The formulaic use of protagonists in slasher flicks led to Carol J. Clover’s coining of the term “final girl” (a.k.a. the last girl/woman standing) in 1992. She’s the person who lives to tell the shocking tale because she’s either saved by someone or takes on the killer herself.
The golden age of slasher films in the mid-to-late ’70s and ’80s along with a resurgence in the late ’90s and 2000s has led to several characters who are just as iconic as the killers they faced: Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, Sidney Prescott, and Sally Hardesty, among others. They are great characters, but it’s glaringly obvious that all of them are White women. So, where are the Black final girls in slasher flicks? Why aren’t we in the main role and defeating the villain?
The reasons behind the absence of Black final girls in slasher flicks are pretty predictable. In the genre’s early years, major filmmakers and casting agents were overwhelmingly White and male, and didn’t think a Black woman-led film was necessary, profitable, nor relatable to the White target audience.
Black women and girls weren’t perceived as vulnerable people whom an audience could identify with as victims of violence because we were barely seen as people at all, much less valuable ones. This hasn’t really changed over the years, even though Black women-led horror and psychological thrillers are on the rise. It’s a sentiment that is shared by many Black horror aficionados, including Graveyard Shift Sisters Founder & Managing Editor Ashlee Blackwell.
“It’s a statement about how Black women are seen in society and if we are even seen in general,” affirms Blackwell. “I think about that a lot because it’s something that really bothers me. It’s one of the reasons I started my website. I just want people to know that we exist—I want you to see me. It’s like when we are walking down the street and someone from the opposite side walks right into us. It’s so frustrating that we’re not seen as the people at the end [of a movie] who can be survivors.”
Black women in White-led films have historically been treated as subservient props for their White counterparts, hypersexualized temptations for the male gaze, or inherently evil and angry. This stereotyping is harmful on a casting and writing level because it keeps Black actors from securing roles as well as stories being specifically written with a Black woman protagonist in mind. Art and life continuously imitate each other so it’s no surprise that racism and biases play a large role in the lack of Black women leading slasher films.
This relationship between Black stereotypes and horror is discussed in Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, a Shudder documentary produced and co-written by Blackwell along with Danielle Burrows and director Xavier Burgin. The film is based on a book by Robin R. Means Coleman and features commentary from Jordan Peele, Tananarive Due, Richard Lawson, Rachel True, and Tony Todd among others.
It’s an insightful deep dive into the history of Black horror films along with Black people’s place in the genre overall. Blackwell says her relationship with slasher flicks is complicated because she loves these types of films but can’t help but notice the lack of strong Black character arcs and how it reflects sociopolitical standards.
“[Black people] are commonly sidelined and marginalized. I think from the ‘80s, I don’t know if you would call Night of the Demons a “slasher” but it’s the one upon hundreds of hundreds of movies where there is a Black male character that makes it to the end. That’s like the only one I can think of…Like the people in Horror Noire said, if we’re seeing erasure and conservatism in the ‘80s social political climate it is mirrored in what we see in horror movies too. Black characters are almost always victims.”
It’s sad because a Black woman-led slasher story would explore some intriguing questions. While many will rush to a White female character’s aid, how would this same situation play out for a Black woman in peril? Would she purposely avoid the authorities in fear that she will die by their hands instead? Would anyone believe her story or would she become villainized in some way? The truth is, Black women and girls are kidnapped, abused, and mistreated in many ways that result in the loss of life and agency. It would be powerful and affirming to see a Black final girl in a slasher flick to show that we are not disposable tropes.
Black final girls certainly exist in other types of horror movies—Jeryline in Demon Knight, Alexa in Alien vs. Predator, Selena in 28 Days Later, and Lisa in Scream Blacula Scream, to name a few. In 2019, Black women dominated in horror with Lupita Nyong’o expertly portraying two leading roles in Us, Kyleigh Curran in Doctor Sleep, Taylor Russell as the Black final girl in Escape Room, and the recently released Black Christmas film with Aleyse Shannon. But this isn’t the same for slasher flicks and shows.
