(~10 Minute Read)
In the conservative nature of horror film and literature, audiences have come to know and expect certain tropes to appear consistently to fulfill their pleasure in those entertainment mediums. This is most especially true in the sub-genre of the slasher. The ‘Final Girl’ is a trope viewers and readers have become accustomed with since its original inception in the nineteen sixties with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Ever since, it has become pervasive to the genre in works like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Liebesman) and Halloween (Carpenter). But the trope has evolved due to its flexibility and reflexive nature from that inception to the present.
In contemporary literature, Riley Sager’s slasher novel Final Girls presents the reader with a main character that is presumed to be a ‘Final Girl’ at the very beginning, starting the story after the massacre of Pine Cottage had already occurred. The author reverses the structure of the standard plot right away, throwing the reader’s expectation of the trope off-balance. This initial reversal becomes an ongoing process throughout the book. Sager uses the reader’s bias towards the ‘Final Girl’ trope to undermine their expectations of the character and mask the familiar slasher plot while commenting on the trope itself.
In nineteen eighty-seven, Carol Clover, in her landmark essay “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,” defined the ‘Final Girl.’ She told the reader that “the Final Girl is, on reflection, a congenial double for the adolescent male. She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality” (Clover, 211). From the inception of her contemporary presence in the novel Final Girls, Sager’s main character Quincy is presented in quite the opposite fashion. She is shown as a rich, Upper West Side New York native who has an affinity for baking and blogging while her boyfriend she’s intent on marrying is out being a defense attorney. This isn’t the typical description of a ‘Final Girl’ type character according to Clover because it doesn’t fit the mold of the adolescent male stand-in. She is instead presented as still struggling with the events. Clover states that a ‘Final Girl’ is supposed to present “smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters” (Clover, 204), but instead Quincy projects the lack of ability to do much of anything, even struggling at the more feminine tasks she sets out to do on her own and perpetuating a Xanax addiction that worsens as the novel progresses. Though Quincy’s narration describes herself as being one of these character tropes, she acts the opposite. Her presence and demeanor are very feminine from the onset and take the role of a victim rather than a survivor, the survivor being the more male identifiable character according to Clover.
Another important rejection of the trope defined by Clover is that of sexual abstinence. The ‘Final Girls’ in most of these older slasher movies are the ones who don’t have sex, while those “who seek or engage in unauthorized sex amounts to a generic imperative of the slasher film” (Clover, 200) are the ones who are almost always killed. Quincy has sex often in Sager’s story, and most of the time it is unfulfilling for her. She narrates her desires to be with more rough men of her college days than the man she is currently with. She even has sex outside of her relationship, which in the spirit of slasher films, designates her as a girl who the reader expects to die. This extra-relationship sexual act is also later identified to be with the actual killer of Pine Cottage, rejecting Clover’s argument for the description of a ‘Final Girl’ and what it means to the story because it firmly plants Quincy in the feminine gender. Therefore, the male audience can’t directly identify with Quincy as a stand-in for the male perspective because they now view her in a sexually penetrative way.
This old description of the ‘Final Girl’ that appeared consistently during the seventies and eighties and shaped viewer biases of the trope just doesn’t fit Sager’s character in Quincy. Instead, Final Girls takes on more of a relation to the slashers of the late nineties like Scream (Craven). Alexandra West, in her article on late ninety’s slashers, tells the reader that these “slashers would expand the very characters that 80s horror took for granted. By tying the site of horror directly to the would-be victims, the ‘90s slasher would create a template in which the freedom, survival and desire of the 'Final Girl' (as well as her friends) was dependent on subduing the killer” (West). Sager’s story is much less interested in exemplifying the dangers pressed on the ‘Final Girl’ in physical conflict than it is in placing the reader along with her as the center of attention in character. His novel is less atmospheric, as would be seen in films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The story instead finding its home in the character-driven first-person perspective of Quincy, the supposed ‘Final Girl.’
