'The Final Girl': A Circumstantial Evaluation of Alien and Scream
In celebration of Halloween here is an extended article (a roughly ten-minute read) adapted from an essay written as part of my undergraduate course. It evaluates the female position within the horror genre, specifically the slasher film. With circumstantial evaluation of Alien (Ridley Scott, UK, 1979) and Scream (Wes Craven, USA, 1996). I have included (at the end) the bibliography, for any followup reading you may wish to pursue, and the filmography, as a short watch list for your Halloween viewing.
The role of the feminine in the horror film is an area of extensive debate in film studies. With its many sub-genres, horror is often viewed by commentators as unjustly misogynistic; a category of cinema created by men for male consumption and pleasure. However true or false this statement there will forever be exemptions to the perceived norm. I am aiming to analyse the multiple roles of the feminine presented to the spectator through horror, specifically slasher-horror and its conventions. Two films that illustrate both sides of the argument are Alien and Scream. All be it unconventionally, both films fit the sub-genre categorisation of slasher-horror; “in which a group of young people are stalked and killed, usually by a protagonist using a knife or similar object.” (Kuhn & Westwell, 2012, p.379). Due to Craven’s use of spoof and homage Scream remains highly accurate to Kuhn & Westwell’s interpretation of the rules. Alien, on the other hand, requires a more in-depth investigation to reveal its proximity to slasher films of the past. Scott revolutionised how an audience perceived horror films, using the initial elements put forward by Kuhn and Westwell he manipulated the spectator’s awareness of the horror film and amplified it to new heights; pathing the way for Scream and the productions it was inspired by.
Before an evaluation on the feminine can take place, however, it is significant to first explore the origins of the slasher film. Arguably the inception of the genre into public cognisance was Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960). The film established set codes for filmmakers to follow such as, the Final Girl - the usually female character that is smart enough to survive the killings. Hitchcock also entrenched the idea of “the horror of personality, inaugurated by Psycho, where the horror, rather than projected in a monster and so distanced and externalised, is now seen to be ‘man’ himself” (Gledhill, 2007, p.350). This rejection of the monster was contemporaneously a bold move as the audience was accustomed to the notion of creatures representing their consternation of cold war politics. Perhaps most consequential, however, is the sexualisation of the feminine and female form. It is no secret that Hitchcock’s treatment of female actors was often misogynistic. Therefore, scholars have found examples of this in his work, in particular, the infamous shower sequence. Although a great moment for artistic expression, it consequently heightened spectator’s expectations of the horror film genre. Inevitably leading to total desensitisation to the brutal abuse of the female, the abject. “Viewing the horror film signifies a desire not only for perverse pleasure … but also a desire, having taken pleasure in perversity, to throw up, throw out, eject the abject” (Creed, 1986, p.253).
Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject along with Barbara Creed and Carol Clover’s analysis are fundamental texts in the evaluation of the feminine role within horror. Creed’s definition of abjection helps focus the theory when applying it to other art forms than literature. “The place of the abject is ‘the place where meaning collapses’, the place where ‘I’ am not. The abject threatens life; it must be ‘radically excluded’ from the place of the living subject” (Creed, 1986, p.253). The Final Girl is identified, in slasher-horror, as the abject. The killer, almost exclusively male, singles out, the Final Girl, and favours female victims. From a psychoanalytical perspective, this is compelling. Especially, when put in the context of Freud’s concept of castration anxiety (the male fear of emasculation after seeing the female body for the first time; witnessing the female has no phallus the male’s anxiety overrides resulting in fear of castration). “Abject terror, in short, is gendered feminine” (Clover, 1992, p.240). This anxiety usually dissipates as the male ages; in slasher films, however, the castration anxiety is not resolved. The Final Girl in the eyes of the killer, conceivably the audience, prompts once again the fear of castration. The spectator is arguably persuaded to identify with the killer until the arrival and psychological development of the Final Girl. “Our closeness to him [the killer] wanes as our closeness to the Final Girl waxes” (Clover, 1992, p.240). This is made abundantly explicit in the slasher films of the late 1970s and early 1980s, for example, Halloween (John Carpenter, USA, 1978) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, USA, 1984); both of which are referenced within the first ten minutes of Scream. It is no surprise then that Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stuart (Matthew Lillard), Billy, in particular, are so brutal in their killing and pursuit of Sidney (Neve Campbell). Billy's dark carnal passion is a depiction of the constant repression of his sexual desires, which is referenced in the dialogue when he uses The Exorcist (William Friedkin, USA, 1973) as a means to bed Sidney. The dialogue once again affirms the motive behind the killing as being an establishment of Billy and Stuart’s manhood when Stuart exclaims ‘it takes a man to do something like that’ with Tatum (Rose McGowan) replying ‘or a man’s mentality.’ The representation of the abject in Alien, however, is additionally complicated due to the killer being alien; as well as the implementation of sci-fi genre conventions. It is the consensus that “the sci-fi movie addresses our conscious state more than the horror movie, which first addresses our unconscious” (Haywood, 2006, p.206). Alien, however, is exempt from this as it is a hybrid genre combining horror and sci-fi; enabling Scott, perhaps even more effectively than horror alone, to address the audience's unconscious. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) represents the abject, collapsing the meaning of the life for the alien as she obstructs its path to reproduction. She also represents the abject of Ash (Ian Holm), the android sent on the mission by ‘the company' to secure the alien as a weapon. Breaking his illusion, Ripley reminds Ash that he is unable to perform sexual acts; removing his perceived manhood. To retain their meaning and sexuality the alien and Ash, like Billy and Stuart, attempt to eradicate their source of anxiety. Equal in sexual reference is their chosen method of murder. Ash rolls up a pornographic magazine and forces the now phallic-shaped object down Ripley’s throat (an imitation of oral sex something he can only emulate, gaining just an impression of sexual pleasure). The alien is equally as phallic and sexual when hunting its prey. The second jaw is unashamedly penile like and in pastiche to Psycho, the alien perversely observes Ripley undressing, in the same manner, that Norman (Anthony Perkins) watches Marion (Janet Leigh).
the viewer obtains bisexual associations to the characters and film; effectively eradicating any misogyny as the spectator is identifying with both representations of gender
Identification performs a significant role in the representation of the feminine. In the opening scene to Scream, we are urged to identify with the killer. It would be ignorant to identify with the victim as she does everything in her power to get herself killed, unlocking all the doors in the house for example. The use of point of view (POV) shots only reaffirms this. There is a profound use of the killers POV within the opening sequence. It is overwhelmingly evident that this is a depiction of the male-gaze. After this opening sequence, however, the identification is switched as the spectator is introduced to the Final Girl. The audience now faces not only changing identification between characters but also between genders. “If it is so that all of us, male and female alike, are by these processes ‘made to’ identify with men ‘against’ women, how are we then to explain the appeal to a largely male audience of a film genre that features a female victim-hero?” (Clover, 1992, p.235) Unconsciously the audience now has a bisexual identification that will be taken advantage of throughout the film; eradicating the male or female gaze. The vaginal and phallic symbolism of Alien also embeds the bisexual identification within the spectator. When the team investigate the alien spaceship, the organic material and winding tubes are symbolic of the vagina and fallopian tubes. There is a multitude of sexual symbolism throughout the film, for example, the face-hugger is a representation of male rape, the second jaw a phallus, the chest burst a portrayal of female birthing and the slime around the mouth of the alien is a depiction of a lubricated vagina. After destroying the killer, the audiences identify on a deeper level with the Final Girl. “Carol Clover argues that both female and male spectators identify bisexually … [after fighting the killer] the final girl acquires the gaze, and dominates the action, and is thus masculinised” (Smelik, 2007, p.495). After the extermination of the killer in both Scream and Alien, there is a POV shot from the killer, reaffirming the masculine identification. Questions then arise as to whether a human can identify with a creature as in the case of Alien and a multitude of other horror films that include a creature as the enemy; Jaws (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1975) and The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1963), for example. The language of cinema would suggest that the identification is inevitable, however, “although the woman is hierarchically positioned as weaker … none the less she is finally stronger as she holds the key to male identity through her difference” (Haywood, 2006, p.212).
