Last females standing: writing a new breed of Final Girl

Women and horror go way back but they are no longer relegated to backseat, back-stage roles

One of my favourite interviews I’ve ever given was to Fangoria, a long-standing, internationally distributed horror film fan magazine, last February. Speaking of the resurgence of horror, specifically within the independent publishing and film communities, but applicable to the industries-at-large, I spoke of horror creators, saying, “We are the Final Girls, the ones who refuse to go down without a fight, and we are flourishing.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, Final Girls refers to the last female standing to confront the monster at “the end”, ostensibly the only one left breathing after the blood and gore and chaos has ended. Some claim that Lila Crane in Psycho (1960) is the official first Final Girl, while others name Sally Hardesty from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).

Regardless of where the first Final Girl made her debut, the trope is ubiquitous, slim on nuance, and more than a little exhausting. But here’s the rub: women in horror aren’t final. We never have been, no matter how many times we’ve had to scream for our lives. But what does this mean, women aren’t “final”?

For starters, we aren’t last, or even late, to the horror party. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to other foundational writers in the genre, women have always been at the heart of horror. Consider, as an example, 1930s novelist Daphne du Maurier, whose gripping, menacing work was once labelled as romance only to later become horror films (including an adaptation in Hitchcock’s seminal classic, The Birds), or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Wilkins Freeman or Clemence Houseman.

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Lest we mistakenly label horror as a men’s genre with virginal, well-behaved women sitting on the sidelines, waiting to become Final Girls, let’s not forget topless theatre attendee Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish, who wrote a science-epic 150 years before Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and Sheridan Le Fanu, who gave us erotic vampire fiction in Carmilla nearly three decades before Bram Stoker introduced us to Count Dracula. Of course, women’s roles in horror are not limited to the literary.

Included in this female front list across media are “Queen of the Bs” actress-turned-director, Ida Lupino, who embraced the power of emotion to scare; French director Alice Guy-Blanché, who was not only the first female director to tackle a horror film, but made around 1,000 films over the course of her career (and was subsequently written out of her boss Leon Gaumont’s biography); and the original scream queen, Paula Maxa, who died onstage over 10,000 times between 1917 and 1930. Of course, if Mary Shelley was the mother of gothic science fiction, then we can’t forget to mention Lucille Ball, without whom we likely wouldn’t have The Twilight Zone, as Lucille is credited with shepherding Rod Serling’s career.

And yet, for all our contributions to the genre, women have so often been relegated to backseat, back-stage mentions in horror. To tropes, to victims, to angry women and evil step-monsters.

Well, not anymore.

In today’s horror renaissance, bookstores are dedicating more shelf space for horror titles, a luxury previously given to household names, the vast majority of which were male, and welcoming established and emerging authors. Publishers from the big five to other large, mid-size, and small publishers, imprints, and niche micro-presses are opening their catalogues not just to scary stories, but to genre-bending and crossover tales and, more importantly, those written by women, people of colour, and diverse voices historically and systemically muted in the larger literary landscape. Female horror directors and producers are making their mark in film and television, art, game design, music, and just about every other creative field. While we can’t yet say that horror is totally equitable and inclusive, many determined and passionate people are working hard to make it so.

Throw Me to the Wolves is one of many fresh new horror novels that is coming out swinging in this new era of female-driven horror. Like many of the best scary stories, it’s not just one thing - there’s supernatural horror in the form of black magic, hauntings, and ritual symbolism; occult-crime thrills; elements of Southern gothic; a beat of urban fantasy; and even a dose of “erotic noir”.

And yet, like Frankenstein’s monster, Wolves is an amalgamation that is more than the sum of its parts, because within even the most dark and dreadful and disturbed hearts beats a heart of innocence, no matter how unsightly. After all, “horror”, for all its blood, guts, gore, chills, jump scares, and screams, is nonetheless a genre cobbled together by hope, unpredictability and resilience, something so many women know so much about.

My co-author Christopher Brooks and I know Throw Me to the Wolves isn’t traditional horror, and neither is Britta Orchid, the series’ leading lady, an unblemished hero. She’s a woman growing into her monster, becoming something she never intended, or wanted to be, and embracing the darkest aspects of herself.

She’s trying to do good, but she makes mistakes, acts selfishly, and struggles to find her footing in a world that seems to have no place for her. Britta spends a lot of time, and spills a lot of blood, learning to stop apologizing for being the kind of girl who bites. She’s a victim, but more importantly, she’s a survivor - and if that isn’t a parable for women in horror, the quintessential Final Girl being struck down over and over only to get back up and keep fighting, well, I don’t know what is.

Throw Me to the Wolves is published by Black Spot Books