Sager’s novel is fully aware of the trope it’s following, even electing to take on the trope designation as the title. This is consistent with West’s description of the ninety’s slasher in that “these films would not just work by being scary, they had to acknowledge audience expectations” (West). Like Scream, Final Girls acknowledges its own trope from the start, describing it to the reader as if it were a notable title character. From that point, Sager’s audience feels that they know the character and what to expect from her, though the story is developing after the event. As Sager unwinds this comfort in knowledge by rejecting the Clover description of the ‘Final Girl’ as was described earlier, the knowledgeable reader in the genre would become suspicious as she doesn’t fit the mold.
The main reason Quincy can’t embrace this status yet is because the process is actually incomplete, but this is unknown to the reader for the majority of the novel. Quincy isn’t a ‘Final Girl’ because the killer hasn’t actually been put down and she subconsciously knows this. Instead, she was saved by him, which is yet another feminine trait given by Clover. The suspicion then falls on Quincy in being the actual murderer, since it is still unknown to the reader that her secret is that she isn’t a ‘Final Girl.’ She refuses to acknowledge or remember anything that happened other than the initial screams and being ‘rescued.’ This confusion in what the character actually is is presented by Sager through Clover’s idea that there is a “’certain link’ that puts killer and Final Girl on terms…(that) is more than ‘sexual repression.’ It is also shared masculinity…and also a shared femininity” (Clover, 210). The reader distrusts Quincy’s nature because she doesn’t fit the biased expectation for the trope, leading them to believe the opposite. Sager plays into this directly in multiple scenes by never directly stating she isn’t the killer.
He drives the misdirection by scenes such as the interview with the police investigators a week after the Pine Cottage massacre. Here, Quincy acts completely out of character for a ‘Final Girl,’ saying that she fails to remember the crime through the constant pressuring of Detective Cole. Cole states he doesn’t believe her, continuing “not one bit. But we’re going to find out the truth eventually” (Sager, 317-318) and takes on the role of the reader in their distrust of her character. The detective acts like a guide for the reader to continue their mistrust of Quincy. At this point, Quincy takes on a very gender mute role, neither acting the feminine part completely, as she shows a strange strength in independence and control, nor taking the role a male as she maintains her story of failed memory and being saved. When she hugs Coop in distress at the close of the interview, this solidifies their non-binding gender as one in the same. Sager uses this to drive the reader into believing a more sinister plot from Quincy, setting up the potential murderer further as he gives proper motive for her. Then when the reader believes they’re about to see Quincy become the murderer, she drops the knife.
When the knife drops, the mask Sager creates for the plot that she is the killer drops and her ‘Final Girl’ status resumes questionably, which leads the reader on a road to discover she was never a ‘Final Girl’ to begin with. This was heavily implied earlier with a sense of misdirection because of the assumed killer status. Quincy idolizes some of Tina’s (believed to be Sam at time) independence as a ‘Final Girl.’ In thinking about Tina’s tattoo of ‘Survivor’ inked on her wrist, Quincy writes this same identifier in marker on her wrist. It washes off in the shower, symbolizing that Quincy was never a survivor in the first place. Sager uses this scene while he develops the idea in the reader that Quincy is the killer to create even more doubt in her status as a ‘Final Girl,’ but also to mislead the audience further on why she isn’t. This plays into what West was talking about in her essay about the ‘Final Girls’ in ninety’s slashers.
When referring to the ‘Final Girl’ from the slasher franchise Scream, West states an attribute that applies well to Sager’s novel. She tells the reader “Sidney’s journey, alongside the other Final Girls of the ‘90s slasher cycle, examines what happens when archetypes and tropes are adhered to too closely. While the Final Girls of the original slasher offer portrayal of strong female characters, the ‘90s slasher cycle examined the inner workings of a Final Girl” (West). Sager’s focus is to continue this tradition of the ninety’s in focusing on the ‘Final Girl’s’ development and expansion into their thoughts and actions. It actively rejects much of the original Clover designations for the character trope and instead identifies in the reader what they adhered to too closely by reversing it. The reader, before the end reveal, is caught in the doldrums of confusion created out of misdirection due to their previous knowledge of the trope. Since Sager actively told them Quincy was a ‘Final Girl,’ they were fated to assume that was indeed true. In reality, she wasn’t, but was on her way to becoming one.