Scream’s whole premise is particularly interesting as it is layered with pastiche and meta detail. It is sometimes problematic when watching the film to distinguish between spoof and homage due to the constant bombardment of references and calls backs to past slasher films. In total it references ten other horror films most of which are of the slasher sub-genre, even harking back to Psycho. In doing so, it takes conventions and tropes from these films and knowingly utilises them to create humour. “A film of this kind ‘knows that you’ve seen it before; it knows you know what is about to happen, and it knows that you know it knows you know’” (Grant, 2007, p.355). The most striking use of homage is in the library scene in which a character deconstructs the whole genre, explaining in pure exposition the narrative conventions. These meta-references to the genre rules continue throughout the film. Casey (Dree Barrymore) tells herself in the first encounter with the killer not to go up the stairs then seconds later does exactly that. When Tatum (Rose McGowan) confronts the murderer, she asks him ‘wanna play psycho killer?’ But perhaps the deepest bit of meta are the references to Craven’s past productions with dialogue such as, ‘the first one was good, the rest sucked’ citing A Nightmare on Elm Street. Of course, all of this increases the awareness of meta detail on behalf of the audience. The level of meta humour increases when analysing Scary Movie (Keenen Ivory Wayans, USA, 2000) in conjunction with Scream. Scary Movie is a direct spoof of Scream using the same plot and narrative progression. The film can be seen as a sort of post-meta, a genre becoming increasingly popular with the release of films such as The Room (Tommy Wiseau, USA, 2003). The use of meta-entertainment allows Craven and Wayans to comment on the representation of feminine roles in the films they are referencing/spoofing. The objectifying of the feminine form cannot be taken seriously in this post-meta context as the humour disallows such interpretation. When Steven King was analysing female representation in horror, he found the only “answer is ‘exploitation,’ by which he means the tendency of filmmakers to exploit a concept until it is bereft of all artistic value and becomes a self-parody” (Magistrale,2005, p.83). Exaggerating the misrepresentation of the feminine negates misogyny within the horror genre.
In conclusion, there are many different interpretations of the role of the feminine within the horror genre. The slasher genre, in particular, is perceived, scholarly to be poorly representative of feminine roles. Applying Kristeva’s theory of abjection to the horror film reveals the male castration fear represented in the female. Therefore, to dissipate this fear, the male must make the feminine the abject - the ‘other’. Through psychoanalytic evaluation it is presumed that when the male kills the female, he is conquering his castration fear, retaining his manhood. This theory is easily applicable to the slasher genre as the conventions of the genre virtually ensure its continued pertinence. From Psycho to Alien and Scream the theory is relevant. In Alien, Ripley is the abject as she threatens Ash’s mission and sexuality (which is complicated further on account of him being an android) while threatening the Alien’s meaning of existence. Scream, on the surface, is an exact imitation of the films the theory originally criticised (A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, for example). However, upon closer inspection, the film utilises imitation a technique of the spoof genre employed by Craven to elicit a sense of knowing in the spectator. The argument could still stand that this does not excuse the poor representation of the feminine roles. Craven could equally be commenting on the ridiculousness of female representations in horror rather agreeing with it. Meta-commentary only heightens the conventions of horror when compared with films such as Scary Movie, which spoofs Scream. Two layers deep into meta referencing the abject and sexualisation still exist, but in this post-meta context, it cannot be taken seriously. By exaggerating the misogynistic elements of slasher films to this degree invalidates the concept. Enabling the filmmaker instead to actively send a message, in a clear way, to the audience about the role of the feminine within horror films. “The fact that horror film so stubbornly genders the killer male and the principal victim female would seem to suggest that representation itself is at issue” (Clover, 1992, p.237-8). Another concept that adds to the discussion is the audience’s bisexual identification. Through a mixture of character development and cinematic language, the viewer obtains bisexual associations to the characters and film; effectively eradicating any misogyny as the spectator is identifying with both representations of gender. When presenting female roles filmmakers of the past have been misogynistic in their demonstrations. Despite this, the same cannot be said about more contemporary generations of creators who are striving to create productions that enlighten the issue rather than ignore it. These creators have found the true power of the horror genre: it “is capable of telescoping itself into scenarios … typically circling back to core concerns: Defining humanity in the face of monstrosity and the monstrous as it is defined within humanity” (Magistrale, 2005, p.81). Horror is a desperately needed genre in a monstrous film culture that too often subjugates the roles of the feminine.
Clover, Carol. ‘Her Body Himself’, Men Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror, (Film Princeton University Press, 1992)
Creed, Barbara. ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’, Screen, (27.1, 1986)
Haywood, Susan. ‘Horror/Gothic Horror/Hammer Horror/Horror Thriller/Body Horror/Vampire Movies’, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, (3rd ed, Routledge,  2006)
Kuhn, Annette & Guy Westwell. Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, (Oxford University Press, 2012)
Magistrale, Tony. ‘Terrors from Beyond’, Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Postmodern Horror Film, (Peter Lang Publishing, 2005)
Gledhill, Christine. Anneke Smelik & Michael Grant in Pam Cook’s (ed.) The Cinema Book, (3rd ed, British Film Institute,  2007)
Alien (Ridley Scott, UK, 1979)
The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1963),
The Exorcist (William Friedkin, USA, 1973)
Halloween (John Carpenter, USA, 1978)
Jaws (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1975)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, USA, 1984)
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA. 1960)
The Room (Tommy Wiseau, USA, 2003)
Scary Movie (Keenen Ivory Wayans, USA, 2000)
Scream (Wes Craven, USA, 1996)