-eds getting stabbed, killed anyone who had sex, and made any excuse to get a beautiful young actress to take her top off.
The 1992 book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film first introduced us to the concept of the Final Girl, the horror movie heroine, but I would discover her long before I had to read this book in my high school film class. I loved horror and devoured scary movies, books, and TV shows every chance I got. My older brother and I were given free reign on what media we could consume and as a result spent most of our time picking out anything that looked gory or cool from our local Blockbuster. As an impressionable young girl, I was watching things like Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween, Black Christmas and Scream and learning that women in movies, and women in real life, could be smart, compassionate, complicated and triumphant.
The first horror movie heroine I ever had was Nancy, the protagonist from Nightmare on Elm Street. She lived that normal teenage life that still seemed glamourous to me as an adolescent: she wore cool 80s clothes, had a cute boyfriend and hung out with her friends all night. Once Freddy Krueger, the man who would haunt my nightmares for years to come, came into the picture Nancy went from everyday teen to a resourceful and determined hero. She made plans, set traps and always kept her cool. Nancy didn’t break after her friends, her boyfriend, and even her mother were all murdered, and still decided to go after Freddy. She never questioned herself, no matter how crazy everything around he was being. Nancy knew what was happening and how to deal with it, and was almost angry in her resolve. She tells her boyfriend emphatically his role (“don’t fall asleep”) and is just as disappointed as she is distraught that he fails and dies. She ultimately wins the day by facing her fear and telling it she won’t let it win. I might have watched this movie when I was too young and spent many years terrified of Freddy as a result, but you’re never too young to learn the lesson that you can’t let your fears run your life. Nancy literally turning her back on what scares her is what saves her, and makes her the strongest hero I had when I was a kid. She faced everything head on and wouldn’t let it break her. She was an icon for most of my life.
She’s not the only Final Girl to have left a positive impact. Laurie, Halloween’s star, was smart and mature. Jess, from Black Christmas, had a rich and complicated life and a deep compassion for her friends. Sidney, Scream’s iconic heroine, carried the weight of the world but never let herself stumble. While their friends may have been objectified, shallowly written and ultimately murdered, these young women were the well-rounded, intelligent and unbeatable heroes I needed.
Of course, as I grew and came to understand feminism and how to view media through a critical lens, my love of horror movies changed. The constant torture of women, the unnecessary rape scenes, the madonna/whore dichotomy, it’s all there and often gratuitous. But there is a genuine love and appreciation of strong women embedded in the genre that isn’t found elsewhere — aside from romantic comedies, what other genre is led almost 100% by women? What other genre has given us women like Ripley, Sidney, Nancy and Buffy?
I’ve spent most of my life watching horror movies and seeing clever and tenacious young women who save the day or at least save themselves. Through the gore and the cheesecake, I found empowerment.