What fits perfectly with both the ninety’s slasher ‘Final Girl’ and Quincy from his novel is the sense of lost identity. West states that those slasher films identified in their respective ‘Final Girls’ that “she is not just fighting for her survival but for her sanity and in hopes of reclaiming her identity” (West). With Quincy’s transformation into the ‘Final Girl’ being incomplete, her identity is left broken. This gives explanation to her constant rejection of the identity and her dependence on Xanax to quell her desires to lash out. Quincy is a ‘Final Girl’ in an unfinished scenario that doesn’t finally complete until the reveal at the scene of the original massacre: Pine Cottage. To fulfill the original trope, she must kill Coop. This is the moment the trope unifies under the common goal of the last survivor. Unlike in Clover’s version of the ‘Final Girl’ where the girl becomes ‘phallicized’ with the knife in her battle for sexual selfhood (Clover, 211), she is allowed to “to take control of her narrative, body and effectively dismantle what Laura Mulvey termed the “male gaze” of the camera” (West). As she stabs the clearly male Coop who is killing her in a sexualized manner, she determines her own fate as a survivor and regains that lost identity. At the end of the chapter, Quincy takes hold of the narrative and title, declaring herself a ‘Final Girl’ proudly, rather than out of fear. The title isn’t given, it is taken.
Sager then has effectively hidden his ‘Final Girl’ tale under the guise of a different story. The novel then presents itself as being about the development of the character within the trope to fulfill what was already assumed by the reader all along. The author uses the trope in a linear fashion, progressing the plot of a ‘Final Girl’ slasher under the initial assumption that the horror story had already completed the development of Quincy. Rusnak and Paszkiewicz comment on this by stating in their essay “these contemporary reformulations of the Final Girl in film, TV, fan blogs, and literature confirm the pervasiveness and flexibility of the trope, as well as the need to expand the discussion of Clover's framework beyond the traditional ruminations of the slasher subgenre” (Rusnak and Paszkiewicz). In their essay, they identify how the trope has evolved through the decades, building off Clover’s initial diagnosis of the character and moving through how it has been criticized and expanded upon as the sub-genre changed. They identified how the genre is changing, as seen in Sager’s work which rejects many of the archetypal ‘Final Girl’ elements originally set.
Clover’s work set itself in a unified distinction for the ‘Final Girl’ and the killer in their ambiguous sexuality that was able to fulfill the male fantasies, while West writes of the ninety’s slashers that focused on the character identity instead. Sager takes from these tropes and uses their common acceptance in the horror audiences to comment on what Rusnak and Paszkiewicz call “the figure's continuous inflections, and its status as a living trope, even though it frequently relies on older traditions and conventions” (Rusnak and Paszkiewicz). Quincy embodies this change as a character in the contemporary world, eventually taking charge of her narrative from the falsehood of the killer’s control. Coop consistently told her she was a survivor, even though she at least unconsciously knew that she wasn’t. Quincy had to fulfill this definition of the strong ‘Final Girl’ character in order to successfully conquer the horror of the story and identify herself.
Sager’s novel effectively pulls the rug out from under the reader, dragging them along by their own biases of the trope until the final reveal. The author advances the conversation of the trope by questioning the very foundations of where it was developed from to create a deeply layered character. The reader’s knowledge of what is meant to happen in the conservative sub-genre of the slasher is shaken by Sager’s ability to mislead them by their own assumptions of the killer and ‘Final Girl’ relationship. He moves the trope beyond the “male gaze” of Mulvey and Clover to grow his character’s self-identity and put the reader through an intense rollercoaster of tension brought on by their own biases in the sub-genre.
Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations, no. 20, 1987, pp. 187–228. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2928507. Accessed 29 Jan. 2021.
Paszkiewicz, Katarzyna and Stacy Rusnak. "Revisiting the Final Girl: Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards." Postmodern Culture, vol. 28 no. 1, 2017. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/pmc.2017.0009.
Sager, Riley. Final Girls. Turbine, 2017.
West, Alexandra. “‘Not in My Movie’: The 90s Slasher Cycle and Grrrl Power.” Offscreen, vol. 20, no. 7, Donald Totaro, July 2016.