Many ’70s mainstream slashers like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls, and Halloween either had no Black people in them or, when they were included, they were mostly background or throwaway characters. For example, Texas Chainsaw Massacre brings in a Black minor character to swoop in and save the White protagonist in distress. Sally escaped in the back of a truck but for some reason this poor man kept running down the road towards a fate that will forever remain unknown. Did he even have a name?
Slasher films in the ’80s started including more of the sidekick “tough” Black guy who gets caught in the crosshairs of foolishness (and usually dies). Black women were even less prominent, and their fates were just as grim. In fact, there’s a list of several Black women characters who were often dispatched quickly so the action could get back to the people who really mattered in the story. Many of them died in profusely stupid ways, whether they were a “wise guide,” obstacle, distraction, or sacrificial lamb for the White protagonist. See Exhibit A for the dumbest death scene below:
“That’s the kind of role that I would have killed for in the ’90s, reading script after script after script and wanting to read for the lead girl but going, ‘Oh, no, okay, I’m the friend.’ So I’m gonna say, ‘Are you okay?’ … I have to figure out a million different line readings for the same line, because whatever thing is going on, it’s not about the Black people and what we’re going through. It’s, ‘Are you, White person in peril, okay?'”
Take biker gang beauty Fox (Gloria Charles) in 1982’s Friday the 13th Part III, who has a brush with the protagonists and gets skewered by Jason with a pitchfork. This is in comparison to two Black male characters with larger roles who survive the plot. Black women characters appeared (and died) in Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Halloween 2, Halloween Resurrection, and Freddy vs. Jason. And of course, there’s the infamous death of Jada Pinkett Smith’s character before the credits roll in Scream 2.
Speaking of the latter, who really thought that Sidney’s Black bestie Hallie (Elise Neal) would actually survive Ghostface? She dies simply because Sidney had to go back and try to pull a mask off a killer. Did Sidney not learn anything about the horror movie rules from Randy?
The ’90s started bringing more Black women to the forefront of major films and actually let them survive. I Still Know What You Did Last Summer’s Karla Wilson (Brandy Norwood) stood out from the crowd as a major character featured on promotional posters and materials who lives until the end. However, she’s not really the “final girl,” as that distinction belongs to protagonist Julie James. Karla may have fallen through too much stuff and run in the rain in a white T-shirt (sigh), but it was still a relief to see her come out of the hotel alive.
Loretta Devine beat the odds as a campus security guard Reese Wilson in Urban Legend and Urban Legend 2. The character makes an impact in the first film and helps to set the events of the sequel in place. But she takes a backseat to Alicia Witt’s Natalie Simon and Jennifer Morrison’s Amy Mayfield.
American Horror Story’s recent ’80s slasher homage season garnered mixed reviews from fans, but it gave us Donna, portrayed by Pose breakout star Angelica Ross. She went from being a part of the group striving to survive to a villainous instigator to being the real MVP of the season. Donna herself didn’t believe that she would survive because none of the “final girls” ever looked like her. To quote: “A Black Final girl? Sweetheart, they kill folks with my complexion off first.”
To everyone’s surprise, Donna made it through and was explicitly called the final girl at the beginning of the season finale. Her title has been debated among fans considering that the season’s main character Brooke was revealed to be alive too. Either way, her story is worth celebrating and will hopefully lead to more Black women heroines in slasher stories.
Blackwell is hopeful that the rise of Black final girls in other sections of horror will cross over to slasher films. But, as expected, there are still some significant hurdles for filmmakers and other creatives to climb along the way. She says, “I think the problem is these filmmakers who are building their resumes, getting into Sundance, and doing all these things still have a harder climb to get into the room and get the kind of creative autonomy to make these kinds of films. They are not given the money or resources and I’m hoping that changes.”
Black women have taken down aliens, lobbed off zombie heads with a katana, slayed demons, evaded zombies, and faced all sorts of seemingly insurmountable horror odds. It’s time for us to be given space at the forefront and be the final girl slasher films too.
Featured Image: Jack S/YouTube